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The Time Between the Testaments
(Part 1 of 2)
We would not say that a knowledge of the period between the Old and New Testaments is vital to one’s understanding of the four Gospels, but it is very desirable, and indeed quite necessary if we would fully appreciate many of the scenes and incidents on which Matthew lifts the curtain.
Jesus had said:
…Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22:37-40).
By reading “Pilgrim’s Progress” by Paul Bunyan you will understand exactly what Jesus meant and the Holy Ghost will walk you through it.
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It gives a background against which we see with clearness the connections and relevance of the sayings and doing which occupy the earlier pages of our New Testament. The primary goal for everyone should be to understand and please God, there is nothing greater than that.
Part one briefly covers the wars, ending with the Roman Empire and Part two is the religious and spiritual development.
The Period in General
With the Old Testament canon closing with Malachi at about 397 B.C., we see that this period between Malachi and Matthew covers some 400 years.
This 400 year interval has been called “the dark period” of Israel’s history in pre-Christian times, because during it there was neither prophet nor inspired writer.
With this period we seem to find the sad fulfillment of Psalm 74:9 upon Israel:
We see not our signs; there is no more any prophet; neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.
The condition of the Jews as a nation and race at the beginning of this 40 year period should be kept in mind. Two hundred years earlier Jerusalem had been overthrown and the Jewish people carried into the Babylonian exile (606-586 B.C.) as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God.
At the end of this 70 year punishment period, the Babylonian empire having been overthrown and succeeded by that of Media-Persia (536 B.C.), Cyrus, the Persian emperor, issued a decree permitting the return of the Jews to Israel. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, some 5,000 Jews returned.
Some 20 years after their return, after many setbacks, the building of the Temple was completed in 516 B.C. Then after another 58 years had passed, in 458 B.C., Ezra the scribe returned to Jerusalem with a small group of Israelites and restored the Law and the ritual.
Still another 13 years later, in 445 B.C., Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and become governor. Now, once again, there was a Jewish state in Judea, though of course under Persian rule.
Such, then is the picture of the Jewish people at the beginning of the 400 year period between Malachi and Matthew:
The Jewish Remnant back in Judea for about 140 years (536-397 B.C.);
A small, dependent Jewish state there;
Jerusalem and the temple rebuilt;
The Law and the ritual restored; but
With the mass of the people remaining dispersed through-out the Media-Persian empire.
The Political Development
Now, if we are to appreciate this Jewish community as it re-emerges in the pages of the New Testament, we need look at their political development as well as their religious development.
This map reveals the expansion of the Persian Empire from Cyrus the Great to Darius I, 550-486 BC. The Persian Achaemenid Empire was actually the last great empire of the ancient Near East. Its boundaries extended from the Aegean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east, such a large empire was created in just a little over 10 years by Cyrus II the Great.
Viewed politically, the varying course of the Jewish nation in Palestine simple reflects the history of the different world-empires which ruled Palestine. The one exception to this was the Maccabean revolt, which resulted for a short period of time in there being an independent Jewish government.
Jewish history during those 400 centuries between the Testaments runs in six periods:
The Maccabean and
The Persian Period (536-333 B.C.)
The Persian rule over Palestine, which commenced with the decree of Cyrus in 536 B.C. for the return of the Jewish Remnant, continued until 333 B.C., when Palestine fell under the power of Alexander the Great (the third of the Gentile world-empires foretold by Daniel).
During the Graeco-Persian War in the 5th century BC, King Xerxes (520-465 BC) invaded Greece in 481 BC with hundreds of thousands of infantry soldiers and an enormous naval fleet. The Persians ultimately lost. One of the most famous battles during the subsequent war was between Xerxes’s army and the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
This means that at the end of the Book of Malachi the Jews were still under Persian rule, and remained so for about the first 60 years of the inter-Testament period.
Persian rule seems to have been tolerant. The high priest form of Jewish government was respected with the high priest being given an increasing degree of civil power in addition to his religious offices, though of course he was responsible to the Persian governor of Syria.
The Greek Period (333-323 B.C.)
Alexander the Great is a phenomenon in history. Catapulted into leadership through the assassination of his father when he, Alexander, was but twenty years of age, he transformed the face of the world, politically, in little more than a decade.
He is the “notable horn” in the “he-goat” vision of Daniel (Dan 8:1-7).
In his march on Jerusalem, he not only spared the city, but also offered sacrifice to Jehovah and had the prophecies of Daniel read to him concerning the overthrow of the Persian empire by a king of Grecia, (Dan 8:21.)
Thereafter he treated the Jews with respect and gave them full rights of citizenship with the Greeks in his new city, Alexandria, and in other cities.
Josephus, the late first century Jewish historian, records the visit of Alexander the Great to the city of Jerusalem in the 4th century B.C. He recounts how Alexander “went up into the temple” and “offered sacrifice to God.” He says that the Book of Daniel was shown to Alexander. Alexander assumed, as have many commentators since that time, that Daniel was prophesying of Alexander.
This in return, created decidedly pro-Greek sympathies among the Jews, and, along with Alexander’s spreading of the Greek language and civilization, a Hellenistic spirit developed among the Jews which greatly affected their mental outlook afterward.
The Egyptian Period
This is the longest of the six periods of the inter-Testament period. The death of Alexander resulted in a period of time of confusion which was resolved by a four-fold break-up of Alexander’s empire under four generals: Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Cassander and Selenus.
These are the four “notable ones” which take the place of the “great horn,” as predicted in Dan 8:21-22.
After severe fighting, Judea, along with the rest of Syria fell to Ptolemy Soter, the first of the Greek kings to rule over Egypt. The beginning of the Ptolematic Dynasty.
For a time Ptolemy Soter dealt harshly with the Jews, but afterwards became just as friendly. His successor, Ptolemy Philadelphus, continued this favorable attitude. His reign is notable in that the famous Septuagint (Greek language) translation of the Old Testament Scriptures was made from the Hebrew onto the Greek language.
We see the importance of this when we realize that the Greek language had now become the language of the civilized world. The Jews were so numerous in Egypt and North Africa that such a translation had become a necessity.
The Septuagint came into general use well before the birth of Jesus and was still in use during the time Jesus was on earth and was quoted by Jesus.
The Syrian Period (204-165 B.C.)
When Ptolemy Philopater (fourth Ptolemy) died, his successor, Ptolemy Epiphanies, was only five years old. Antiochus the Great seized his opportunity and in 204 B.C. invaded Egypt. Judea, with other territories, soon after became annexed to Syria and so passed under the rule of the Seleucidae
Ptolomy Soter, King of Egypt:
Boyhood friend of Alexander the Great, whom he later served as such a devoted bodyguard that he even kidnapped Alexander’s body en route to Macedonia. He diverted it to Alexandria, the first of Alexander’s many eponymous city foundations, to make the tomb become the focus of the Ptolemaic ruler cult he established in Egypt.
There are two points of special note about this period. First, it was at this time that Palestine was divided into the five sections which we find in the New Testament. (Sometimes the first three of these collectively are called Judea.) These different provinces are:
Secondly, this Syrian period was the most tragic part of the inter-Testament era for the Jews of Judea. Antiochus the Great was harsh toward the Jews. So was his successor.
Yet the Jews in Judea were still permitted to live under their own laws, administered by the high priest and his council. But with the accession of Antiochus Epiphanies (175-164 B.C.) a “reign of terror” fell upon the Jews.
In 170 B.C. Jerusalem was plundered, the wall torn down, the temple desecrated, temple sacrifices were abolished, the Holy of Holies was stripped of its costly furniture, Jewish religion was banned, a pig was sacrificed on the altar and the Temple at Jerusalem was rededicated to Jupiter Olympus with a statue of Jupiter Olympus erected on the altar and the people were subjected to monstrous cruelties.
The Maccabean Period (165-63 B.C.)
This excessiveness by Antiochus provoked the Jews to revolt and resist.
Judas, known as Judas (Hebrew word for hammer), gathered around him a large army of guerilla fighters and after several victories assumed the offensive.
A representative from Antiochus IV called upon Mattathias to make the pagan sacrifice, but he refused. When another of his townsmen stepped forward to do it, the aged priest struck him down. He also killed the king’s messenger and began to lead a revolution. Mattathias died in 166 BC, and his son Judah, nicknamed Maccabeus (the hammer), took his place. He lead a war against the Syrian Greeks. In spite of overwhelming odds the Jewish people gained an improbable victory. The temple was regained in 165 B.C. and rededicated.
Jerusalem was captured, the temple refurnished, and on 25th December, the anniversary of its being polluted three years earlier, the orthodox sacrifices were reinstituted (which date the Jews still observed as the Feast of the Dedication: see Jn 10:22).
Judas Maccabeus also captured the chief posts up and down the land.
Antiochus contemplated revenge against Judas, but a defeat in Persia, in addition to the successive defeats in Judea seemed to have brought upon him a superstitious dread which developed into a fatal sickness. He is said to have died in a state of raving madness.
What seems a deliverance, proved to be the deadliest crisis to come. Antiochus’s son was very young. Lysias was the self-appointed Syrian regent. He now invades Judea with an army of 120,000 and defeats Judas and his army at Bethsura.
Judas and his men retreat to Jerusalem which is placed under siege. But just when it seemed hopeless because of a rival regent at the Syrian capital, Lysias suddenly persuaded the young son of Antiochus to make peace with Judea – promising them the restoration of all their religious liberties. Thus the Maccabean revolt was crowned with success.
Further troubles arose later, however, from a new successor on the Syrian throne, Demetrius. During this period Judas Maccabeus was killed.
In 143 B.C. Simon, the brother of Judas assumed leadership of the army. He was able to capture all other Syrian strongholds in Judea and forced the Syrian garrison in the citadel at Jerusalem to surrender.
Thus Judea was freed of all alien troops; and from that time (about 142 B.C.) was once again under independent Jewish government. Except for one short lapse, this continued until Judea became a Roman province, in 63 B.C.
The Roman Period (63 B.C. onward)
The Herod family now appears on the scene. Antipater, the father of the Herod who reigned at the time of our Lord’s birth, managed to secure the support of Roman general Pompey to gain control of Judea.
Herod, 73/74 B.C. – 4 B.C., also known as Herod the Great and Herod I, was a Roman client king of Judea.
He has been described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis”, “the evil genius of the Judean nation”, “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition” and “the greatest builder in Jewish history”.
He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Herod’s Temple), the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada and Herodium. Vital details of his life are recorded in the works of the 1st century C.E. Roman–Jewish historian Josephus.
Upon Herod’s death, the Romans divided his kingdom among three of his sons—Archelaus became ethnarch of the tetrarchy of Judea, Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and Philip became tetrarch of territories east of the Jordan.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when King Herod learned about the birth of the Messiah, he tried to trick the wise men into serving as spies to help him murder Jesus. When that didn’t work, he killed all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old in a murderous effort to exterminate God’s anointed one (Matt 2:16).
The result was a siege of Jerusalem which lasted three months with Pompey taking the city. Pompey with disregard for the Temple strolled into the Holy of Holies – an action which at once estranged all loyal Jewish hearts toward the Roman. That was 63 B.C.
Pompey’s subjugation of Jerusalem ended the period of Judea’s regained independence. Judea now became a province of the Roman empire. The high priest was completely deprived of any royal status, and retained priestly function only.
The governing power was exercised by Antipater, who was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Cesar in 47 B.C.
Antipater appointed Herod (his own son by marriage with Cypros, and Abrabian women) as governor of Galilee, when Herod was only fifteen years old. In about 40 B.C., after appealing to Rome, Herod was appointed king of the Jews.
Herod seeking to ingratiate himself with the Jews married Marianne, the granddaughter of a former high priest, and by making her brother Aristobulus high priest. He also greatly increased the splendor of Jerusalem, building the elaborate temple which was the center of Jewish worship in the time of our Lord.
However, he was as cruel and sinister as he was able and ambitious. He stained his hands with many murders. He slew all three of his wife’s brothers – Antigonus, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus.
Later he murdered even his wife. Again, later, he murdered his mother-in-law. And still later he murdered his own sons by Marianne. This is that “Herod the Great” who was king when our Lord was born.
Such then, in brief, is the political history of the Jews in Palestine during the 400 year period between Malachi and Matthew.
The Roman Empire is in full control during the time of the New Testament which will be viewed, but tomorrow we will look at the religious and spiritual development prior to the birth of our Lord.