The Time Between the Testaments
I wouldn’t say that knowledge of the period between the Old and New Testaments is necessary to understanding the four upcoming Gospels, but then again, it can’t hurt.
“Jesus said unto him, 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 John Bunyan you will understand exactly what Jesus meant and the Holy Ghost will walk you through it.
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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 were 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 the Jewish community as it re-emerges in the pages of the New Testament, we need to look at their political development as well as their religious development.
Viewed politically, the course of the Jewish nation in Palestine 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 Persian
- The Greek
- The Egyptian
- The Syrian
- The Maccabean and
- The Roman
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).
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, 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, and 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.
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 (323-204 B.C.)
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.
There are two points 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.
Jerusalem was captured, the temple refurnished, and on 25th of December the anniversary of it 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 Jude, 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 seemed to be a deliverance proved to be the deadliest crisis to come. Antiochus’s son was very young. Lysias was the self-appointed Syrian regent. He invaded Judea with an army of 120,000 and defeated Judas and his army at Bethsura.
Judas and his men retreated to Jerusalem which was 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.
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.
Such then, in brief, is the political history of the Jews in Palestine during the 400 year period between Malachi and Matthew. Yet, what they were doing then they are still doing today but worse and they are now global.
The Roman Empire was in full control during the time of the New Testament.
The Religious and Spiritual Development
You do not have to read far into the pages of the New Testament to realize that some great changes have come upon the Jews and the Jewish nation in Judea, since the last writer of the Old Testament laid down his pen.
It is not simply that Palestine has changed hands half a dozen times. There are new sects or parties: Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians.
There are new institutions: Synagogues, Scribes, and the Sanhedrin.
These changes – the rise of these new sects and institutions, and the evolutions of Judaism (the evolving of the people and their religion around the Old Testament Scriptures into one and the same have come about during those 400 years between the Old Testament and the New.
This in itself shows the importance attached to the inter-Testament period. Let us now briefly look at these religious developments.
To begin with, if we are to understand in general the spirit and trend of the Jewish community during that stretch of centuries we must appreciate the profound impact made upon the nation by the Babylonian exile.
The Jews went into that exile with what seemed to be a hopelessly incurable infatuation for idolatry; the majority of them emerged from it and believed in the one true God. Yet, once Jesus was born all hell broke loose because they defied Him.
Therefore, as Jesus said, their true god is:
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn 8:44).
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan (Rev 2:9).
It is a fact, that 95-99% of the Jewish people worship foolish stone idols and by doing so, whether they realize it or not, they worship Satan himself. You cannot worship the devil and Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word was made flesh…(Jn 1:1, 14).
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh…(1 Tim 3:16).
You cannot worship God and Satan:
Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils (1 Cor 10:21).
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth (Rev 3:15-16).
The Law now became the standard of holiness and the symbol of nationality. Thus the rise of the local synagogue. For here the Scriptures were read and expounded by the scribes.
The basic idea of the synagogue was instruction in the Scriptures, not worship, even though an elaborate liturgical service developed later, with public prayers read by appointed persons, and responses made by the congregation.
Also, since the public reading of the Law had now to be by translation into the Aramaic tongue which the people learned in Babylonia (Neh. 8:8, where such translation is implied), the transition from translation to exposition and even to discourses was easy, though no doubt it took place gradually.
That such synagogue discourses were common in our Lord’s time is seen in such references as Matt 4:23, 9:35; Lk 4:15, 44; Acts 5:15, 14:1, 17:10, and 18:19.
Who and what were the scribes? We read of scribes away back in Old Testament times, but they must be distinguished from that further order of scribes which developed during the inter-Testament period and had acquired such important status in our Lord’s time.
It is not difficult to see how, when once this new order of scribes came in, it rapidly gained great power. The very nature of this new Judaism was to make every Jew personally responsible for the keeping of the whole Law.
Therefore, “a definite rule” had somehow to be extracted from the Law to cover practically every activity of daily life. This endeavor to make the Law such a detailed code created a complex and sometimes acute problem.
To accomplish this, there had to be a body of trained experts, who made the study of the Law the great business of their lives.
Thus the scribes who we meet in the Gospel narratives were a class of professional experts in the interpretation and application of the Law and the other Old Testament Scriptures. In the Greek of the New Testament their usual title is the plural, grammateis, translated as “scribes.” Less frequently they are called “lawyers”, nomikoi.
It is with Ezra that the office of the scribe reaches a new dignity. In Neh 8:1-8 we see Ezra elevated in a pulpit, reading and expounding and applying the Law and with Levite assistants, “causing the people to understand the Law.”
And still today, those that practice Judaism live by the Law, not by Faith (faith and grace both mean belief in Jesus Christ).
For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace (Rom 6:14).
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God as our creator, if you do not have faith in Jesus Christ you are under the law and therefore under Satan.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to Go must believe that He is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Heb 11:1, 6).
And if you are under the law:
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword (the law) shall perish with the sword (Matt 26:52).
The Pharisees must be distinguished from the scribes. Again and again in the Gospel narratives they are mentioned in conjunction with the scribes, but although this reveals closeness of affinity it does not imply oneness of identity.
The Pharisees were an ecclesiastical party, held together by their peculiar aims and views, whereas the scribes were a body of experts in a scholastic sense. Certainly a man might be both a Pharisee and a scribe; and the fact is, that practically all the scribes were Pharisees in outlook and association; yet the two fraternities were different from each other.
It was inevitable that the Pharisees should have much in common with the scribes, those specialist in the Written Law, and in the ever enlarging Oral Law (The Oral Law was that complex code of application of the Written Law to every area of one’s life and activities).
The origin of the Pharisees as a movement may be compared to a river which flows underground for some distance before coming to the surface and flowing visibly onwards. The spirit and attitudes of the Pharisees were present in post-exile Judaism long before the sect took its historical form under the name “Pharisees.”
The thing, however, that eventually crystallized them into a clique or sect was a body of Jews, primarily made up of the priests, whose goal and interest was the worldly aspects of religion and politics. These two groups provoked each other into existence. Thus we have the Pharisees on one side and the Sadducees on the other.
The Pharisees as a body were influential way beyond their numbers. According to Josephus the number of Pharisees in Herod’s time was only about 6,000. Yet, despite their small number, they had in fact such a hold on the popular mind that no governing power could afford to disregard them.
The mark of the Pharisee – the ritualist – is that he is always ADDING TO – He is not content with the written Word of God, and with the plain truth of the Gospel. He must start adding his own ideas and ordinances, until religion and salvation are a highly complicated matter.
This is just what the Pharisees did, until, with the weight of their accumulated religious ceremonies and observances, they made religion a burden too heavy for men to bear.
The Sadducees seem to have been in the first instance neither a religious sect nor a political party, but a social clique. Numerically they were a much smaller body that the Pharisees, and belonged for the most part to the wealthy and influential priestly families who were the aristocrats of the Jewish nation.
The leaders of the party were the elders with seats in the council, the military officers, the statesmen, and officials who took part in the management of public affairs. With the mass of the people they never had much influence; like true aristocrats, they did not greatly care for it.
Their one ambition was to make themselves indispensable to the reigning prince, that they might conduct the government of the country according to their own views.
The Sadducees held, like most modern politicians, that the law of God had no application to politics. If Israel was to be made great and prosperous it must be by well-filled treasuries, strong armies, skillful diplomacy, and all the resources of human abilities.
To expect a Divine deliverance merely by making the people holy, they accounted as sheer and dangerous fatalism.
As a body they rejected totally the Oral Law accumulated by the scribes and held to by the Pharisees, and professed to stand by the Written Law alone; though, even their stand on the Written Law alone was done so with great skepticism.
Matthew 22:23 and Acts 23:8 show how skeptical was their attitude to the Written Law, for we are told that they denied the bodily resurrection, and did not believe either in angels or spirits.
Thus, we can understand how intolerable to such a group was the teaching of Jesus and His Messianic claims. Their hatred is measured by their readiness to consort even with the detested Pharisees in order to kill Him.
It was the Sadducees, in fact, who were directly responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion (compare Lk 3:2; Jn 11:49, 18:13,14,24, 19:15; Mk 15:11).
The mark of the Sadducee – the rationalist – is that he is always TAKING FROM. He cannot accept the written Word of God in its entirety, nor the truth of the Gospel as it stands without drastic deletions.
Everything must be tried at the bar of human reason. This, that, and the other thing must be cut out to make faith reasonable and tenable. This was precisely the attitude of the Sadducee. He could not or rather would not, believe either in angels or demons, either in the resurrection of the dead or in any other miracle.
In Matt 22:16, Mk 3:6 and 12:13 we find yet another Jewish clique, namely, the Herodians. There is no explicit information as to their original banding together, but their very name, of course, speaks of the role.
Whatever the religious preferences of its members may have been, the group as such was in no sense a religious cult or union. This is a political group and the leading aim of its members was to further the cause of the Herod government.
Whether they were directly connected to the Herod household or throne is mere conjecture, but obviously the ready seal of royal approval would be theirs.
We can well imagine that many would consider it sound policy to strengthen the hold of the Herod house on Jewish leaders and public. What could be wiser than to back the Herodian throne, which enjoyed the favor of Rome, and thus giving Judea the protection of that mighty empire?
Many would see in the Herods the one Jewish hope of separate national continuance; the one alternative to direct heathen rule. Others would be inclined to favor a blend of the ancient faith and Roman culture such as the first Herod and his successors had sought to effect as the highest consummation of Jewish hopes.
This group was hated by the Pharisees. The two parties were bitterly intolerant of each other, which makes the consorting of the Pharisees with the Herodians against our Lord all the more astonishing.
The mark of the Herodian – the secularist – he cared neither for adding to nor taking away from. Like the careless Galileo, he “cared for none of these things.”
The written Word of God, the message of the Gospel was far from his first concern. His prime consideration was the life that now is. What does it matter that a heathen Herod reigns on a throne made crimson with crime so long as material interests are furthered?
While the ritualist Pharisee was busy adding to, and the rationalist Sadducee was skeptically taking away from, the secularist Herodian was heedlessly passing by.
There is one further Jewish institution which had its beginning during the inter-Testament period, which plays a big role in the Four Gospels: that is the Sanhedrin, quite often translated as “council”.
The Sanhedrin was the supreme civil and religious tribunal of the Jewish nation. The supreme judicial and administrative council of the Jewish people. With that representative body must lay forever the real responsibility for the crucifying of Jesus Christ.
The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members, made up, so it would seem, of:
- The high priest;
- Twenty-four “chief priests” who represented all twenty-four orders of the whole priesthood;
- Twenty-four “elders,” who represented the laity, often called “elders of the people”.
Twenty-two “scribes,” who were the expert interpreters of the law in matters both religious and civil.
Jesus Christ presumably had in mind the president and 70 senators of the Sanhedrin when He chose His 70 representatives and co-workers, as recorded in Luke 10., just as He had the twelve tribes of Israel in mind when He appointed the twelve apostles.
His choice of those 70 was prophetic perhaps, among other significances that the authority of that old-time Jewish court was indeed now passing away in favor of a new “70” under His own presidency.
The Common People
There is, yet, one very important aspect of the old-time Judaism which we must not on any account overlook. It is not only courts and schools and leaders and parties which compose a nation, but those thousands and thousands of individuals who are only known anonymously and collectively as “the common people.”
These common people, far removed from the pomp of earthly courts and the strife of factions and the heated atmosphere of political and religious fanaticism were waiting for the consolation of Israel.
And now at last as we enter into the New Testament and the long awaited Messiah.