Monday, August 13, 2012

The Intertestamental Period

            When reading through the Bible have you noticed the section called the Intertestamental Period? Neither have I, but it is there between the books of Malachi and Matthew. This time is often referred to as the “silent years” because there was no prophetic voice; however this time was anything but quiet.[1] This time would encompass the prophecies of Daniel and the different nations that would come to rule over the people of Israel. Throughout this paper two terms may be used interchangeably, they are Intertestamental period and Second Temple period.
            During this time there is some debate about how the periods should be divided. For the purpose of this paper we will not be looking at the Babylonian Period or the Persian rule. We will be focusing on several periods in particular, they are: the Greek, Ptolemaic, Seleucid or Syrian, Self rule and Roman/Herodian. By better understanding these periods we can have a clearer picture of the religious and political landscape Jesus entered into.
The Greek Period
            This period of history kicks into full gear after the death of Phillip of Macedon. After his death his twenty year old son Alexander III (the Great), took up his mantle to Hellenize the entire world. Most scholars make it a point to mention that Alexander trained under Aristotle and had the finest education a man of his time could have. “Alexander inherited from Phillip an aggressive attitude and a keen military skill: his education provided him with a deep appreciation for Hellenistic ideals, and his military training gave him the courage and skills to conquer the empire before him.”[2]  This empire also consisted of a great number of Jews that spread across the entire kingdom. David Dockery gives a great overview of how Jewish life was impacting the empire that Alexander was taking control of. Dockery says,
At the time of Alexander’s rise to power, the Jews were living under the rule of the Persian Empire. Aramaic had become the common language in Palestine. The dispersion of the Jews had already begun. There were significant populations of Jews not only in Babylon and Egypt but also in the major cities of the Mediterranean world also. The numbers of Jews in these cities increased significantly during the period between the Testaments.[3]
Alexander had a great military mind; he would defeat Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Palestine, Egypt, Babylonia, Tyre and Gaza. With all of his conquest, Alexander would achieve what his major goal was, to Hellenize his entire empire. And with that hellenization “Koine Greek became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean. Koine means common or profane. It was not refined, classical Greek but Greek as learned and spoken by those who were not native Greeks. Koine Greek later became the language of the New Testament.”[4] There is a small discrepancy on whether or not Alexander was 32 or 33 when he actually died. Köstenberger points out that after Alexander had conquered as far as the Indus River he returned to Persia, where he would catch a fever and die at the age of 33, and it only took him 13 years to conquer his empire.[5] Gaebelein points out that after Alexander’s death his “empire was divided into more than twenty satrapies”[6], and would eventually be divided among his generals called the diadochi. The land would be divided with Ptolemy I Soter taking control of Egypt; the Seleucids had Syria; Lysimachus controlled Asia Minor; Cassander ruled Greece. Palestine first came under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy in about 320 BC.[7]
The Ptolemaic Period
            This period is one of the shorter mentioned, but it still has some very important implications for the Jewish people. Dockery informs us of some of the foundations laid in Palestine under the Ptolemies,
 Palestine experienced a century of relatively peaceful development. Political independence, self-sufficiency, prominence, and leadership were the dominant motives for the political conduct of the successors. They sought the greatest measure of economic self-sufficiency as a basis for political independence. They established economic and social patterns that continued into the New Testament period. The parables of Jesus—with their large landowners, tenants, stewards, money lenders, day laborers, tax collectors, grain speculation, and land leasing—must be understood against the background of the economic structures developed by the Ptolemies.[8]
Ptolemy wanted to regain control over Palestine, after losing it to Antigonus in 311 B.C. which gave full control of Asia Minor to him. According to Gaebelien,
In 301 B.C., however, Antigonus was was killed in a decisive battle as Ipsus in Phrygia….Ptolemy had not taken part in the battle; so it was decided to give it to Seleucus, but Ptolemy forestalled Seleucus and took possession of Lower Syria, Palestine, and Phoenicia south of the River Eleutherus. This caused a lasting contention between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic houses.[9]
To show the complete hatred the Seleucids and Ptolmies had for one another comes from the fact that they had no less than four major wars against each other. The Seleucids would finally gain control over Palestine in 198 until 63 B.C. when the Romans gained control.[10] One other very interesting point about the Ptolemies, is that every ruler in Egypt up until around 30 AD used the name “Ptolemy” regardless of their actual descent.[11] While the Jews may have experienced some peace under the Ptolemaic rule all that would change when the Seleucids take control of the region.
The Seleucid or Syrian Period
It would be during this time period that one of the most notorious rulers would emerge Antiochus IV. Long before he would assume control of the Syrian kingdom, he would be sent to Rome as a hostage, as part of a treaty. While he was being held hostage “Antiochus III was succeeded by his second son Seleucus IV Philopator in 187 B.C. He attempted unsuccessfully to rob the temple via his chief minister Heliodorus (2 Macc 3:7; cf also Dan 11:20).”[12] Not long after the murder of his brother Antiochus IV was released by the Romans and he went to seek help from the Pergamon king killed Helidorus and assumed control of the Syrian kingdom.
“Antiochus was marked by his exile. In Rome he had recognized the power of Roman authority. He never opposed Rome. In Athens he had drunk deeply of the spirit of Hellenism. He supported the Greek cults and games and became a proponent of Hellenistic culture. He was also unpredictable, however, and had little knowledge of or respect for Jewish beliefs.”[13] He became so enamoured with Greek culture that he encouraged people to worship him as the bodily form of the God Zeus; he would even give himself the name Epiphanes, meaning, “the manifest god”, his enemies would start to call him “Epimanes” or “madman”.[14] Antiochus had set his sights on ruling Egypt, expecting little fight from the Ptolemies, but that is not what he got. According to Brand, “He was proclaimed king of Egypt, but when he returned the following year to take control of the land, the Romans confronted him and told him to leave Egypt. Knowing the power of Rome, he returned home.” [15] 
You may be asking yourself what made this man so horrible, according to the Jews, a lot of things. He started by instituting a ban on possessing the Torah, allowing circumcision, the festivals, and even offerings to Yahweh. That is not all however he would go even farther by erecting a statue of Zeus in the temple and then sacrificing a pig on the altar.[16]  He would commit further atrocities by crucifying mothers with their newly circumcised children hanging around their necks.[17] The last straw came in 166 B.C. when Antiochus ordered that each village was to erect a heathen altar and demanded that heathen sacrifices be made.[18]
The Period of Self-Rule
After the demands were made that heathen sacrifices were to be made one priest could take no more and refused to follow orders. This old priest was a man named Mattathias, he refused to do the sacrifice and when another Jew offered to do it he murdered him and the man who gave the order. This would be the first strike in what would become known as the Maccabean  Revolt.  Mattathias tore down the altar and fled with his five sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Johnathan. These men would find great support from a group of extremely pious Jews known as the Hasidim. “The Hasidim made up the major part of his army. These men were devoutly committed to religious freedom. They were dedicated to obedience to the law and to the worship of God.[19] While everything may have started with Mattathias, it would be his middle son Judas (often called Maccabeus meaning “hammerlike”)[20]that would take the forefront and lead his people from guerilla warfare to well planned battles.[21] In just under three years Judas’ military might lead him to recapture Jerusalem. Gabelein says that,
Judas had regained the entire country. He marched on Jerusalem an occupied all of it accept the Acra. He restored the temple, selected priest who had remained faithful, destroyed the altar of the Olympian Zeus, and built a new one. Exactly three years after its desecration (on Chislev 25), the temple with its altar was rededicated and the daily sacrifices began (1 Macc 4:36-59; 2 Macc 10:1-8). This marked the beginning of the Jewish Feast of Dedication or Lights (Hebrew Hanukkah).[22]

With the confidence Judas had gained from previous victories he sought to have more land and power. At the onset he did not face much opposition because Antiochus IV had already died. After Lysias learned that Philip was on his way to try and take the kingdom he eagerly made peace with Judas, and this marked the beginning of the Jews gaining their freedom. “In 161 B.C. Judas led his dwindling forces against a vastly superior Syrian army and was killed in battle.” [23]
After the death of Judas, his younger brother Jonathan took control of the nation. According to Evans, “Jonathan achieved more by diplomacy than by warfare, cooperating with Alexander Balas and fostering alliances with Rome and allegedly even with Sparta.”[24] While a casual reading of that statement may not mean much Dockery opens it up even more with this explanation,
In 152 B.C. Alexander Balas, who was contending with Demetrius I for the Syrian throne, appointed Jonathan as high priest. This appointment of one of the Maccabee brothers, who were from a priestly family but were not descendants of Zadok, to the office of high priest by one of the descendants of Antiochus Epiphanes is surely one of the ironies of history. It shows, however, how the high priesthood had been increasingly politicized in the intervening years. By this means Jonathan became the political, religious, and military leader of the Jews and an appointee of the Seleucid Empire.[25]
Jonathan would eventually be killed by Tryphon out of fear of his success in the nation. After the murder of Jonathan, Simon would be the last of Judas’ brothers who would assume control of the nation as high priest. According to some he is known as the first Hasmonean ruler while for others his son John Hyrcanus I is the first. During his rule Simon would align himself with Demetrius II with the condition that Judea was completely free. “Since Demetrius no longer controlled the southern parts of the Syrian empire, he gave Simon complete exemption from past and future taxation (142 B.C.). The yoke of the Gentiles over Israel had been removed for the first time since the Babylonian captivity….”[26] While Simon was the one who finally brought freedom to the nation of Israel he would face as similar fate as the rest of his brothers; he would die a violent death; except his was at the hands of his son-in-law.[27]
After the death of Simon his son John Hyrcanus I assumed his role as high priest and chief civil leader. Not long after he assumed control the Syrian empire exerted control over Judea, and Hyrcanus would work out a treaty that would allow Jerusalem to be left without a garrison within its limits.[28] Once Hyrcanus was settled he began to expand his borders, he conquered Medeba in Transjordan, then Shechem and Mt Gerizim, he would destroy the Samaritan temple.[29]
Following Hyrcanus’ rule things became more volatile even amongst family members to the point that they were murdering and mutilating one another to get the position that they wanted.
The Roman and Herodian Period
Once Pompey came in and lead Aristobulus away this was the mark that the seventy-nine years of self rule had come to an end; and the Romans were now in charge. Even though Hyrcanus II had been reinstated as high priest he had become nothing more than a puppet king, controlled by Antipater. “Shortly before he was poisoned to death in 43 B.C., Antipater appointed his sons as governors: Phasel, governor of Judea; and Herod, governor of Galilee.”[30]
Herod was a very feared man and for good reason, he would kill anyone he felt would try and betray him. He was so psychotic that he had his own family murdered. In knowing this it makes it much easier to see how he could have issued a decree that all newborn males under the age of two be murdered. One thing that may be found surprising is that, “Herod proved himself an efficient administrator on behalf of Rome. He kept the peace among a people who were hard to rule. To be sure, he was a cruel and merciless man. Yet he was generous, using his own funds to feed the people during a time of famine. He never got over the execution of Mariamne, the wife he loved above all others. His grief led to mental and emotional problems.[31]  Herod  was also a master architect, “about 24 B.C. Herod built a royal palace and built or rebuilt many fortresses and Gentile temples, including the rebuilding of Straton’s Tower, renamed Caesarea. His greatest building was the temple in Jerusalem, begun c. 20 B.C….”[32] It should also be noted that the temple was finished in 64 AD before its final destruction in 70AD when Rome destroyed the city.
As you can see while this period of time may have had no prophets to speak for the Lord there was a group of men who would sit down quietly and allow their God to be made a mockery of. This period is full of political and religious turmoil that lead up to and even continued through the times of Jesus Christ himself. So while it may not be found in Scripture expressly, this period of history plays a very important role in the beginning of Christianity. Because had none of these things happened Israel may have never been awaiting their messiah so anxiously as they were. We have seen what greed and jealousy can do to a nation and to individual men. We have also seen what a small group of men who stick to their convictions is capable of accomplishing. It is my hope that this essay has blessed you and allowed you to better understand the religious and political climate of Palestine some 2,000 years ago.


Dockery, David S., Trent C. Butler, Christopher L. Church et al. Holman Bible Handbook. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.
Evans, Craig A., and Stanley E. Porter. Dictionary of the New Testament Background. Downers Grove: IVP, 200.
Gaebelien, Frank E., ed. The Expositor's Bible Commentary-General OT & NT. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.
Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Edited by Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.
 Ironside, H. A. The Four Hundred Silent Years (from Malachi to Matthew). New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1914.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. The Craddle, The Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009.

[1] Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. (The Craddle, The Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009) 59.

[2] Ibid., 65-66.
[3] David S. Dockery, Trent C. Butler, Christopher L. Church et al., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 505.
[4] Ibid., 505.
[5] Köstenberger, The Cradle, 66.
[6] Frank E.Gaebelien ed., (The Expositor's Bible Commentary-General OT & NT. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979)181.
[7] Kostenberger, The Cradle, 67..
[8] David, Holman Bible, 506.
[9] Gaebelein, Expositors, 181.
[10] Ibid., 183.
[11] Kostenberger, The Cradle, 67.
[12] Gaeblein, Expositor’s, 183.
[13] Dockery, Holman), 507.
[14] Gaeblein, Expositor’s, 183.
[15] Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 830.
[16] Kostenberger, The Cradle, 69.
[17] Ibid., 70.
[18] Gabelein, Expositor’s, 184.
[19] Holman Brand, 830-31.
[20] Craig A.Evans, and Stanley E. Porter. (Dictionary of the New Testament Background. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000) 439.
[21] Gabelein, Expositor’s, 185.
[22] Ibid., 185.
[23] Dockery, Holman, 508.
[24] Evans, Dictionary,440.
[25] Dockery, Holman, 508.
[26] Gabelein, Expositor’s, 186.
[27] Evans, Dictionary, 440.
[28] Ibid., 440.
[29] Gabelein, Expositor’s, 187.
[30] Dockery, Holman, 513.
[31] Holman,Brand, 833.
[32] Gabelein, Expositor’s,191.

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