Introduction to New Testament Part 1: History of Judea Between the Testaments

Introduction

The last book in the Old Testament was written by the prophet Malachi about 425 B.C. Roughly 420 years lapsed between Malachi’s writing and the birth of Christ. After Malachi there were no further prophets until John the Baptist. That period of “no prophets” is often called the “between the Testaments” period of silence.

Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Maccabean, and Rome

From 539-336 BC. Judea was under the dominion of Persia. In 3 great battles beginning in 336 B.C., Alexander the Great of Greece defeated Persia. Judea was under Greek dominion from 336 until the death of Alexander in 323 BC. At Alexander death his empire was split between 4 principal generals. Ptolemy received Egypt. Seleucus received Syria. Ptolemy quickly brought Judea under his control Egyptian control continued from 323 to 198 B.C.

  • Egyptian control ended in 198 B.C. when Egypt was defeated by the descendants of Seleucus known as the Seleucids. Syria controlled Judea from 198-165 B.C. Egypt had treated Judea relatively leniently. The Seleucids were harsh. 
  • Harsh treatment by Syria led to the successful Maccabean rebellion in 165 B.C. freeing Judea from Syria. From 165 to 63 B.C. Judea was relatively independent. In 63 B.C. Pompey conquered Syria and in the process took Judea for Rome. 

Impact of Greek Influence on the NT

Alexander the Great who died in 323 BC. at age 32, is regarded by many as the greatest conqueror of all time. He conquered Persia, Babylon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and western India. Alexander’s desire was to found a worldwide Greek empire unified by language, custom, and culture. In roughly 13 years he achieved much of his dream and had dramatic impact on the world in which Jesus lived.

  • The Greek influence imposed by Alexander’s conquests resulted in the entire western world beginning to speak the Greek language and adopt elements of Greek culture — this process was called “Hellenization.” Hellenization was popular among the people of the conquered nations (even in Judea). In fact, Hellenism was so popular, it persisted long after Alexander’s death. During the Roman era, Hellenism flourished. 
  • Interest in and demand for a Greek translation of Jewish Scripture grew significantly. In Alexandria about 200 B.C., the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This translation (the Septuagint) is the Bible from which Jesus and the Apostles often quoted.
  • Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, is a “picture language” (every word conveys a picture). It is excellent for telling stories and describing historical events. 
  • But highly doctrinal writing like that of the New Testament needs a different kind of language. Greek was ideal. Of all the languages in the world, no other language is as “exacting” and “precise” as Greek. The version of Greek used in writing the New Testament was the language “spoken” by common people usually called koine Greek. Classical Greek remained the scholarly language of philosophers and was also commonly used in “written” business and legal matters. When Paul wrote to the  Roman Churches where many people likely spoke Latin, he wrote to them in Greek.

Other Developments

“Between the testaments,” the population of Judea grew much larger. There were many changes in Judean society. New religious sects came into being (Pharisees and Sadducees). Synagogues, which likely began during the Babylonian exile, proliferated

Sadducees and Pharisees

In Judea during the Seleucid period (198-165 BC), two significant religious parties emerged: a pro-Syrian Hellenizing party (became the Sadducees), and one of Orthodox Jews called the Hasidim or “Pious Ones” (eventually became the Pharisees). The Orthodox Jews were zealous for obedience to the Law. To make sure they knew when they had obeyed the Law, they derived and added a large number of rules claimed to be equivalent to the Law of Moses. They ultimately deemed obedience to their rules more important than any other understanding of God’s Law. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were unhappy with Him because He didn’t follow their rules closely enough. Many Pharisee teachings were consistent with those of Christ, but Jesus opposed the Pharisee’s narrow legalism and lack of compassion.

  • Sadducees and Pharisees opposed one another, resulting in a polarization of the Jews along political, cultural, and religious lines. 
  • Still, all went reasonably well until the Hellenizing party (Sadducees) decided to replace the existing High Priest (favored by the Orthodox Pharisees) with their man, Jason. 
  • They bribed Seleucus’s successor, Antiochus Epiphanes, to make this happen, thereby setting off a nasty political conflict which brought Antiochus to Jerusalem in a rage (168 B.C.). He was so angry he set about destroying every distinctive of the Jewish faith. He forbade sacrifices, out-lawed circumcision, canceled Sabbath observance, and disallowed celebrating feast days. He destroyed every copy of the Hebrew Bible he could find. He forced the Jews to eat pork and sacrifice to idols. A final act of sacrilege spelled his ultimate ruin. He desecrated the Most Holy Place, building an altar and offering a sacrifice to Zeus.

The Revolt

An elderly priest, Mattathias, lived with his five sons in a village just NW of Jerusalem. When a Syrian official tried to enforce heathen sacrifice in the village, as approved by Antiochus, Mattathias revolted, killed the Syrian official plus a renegade Jew who offered a sacrifice and fled to the mountains with his family. Thousands of faithful Jews joined him.

The Maccabean Era (165-63 BC)

When Mattathias died, 3 of his sons, one after the other, carried on the Maccabean Revolt: Judas (166-160 BC), Jonathan (160-142 BC), and Simon (142-134 BC). By 165 BC, they had taken Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and restored biblical worship. These events are commemorated as the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah).

  • Fighting continued against Syria in outlying areas, but full Jewish independence was achieved under Simon’s leadership in 142 BC. For about seventy years the Jews were independent under the reign of the Hasmonaean dynasty (the High Priesthood). Orthodox Jews, now called Pharisees (which literally means “separatists”) refused to recognize any king not of the lineage of David. Those who opposed the Pharisees and supported the Hasmonaeans were now called Sadducees (from a Hebrew word meaning “righteous”).
  • Sadducees were priests but not all priests were Sadducees. The Sadducees wielded power though the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). 
  • The Sadducees rejected all books of the Jewish Bible except the 5 Mosaic books. They also refused to believe in life after death or resurrection. They were attracted to all things Greek.
  • The Pharisees and the Sadducees hated each other, but when Jesus came, He became the common enemy of both parties.

Herod the Great

Roman rule began in 63 B.C. with Pompey’s conquest of Syria. In 47 B.C. Julius Caesar appointed Antipater, the Idumaean, procurator. Antipater’s son Herod (who became known as “Herod the Great”) was declared king of Judea by Mark Antony about 38 B.C. (later confirmed by Augustus) and actually became King in 37 B.C. with Antony’s help. Herod was king when Jesus was born. 

  • Herod planed and carried out extensive remodeling of the Temple, built beautiful buildings, and at least one entire city (Caesarea). Jesus worshipped and sometimes taught in Herod’s Temple. Herod was a clever politician and an efficient king—but cruel and suspicious. He had 3 of his wives and 3 sons killed. After hearing of Jesus’ birth, in an attempt to kill Messiah, he had all infants in the Bethlehem area 2 years old and less killed. 
  • Herod died in 4 B.C. Jesus was born before Herod’s death. The likely date of Jesus’ birth is usually given as 6 BC. When Herod died, Rome divided his kingdom into four parts. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee where Jesus grew up and spent much of His public ministry.

The Impact of Rome on Judea (beginning 63 BC.)

The NT is filled with references to Rome and its impact on the Jews. The beginning of Rome was centuries before the NT events. Rome was founded in the 8th century B.C. It became a republic in the 5th century BC. In mid-1st century BC, Pompey conquered the eastern Mediterranean, including Judea. At the time Julius Caesar was busy conquering Gaul. After 63 B.C., Rome dominated Judea.

  • In 44 B.C. during a struggle for power, Julius Caesar was assassinated. His adoptive son, Octavian, took control. Octavian became known as Augustus—the same Caesar Augustus we read about in the story of Jesus’ birth. Augustus ruled until 14 AD. Tiberius ruled during Jesus’ time of ministry. It was under Tiberius rule that Jesus was executed on a Roman cross. The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, presided over Jesus’ trial. 
  • Peace and economic stability in the Mediterranean world brought about by Rome allowed Christianity to grow and flourish—Christian missionaries could travel widely on Rome’s good roads and plentiful ships. The gospel spread throughout the empire. 
  • Nero ruled during the ministry of both Paul and Peter. Rome taxed and controlled the Jews.. Felix and Festus heard Paul’s case.  

Preparing the Way for the Advent of Christ

The “between the testaments” events set the final structure for the advent of Christ. These things (especially Hellenism) had a profound impact on the Jews. Jews began to disagree about facets of their religion. At the same time, pagans in other nations became dissatisfied with and doubtful about their idolatrous religions. Many Romans and Greeks were attracted to the Hebrew Scriptures and saw them as superior to their mythologies. After the Septuagint translation (about 200 BC.), Hebrew Scriptures were widely available in Greek, the language of the people. 

  • In Judea, after 63 B.C., the Jews grew despondent under Rome’s power. As once again a conquered nation, they felt oppressed, polluted, and rigidly controlled. Given Rome’s power over the whole Mediterranean area, it seemed nothing could possibly free them from bondage? There was little reason for hope. Their faith that God cared for them as His special people was low. But one thing they remembered, the promised Messiah could save them if only He would appear. Thus were people primed and ready for Messiah. 
  • God was moving in other ways to prepare for Messiah. The influence of Alexander the Great’s policies had made Greek the common spoken language throughout the Mediterranean area. Roman rule brought law, a stable government, excellent roads and bridges, systems for doing things (from collecting taxes to other governmental activities), a wide-ranging enforced peace, and freedom to travel the Roman world in relative safety. These things were vital to the spread of the gospel by Jesus’ disciples.
  • Rome also brought slavery; it is estimated that more than 70% of people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Rome was built on slavery, mostly slaves from conquered people. 
  • Slavery was not a Roman invention. It was an accepted fact throughout the ancient world and was significant factor in economic and societal life. 
  • Slaves frequently were acquired by victory in war. Often entire populations, as well as soldiers, were enslaved. After destroying Jerusalem in 70 AD, Emperor Titus sold ninety-thousand Jewish slaves. Sometimes slaves were highly skilled workers and trusted administrators. It was not unusual for slaves to be better off in many ways than free laborers. Laws protected slaves, giving them rights, even private possessions. Private possessions could be used to pay a ransom to free a slave.  

Writings Between the Testaments

The “between the testaments” writings most significant to the Jews were the Apocrypha (meaning hidden things). The Apocrypha constitute a group of 13 books: 1-2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Additions to Daniel, Prayer of Manassas, and 1-2 Maccabees. 

  • The Jews never gave canonical status to these writings. They are not in the Hebrew Bible. But they were included in the Septuagint. 
  • In the 2nd century AD, the 1st Latin Bibles were created by translating the Septuagint. The Apocrypha were included in the Latin translations.  
  • The Christian Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. gave unqualified canonical status to the Apocrypha.
  • The reformers later repudiated the Apocrypha as unworthy and contradictory to the doctrines of the standard OT canon. However, Luther did say they contain valuable information. 
  • Of Protestants, as far as I know, today only Anglican’s read them liturgically. As I understand, they do not treat them as canonical but as useful secondary writings.  

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