Before the Word Became Flesh

by Dr. Paul L. Maier

What occurred from when the Old Testament breaks off with Malachi to when the New begins with Matthew? Are those really “silent years,” the four-plus centuries from approximately 430 B.C. when Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem to 5 B.C. when Christ was born? Was there nothing to report?

In fact, so many disruptive changes were taking place in the Mediterranean East that they completely reshaped the world into which Christ was born. It was almost as if God had said to Himself, “I think I’ll wait with the Nativity until things settle down a bit.” For when Christ was born, the roiling climate of war, revolt, and insecurity during the intertestamental era had given way to relative peace, stability, and prosperity. The Mediterranean world was almost perfectly primed to receive God’s ultimate revelation.

The divine timing was so perfect that St. Paul would later refer to this window of opportunity as “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). How the world got that way, however, is a far different matter. It took 400 years of struggle between three of the greatest ancient empires–Persia, Hellenistic Greece and Rome–as each took turns dominating the world, heavily impacting God’s people in His Holy Land.

Persia and Greece

For the Jews languishing in captivity at Babylon, the Persian conquest of Nebuchadnezzar’s capital was an absolute blessing. In 563 B.C., Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to their homeland and even contributed to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. A century later, Nehemiah could even rebuild the walls of Jerusalem with Persia’s blessing, and this policy of respect and tolerance by the Persian government continued a century more, about 200 years in all.

The Greeks, however, had a far less positive view of the great empire to the East, since the Persian emperors Darius I and Xerxes had each tried to conquer Greece between 492 and 479 B.C. Not only did they fail, due to heroic resistance by the vastly outnumbered Greeks, but now their would-be victims returned the favor.

In 338 B.C., exactly two centuries after Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from exile, Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia in northern Greece. He now led his forces on a victorious military campaign into the very heart of Persia. While marching there, however, he made a long detour down to Egypt and passed through Palestine along the way.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells of an interesting encounter between the Jewish high priest Jaddua and Alexander. At first, the high priest had refused to switch his allegiance from the Persian king to Alexander, so the latter angrily headed for Jerusalem. There he was met by a procession of priests led by Jaddua, clad in blue and gold, with a miter on his head inscribed with the name of God.

Alexander, the man who was conquering the world, prostrated himself before the Name and greeted the high priest. Alexander told his puzzled comrades that he had previously seen Jaddua in a dream and been encouraged by him. After performing sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple, Alexander decreed that the Jews were free to observe their own laws and would be exempt from taxation every seventh year.

Though modern historians question this account, Jews did enjoy special privileges in the Hellenistic world, as it was called from Alexander onward, a time when Greek culture was heavily influenced by eastern cultures.
After conquering Persia–and, indeed, much of the world as far as India–Alexander was en route home when he died at Babylon in 323 B.C. This set off a power struggle among his generals, each of whom wanted to succeed him. When the dust finally settled after their wars, Alexander’s vast territories were split into three parts: Macedonia and Greece, ruled by the Antigonid dynasty; a huge block of states from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to India, ruled by the Syrian Seleucids; and Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemies.

The Hellenistic Empires

The Jewish homeland became a pawn or buffer state between the last two dynasties. First Egypt and the Ptolemies were in charge, and Palestine prospered during their rule.

In fact, Ptolemy II was so impressed with Jewish law, according to Josephus, that he wrote the high priest in Jerusalem sometime between 300 and 200 B.C., asking that he send scholars to Egypt from every Jewish tribe in order to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Eleazar, the high priest, did just that; the 70 (or 72) scholars he dispatched received a magnificent reception when they arrived in Alexandria. They then set to work on an island in the harbor of Alexandria to avoid distractions.

The famous Septuagint was the result. This Greek version of the Hebrew Bible became the version of the Old Testament most widely used by the apostles and early church fathers. And Alexandria itself became home to so great a Jewish colony that, at the time of Jesus, there were more Jews living in Alexandria than in Jerusalem.

The Ptolemies, like the Persians and Macedonian Greeks, were tolerant of Jewish religious sensitivities. This pleasant climate changed, however, after the Selecuid Syrians detached Palestine from Egypt in 198 B.C. A creature named Antiochus Epiphanes (“God made manifest”) mounted the Syrian throne in 175 B.C. and tried to smother Judaism under a broad blanket of Hellenistic culture. After dismantling the walls of Jerusalem, he prohibited Jewish rites including circumcision, burned copies of the Torah, plundered the temple, and even offered pigs on its altar before a statue of Zeus that he had erected inside the sanctuary–desecrations of unspeakable horror to pious Jews.

The Revolt of the Maccabees

It was too much for Mattathias, an elderly priest from the village of Modein in the hills northwest of Jerusalem. He destroyed a pagan Greek altar erected in his village and killed a deputy of Antiochus. This ignited a 24-year Jewish war of liberation against the Syrians. Mattathias’ five sons led the fight–Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, Simon, John, and Eleazar. Though greatly outnumbered, they battled the hated Syrians out of the land and reestablished an independent Jewish state in Judah from 142 to 63 B.C.

This heroic struggle for Jewish liberation was later celebrated in various ways: in the Festival of Lights–Hanukkah–to commemorate the purification of the temple by the Maccabees, in the historical books in the Apocrypha by that name, and even in the musical oratorio Judas Maccabeus by George Frederick Handel.

The Maccabees, also called the Hasmoneans in honor of the family founder, fielded a dynasty of high-priestly rulers of Judah. They began nobly but worsened over time. While Simon Maccabeus’ son, John Hyrcanus, extended the kingdom, he and his successors acted more like Hellenistic monarchs than observant Jews. The latter now withdrew their support for these priest-kings and many joined new opposition movements that developed, such as the Pharisees–the Perushim or “separated ones.” Hyrcanus’ son, Alexander Janneus, in fact, persecuted the Pharisees for a time, and, while feasting with his concubines, he crucified 800 of his enemies, slaughtering their wives and children as they watched from their crosses. Now there was little to distinguish the Jewish kings from the Syrian tyrants they had ousted from the land.

A quarrel between Janneus’ two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, would soon doom the Hasmonean dynasty. Hyrcanus was the elder and thus entitled to the succession. His brother Aristobulus, however, was brighter and the more naturally attractive leader, and he moved to take over the government. Hyrcanus would probably have let him do so had it not been for Antipater, his advisor (and father of the future Herod the Great), who firmed up Hyrcanus’ resolve to stay in charge. Since the Roman general Pompey was in Damascus at the time, both feuding brothers and their entourages hurried there to argue their cases.

The Roman Conquest

Gnaeus Pompey was the current Roman hero who had cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, conquered Syria and would now annex Judea. He told the contentious siblings that he would decide the matter when he came to Judea and advised them to keep the peace in the meantime.

Aristobulus and his hot-headed followers, however, seized Jerusalem and prepared for war, thus thumbing their noses in the Roman face. Pompey marched on Jerusalem and laid siege to Aristobulus’ party, which had barricaded itself inside the temple mount. Three months later, the Romans stormed into the temple fortress, and that year, 63 B.C., marked the end of Jewish national independence for the next 2,000–until the declaration of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

Pompey himself walked inside the Holy of Holies of the temple but took none of the treasures there. Judah, indeed, all of Palestine, would be under the control of Roman agents or governors throughout the subsequent history of the Roman Empire. Occasionally the Romans would use local rulers to act the part of Roman governors.

One such was Herod the Great, king at the time Jesus was born. His father, Antipater, who had so cleverly advised Hyrcanus, was later able to save the life of Julius Caesar himself when Caesar was in Egypt, dallying with Cleopatra. Her brother had laid siege to Caesar’s forces in Alexandria, but Antipater rallied support for Caesar in the Jewish quarter of the city and opened supply lines for Caesar’s army. Accordingly, Antipater and his son Herod ranked very high in Roman appreciation, and when Herod helped Rome also in other ways, Julius Caesar’s successors Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus) awarded him the kingship in place of the Hasmoneans.

Herod was not an independent monarch. He had to constantly be on good terms with whomever was currently in power in Rome. When Antony ruled the East, Herod was Antony’s man. But when Octavian defeated him at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Herod quickly shifted his allegiance to the victor.

When Herod died miserably in 4 B.C., Augustus found none of his sons worthy to succeed him as king, so he divided Palestine up among three of them, placing Archelaus in charge of Judea. He was banished after 10 years of misrule. That set the stage for Augustus to send Roman governors to Judea–the most famous, of course, was Pontius Pilate. Romans would rule the land for centuries to follow.

Cultural Achievements

The intertestamental era is sometimes regarded as a kind of cultural desert, in which so little was achieved that the Bible did well in ignoring it. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In the secular world of the time, great discoveries were being made in science and medicine, along with gifted contributions in art and literature.

Jewish scholars and writers were also very productive. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible has already been cited. The books constituting the Apocrypha were written at this time. While the term “apocryphal” has been debased in English to connote that which is false or contrived, the original Greek term meant only “hidden.” Books of the Apocrypha like 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees were included in the Christian Bible until the time of the Reformation. They are present in most Roman Catholic Bibles today. However, they are regarded as “deuterocanonical,” meaning of only secondary authority.

Protestants justifiably point out that even the Jewish community that produced this literature rejected any canonicity in these books, and Jesus and His disciples never quote from them. Some of the theology in the Apocrypha runs counter to biblical doctrine, and that which does not is duplicated elsewhere in the Bible. Still, there is historical value in a book like 1 Maccabees, and the Apocrypha do reflect the spirituality and aspiration of Jews in the intertestamental era.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are also products of the time between the Testaments. Even though many are copies of Old Testament Scripture, new (to the scholarly world) documents are also included in the manuscripts discovered, many of them quite parallel to the Apocrypha in content and style. A much longer article, of course, could be devoted entirely to the Scrolls. Indeed, many books have been published on them since their dramatic discovery in 1947 in the escarpment overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

The Jews of Jesus’ Day

The entire economic, social, and religious institutions at the time of Jesus also originated during the intertestamental years. What Josephus named as the three main parties of Judaism–the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes–were founded during this era.

The Sadducees were an aristocratic party that controlled the Jerusalem temple and interpreted the Torah strictly, thus rejecting any notion of a resurrection or afterlife. The Pharisees, on the other hand, had the support of the common people. They also believed the traditions added to the Law that supported a resurrection. The Essenes were a sectarian party of Jewish monastic sorts, some of whom moved away from Jerusalem to the Judean desert at Qumran and assembled the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The changing politics in the land also fostered such Jewish groups as the Herodians, who supported the government in Jesus’ day, as well as the Zealots who bitterly opposed it. There were also extremists of every variety, the very sorts who led the tragic revolt against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Whereas Jews in the Holy Land centered their worship at the Jerusalem temple, though also locally at synagogues, so many Jews had moved to various Mediterranean lands in what was known as the diaspora that synagogue Judaism would soon become normative–in fact, had to become normative after the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple.

The time between the testaments, then, was not some holy hiatus or empty era. These were dynamic, colorful, and challenging years that put in place the Judaism of the first century in which Jesus was born and educated, and in which He taught, suffered, died, and rose again.

Dr. Paul L. Maier is second vice president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

This story appeared originally in the December 2003 issue of The Lutheran Witness. Copyright © 2003 Paul L. Maier. All rights reserved.

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