Editor’s Note: This series is for those who want to better understand the New Testament’s historical-cultural background, but aren’t sure where to start. Part 1 of this series can be found here.
Last week I introduced this series by giving you a broad timeline of the New Testament’s historical context (356 B.C.-A.D. 313) and the three main people groups who formed the bulk of the cultural matrix of the first century: Romans, Greeks, and Jews.
Now this week, I want us to take a stroll through the important events which occurred during what is called the Intertestamental period. This refers to the time between the close of the Old Testament period and the beginning of the New. We’ll trace the broad historical outline and then list six significant developments during this era which will help enrich our understanding of the New Testament.
Let me add again that the following account will be nowhere near exhaustive. The point of this series isn’t to give you everything you need to know, but only to introduce you to some important terms, names, events, etc. so that you can wade out in to the more detailed material on your own without feeling overwhelmed.
The Cyrus Decree
In 539 B.C. the Persian ruler Cyrus, issued a decree which allowed Jews to return to Judea and reconstruct their temple, thus bringing to an end the 70 year exile which the Lord brought upon Judah after years of idolatry, violence, and sexual immorality. Eventually, however, the Persian empire too would crumble under the rising strength of the Greeks. And that is what brings us to Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great and the Greeks
Around 334 B.C. Alexander set out to conquer the Persians and by the time he was finished he had land as far as India under his power. The most important part of Alexander’s legacy was his intentional spread of Greek culture and language to all the lands which he conquered. As a boy he was tutored by Aristotle and came to love all things Greek. His strategy to spread Greek influence was to establish Greek cities in carefully selected locations. These larger cities would act as diffusion centers for all things Greek (style of rule, architecture, philosophical worldviews, art, and even leisure). One of the more notable of these cities was Alexandria in Egypt. This city would become home to a sizable Jewish population. Pretty soon, if one hoped to do business in the city, a working knowledge of the Greek language would also be required. This remained true even after the Romans took over. Thus the reason why the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately for Alexander, he died young in 323 B.C. without ever really getting to enjoy the empire he had toiled so long to create. What is more, he died without a clear successor, leaving it up to his leading military commanders to decide what to do.
Carving Up Alexander’s Empire
Upon his death, his four leading generals opted to carve up the empire. The two most important for New Testament backgrounds are Seleucus and Ptolemy. Through the years, the respective empires leaders would take their names, so that we have the rule of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The Ptolemies started out by controlling Egypt and Palestine. The Seleucids primarily controlled Syria, just to the north of Palestine. But they always desired to have Palestine and one day they were finally able to take it in 198 B.C. At first their rule was welcome, as life under the Ptolemies could be harsh. But this would not always be so. The Seleucid ruler by the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes would try to completely abolish the Jewish religion and to prove his sincerity in that mission, he even had the temple dedicated to the Greek god, Jupiter. The Jews had reached their breaking point. The stage for a Jewish revolt was now set.
The Maccabean Revolt
When a representative of Antiochus came to the rural village of Modiin (located in Palestine) to force the Jews to sacrifice to foreign gods, a priest descended from a person named Hasmon set the revolt in motion when he killed a Jew who was about to give in and sacrifice. His name was Mattathias. Following this action, he and his five sons retreated into the wilderness and began to carry out guerilla warfare against the Seleucids. Following his death, Judas Maccabeus (i.e. “the hammerer”, hence the name “Maccabean Revolt”) filled his father’s spot. Eventually, they were able to win back their religious freedom and the taking back of the Jewish temple in 164 B.C. is still commemorated by Jews today in their observance of Hannukah.
Meanwhile In Rome
Throughout this entire time, Rome had been evolving into a powerful force, first taking over Italy and then expanding toward both the west and the east. It would soon be evident to all the people living on the east side of the Mediterranean Sea that the Romans were destined to become the next ruling empire in the ancient world.
Around 100 B.C. the Jews had gained complete independence from their weakening Seleucid overlords. Unfortunately, such independence would be short lived. Remember how we said that the priest who had begun the revolt was descended from a man named Hasmon? Well, once his line was given the kingship over Judea for throwing off Seleucid rule, they became known as the Hasmonean rulers. In the first century B.C. two Hasmonean brothers began to dispute over who should be given the right to the throne (Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II). Interestingly enough, both appealed to the Roman leader, Pompey, who by this time was advancing well into the Eastern portions of the Mediterranean rim.
In 63 B.C. Pompey used this as an opportunity to lay siege to Jerusalem. He really didn’t side with either one, but instead, brought Judea under the Roman umbrella. Following his takeover, Judea was formed into a client kingdom. What this meant is that a king would be allowed to govern Judea, but now he would do so for Roman interests. He was to put down any insurrection against the empire and ensure that taxes for the emperor were collected. King Herod the Great would be one such king, who ruled at the time when Christ was born. Next week we will get into some more details about his rule and what happened to his kingdom after his death, which was right in the midst of the New Testament era.
6 Significant Developments From The Intertestamental Period:
1. The development of a distinctively Greco-Roman culture throughout the Mediterranean.
Greek ideas, culture, and language were well established when the Romans made their push East. When they arrived, they retained many features of this culture and even assimilated parts of their own to it. That is why there was a distinct Greco-Roman culture during the time of the New Testament. That being said, Jewish assimilation to this culture varied greatly, with some assimilating completely (especially those who lived outside of Palestine) to others refusing to assimilate at all (for example, the community at Qumran who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls).
2. The spread of the Jewish population all over the Roman Empire.
When the Jewish exile came to an end in 538 B.C. many Jews actually remained in the east, where they had found gainful employment and managed to carve out a decent living. Even prior to the exile, however, some Jews had already spread west into Egypt. Some Jews were taken as slaves to Rome during the Roman takeover. These kinds of things happened to such an extent, that by the time the New Testament was being written, sizable populations of Jews could be found in every major part of the Roman Empire. This can be seen in John 7:33-35: “Jesus said, ‘I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the One who sent Me. You will look for Me, but you will not find Me; and where I am you cannot come.’ The Jews said to one another, ‘Where does He intend to go that we cannot find Him? Will He go where our people lived scattered among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?”
3. The arrival of the synagogue
When the Jews were living in exile, they no longer had a Temple where they could go to worship and carry out the various sacrifices, etc. In its place came the synagogue. These were smaller gatherings of Jews who came together the pray, read Scripture, and listen as someone expounded the Scriptures. Things like sacrifices were not carried out here. Instead, the primary purpose of the synagogue was for instruction in the Law. By the New Testament era there were synagogues scattered throughout the Roman empire. That’s why during Paul’s missionary journeys he would first preach the gospel in the local synagogue (Acts 13:14). Even after the reconstruction of the Temple, the synagogue would remain a staple in Jewish life, as it does to this day. The synagogue lent itself as a blueprint when the apostles began planting churches throughout the empire. Titles such as elders derive from synagogue verbiage.
4. A translation of the Old Testament in to Greek (known as the Septuagint or LXX)
Though the dating is somewhat difficult to determine, a Greek translation of the Old Testament came into existence around 250 B.C. Some theories hold that one of the Ptolemaic kings in Alexandria requested it. However, it is also reasonable to surmise that many Jewish families who were already living in Alexandria wanted a translation of their Scriptures written in the language they spoke each day. For most of the New Testament writers, this is the Bible they used. So it forms a very important context for understanding the New Testaments’ writers understanding of the Old Testament.
5. A renewed emphasis on obedience to purity laws
During the intertestamental years, there was prophetic silence. Into that void came the scribes who became experts in interpreting the law. It seems that by the 1st century A.D. there was a greater emphasis on obeying the external matters of law. Groups such as the Pharisees prided themselves on maintaining a high level of ritual purity.
6. The emerging of different Jewish sects, most notably, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes
Different sects of interpreters developed, all claiming to have the corner on what the law really said. There were possibly hundreds of these sects, but the Pharisees and Sadducees are the ones who receive the most attention in the New Testament, since they held most of the influence in the Sanhedrin (we’ll get more into that next week).
As you can see, there were more than a few major events and developments which took place in the 400 hundred years leading up to the New Testament era. Having a basic grasp on what some of these are can enrich our understanding of the New Testament and help us to appreciate greater its historical-cultural context.
The image above was borrowed from fusion-of-horizons and was resized for this post. You can find the original image and the copyright information here.