New Testament 101: Background – Intertestamental Period

The Old Testament period, depending on who you listen to, either ended with Malachi (around 445BC), or Daniel (some scholars put Daniel in the second century BC).

In any case, the canonical account of the end of the Old Testament wraps up after the construction of Jerusalem’s “second temple” – hence the name “second temple Judaism” is applied to the religious practices that developed in this period. Israel exists under the reign of the Persians at the close of the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament find themselves under Roman rule. A lot of political water has gone under Jerusalem’s bridge in this time…

We have a fair bit of literature from second temple Judaism covering this period – important bits for reference sake include:

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

These books are non-canonical histories of the Jewish people that were widely circulated amongst second temple Judaism, and included in the Septuagint (also known as the LXX) a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from around the third century BC. The writings included in the Septuagint (and wikipedia links) include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy (in the Vulgate this is chapter 6 of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, Sosanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Psalm 151.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran, include copies of scrolls from the Hebrew bible, copies of these apocryphal documents, and a bunch of secular writings from the period describing life in Second Temple Judaism.

Jewish Histories

Josephus wrote significant (though pretty biased) accounds of Jewish history covering the intertestamental period and different events in the first century AD.

Philo of Alexandria gives a unique insight into the Hellenization of Judaism. He was a Jew, living in a Greek city in Egypt, he was well connected, and wealthy. And he fused Greek philosophy with the teachings of Judaism. Philo was a Jewish envoy to the crazy Roman emperor Gaius Caligula when trouble kicked off between the Jews and residents of Alexandria over the Jew’s refusal to worship the emperor as part of the Imperial Cult. His fusion of Greek and Jewish theology led some 19th century critical scholars to dub him the father of Christianity – because they believed the beliefs of Christianity to have evolved from this fusing. But it was more an apologetic exercise where he sought to promote Judaism as the best philosophy on offer.

The Persian Period (539-332 BC)

The Persian period placed Israel in a geographically precarious position between waring nations. Israel was the frontier for conflict between Egypt and Persia. Some suggest Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls should be understood in this light. Aramaic became the Jewish Linga Franca in this period.

The Hellenistic Period (332-143 BC)

Alexander the Great smashed Syria up bad and belted any Persian political pretenders into submission. Persia’s territories fell under Hellenistic rule. Then Alexander died and all his potential heirs started clamouring for power. Judea became a pawn in a two hundred year wrestling match between two dynasties – the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt, and the Seleucid rulers from Syria.

The Hasmonean (Maccabean) Period (143-63 BC)

The Seleucid dynasty took control of the near east in about 202BC, and initially provided Israel with religious freedom. This symbiotic relationship lasted until 169 BC when Antiochus IV decided to loot the temple. There was a mini-rebellion after this, and Antiochus eventually issued an edict banning any expressions of Judaism and installed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was like flame to a fuse, sparking a Jewish military rebellion. The Hasmoneans, a family linked to the priesthood – and particularly the Maccabean clan – aligned themselves with the Roman Empire and eventually claimed the high priesthood (Antiochus’ successor repealed his edict), and finally independence. The family eventually claimed royal honours and began expanding Jewish boundaries, in a quasi-messianic campaign.

During this period of self-government a number of Jewish religious groups emerged – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. See below for their distinctives… and these groups

The Roman Period (63 BC to New Testament times)

The Hasmoneans rebuffed Greek rule for a significant amount of time, and during this period a power vacuum emerged in the near east – and there was nothing the Roman Empire liked more than a power vacuum in neighbouring territories. So Rome invaded. Pompey, a Roman General, arrived in Judea and found a house divided, two Hasmonean upstarts were fighting for supremacy. Both turned to Pompey for support, he picked a side (Hyrcanus), the other guy didn’t like it. And Pompey invaded.  Hyrancus was installed as high priest and “ethnarch” (but not king), and Rome redistributed the territories the Maccabees has claimed. A guy named Antipater, and his son Herod the Great, took power from the Hasmoneans. Herod was a Roman puppet. He ruled for 26 years and conducted a huge infrastructure program (largely to honour Roman rule and cement his power). He also wiped out the last of the Hasmoneans (including his wife, and his two sons by her). Herod died in 4 BC, leaving dueling heirs, and a dynasty vastly unpopular with the power brokers of Jewish society. Augustus wasn’t happy with either heir and placed Judea under provincial rule, through Roman officials reporting to the governor of Syria. In 66AD the Jews rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem, and the temple, were eventually destroyed.

Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenism was a cultural phenomenon. As the cultured Greeks conquered the primitive barbarian like nations around them they brought their culture with them. Cultural appropriations included religion, language, social structures, government, art, philosophy, and an aesthetic approach to just about everything… As this influence crept in, or possibly burst in, to the Jewish scene, the citizens of Judea were forced to reassess the core and non-core elements of their religious practice. This Hellenisation caused significant tension within the Jewish population – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t all encompassing. Jews maintained their religious identities and kept ceremonial and cultic distinctions from the rest of the Greek empire. In many ways Philo was the model Hellenised Jew.

Hellenisation was essential for social mobility. Any political wannabees had to sell out their Judaism for progress.

While some “scholars” like Bart Erhman push the idea that nobody in Palestine spoke Greek as a piece of evidence for a lack of authenticity of the gospels – this is a minority position that pretty much contradicts all the extent evidence, including coins, inscriptions and papyrii from the period. Hengel is one scholar who has conducted significant work in demonstrating that Palestinian culture was a multilingual, multicultural melting pot. About ten percent of Palestinian Jews, in Hengel’s estimate, spoke Greek as their primary language.

There was no real “normative” model of Judaism in this period – everybody pretty much chose how Greek they wanted to be, or how Jewish.

Jewish Theology

The Qumran documents, and other apocryphal writings, show that there was significant theological diversity operating in the Second Temple period. There were four dominant theological movements, or sects, operating in Judea in this time:

The Pharisees

The Pharisees emerged largely in opposition to the Hasmonean rulers, and their fusion of prisetly and kingly power, they were a popular group and socially powerful. They sought to apply the Torah to everyday life, and are presented (particularly in Matthew) as the foils to Jesus teaching, they are often grouped with “the teachers of the law,” they were particularly concerned with creating a fence aroung the Torah, they created a series of extra laws and customs to ensure they would never encroach on the Torah (these were later written up as the Mishnah). They sought to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the arrival of the Messiah, by teaching God’s law. They believed in the soul, in resurrection, in heaven and hell, and in the existence of the supernatural. While they are often presented negatively in the light of Jesus’ teachings, it was a broad church of beliefs and practices (Nicodemus in John 3 was a Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea may have been one too).

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were compromisers – they supported the Hasmonean dynasty, and the Hellenisation of Israel. They were wealthy. They were corrupt. They focused their theology on the Pentateuch alone, while acknowledging the rest of Scripture. Only doctrine that could be demonstrated through the Pentateuch was binding, they rejected Oral Law. The Sadducees, in contrast to the Pharisees, dismissed any notion of immortality, resurrection or supernatural beings like Angels and Demons. They did not oppose Roman rule. They were the administrators of proceedings in the temple under Rome, and died out with Jerusalem in 70AD.

The Essenes

The Essenes were essentially a Jewish Doomsday cult. They tried to withdraw from society, maintaining purity and piety, while awaiting the apocalypse. They repudiated the Maccabean dynasty, and believed that withdrawing from society would hasten the coming of the kingdom of God. They were intensely devoted to the law and saw themselves as God’s elect subgroup within Israel. Qumran was a particularly rigid Essene monastic community. They expected two messiahs – a priestly leader, and a kingly leader, and their documentation found at Qumran reveals that though the community was contemporaneous with Christianity they did not acknowledge Jesus or Christianity in any way (despite the views of some “scholarly” conspiracy theorists.

The Zealots

The Zealots were cool. They carried swords around and stealthily killed Roman collaborators. They were first century Jewish ninjas. They hoped to overturn Rome’s empire in a military fashion and led a variety of revolts during the first century that can best be described as failed messianic uprisings. Their expectations are consistent with some of the disciples’ expectations of Jesus as a military messiah.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

One thought on “New Testament 101: Background – Intertestamental Period”

  1. pitty … for your effort in being creative etc you can’t just submit it as final assessment and get on with doing more of the same creative and what to you is enjoyable work. Sadly the ACT area is a generation behind in such matters. My wife had a professor – Dean of Faculty actually – who said he would like to give degrees on day one and then over the next four years for students to demonstrate why they deserved them. I suspect that the quality of work done under such a process would be massively superior to what was traditionally submitted. As it turned out, my wife’s thesis, using an alternative assessment approach accepable to the Dean, obtained results which an industry professional had worked toward over 20 years, without success!
    So Nathan keep up this lateral effort of yours.

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