BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
NOT COMPLETELY SILENT YEARS
Our Bibles move directly from the Book of Malachi (400 B.C.) to the Book of Matthew (50 A.D.). But between those two books there is a period of over 400 years. They were “400 silent years” in the sense that no inspired writings from God came to us during that time. But in another sense, they were very “loud years.” There were military, political, and religious clashes during those years that we need to know about to help us better understand New Testament times.
When Malachi was writing the last Old Testament book, the Persians were still in control of the ancient world. The Jews in Israel too were under Persian rule with a Persian governor stationed in Jerusalem. This Persian Empire lasted from 539-331 B.C. That means that the Persians continued to rule Israel until about 100 years after the time of Malachi, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
The new world power that next arose was Greece under mighty Alexander the Great. Alexander first made himself ruler of all of Greece and then headed east to defeat the Persians. By 330 B.C. Alexander was in control of the territory that Persia had formerly ruled. This included Israel, Egypt, Syria and the territory stretching all the way to India. But Alexander did not have the opportunity to enjoy his new empire for long. In 323 B.C. at the age of just 32 years, Alexander died of a fever in Babylon. Before his death, however, Greek culture was spreading throughout the newly conquered lands. Another name for Greek culture is “Hellenism.” “Hellene” is the Greek word for Greece. With the spread of Greek culture came the use of the Greek language as the common language of the Greek Empire. This explains why the New Testament came to be written in Greek and not in Hebrew or Aramaic.
At the death of Alexander the Great, his generals divided up the empire. Two of those generals became important for our understanding of Jewish history in the time between the testaments. Ptolemy and his successors called the Ptolemies ruled Egypt. Seleucus and his successors called the Seleucids ruled Syria. Because Israel was located between Egypt and Syria, the Ptolemies and Seleucids fought over who would control Israel.
The Ptolemies were the first to control Israel between 320-198 B.C. The Jews were treated well during this time. It was under one of the Ptolemies (Philadelphus, 308-246 B.C.) that the translation of the Old Testament into Greek was completed in Egypt. This is the translation that we know as the Septuagint or LXX after the seventy Jewish scholars who did the translating.
In 198 B.C. the Seleucids under Antiochus III became powerful enough to defeat the Ptolemies and take control of Israel. They ruled Israel from 198-165 B.C. The Seleucids wanted to Hellenize Israel; they wanted to force their Greek culture on the Jews. They built a gymnasium and race track in Jerusalem and insisted that the races begin by calling on the names of heathen Greek gods. Greek theaters were built; Greek styles of dress were adopted; operations to remove the traces of circumcision were even performed on the Jews. At the temple itself, a statue of the Greek god Zeus was set up. Seleucid King Antiochus IV even had a pig sacrificed at the temple. Some of the Jews refused to follow this Hellenizing of the Jews and the heathen religious practices that were introduced. Some of the Jews were no doubt faithful believing people who wanted to worship the living God according to God’s laws given through Moses.
It was at this low time in Jewish history that a group called the Maccabees rose up. “Maccabees” is the nickname for the Jewish family that led the fight against the Hellenizing of Israel by the Seleucids. “Maccabeus” means “the hammer.” The proper name for this family was the Hasmoneans. Mattathias was the first of the Maccabees to fight against the Seleucids. But his Son Judas was the best known of the Maccabees. After several years of guerilla warfare against the Seleucids, Judas Maccabeus was successful in cleansing the temple from the heathen practices and rededicating it to the Lord. This great event of the intertestamental period took place in 165 B.C. It is celebrated by the Jews each year in the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah. The same feast is sometimes called the Feast of Lights and is mentioned in [John 10:22]. Under the Maccabees the Jews were granted independence and were allowed to rule themselves.
This Jewish independence came to an end in 63 B.C. when the Roman army under Pompey took control of Judea. This was the beginning of a new era in Israel, the period of Roman control. It would be during the time of the Roman control of Israel that the Messiah would be born. God was preparing things for that greatest of all events.
THE HERODS AND PILATE
It was part of Roman policy to allow natives of their territories to rule when this would work well. Therefore Herod the Great, an Idumean of Edomite, was given approval by Rome to rule as king over the Jews in Palestine. Herod the Great ruled from 37-4 B.C. Herod was a wise politician. To try to make the Jews happy, he built for them a beautiful temple in Jerusalem. Herod was also extremely cruel. He killed two of his wives and three of his sons. It was this Herod who ordered the killing of the innocent babies around Bethlehem. It was near the end of Herod’s rule that Jesus the Messiah was born. At Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided up among his sons. Archaleus ruled in Judea, Herod Philip in the area northeast of the Sea of Galilee, and Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee. Herod Antipas was the Herod that John the Baptist rebuked for his adultery. He was the Herod that Jesus called “that fox”. Jesus stood trial before Herod Antipas at the time of his passion. Archaleus was removed from his rule in Judea by the Romans in 6 A.D. After him a series of Roman governors ruled in Judea. The Roman governor we know best was Pontius Pilate. He was, of course, the governor during Jesus’ trial. Later Roman governors mentioned in the New Testament are Felix and Festus. We should remember that even during the rule of these Roman governors, the Jews were granted a certain amount of self-rule. The Jewish Sanhedrin, the high court, was allowed to govern in things relating to the daily life of the Jews. The Roman emperors during the time of Jesus’ earthly life were Augustus, also called Octavias (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.) and Tiberius (14 – 37 A.D.). This brief outline of the history of the Jews in Palestine has taken us through the intertestamental time to the time of Christ’s earthly life. More historical notes will be added later in the lessons on individual New Testament books.
We have noted that no God-inspired books were written in the years between the Old and New Testaments. That does not mean, however, that all Jewish writing stopped during that time. The best known books from the time between the testaments are the books called the Apocrypha. The word “apocrypha” is Greek for “hidden.” When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the Septuagint translation, some of the books that we today call the Apocrypha were included in the Septuagint. Confusion resulted, and many people began to think of these Apocryphal books as being inspired like the other Old Testament books. The early Christian Bible scholar Jerome (d. 420) tried to set the record straight. He said that the Apocryphal books might be read in the church but that they should not be thought of as having authority like the books of the Bible. Luther in his Bible of 1534 grouped the books of the Apocrypha together and put them at the end of the Old Testament. He gave them this heading in his Bible: “Apocrypha: These are books which are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures and yet are useful and good for reading.” Today the Roman Catholic Church accepts the books of the Apocrypha as being inspired. The Lutheran and Protestant Churches do not. The Jews never accepted them as being inspired like the 39 books of the Old Testament. Though the Apocrypha existed at Jesus’ time, he did not accept them as God-inspired like the Old Testament Bible. When we read the Apocrypha today, we may find them interesting and helpful for teaching us some history. But we should not think of them as being on the same level as the 66 inspired books of the Bible. Listed below are the names of the books of the Apocrypha. If you want to know something about each of these books consult a Bible dictionary for a brief summary.
The Books of the Apocrypha
- I Esdras
- II Esdras
- Epistle to Jeremiah
- The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of Judith
- The Three Young Men
- Additions to the Book of Esther
- Bel and the Dragon
- The Wisdom of Solomon
- The Prayer of Manasseh
- The First Book of the Maccabees
- The Second Book of the Maccabees
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