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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (21): Between the Testaments

The Bible world changed dramatically between the end of the Old Testament about 400 BC and the beginning of the New Testament.


Though the Jews returned to Jerusalem and their home country, beginning about 536 BC, they were just a tiny part of the Persian Empire at the end of the Old Testament. That continued until the Greeks and later the Romans over-ran Palestine.

Most Jews lived outside their homeland. Many chose not to leave Babylon, leaving a large group of Jews there. Under the Greeks and Romans, Jews found homes in other parts of those empires.

There was a large group of Jews in Egypt, mostly in Alexandria, a city noted for its learning. When Paul did his mission work in Asia Minor and Europe, nearly every city had a synagogue. Paul himself was born in Tarsus in Cilicia and a Roman citizen.

During the inter-testament period, the synagogue developed as a place for Jews to gather. This was not something found in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament synagogues were everywhere. Here they would come to study the Law, to pray, to teach their children, and to do all of the things that kept the Jews a unique people in the ancient world.

It was also during this period that the Rabbis developed the oral traditions (later written in the Mishna and the Talmudic writings). These traditions helped keep the Jews separate from the Gentile world around them – but they also became more important to some than the actual Law of God, as we will see in Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.

The Apocryphal books of the Old Testament originated during this time. Some of these books continue the history of the Jews during those years. Others are fanciful stories of various kinds. Some are wisdom literature similar to the writings of Solomon. The Jews never adopted these books as a part of their Scriptures. Some of these books specifically deny they were inspired of God.

One of the great literary productions of this era was the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The name comes fromthe 70 scholars who translated it. This was the Bible Jesus and the writers of the New Testament usually quoted when they gave citations from the Old Testament. The legend about this translation is that 70 scholars translated it in 70 days, each of them working independently. At the end of the 70 days, they compared the product of each and found them identical. Please note that this is legend, not fact.

There were many Jewish heroes from this era. Hebrews 11 refers to some of these:

Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. – Hebrews 11:34-38

While these descriptions do not apply exclusively to inter-testament Jews, it does describe things that happened to some during that time.

Another development of those four centuries was the Jewish sects. The main sectarian groups were the Pharisees and Sadducees. There were also the Essenes, Herodians, and Zealots.

The Pharisees were zealous proponents of the oral traditions. The Sadducees were a smaller sect, but with power because they controlled the Temple. The Herodians adopted Greek and Roman culture instead of maintaining Jewishness. Zealots were Terrorists who wanted to drive the Romans out by force. The Essenes established a separatist community in the desert near the Dead Sea near where an Arab goat herder discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.


During the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel prophesied of the future history of the world. He interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 as pointing to four great empires: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman. Other prophecies in Daniel, especially in chapters 8 – 11, tell of the advent of these empires – and of the history of the Jews in Palestine as each of these empires interacted with the Jewish nation. When I was a young man, I recall reading these chapters in Daniel and wondering if you can identify what Daniel said would happen in history. I turned to Will Durant’s monumental work, The Story of Civilization, to see how accurate Daniel was. It was amazing! Nearly every line in Daniel corresponds to a story in Durant’s book. I mentioned this to one of my teachers who said he thought Durant used Daniel as the outline for his history.

The Greek Empire

Less than 100 years into the inter-testament era, the Persian Empire was huge, bureaucratic, despotic, corrupt, and decadent. In Daniel 8, this is the ram with two horns that pushed toward the west, north, and south until “suddenly a male goat came from the west across the surface of the whole earth, without touching the ground” (Daniel 8:5). This was Alexander the Great. He came out of Macedonia to conquer, first Greece and then the world in an amazingly brief time. He died at 33, having extended his rule from Macedonia & Greece to India.

Alexander conquered the world – but he did more. He spread Greek culture and language everywhere he went. His influence was so great that even when Rome gained the political control of the Empire, the culture was still very much Greek.

Greek became almost universal in the ancient world. This was the language of commerce. Koine Greek became the language of the New Testament.

On Alexander’s death, his generals split the empire. Two of these in particular affected the history of the Jews. Seleucius ruled in Syria; Ptolemy, in Egypt. These (and their descendants) became bitter foes. To get at each other, they had to march across Judea, which each of them wanted to control.

In 186 BC one of the Seleucid Kings, Antiochus Epiphanies, tried to stamp out the Jewish religion. He sacrificed a sow on the altar in the Jerusalem Temple and tried to force Jewish men to eat pork. A revolt broke out, led by the Maccabees, a Jewish priestly family. They gained their freedom from the Greek rulers and maintained it until Rome took over in 63 BC.

This 100 years of Jewish independence was, after the initial revolt against Antiochus Epiphanies, characterized by poor leadership and political intrigue.

The Roman Empire

While Alexander was moving east, the city of Rome was consolidating hegemony over all of Italy. In time, Rome began to pick at the competing parts of the Greek kingdoms left behind by Alexander’s untimely death.

By the 2nd century BC, Rome had influence to interfere in the struggles between the Greek kings of Syria and Egypt, even without fighting a pitched battle. Merely the threat of Roman intervention was enough to send Antiochus Epiphanies back from an expedition against Egypt before his army had reached its target.

By playing one side against the other in Jewish politics, Rome gained power. It was in such a power play that Rome sided with one claimant to the throne and got power over Judea in 63 BC. The father of Herod the Great was a go-between and an instigator in these intrigues, winning for himself rule over the Jewish state, which he consolidated with the sword. Herod, his son, followed in his steps. He was king in Jerusalem when Jesus was born, ruling Judea as a lackey of Rome.

The Herod family gained power in the later years of the Roman Republic. After the murder of Julius Caesar and the civil war that followed, Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. He ruled Rome when Jesus was born.

The Empire reached from the British Isles to Babylon and from all of North Africa to central Europe.  Roman rule, while oppressive to Jewish patriots, brought an era of relative peace and prosperity, acknowledged before Felix in Acts 24:2. This peace extended throughout the Empire. The Roman roads are legendary; many of these are still the basis of road systems in much of Europe. These roads for land travel and the virtual abolition of piracy on the seas made travel within the Empire much easier than at any time in the history of the world.

Preparation for the Gospel

Politically, linguistically, religiously, and in every other way, the years between the Old and New Testaments prepared for the coming of the Christ. As Paul said:

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law. – Galatians 4:4

The time was ripe for God to act again in a mighty way to redeem and restore fallen man to his place of fellowship with the Deity.

NEXT (22): JESUS – The Word Made Flesh

PREVIOUS (20): Hope in Exile

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