OT History Part 12: Inter-Testamental Period -- 425-4 BC

Table of Contents

Chapter 12.1: Greek Empire

With the closure of the Old Testament canon, we have some 400 years before Christ and the beginning of the New Testament. The details can be found in books too numerous to name. A couple of books published during this period add some useful insight, particularly those named for the Maccabees, but they have been found by the Early Churches lacking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we do not include them in our Bible. And while they provide some interesting accounts from those four centuries, they miss the whole story by focusing on a narrow selection of events. Our purpose here to is provide sufficient outline of the events to lay the foundation for understanding much of what Jesus said and did, and the situation in which it happened.

Here is a rough outline:

In the midst of all that came the central event in human history: The Savior came and taught, died, and rose again. The stability and fast internal communication system of the Roman Empire was a convenient means to spread His story. We will examine some of the important details within this rough outline.

From the time of Malachi, around 400 BC, life in Judea was uneventful for at about 50 years. Egypt grew restive under the Persian yoke and warfare ensued for a time. During the reign of Artaxerxes III, a large number of Jews were found offering treasonous support to Egypt and were exiled either to Babylon or to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Things were tense between Judea and Persia for quite some time. Meanwhile, the office of High Priest became equivalent to governor of the kingdom. The political maneuvering and petty rivalry involving that office easily matched that of any secular king. Legitimacy under the Law of Moses was seldom of any concern.

During this same time, far away in a land still called Macedonia by some, a petty king named Phillip managed to unite his noble friends and break the power of the Greek City States. Just as the whole thing came together, Phillip died and passed it all to his brilliant son, Alexander. This young king managed to gather a mighty army and inspired them to conquer the known world. As their power grew, the Jews were torn between an old but shattered loyalty to Persia versus the promise of better things under a strong conqueror from Greece. As it was, Alexander destroyed the Persian armies. He first drove down to Egypt. On the way, his genius and tenacity became legend. When Tyre, off the coast on her island fortress, refused to capitulate, Alexander went to the trouble of building a causeway out to her from the coast by having his men bring stones and toss them into the sea. The causeway still stands today.

It was around 333 BC when the Jews gladly capitulated to Alexander and he dealt kindly with them. After defeating the Egyptian armies, he founded a new city, one of several named after himself: Alexandria. This one in Egypt was by far the most famous of the lot. The Greek culture was already ancient at this point, referred to as Hellenic, taken from the supposed object of the ancient wars between Athens and Troy, Helen of Troy. Wherever he went, Alexander promoted his native Hellenic culture, but with friendship and enthusiasm. It was beguiling and drew many under its sway. It didn't hurt he donated so very much wealth to libraries and cultural centers as he conquered. He went on to break the Persians completely, marching his troops to very banks of the Indus River in India before dying.

The Jewish community already in Egypt, which fled the Babylonian conquest, was drawn to the new City of Alexandria, if for no other reason than commerce. They established a major presence such that a full quarter of the city was Jewish. The wealth of trade brought by the Greek Empire created the ancient equivalent of millionaires among the Alexandrian Jews.

Upon Alexander's death, his empire was divided between his four senior generals. From each of them arose a dynasty. While the general who based himself in modern Turkey was given Judea, he didn't keep it long. Jerusalem was seized by the general based in Egypt. The dynasty in Egypt we call the Ptolemies. They continued Alexander's favorable policies toward Jews. Taxes were suspended during sabbatical years, Jews were granted the same status as native Greek citizens in the capital of Alexandria, and so forth. There were even more incentives offered to bring the Jewish banking and cultural wealth to the city. It was the Ptolemies who sponsored the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures we now call the Septuagint. The legends impute this translation with an inspired accuracy, but later examination by scholars showed that false. It was badly corrupted by the taint of new and unbiblical ideas.

For here indeed was the great opportunity to break away from the orthodoxy of the crusty old Eastern Synagogue of Babylon. The intellectual ferment of Greek culture, with its long history of grand philosophical inquiry, provided the roots for a particularly Western flavor to rabbinical studies. It was the age old rivalry between the ancient blue-bloods and the up-and-coming nouveau-riche, and found expression in Jewish religion. The radical departure here cannot be understated. The ancient Mosaic Law, under-girded by a wealth of study by generations of rabbis in the Eastern culture of Babylon, remained essentially faithful to Moses. The Babylonian Great Synagogue viewed things through eyes not significantly different from those of Abraham.

The centuries-old traditions of Greek philosophy, built from pagan Greek polytheistic religion, were wholly foreign to Mosaic tradition. In their haste to break away from the now far distant Great Synagogue in Babylon, the Alexandrian Jews found Western ways more than just new and fashionable. They were thrilled by the intellectual newness of Greek philosophy. The rules of inquiry were applied fastidiously to the Torah and the written teachings derived from it, so whole new meanings were found. It should come as no surprise these meanings often became an excuse to ignore the burdens of ancient Semitic customs. Greed and self-interest became, in a measure, companions of holiness in this new understanding. Before it was over, rabbis were saying the traditions built up over a couple of centuries, a book of interpretation called the Talmud, took precedence over the actual Law of Moses. They called one the written, the other the oral Law of Moses. On top of this, Alexandrian rabbis placed a Western spin on everything. Thus, "the traditions of men" were an excuse to dismiss the original intent of God in His revelation to Moses.

This new Alexandrian Rabbinical School became, quite naturally, the favorite of the ruling Ptolemies. It quickly formed the dominant philosophical strain in Judea. This did not entirely break the link to the Great Synagogue in Babylon. Rather, while always grateful to the Babylon-based scholars for re-introducing the Torah when lost, and for the earliest Talmudic teachings, these were always read through Alexandrian eyes. Sadly, even Babylonian Judaism was drained of life and possessed of no real fervor beyond fussy exactitude over the details of the Law. The Eastern School found few friends in Judean politics. There remained for a time an Orthodox party in Judea, at times alone and extreme like the Essenes. Often it was compromised by alliance with the Pharisees. At the same time, there arose a truly secular Hellenistic party, going far beyond the Alexandrian Jewish departures. Eventually, the old Babylonian Orthodox had become a tiny forgotten minority, while the Alexandrian rabbis were regarded as conservative compared to the secular Hellenists.

Meanwhile, the Syrian quarter of Alexander's empire was ruled by a dynasty we call the Seleucids. In 198 BC, Antiochus III took Judea from the Ptolemies of Egypt. The new ruler's seat was in Antioch, a city on the River Orontes, north of old Hamath. It was quite close to the pocket of the Mediterranean coast where the eastern shore meets the southern shore of modern Turkey. For awhile, things went pretty much the same for the Jews in Judea. However, an ugly fracas arose between the older Orthodox Jews and the Hellenists under Alexandrian influence. The Seleucids had taken Alexander's loving promotion of Greek culture and made it an obsession. They forced Hellenism at every opportunity. Naturally, the new Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes -- claiming to be a divine manifestation) took the side of the Hellenist Jews. He appointed a new High Priest to his liking and the two of them conspired to destroy orthodox worship in the Temple. That priest was deposed a couple years later, replaced with another Hellenist. Things got confusing and the former and current priest between them brought Jerusalem to complete chaos.

Antiochus IV had had enough. He brought his troops into the city in 170 BC, executed countless Jewish residents, plundered the Temple and placed an idol to Zeus inside it. There he sacrificed to Zeus a pig on the altar, and the proceeded to outlaw the most characteristic observances of Mosaic Law. Daily sacrifices were stopped, Sabbath-keeping was outlawed, residents were forced to eat pork and all copies of the Torah found were confiscated and burned. The nickname Epiphanes became secretly mocked as Epimanes ("madman") in typical Jewish fashion.

The Jews, long noted as a stiff-necked people by their own prophets, were not long in responding violently.

Chapter 12.2: Maccabean Period

Antiochus was intent on invading Egypt and ending his rivalry with the Ptolemies once and for all. Roman troops stopped him. Having been denied his victory prize in Egypt by the Roman Senate, Antiochus returned home. Passing through Judea on the way, he vented his frustration on them in declaring their religion and customs illegal. He sent soldiers to destroy the City of Jerusalem. Men were killed, women and children were sold into slavery. Greek-speakers were imported to rebuild the city and make it completely Hellenist. Only Jews who could pass for Greeks were allowed back. The internal conflict within the ruling class in Judea in the midst of oppression from Antioch served to paralyze their response. Further, the seductive call of Hellenism had already subverted many. One of Antiochus' appointed High Priests had a gymnasium built near the Temple and Jewish boys were pressured to train there -- naked, by Greek custom. This exposure was the impetus for many to drop circumcision, to avoid being distinctive from the fashionable Greeks. It was the violent reaction to these actions that brought the wrath of Antiochus. The attack came on a Sabbath, when resistance was most unlikely.

It took an outsider to find the resolve to lead against this evil. Northwest of Jerusalem stood the ancient twin cities of Upper and Lower Beth-horon. Both occupied the south bank above the same wadi. Farther down that valley stood the tiny village of Modin. In 168 BC, officers dispatched by Antiochus fanned out across Judea and began forcing all to submit to worship of the god Zeus. In each place, the people were called together. The decree against Judaism would be read. An altar would be constructed, and a pig sacrificed to Zeus. Then the residents would be forced to cook and eat its flesh. Aside from a few heroic examples, there was no significant resistance.

The decree required the village leadership to lead off in this sacrifice. If there was a priest, he would be required to conduct the ritual. In Modin, there lived an aging priest who vociferously refused to take part. This was despite of offers of power and wealth. When the village elder stepped up to do it, the old priest snatched the ceremonial knife from him and stabbed the man. He then turned and killed the Syrian officer sent from Antiochus. The old priest was named Mattathias.

Naturally, this was an act of rebellion that warranted execution. The old man fled with his family into the Judean Highlands. This had been David's refuge fleeing from Saul. From this base, they went about destroying the other altars, sending collaborators fleeing and circumcising Jewish boys, among other things. As with David, many chose to join the rebel force. Before long the old priest died, but he passed on his passion and vision to his sons. The third was named Judas, who organized an armed resistance. They conducted guerrilla raids on the Syrian soldiers of Antiochus. The hit and run raids gained him the nickname of "Hammer" -- in Hebrew maqqaba, now usually spelled Maccabees. In a complete under-estimation of Jewish resolve, Antiochus sent a rather small force to counter this armed revolt. This force was quickly slaughtered, so he sent a much larger unit. This army, too, was defeated. The combat leadership of Judas Maccabees was legendary.

Within seven years, the rebels had completely delivered Jerusalem. The Temple was cleansed in 164 BC, giving birth to the celebration today known as Hanukkah. The candles symbolize the dramatic entrance into the temple of the light of God's presence returning, three years to the day from its profaning. The battles continued for some time. During the next two decades, Antiochus IV died. When a contest broke out over succession to the Seleucid throne, the current leader of the brothers, Jonathan, took the opportunity to favor one of the claimants sufficiently to win. This was Demetrius, who in exchange gave in to Judean demands in 142 BC. By that time, the leadership had passed through the five sons of Mattathias to Simon, as each of the others had died in battle. His main problem was driving out the supporters of an opponent of Demetrius still vying for the throne.

Simon's success against that opponent brought universal acclaim from the Jews. Having made Judea essentially independent under Seleucid protection, he was proclaimed both ruler and High Priest around 140 BC. We refer to this dynasty as the Hasmoneans, a name derived from the Hebrew phrase for "following Mattathias." From here on out, things get rather muddy and complicated. Another Seleucid rose up with no respect for the Hasmoneans and there is more war. Simon is murdered and his adult sons are assassinated. The surviving third son is the next to hold the office of High Priest. His name was John Hyrcanus.

As the political fortunes of the Syrians ebbed and flowed, this John Hyrcanus managed to conquer much of David's old realm. He destroyed the rival Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. When he had humbled the Idumaeans (formerly called Edomites), he forced them to accept circumcision. This turned out to be the path of doom for Judea's independence. Also during his reign, we see the rise of the Pharisees and Sadducess. John favored the latter before he died in 105 BC. His son was even more ignoble. John had split his office, giving his wife civil control and his son Aristobulus the high priesthood. This son seized the civil control and had his mother and brothers thrown in prison. He assumed the actual title of King. His life ended a short year later. His eldest surviving brother, Alexander Jannaeus, became High Priest. Alexander expanded the territory in spite of his incompetence in battle. His feuding with the Pharisees saw bloodshed and he died in 78 BC.

Following a previous pattern, but with more success this time, Alexander left his wife Salome in charge of civil government. She ruled by the advice of the Pharisees her husband had hated. Her son Hyrcanus II was High Priest; after her death in 69 BC, he fought with his brother, Aristobulus II. The civil war continued until 63 BC, when it brought Rome's attention. By now Judea was within the Roman Empire. The Seleucid realm had been divided up between petty rulers, clients of Rome. In keeping with their pattern of conquest, Rome drafted soldiers from Syria. These Syrian conscripts were the bulk of Roman troops in Judea from that time. Their appearance in Jerusalem to keep the peace was the end of Judean independence. The first Roman commander favored Aristobulus, but the next -- Pompey -- favored Hyracanus. In 63 BC, the Roman troops marched into the city, as the Hyrcanus held the gates open. However, it took three months to break through the fortified Temple Mount where Aristobulus holed up. Many defenders died. In the process, the Idumaeans, still circumcised, were brought in on the party. By struggling so hard to gain their own position, the brothers jeopardized the future of Judea by involving foreigners. The Hasmonean Household was whittled down through assassinations, executions and battle with these resurgent Idumeans. Herod was their king, and beginning around 37 BC, he committed most of the murders, even forcibly marrying into the dynasty to enable a more or less legitimate claim to the throne as the surviving relative. Having murdered his wife, he later murdered his own sons by that marriage. By 7 BC, no more Hasmoneans lived.

Note that Herod wisely renovated the Temple for the Jews, but inside the fortress on the north wall, now staffed by mostly Syrian conscripts of Rome, he lavished great expense on a shrine to emperor worship. He hardly winced at the idea of murdering huge numbers of his subjects, which happened at least once during his reign. He died in 4 BC.

Chapter 12.3: Messianic Expectations

There were a wide ranging variety of ideas about what Messiah would be and do. We might discover this or that group held some common view, even as significant members saw things differently. In some cases there were those who professed no expectations at all. However, we can expect the common Israelite living in Judea or Galilee during the First Century of either BC or AD would have heard and embraced a recognizable body of understanding regarding the Anointed One, however fuzzy that picture may have been.

We have already discussed the longing of the Jews driven from their homeland by Babylon. In Exile, they made certain characteristic changes in their previous habits, hoping to persuade Jehovah to restore what was taken from them. When the day of Return finally came, they found themselves in an adverse situation, surrounded by enemies no longer subdued. Their spirit was crushed yet again. While some did turn again to Jehovah for relief, many despaired. It was the prodding of the prophets, expressed in Messianic visions of a future refreshing of faith and freedom that help inspire the rebuilding of the Temple, and eventually the city walls of Jerusalem. When the day came they were struggling again under the harsh yoke of the Seleucids, followed by Rome, it had become manifestly obvious that golden age had not yet arrived. So at was, at all levels of Jewish society, there was at least some vague longing for redemption and a belief that the Lord had promised it.

Very early there seemed at least two distinct visions promoted by the teachers and writers of Messianic Expectations. One was the obvious political redemption embodied in the term Son of David. This was the hope the Lord would send a son of the royal family who combined the military and political prowess of David (and to some degree Solomon) with the Mosaic righteousness exceeding the founders of that royal house. This Righteous King would restore, at a minimum, the fullest extent of the land promised in the Torah. With an element of a miracle-wielding super-human, many extended that to a beatific vision of world dominion. Not simply a return to political independence for the nation, this was the idea no nation would ever be capable of rising against them to oppress them. An extreme variant of this idea was that all Gentiles living would voluntarily and joyfully render themselves servants and slaves of the Jews. Furthermore, all the Jews previously dispersed would return to their former homeland.

Naturally, this level of dominance should bring a literal golden age of wealth. This would be more than mere economic dominance, but the miraculous wealth of stones turned to bread, streets paved with gold and jewels as common as pebbles on the ground. Every field yielded more abundance than could be imagined, every tree laden with edible fruit. There would be no more disease or injury that could not be quickly healed by materials at hand. Any dream that one might have was not too extravagant. Thus, every Jew would become a petty king and nothing would be denied their every whim in the Day of Lord. This of course was to stand the concept of That Day on its head. In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord was any day of judgment on sin. The arrogant assumption of many Jews was that their sins were rather small, since they were so surely God's Own People. Thus, the judgment of sin would surely bring them release and quell their enemies.

On the other hand, the power to do all this rested on a distinct righteousness of obeying the Law of Moses. Thus, a second set of expectations gave rise in some minds to a second Messiah. This was the Son of God, a High Priest like no other. This was inherent in the alternate title, Son of Man, first used by Daniel (7:13-14). This was the Messiah of the Law, of righteousness, who would cleanse the Jews of sin by exerting a powerful teaching and enforcement ministry. Either as another duty, or as a separate Messiah, was the idea he would be the greatest prophet of all. All the best and more powerful expressions of God's word and will in the men of the Old Testament were images of this Messiah: Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Isaiah, etc. Many had no trouble seeing this as just an extension of a single royal Messiah, but Mosaic Law called for a distinction between the one who inherited the throne, from the Tribe of Judah, and he who could be High Priest, from the Tribe of Levi, of the Clan of Aaron. The average Jewish peasant probably made no such distinction.

Part of the difficulty for many was in determining just what a superior righteousness would look like. Given the dominance of the Alexandrian Rabbinical School, this was far different from the orthodox view found in the Old Testament. Indeed, a Messiah true to the original Old Testament theology would be a heretic among the religious leaders of the First Century. There would be some convergence and overlap, of course, but it was in the everyday application of the Law where the difference was so obvious. Rituals had been modified some, precisely scripted down to the finest detail and not entirely a reflection of ancient traditions. Further, empty ritual itself was regarded as holiness. To speak of observing the spirit of the Law was seeking room for sin. In the case of the "liberal" Sadducees, this might be true, as they were thoroughly Hellenized and cared little about the ancient Jehovah, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among the now forgotten Babylonian Orthodox, weak as it was, the same idea meant God was able to see the heart and count it righteousness if a man were willing to obey, but could not in the precise letter of the Law. The noted Essenes, as well as other minority sects, were a reflection of this older standard of righteousness from the mystic depths of the soul.

Buried somewhere in all the various Messianic threads is the concept of a Messiah who suffers. This is widely ignored, appearing seldom in any popular source of Messianic teaching. Only among the better scholars was Isaiah 52 and 53 recognized as describing the Messiah. Indeed, the majority view expected a Conquering Messiah, Son of David. Miracles and holiness, yes, but suffering had no part in the picture, except for the enemies of Israel, thus enemies of God. The Messiah would most certainly crush Rome, not be crushed by Rome.


Ed Hurst
03 September 2005, revised 09 February 2016

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