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Intertestamental Times


Brief Introduction 

The time-span between the Old Testament and the New Testament is about 470 years, and is generally known as the ‘Intertestamental Times’.  This time-span is sometimes referred to by Bible students as the ‘silent years’ because the Bible does not cover this period of history.  However, it is not a good description; the Intertestamental Times were anything but silent.


The interesting historical events that occurred during these years had a significant bearing on two aspects of the life and times recorded and reflected the Bible’s New Testament:


1.  The thoughts and expectations of the Jews regarding their prophesied coming Messiah

2.  The reason the early Christian church was able to expand so rapidly


Therefore a brief look at what happened during this period is enormously helpful in understanding the ‘HOWs & WHYs’ of the New Testament.


For instance, a far brighter spotlight shines on why such tension existed between the Jews and the Romans, and why such contempt existed between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Also a clearer picture emerges for the reason the Jews were expecting a completely different kind of Messiah.


And so this part of history actually forms an important part of the continuum of the Bible story, from Genesis right through to Revelation



The Story of What Happened


The Persian Empire defeated the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, and under King Cyrus of Persia, some of the Jewish exiles (probably numbering about 75,000) returned to their homeland of Judah (538-445 BC).  Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, God’s holy laws were re-established, and Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt.  (The history recorded in the Bible ends at this point.)


Although the Persian Empire still officially ruled their homeland, the Jews were allowed to form a self-governed province, and were encouraged to follow their own religion and culture.  The Persian government even provided generous funds for the rebuilding and the upkeep of their Temple in Jerusalem.  Having no king at this time, the Jewish leadership again became the responsibility of the high priests.  And together with a new breed of enthusiastic scribes, Ezra and other leaders ensured that the people were once again educated in the Scriptures.  This was a time of spiritual revival and relative peace, and the Jews were never again accused of worshipping idols or false gods, as they had done during the time just prior to their exile.


2.  UNDER THE GREEK EMPIRE    (330-63 BC)    

In 336 BC a remarkable young twenty-year-old from Macedonia (northern Greece) became the commander of the Greek army and overthrew the Persian Empire.  His name was Alexander the Great, and after his conquest he quickly began an ambitious policy of Hellenisation (a campaign that tried to unite the world by the spread of the Greek language and culture).


Although Alexander was tolerant towards the Jews, his campaign of Hellenisation threatened to undermine the (now extremely precious) traditions and culture of the Jewish people. 


In fact, it had the effect of causing a division among the Jews themselves.  The more secular Jews saw the far-reaching trade advantage in this unification, and wanted to embrace much of the Hellenistic culture.  This group became known as the ‘Hellenists’.  The others, the ‘Hasidim’, were deeply aware that their Jewish culture was God-given, and saw the dangers of diluting their own customs that were part-and-parcel of their unique religion.  Over the years the division deepened as both sides clung ever more tightly to their standpoint. 


The schematic diagram shows this division, also the divisions that sprung from both sides. (Click the button at the end of the page, to see which line the Pharisees and Sadducees came from.)


Back to the story . . . Alexander had no heirs to his throne, and after his death in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his four generals, and the Hellenisation continued.  Two of these generals founded dynasties that profoundly affected the lives of the Jewish people – the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.  Canaan lay between the two, and was a constant bone of contention as both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids struggled for control of the area. 


  • The Ptolemies    (323-198 BC)

Initially, the Jews were ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt.  The Ptolemies allowed them their religious freedom, and during this time great numbers of Jews spread out.  Many settled in Egypt, taking their faith with them, and it was during this time in Egypt (about 280 BC) that the Old Testament Scriptures were first translated into Greek.  This translation became known as the Septuagint (or LXX), meaning ‘Seventy.’  It was given this name because of a Jewish legend that says that 70 noted Hebrew scholars completed the translation in 70 days.


  • The Seleucids    (198-63 BC)

Meanwhile, the conflicts continued between Egypt and Syria, and in 198 BC the Seleucids of Syria took control of the area of Canaan.  In 175 BC a Syrian king, Antiochus IV (who named himself ‘Antiochus Epiphanes’ meaning ‘God Revealed’) began a campaign of cruel and bitter persecution against the Jews.  He forbade them to offer sacrifices to God, or to worship in their Temple.  He prohibited the reading of their Scriptures and tried to destroy all the copies of their Torah (Law). He forbade circumcision and, even ordered the Jewish people to eat the meat from pigs (an utter abhorrence to Jews).  Most of the Jews resisted, and Antiochus’ next insult was to place a statue of the Greek god Zeus in their beloved Temple, and offer pigs as sacrifice on the altar.      


You will find a description of this in the Apocrypha (1 Maccabees Chapter 1).  It is also interesting to compare this with Daniel’s prophecy in the Bible (Daniel 11:21-22;   29-32;  36).


  • The Maccabean Revolt    (166-142)   

The cruelty of Antiochus Epiphanes, together with this final sacrilege, outraged the Jews and brought about the patriotic revolt in 166 BC led by Judas Maccabaeus*.    After a long struggle, Judas Maccabaeus and his followers eventually rid the Temple of everyone, and everything that defiled it, and a new ritually clean altar was built.  These patriotic freedom fighters were untrained and were very poorly equipped, but they continued to fight valiantly against their powerful oppressors for the next 24 years until they finally won victory.

* Judas Maccabaeus: 

The Greek word Makkabaios means ‘The Hammer’.  It was a nick-name given to Judas by the Greeks because of his incredible persistence.


You will find an example of what Judas Maccabaeus and his freedom fighters were up against in the Apocrypha (1 Maccabees 6:32-40).


These passionate and zealous battles became known as the Maccabean Wars, and the victory of the Maccabees allowed the Jews to once again rule themselves as an independent state under the Greeks until 63 BC. 


Following the Maccabean Wars, the Jewish high priests continued to be the leaders of the Jewish people, until one such leader, Aristobulus, claimed the title of king which began a succession of ‘priest-kings’ known as the Hasmoneans*. 


Aristobulus, also Judas Maccabaeus’ family name was Hasmon - hence the line of ‘Hasmoneans’.


3.  UNDER THE ROMAN EMPIRE    (63 BC – AD 324)

The Hasmonean dynasty ended when the expanding Roman Empire conquered the crumbling remains of the Seleucid Empire in Syria, and in 63 BC the Roman general Pompey finally took possession of Canaan.  During the capture, the Romans besieged the Temple area in Jerusalem for three months.  They massacred the Jewish priests and defiled the Temple by entering the ‘Holy of Holies’.  This marked the beginning of a time of deep hatred by many Jews against the Romans who governed them, either directly or indirectly, for the next few centuries.


At various times during this period sporadic groups of zealous Jews caused small uprisings, and made attempts to rid their people of the Romans by trying to imitate the heroic actions of Judas Maccabaeus.  In order to gain a faithful following, many leaders of these groups claimed to be the Messiah, sent to free the Jews.  But all these small uprisings were quickly put down by the Romans.


For a short time during this period, the Jews were again ruled by a king.  But . . . the king (Herod the Great) was a non-Jew. He was an Edomite (a traditional bitter enemy of the Jews), who was appointed by the Senate in Rome, and was accountable to Rome for the political stability of the area.  (This was the Herod who was ruling Judea* at the time of the birth of Jesus.)

* Judea:

The Greek and Roman name for Judah, the southern part of the country.


Herod the Great* implemented a programme of constructing many grand buildings in and around Jerusalem, and he had many existing buildings extravagantly refurbished.  As part of this programme he was responsible for the splendid extension and refurbishment of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.  But he was a ruthless ruler who murdered many people, including members of his own family.  (It was this Herod who ordered the death of all the baby boys in Bethlehem after the visit of the wise men from the East who came in search of Jesus.) (See the biblical account of this in Matthew 2:16)

* Herod the Great:   

There were two Herod’s during the time of Jesus – Herod the Great, and then his son, Herod Antipas.  It was Herod Antipas who imprisoned and killed John the Baptist, and who also sent Jesus back to Pilate before Jesus’ crucifixion.


This was the point in time, when God’s real Messiah (a Messiah quite unlike anyone they were expecting) entered human history.  But God’s perfect plan also had perfect timing.  And it was this perfect timing that enabled the initial spread of the Gospel to be carried to the rest of the known world so quickly.  But what made it such perfect timing? 


Click the right-hand link below to see how God used the course of history.





Schematic Diagram

Intertestamental Times

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Back to overview of the New Testament

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(Literature from this time)

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How the course of history was used

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