Sometimes called the ‘silent years’ in fact this was a time of important change, says Dr Peter J Williams
Peter J Williams
The book of Nehemiah records the last narrative events of the Old Testament during the reign of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes I (who died in about 424 BC). A remnant of the Jewish people had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, and then silence, before the curtain rises on the birth of Jesus.
Two chapters into the New Testament we find a Roman appointed king in Judaea. Three chapters in and we encounter Pharisees and Sadducees. Chapter four finds Jesus preaching in synagogues. Where did all these people come from, and how did these cultural changes come about?
Who ruled Israel?
At the end of the Old Testament narrative, the Persians, or Achaemenids, were in power, and Judah (then called Yehud, what was left of the nation of Israel) was one of their many provinces. Their supremacy came to an end when Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) defeated King Darius III at the Battle of Issus (333 BC). After Alexander’s early death in 323 BC, hisempire was divided and Judaea came under his Macedonian successors: the Ptolemies in Egypt from about 301 BC and then their rivals the Seleucids in Syria from 200 BC.
One of these Seleucid rulers, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), persecuted Jews, forbidding circumcision and sabbath- keeping, and defiling the Jerusalem temple. This provoked rebellion among the Jews, and from 167 BC onwards the family of the Maccabees led a successful revolt. In 165 BC the Jews rededicated the temple that Antiochus had defiled, thus instituting the Festival of Dedication mentioned in John 10:22.Through guerrilla warfare and various battles the Maccabees set up the Hasmonean dynasty, whose rulers usually embodied both political rule and the high priesthood in one person. As Seleucid power waned, the Jews gained their own autonomous kingdom. This situation is important for understanding the New Testament because it meant that in Jesus’s day Jewish self-governance was still a relatively recent cultural memory as well as an inspiration for the hope of self-rule in the future.
In 63 BC Rome took over the East and from around 37 to 4 BC Herod the Great ruled as a client king to the Romans. He is known as “the Great” because of the extent of his territory and his massive building programmes, including renovation and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple, and a range of fortresses and palaces.
Where did the Jews live?
In the eighth century BC, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria, leaving only the tribe of Judah (and Benjamin) in the south. In the sixth century BC Babylonians made further deportations, and Jews could be found in significant numbers in Mesopotamia (an area roughly covering modern-day Iraq and Kuwait). Thanks to a collection of documents from a settlement in this region called Al-Yahudu (“City of the Jews”) we know that Jewish people lived here in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Later Aramaic documents fromthe southern Egyptian town of Elephantine similarly tell of the lives of Jews there in the fifth century BC.
After Alexander the Great’s conquests, Jews spread to countries around the Mediterranean and the Jews in these places are known as the Diaspora or “dispersion”. In the New Testament we encounter various Diaspora Jews, including Apollos from Alexandria (Acts 18:24), Barnabas from Cyprus (Acts 4:36), Simon from Cyrene (Matthew 27:32), Aquila from Pontus (Acts
18:2) and Saul from Tarsus (Acts 9:11). As Jews were dispersed and could not get to the Jerusalem temple, alternative meetings,called synagogues (from the Greek word for assembly/gathering), grew up. Beginning in Egypt in the third century BC, the synagogue became an important place of prayer, and by the time of Jesus synagogues had also been established in Judaea and Galilee.
The Old Testament tells the story of “Israel”, but by the New Testament the nation is more commonly referred to as the “Jews”. However, already in the book of Esther, we can see the word yehudi (“Jew”, “Judahite”) being used for the whole of God’s people, not just those from the tribe of Judah. At the time of the Babylonian exile, tribes were important, and upon the return from exile we can see the importance of clans (Ezra 2). At some point between the Testaments clans seem to have become less important and from the second century BC we see the rise of religious groupings (often called “sects”) based more around shared values than family ties.
The largest of these were the Pharisees, who emphasised observing not only the law as it was written in the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) but the oral tradition of additional details of how this should be done. Another significant force were the Sadducees, whose name links them to the high priest Zadok (1 Chron 6:4–8). This smaller, elite group wielded political power as the priestly class in the time of Jesus.
A third group, not mentioned in the New Testament, are the Essenes. Both Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish philosopher) and Josephus (a Jewish historian) number these at around 4,000. The Essenes are associated with the ruins at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves nearby. In contrast with mainstream Judaism, which focussed on the temple, the community at Qumran seem to have separated themselves from the world, and within the Dead Sea Scrolls we find sectarian texts specifically supporting withdrawal from society.
Besides these Jewish sects, there were changes among the other groups that lived around Israel. Christians will be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, whose shock factor hinges on the fierce hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews. And yet, while 2 Kings 17 tells of the origin of mixed religious practice in Samaria, in the Old Testament we do not yet see the level of antagonism foundin the New Testament between Jews and Samaritans. Numerous factors led to hostility, including the destruction of the Samaritans’ temple by Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus in the late second century BC.
Meanwhile the Old Testament people of Edom moved westward into southern Judaea. Their name with a Greek ending became Idumaeans. John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonean (Maccabean) leader, forced Idumaeans to convert to Judaism, and thus Herod the Great could claim to be Jewish even though he had an Idumaean father. People from Idumaea came to listen to Jesus (Mark 3:8) and played a significant part fighting alongside the Jews against the Romans during the war that began in AD 66.
What languages did they speak?
Before the Babylonian exile the people living in Judah used Hebrew, but under the Babylonians and then the Persians, Aramaic was a major language of international diplomacy and commerce. It came to be used by Jews all the way from the south of Egypt across to Mesopotamia. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek language and culture spread. Jews in Palestine experienced Greek- speaking government under both the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and the progress of Greek culture (known as Hellenisation) was pervasive.
By the time of the New Testament there is abundant evidence for the use of three languages — Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew — in Roman Judaea, and there are lively debates among scholars as to the relative distribution of the use of these languages. Jesus had disciples with names in all three languages (Aramaic: Thomas and Thaddaeus; Greek: Andrew and Philip; Hebrew: John and Matthew).
How did religion change?
Over time new religious rites grew up. Ritual washings came to be observed not only by priests but by Jews more widely, and from the first century BC onwards the mikveh — a large ritual bath with steps — became a common feature in Judaea and Galilee. We can see evidence of this in Luke 11:39, when at a dinner Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of his host, who follows the letter of the rules on ritual washing but not the spirit of the law on greed. Though John the Baptist gave a new call to repentance and a one-off baptism, such religious washing was certainly not entirely new in his day.
The Dead Sea Scrolls show the popularity of mezuzoth (Scripture portions fixed to doorposts), and of phylacteries, or boxes containing Scripture extracts to be worn on the forehead or left arm, a practice to which Jesus refers in Matthew 23:5.
Newspapers in letterboxes next to a modern mezuzah, Jerusalem https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeevveez/47963573317/ Author: Zeev Barkan, zeevveez (CC BY 2.0)
What about Jewish literature?
The centuries between the Testaments saw a range of literary activity reflected especially in the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.The Old Testament books themselves also became the inspiration for more writing. Genesis inspired the Genesis Apocryphon, a retelling of the Genesis stories in Aramaic, with many expansions. It also inspired the book of Jubilees, a retelling of Genesis and part of Exodus in Hebrew, with a focus on the chronology of the Jubilee years.
Genesis and Exodus were also a focus for the extensive allegorical writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo. Likewise, Habakkuk inspired a commentary discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls which became known as the Habakkuk Pesher. This seeks to identify the interpretation of the Old Testament prophecy as being about events that took place during the age of the commentator.
Under the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy Philadelphus, who reigned from about 282 BC, scholars translated the entire Pentateuch from Hebrew into Greek. This was by far the largest translation project in world history up to that point. Over the next three centuries the other books of the Old Testament were translated and revised. By the time of Jesus probably the entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek, though not in a consistent method.
The time between the Testaments was far from quiet. The crucible of persecution, dispersion and foreign rule led to profound cultural transformation. When we connect up the two Testaments we see better the culture Jesus stepped into and how the threads of the Old Testament had been woven into the world of the New.
Dr Peter J Williams is Principal of Tyndale House
Fragment of a limestone relief showing a sphinx, from the Achaemenid period, likely under the rule of Artaxerxes III The British Museum, museum number 129381 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
1st Century marble bust of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (42 BC–AD 37) Roman Emperor AD 14–37 Copenhagen, New Carlsberg Glyptotek. Image: Sergey Sosnovskiy ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=2232 (CC BY-SA 4.0)