The Intertestemental period (that period of time sandwiched between the writing of the the Old Testament and the New Testament) is often treated like the lame-duck period of human history. In the minds of most, it may appear to be that length of time in which the voice of God was silent while He quietly worked to order the events that would produce the first Christmas; It was a lame-duck period in which the Hebrew Bible maintained the religious life of God’s people until a New Testament could be written and follow the incumbent text. If this is not true for Catholics, then it is certainly true for most Protestants whom have either deemed the apocrypha as unimportant or have never heard of it. Yet, the Intertestemental period was really no lame-duck at all.
To say that very little happened in the Interbiblical period would be drastically mistaken. Defeating the Persians, Alexander the Great conquered the Near East rapidly through a series of campaigns starting around 334 BC. This unprecedented military intervention into the geography of the Near East ushered in an era of cultural synthesis, known as “Hellenism,” which would define the centuries to come. Greek soon became the lingua franca making way for what is perhaps the most consequential collection of writings to have ever been penned: the Greek New Testament.
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great would die, rather fittingly, in the fertile crescent, at Babylon, the birth place of human civilization. Internal conflict would overcome his unified empire, creating new hellenistic dynasties, two of which, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria-Mesopotamia, would shape the course of Israel for 200 years. The Ptolemies would control Israel until 198 BC when, in the battle of Paneas, the Seleucid King Antiochus III captured the Land. Following an attempt by the Seleucids to convert the Temple to a pagan shrine, a priest named Mattathias and his five sons began a guerrilla style revolt that would lead to the purification of the Temple (today remembered by the Jewish holiday Hanukkah) and the preservation of Jewish religion and culture.
Mattathias’ sons in the form of the Hasmonean Dynasty would govern the internal affairs of Israel for over a hundred years. In that time, they would remain clients of the Syrian-Greek government of the Seleucids, yet with significant autonomy. The irony of the Hasmoneans is that the government championed by Judah Maccabeus to repel the encroachment of hellinization would soon be epitomized by assimilation with the Greek culture. The Hasmoneans fell when the Roman General Pompey, taking advantage of conflict between Hasmonean heirs Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus, besieged Jerusalem. Entering into the political scene of Israel was Herod, the grandson of Antipater, a Roman military governor and convert to Judaism. Herod was chosen by Rome to act as a client king over the region. Commonly referred to as Herod the Great, his control of Judea would see the expansion of Jewish territory, magnificent architectural and engineering achievements, and the further incursion of Roman religion and culture.
Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. Rome chose to divide his responsibility among his three sons. Herod’s son, Archelus, was unable to manage like his father did and was soon replaced by a roman prefect; The fifth prefect to govern Judea was Pontius Pilate, the man most famous for washing his hands of the crucifixion of Christ. Another of Herod’s sons was Antipas, the same Antipas that heard Jesus speak in Luke 23. Therefore, he is also the same man who the Bible says was responsible for the death of John the Baptist. These leaders of the Holy Land were ruthless, thoroughly pagan men that were a far cry from the once devout family of Mattathias. The intertestemental period in the land of Abraham is defined by the ceaseless encroachment of paganism. The Jews would withstand even the dominating legacy of Alexander the Great through pervasive hellinization, though ironically enough, may have used Greek cultural elements such as grammatical exercises to help to preserve own culture. Yet, in the end, by the time that great star arose over Bethlehem, the once bright star of Jewish culture was fading and everyone was looking for someone who could reclaim what was being lost, what had been lost and reestablish a true Jewish throne in Jerusalem.
It was during the Intertestemental period that the full development of the legal religion of the scribes and pharisees took place. In numerous texts from this period, we find the Law and ritual purity elevated in ways it had not been prior. In one Jewish text of the period, the men of old and even the angels kept the Law. Still, others contend that the Law is the grand summary of all the wisdom available to men. Moreover, the Rabbis began to teach that observance of the Law would lead to eternal life. This way of thinking about the Law was not universal, yet it reflects a view that was widespread and typified by the Pharisees of the New Testament.
It is uncertain when the Pharisees as a distinct group became prominent. The Pharisees were a deeply devout group that sought to foster in Israel deep religious devotion to God through the Law; Devotion so deep as to break down some of the walls separating the profane from the sacred. The Pharisees democratized their religion in opposition to the Sadducees, the Jewish sect that emphasized the Temple cult. The Pharisees made the synagogue a center for religious life and community, established religious schools, and encouraged every Jew to practice the same level of sanctity that the priests practiced. In the process of democratizing the religion of the Jews, the Pharisees were laying the foundation for the reformation of Judaism following the destruction of the Temple and ultimately the very preservation of Jewish identity.
Development of Wisdom and the Word
In the Intertestemental period, wisdom and the word were personified and also elevated as preeminent implements of God’s power. In certain texts, wisdom is portrayed as female entity that mirrors the working of God. In others, wisdom and the word are synonymous and are the implements through which God created the world. In example, in the Pirke Aboth, Israel is beloved because God gave to them the word by which everything was created. If this causes you to recollect John 1, then you are not alone. Many students have suggested that the “word” in the first chapter of John is somehow genetically related to the word motif found in the literature of the interbiblical period, and others see a strong resemblance between Jude’s thought and 1 Enoch, an intertestamental text.
Kingdom of God
During this time, Jews began to interpret passages in Isaiah and elsewhere in terms of the coming of a future Kingdom of Heaven. For some this kingdom would be an earthly eternal authority that would reign over all people. For others, this kingdom would reign for a short time until another eternal age could arise. Another option at the time was to take the Kingdom of Heaven as a reality that would somehow be experience following a resurrection of the body. Into this kingdom continuum, beliefs about the coming of a messianic figure(s) were born. Believed by most to be a single individual, he would be the one to bring about the coming of the kingdom, a kingdom that was often characterized by jewish military might and global dominance.
A Lame-Duck Period?
The three themes we have raised from the intertestemental period are a few of many that are drastically important for proper understanding of the New Testament. How can one understand the Pharisees’ insistence on strict observance of the law in the New Testament without knowing something of the intertestemental texts supporting that insistence? What do we miss by neglecting to study texts that could be genetically linked to those of the New Testament? What can we learn about Jesus when we better understand the messianic theology prevalent in His day?
These questions and many more are illuminated by a close study of this often neglected period in history. The interbiblical period was not simply a lame-duck era where God’s people held down the fort till the Messiah could finally appear. Instead, it is a time where God continued to prepare the way for His fullness to dwell in a newborn baby full of grace and truth—a truth cannot truly be understood without consultation of the time between the testaments.