The History of Israel Between the Old and New Testament
The Old Testament in our Bible closes with the Book of Malachi which was written sometime between 450 and 400 BC. The New Testament picks up with the events in Judea surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ around 6-4 BC. Now if you are like me you are wondering how Christ could be born in 4 BC since BC stands for before Christ. This occurred because the inventor of our calendar, a monk named Dionysius in 525AD, missed the real birth of Christ by 4 to 6 years. Remember all those Y2K fears we had back in 2000? They didn’t realize that the real Y2K occurred over four years before. Nevertheless, what I want to look into is the historical events in the area of Israel for the approximate 450 years between the Testaments. Besides the internet, I have been reading numerous books about the Maccabees, Herod the Great, the Seleucid Empire, and the great historian Josephus. My main purpose is to understand all the events that paved the way, and led up to the first coming of Christ. Why did God choose that exact time for Jesus to come into the world? How was Jerusalem and the Temple rebuilt in such a way that it was a major metropolis and tourist attraction by the time Christ came? Who was this Herod the Great, and how did an Idumean become King of Israel? How did Rome (and Pontius Pilate) ever gain control of Israel without ever having to really fight a major war?
Remember that after Solomon died about 930 BC, Israel was split into two kingdoms, north and south. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and the southern kingdom was called Judah. In 722 BC, Israel was defeated and destroyed by Assyria, and in 587/586 Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed by Babylon. All the survivors were drug off into captivity in Babylon. Jerusalem was burned to the ground, the Temple of Solomon was completely destroyed, and the wall of the city was destroyed. How would it be possible for the Messiah to come to Jerusalem and the Temple if there were no Jerusalem? About 539 BC Persia defeated the Chaldeans of Babylon and took the city of Babylon. Some of the Jewish leaders in Babylon, like Daniel, had distinguished themselves in service to the king to such an extent that King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree that the Jews could go back and rebuild Jerusalem. According to 2 Chronicles 36:22, “Cyrus King of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, sent a proclamation in writing”. It goes on to say that God “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to issue the proclamation freeing the Jews to go back. The text in Ezra actually says Cyrus even called for supplies and money to be given for the rebuilding. Just under 50,000 Jews went back in the first wave (Ezra 2:64-65). The Temple rebuilding began about 535 BC, but was stopped several times until it was completed in 515 BC. You have heard of the “good Samaritan”? Well, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem’s rubble, their neighbors to the north were a mixed race inhabiting what was then called Samaria. Because they were partly of Jewish heritage, they initially tried to be friendly to the Jews, but the returning Jews did not trust them and viewed their syncretistic religion as heresy. Violence broke out, and the Samaritans were responsible for getting the rebuilding of the Temple delayed until 521 and completed about 515 BC. The city and its walls were not really rebuilt until about 445 BC. The Second Temple fell way short of the original grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, but it marked the beginning of a new era for Israel in which the Jews would be in subjection to a foreign power (Persia then Greece), yet they would have religious autonomy in their homeland.
The Second Temple was built in the exact same spot on Mt. Moriah as the first, but missing from the Second Temple in 515 was the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, and the Shekinah glory of God that filled the Holy of Holies when Solomon dedicated the Temple in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3. Also, the wall that had separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was replaced with tapestry. When I read that, I immediately remembered Matt.27:51, “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” It seems to me that everything that happened was in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Alexander the Great
The Middle East continued to be part of the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great swept through around 332 BC. Alexander was a Greek from Macedonia whose ambition was to defeat Persia. Alexander was able to unite all of Macedonia and the city states of Greece in a campaign against Persia beginning with Asia Minor (Turkey), then Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Alexander never lost a battle, and succeeded in taking the entire Mediterranean world thus ending the Persian Empire. He died at age 32, and his empire ended up divided between four of his generals. Ptolemy ruled over Egypt, and Seleucus ruled Syria. The area between them, notably Israel, was contested by the Greek rivals for 170 years. There were at least six wars fought, and Jerusalem changed hands seven times alone between 319 and 302 BC. Alexander’s legacy to the entire Mediterranean world was what came to be known as Hellenization. He brought the Greek language, culture, religion, and philosophies to all the conquered territories. Alexander built new cities like Alexandria in Egypt in which he imported thousands of Greeks to live there and build a new civilization. Within a hundred years Greek was the common language of everyone in the entire Mediterranean world. Now you know why all the Apostles who wrote the New Testament wrote it originally in Greek. The timing for evangelism in the first century was excellent because everyone spoke the same language for the first time since Genesis 11. Once again it looks like God knew what He was doing.
General Seleucus began the Seleucid dynasty of kings in Syria, and by 200 BC the Seleucids ruled over Israel. Under the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, he was determined to put an end to the Jewish religion in Jerusalem. He ordered an end to Jewish religious law, and he took over the Temple. He erected idols and had pagan priests sacrifice pigs on the altar to the Greek gods. A Jewish priest named Mattathias led a revolt against Antiochus around 167 BC. This revolt came at a crucial time in the changing fortunes of the Greek Seleucids, Ptolemies, and the emerging Roman Empire.
According to the apocryphal literature of I and II Maccabees, the priestly family of Mattathias “came to be known as” the Maccabees. The name appears to be more of a title given to them for their success in battle and meant “The Hammer”. The family name came from an ancestor named Hasmoneus. Thus for the next 100 years the Hasmonean family ruled over Judah. They led the Jews to take the Temple back in 164 BC. They cleansed the Temple, put a new altar in place, and lit the large lamps in the temple. There was a celebration for 8 days that is still celebrated today as the festival of Hanukkah which remembers turning on the lights again in the Temple. Nevertheless, the war with the Seleucids continued until about 150 BC. They did not achieve complete political independence until about 142.
The next two generations of Hasmonean leaders expanded the country’s size dramatically. The Jews started out with just a small land-locked area around Jerusalem, but under John Hyrcanus (135-104) and his son Alexander Jannaeus (103-76), they expanded east beyond the Jordan River, took Idumaea to the south, Samaria to the north, and the whole area on the west and north of the Sea of Galilee. By 96 BC, Jannaeus had taken most of the area to the Mediterranean Sea. Amazingly, the Jewish Hasmonean rulers brought the country of Israel back almost to its old borders under Solomon.
Sadducees and Pharisees
The Hasmonean rulers were unique in the history of Israel because they were not really kings—according to the Law only descendants of David (tribe of Judah) could be kings. They were of the priestly tribe of Levi, so they were more like High Priests who ruled over Israel. Therefore it should be no surprise that the main problems during this era involved religious divisions. During the time of the Hasmonean rulers, the religious/political parties developed that are named in the New Testament as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The historian Josephus gave us valuable information about these two groups during that time. Each had a different vision of what Judaism should be, and had no tolerance for their rivals. Beginning in 104 BC, the Hasmonean High Priests had considered themselves as also kings. The Pharisees considered this inappropriate while the Sadducees were for it. The Pharisees considered themselves as the strict interpreters of the Law, and so took it upon themselves to add a large volume of oral traditions to the Law. The Sadducees held only to the Law, and considered themselves as the nobility. All the High Priests came from the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the elite religious laymen who had the support of the masses.
They had contrary theological views as well. The Pharisees believed in the bodily resurrection, but the Sadducees did not. The Pharisees believed in the sovereignty of God and determinism, but the Sadducees said God exercised no influence on human will or actions. Therefore they held a proud self congratulation of their status and riches, and taught that they deserved it because they were better. This pride and divisiveness between the parties would lead to a breakup of the Hasmonean dynasty, and set the stage for the father of Herod the Great to become a major player in the area, and Rome to gain control over Israel in 63 BC.
Next week—the emergence of Herod the Great and how he set the stage for the coming of Jesus Christ.