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The term, “silent years,” frequently employed to describe the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament writings, is a misnomer. Although no inspired prophet arose in Israel during these centuries, and the Old Testament was regarded as complete, events took place which gave to later Judaism its distinctive ideology and providentially prepared the way for the coming of Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel.
For about a century after Nehemiah’s time, the Persian Empire exercised control over Judea. The period was relatively uneventful, for the Jews were permitted to observe their religious institutions without molestation. Judea was ruled by high priests, who were responsible to the Persian government, a fact which both insured the Jews a large measure of autonomy and degraded the priesthood into a political office. Jealousy, intrigue, and even murder played their part in the contests for the distinction of being high priest. Johanan, son of Joiada (Neh 12:22), is reported to have slain his brother Joshua in the Temple itself.
Johanan was succeeded as high priest by his son Jaddua, whose brother Manasseh, according to Josephus, married the daughter of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and established a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim which was to occupy in the affection of the Samaritans a place comparable to the love of the Jews for the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Jn 4:20). Although this sanctuary was destroyed during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.), Mount Gerizim continued to be regarded as the Samaritan holy mount, as it is today. The details in Josephus’ account are not historical, but the establishment of a rival temple about this time is known to have taken place.
Persia and Egypt were engaged in constant struggles during this period, and Judea, situated between the two nations, could not escape involvement. During the reign of Artaxerxes III (Ochus) many Jews were implicated in a revolt against Persia. They were deported to Babylonia and the shores of the Caspian.
During the fifth century B.C. a Jewish colony was located on Elephantine Island, at the first cataract of the Nile River, near modern Aswan. Contrary to the Mosaic law, these colonists built a temple for themselves and worshiped other divine beings (e.g., Eshem-bethel; Herem-bethel; Anath-bethel) along with the God of Israel. These deities may actually have been identified with the one God of the orthodox Judaism of the time, but their very existence shows tendencies toward syncretism. Since the Elephantine colonists had dealings with the Samaritans as well as with the Judeans, they do not stand in the mainstream of Israel’s religious life.
Alexander the Great
Following the defeat of Persian armies in Asia Minor (333 B.C.), Alexander marched into Syria and Palestine. After stubborn resistance, Tyre was taken, and Alexander moved southward toward Egypt. Legend states that as Alexander neared Jerusalem, he was met by Jaddua, the Jewish high priest, who told him of Daniel’s prophecies that the Greek army would be victorious (Dan 8). The story is not taken seriously by historians, but it is true that Alexander dealt kindly with the Jews. He permitted them to observe their laws; he granted them exemption from tribute during Sabbatical years; and when he built Alexandria in Egypt (331 B.C.), he encouraged the Jews to settle there and gave them privileges comparable to those of his Greek subjects.
Judea Under the Ptolemies
After the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), Judea was first subject for a time to Antigonus, one of Alexander’s generals who controlled part of Asia Minor. It subsequently fell to another general, Ptolemy I (by now master of Egypt), surnamed Soter, or Deliverer, who seized Jerusalem on a Sabbath day in 320 B.C. Ptolemy dealt kindly with the Jews. Many of them settled in Alexandria, which continued as an important center of Jewish thinking for many centuries. Under Ptolemy II (Philadelphus), the Jews of Alexandria translated their Law, i.e., the Pentateuch, into Greek. This translation was subsequently known as the Septuagint, from the legend that its seventy (more correctly 72-six from each of the twelve tribes) translators were supernaturally inspired to produce an infallible translation.
The Jews in Palestine enjoyed a period of prosperity in the days of Simon the Just, the ruling high priest, whose character is described in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (50:1-21). He is reputed to have repaired the walls and fortified the city of Jerusalem and to have built a spacious reservoir to provide water for the city.
Judea Under the Seleucids
After about a century, during which time the Jews were subjected to the Ptolemies, Antiochus III (the Great) of Syria wrested Syria and Palestine from Egyptian control (198 B.C.). The Syrian rulers are known as Seleucids because of the fact that their kingdom, built on the ruins of Alexander’s empire, was founded by Seleucus I (Nicator). Most of the earlier rulers bore the names of Seleucus or Antiochus. The seat of government was in Antioch on the Orontes River. During the early years of Syrian rule, the Seleucids allowed the high priest to continue to govern the Jews in accord with their law. Strife broke out, however, between the Hellenistic party and the orthodox Jews. Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) allied himself with the Hellenizing group and appointed to the priesthood a man who had changed his name from Joshua to Jason and who encouraged the worship of the Tyrian Hercules. Jason was displaced in two years, however, by another Hellenist, a rebel named Menahem (Gr., Menelaus). When the partisans of Jason contended with those of Menelaus, Antiochus marched on Jerusalem, plundered the Temple, and killed many of the Jews (170 B.C.). Civil and religious liberties were suspended, the daily sacrifices prohibited, and an altar to Jupiter was erected on the old altar of burnt offering. Copies of the Scriptures were burned, and the Jews were forced to eat swine’s flesh contrary to their law. A sow was offered on the altar of burnt offering in contempt for the Jewish religious conscience.
The oppressed Jews were not long in finding a champion. When the emissaries of Antiochus arrived at the small town of Modin, about fifteen miles west of Jerusalem, they expected the aged priest, Mattathias, to set a good example to his people by offering a pagan sacrifice. He not only refused, but he also killed an apostate Jew at the heathen altar, along with the Syrian officer who was presiding at the ceremony. Mattathias fled to the Judean highlands and, with his sons, waged guerrilla warfare on the Syrians. Although the aged priest did not live to see his people freed from the Syrian yoke, he commissioned his sons to complete the task. Judas surnamed “the Maccabee,” took the leadership at the death of his father. By 164 B.C. Judas had gained possession of Jerusalem. He purified the Temple and reinstituted the daily offerings. Soon after the victories of Judas, Antiochus died in Persia. However, struggles continued between the Maccabees and the Seleucid rulers for about twenty years. During that time Judas died in battle, and his brother Jonathan assumed command. Ultimately Jonathan was ordained as high priest. When he was murdered (143 B.C.), the last of the sons of Mattathias, Simon, became ruler. Simon was able to gain full independence from Syria, but he, too, was murdered (135 B.C.), by a son-in-law, Ptolemy. The surviving son of Simon, John Hyrcanus, succeeded his father and thereby established a dynasty. Hyrcanus determined to build Judea into a powerful independent state. He conquered Samaria and destroyed the schismatic temple on Mount Gerizim. He also broadened the borders of Judea in the directions of Syria, Phoenicia, Arabia, and Idumae. During the reign of Hyrcanus, when the pro-Hellenistic Sadducean party gained control, the Jews tended to neglect the orthodox principles of the older Maccabees.
Aristobolus I, the son of Hyrcanus, was the first of the Maccabean rulers to take the title, “King of the Jews.” After a short reign he was succeeded by the tyrannical Alexander Jannaeus, who, in turn, left the kingdom to his mother, Alexandra. Alexandra’s reign was a relatively quiet one. The Pharisees assumed control, but they persecuted the Sadducees as they themselves had been persecuted in the days of Jannaeus. Alexandra’s older son, Hyrcanus II, served as high priest. At Alexandra’s death a younger son, Aristobolus (II), dispossessed his brother. Thereupon, the governor of Idumaea, Antipater, espoused the cause of Hyrcanus, and civil war threatened. Consequently, Pompey marched into Judea with his Roman legions to settle matters and further the aims of Rome. Aristobolus sought to defend Jerusalem against Pompey, but the Romans took the city and penetrated to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Pompey did not, however, touch the Temple treasures.
Mark Anthony supported the cause of Hyrcanus. After the murder of Julius Caesar, and of Antipater (father of Herod), who for twenty years had been virtual ruler of Judea, Antigonus, the second son of Aristobolus, sought the throne. For a time he actually ruled in Jerusalem, but Herod, the son of Antipater, returned from Rome and became king of the Jews with Roman support. His marriage to Mariamne, granddaughter of Hyrcanus, provided a link with the Maccabean rulers.
Herod was both ambitious and cruel. He enlarged and adorned Jerusalem, and began the task of rebuilding the Temple on a grand scale. He rebuilt Samaria and named it Sebaste. Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, at the site of the former Strato’s Tower, he built as a major seaport and government center.
Herod was one of the cruelest rulers of all time. He murdered the venerable Hyrcanus (31 B.C.) and put to death his own wife Mariamne and their two sons. From his deathbed Herod ordered the execution of Antipater, a son by another wife. In Scripture Herod is known as the king who ordered the death of the innocents of Bethlehem because he feared as a rival One who was born to be King of the Jews.
During the period between the Testaments, much of the literature of the apocrypha was written. The apocryphal books are as follows:
I (or III) Esdras. Apocryphal I Esdras (i.e., Ezra) retells the Biblical history from Isaiah to Ezra. It includes the account of a debate in the court of Darius I (Hystaspis) concerning the most powerful force in the world. Zerubbabel is commissioned because of the wisdom he manifests in the discussion.
II (or IV) Esdras. Wholly different from I Esdras, II Esdras contains a series of apocalyptic visions assigned to the time of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) by many critics.
Tobit. The story of Tobit describes the life of a pious Jew who remained true to his faith while living in heathen Nineveh. The archangel Raphael guided Tobias, the son of Tobit, who was able to exorcise demons from the girl he subsequently married, and also cure his father’s blindness.
Judith. Judith was a beautiful Jewess who, like Jael of old, slew her country’s enemy. Judith used her beauty to entice the Chaldean general Holofernes, who had besieged the Jewish city of Bethulia. The story probably dates from Maccabean times.
The Rest of Esther. A supplement to the canonical book of Esther, the apocryphal additions, professedly original documents, include prayers of Esther and Mordecai.
The Wisdom of Solomon. Patterned after the early part of Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon contains eloquent praises of wisdom. It stresses the immortality of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. The origin and folly of idolatry are also presented, along with a resume of God’s care for Israel throughout history.
Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach). A fine example of Jewish Wisdom literature. Ecclesiasticus extols the virtues of wisdom and the fear of God. The eulogy of famous men (44-50) is particularly fine. It was written about 180 B.C.
Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah. Purportedly written from Babylon in the fifth year after the destruction of Jerusalem, Baruch contains a message from the Jews of the Exile to their compatriots in Judea, including a prayer for them to use in confessing sin and asking mercy of God. The Epistle of Jeremiah warns the exiles against idolatry.
The Song of the Three Holy Children. The song is placed in the mouths of the Hebrew youths, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and inserted after Dan 3:23 in the Septuagint.
The History of Susanna. An apocryphal supplement to Daniel, the History of Susanna describes the hypocrisy of two elders. They tried to seduce Susanna, were repulsed by her, and then falsely accused her. She was saved by young Daniel, who pointed out discrepancies in their testimony.
Bel and The Dragon. The story of Bel tells how Daniel demonstrated the fraud of the priests of Bel, who secretly consumed the food left for their idol, thereby deceiving the people. The latter story tells how Daniel killed a dragon that was worshiped as a god in Babylon. Daniel was cast into a den of lions but was miraculously preserved. Habakkuk, brought to the den by an angel, ministered to Daniel.
I Maccabees. The struggles with Hellenism and the period of the Maccabean revolt are described in I Maccabees, a book which gives the history of Judea from the accession of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 B.C.) to the death of Simon (135 B.C.). It is thought to have been written about 105 B.C.
II Maccabees. The second book of Maccabees contains a history of the period between 175 and 160 B.C. parallel to, but independent of, I Maccabees. It is the abridgment of a longer history by one Jason of Cyrene (2:23).
When, following Alexander’s conquest, Hellenism challenged the thinking of the Near East, some Jews clung more tenaciously than ever to the faith of their fathers, while others were willing to adapt their thinking to the newer ideas emanating from Greece. Ultimately the clash between Hellenism and Judaism gave rise to a number of Jewish sects.
Pharisees. The Pharisees were the spiritual descendants of the pious Jews who had fought the Hellenizers in the days of the earlier Maccabees. The name Pharisee, “separatist,” was probably given them by their enemies to indicate that they were nonconformists. It may, however, have been used in scorn because their strictness separated them from their fellow Jews as well as from the heathen. Loyalty to truth sometimes produces pride and even hypocrisy, and it is this perversion of the earlier Pharisaic ideal that is denounced by Jesus. Paul reckoned himself a member of this orthodox group within the Judaism of his day (Phil 3:5).
Sadducees. The Sadducean party, probably named for Zadok, the high priest appointed by Solomon (I Kgs 2:35), denied the authority of tradition and looked with suspicion on all revelation later than the Mosaic law. They denied the doctrine of resurrection, and they did not believe in the existence of angels or spirits (Acts 23:8). They were largely people of wealth and position, and they co-operated gladly with the Hellenism of the day. In New Testament times they controlled the priesthood and the temple ritual. The synagogue, on the other hand, was the stronghold of the Pharisees.
Essenes. Essenism was an ascetic reaction from the externalism of the Pharisees and the worldliness of the Sadducees. The Essenes withdrew from society and lived lives of asceticism and celibacy. They gave attention to the reading and study of Scripture, prayer, and ceremonial cleansings. They held their possessions in common and were known for their industry and piety. Both war and slavery were contrary to their principles.
The monastery at Qumran, near the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, is thought by most scholars to have been an Essene center in the Judean wilderness. The scrolls indicate that members of the community had left the corrupt influences of the Judean towns to prepare, in the wilderness, “the way of the Lord.” They had faith in the coming Messiah and thought of themselves as the true Israel to whom he would come.
Scribes. The Scribes were not, strictly speaking, a sect but rather members of a profession. They were, in the first instance, copyists of the Law. They came to be regarded as the authorities on the Scriptures, hence exercised a teaching function. Their thoughts were usually akin to those of the Pharisees, with whom they are frequently associated in the New Testament.
Herodians. Herodians believed that the best interests of Judaism lay in cooperation with the Romans. Their name was taken from Herod the Great, who sought to Romanize the Palestine of his day. The policy of the Herodians was political rather than religious, and they were more of a party than a sect.
Roman political oppression, symbolized by Herod, and the religious reactions expressed in the sectarian reactions within pre-Christian Judaism, provided the historical framework into which Jesus came. Frustrations and conflicts prepared Israel for the advent of God’s Messiah, who appeared “when the fulness of the time was come” (Gal 4:4).