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As the title indicates, the historical period in the life of Israel extends from the cessation of Old Testament prophecy to the beginning of the Christian era.
- The Period in General.
The Exile left its ineffaceable stamp on Judaism as well as on the Jews. Their return to the land of their fathers was marked by the last rays of the declining sun of prophecy. With Malachi it set. Modern historical criticism has projected some of the canonical books of the Bible far into this post-exilic period. Thus Kent (HJP, 1899), following the lead of the Wellhausen-Kuenen hypothesis, with all its later leaders, has charted the period between 600 BC, the date of the first captivity, to 160 BC, the beginning of the Hasmonean period of Jewish history, in comparative contemporaneous blocks of double decades. Following the path of Koster, the historical position of Ezra and Nehemiah is inverted, and the former is placed in the period 400-380 BC, contemporaneously with Artaxerxes II; Joel is assigned to the same period; portions of Isa (chapters 63 through 66; 24 through 27) are placed about 350 BC; Zec is assigned to the period 260-240, and Dan is shot way down the line into the reign of the Seleucids, between 200 and 160 BC. Now all this is very striking and no doubt very critical, but the ground of this historical readjustment is wholly subjective, and has the weight only of a hypothetical conjecture. Whatever may be our attitude to the critical hypothesis of the late origin of some of the Old Testament literally, it seems improbable that any portion of it could have reached far into the post-exilic period. The interval between the Old and the New Testaments is the dark period in the history of Israel. It stretches itself out over about four centuries, during which there was neither prophet nor inspired writer in Israel. All we know of it we owe to Josephus, to some of the apocryphal books, and to scattered references in Greek and Latin historians. The seat of empire passed over from the East to the West, from Asia to Europe. The Persian Empire collapsed, under the fierce attacks of the Macedonians, and the Greek Empire, in turn, gave way to Roman rule.
- A Glance at Contemporaneous History.
For the better understanding of this period in the history of Israel, it may be well to pause for a moment to glance at the wider field of the history of the world in the centuries under contemplation, for the words “fullness of time” deal with the all-embracing history of mankind, for whose salvation Christ appeared, and whose every movement led to its realization.
- The Egyptian Empire:
In the four centuries preceding Christ, The Egyptian empire, the oldest and in many respects the most perfectly developed civilization of antiquity, was tottering to its ruins. The 29th or Mendesian Dynasty, made place, in 384 BC, for the 30th or Sebennitic Dynasty, which was swallowed up, half a century later, by the Persian Dynasty. The Macedonian or 32nd replaced this in 332 BC, only to give way, a decade later, to the last or 33rd, the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The whole history of Egypt in this period was therefore one of endless and swiftly succeeding changes. In the Ptolemaic Dynasty there was a faint revival of the old glory of the past, but the star of empire had set for Egypt, and the mailed hand of Rome finally smote down a civilization whose beginnings are lost in the dim twilight of history. The Caesarian conquest of 47 BC was followed, 17 years later, by the annexation of Egypt to the new world-power, as a Roman province. Manetho’s history is the one great literary monument of Egyptian history in this period. Her priests had been famous for their wisdom, to which Lycurgus and Solon, the Greek legislators, had been attracted, as well as Pythagoras and Plato, the world’s greatest philosophers.
In Greece also the old glory was passing away. Endless wars sapped the strength of the national life. The strength of Athens and Sparta, of Corinth and Thebes had departed, and when about the beginning of our period, in 337 BC, the congress of Greek states had elected Philip of Macedon to the hegemony of united Greece, the knell of doom sounded for all Greek liberty. First Philip and after him Alexander wiped out the last remnants of this liberty, and Greece became a fighting machine for the conquest of the world in the meteoric career of Alexander the Great. But what a galaxy of illustrious names adorn the pages of Greek history, in this period, so dark for Israel! Think of Aristophanes and Hippocrates, of Xenophon and Democritus, of Plato and Apelies, of Aeschines and Demosthenes, of Aristotle and Praxiteles and Archimedes, all figuring, amid the decay of Greek liberty, in the 4th and 3rd centuries before Christ! Surely if the political glory of Greece had left its mark on the ages, its intellectual brilliancy is their pride.
Rome meanwhile was strengthening herself, by interminable wars, for the great task of world-conquest that lay before her. By the Latin and Samnite and Punic wars she trained her sons in the art of war, extended her territorial power and made her name dreaded everywhere. Italy and North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, and the northern barbarians were conquered in turn. Her intellectual brilliancy was developed only when the lust of conquest was sated after a fashion, but in the century immediately preceding the Christian era we find such names as Lucretius and Hortentius, Cato and Cicero, Sallust and Diodorus Siculus, Virgil and Horace. At the close of the period between the Testaments, Rome had become the mistress of the world and every road led to her capital.
In Asia the Persian empire, heir to the civilization and traditions of the great Assyrian-Babylonian world-power, was fast collapsing and was ultimately utterly wiped out by the younger Greek empire and civilization. In far-away India the old ethnic religion of Brahma a century or more before the beginning of our period passed through the reformatory crisis inaugurated by Gatama Buddha or Sakya Mouni, and thus Buddhism, one of the great ethnic religions, was born. Another reformer of the Tauistic faith was Confucius, the sage of China, a contemporary of Buddha, while Zoroaster in Persia laid the foundations of his dualistic worldview. In every sense and in every direction, the period between the Testaments was therefore one of political and intellectual ferment.
III. Historical Developments.
As regards Jewish history, the period between the Testaments may be divided as follows: (1) the Persian period; (2) the Alexandrian period; (3) the Egyptian period; (4) the Syrian period; (5) the Maccabean period; (6) the Roman period.
- The Persian Period:
The Persian period extends from the cessation of prophecy to 334 BC. It was in the main uneventful in the history of the Jews, a breathing spell between great national crises, and comparatively little is known of it. The land of Palestine was a portion of the Syrian satrapy, while the true government of the Jewish people was semi-theocratic, or rather sacerdotal, under the rule of the high priests, who were responsible to the satrap. As a matter of course, the high-priestly office became the object of all Jewish ambition and it aroused the darkest passions. Thus John, the son of Judas, son of Eliashib, through the lust of power, killed his brother Jesus, who was a favorite of Bagoses, a general of Artaxerxes in command of the district. The guilt of the fratricide was enhanced, because the crime was committed in the temple itself, and before the very altar. A storm of wrath, the only notable one of this period, thereupon swept over Judea. The Persians occupied Jerusalem, the temple was defiled, the city laid waste in part, a heavy fine was imposed on the people and a general persecution followed, which lasted for many years (Ant., XI, 7; Kent, HJP, 231). Then as later on, in the many persecutions which followed, the Samaritans, ever pliable and willing to obey the tyrant of the day, went practically scot-free.
- The Alexandrian Period:
The Alexandrian period was very brief, 334-323 BC. It simply covers the period of the Asiatic rule of Alexander the Great. In Greece, things had been moving swiftly. The Spartan hegemony, which had been unbroken since the fall of Athens, was now destroyed by the Thebans under Epaminondas, in the great battles of Leuctra and Mantinea. But the new power was soon crushed by Philip of Macedon, who was thereupon chosen general leader by the unwilling Greeks. Persia was the object of Philip’s ambition and vengeance, but the dagger of Pausanias (Ant., XI, viii, 1) forestalled the execution of his plans. His son Alexander, a youth of 20 years, succeeded him, and thus the “great he-goat,” of which Daniel had spoken (Da 8:8; 10:20), appeared on the scene. In the twelve years of his reign (335-323 BC) he revolutionized the world. Swift as an eagle he moved. All Greece was laid at his feet. Thence he moved to Asia, where he defeated Darius in the memorable battles of Granicus and Issus. Passing southward, he conquered the Mediterranean coast and Egypt and then moved eastward again, for the complete subjugation of Asia, when he was struck down in the height of his power, at Babylon, in the 33rd year of his age. In the Syrian campaign, he had come in contact with the Jews. Unwilling to leave any stronghold at his back, he reduced Tyre after a siege of several months, and advancing southward demanded the surrender of Jerusalem. But the Jews, taught by bitter experience, desired to remain loyal to Persia. As Alexander approached the city, Jaddua the high priest, with a train of priests in their official dress, went out to meet him, to supplicate mercy. A previous dream of this occurrence is said to have foreshadowed this event, and Alexander spared the city, sacrificed to Jehovah, had the prophecies of Daniel concerning him rehearsed in his hearing, and showed the Jews many favors (Ant., XI, viii, 5) From that day on they became his favorites; he employed them in his army and gave them equal rights with the Greeks, as first citizens of Alexandria, and other cities, which he founded. Thus the strong Hellenistic spirit of the Jews was created, which marked so large a portion of the nation, in the subsequent periods of their history.
- The Egyptian Period:
The Egyptian period (324-264 BC). The death of Alexander temporarily turned everything into chaos. The empire, welded together by his towering genius, fell apart under four of his generals–Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Cassander, and Selenus (Da 8:21-22). Egypt fell to the share of Ptolemy Soter and Judea was made part of it. At first Ptolemy was harsh in his treatment of the Jews, but later on he learned to respect them and became their patron as Alexander had been. Hecataeus of Thrace is at this time said to have studied the Jews, through information received from Hezekiah, an Egyptian Jewish immigrant, and to have written a Jewish history from the time of Abraham till his own day. This book, quoted by Josephus and Origen, is totally lost. Soter was succeeded by Ptolemy Philadelphus, an enlightened ruler, famous through the erection of the lighthouse of Pharos, and especially through the founding of the celebrated Alexandrian library. Like his father he was very friendly to the Jews, and in his reign the celebrated Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Septuagint, was made, according to tradition (Ant.,. XII, ii). As however the power of the Syrian princes, the Seleucids, grew, Palestine increasingly became the battleground between them and the Ptolemies. In the decisive battle between Ptolemy Philopator and Antiochus the Great, at Raphia near Gaza, the latter was crushed and during Philopator’s reign Judea remained an Egyptian province. And yet this battle formed the turning-point of the history of the Jews in their relation to Egypt. For when Ptolemy, drunk with victory, came to Jerusalem, he endeavored to enter the holy of holies of the temple, although he retreated, in confusion, from the holy place. But he wreaked his vengeance on the Jews, for opposing his plan, by a cruel persecution. He was succeeded by his son Ptolemy Epiphanes, a child of 5 years. The long-planned vengeance of Antiochus now took form in an invasion of Egypt. Coele-Syria and Judea were occupied by the Syrians and passed over into the possession of the Seleucids.
- The Syrian Period:
The Syrian period (204-165 BC). Israel now entered into the valley of the shadow of death. This entire period was an almost uninterrupted martyrdom. Antiochus was succeeded by Seleucis Philopator. But harsh as was their attitude to the Jews, neither of these two was notorious for his cruelty to them. Their high priests, as in former periods, were still their nominal rulers. But the aspect of everything changed when Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC) came to the throne. He may fitly be called the Nero of Jewish history. The nationalists among the Jews were at that time wrangling with the Hellenists for the control of affairs. Onias III, a faithful high priest, was expelled from office through the machinations of his brother Jesus or Jason (2 Macc 4:7-10). Onias went to Egypt, where at Heliopolis he built a temple and officiated as high priest. Meanwhile Jason in turn was turned out of the holy office by the bribes of still another brother, Menelaus, worse by far than Jason, a Jew-hater and an avowed defender of Greek life and morals. The wrangle between the brothers gave Antiochus the opportunity he craved to wreak his bitter hatred on the Jews, in the spoliation of Jerusalem, in the wanton and total defilement of the temple, and in a most horrible persecution of the Jews (1 Macc 1:16-28; 2 Macc 5:11-23; Da 11:28; Ant, XII, v, 3.4). Thousands were slain, women and children were sold into captivity, the city wall was torn down, all sacrifices ceased, and in the temple on the altar of burnt off ering a statue was erected to Jupiter Olympius (1 Macc 1:43; 2 Macc 6:1-2). Circumcision was forbidden, on pain of death, and all the people of Israel were to be forcibly paganized. As in the Persian persecution, the Samaritans again played into the hands of the Syrians and implicitly obeyed the will of the Seleucids. But the very rigor of the persecution caused it to fail of its purpose and Israel proved to be made of sterner stuff than Antiochus imagined. A priestly family dwelling at Modin, west of Jerusalem, named Hasmonean, after one of its ancestors, consisting of Mattathias and his five sons, raised the standard of revolt, which proved successful after a severe struggle.
- The Maccabean Period:
The Maccabean period (165-63 BC). The slaying of an idolatrous Jew at the very altar was the signal of revolt. The land of Judea is specially adapted to guerilla tactics, and Judas Maccabeus, who succeeded his father, as leader of the Jewish patriots, Was a past master in this kind of warfare. All efforts of Antiochus to quell the rebellion failed most miserably, in three Syrian campaigns. The king died of a loathsome disease and peace was, at last, concluded with the Jews. Though still nominally under Syrian control, Judas became governor of Palestine. His first act was the purification and rededication of the temple, from which the Jews date their festival of purification. When the Syrians renewed the war, Judas applied for aid to the Romans, whose power began to be felt in Asia, but he died in battle before the promised aid could reach him (Ant., XII, xi, 2). He was buried by his father’s side at Modin and was succeeded by his brother Jonathan. From that time the Maccabean history becomes one of the endless cabals. Jonathan was acknowledged by the Syrians as meridarch of Judea but was assassinated soon afterward. Simon succeeded him, and by the help of the Romans was made hereditary ruler of Palestine. He in turn was followed by John Hyrcanus. The people were torn by bitter partisan controversies and a civil war was waged, a generation later, by two grandsons of John Hyrcanus, Hyrcanus, and Aristobulus. In this internecine struggle, the Roman general Pompey participated by siding with Hyrcanus, while Aristobulus defied Rome and defended Jerusalem. Pompey took the city, after a siege of three months, and entered the holy of holies, thereby forever estranging from Rome every loyal Jewish heart.
- The Roman Period:
The Roman period (63-4 BC). Judea now became a Roman province. Hyrcanus, stripped of the hereditary royal power, retained only the high-priestly office. Rome exacted an annual tribute, and Aristobulus was sent as a captive to the capital. He contrived however to escape and renewed the unequal struggle, in which he was succeeded by his sons Alexander and Antigonus. In the war between Pompey and Caesar, Judea was temporarily forgotten, but after Caesar’s death, under the triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, Antony, the eastern triumvir, favored Herod the Great, whose intrigues secured for him, at last, the crown of Judea and enabled him completely to extinguish the old Maccabean line of Judean princes.
- Internal Developments in This Period.
One thing remains, and that is a review of the developments within the bosom of Judaism itself in the period under consideration. It is self-evident that the core of the Jewish people, which remained loyal to the national traditions and to the national faith, must have been radically affected by the terrible cataclysms which mark their history, during the four centuries before Christ. What, if any, was the literary activity of the Jews in this period? What was their spiritual condition? What was the result of the manifest difference of opinion within the Jewish economy? What preparation does this period afford for the “fullness of time”? These and other questions present themselves, as we study this period of the history of the Jews.
- Literary Activity:
The voice of prophecy was utterly hushed in this period, but the old literary instinct of the nation asserted itself; it was part and parcel of the Jewish traditions and would not be denied. Thus in this period, many writings were produced, which although they lack canonical authority, among Protestants at least, still are extremely helpful for a correct understanding of the life of Israel in the dark ages before Christ.
(a) The Apocrypha.
First of all, among the fruits of this literary activity stand the apocryphal books of the Old Testament. It is enough here to mention them. They are fourteen in number: 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 2 Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Song of the Three Holy Children, History of Susannah, Bel, and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasses, 1 and 2 Maccabees. As 3 and 4 Maccabees fall presumably within the Christian era, they are not here enumerated. All these apocryphal writings are of the utmost importance for a correct understanding of the Jewish problem in the day in which they were written. For fuller information, see APOCRYPHA.
Thus named from the spurious character of the authors’ names they bear. Two of these writings very probably belong to our period, while a host of them evidently belong to a later date. In this class of writings there is a mute confession of the conscious poverty of the day. First of all, we have the Psalter of Solomon, originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek–a collection of songs for worship, touching in their spirit, and evincing the fact that true faith never died in the heart of the true believer. The second is the Book of Enoch, a production of an apocalyptic nature, named after Enoch the patriarch, and widely known about the beginning of the Christian era. This book is quoted in the New Testament (Jude 1:14). It was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic and translated into Greek as there is no trace of a Christian influence in the book, the presumption is that the greater part of it was written at an earlier period. Both Jude and the author of Revelation must have known it, as a comparative study of both books will show. The question of these quotations or allusions is a veritable crux interpretum: how to reconcile the inspiration of these books with these quotations?
(c) The Septuagint.
The tradition of the Septuagint is told by Josephus (Ant., XII, ii, 13). Aristeas and Aristobulus, a Jewish priest in the reign of Ptolemy Philometor (2 Macc 1:10), are also quoted in support of it by Clement of Alexandria and by Eusebius. See SEPTUAGINT. The truth of the matter is most probably that this great translation of the Old Testament Scriptures was begun at the instance of Ptolemy Philadelphus 285-247 BC, under the direction of Demetrius Phalereus, and was completed somewhere about the middle of the 2nd century BC. Internal evidence abounds that the translation was made by different hands and at different times. If the translation was in any way literal, the text of the Septuagint raises various interesting questions in regard to the Hebrew text that was used in the translation, as compared with the one we now possess. The Septuagint was of the utmost missionary value and contributed perhaps more than any other thing to prepare the world for the “fullness of time.”
- Spiritual Conditions:
The return from Babylon marked a turning point in the spiritual history of the Jews. From that time onward, the lust of idolatry, which had marked their whole previous history, utterly disappears. In the place of it came an almost intolerable spirit of exclusiveness, a striving after legal holiness, these two in combination forming the very heart and core of the later Pharisaism. The holy books, but especially the law, became an object of almost idolatrous reverence; the spirit was utterly lost in the form. And as their own tongue, the classic Hebrew gradually gave way to the common Aramaic, the rabbis and their schools strove ever more earnestly to keep the ancient tongue pure, worship and life each demanding a separate language. Thus, the Jews became in a sense bilingual, the Hebrew tongue being used in their synagogues, the Aramaic in their daily life, and later on, in part at least, the Greek tongue of the conqueror, the lingua franca of the period. A spiritual aristocracy very largely replaced the former rule of their princes and nobles. As the core of their religion died, the bark of the tree flourished. Thus, tithes were zealously paid by the believer (compare Mt 23:23), the Sabbath became a positive burden of sanctity, the simple laws of God were replaced by cumbersome human inventions, which in later times were to form the bulk of the Talmud, and which crushed down all spiritual liberty in the days of Christ (Mt 11:28; 23:4,23). The substitution of the names “Elohim” and “Adonai” for the old glorious historic name “Jehovah” is an eloquent commentary on all that has been said before and on the spiritual condition of Israel in this period (Ewald, History of Israel, V, 198), in which the change was inaugurated. The old centripetal force, the old ideal of centralization, gave way to an almost haughty indifference to the land of promise. The Jews became, as they are today, a nation without a country. For, for every Jew that came back to the old national home, a thousand remained in the land of their adoption. And yet scattered far and wide, in all sorts of environments, they remained Jews, and the national consciousness was never extinguished. It was God’s mark on them now as then. And thus they became worldwide missionaries of the knowledge of the true God, of a gospel of hope for a world that was hopeless, a gospel which wholly against their own will directed the eyes of the world to the fullness of time and which prepared the fallow soil of human hearts for the rapid spread of Christianity when it ultimately appeared.
During the Greek period, the more conservative and zealous of the Jews were all the time confronted with a tendency of a very considerable portion of the people, especially the younger and wealthier set, to adopt the manners of life and thought and speech of their masters, the Greeks. Thus the Hellenistic party was born, which was bitterly hated by all true blooded Jews, but which left its mark on their history, till the date of the final dispersion 70 AD. From the day of Mattathias, the Chasids or Haside ans (1 Macc 2:42) were the true Jewish patriots. Thus the party of the Pharisees came into existence (Ant., XIII, x, 5; XVIII, i, 2; BJ, I, v, 2). See PHARISEES. They were opposed by the more secular-minded Sadducees (Ant., XIII, x, 6; XVIII, i, 3; BJ, II, viii, 14), wealthy, of fine social standing, wholly free from the restraints of tradition, utterly oblivious of the future life and closely akin to the Greek Epicureans. See SADDUCEES. These parties bitterly opposed each other till the very end of the national existence of the Jews in Palestine, and incessantly fought for the mastery, through the high-priestly office. Common hatred for Christ, for a while, afforded them a community of interests.
- Preparation for Christianity:
Throughout this entire dark period of Israel’s history, God was working out His own Divine plan with them. Their Scriptures were translated into Greek, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, which became the common language in the East. Thus the world was prepared for the word of God, even as the latter in turn prepared the world for the reception of the gift of God, in the gospel of His Son. The Septuagint thus is a distinct forward movement in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Ge 12:3; 18:18). As the sacrificial part of Jewish worship declined, through their wide separation from the temple, the eyes of Israel were more firmly fixed on their Scriptures, read every Sabbath in their synagogues, and, as we have seen, these Scriptures, through the rendering of the Septuagint, had become the property of the entire world. Thus, the synagogue everywhere became the great missionary institute, imparting to the world Israel’s exalted Messianic hopes. On the other hand, the Jews themselves, embittered by long-continued martyrdoms and suffering, utterly carnalized this Messianic expectation in an increasing ratio as the yoke of the oppressor grew heavier and the hope of deliverance grew fainter. And thus when their Messiah came, Israel recognized Him not, while the heart-hungry heathen, who through the Septuagint had become familiar with the promise, humbly received Him (Joh 1:9-14). The eyes of Israel were blinded for a season, `till the fullness of the Gentiles shall be gathered in’ (Ro 9:32; 11:25).
by Henry E. Dosker