OST CHRISTIANS have little knowledge of Jewish history during the four centuries preceding the birth of Jesus. Since a thorough account of Jewish history between the Testaments would fill many volumes, the purpose of this article is to provide a brief survey of that history.
Jews of the Dispersion
The Captivity of the Jews ended in 537 B.C., when the Persian ruler Cyrus decreed that Jews and other exiles in his kingdom could return to their homelands. Within months of this decree, 49,697 Jews, accompanied by 200 Levitical singers, returned to Jerusalem. Then, in 457 B.C., Ezra the scribe, accompanied by 1,754 Jewish men, went from Persia to Jerusalem. Finally, in 444 B.C., Nehemiah, the newly appointed governor of Judea, with an army escort, went to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city.
While the number of Jews who returned to Judea after the Captivity was significant, it was not impressive. Most Jews were so settled and successful in the lands to which they had been dispersed following the demise of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C., they chose to stay in their adopted homelands. These Jews became known as the Jews of the Dispersion. In the time of Jesus, it is estimated that at least one million Jews were living in Egypt.
Four Eras of Jewish History
Following the Captivity, Jewish history in Judea can be broken down into four eras:
The Persian Era (430 to 332 B.C.)— when Judea was a Persian province. The Persians were, for the most part, tolerant rulers who allowed the Jews and other ethnic groups to have their own leaders at the local level, and to practice their own religion and customs.
The Greek Era (331 to 167 B.C.)— when Alexander the Great and his successors, and the Greeks, became the dominant political force in the Middle East. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., the Greek Empire was divided among four of his generals. In 320 B.C., Judea came under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. For 122 years, the Jews in Judea enjoyed peace and security, ruled by a succession of their own high priests, subject to the kings of Egypt, but with freedom to practice their own religion and customs. Then, tragically for the Jews, their peaceful existence came to an abrupt end in 198 B.C., when the Greek Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus III, seized control of Judea. Later, Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.) hated the Jews, and attempted to exterminate them and abolish their religion. This led to a Jewish revolt against the Syrians, beginning in 167 B.C.
The Era of Jewish Independence (167 to 63 B.C.). In 167 B.C., an elderly Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons launched a military revolt against the Syrians. Mattathias died a year later, but his sons continued leading the Maccabean Rebellion, one of the most heroic endeavors in Jewish history, until, in 142 B.C., Demetrius II, king of Syria, granted complete independence to the Jews in Judea. For the next eight decades, the independent nation of Judea was governed by Jewish high priests who combined both religious and civil authority.
The Roman Era. When the Romans succeeded the Greeks as the dominant power in the Mediterranean world, Judea lost its independence to Roman rule in 63 B.C. While the Romans granted substantial freedom to the Jews to practice their religion and customs, many of the Jews longed for complete independence. Jew- ish animosity toward the Romans grew after Herod, an Edomite, won from the Romans, by war and intrigue, the king- ship of the Jews in 37 B.C. Herod, known as “The Great,” ruled the Jews until his death in March, 4 B.C. Jesus was born a year or more before the death of Herod (see Matt. 2:19-20) and lived His entire earthly life under the rule of the Romans, Herod, and his sons.
Religious Developments Between the Testaments
After their Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the Jews in captivity in Babylon built synagogues for themselves—houses of worship devoted mainly to teaching the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament. Under Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, the Jews of the Dispersion built synagogues in all the nations where they lived. Even though the Temple of the Jews at Jerusalem had been rebuilt by Herod, in the time of Jesus and the apostles there were numerous synagogues in the city.
During the Greek era of Jewish history, two prominent religious groups arose among the Jews in Judea. The Pharisees, religious leaders who allied themselves with the Maccabean Rebellion, resisted Greek influence and sought strict adherence to the Law of Moses. The Sadducees, made up mainly of individuals belonging to the priestly ruling class, were accepting of Greek culture. The sectarian successors of the earlier Pharisees and Sadducees were still prominent in Jewish religious and political life in the time of Jesus.
Jewish Writings Between the Testaments
Significant writings of the Jews between the Testaments are called The Apocrypha and The Pseudepigrapha. These writings, while not belonging to the Old Testament canon, provide important information about the history and beliefs of the Jews during the four centuries between the Testaments. In a monumental work of translation and commentary compiled by the British scholar R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha [15 books] and Pseudepigrapha [17 books] of the Old Testament have been published in two large volumes by Oxford University Press.
Of these 32 books, First Enoch, a pseudepigraph, is the most important for Christians. It was written not by Enoch, but by the Chasids and their successors the Pharisees, in the second century before Christ. Jude, in the New Testament (vv. 14-15), quotes a passage from First Enoch 1:9, and Charles identifies 61 references to First Enoch in the New Testament.
For Christians, the most important of all Jewish literary works between the Testaments was the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Apocrypha into Greek. This version of the Old Testament was produced by Jews living in Egypt between 280 and 180 B.C. Known as The Septuagint, because it was supposedly translated by either 70 or 72 Jewish scholars, this was the Bible of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church. Most quotations of the Old Testament found in the New Testament are from The Septuagint. It is still the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church.
God Continued Working in Jewish History
Only a lack of knowledge leads to the conclusion that nothing important happened in Jewish history between the end of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus. That history tells the stories of devout Jews who suffered, sacrificed, and died for their faith. It tells of prayers answered with miracles from God, and of amazing victories granted to Jews who trusted in God. During those four centuries, God continued working in Jewish history, preparing them and the world for the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world
Daniel L. Black is editor of New Life adult curriculum for Pathway Press.