For about 400 years between the Old Testament and New Testaments God did not speak to the Jewish people through prophets, other than the prophecies given to Daniel, Zachariah, Malachi and others who still needed fulfilment.
The Babylonians came to power in 626B.C., and in 605B.C. at the battle of Carchimesh defeated Egypt. Some Israelites, including Daniel, were taken in exile to Babylon the major exile started in 589 after Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed.
The 400 years of silence began with the warning that closed the Old Testament:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5–6, NIV)
Many Jews had returned from exile in 538 B.C. and were worshiping God in Jerusalem, but many more had stayed in Persia, and still others had settled in Egypt and elsewhere. This scattering of the Jewish population is called the “Diaspora.”
The people had not abandoned faith and hope. They knew the covenant promises of God to Abraham. In them was developing an expectation for the Messiah who would accomplish God’s saving purposes for His people and bring them the new Exodus they longed for.
The Persian Empire had given way to the whirlwind conquests of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. who brought Greek culture, or “Hellenism,” to the places he conquered, including much of the Middle East. After this, the affairs of the Jewish people were largely determined by confrontation with Greek culture.
2. The Greek Empire
1.1 The Ptolemies
Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., and Palestine came under the rule of one of his Greek generals, Ptolemy, who also ruled Egypt. Apparently, the Jews retained considerable freedom to practice their religion as well as a measure of self-rule under their own high priest. The strictly religious office became an office which now included political affairs. At the same time the community felt increasing pressure to adopt Greek ways of life.
The Jewish colony in Alexandria, Egypt, seems to have flourished under the Ptolemies. The colony felt a direct need to teach Gentiles the history of the Hebrews. The translation of the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) from Hebrew into Greek was completed late in the third century B.C. This work, along with the later translations of the other Old Testament books, is called the Septuagint. The New Testament authors wrote in Greek, and they often used the Septuagint when quoting the Old Testament.
1.2 The Seleucids
Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, became ruler of an empire that eventually extended from the modern Turkey to Babylon and beyond in the east. In 198 B.C. the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III was able to occupy Palestine.
In 175B.C. Antiochus IV took charge and Judea entered one of the most difficult periods ever faced by any Hebrew community. In the meantime, the Roman Empire was building up, and in an attempt to strengthen and unify his empire, Antiochus stepped up the process of hellenising (making the Jews to adopts Greek culture) Palestine.
Some Jews welcomed this development and embraced the new culture, in effect rejecting their religious identity. Such apostasy strengthened the resolve of other Jews to resist the policies of Antiochus. He did not understand the character of Judaism, and unleashed the terrors of religious persecution. Copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were burned, observance of the Sabbath was prohibited, circumcision was outlawed—and violators were put to death. In 167 b.c., Antiochus desecrated the Jewish temple by setting up a statue of Zeus and sacrificing pigs to it.
“His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.” (Daniel 11:31, NIV) See also 12:11, 9:27)
1.3 Maccabean Revolt
Shortly after this desecration, the Maccabean Revolt broke out. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus small bands of Jewish guerrilla fighters faced and repeatedly defeated large Seleucid armies. The Jews occupied Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple in 164 b.c. This event is still celebrated today in the Jewish feast of Hannukah.
1.4 The Hasmoneans
Having tasted victory, the Jews were not happy with simply regaining the right to practice their religion. They fought to regain political freedom as well. After the death of Judas, his brothers Jonathan and Simon continued the war until 142, when Judea became independent and the Hasmonean dynasty was established. The name is derived from Hashmon, an ancestor of the Maccabees.
But the struggle with Hellenisation was not over. Even before independence, Jonathan Maccabeus had taken over the office of high priest, despite his not belonging to the proper family (the line of Zadok) and progressively adopted Greek ways of life.
(According to many scholars, it was this event that led a group of strict Jews to turn away from their nation and establish the community of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. This community gave us the the Dead Sea Scrolls, which discovered in 1947.)
Two major groups of Jewish rulers were born in this time.
- The Sadducees, an aristocratic group that sought to preserve political stability. They acknowledged only the Pentateuch as fully authoritative and on those grounds resisted the doctrine of the resurrection.
- The Pharisees protested the impact of Geek culture in Jewish life and sought to preserve the purity regulations of Judaism. By means of their interpretations of the law, however, they altered many of the biblical requirements and helped foster the illusion that people could please God by their own efforts.
3. The Romans
In 63 B.C., the Roman general Pompey occupied Jerusalem. Continuing unrest led the Romans to make Herod the king of Judea. He was from the line of Esau (Edomite), but also a Jewish proselyte. He ruled from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C.
Herod was obedient to Rome and ruled efficiently. He rebuilt of the temple in Jerusalem, an ambitious venture that began in 20 B.C. and continued until long after his death.
As the New Testament story begins, the Jews are subjected to a foreign power, ruled by an able but despotic figure, and still waiting for a salvation yet unfulfilled.
This period ended with the coming of John the Baptist, the Messiah’s forerunner.
1. Read Malachi 4:1-6, Luke 3:1-9 and 15-18, and Mark 1:1-8. After 400 years of silence God speaks again through a prophet, John the Baptist. How does the message of new prophet connect back to God’s promise in Malachi? Look for recurring themes. See also Isaiah 41:18–19; 43:19–21; 44:3–4.
2. What does Malachi 4:2 say about “the day” – which Mark saw was fulfilled in Jesus Christ?
3. Look at Mark 1:1 again. Who is Mark’s gospel about?
4. According to Mark 1:10-11 what confirmation did all at the scene of John’s ministry get about Jesus? Do you think one can connect the “good news” of verse 14 with these verses? See also Luke 2:10-14.
5. Read Mark 1:14. What was the main theme of the message of Jesus Christ?