Interlude: The Intertestamental/Apocryphal Period
While I would probably be inclined to put the intertestamental/apocryphal period within the rest of Act 3: Israel, Bartholomew and Goheen give it a separate interlude section, presumably because of a primarily Protestant audience who wouldn’t identify this period as part of their Scripture. In any case, it is a very helpful piece of history to be familiar with as it sets the backdrop for the Gospels.
We left off with some Jews, but not nearly all, having returned to Israel to rebuild during the reign of the Persian Empire. Many others stayed in diaspora but continued to worship as Jews through synagogues and Scripture. Those who did return succeeded in rebuilding the Temple and a wall around the city, but they also experienced a lot of problems: violence from neighboring nations, the Temple as a shadow of what it had been under Solomon, and the simple fact they were still under the rule of a foreign Empire, albeit a relatively benevolent one.
The Persian Empire, including Israel and those Jews in diaspora, is then conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. This sets in motion the cultural process of Hellenization, that is, making parts of the Empire more culturally Greek. Although Alexander himself died at a young age, his successors would continue to fight over Israel. This Hellenization period would have far-reaching effects on Judaism, both in Israel and in diaspora. One of the most important developments was the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint, sometimes abbreviated as LXX, and was used by the the early Christians as well as Jews.
In 167 BCE, the Jewish people in Israel began to revolt, led by the Maccabees. This established Jewish people as heads of their nation for the first time since the Exile, but it would be short-lived. The Hasmonean dynasty were often corrupt and heavily influenced by Greek ideas. In 63 BCE, the Romans marched into Jerusalem, taking control with ease and maintaining it for almost 500 years despite multiple uprising attempts.
The frustration and tensions among Jewish people should be easy to sympathize with. They’ve been promised their own land and to be a blessing among the nations, and yet with the short exception of David and Solomon, they’ve largely been corrupt and often under the thumb of other Empires: Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek (Alexander, Ptolemy, and Seleucid), and Roman.
Yet they continue to have hope that God’s Kingdom promises would come true. This hope would manifest itself in different ways within different sects or political parties in Israel. The Pharisees emphasized personal piety in following the Law, particularly those that set them apart from other culture. Consequently, they did not look highly on the Romans but didn’t instigate violent revolt either. The Sadducees were much happier to cooperate with Roman rule as they validated their power in the Temple, where they could emphasize what they considered the most important element of Jewish life: the Temple rituals. The Essenes were similar to the Pharisees in that they emphasized keeping the Law, but wanted to completely separate to create their own holy society. Lastly, the Zealots were violent revolutionaries who believed it was their take back their Holy Land in order to establish God’s Kingdom instead. And of course, like with political parties today, the majority of the common people were not members of any of the above.
Interestingly and a little frustratingly, Bartholomew and Goheen detail how we can learn from the mistakes of the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes, which tends to leave the impression that we should therefore emulate the Pharisees. From the Sadducees we see the problem of compromise with political authorities. From the Essenes we see the problem of fleeing the world instead of trying to transform it. From the Zealots we see the problem of committing evil in the name of stopping evil. And I need to add: from the Pharisees we see, particularly throughout the Gospels, the problem of trying to force change on others and build walls through Law rather than spreading God’s love by relating with people and changing their hearts.
This is the environment that Jesus enters. Everybody is trying to hold onto hope of God’s Kingdom in the face of a new oppression. Almost all believe that Kingdom will come in the form of kicking the Romans out and establishing independent political rule, led by a political/religious Messiah. And a variety of political parties argue over how to best do this with the average person being caught in the middle. In other words, God’s Kingdom plan is still on track; in fact, I wonder if the stage has been set for God’s people to be more open than ever to a different understanding of what Kingdom will look like.