03.04 Inter-Testament Background (c. 400 B.C. – A.D. 30)

03.04 Inter-Testament Background (c. 400 B.C. – A.D. 30)

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Unit 03

Historical Background

Chapter 04

Inter-Testament Background (c. 400 B.C. – A.D. 30)



03.04.00.A. A GREEK-SELEUCID WAR ELEPHANT IN BATTLEArtist unknown. At the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt, the Greeks attacked the Jewish farmers with a professional army of 50,000 soldiers and 32 war elephants. During the battle, the Jewish leader “Eleazar … perceiving that one of the beasts (elephants) … was higher … and supposing that the king was upon him … crept under the elephant … and slew him: whereupon the elephant fell down upon him, and he died” (1 Macc. 6:43, 46). This was the last time elephants were used in military conflicts in Israel.

03.04.01 Introduction

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03.04.01 Introduction    

The Old Testament Period ends with the Persians ruling the Jewish land and the New Testament Period opens with the Romans controlling it. Sandwiched between the two was the Greek Empire as well as a century of Jewish independence. The Inter-Testamental Period was filled with wars, rumors of wars, social and religious conflicts, and tensions. Times of peace and prosperity were rare and brief. In fact, descriptions of what modern evangelicals call today as the “signs of the last days,” also describe this era – an era that culminated with the birth of Jesus. Judaism of this era was a descendant of the Old Testament Hebrew and faith, but was not identical to it. On the other hand, it must be distinguished from Rabbinic Judaism which developed mostly after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

This 400-year period is also called the silent Inter-Testamental Period.  The term “silent” is used because there were no prophetic voices. Unfortunately, this suggests that God was not involved in the lives of His people. However, this is not to say that God did not intervene in the affairs of His people.  In fact, two significant demonstrations of divine intervention were when,

  1. Alexander the Great captured Jerusalem, but did not destroy it.
  1. The Jewish farmers had an incredible military victory over the professional army of the Syrian-Greek dictator Antiochus IV Epiphanes, known as the Maccabean Revolt.

As will be shown, the Hellenistic influence upon the Jewish people was profound. After the Jews finally won their independence from the Greeks, their new leaders were almost as wicked as those they had defeated. Then came the Romans who installed an Idumean, Herod the Great (71 – 4 B.C.; reigned 37 – 4 B.C.), to be their “King of the Jews.”  Herod’s personal life was a continuous disaster and would have made any Hollywood soap opera look like a children’s book. He was a descendant of Esau, had many of his ten wives killed, and only three of his sons survived to become rulers. Into this social, political, and chaotic environment, came Jesus.

Finally, there are almost no extra-biblical writings from the first two centuries of this era; but there is a vast amount of literary works from the second half of this turbulent period.

03.04.02 Persians Capture Jerusalem

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03.04.02 350 B.C. Persians Capture Jerusalem  

Peace and freedom for the Jewish people was finally over.  A new Persian king rose to power, but his days were numbered.  Within two decades, both would come under the rulership of the Greek Alexander the Great.

03.04.03 Epicurus

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03.04.03 341-270 B.C. Epicurus[1]

Epicurus was the father of a philosophy known as Epicureanism.[2]   His ideas were intended to bring stability and security to an uncertain world after the death of Alexander the Great.  The Greek Empire was divided among Alexander’s four generals, causing social and political instability and regional military confrontations.  Epicurus said the primary purpose of man is to discover self-happiness, and the pursuit of pleasure ought to be his primary mission in life.  However, pleasure was also defined as the avoidance of pain. His ideas became the cornerstone of first century Hellenistic philosophy and were confronted by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:16-33. Today this same philosophy is known as humanism.[3]

A century and a half later the Hellenistic influences would be so intense upon the Jews, that a small religious splinter group, known as the Essenes, would have a radical philosophy directly related to EpicureanismThe Essenes would teach that all pleasure is evil; each day was to be filled with work and prayer, the direct opposite position of the Greek philosopher.[4]

[1]. For more information, see “Epicureans” 02.01.05.


[2]. De Lacy, “Epicureanism and the Epicurean School.” 3:2-3.


[3]. Harrington, “Epicureans.” 5:618.

[4]. Guignebert, The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus. 181.

03.04.04 Summary of Developments of Persian Domination that Shaped Jewish Life in the First Century

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03.04.04 334 B.C. Summary of Developments of Persian Domination that Shaped Jewish Life in the First Century.

In comparison to the days of Moses and Joshua, the culture of the Jewish people was slowly changing.  While their basic faith and religious observances did not change, how they practiced their faith did. Furthermore, the Jewish people were not a homogenous group; Jewish people in various areas had somewhat different practices and methodologies. For example, Jews in India and Ethiopia did not have some of the Old Testament books, as these were written after they left the Promised Land and, consequently, some communities were unaware of their existence.  In review, there were a number of significant developments in the early days of Persian rule.

  1. The temple reconstruction and dedication.
  1. The Aramaic language became the language of the Jews as well as the international language of commerce. By the first century A.D., it was commonly used in ordinary public discourse in Judah although Hebrew was spoken in the synagogue. However, while Jews in Alexandria, Egypt and other foreign cities accepted the Greek language, their brothers in Judaea[1] (Galilee, Perea, and Judea)[2] did not.
  1. Most Jews chose not to return to Judaea, but stayed in Babylon and maintained a very strict religious system. According to Josephus, those who remained behind in the original return of 537 B.C. and the second return in 459-458 B.C. were among the wealthiest and most influential leaders and merchants.[3] The Jewish population evidently exploded as in one uprising alone he reported 50,000 dead.[4] The population throughout the Roman Empire could very well have grown to more than a million.[5] As the population grew and people slowly took on distinctions of the culture in which they lived, ancient tribal distinctions became lost. Jews remained in Babylon and Mesopotamia from the days of the captivity until the rise of the new state of Israel some twenty-five centuries later. The final exodus of remaining Jews to the revived state of Israel did not take place until “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah” between the years 1946 and 1952.
  1. It must be noted that of the thousands of captives taken to Babylon, a vast majority eventually decided to remain in that land when they had the opportunity to return. They prospered and enjoyed the Persian government where they could exercise their own faith. And it is because they were so far removed from their Promised Land, that they took their religion very seriously and were more faithful to the Torah than were their counterparts in Jerusalem.  That is a major reason why today scholars universally agree that the Babylonian Talmud is universally considered to be a better authority than the Jerusalem Talmud.
  1. A number of Jewish families decided to leave Judaea/Israel during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C. Modern students study the adventures and teachings of the Apostle Paul as he traveled on his missionary journeys, but they never question how those foreign Jewish people got to those European places. Many settled there during the Inter-Testamental Period.
  1. Finally, a body of seventy judges and one president, known as the “Sanhedrin,” came into full power as the supreme high court and governmental-religious authority in the land of Judah.[6] It grew out of the union of non-priestly heads of families, representatives of the “secular nobility” with the priestly aristocracy. Therefore, “elders,” who were the heads of wealthy families, were not especially religiously motivated, but were an influential group representing their own interests at the time of Jesus.[7]

The cultural and religious way of life known as “Judaism” dates from this post-exilic era. It was the beginning of Judah as a temple-state that was ruled by a council of governors who were political puppets of the Persian monarch. However, by the first century, it was the high priest Caiaphas, manipulated by the Romans who controlled the Sanhedrin.

[1]. There has often been name confusion between the southern region known as Judah and the name of the entirety – Judaea. The name “Judaea” is often used interchangeably with “Israel,” although that term seems to have been used less often in the first century.


[2]. Some ancient writers use the term “Judea” in the broadest sense. Examples are found in Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 5.15.70; Strabo, Geographia, 16.4.21; and Dio Sassius, Roman History 37.15.2. In the days of Jesus, Perea was often referred to as the “region of Judea across the Jordan.”


[3]. Josephus, Antiquities 11.5.2; 15.2.2; 18.9.1ff.

[4]. Josephus, Antiquities 18.9.9.

[5]. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 6.

[6]. Thompson, “Sanhedrin.” 3:1390.


[7]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 223.


03.04.05 Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Period

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03.04.05 334 – 63 B.C.  Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Period

Young Alexander took control of Greece upon his father’s assassination and two years later began a massive military campaign against King Darius of the Persian Empire. He developed a well-trained army with 140 to 160 war elephants that he used in five battles. Consequently, in only ten years, he had control of a vast empire and became the fulfillment of one of Daniel’s prophecies (11:3).  He gave the Jews first class citizenship and encouraged them to move to his new city of Alexandria in Egypt.  Many did and eventually the city became the largest Jewish metropolitan area of the ancient world.  In fact, he encouraged the Jews to move to all of his Greek cities where they enjoyed religious freedom.

Alexander was a student of Aristotle, a scholar of scholars, and had his own ambitious ideas for the world.  His goal was to civilize the nations of the world with Greek. He would accomplish this by the introduction of Greek philosophy and select the best qualities of the captured nations to give to all the peoples of his empire. An important contribution was his effort to make Greek the lingua franca or the official language of business and government throughout the empire. It was accepted everywhere except in the Jewish enclave of Judaea. With this new philosophy known as Hellenism, came the concept that would challenge the Jews – that man and not God, was central to life.[1]


03.04.05.A. A MOSAIC OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT vs. THE INVINCIBLE KING DARIUS III. In one of the most significant battles in the ancient world, the young Alexander (shown on left side) with a lance defeating the seemingly invincible King Darius III in 333 B.C., who is shown terrified in his chariot.

[1]. Grundy, A Survey of the New Testament. 22.

03.04.06 Persia Falls to Alexander The Great

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03.04.06 334 B.C. Persia Falls to Alexander The Great

Beginning in 334 B.C., Alexander the Great (reigned 356-323 B.C.) and his Greek soldiers began to conquer the known world. After taking control of Syria, Tyre, and the Holy Land, he set forth to Persia which he conquered at the Battle of Issus.[1

The mighty Persian Empire and the eastern Mediterranean world was his in only ten years.[2]  His goal was to spread Hellenism,[3] which by definition is the forceful imposition of Greek culture, religion, and ways of life upon another people. His conquest was a “cultural conquest.” [4] However, Persia would not remain silent. Three centuries later during the reign of Herod the Great, the Parthian Empire would conquer the Persians, and together they would briefly invade the Holy Land.

[1]. Mould, Essentials of Bible History. 386.


[2]. Mantey, “New Testament Backgrounds.” 3.

[3]. See “Hellenism” in Appendix 26.


[4]. Skarsaune. In the Shadow of the Temple. 39.


03.04.07 The Samaritan Temple Built

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03.04.07  332 B.C. The Samaritan Temple Built

With the blessings of Alexander, the first Samaritan temple was built on Mount Gerizim overlooking the ancient village of Shechem. There were many points of cultural and theological differences and arguments between the Jews and Samaritans. Tensions were constant. But when it was completed, the separation of the Jews and Samaritans was fixed in stone. Since that time, the temple site continued to be central to Samaritan worship.[1] The date of its construction is a subject of debate. Nonetheless, there are three important points to consider:

  1. Some scholars believe the temple was built at the time of Nehemiah and that the son of the high priest Jehoiada, who married Sanballat’s daughter Nicaso (Neh. 13:28), was influential in the construction. However, the term son could also mean grandson. Therefore, the date of the marriage is uncertain which complicates the dating of the temple construction. Coins and pottery discovered at the site date the temple to the mid-fifth century B.C., possibly prior to Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem.[2]
  1. The events recorded by Josephus are generally quite accurate, but his account of the Samaritan temple construction[3] is considered by most historians to be in error and, therefore, is not quoted here.
  2. Some Jewish traditions state that the temple was constructed when Nehemiah removed Tobiah from the Jerusalem temple.[4]

It should be noted, however, that while the Greeks permitted the Samaritans to build their temple, Samaria also became a center of Greek pagan worship of Isis and Serapis.[5]  This polytheistic culture of the Samaritans mirrored the Greeks, which is why by the time of Jesus, so many Jews hated the Samaritans. Archaeologists discovered the Zeno Papyri that affirms the widespread encroachment of Hellenism into the Jewish communities.[6]


[1]. Blizzard, “Judaism – Part 1″ Yavo Digest. 1:5, 8; http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/dating-of-samaritan-temple-on-mt-gerizim/. August 19, 2013.

[2]. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/uncategorized/merrills-letter/ August 20, 2013.


[3]. Josephus, Antiquities 11.7-8.


[4]. Scott, Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 77.


[5]. The god Isis originated in Egypt, but was accepted by the Greeks. See Zangenberg, “Between Jerusalem and Samaria.” 427-28.


[6]. See “Zeno Papyri” in Appendix 26.

03.04.08 Alexander the Great Conquers Tyre and Judah

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03.04.08 331 B.C. Alexander the Great Conquers Tyre and Judah

Alexander, the world conqueror, brought great destruction to nearly every city he conquered.  He devastated the supposedly indestructible Phoenician island city of Tyre by building a half mile long land-bridge to reach it. Of the captured defenders, he nailed 2,000 of them to crosses.[1] The destruction was absolute and in accordance with the prophet Ezekiel (Ch. 27). He then marched south against the ancient Philistine city of Gaza and onward to Jerusalem. At this point Josephus recorded the events in most interesting detail:

Now Alexander, when he had taken Gaza, made haste to go up to Jerusalem; and Judah the high priest, when he heard that, was in agony and under terror as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience.  He therefore ordained that the people should make supplications, and should join him in offering sacrifices to God, whom he besought to protect the nation and deliver them from the perils that were coming upon them.  Whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage and adorn the city, and open the gates.  The rest appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without dread of any ill consequences, which the providence of God would prevent.  Upon which, when he arose from his sleep, he greatly rejoiced; and declared to all the warning he had received from God according to which dream he acted entirely, and so waited for the coming of the king.

And when he understood that he was not far from the city, he went out in procession with the priests and the multitude of the citizens.  The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations.  It reached to a place called Sapha; which name, translated into Greek signifies a prospect, for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and the temple.  And when the Phoenicians and the Chaldeans that followed him, thought they should have the liberty to plunder the city and torment the high priest to death which the king’s displeasure fairly promised, then, the very reverse happened.  For Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen and the high priests in purple and scarlet clothing with his miter on his head having the golden plate on which the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name and first saluted the priest. 

The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about: whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind.  However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass, that when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews?  To whom he [Alexander] replied, “I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with that high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios, in Macedonia …”

Josephus, Antiquities 11.8.4-5 (325b-331a)


However, once he entered Israel, he went to Akko, that is located on the northern tip of today’s Bay of Haifa. This was the terminus of ancient trade routes, and there Alexander established a very active mint that produced the purest silver, gold and bronze coins in the ancient Middle East.[2] Among these coins was the Tyrian shekel that in later years would be the treasured coin of the Sadducees, even if it had the image of the god Melqarth.

Josephus recorded that after this conversation, Alexander offered sacrifices to God in the temple, at which time the scroll of Daniel was presented to him.  The priests read the prophecies to him that stated that one of the Greeks would destroy the Persians (see Dan. 7:6; 8:3-8, 20-22; 11:3).  This was an absolute delight for the Greek conqueror.

This may be why he was so kind to the Jewish people. He excused them from paying taxes during the Sabbatical year when there was no planting of crops, and even gave offerings in the temple.[3] When the Egyptian city of Alexandria was built (in honor of Alexander), Jews were recognized as citizens equal with the Greeks.  Jews who enlisted in the army were permitted to practice their faith with complete freedom. He left Jerusalem in peace, the only city he did so, and destroyed the Persians.  The divine protection and intervention of God in the tiny Jewish state was as dramatic as any in the Hebrew Bible.

Many of the architectural marvels of the Mediterranean that are credited to the Romans, were actually initiated by Alexander the Great and the Greeks who continued his ideas. In every country he conquered, he built a city that would serve as a model for other cities to be remodeled or constructed. That included better city planning, the building of a gymnasium for games and contexts modeled on the Greek order, wider streets, open-air theaters for public plays, of fine stately colonnaded buildings that served for civic and religious affairs.  Along with these cultural changes, there was the Greek style of dress, language, philosophy, and manner of life. As will be seen later, this Hellenistic movement had a profound effect upon the Jewish people.[4]

[1]. Curtin Rufus 4.4.7, cited by Robinson. “Crucifixion in the Roman World: The Use of Nails at the Time of Christ” 54. n105.


[2]. Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins. 131-3.


[3]. Golub, In the Days. 64-65.


[4]. Mould, Essentials of Bible History. 388-91.


03.04.09 Death of Alexander the Great

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03.04.09 323 B.C. Death of Alexander the Great

Alexander died suddenly at the age of 33 on June 13, 323 B.C. in Babylon, leaving no heirs.  His massive empire extended from the Mediterranean Sea to Punjab in India.  The author of the first book of Maccabees preserved the account of his death.[1]  A portion of it reads as follows: 

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he became exalted and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes and they became tributary to him. After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying, so he brought his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander reigned twelve years, he died.       

 1 Maccabees 1:1-7[2]


The four generals, Antigonus I, Cyclops, Ptolemy, and Seleucus I Nicator, who inherited power, established dynasties that for a while lived in peace. Eventually they fought each other leaving the Jewish land a battle ground for twenty years.[3]  Each general hoped to establish a kingdom similar to that of Alexander.  Eventually Syria, Galilee, Samaria, and Judah came under a powerful family known as the Seleucid Dynasty.  The prophecy of Daniel 11 is a description of these conflicts.[4]  From this time, the land of the Jews was always considered a part of Syria, even when Rome was the dominant world power in the first century. The author of Maccabees made these comments concerning the generals:

            Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years and they caused many evils on the earth. From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.

 1 Maccabees 1:8-10


It should be noted that while the Hellenistic Period is recognized to be in the years between 334 and 63 B.C., the Jews were not in constant domination during this era.  As is described in detail below, from 165 – 63 B.C. the Jews were an independent people but the Hellenistic culture continued its influence upon them.


[1] See 02.02.01.V for more information on this subject and the significance of 1 and 2 Maccabees is to understanding this period of Inter-Testamental history. Without these two books, scholarship would be at a loss of the details.

[2]. First and 2nd Maccabees belong to a classification of extra-biblical books known as the Apocrypha. These two literary works are deemed highly reliable historically. See 02.02.03 “Apocrypha” for more information.

[3]. Golub, In the Days. 65-66.

[4]. New International Version Study Bible footnotes for Dan. 11.

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