Summarizing 400 years of political and religious history in a few paragraphs is not easy. Remember how much information you had to study in high school for American History? And we’re a relatively young nation, just 243 years old! (Ummm….I remember the bicentennial celebrations. I feel old!) I’m sharing information from the commentary in my Bible today, but if you have time, google “What happened during the intertestamental period?” Understanding who the Jews were at this point in history will help us read the NT with greater insight.
Alexander the Great is the next world ruler the Jews must contend with, as he sweeps through Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He establishes Alexandria, where a large number of Jews become citizens. The Greek Hellenistic culture has a great influence. The Persians gave them astrology, mysticism and the occult, and pictured God as aloof and distant. The Greeks will give them intellect, logic and philosophy. As the rabbis develop oral traditions and stringent laws above and outside the Law given to Moses in this environment, they will “have come a long way from Mount Sinai.”
When Alexander dies, the Ptolemies and Seleucids divide his kingdom; Palestine and the Jews are caught in the middle. Battles are fought. The cruel (and wicked) Seleucid ruler, Epiphanes, desecrates the Temple, sacrificing a pig on a pagan altar. (He is seen as a type/forerunner of the Antichrist to come in the last days.) The Maccabeans revolt and achieve some self-rule as the Romans begin their ascent to power, capturing Jerusalem by 63 BC. Caesar rules. Antony and Cleopatra rule. Herod is installed as king of Judea. Caesar’s nephew Octavian kills Antony and Cleopatra; he is given the title Augustus Caesar. He establishes Roman Peace over the civilized world of that day. Herod restores the Temple in an effort to appease the Jews and gain their goodwill.
Rome has united the world; Greece has united its language and thought. The Jewish religion has split into several sects: Pharisees (masters of oral traditions and legalism), Sadducees (do not believe in a resurrection, accept only the Torah but interpret it with Greek Hellenistic logic), Essenes (radically pious), Zealots (politically active), and Samaritans (hybrid religion). They are all looking for the Messiah, a king who will free them from tyranny and oppression, but they all have different ideas of who He will be, how He will act, and what He will teach.
The Jews have become a confused people. Their faith is diluted and distorted. The different cultures of the world have had a profound impact on their understanding of God.
I can’t help but think it’s not much different today as we wait for Jesus’ second coming! Just substitute “Christ-follower” or “believer” for “Jews” and re-read that last paragraph again! Here’s the takeaway. As we begin to read through the New Testament, will we recognize Jesus any better than the Jews will? Will we believe His words? Will we accept His teaching? Will we know our Messiah when He comes again?