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This explains that period between the bibles "Old Testament" and "New Testament". It covers the history of the period and major Jewish social changes.

The intertestamental period was a period dominated by Greek and Roman rule of Palestine with only a brief period when the Jews were masters of their own destiny. This period generated the conditions that resulted in Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots having significant socio-political impact immediately during and after the time of Christ.


The intertestamental period is generally considered to begin when the Persians took over Babylon in B.C 537. In B.C. 536 they allowed Jews to go back to build their temple. Prior to this time and even for a short while afterwards, the majority of Israel was in exile in Babylon. While it is not conclusively proved[1] it is postulated that the time of exile is considered to have influenced the formation of the synagogue. This is where the Jews formed groups of 10 or more men to worship God[2] in the absence of the temple. This practice evolved as a substitute for the formal temple worship that was the focus before the exile. It allowed the Jews to maintain their relationship with God until the temple could be re-established. The development of the synagogue supported the Jewish community and leaders in subsequent years giving strength to those in leadership of this establishment. This group later became known as the Pharisees, but it was a while before this occurred.


The Persians by permitting the Jews to re-build their temple, were also conducive to re-establishing the temple worship practices and this supported another Jewish leadership group who dominated this temple worship forum of society and who later became known under the term of Sadducees.


The temple as a building was a central part of the Jewish culture and so it can be said that the influence and perspectives around the validity of practices around this spiritual hub were predominant reasons for differentiating and motivating the four key Jewish socio-political groupings that formed just prior to the first centaury. Conflict with temple beliefs were key causes of conflict with both Greek and Roman cultures as they collided in attitudes, morals and deeds with this central icon of Jewish beliefs.


The support of the temple beliefs were imbedded in the Old Testament scriptures and oral traditions, providing the conduit of values and practices that differentiated the inhabitants of Palestine from others who occupied the territory from time to time or that resided in the neighboring nations.


The Temple that Jesus was familiar with was still being completed during his lifetime and the rebuilding of the temple during the Roman control of Palestine was a result of the work started by Herod the Great in about B.C 20. It was therefore just prior to Jesus’ time that the splendor of this edifice became evident again. This rebuilding was necessary because Pompei in B.C.63 had destroyed and desecrated the temple (that Cyrus of Persia had authorized to be rebuilt in B.C 536) as part of the suppressing of the Hasmonean revolt. This revolt occurred as a reaction to the Greek, Selucide rule and abuse of temple practices prior to this time. The Greek rule of Palestine started in B.C. 337 when Alexander the Great took control of Palestine.


Alexander the Great had ousted the Persians as part of his campaign that started when he assumed the Throne of Macedonia upon the death of his father Phillip in B.C. 336. To a large extent his policies caused many of the conflicts that plagued the Jews. His proclamation that everyone in a region he conquered would have to know Greek was a prime cause of conflicts. His intent was to establish the Greek culture and he wisely understood that by injecting the Greek language as a part of the environmental pre-requisites of the cultures which he captured, he would be able to gain a cultural foothold and establish control of these territories.


When Alexander died in 323BC, the region he had ruled was divided since he had no heirs and there was no assigned successor. From a perspective of the areas bordering Palestinian, Ptolemy took over Egypt, Seleucus took over Babylon, and Antigonus took on Macedonia and Asia minor. Conflict between these groups started soon afterwards but by then the Greek language was a common denominator in the known world communications. Jesus would have been exposed to what is now referred to as the Septuagint-LXX(or old testament Apocrypha). This is a Greek OT created during the time that Ptolomy I ruled Palestine in about B.C. 284. It was created by what is believed to be 72 translators working on the Hebrew scriptures.


This Septuagint-LXX was to become

“the people’s Bible to that large Jewish world through which Christianity was afterwards to address itself to mankind[3]


Jesus would have been familiar with this text that was made possible by Ptolomy I taking control of Palestine in B.C. 320. The need to occupy Palestine came from it being a central area of trade between east, west, north and south. Unfortunately it was also located between the Greek empires that were continually in conflict with each other and this resulted in the Palestinian Jews being continually at risk of another invasion by one or other foreign power wanting to wrest power from the current ruler of their region. This was unsettling and generated a significant dislike of the influence of the occupiers that was fueled by the conflict between the cultures.


The Greek culture was the first significant threat to the Jewish culture after the Persians allowed them to return to their land. It appeared as if the conflict could be averted when the Greeks initially allowed traditional religious freedom, but soon the Jews started to differentiate into those that supported the “new world” approach of Hellenisation, and those that perceived it as a threat to their traditions and culture. This really became distressing to the pious Jews when the Seleucide Ruler, Antiochus IV wanted himself worshiped as “Epiphanies” after he had taken the throne in B.C. 175. 


Around this time the group of Jews that resented “Epiphanes” and the other Hellenising impacts on their lives became known as the “Hasidim”. This was fueled by the way the Seleucide rulers appointed Jason as high priest(who Josephus indicates in his Antiquities had rejected his original Hebrew name of Jesus[4]), and built a gymnasium alongside the temple. The Hasidim found the nakedness of competitors in the Gymnasium just a short way away from their center of worship detestable. They were probably even more insulted when some of the Jews decided to try and mask their own Jewish heritage evident by their circumcision by having a chirurgical operation. This was accompanied by more and more acceptance of the Greek values which ran counter to the Jewish values system in many areas and angered the Hasidim. The Jewish high priest role was also given additional responsibility by the rulers as explained by du Toit;

“In addition to his other offices, he was now responsible for the Jewish tax intended for the insatiable Syrian state coffers.[5]


The conflict between the Hasidim and Hellenisers was worsening and when in exchange for additional promised income, the Seleucides removed Jason from the high priest office and instituted in B.C. 171 a person, Menelaus, who was not even of the priestly family. This disregard of their forefather’s traditions further inflamed the Hasidim.


External conflict erupted again as Antiochus IV tried to capture Egypt and upon failing, probably short of funds and wanting to give his soldiers something of a success, he turned his vengeance on Jerusalem, killing thousands, desecrating the temple, stealing temple treasure, and then building the Ancra, a walled fortress, not far from the temple. As a ruler Antiochus IV tried to suppress the Jews and to this effect he prohibited the Torah, circumcision, Jewish festivals, and sacrifice to Jehovah. The Hellenisers were now considered traitors in the eyes of the Hasidim and the anger in Palestine was reaching volcanic proportions. The Hasidim’s hate of the occupiers were now only a little more than the hate of their own Hellenising counterparts.


The tremors undergirding the Hasidim anger erupted into fully fledged violence during an incident in a little town of Modiem, when a Jewish priest Mattathias, killed both the Jewish defector who was about to perform a repulsive sacrifice at the orders of a Seleucide official, and the official himself. Knowing that vengeance would be sought, he fled with his sons and their families into the mountainous terrain of the Judean hills to hide and mount a resistance. This group soon joined by other Hasidim became known as the Maccabaeans. The Hasidim joined and strengthened this group and soon the Seleucides had more of a problem than they expected.


Judas Maccabee took over this group from his father when he died in B.C.166 and successfully led a revolt. They pushed out the occupiers and re-dedicating the temple in BC 164. During this time he asked the Romans to assist in removing this Syrian oppression, but got not real assistance. Judas pushed on with the resistance and in B.C.163 the conflict with the occupiers seemed to be over when he got agreement on religious freedom for the Jews. This was consolidated by his brothers Jonathon and then Simon who took over and finally drove the occupiers from the Ancra fortress.


This victory became a significant part of the Jewish national mindset and by the time of Jesus had influenced the expectation of how the Messiah would return and set the nation free. Simon was given further influence being named;

“high priest, military commander (stratēgos) and ethnarch (= governor of the nation), with the implication that these titles were hereditary and would devolve upon his descendants. By his own people he was thus sanctioned as their religious, military and political leader, and the Hasmonaean dynasty was established[6]


This apparent victory over the occupiers was however short lived as the “peace” now unmasked what was entrenched as civil conflict between the Hasidim and Hellenisers. Simon was succeeded by his son John Hyracanus who extended the Hasmonaean empire and added to the list of conflicts within Palestine by destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim.


During the rule of John Hyracanus the Hasidim became known as the “Pharisees” and the Jews that controlled the temple worship via the High priest position became known as “Sadducees”. A group of the Hasidim who were even more disillusioned separated even from the Hasidim and extracted themselves from the temple worship and society as a whole forming a cult type following in the more desolate area near the north east side of Dead Sea. This was the start of the “Qumran” society in about B.C. 151 and is considered to be what is often referred to as the “Essene” group of Jews.


This group wanted to withdraw from mainstream society and live a life of dedication to religious purity. They sacrificed to God themselves rather than attend temple sacrifices and while they did not attend the temple, they did send gifts there. They had particular beliefs around the eating of a common meal where they considered the table to be an altar. They believed all other groups had rejected God’s true covenant and wanted to be sure they would not be influenced by them. They believed in the coming of three messiahs. These were a prophet, a king and a priest. Ritual cleaning was a high focus with the community. Josephus describes their doctrine as;

“The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for;  and when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices, because they have more pure lustrations of their own[7]


The Pharisees who were part of the “ordinary” people also believe in this ritual washing and purity but did not exclude themselves from the community at large. They focused on the Levitical purity that characterized their daily lives and with which the reader of the New Testament becomes immediately faced when Jesus’ communications with this group. The Essenes also believed in life after death which the Sadducees did not.


The Sadducees or the “priestly” people believed one should base everything rigidly on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). They did not believe in angels and demons as did the Pharisees and Essenes. The Pharisess included the prophets and had an oral tradition or “Mishna” that contained rules placed around the Torah to ensure that the law would not be contravened. It is often termed a “hedge” around the Law. The Sadducees held the positions of political and religious leaders, they were the ones which had most contact with the foreign rulers and were therefore the ones who had to bend the Jewish will to that of the occupying force, or alternatively bend the will of the occupying forces to the Jewish values and traditions. As such compromise became a way of life with them and it was this that made them resented by the other groups. In addition they grew wealthy from the controlling position in which they found themselves. They also owned a lot of the land around Jerusalem.


It was into these social conflicts that John Hyracanus found himself immersed during his lifetime. He seems to have had a particular dislike of the Pharisees and perhaps realized towards the end of his life that this conflict had done him no good. When John Hyracanus died in B.C. 67, he wanted his wife to rule and his son Aristobulus to become high priest urging her to make peace with the Pharisees. This was not quite how it worked out. Aristobulus starved his mother to death, killed one brother and imprisoned the rest. Later however when he died, his wife and then his sons took control over Palestine.


Civil war of a particularly violent nature broke out when one of Aristobulus’ sons Aristobulus II reigned. Judea suffered by violence between the Sadducees and Pharisees that extended to the point that Rome conquered the weakened empire in the form of a conquest by Pompey. Pompey captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple during this event. The civil wars were ended, but Palestine was now occupied by Rome. This was the power that would be in control as Jesus walked through Palestine. The rule of Rome changed hands and when Julius Ceasar came into power he appointed Antipater who made Herod governor and had the walls of Jerusalem reconstructed.


When Julius died the Roman conflicts that followed his death were weathered well by the shrewd Herod who was appointed King of the Judea, and then with cunning (and getting his son’s murdered) finally got himself established as King in Jerusalem. In B.C 20 he started the important re-building of the temple mentioned previously. In so doing he drew the Jews together sufficiently that the conflicts between the Sadducees and Pharisees settled to the point that it appears as if the Sadducees allowed Pharisees to sit on the Sanhedrin, the governing council for the Jews. It was into this state of tension and conflict that Jesus was born.  Within a short time Herod’s sons, who inherited the Kingdom and split it, were in conflict with each other and so in Jesus’ lifetime, (perhaps when he was about 2 years old) the Romans brought in the services of the Roman Procurator to control Judea as Herod’s son’s were inadequate to the task from the Roman perspective.       

It was under this yoke that the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes following their culturally diverse perspectives permitted the uneasy truce in the face of control by the oppressor.


Jesus’ encounters with Sadducees and Pharisees are documented by the apostles and Acts, perhaps giving a slightly slanted view of them, but there is no real evidence of the Essenes in his discourses. There was however another group that was forming at that time. When Jesus was about 13 or 14 years old it is reportedly believed that;

“the party of the Zealots, although existing, and striking deeper root in the hearts of the people, was, for the time, rather what Josephus called it, ‘the philosophical party’—their minds busy with an ideal, which their hands were not yet preparing to make a reality.[8]


This group was forming in mind and intent under the savages of roman rule although mention is made of a man, Ezekias, who led guerilla bands around that time. This was a nationalist group who wanted the nation to rise above the bounds of the Roman dictators. Herod Antipas (not Herod the Great) had Ezekias executed but this did not stop this group.  A High Priest named Joazar added fervour to this movement by being sympathetic towards it.


Some sources point out the likelihood that Judas who betrayed Jesus could have been a Zealot and could have believed that by doing what he did he would propitiate the establishment of Israel. The logic being premised on God not allowing Jesus to die. This was a thinking pattern of the Zealots. They believed that by antagonizing the Romans to the point that they would be willing to destroy the Jews, they could somehow “force” God’s hand into bringing in the end of the age and destroying Israel’s enemies.


They were wrong! The Zealots or Sicarii as they also became known later for their use of the Roman dagger of that name, were destroyed in the suppression of the revolt against Rome in AD. 66 when the temple was also destroyed.


This final destruction of the temple also proved to destroy the Zealots and the temple priesthood, the Sadducees. These groups never recovered as a force to be reckoned with again. The Essenes slowly died out, probably as a result of their practice of abstinence from sex. This left the Pharisees to continue to evolve their “hedge” around the law and practice meeting in synagogues.


The Greek language both during Jesus time and afterwards was a key means of communicating the gospel. Roman intervention probably provided a brief period in time that allowed Jesus to perform His ministry, but it also facilitated his death in the end. The Pharisees and Sadducees had huge influence in establishing the condition in which Jesus chose to die and rise again. The Essenes probably brought into cultural understanding concepts that Jesus was able to use to explain the kingdom, and if Judas was a Zealot then Jesus betrayal, while incorrectly understood to be the solution to Israel’s problems, actually achieved its purpose not only for Israel, but for all Mankind.


The intertestamental period is a period of conflict dominated by Greek and Roman rule which generated the conditions that resulted in Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots having significant socio-political impact that can be seen as key to understanding the enabling gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Wood, Page 1142.

[2] Wood, Page 1142.

[3]The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Page 29.

[4] The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged. Ant 12.237-241

[5] The New Testament Milieu.

[6]du Toit, A.B. The New Testament Milieu. Halfway House: Orion, 1998.

[7]Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged. Includes index., Ant 18.18-19. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1987.

[8]Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Page 243. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1896, 2003.



Donald D. Binder, Jerusalem. [Online] available from http://www.pohick.org/sts/jerusalem.html; Internet, accessed: 8/25/2006.

du Toit, A.B. The New Testament Milieu. Halfway House: Orion, 1998.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Page 29. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1896, 2003.

Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged. Includes index., Ant 12.237-241. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1987.

Lane Fox, Robert,  The unauthorized version: truth and fiction in the Bible, 1st American Version, New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1991.

Melton, Loyd. New Testament History, Compact Disc 1 to 16, Trinity College of the Bible and Theological seminary, 2005

Niswonger, Richard L. New Testament History, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1992 ed.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The World That Shaped the New Testament, revised Ed. Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002

The Holy Bible : New International Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

Tracey R Rich, Judaism 1010. [online] available from http://www.jewfaq.org/shul.htm; Internet; accessed 23 August 2006.

Wood, D. R. W., D. R. W. Wood, and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. Includes index. electronic ed. of 3rd ed., Page 1142. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996, c1982, c1962.

1 Maccabees, from the holy Bible, Revised Standard Version 1994, Creation of machine-readable version: Kraft, Robert A. Oxford Text Archive [on-line]; available from http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/relig.browse.html ; Internet;  accessed 20 August 2006.