Understanding the Background of the New Testament – Part 1
When the Old Testament narrative ends the northern tribes (Israel) have been decimated by the Assyrian Captivity and the southern tribes (Judah) have fallen to the Babylonian Empire. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us the story of the journey home from Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and her beloved temple.
The Old Testament ends telling the stories of great heroes like Ezra & Nehemiah in Jerusalem, Esther in Persia and great prophets like Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi. But then, there is nothing, a 400-year historical gap! The next great Jewish leaders we are introduced to in the New Testament are Herod, the Sanhedrin and a lone voice in the wilderness that many are choosing to follow.
What happened during this “Intertestamental Period” that shaped the world for the coming of Jesus Christ? Who are the great leaders who took up the banner and led the people of God?
#1. Ezekiel during the Babylonian Period (626-539 B.C.)
Though Ezekiel was a captive of Nebuchadnezzar in a foreign land, he began to develop a leadership team around him that would be able to take charge once the Jews would be returned to their homeland. It was during this time that the Jews, because of no access to a temple, began the synagogue system that continues to be in use to this very day.
#2. Ezra and Nehemiah during the Persian Period (539-331 B.C.)
When Cyrus, king of Persia, captured Babylon he quickly liberated the Jews and allowed many to return and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of these two men and others, the temple was rebuilt and the city was reestablished. It was during this period that the Scribes are introduced as men who copied the Scripture by hand and became expert teachers of the law. The seeds for what would become the Sanhedrin begin to form in what was called the Great Synagogue.
#3. Alexander during the Grecian Period (331-320 B.C.)
Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and accelerated the growth of Greek culture into Jewish life. As Alexander’s army spread over modern day Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and as far east as India, so did Alexander’s Hellenistic culture. The Greek Language became so widely accepted that by the time the New Testament was written, it became the obvious choice.
#4. The 70 during the Ptolemaic Period (320-198 B.C.)
When Alexander died at the young age of 33, four of his generals divided the empire into four parts. Ptolemy I became the ruler of the Egyptian area that included modern day Libya and Palestine. Since Israel was now under the rule of Ptolemy many Jews began to move to the area’s largest city and capital, Alexandria. It was here that Hellenism fully gripped the heart of the Jewish nation and the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) was produced by seventy-two Jewish scholars. The writers of the New Testament often quoted from the Septuagint rather than from the original Hebrew because it had become the standard Scripture even during the time of Christ.
#5. The Hasidim during the Syrian Period (198-167 B.C.)
Though Ptolemy assumed control of the Egyptian portion of the empire upon Alexander’s death, the Antiochus line took control of the Syrian portion. Throughout the ensuing 120 years these 2 empires battled for dominance, often in the Palestine region. It was finally during the reign of Antiochus IV that Syria took the Jewish state from Egyptian rule. It was during this period that the office of High Priest was put up for sale. Antiochus Epiphanes (IV) literally sold the office to the highest bidder. By the time Christ came this would be common practice. The Hasidim (pious ones) actively opposed the aggressions of Antiochus. This led to the infamous moment when Antiochus erected a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple, sacrificed a pig on the sacred altar and demanded worship from the Jews.
#6. The Maccabees during the Maccabean Period (167-142 B.C.)
Judas Maccabee led a gorilla warfare against the Syrians and finally wrested control. The Jews have celebrated this event annually with the Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah. It was during Jonathan’s, Judas’ brother, reign that we are introduced to new groups of leaders that have emerged: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. It was under Simon, Judas’ last remaining brother, that political and religious freedom were completely and utterly made sure.
#6. The Hycannus, Aristobulus & Antipater during the Hasmonean Period (142-63 B.C.)
When Simon died his son, John Hycannus, came to power and quickly began to conquer surrounding regions including Idumea and Samaria. During his reign the Pharisees (descendants of the Hasidim) and the Sadducees (wealthy, Hellenistic Jews) became more prominent and powerful. His successor, Aristobulus I, called himself the king and expanded the region to include Galilee. After several more leaders expanded the power of the king in both political and religious ways, it was Antipater, an ambitious Idumean, who through manipulating the Hasmonean leadership took political control. He is the father of Herod the Great.
#7. The Pharisees and Sadducees during the Roman Period (63 B.C. On)
The great Roman leader Pompey took possession of Palestine for Rome who was still functioning as a republic and not yet an Empire. It wasn’t until Julius came to power that the Empire was truly established and the term Caesar would be appropriated. Upon his death, Julius’ nephew, Augustus would become the ruler that was reigning during the opening narrative of the New Testament. Rome would often set up regional leaders called Prefects who would govern directly over the specific regions. Pontius Pilate was the Prefect over Judea. Though Rome was ultimately in control they allowed low level political and religious leadership within certain communities. It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees that made up the leadership counsel referred to as the Sanhedrin. It was the Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to Death.
Share your thoughts and comments below:
 Thomas D. Lea & David Alan Black, The New Testament, Its Background and Message (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 11.