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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Greenberg

The Intertestamental Period | Biblical Book Introductions eSeries

What happened during the approximately 400 years between the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, TANAKH, and the New Covenant Scriptures?

This extended era is usually called the Intertestamental Period and reaches from the Kingdom of Persia all the way to the birth of Yeshua during a census of the Roman Empire.

Chronologically, it is the period commencing from the last of the prophets to the start of the first century events. It is noteworthy that, in the order of the Christian canon, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi.

While logical because of its dating, it is unfortunate as the last verse of that book is a curse!

“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of ADONAI. He will turn the hearts of fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to their fathers—else I will come and strike the land with utter destruction”  (Mal. 3:23-24 Hebrew/4:5-6 English). 

It is contrary to Jewish tradition to end a reading of a Scriptural book with negative words of doom or judgment. Consequently in a synagogue, verse 23 is repeated when finishing the scroll.

Actually, the Jewish order of the canon does not close the TANAKH with the book of Malachi but with 2 Chronicles 36:23,

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia, ‘ADONAI, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever among you of all His people may go up and may ADONAI his God be with him.’” 

The original Jewish book order thus provides a more positive transition to the opening of the Gospels some 400 years later.

In Jewish tradition it is said that the spirit of prophecy ceased with the completion of Malachi’s exhortation (Tractate Sanhedrin 11a). Because no more Scriptural books were added to the TANAKH, the Intertestamental Period is sometimes called “the 400 silent years.” While it is true that revelation from the Jewish prophets paused, this important epoch was anything but silent in political, religious, and literary history!

This era opens the Second Temple period.

Starting with the decree of Cyrus (444 BCE), the Jewish remnant returned from Babylon under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and the post-exilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) encouraged the completion of the Holy Temple. Nehemiah inspired and oversaw the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem, so that the city could flourish once again. Alexander the Great would conquer Persia and thus inherit possession of Judea in the year 332 BCE. Though Alexander was welcomed in peace and spared Jerusalem, generations later the Holy City went through many trials during this Greek occupation.

In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV sought to forcibly convert the Jews to the Hellenistic philosophy by outlawing any Jewish religious observance and desecrating the Holy Temple with a pagan idol. The miraculous military victory over the Greeks in 164 BCE, led by the Maccabees, is still celebrated every Hanukkah in the Jewish community, as well as by Yeshua (John 10:22-23). The Romans would eventually conquer the Greeks and take possession of Judea in 63 BCE, leading to a succession of troubling leaders, including the notorious family of Herod. Besides these political developments, a number of key religious phenomena grew out of this Intertestamental Period. The synagogue as a house of study and prayer took solid hold throughout the Jewish world at this time. Also a number of Jewish sects emerged, reflecting the diversity of the community. The Sadducees, Tz’dukim (righteous ones from the family of the priest Tzadok), became the prevailing priestly aristocracy associated with the Temple. In contrast, the Pharisees, P’rushim (separated ones), focused on synagogue and applying Torah and tradition to everyday Jewish life. Other groups also developed during this time hoping to hasten the coming of Messiah.

The Zealots started a resistance movement against the Romans, advocating violent action to overthrow the oppressive occupiers. The Essenes, seeing the corruption of the Temple, saw themselves as the pure “Sons of Light” and moved to the desert to await the soon-coming Messiah.

The Intertestamental Period also saw the development of vitally important Jewish religious literature. The Septuagint (LXX) was an important translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek about two centuries before Yeshua. Since it was the Bible of Jews throughout the Hellenistic Diaspora, the New Covenant writers frequently quoted it and it influenced the way Greek language is used in the New Covenant.

For example, the Septuagint used the word “ecclesia” (literally “called-out ones”) to translate the Hebrew word kahal (assembly)—the New Covenant writers used “ecclesia” to describe the gathered believers, translated as “church” in Christian Bibles today, but perhaps better rendered as “congregation” or “community.” During this period, Jews wrote a number of short books in Greek that later became known as the Apocrypha. These include some literature in the genres of history (notably the books of the Maccabees which recorded the story of Hanukkah), biblical wisdom, and end-time apocalypse.

Though of historical interest, both ancient Jewish and later Protestant Christian authorities did not recognize that this literature has the same divine inspiration and coherence as the accepted canon of Scripture.

Oral “traditions” (Mark 7:3-13, Gal. 1:14) were developed to guide Jewish customs at this time, which later became the basis for the Talmud (Oral Law) of rabbinic Judaism, starting with the Mishna (200 CE) and later the Gemara (400–500 CE). Talmudic literature can be helpful in understanding the religious and cultural background of Yeshua and New Covenant Scriptures. Certainly the Intertestamental Period was anything but silent!

If one looks closely at historical events—notably Hanukkah, the spread of Jewish people and the Septuagint throughout the known world, and the rise of Messianic expectations—it is clear that the hand of God was preparing the way for the coming Redeemer.

Whether one takes the Malachi passage (3:23) as the last words (“I am going to send you Elijah”) or the promise of 2 Chronicles 36:23 (“may ADONAI his God be with him”), the events of the Intertestamental Period set the stage for the coming of the Mashiach, Yeshua of Nazareth. The opening words of Matthew say it quite simply and naturally from a Jewish perspective: “The book of the genealogy of Yeshua ha-Mashiach, Ben-David, Ben-Avraham:” (Matt. 1:1).

A first century rabbi by the name of Shaul/Paul said it this way: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent out His Son” (Gal. 4:4).

The Intertestamental period prepared God’s people for this world-transforming event.

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