After missing the middle of a story, the climax doesn’t seem to make much sense. Plots have been developed, characters introduced, and previous situations explained. Because of this we normally read a book in the order the chapters follow; however, one book that is read all over the world is an exception, yet we hardly realize it.
The period between the Old Testament and the New Testament is generally referred to as the “Four Hundred Silent Years,” or the “Intertestamental Period.” When it comes to reading the climax without the complete background history, Christians prove to be a continual offender in this field. In the Protestant Bible, we go from the Old Testament to the New with a four hundred year gap in the middle. Just as there is a vast difference between 1600 and today, much had changed during these four centuries. Scholar Anthony J. Tomasino explained in his book Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World:
When the Old Testament historical narrative ends, the Jews are still the insignificant subjects of the mighty Persians. . . When the New Testament story begins, the world is entirely different. The Persians have vanished from the picture, and the Romans rule over God’s chosen people. The common language is no longer Hebrew…it’s Greek. The geography has also changed… The Jews have become a cosmopolitan people… New social groups and religious ideas confront us in every Gospel story. We read about Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. There’s frequent talk of…concepts never discussed that much in the Old Testament. Astute Bible students might be able to trace the connections from some of these New Testament ideas back to their Old Testament roots, but the task won’t be an easy one. They’re missing several hundred years of Jewish political and religious history.
The missing information doesn’t cripple any teachings found in the New Testament nor does it diminish the fact they are there. Grasping this material is not crucial in understanding the New Testament, but it does aid in providing context to the social events taking place during that time. Moreover, it brings to light why some of the theological topics discussed in the New Testament are considered, or even emphasized, over others (e.g., Christ’s encounters with the Scribes and Pharisees and the topics He chose to challenge them on). Because the Intertestamental Period provides context, this study proves insightful in better understanding the New Testament’s context and teachings.
While studying the Intertestamental Period is not critical, it is certainly helpful. I have personally found J. Julius Scott’s Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament a reliable reference and systematic study of this four-century period.
Just so we do not jump in the middle of the story, let’s understand a bit of background concerning the Intertestamental Period offers.
Israel as a nation began as a theocracy, ruled and guided by God and His principles. However, they rejected God’s rule and established a monarchy with King Saul as their first leader (1 Samuel 8:4-9). This new form of government lasted from roughly 1050 to 930 BC. Scott writes in his book “Before the conquest under Joshua it seems to have been divided into numerous city-states. After the conquest, the Israelites settled into a federation in which each tribe was virtually autonomous. During the monarchy, the land was first a unified political whole, then divided into two sections. Judah, after the return from captivity, was a tiny temple-state...” (p. 46). During the change of powers from King Solomon to his son Rehoboam, Israel split into two separate kingdoms. The northern kingdom was Israel and the southern was Judah. Assyria then destroyed Israel in 722 BC while Judah was spared. However, Judah was eventually captured by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the Old Testament ends when Israel is released after their captors were dominated by the Medo-Persians. This begins the Postexilic Period and the dawn of the Intertestamental Era. The Hebrews remain in bondage under multiple powers until the New Testament time, when Rome controlled Judah.
So the question becomes, what demonstrable changes took place from the Old Testament to the Intertestamental Period. The answer is too much for a short article, but there are five we can focus on:
1. Governing The Old Testament gives us an account of a loosely-bound Semitic people who merged into a world empire and eventually collapsed into two separate kingdoms. This narrative closes after Judah becomes a vassal state and Israel was never reestablished. In the Intertestamental Period Judah never found full independence and its senior powers changed multiple times (e.g., the Persians, Romans, etc.).
2. Theology One of the most noticeable differences from the Old Testament going into the New is the shift of theological beliefs. The Hebrews held a core belief in the teachings of Judaism until the society around them became militantly secularized. The introduction of Hellenism was made possible after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the militant implication of it in Judea. Rome eventually conquered this region, which established the context of the New Testament. But with the mix of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman cultures, there rose two political and religious groups we are well familiar with: the Pharisees and Sadducees. These groups held distinctly different views than traditional Judaism.
3. Political Power From the time the Old Testament ends until the New Testament begins, Judah never gains complete independence. They once held theocratic and monocratic political systems, and even though some of their superior powers who controlled Judah allowed them sufficient independence in politics, they were always subject to a higher power.
4. Disunity One of the most overt differences between these two eras is the fact that most of the 12 tribes originally composing Israel are now gone. Only Judah and select tribes are left moving forward in the Intertestamental Period.
(Note this is not to mean all remnants of other tribes are distinguished. It is extremely likely that when the Hebrews returned back to rebuild their state under the Persian rule that northern kingdom tribes filtered back into Judah.)
5. Tradition During this time there also arose a new Judaism leading into many of Christ’s rebukes of legalism toward the New Testament religious leaders. As Scott brings to light, “From the reconstructed Hebrew state there gradually emerged an adapted form of the Hebrew religion which placed special emphasis upon the development and observance of legal and ceremonial traditions” (p. 61).
These are but a few comparisons of the Old Testament and Intertestamental Periods. The missing story is beginning to be filled in, and the New Testament can be better understood as the Bible’s climax because of background information that would have otherwise been unknown.