Last week we finished up the Old Testament with our lesson on Isaiah, but before my Sunday School class headed into the New Testament, we needed one more lesson. But what happened between the Old and New Testaments? How did we get from Malachi to Matthew? There are over 400 years with God not speaking.
To answer that question, here’s a short history lesson, and some cultural lessons as well.
The Old Testament ends building a temple
We left the Israelites having rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem, and the last prophet had spoken, Malachi. God had now given them all the information they needed until the prophecies were fulfilled.
About 100 years or so after the information in Ezra and Nehemiah, Alexander the Great came in and defeated the Persian empire, conquering all of the Middle East and his empire reached the very edge of India.
Alexander loved the Greek language and culture, so everywhere he conquered he taught the people about Greece. So all of the Middle East and portions of Africa learned Greek and developed a common culture. This process was called Hellenization.
After Alexander died unexpectedly at 33, his 4 generals split his empire into four parts. The Seleucids took the part of the empire that included Israel and Judea and it was called Syria.
Seleucid Empire causes trouble
For the most part, they left the Israelites alone, but at one point Antiochus Epiphanies came into the temple, sacrificed a pig, and told all of the Israelites, “You are no longer worshipping your God, but will worship Zeus.” As you can imagine that did not go over well, and the Israelites rebelled.
This led to the Maccabean revolt, and eventually, they took back Jerusalem and the Temple and they purified it. After purifying the entire temple, they lit the great menorah, only to discover they only had enough oil for 1 day, and it would take 7 more days to get oil. They trusted God would bring them the oil in time, and the menorah stayed lit for the entire 8 days it took to get the oil.
This is where the Jewish holiday Hanukkah comes from, so there’s a good chance Jesus celebrated Hanukkah when he was a boy.
Eventually, the Jews were defeated and the Seleucids took back over, and around this time the Israelites started to split into four different groups.
The politics that started
The first group we see mentioned most often in the New Testament were the Pharisees. They believed if they could just be holy enough they could force God to fulfill prophecy. To help them do this they added laws around God’s Law to make sure no one broke the law.
Next came the Sadducee, they were the rich and powerful. They helped keep the peace by cooperating with the occupying government. While they kept the Law of Moses, they did so because it made them look good. Not because they believed in God. Functionally these people were atheists.
The Zealots* wanted Israel for the Israelites. They were looking for a Messiah to come and kick out the foreigners. Zealots would follow anyone who was looking to kick out those in charge. The Zealots go a long way to explain why the Romans were so ready to crucify Jesus with so little evidence. Romans wanted peace and they thought Jesus was going to cause a rebellion.
The final group is the Essenes. They thought all the rest of Israel had it wrong, you can’t fix the world**. In order to be holy, you need to be separate from the world and work on studying the scriptures. The Essenes wrote what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls Biblical scholars have been studying for the past several decades to find out more about the Bible and its translations.
During the 200 or so years the Seleucids ruled over Israel these groups cemented into somewhat adversarial positions that we see in the New Testament.
About 40 years before Jesus was born Pompey the Great came in and defeated the Seleucid government. Israel was not a province of Rome. This brought with it several benefits.
Keeping an empire as large as Rome takes several different factors:
- roads, you need roads for your army to travel on
- peace, empires are easier to rule if you have peace
- trade, you need a plan for commerce
- common money, so everyone knows what things cost and how to get it
All of these factors led to a perfect recipe for God’s Good News to be spread. Roman peace lasted for over 200 years after Jesus was born. During those 200 years, people were able to travel with relative ease and spread the good news.
So, that is what happened between Malachi and Matthew.
Now you can either head straight into Jesus’ ministry with John the Baptist, or you can make a brief stop for Jesus’ Family Tree and the Christmas Story.
*I had a Bible professor in college who was very picky about how you used the term zealot. The Zealots were a group that was active shortly after Jesus was sacrificed who advocated the expulsion of the Romans by force and actively worked for this. However, we have come to generalize the term to mean anyone who was against the Romans. It has been further generalized to mean someone who firmly believes in something
This also means that the disciple Simon the Zealot technically was not a Zealot. You’ll notice some of the more recent translations do not call him that.
**You’ll notice there are many believers now and throughout history who have advocated this philosophy. It’s a faulty one for too many reasons to go into in a footnote.