Anyone who reads the Holy Bible and goes from the Old Testament into the New Testament will notice some changes in politics and religion. For example, there are groups within Judaism-the Pharisees and the Sadducees are two-which do not appear in the Old Testament, but are in the New. There is a new political power on the scene. The Old Testament ends with the Israelites under the control of the Babylonians. As the New Testament opens, Rome rules Israel. What has happened?
The Silent Years. There are approximately 400 years between the date of the last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) and the date of the first book of the New Testament (Matthew). These years are often referred to as the “Four Hundred Silent Years” or the “Dark Period” of Israel’s history. Apparently no prophets were speaking or writing, and God was giving no new word to the Jews. It was a time of wondering and waiting and being acted upon by other nations.
Preparation for the Spread of Christianity. In the Bible classes I taught in Iowa, I would tell my students that there were three primary reasons why the Christian faith was able to spread so rapidly once it got started: (1) A common language (Greek) across much of the world at that time; (2) A good system of roads with government protection; and (3) A decline in moral standards of pagan religions that made Christianity (and its high standards) attractive to many people. Two of those factors originated during the period between the two Testaments, a period known as the “Inter-Testament Period.”
In this article, I will write about the political changes that affected Israel. In another article, I will deal with the religious changes. Understanding both sets of changes will help us in our study of the Bible and its people.
External Political Influences. Palestine, because of its location on a major travel and trade route, was often invaded and ruled by other nations. Those times of invasion-and the ensuing occupation-had profound effects on the nation and its religious life.
The Assyrian Influence. Although the Assyrian influence came before the Inter-Testament period, there was an effect that lasted into the New Testament period. After conquering parts of Israel in 722 B.C., the Assyrians carried off some of the Jewish inhabitants and replaced them with other people. The resulting intermarriages resulted in the Samaritans, a half-breed people racially and religiously. The Samaritans were hated by the pure-bred Jews, a hatred that underlies a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John, chapter 4.
The Greek Influence. The Greek influence, through the conquests under Alexander the Great, had two major effects. On the one hand, Greek culture and the Greek language became prominent. When the Christians were ready to spread their message, they were able to speak to many different nations by using Greek. The New Testament books were written in Greek and some of them use Greek concepts as a way to convey the message about Jesus. On the other hand, the encroaching Greek influence led to a split among the Jewish people between the Hellenists (those who were drawn to the Greek culture) and the Nationalists (those who opposed any dilution of Jewish culture.
The Egyptian Influence. One major result of Egyptian rule was the translation of the Old Testament scriptures into the Greek language. This translation, known as the Septuagint, made Jewish ideas readily available to non-Jews and, at the same time, laid a foundation for the spread of the Christian faith.
The Roman Influence. Let me mention one more influence: the conquering of Palestine by the Roman Empire as the Caesars expanded their power and territory. In order to rule their vast empire, the Roman government constructed and maintained a system of highways. They also saw that travelers on the highways were protected. As a result, Christians were able to travel easily, freely, and safely across the empire as they preached their message.
While some of the political changes were harmful to the Jews, they proved later to be useful to the emerging Christian faith. Christians see this as God preparing the world to hear and receive Christianity. The more skeptical people will see that Christians simply took advantage of the world situation as it evolved in their day. Either way, it was good news to the followers of Jesus.
Source: For a helpful and more in-depth study of the Inter-Testament period, see:
J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House), 9-86.
Note: My earlier article was: “The Years Between the Old and New Testaments: Part One: Political Changes in the Nation of Israel”