As I wrote in an earlier article, there was a period of approximately 400 years between the date of the last Old Testament book (Malachi) and the date of the first book in the New Testament (Matthew). During these 400 years, known as the “Four Hundred Silent Years,” “the Dark Period” of Israel’s history, or the “Inter-Testament Period,” major events were taking place in the nation of Israel. My earlier article discussed the political changes. This article will explore the religious changes that transformed Judaism.
Changes in the Jewish Religion. Between the Old Testament and the New, some changes have taken place in Judaism. The most obvious change is the appearance of new groups that are not mentioned in the Old Testament: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. Alongside the new groups are new institutions: the Synagogue, the Scribes, and the Sanhedrin. Something has happened to transform the makeup of the faith.
The Influence of the Babylonian Captivity. The changes during the Inter-Testament period have their origin in the conquest of Israel in 586 B.C. by the nation of Babylon. Many Jews were carried off to Babylon where they would live-most of them for the rest of their lives. Others would live to return to their homeland. The most critical effect of the Babylonian conquest was not the captivity of the people, however, but the destruction of the Jewish Temple, the center of their worship.
J. Sidlow Baxter, in his book, Explore the Book (see details below), notes that Israel, as they went into captivity, were a people who had what he calls “a hopelessly incurable infatuation” for idolatry (page 28). Time after time, they turned away from the one true God and worshiped the idols and gods of other nations. Despite Babylon being a hotbed of pagan religion, the Jews returned from captivity seemingly done with idolatry and deeply devoted to God. What happened? The destruction of the Temple had some profound effects.
The Crucial Role of the Temple. The Temple was not only the center of worship, it was the only place where the sacrifices to God could be offered. Without a temple and having been moved to a new land, the Jews were without the means of carrying out their normal religious rites. Sacrifices intended to cover over the sins of the people had to be abandoned. The result was that the Jews in captivity became more and more a people of the Book (the Old Testament).
What Happened with the Turn toward the Scriptures. The Jews have always had an important place for the scriptures, but when they pondered the fact of their captivity, they began to realize that everything that had happened to them, including their captivity, had been predicted ahead of time by God speaking through the prophets. God, the Jews, discovered, was faithful and true. There was no need for worthless idols and the gods they represented. This discovery moved the Jews to a deeper study of their scriptures in which they found predictions of the end of their captivity and, in the long run, the coming of a special person (or Messiah) from God who would free the people. From the Christian perspective, that Messiah is Jesus.
The New Groups and Institutions within Judaism. This renewed emphasis on the scriptures explains the appearance of groups or institutions such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and the Synagogue. The scriptures needed to be studied, understood, and applied to daily life. The Synagogue was the place for Jews to study the scriptures. The Scribes were the experts in translating and understanding the scriptures. The Pharisees were the religious group most concerned with obeying the scriptures. The Sadducees tended toward a more liberal application of the scriptures to daily life. The Sanhedrin served as a court overseeing the religious life of the nation and imposing penalties where appropriate for lapses from the Jewish faith.
The Herodians. That leaves one group: the Herodians. The Herodians are not so much a product of the captivity as they are the result of the rule of Israel by King Herod and his successors. The Herods were not Jews, but were placed in power by the Roman Empire. While most Jews were unhappy with the “foreign” rule of the Herods, there were those who approved them or at least could see some personal benefit from supporting them.
As the New Testament opens, we see that the Temple has been rebuilt and is being used for sacrifices, but Judaism has been transformed to such an extent that the old days are gone forever. Out of the mix of interpretations and prophecies, Jesus will emerge and leave his mark on the faith and on the world.
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.