For years, many in Israel denied, dishonored, persecuted, fought, and rebelled against the prophets. Malachi was the last of the true prophets in Israel in the Old Testament period of which we have a record. Without prophets, Israel could only yearn for the oracles with which they were once blessed.
God wanted Israel to be a holy nation, His peculiar treasure (see Exodus 19:5–6). He had promised her riches, glory, and power:
“I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread.
“I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy” (Psalm 132:15–16).
But He desired to have Israel pure so that He could dwell in her cities. Israel was to become Zion, in which the Lord declared He would make His abode forever (see Psalm 132:13–14). After the ministry of Malachi (around 430 B.C.) Israel entered a period in which the learning of scribes gained precedence over revelation. Though some of the priests and Levites continued to honor the priesthood, corruption crept into the religious, social, and political life of Judea. This was a time when the people mourned the loss of the prophets and yearned for their authoritative voice. They began to gather, preserve, and reproduce the words of the prophets who had died.
When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon (around 537 B.C.) a number of changes in their society became evident. One of these was the increased use of scribes. Scribes originally were educated men who made their livelihood as record keepers and as copyists of the scriptures. These they studied diligently, both to understand their meaning and to detect scribal errors. The scribes supplied copies of the scriptures to the growing number of synagogues and also became teachers of the law. While Israel had prophets, the scribes remained copyists and teachers. But when the prophetic voice ceased in Israel, these experts in the law of Moses began to fill the vacuum.
Ezra, one such scribe, brought back part of the exiles from captivity and taught Israel “statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10; see also Nehemiah 8:9–12). Along with Nehemiah he took steps to teach, not just the priests and Levites, but all the people in the Mosaic law. This new emphasis on the open reading of the scriptures came to be one of the most distinguishing features of Jewish national life.
A major factor contributing to the rising power of the scribes was the shift of the common language of the people from Hebrew to Aramaic. Though sister tongues, the languages were different enough that Jews who spoke only Aramaic had trouble understanding the scriptures. So the people had to rely on the scholars to interpret and explain them. It should not be surprising that there was no unity of interpretation among these scholars, nor that they worked to bring others to their different viewpoints.
In the closing years of the fourth century B.C., a new power emerged: the Greeks. King Philip of Macedonia united the whole Greek peninsula and prepared to challenge the supremacy of the Persians. In 334 B.C., Philip’s son Alexander attacked the Persian empire and defeated it. From there he quickly swept through the entire Middle East, conquering all the nations that lay before him, including Judea. Behind him came Greek colonists—merchants, craftsmen, laborers—eager to impose Greek culture. Within a few years Alexander died, but the Hellenic, or Greek, influence was felt in Judea for centuries.
After the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), his generals fought to gain control of his empire. Seleucus (pronounced se-Lu-kas) conquered Syria and the northern part of the Middle East. Ptolemy (Toll-ah-mee) took Egypt. Judea lay directly between the two rivals. It changed hands several times during the next few years, with disastrous results for the population of Judea. In 302 B.C.Judea finally fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, to whom it belonged for one hundred years. In 198 B.C.the Seleucids (se-Lu-sids) were able to capture and hold Judea.
During this period the Jewish population continued to increase. Many Jews lived outside of Judea. The city of Alexandria in Egypt, for example, had a large Jewish community. There were also large colonies in Babylon and other cities. The Jews of the Diaspora (scattering or dispersion) outnumbered the Jews of Judea.
When Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid king, came to power in 175 B.C., he decided the Greeks had been tolerant long enough of what he saw as Jewish narrowness and superstition. He attempted to destroy the religion of the Jews by imposing Greek religion upon them. In 169 B.C., the temple was plundered under his orders. Shortly thereafter Jerusalem’s walls were knocked down, and a garrison was established in a fortress built near the desecrated Temple Mount. The limited temple worship that had taken place was soon suspended. Sabbath observance, celebrations, and circumcision were forbidden on penalty of death. Pigs, unclean under the Mosaic law and viewed by the Jews as a great abomination, were offered in sacrifice as the troops of Antiochus stood watch. The people were forced to worship idols of Zeus and other false gods.
The efforts of Antiochus to stamp out Judaism became more and more brutal. Instead of obediently submitting, the Jews stiffened their resistance, and hatred for Antiochus and his Greek soldiers spread. In 167 B.C., in the small village of Modin, Syrian soldiers gathered the people and demanded that Mattathias, an old priest, offer a sacrifice to the pagan god. Even though threatened with death, Mattathias refused. Another priest stepped forward and agreed to do as the soldier demanded. As this weaker priest lifted the knife, an enraged Mattathias grabbed a sword and killed both the priest and the Syrian officer. Mattathias and his five sons then fled to the hills and called on all of Judah to join them (see 1 Maccabees 2:1–30). The revolt had begun. It raged through the land, gathering support on every side as the Jews turned on the hated Syrians. By the time Antiochus took the revolt seriously, he faced an entire nation thirsting for freedom.
Since Mattathias was a priest seeking to defend the Mosaic code, the Jews threw their support behind his family, the Hasmoneans. Mattathias died shortly after the revolt began, but his son Judas took over. Judas was a military genius and repeatedly exhorted his vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped troops to have faith in God and the righteousness of their cause. Again and again he devastated enemy forces two to four times the size of his own.
By 165 B.C.the Jews had recaptured Jerusalem, cleansed the temple of its impurities, and rededicated it to the worship of Jehovah. Judea was independent of foreign domination for the first time in over four hundred years. The Hasmonean revolt is more commonly known as the Maccabean revolt because Mattathias’s son was called Judas Maccabees, which means “Judas the Hammerer.” The hard-won victories of Mattathias and his sons were short-lived, however. Very quickly, the descendants of the Hasmoneans forgot that it was the Lord who had delivered them. Like Saul and David and Solomon, the members of the new dynasty were corrupted by the power and glory of the courts of power. The sons and grandsons of the Maccabees degenerated into a mode of politics as usual, and just over a hundred years later, in 63 B.C., Israel was conquered by the Roman general Pompey.
During the second century B.C., two important Jewish groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees promoted the observance of Jewish rituals and the study of the Torah (the five books of Moses). Some of them took vows to separate themselves from the impurities of the Hellenistic influences that had crept into Jewish life and to strictly follow their interpretation of the law. They not only maintained the validity of the Torah as the source of their religion, but they enlarged on this background, trying to adapt old codes to new conditions. This interpretation became known as the oral law, since for the most part it was memorized and passed on by word of mouth. The Pharisees believed in a combination of free will and predestination, in the Resurrection, and in a judgment resulting in reward or punishment in the life to come.
The Pharisees were dedicated to the preservation of the Mosaic code. To counteract the Greek influences, they turned to strict obedience to the law. Because of their attempts to keep themselves separate from the worldly taint of false ideas, they were called Perushim, a Hebrew word meaning “separated ones.” The name Pharisees comes from the Greek transliteration of Perushim. In a time of growing alarm over the abandonment of the traditional values of Judaism, the Pharisees increased in popularity until they came to represent the religious views of the majority of the Jewish people.
While the Pharisees were primarily from the common people, the Sadducees were from the upper level of society: priests, merchants, and aristocrats. The name of the sect (Zedukim in Hebrew) is probably derived from Zadok, the high priest in the days of King David. Ezekiel entrusted Zadok’s family with control of the temple (see Ezekiel 40:46; 43:19; 44:10–15), and the descendants of this family controlled the temple hierarchy until about 200 B.C.The name Sadducees may have referred to those who were sympathetic with the Zadokites.
The Sadducees, on the whole, were conservative. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the oral law as binding except for that part based on the Torah. They placed emphasis on the sacrifices in the temple and rejected a belief in angels and the Resurrection. The Sadducees generally represented the wealthy class that accepted Greek culture; thus, the Sadducees were not popular with the majority of the people.
The Essenes attempted to avoid religious impurity by completely separating from society. The name probably means “the pious ones.” Interest in this group was aroused in the late 1940s with the discovery at Qumran of what most scholars believe to be their sacred writings, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran group believed in strict separation from the world. They followed a “teacher of righteousness” who they believed received revelation. They practiced a communal order, strictly followed the law of Moses, and devoutly studied the scriptures. They believed that a Messiah was soon coming who would lead them in a last great battle against the sons of darkness.
When Pompey took Judea for Rome, he appointed one of the Hasmoneans to be king. Antipater (an-Tip-i-ter), an adviser to the Jewish puppet-king, quickly ingratiated himself with Rome and took over power. Antipater was an Idumean, a people the Jews hated. He consolidated his power by helping Rome in their struggle against the Parthians, an enemy from the east that constantly threatened Rome’s interests. For this aid, Antipater was granted the right to have his son appointed king of Judea. Thus came on the scene Herod the Great, a man who profoundly affected the history of the Jews. Herod the Great was brutal and vicious (this was the Herod who ordered infanticide in an attempt to kill Jesus) but was an able administrator. The Romans were pleased, for he kept control in what was well known to be a troublesome province, and he was completely loyal to Rome. The Jews were given very limited political power through the Sanhedrin, a religious and political body traditionally composed of seventy-one men and presided over by the high priest.
Herod was a supporter of Hellenic and Roman culture and reinstated it in Judea. In conjunction with this Hellenization, he undertook great building programs throughout his province. In order to gain favor with his subjects, he began an elaborate expansion program on the temple mount, eventually making the temple into one of the marvels of the ancient world. This building program was still in progress in Christ’s day. Herod the Great died shortly after the birth of Jesus, and the Romans divided the kingdom among Herod’s three sons. Philip ruled north and east of Galilee; Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea; and Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Because of his ineptitude, Archelaus was removed by Rome in A.D. 6. His territory became a Roman province ruled by prefects appointed by Rome.
A group of Jews favored the reign of Herod Antipas and urged the people to support his sovereignty. For that reason they were called Herodians. The Herodians saw Herod Antipas’s rise to power as the fulfillment of certain messianic ideas then current. They preached their ideas and opposed any whom they felt might upset the status quo. This political party joined forces with the religious sect of the Pharisees to oppose Jesus (see Matthew 22:16) since they saw Him as a threat to their political aims.
In opposition to the Herodians stood the Zealots. They opposed gentile rule and influence and desired to keep Judea free. Some Zealots reasoned that violence was justified in seeking to overthrow Rome. Their rebellion in A.D. 6 was successfully suppressed by Herod Antipas on behalf of the Romans. After the death of Jesus, it was primarily the Zealots who led the revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
At times during the intertestamental period temple services were interrupted, but the rites continued during most of that period. Priests made the proper sacrifice on the great altar, and the people continued to pray daily as a priest offered incense upon the altar in the holy place. Then one day a priest named Zacharias did not reappear as quickly as he should have from the holy place after his service. The people began to marvel, and well they might, for once again the veil had been lifted. The humble and aged Zacharias stood in the presence of an angel. “Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son. …
“And he shall go … in the spirit and power of Elias … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13, 17). This child would be John the Baptist, whose name in Hebrew means “gift of God.” Israel had a prophet once again, a forerunner who would prepare the way for Jehovah’s coming to earth as the Son of God and the Messiah Judah had awaited for so long. (For additional material see enrichment section K in Old Testament Student Manual: 1 Kings–Malachi [religion 302, 2003], pp. 359–65.)