Bible Q&A: Between the Testaments

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

 What happened between the end of the Old Testament and the start of the New Testament?​

Answer:

A lot!

The first thing to note is that the ‘end of the Old Testament’ depends on whether we’re talking about Hebrew, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Bibles.

In Protestant editions, which are based on the Hebrew Bible, there’s a 500-year gap between Old and New Testaments, possibly with the exception of the Book of Daniel, which may date from the 2nd century BC. Catholic translations have the same Old Testament books as Protestant Bibles but add several that were written later. Orthodox Bibles include even more texts.

The Protestant Old Testament timeline ends with the events described in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah: Jews returned from exile in Babylon (now Iraq), rebuilt Jerusalem, which had previously been sacked by the Babylonians, and restored the Temple. The subsequent era in Israel’s history (late 6th century BC till 70 AD) is known as Second Temple Judaism.

Some 200 years after the Jews returned from exile, Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered much of the known world, including the Holy Land. He sought to unify his vast and diverse empire by spreading Hellenism – Greek culture and language – to its farthest corners.

When he died prematurely of malaria, Alexander’s empire fell apart. The Hebrews, meanwhile, remained under both foreign occupation and the influence of Hellenism. By the 2nd century BC, the so-called Maccabean revolt against the foreign rulers led to a period of Jewish autonomy. This story is told in the books of Maccabees, which are in Catholic but not Protestant Bibles. Independence didn’t last. In 63 BC, Roman general Pompey the Great marched his troops into Jerusalem, slaughtering thousands.

Inevitably, the long periods of occupation and the loss of countless lives in Israel’s struggle for freedom raised the question, why? Life seemed so different from the glory days of Moses, David or Solomon. Had God abandoned his people? Or was it just a case of waiting patiently for the day when once again he would step in, restore Israel and vindicate the martyrs of the past by raising them from the dead?

No wonder that by the time we get to the New Testament period, people were expecting God to do something new. They were looking out for a God-sent saviour to remove the pagan yoke once and for all. 

Meanwhile, how were they to behave? Collaborate with Rome to keep the peace? Observe every tiny bit of the Law to placate God’s anger over human sin and hasten the coming of the Messiah? Reject a society that had compromised with Hellenism, retreat into a desert community and await God’s intervention in prayer and fasting? Or pick up the sword and fight the Romans to the death?

All of these viewpoints existed and none of them sat comfortably with a new message, proclaimed by a young preacher from rural Galilee. According to Jesus of Nazareth the Kingdom of God was not of this world, ushered in neither by religious zeal, nor withdrawal from society; divine rule would be established, not by violence but by grace.  

In summary, during the long period between the Old and New Testaments, Israel was often occupied by foreign powers, struggling not just for national independence, but for its cultural and religious identity. In that context, the hope of the Messiah bringing political and spiritual liberation is easy to understand. As for Jesus, in the eyes of many (especially those who would go on to crucify him), the fact that he went around loving strangers, sinners and enemies instantly disqualified him from being the saviour of the nation.

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