The time between the Old and New Testaments was an era of triumph and tragedy, and great literary activity focused on the tribulations of their day.


The years from the close of the Old Testament until the appearance of John the Baptist, the first event marking the advent of the New Covenant wrought in Christ, may at first seem silent. But God was by no means inactive, and Israel experienced ebbs and flows of triumph and tragedy, and even literary activity, in some ways similar to the tribulations of their ancestors in the biblical texts. To be sure, the vast majority of Jews during this time were trying to survive and would never leave their marks on history, but some Israelites distinguished themselves with noteworthy deeds of heroism. This brief essay tries to recount some of the high points–and low points–of the events from the late sixth century bc through the end of ad 135, when a second of two failed revolts against Rome was put down.

At the close of the era of the Old Testament, much of the ancient Near East was under Persian rule (538–332 BC). Early in his reign (beginning ca. 538 BC), Cyrus the Great of Persia issued a decree permitting exiled Judeans to return home and the construction of a Second Temple (2Chr 36:22; Ezra 1:1–2; 5:13) to replace the Solomonic Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587/586 BC (2Kgs 25:8–9; Jer 52:12–13). Work on the Temple was completed in the sixth year of King Darius (Ezra 6:15; ca. 516/515 BC). Ezra was tasked to implement the laws of Israel (Ezra 7:25–26), and instituted necessary reforms, repentance, and confession (Ezra 9–10; ca. 458 BC). Nearly a century after the first Jews’ return from exile, Nehemiah continued the task of rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1:1; 2:1; ca. 445/444 BC), despite opposition (cf. Neh 2:10, 19), and completed the rebuilding of the walls in under two months (Neh 3). After the close of Nehemiah’s account (ca. 430 BC) little is known of Jewish life until the conquests of Alexander.

Alexander and His Successors

At the age of 22 Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC), known to history as “Alexander the Great,” swept through the Persian armies and conquered much of the Near East. His conquests came to an abrupt end in June, 323 BC, when he died of an illness at the age of 32, leaving in his wake a vast empire held together with a fragile unity and no apparent successor (Diodorus, Hist. 17.117.1–5; Arrian, Anabasis 7.26.3–28.1). This left a power vacuum that triggered a violent series of wars fought between would-be “successors” (Diadochi; Diodorus, Hist. 17.118.4), from which emerged two competing dynasties. Ptolemy and his descendants held much of Egypt and ruled Judea from 301 to 198 BC, and Seleucus, who acquired vast territory in Syria and ruled Judea from 198 to 167 BC.

For much of this time the Seleucids and Ptolmies were too entrenched in unceasing conflict with one another and internally to give much attention to the affairs of Jews in the region known as Coele-Syria, a swath of land sometimes identified as Syro-Palestine. When the pendulum of power swung in favor of the Seleucids in 198 BC, their king, Antiochus III (“the Great”; 223–187 BC) sought to expand his kingdom when some of his would-be victims appealed to emerging power of Rome for help (Diodorus, Hist. 29.7.1; Livy, Hist. 33.38; Appian, Syrian War 1.1–4). Rome’s intercession resulted in the dispanding of Antiochus’s army and the imposition of the payment of formidable indemnities (188 BC; Livy, Hist. 37.48; Polybius, Hist. 21.17, 4–5; Diodorus, Hist. 29.13).

The debt to Rome was passed down to successive Seleucid rulers who were burdened with raising funds as best they could. One such ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), turned to the Judeans, where a certain Jason appealed to the Seleucid ruler for control of Jerusalem and its temple with a bribe of 590 talents of silver (2Macc 4:8–9). Jason took to his office and “at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life” (171 BC; 2Macc 4:10). But this was sacrilege to pious Jews of Jerusalem. Like in the Old Testament, the office of High Priest was supposed to be hereditary through the line of Zadok (cf. 1Chr 6:14–15; 2Kgs 25:18) and not for sale to the highest bidder. Jason introduced new customs contrary to Jewish law (2Macc 4:11), prompting the author of 2 Maccabees to complain of “extreme Hellenization” and the “adoption of foreign ways” (2Macc 4:13). Jason’s wickedness also led to the decline in priestly fidelity: they neglected the services at the altar and hastened toward “Greek forms of prestige” (2Macc 4:14–15). But Jason’s ambitions came to an end when a certain Menlaus effectively outbid Jason by 300 talents of silver to secure the high priesthood for himself (172–162 BC; 2Macc 4:23–24). But Menelaus lacked the means to make good on his payments (2Macc 4:27–28), so he stole golden articles from the Temple. Antiochus IV’s attentions were, however, needed elsewhere to secure his hold on power. In his absence, rumor spread that he was dead, and battle for control of Jerusalem ensued. Antiochus IV, surmising Jerusalem was in rebellion, abandoned affairs abroad and unleashed his fury upon Jerusalem (1Macc 1:20; 2Macc 5:11; cf. Josephus, Ant. 12.239–240). On their commander’s orders, his solders slew 80,000 persons indiscriminately and sold as many into slavery (2Macc 5:12–14; cf. Josephus, War 1.19, 5.394; Ant. 12.246–247).

Soon Antiochus IV entered the Temple (2 Macc 5:15), plundered its sacred vessels, and profaned the sanctuary (2Macc 5:16–20; 1Macc 1:21–23; Josephus, Ant. 12.248–250). Two years later (167 BC), Antiochus issued a decree requiring everyone to give up their ancestral customs (1Macc 1:41–42). Gentiles and many Jews accepted the king’s edict, profaning the Sabbath and sacrificing to idols (1Macc 1:43). Under pain of death (1Macc 1:50) the king expressly forbade sacrifices, feasts, sabbaths, and circumcision throughout Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (1Macc 1:44–48). They were to sacrifice unclean animals and build shrines for idols “so that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances” (1:49). Royal inspectors combed the region to enforce the edict, while those who did not capitulate went into hiding (167 BC; 1Macc 1:51–53; 2Macc 6:1; cf. 4Macc. 4:23–26; Josephus, War 1.34; Ant. 10.275–276; 12.253–254). The Temple in Jerusalem was made the temple of “Olympian Zeus” while that at Gerizim became the temple “Zeus the Friend of Strangers” (2Macc 6:2b). The Jerusalem Temple became a scene of debauchery, prostitution, and abominable offerings (2Macc 6:3–5; cf. 1Macc 1:62–63). Jews were forced to participate in the feast of Dionysus and pagan sacrifices (2Macc 6:6–8), women were mocked and killed for circumcising their sons (2Macc 6:10; cf. 1Macc 1:60–61), and those who sought refuge were betrayed and burned on the Sabbath, refusing even to defend themselves on “that most holy day” (2Macc 6:11). What toppled Judea into rebellion was an event on the 15th day of the ninth month (Chislev), 167 BC: the Seleucid overlords erected a “desolating sacrilege” upon the altar of burnt offering (1Macc 1:54). Moreover, anyone concealing books of the law was executed and the books themselves were shredded and burned (1Macc 1:55–58).

The Maccabean Revolt and the Hasmonean Dynasty (166–63 BC)

Opposition arose under the leadership of Mattathias (1Macc 2:1–14; ca. 167 BC), son of Asamoneus (Josephus, War 1.36; hence “Hasmonean”). Accompanied by his five sons, the most prominent of which is Judas, called Maccabeus (1Macc 3:1; 165–160 BC), they conducted strategic and relentless guerilla warfare against the Seleucids. Judas and his brothers eventually took Jerusalem, purified the sanctuary, and resumed its sacrifices with a festival of “dedication” (Hanukkah) on Chislev 25 (164 BC; 1Macc 4:36–59; 2Macc 10:1–8; Josephus, War 1.39; Ant. 12.316–325). When Judas was killed in battle (ca. 160 BC; 1Macc 9:4–18; cf. Josephus, War 1.47; Ant 12.420–13.1) he was succeeded by his brothers Jonathan (160–143 BC) and Simon (143–135 BC), under whom Jewish independence was finally acquired, and “the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel” (142 BC; 1Macc 13:41). Subsequent rulers were not among the original rebels but were comprised largely of their descendants, known collectively as the “Hasmoeans,” who ruled until 63 BC.

These included men like John Hyrcanus (134–104 BC), Aristobulus I (104–103 BC), and the particularly heinous Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BC), who murdered tens of thousands of people during his tyrannical reign, including a public crucifixion of 800 opponents who were executed before their wives and children (88 BC; Josephus, Wars, 1.96–97). His infamy was known even to the Jewish sectarians at Qumran, who refer to him in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the “Lion of Wrath” (4Q169 frags 3–4 i 5–7). The Hasmoneans were ruled by only one queen, Salome Alexandra, who ruled for nine years (76–67 BC) until her death at the age of 73 (Ant. 13.430; War 1.119). Her son, Hyrcanus II, succeeded her but ruled only three months before losing power to his brother, Aristobulus II (Ant. 15.180) in a battle near Jericho (66 BC; War 1.120; Ant. 14.4). Aristobulus was propped up in power by the interference of the Romans. This occurred under general Scaurus, who was dispatched by Pompey to address other matters in the region (64 BC; War 1.127; Ant. 14.29), and who was approached by delegations from both brothers to plead for Roman assistance. By 64 BC Pompey himself arrived in Syria, deposed Seleucid rule, appointed Hyrcanus to the high priesthood (though not the kingship, War 1.153; Ant. 14.73; 15.180; Dio Cassius, Roman History 37.16.4), imposed Roman rule over Coele-Syria and Judea under Scaurus (War 1.154–157; Ant. 14.74–79; Ag. Ap. 2.134; Appian, Syrian War 11.51), and returned to Rome with Aristobulus as prisoner (63 BC; War 1.157–158; Ant. 14.79; Dio Cassius, Roman History 37.20.1–2; Strabo, Geogr. 16.2.46).

Roman Rule from Pompey to the Second Revolt (63 BC–AD 135)

Pompey’s military prowess in Roman affairs, facilitated in part by the loyalty of a certain Antipater, was challenged by the emergence of Julius Caesar. When Pompey died in 48 BC, however, Antipater and other opponents of Caesar were in a precarious position (Caesar, Civil War 3.103.2–104.3; Appian, Syrian War 2.84–86; Dio Cassius, Roman History 42.3.1–5.7). But the dexterous Antipater turned misfortune into advantage by coming to the aid of Caesar in his own military campaign against Egypt (47 BC; Plutarch, Caes. 17.1–21.5; Suetonius, Jul. 64.1; Appian, Syrian War 2.90, 150; Dio Cassius, Roman History 42.40.1–5; Josephus, War 1.187–188, Ant. 14.128–129, 138–139, 383, 16.52; Ag. Ap. 2.61) and, as Josephus succinctly states it, Antipater “changed sides, and cultivated a friendship with Caesar” (War 1.187; Whiston). Antipater thus gained marks of friendship from Caesar, including Roman citizenship and freedom from taxation (47 BC; War 1.193–194; Ant. 14.137). Moreover, when Caesar rose to power, he gave Antipater both the rule of procurator of Judea and leave to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem which were destroyed by Pompey (War 1.199–200; Ant. 14.143–144). Antipater in turn assigned his son, Herod, to govern Galilee (Josephus, War 1.203; Ant. 14.158). The young Herod distinguished himself by ridding the countryside of the brigand Hezekias (War 1.204–205; Ant. 14.159–160), and soon rose to power himself.

Herod was declared king (Greek, basileus) of Judea by the Roman senate (War 1.280–285, 388, 665; Ant. 14.377–389, 446; 17.191; Strabo, Geography 2.46) and consolidated his power in Jerusalem by the spring of 37 BC (Josephus, Wars, 1.349–357; Ant. 14.476–491). Herod, known as “the Great,” is best remembered for his massacre of innocent children (cf. Matt 2:1–19) and the building of the Jerusalem Temple. The latter was begun in 20 BC, and was not completed until AD 64 (Josephus, War, 1.401). It would be destroyed by the Romans only six years later (AD 70). Herod also conducted extensive revisions to a coastal town which he named Caesarea, after Caesar, by erecting a massive harbor complex to accommodate the growing maritime traffic (Josephus, War, 1.408–414). As a result it became the primary port for all comings and goings by ship through the Mediterranean for travelers of various sorts, including those of the apostle Paul (Acts 18:22; 21:16; 25:4).

When Herod was nearing death, the conflict within his family caused him to change his will several times, leaving some uncertainty upon his death in 4 BC as to who would succeed him. Since this is the same Herod known in the New Testament (Matt 2), this is where the story of the New Testament begins. Yet the first writings of the New Testament do not begin to appear until perhaps the late 40s. Regardless, Herod’s surviving sons all pleaded their cases to Emperor Augustus, who divided up the kingdom between them (Josephus, War, 1.14–15, 20–38, 80–100). But some of these, like Archelaus, were so tyrannical that Augustus was forced to remove them (Josephus, Wars, 2.111), and establish direct Roman rule under a series of procurators (Josephus, Wars, 1.39–79, 111–117). These were Roman appointees, who seldom knew local customs and ruled with the sword where a touch of tact may have been more beneficial.

One such ruler, Pontius Pilate (26–36 AD; Matt 27), was so brutal he was ordered to give an account to the emperor (March, 37 AD; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.170–178). Except for a brief rule by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great (41–44 AD; Acts 12; Josephus, Antiquities, 19.343–352), procurators ruled right up to the outbreak of war in 66 AD. The procurators made one blunder after another in their ignorance of and disinterest in the customs of their Jewish subjects. This merely compounded resentment about the Jewish population until, after decades of disdain, abuse, and even sacrilege, much of the Jewish population of Judea and Galilee revolted against Roman rule.

Anger and frustration among the people gave rise to revolutionary movements, such as the well-known Zealots and less known Sicarii. The latter were known for concealing their infamous daggers and disposing of their opponents under cover of crowds (Ant. 20.185–187). Josephus mentions an Egyptian Jew who brought his followers to the Mount of Olives, from which he said he would cause the walls in Jerusalem to fall (War 2.261–262; cf. Acts 21:38). Other groups known in the New Testament flourished at the time. The Sanhedrin, convened by the High Priest Ananus, were a group of influential men who tried cases of individuals charged with significant crimes (Josephus, Ant., 20.197–200; cf. Mark 14:53–55; Acts 22:30–23:10). The Pharisees, noted for their accurate interpretations of the Law, which were disseminated and passed down orally (Mark 7:5; Josephus, Antiquities, 13.297), differed in their beliefs from the Sadducees, who were typically the social elite who saw only the written law as authoritative (Josephus, Antiquities, 13.297). The Essenes (Josephus, Wars, 2.119–161), never mentioned in the New Testament, were at least in part a notoriously ascetic, communal, industrious, disciplined, and honest—and typically thought to have some connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls are a cache of ancient Jewish documents written no later than the first century AD, found in caves adjacent to the Dead Sea at a site called Qumran. They provide a complicated window into the beliefs and practices of one isolated Jewish community that lived in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isa 40:3; cf. Matt 3:3; 1QS 8.12–16).

Throughout the ensuing conflict Jews, especially in Jerusalem, were deeply divided about whether to fight or to comply with the Romans. The majority of Jews, however, merely wanted to survive the carnage that was boiling over within the city’s walls. Vespasian, learning of this conflict, was content to allow the infighting to ripen, while he turned his attention to subduing Galilee (AD 67) and then Judea (AD 68–69). But his momentum came to an abrupt halt when news arrived of Nero’s death (9 June 68 AD; Josephus, War 4.491), then his successor, Galba, was was assassinated (15 January 69 AD; War 4.499; Suetonius, Galb. 23.1), and his successor, Otho, committed suicide after a reign of only three months and two days (17 April 69 AD; War 4.545–548; Suetonius, Otho 11.1–2). By June of AD 69, Vespasian’s troops declared him emperor and compelled him to accept in order to save the empire (War 4.592–604; Tacitus, Hist. 2.79–81; Suetonius, Vespasian 6). As emperor, then, he dropped his affairs in Judea and sought to secure his rule elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

During this time the assault was at a standstill, allowing both for fortification of rebel strongholds and continued deterioration of conflict and conditions in Jerusalem (War 4.555). The Zealots in Jerusalem plundered the homes of the wealthy (War 4.558–560) and murdered indiscriminately (War 4.560–563). According to Josephus, a person either faced the tyranny of one faction of rebels within Jerusalem, or the murderous threat of another faction outside the city, with every avenue of escape to the Romans cut off (War 4.564–565). Indeed, blood continued to flow before the Romans ever set foot within Jerusalem. According to Josephus, the combatants wrought such destruction—including the looting of stores and burning of grain—that the city was soon reduced to famine. Its inhabitants prayed for Roman intervention (War 5.21–36). Those who tried to flee for refuge were slain by Zealots who took swift action against those not in support of rebellion.

By the spring of AD 70 Vespasian dispatched his son Titus to subdue the rebellion at its very heart: Jerusalem, which soon fell (War 4.656–658; Tacitus, Hist. 5.1). Those trying to escape the famine of the city were slaughtered by the rebels (War 5.423–445). Reports emerged that the dead within the city reached 600,000 (War 5.567–572; 6.1–4). Many of those who did manage to escape the city were captured by Roman forces and crucified opposite the city’s walls (War 5.446–451). Still the rebels refused to capitulate (War 5.452–459). The city was set on fire (8 Gorpiaeus, 26 September 70 AD; Josephus, War 6.402–408). Titus executed all the seditious, reserved the most handsome youth for the eventual triumph in Rome, and sent the rest over 17 years old as slaves to Egypt. Many others were sent to their destruction in theaters or sold into slavery elsewhere (War 6.416–419). All that was left was to capture the refugees still holding out at the desert plateau of Masada, adjacent the Dead Sea. This was done after a three-year siege when Romans finally advanced to the top, only to find 960 dead by suicide, who would sooner fall at the hands of a countryman than to fall into the clutches of a Roman (3 May 74 AD; War 7.400–401).

For a people long accustomed to worshipping their God in the Jerusalem temple at the heart of their promised land, many Jews were stunned. For some Jews there were thoughts of a rebuilt Temple, finding hope in the story of the rebuilding of the Temple destroyed in 586 BC. Other Jews, like the authors of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch writing shortly after these events, wrestled with how to account for God’s justice while looking for ultimate redemption in the future. Some later traditions suggest that during this time Jews were given leave to found a center for the study of Torah at Yavneh, from which rabbinic Judaism was born. Regardless, they were forced to accommodate their faith in a land occupied by Gentiles and without access to a Temple cult. Christianity, though emerging prior to the destruction, made surprisingly little of the events as either a theological problem or an apologetic weapon. It is often noted that Acts, written toward the end of the 1st century AD, seems to presume that followers of Jesus maintained regular participation in Temple worship (Acts 2:1; 21:17–26). Other writings, such as the Gospels, ostensibly predict its destruction (e.g., Gospel of Mark 13), while still others regarded its entire cult as a mere shadow of the sacrifice accomplished in Christ (Epistle to the Hebrews).

The Jewish people during this period were long accustomed to brutal rule from external (Gentile) forces, and even rule by fellow Jews could be harsh. Many Jews were simply casualties in the ambitions of other men—Jew and Gentile alike. The flurry of literary activity evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls gives a small window into but one sect of ancient Judaism, but it depicts a people with a longing for God’s intervention with a decidedly eschatological outlook. Later (AD 132–135) a group of Jews would rebel again, this time under Simon ben Kosiba, who was regarded by some as “Bar Kokhba” (“Son of the Star”; cf. Num 24:17). Though he makes no messianic claims in his surviving letters, coins minted during the revolt call him “prince (נשי, nśy) of Israel.” His efforts ended, as one expects, with complete subjugation. But his brief appearance on the pages of history illustrate in part that the oppressed people in Judea and Galilee continued to look for a deliverer. It is small wonder, then, that whatever Peter meant when he said that Jesus is the “Christ” or “Messiah,” it was markedly different from that of Jesus Himself (Mark 8:29–33).

Further Reading

This essay is part of the The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary, edited by Phil Thompson. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

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