Doctrine Article
Expanded Internet Edition - June 1, 2002 

The Intertestamental Period

By Ernest L. Martin Ph.D., 1986
Transcribed and Edited by David Sielaff, June 2002

Read the accompanying Newsletter for June 2002

 

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To many people, the teachings of the New Testament seem so foreign to those found in the Old Testament. In fact, it seems on the surface that the authors of the New Testament books almost lived in a different world than the prophets, kings and priests who composed the Old Testament writings. And in one way of looking at it, this is true. The types of writings which make up the New Testament are of a fundamentally different kind than those of the earlier Testament. However, all the writings of Scripture originate from the same source and both sections were inspired by the Spirit of YHWH. It is most important to understand that both the Old and the New Testaments complement one another and their full messages cannot be comprehended without both sections relying totally on each other. But, in order to blend the two together in a compatible way, the 400 year span known as the "Intertestament Period" must be studied and understood. Once this is done, it will be seen how sensible the New Testament teaching really is and how dependent it is upon that of the Old Testament. As the apostle Paul said, even the doctrines which comprised "the Mystery" (given to Paul and others only after 63 B.C.E.), are founded on "the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20).

The Judaism of Christ's Time Was Not the Religion of Moses

It is often assumed by many people that the Jewish people in the 1st century were following Moses, and following him very strictly. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, that society in which Christ taught was the most "religious" ever known to man, but it was a far cry from the simple religious doctrines advocated by Moses. In this we have the testimony of Christ himself.

"Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he [Christ] answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? ... Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

"For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition."

These are strong indictments, but Christ did not stop there. He went even beyond these criticisms by saying that they were walking in the ways of their father the Devil (John 8:44). And in Matthew 23, he strongly upbraided them for imposing on the common people heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, but they themselves would not move them away from the people with one of their fingers (Matthew 23:4). Christ was so upset with the teachings and ways of the religious leaders of His time that He told His disciples,

"That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall, in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."

In no way would Christ have given such strictures had the leaders and the people been observing the Law of Moses in its pristine purity. But they weren't. They had drifted far from Moses and had adopted teachings that Moses would not have recognized at all. Let us notice some of the important things that developed after Ezra closed the Old Testament canon in the 5th century B.C.E. Drastic changes occurred that altered the whole religious structure of Judaism.

How Judaism Began to Differ from Moses

With the advent of Alexander the Great a new type of civilization entered Palestine. Alexander began a deliberate and decisive campaign to bring in a one world government with Greek civilization being the catalyst around which it would be developed. He imposed on the Middle East the Greek language, Greek society, Greek customs, and most importantly, he attempted to blend together all religions in the world of his influence into a single religion which used Greek nomenclatures and theological opinions as its basis. This concept of "one worldism" (known as Hellenism) began to penetrate into the consciousness of most people of the Middle East. And though at first the Jews resisted its influence, with the death of the High Priest Simon (called the Just) in about 280 B.C.E, the end of what we might call "the Old Testament form of religion" came into view.

After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.E., the land of Palestine was attacked by invading armies, up to 301 B.C.E, no less than four times. In this latter year, the land finally succumbed to the rulership of Ptolemy of Egypt (Ptolemy had been a general in Alexander's army). It is important to realize that Palestine remained under the direct control of the Hellenistic people of Egypt for just over a hundred years (until 198 B.C.E.). It was at the beginning of this period that Simon the Just had his priesthood. He was the last of the authorities in the organization founded by Ezra and Nehemiah called "the Great Assembly" (or "Great Synagogue"). With his death about 280 B.C.E., the Jews of Palestine went into an eighty year period (while they were dominated by the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt) that profoundly affected the religious beliefs of the people.

We are informed by Prof. Jacob Lauterbach (a very learned Jewish scholar who died in 1942) that Jewish tradition knows of no religious teacher who taught any form of religion from the death of Simon the Just to about 190 B.C.E. 1  In fact, Lauterbach simply states that there was no official activity of religious teachers in those years. 2 In other words, for a period of about 80 years, during the time of Egyptian rule, there is no record of any religious activity among the Jews. This is the only period, since the time of Alexander the Great, in the history of the Jews of Palestine in which no religious teaching is recorded. This silence certainly implies that there was little religious activity among the Jews during this period. But it is known from the records of the Gentile societies surrounding Palestine that the teaching of Hellenism was widespread and dominant in all areas of the Middle East including Palestine.

"There was no escape from that influence [Hellenism]. It was present everywhere, in the street and the market, in the everyday life and all phases of social intercourse."

While no religious activity involving the teaching of the Holy Scriptures is evident from the historical sources for that period of 80 years, it is a well known fact that Hellenism (the Greek form of pagan teaching) was everywhere in evidence in Palestine. Note the further observation of Herford,

"It is safe to say that no one, high or low, who was living in Judea in the period which includes the whole of the third and the beginning of the second century B.C., wholly escaped the influence of Hellenism."

Ironically, the ones who were affected the most by this new culture were the priests (the religious authorities themselves). Most influential Jews fell under the sway of Hellenism. And because the leaders began to adopt the basic principles of Hellenistic civilization, the common people also had to accept the adoption in order to live within the area of Palestine. It takes little imagination to realize what happened to the religious life of the people as a whole. They were completely surrounded by the influence of Hellenism, having to incorporate it into their lives in order to carry on normal daily living. And during this time of Greek influence, there is not a single record of any teaching from the Holy Scripture being disseminated among the people at large. What was the natural result? Lauterbach gives us the answer,

"There prevailed a state of religious anarchy, wherein the practical life of the people was not controlled by the law of the fathers as interpreted by the religious authorities, nor were the activities of the teachers carried on in an official way by an authoritative body. This chaotic state of affairs lasted for a period of about eighty years."

The Key to the Understanding of Judaism

The recognition of this religious anarchy among the Jews during the Egyptian domination is the veritable key that explains why the Judaism of Christ's day emerged. Had this religious anarchy not occurred there would undoubtedly have been no Judaism for Christ to contend with. If conditions had remained as they were under Ezra and Nehemiah (and as they existed until the death of Simon the Just), then Christ would have found a people keeping the Law of Moses without much deviation from the principles left them by Ezra and Nehemiah when the Old Testament canon was closed. But this is not what Christ found among the Jews of the 1st century B.C.E. Though the basic physical teachings of Moses were advocated, there were hundreds of new laws which were inherited from pagan practices that had infiltrated the Judaism of Christ's time. Being under the persuasion of an all encompassing Hellenistic culture, during that 80 years' period of religious anarchy, even the most patriotic Jew found himself of necessity practicing many customs and habits of the Hellenistic Egyptians. There was little that the people could do about it under such environmental conditions. Hellenism had saturated all facets of society and there was no way of escaping its influence. In fact, instead of protesting against the new culture, the majority of Jews of the time accepted it in principle, and this especially applied to the priests and the influential people of the land. The result was religious anarchy! Note what modern Jewish scholars have said about this time of Egyptian domination (from the death of Simon the Just to 198 B.C.E.). Lauterbach states,

"During the seventy or eighty years of religious anarchy, many new practices had been gradually adopted by the people."

Herford adds,

"In the absence of authoritative guidance, the people had gone their own way; new customs had found a place amongst old religious usage. ... new ideas had been formed under the influence of Hellenism which had permeated the land for more than a century, and there had been no one to point out the danger which thereby threatened the religious life of the people."

There must have been some Jews who wished to adhere to the strict teachings of Moses and the Prophets, but the evidence suggests that most Jews simply gave up believing the principles of the Holy Scriptures canonized by Ezra. The Hellenistic influence was overpowering. It is not that the Scriptures were destroyed by the Jews (which they weren't), but it was the adoption of the new Hellenistic doctrines that changed the religious practices of the people. The people who had now been in contact with Greek culture,

"… acquired new ideas and became familiar with new views of life, other than those which they had been taught by their teachers in the name of the law of their fathers. The rich and influential classes accepted Greek ideas and followed Greek customs. The leaders of the people were no longer guided by the laws of the fathers, nor was the life of the people controlled solely by the laws and customs of the fathers as contained in the Torah [the Law of Moses]."

This condition of general religious anarchy among the Jews was not limited to Palestine. The Hellenistic culture filtered through all areas of the civilized world of the Middle East. Prof. Edwyn Bevan comments about this matter,

"Greek culture, Greek literature, were thrown open to the peoples of Nearer Asia, and they pressed into its pale. They had native literatures [and for the Jews this included the Holy Scripture], but these in the new daylight looked poor and uninformed: now those who wrote must write Greek, those who thought must think on the lines of Greek science and philosophy."

And though the Holy Scriptures were translated in Egypt into Greek during this period (the Septuagint Version), it soon became popular to allegorize the teachings of Moses and the Prophets to make their doctrines accord more with Greek ideas and Greek educational motifs. In the time of Christ there was Philo Judaeus (a learned Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt). He wrote extensive works on the Holy Scriptures and in almost every case he reinterpreted the plain statements of the Bible into allegorical teachings which were satisfying to the Greek manner of thought. What Philo did, and many of his contemporaries, was to "modernize" the Scripture. For many of the educated Jews outside of Palestine it was normal to accept this new method of interpretation which, in effect, was a blending of Greek religious and social ideas with the teachings of the Bible. The result was an attitude among many Jews of substituting "Moses" for "Plato," and yet it became common to claim that the new teachings were actually Mosaic. Let us see how.

The Period of Religious Anarchy Produced Many New Customs Among Jews

The period of the religious anarchy among the Jews lasted from about 280 to 198 B.C.E. This was the time when the Jews of Palestine were under the domination of the Hellenistic Egyptians. But in 198 B.C.E. Palestine was taken over by the Hellenistic kingdom in Syria known as the Seleucids. Though Greek culture permeated the Syrian as well as the Egyptian areas at the time, the Seleucids in the long run were not the "easy-going" and "civilized" type of people the Egyptians were. The gentle attitude of the Egyptians allowed a general absorption of Hellenistic teachings among the Jews within an environment of relative peace (and the penetration was successful), but after about twenty years of Seleucid control the Seleucids commenced a campaign of forcing their captive peoples to adopt their ways. So when the Seleucids actively promoted their brand of Hellenism, the Jews started to resist their methods of bringing in a uniformity to society. The Jews of Palestine then began, once more, to uphold the Holy Scriptures as their guide (albeit with many Hellenistic ideas now within the society). Indeed, many of the Jews initiated a resistance to the overt methods that the Seleucids were using to subjugate all peoples to their form of Hellenism. The Jewish authorities (in the Sanhedrin the Jewish ruling court) began to exalt the teachings of the Scriptures once more. But they ran into great difficulty. People during the time of anarchy in the 3rd century B.C.E. had now absorbed new teachings not found in the Scriptures ordained by Ezra. 6 So when the Sanhedrin (not long after 198 B.C.E.) began to revive the teachings of the Scriptures among the people, they were confronted with many problems. Lauterbach continues,

"The members of this Sanhedrin took up the interrupted activity of the former teachers, the Sopherim, and, like them, sought to teach and interpret the Law and to regulate the life of the people in accordance with the laws and traditions of the fathers. But in their attempt to harmonize the laws of the fathers with the life of their own times, they encountered some great difficulties."

"The difficulty was aggravated by the fact that during the seventy or eighty years of religious anarchy, many new practices had been gradually adopted by the people. In the course of time, these came to be considered as Jewish religious practices, and no distinction was made between them and older religious practices contained in the teachings of the Sopherim and based on the traditions of the fathers."

"Many new customs and practices for which there were no precedents in the traditions of the fathers and not the slightest indication in the Book of the Law, were observed by the people and considered by them as part of their religious laws and practices."

This was the primary problem facing the Sanhedrin: What to do about these new customs that the people were now observing? The Holy Scriptures ordained in the time of Ezra did not condone such added laws to the religious and spiritual doctrines of YHWH. In fact, such practices were condemned (Deuteronomy 12:30, Jeremiah 10:2). But now (after 198 B.C.E.), when the Jewish authorities wanted to reestablish the Law of Moses as the law of the land, they found the people (including themselves) keeping many foreign customs that had no warrant in any part of the Holy Scriptures. The people had become so wedded to these new customs inherited during the time of religious anarchy that the Sanhedrin saw that it was going to be impossible to wean the people away from them. What was the Sanhedrin to do? They decided that it was necessary to somehow identify these new teachings with the doctrines of Moses.

"The difficulty was to find a sanction in the Torah [the Law of Moses] for the new customs and practices which had established themselves in the community."

Amazingly, the Sanhedrin accomplished the task. They decided on an ingenious plan, a scheme that would inform the people that these new customs were actually old teachings of Moses that were not recorded in the Holy Scriptures when they were finally canonized by Ezra. They reasoned thus,

"It is hardly possible that foreign customs and non-Jewish laws should have met with such universal acceptance. The total absence of objection on the part of the people to such customs vouched for their Jewish origin, in the opinion of the teachers."

It was determined that these laws (not found written in the Holy Scriptures) were actually oral laws handed down from elder to elder from the time of Moses until the 2nd century B.C.E. The truth is, those teachings were inherited from the time of the religious anarchy when Hellenism had infiltrated to a great degree Jewish society. In no way could they be traced back to Moses or the Prophets.

"The reorganized Sanhedrin (after 190) had to reckon with these new laws and customs, now considered as traditional because observed and practiced by the people for a generation or more."

Nevertheless, these oral laws (as they came to be called) were finally reckoned by the whole of Jewish society as the "traditions of the father."

"Accordingly, the teachers themselves came to believe that such generally recognized laws and practices must have been old traditional laws and practices accepted by the fathers and transmitted to following generations in addition to the Written Law. Such a belief would naturally free the teachers from the necessity of finding scriptural proof for all the new practices."

"These traditional laws had no indication in the Written Law and no basis in the teachings of the Sopherim [the priests who helped Ezra canonize the Old Testament], because they developed after the period of the Sopherim."

The majority of these new laws and customs were actually pagan practices that the Jews had absorbed during the time of religious anarchy. But what if someone, during the time these new foreign customs were being legalized in Judaism, would have pointed out that they were nothing more than heathen customs? The Sanhedrin had an answer for such people, in such cases the Jews could maintain that the heathen were following Jewish practices and not vice versa. 7

Christ's Condemnation of the Judaism of His Day Was Justified

When one understands the religious history among the Jews in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E., it can readily be seen that Christ was telling the absolute truth that Judaism had drifted far from teaching the simple laws of Moses and those of the Prophets.

"Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees ... and He said unto them, ‘Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? ... ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’"

And this was true. They had accepted customs and laws inherited from the heathen as being "oral" laws (the traditions of the fathers) supposedly handed down from Moses and the Prophets. This was the adoption of falsehood and calling it the truth. But it didn't stop with sanctioning the heathen customs the Jews took up during the eighty years of religious anarchy. It went much further. Indeed, they soon began to create brand new laws themselves without the slightest authority from the Holy Scriptures. Modern Jewish scholars have been able to identify the very Rabbi (not long after the time of anarchy was over) that began to make up laws of his own and to tell the people that YHWH had inspired these new teachings. The first Pharisee that invented novel and contrary laws to the Scriptures was a man by the name of Joseph ben Joezer. This Pharisee made three new laws completely independent of Scripture and, more to the point, they were teachings not even permitted by Moses. His commandments were not earth-shaking violations but his legislation started a precedent that brought on a flood of new laws and decisions that by the time of Christ had changed the whole character of Judaism into a religion very different from that found in the Old Testament.

Joseph's first law permitted the Jews to eat an insect related to the locust which all Jews had previously held to be unclean. He also allowed Jews to eat of the liquids of the slaughtering place (without regard to Leviticus 3:17). And finally, he legislated that persons could be ritualistically clean even if they were in constant contact with individuals who had become unclean by touching a dead body (Leviticus 11:27–31). For making these new laws (and this Joseph was the first Pharisee to do so), his contemporaries named him Joseph the Permitter. From that time (about 170 B.C.E.), other Pharisees began to follow Joseph's example and started making new and independent laws from the Holy Scripture. They felt they had direct authority from the Almighty (being led by the Holy Spirit) to teach new laws even if contrary to the written word of YHWH. Herford states that the Pharisees, after the time of Joseph the Permitter,

"… felt that they had, no less but EVEN MORE THAN THE PROPHETS, divine authority for what they taught. … It was the way of expressing the belief that revelation did not cease with the extinction of prophecy."

The Pharisees felt YHWH was revealing Himself now as He had revealed Himself to the prophets, and speaking not alone in the words of an ancient text, but in words which came from the heart and conscience of men who felt His hand upon them "to guide them into all truth." 8 The adoption of the attitude that the "Spirit" was now guiding them, led to the creation of multitudes of new laws for Jewish people to observe (independent of the simple teachings of Scripture). Christ said they place on people "heavy burdens and grievous to be borne" (Matthew 23:4). The Pharisees invented a new religion that no more resembled the teachings of Moses than Christianity today exemplifies the teachings of Christ because people, who also claim to have the "Spirit" today, also disregard the Scripture. 9

Conclusion

Read the passage below and determine for yourself if the Pharisees had authority to add to the "Law of Moses" (especially to change Moses and to deviate from the teachings of Scripture)?

"And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites which bare the ark of the covenant to the Lord saying, ‘Take this book of the law and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.’"

Ernest L. Martin 1986
Edited by David Sielaff, June 2002


1 Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union Press, 1951) p.196.

2 Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p.196.

3 The full reference is R. Travers Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha (London: Soncino Press, 1933).

4 Herford agreed,

"But of those hundred years about eighty, from 270 B.C. to 196 B.C., were a period of anarchy, during which there were no recognized teachers of Torah. The Sopherim had ceased to function and the Sanhedrin had not begun."

  • Talmud and Apocrypha, p.57.

5 The full title is, Jerusalem Under the High-Priest: Five Lectures on the Period between Nehemiah and the New Testament (London: E. Arnold, 1904).

6 The official helpers of Ezra who aided him in canonizing the Old Testament were known as Sopherim, Scribes, and this group of people were in authority in Judaism up to the time of Simon the Just who died about 280 B.C.E. Simon the Just was considered the last of the Sopherim.

7 Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 206.

8 Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 69.

9 See the article "The Folly of Tradition" on the ASK website, www.askelm.com.

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