Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament, and then there is a leap of 400 years until the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s important to get an idea of what transpired in the Holy Land during this long period of time. Learning about this era sets the stage for Christ’s birth, and shows us what kind of culture and political climate received Him.
Babylon fell after only 70 years of glory, and Persia became the ruling empire. The Persian King Cyrus was inspired to allow and even encourage the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. However, a huge number of Jews stayed in Babylon or migrated elsewhere (by the time of Christ, there were 1 million Jews in the great city of Alexandria, Egypt). When the Jews began rebuilding their temple, there were only about 50,000 of them in Jerusalem. A number of Jewish scholars remained settled in Babylon under the Persians, and they codified and produced commentary on the Mosaic Law.
By the time of the return from Babylon, also, the Jews were speaking Aramaic, and Hebrew, the language of the scriptures, was becoming lost to them. Their religious leaders in Jerusalem were appointed by the Persian kings, and were not prophets of the same caliber and inspiration as the prophets of old. Thus, there arose a class educated in Hebrew, in the scriptures, and in the law, who copied the scriptures, but also transmitted religion to the populace. These were not prophets, but scribes. Because Jewish scholars endlessly studied, debated and analyzed the scriptures, answering the most detailed of questions, the commentary grew and grew, and “hairsplitting” evolved, wresting the scriptures and ruling on every detail of the law. Christ called this “looking beyond the mark.”
But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble (Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:14).
It should not be surprising that there was no unity of interpretation among these scholars, nor that they competed to bring people to their varying points of view. The result was the creation of such distinct religious sects in Judah as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. These divisions began in Babylon, but were amplified after the return to the Holy Land. In brief, the Sadducees were the moneyed, sophisticated class. They accepted many of the influences of Greek culture, and by Christ’s time, no longer believed in angels or the resurrection. They were sophisticated city-dwellers, and also by Christ’s time, had purchased the right to the high priesthood from the Romans.
Pharisees believed in strict adherence to the law. Christ derided them for keeping the outward ordinances, while being corrupt in the spirit. They accepted not only the written law, but the oral law that accompanied the scriptures, and they believed in angels and the resurrection. They were less sophisticated and less wealthy than the Sadducees. But Pharisaic Judaism evolved into the orthodox Judaism of today, while the Sadducees disappeared.
In the power struggle between these two sects can be traced the inception of formal synagogue worship. The Pharisees sought to undermine the religious authority of the Sadducees, which was based on their exclusive priestly domination of the temple. To weaken this control, the Pharisees advocated taking certain ceremonies, previously associated exclusively with the temple, and practicing them in the home. In addition, formal places of worship, the synagogue, were set up that promulgated and perpetuated their doctrine. It was in this way that learned men of other than priestly descent began to play a role in national religious affairs.
The Essenes rebelled against the hypocrisy of both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and against the Hellinization (Grecanization) of the Jewish culture. At times they isolated themselves by establishing a retreat in Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls are from). They kept a different calendar than the Pharisees, so their holidays did not match up with those of mainstream Jews in Jerusalem.
We’ll also mention the Samaritans. Because the Assyrians had effected a population transfer in the northern kingdom of Israel, the people of Samaria intermarried with gentiles. They were also quick to adopt Greek culture. When the Jews returned from Babylon and began to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans (who mostly considered themselves Jews) wanted to help. The Jews of Jerusalem refused, considering the Samaritans impure by lineage, but also in their corrupted religious practices. This was a great insult to the Samaritans, and they responded by doing anything they could to thwart the building of the temple, even appealing to Persian King Darius. Thus, the breach between the Jews and the Samaritans grew, and provided subject matter for some of Christ’s most profound parables.
The Persian Empire was overtaken by the advancing armies of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (northern Greece). The two kingdoms jostled for power over many years. Some of the Greek city-states had joined together under Alexander’s father (Phillip) to protect themselves from Persia.
In 334 B.C. [Alexander] successfully 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 hordes of Greek colonists—merchants, craftsmen, laborers—eager to impose the Greek culture.
So far-reaching were Alexander’s campaigns, that even Egypt became Greek. The Ptolemies, pharaohs of Egypt, were Greek, including the famous Cleopatra. Although Alexander died of disease in his early thirties, his successes carried Greek culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.
Greek, influence was felt for centuries. With his conquest of the little Judean state, the Jewish world pivoted westward and came under the influence of the civilizations of Europe. In the past the Jews had been carried and scattered to the northeast and to the south; now it would be to the north and to the west. In the past their masters had been from the Oriental East, like themselves. Now the Occidental, or Western, peoples took over.
Greek became the language of commerce all over the empire and Hellenic culture became the standard.
Thus, new pagan influences and challenges faced the Jewish people. Greeks looked on the traditions, customs, and religion of the Jews as primitive, archaic, and barbaric; they set about to “enlighten” them. Even the surrounding peoples quickly accepted the Greek rule, and soon the Jews were an island in a sea of Greek influence.
Greek philosophy and materialism exerted a huge influence upon the wealthier citizens of the Holy Land, including the Sadducees.
After Alexander died, warring powers fought for control of the Holy Land. Alexander’s empire had been divided among his generals.
Two of the generals finally came to dominate in the Holy Land. Seleucus (pronounced Sel-ay-ooh-cus) conquered Syria and the northern part of the Middle East. Ptolemy (pronounced Toll-oh-mee) took Egypt. Judea lay directly between the two rivals. The Holy Land changed hands several times during the next few years as Ptolemies and Seleucids fought for its control, causing disastrous results to the towns and population of Judea. In 301 B.C. it finally fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, to whom it belonged for one hundred years. But during this entire time, the Seleucids contested their rule. Judea was for the Ptolemies, as it had been for many rulers of Egypt, Persia, and Assyria, of strategic importance. For the Egyptians it served as an advance defense base. In addition, it had great economic value because of the trade routes that crossed it. On the other hand, the Seleucids, who had firmly established themselves in Syria, did not want to have the Ptolemies rule a country so close to the heart of their land. Thus, Judea remained a point of contention between the two rival powers. It was not until 200 B.C. that the Seleucids were able to capture and hold Judea.
The Seluicid, Antiochus IV came to power in 175 B.C. and really upped the pressure on the Jews to become Hellenized. He built a gymnasium in Jerusalem overlooking the temple mount, a terrific insult to the religious, poorer Jews. The athletes competed Greek-style (naked, no women allowed), which caused circumcision to become an embarrassment. This led many of the people to reject the ordinance. In some cases, the young men even underwent painful operations to hide the token of the Abrahamic covenant. (See Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, p. 25.)
n 169 B.C. the temple was plundered under orders of Antiochus. He attacked on the Sabbath, and the Jews wouldn’t take up arms on the Holy Day. The troops defiled the temple, entering and erecting a statue to Zeus, then offering pigs to the idol. Many Jews were killed. Sabbath observance, celebrations, and circumcision were forbidden on penalty of death.
In 167 B.C. , in a little village called Modin, the Greek soldiers gathered the people and demanded that Mattathias, an old priest of the Asmonean family, offer a sacrifice to the pagan god. Mattathias refused, even though he was threatened with death. 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 cut down 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 2:1–27.) The revolt had begun! It roared through the land, gathering support on every side as the Jews turned on the hated Greeks. By the time Antiochus took the revolt seriously, he faced an entire nation thirsting for freedom.
The Pharisees rallied around the family, who sought to uphold the Mosaic Law. Mattathias died shortly after the rebellion began, but his five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, led the cause. He was successful partly because he and his followers agreed to fight on the sabbath.
Judah was a military genius and again and again exhorted his vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped troops to have faith in God and the righteousness of their cause. Again and again he devastated forces two to four times the size of his own. (See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 12, chap. 7, par. 3.) By 164 B.C. the city of Jerusalem had been reconquered and the temple cleansed of its impurities and rededicated to the worship of Jehovah. The Jews became independent of their foreign overlords for the first time in over four hundred years.
This is the source of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. When the Maccabees reclaimed the temple, they set about to cleanse and rededicate it. The menorah (candlestick), or ner tamid (eternal light), had only enough oil to burn for one day, but when lit, miraculously burned for eight days, until more oil could be obtained and consecrated.
The Maccabee family became the Hasmonean dynasty of rulers over the Holy Land, and they became corrupt and murderous rather quickly. (Later, King Herod, an Edomite convert to Judaism, would marry a Hasmonean wife to solidify his power.) They formed alliances with the ever-more-powerful empire of Rome. During their years of rule, the Pharisees and Sadducees won and lost power. By the time of Christ, the Sadducees were in control of the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling court) and the high priesthood, and were in power in the cities, but the Pharisees were favored in the countryside. It was disputes between members of the Hasmonean family vying for power that brought the Roman general Pompey into Jerusalem (63 B.C.). He was invited. And many Jews welcomed him to establish order.
Pompey established a Hasmonean, Antipater, as ruler. His son, the next king of Judea, was Herod the Great. Herod had been raised in Rome at the side of the children of the Caesars. He was respected there, and he was not an untalented ruler. Outside the Holy Land, he was appreciated by Jews for guaranteeing they be respected. But within the Holy Land, he was despised. He was an Idumean (Edomite) by descent, descended from Esau. The Edomites were always enemies to the Jews. He was a convert to Judaism, and made concessions to uphold Jewish culture, but he was wicked, murdering his sons and wives out of jealousy. He was responsible for the “murder of the innocents in Bethlehem, too. It was his building endeavors that have been his best legacy — especially the great temple complex and Antonia Fortress.
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 Archelaus’s extreme and oppressive measures, the Jews were successful in having him removed in A.D. 6. His territory was then given to Herod Antipas to rule.
It was Herod Antipas who tried Jesus Christ, sending Him to Pontius Pilate.
Other groups grew up under Roman rule. One was the Zealots, or sicarii. These wanted to overthrow the Romans and were mainly rebelling against Roman taxation. They were named for the knives they sometimes kept hidden beneath their cloaks. After the death of Jesus, it was the Zealots primarily who led the revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The people who died in the Roman siege of Masada (which occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem) were Zealots.
They would then assassinate those known to favor Rome or sometimes Roman officials themselves. Though violent, the Zealots were strictly religious, justifying themselves on the grounds that only through the overthrow of Rome could God’s kingdom come about. Their very name suggested great zeal for the law of Moses.
Another group was the Herodians, who supported Herod and Roman rule. They joined with the Pharisees to oppose Jesus, because they felt that He threatened the politics of the region.
The Beginning of a New Dispensation
During the four hundred years that followed Malachi, we know of no prophet in Israel. Though services had been interrupted, the temple rites had continued during most of that time. Priests had made the proper sacrifice on the great altar, and the people had continued to pray daily while a priest had offered incense upon the altar in the holy place. All had gone like clockwork until 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 conjecture. And well they should have, for once again the veil had been lifted, and God’s word was proclaimed. The humble and aged Zacharias, of the priestly order of Abia, stood in the presence of an angel. “Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son. . . . And he shall . . . make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” ( Luke 1:13, 17 .) This long-desired child was to be a messenger who would go forth in the spirit and power of Elias to declare that the kingdom of God was at hand. Once more Israel would be extended the covenant and the promise. Once more the keys and power were to be proffered to them. He who came to prepare the way was called John, or in Hebrew, Johanan, “gift of God.” Israel had a prophet once again, a forerunner, the prophet that would prepare the way for Jehovah’s coming to earth as the Son of God and the Messiah that Judah had awaited for so long. And thus the Old Testament, or old covenant, was brought to a close and the New Testament, or new covenant, begun.
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.