We have recently concluded our look at evidence for the reliability of the Old Testament from the scientific field of archaeology. Archaeology also plays an important role as evidence for the reliability of the New Testament and we will look at that in the near future.
However, before moving forward to evidence for the New Testament, I’d like to focus briefly on what is known as the Intertestamental Period. Though I didn’t spend much time as an atheist investigating that period, a little background may be helpful if you are not familiar with what happened to Israel during those years.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
As the name implies, this is the period of time in Israel’s history between the writings of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It covers about 400 years – from the end of Malachi’s prophetic ministry (approx. 400 BC) to the beginning of the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist (approx. 25 AD). While 400 years is relatively short when we look at the history of Israel (almost 4,000 years from the time of Abraham) and the history of Christianity (almost 2,000 years), it’s a long time when we compare it to the age of our own country (about 242 years since Declaration of Independence).
Some people call this time period the “400 Silent Years” because God did not speak to Israel through prophets during the Intertestamental Period. There were no new revelations from God during that time. However, that doesn’t mean the Jewish people were not actively involved in worshiping God and writing about Him during those years. We looked at some of that history of Israel and their writings in depth in our series Can I Trust The Bible. We invite you to read through the series if you would like to go indepth about the Intertestamental writings. However, for the purpose of this new article we’ll be brief.
Many of the Old Testament prophets warned Israel about God judging them for their sins, but the nation and its leaders continued in sin until Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom about 722 BC and Babylon destroyed the southern kingdom about 586 BC. Even though the Persian King Cyrus allowed Jews to return to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, Jews continued under the rule of Persia until about 332 BC, but had some freedom to worship God during Persian rule.
Alexander the Great fought against Persia beginning in 334 BC and eventually brought Greek rule to the world, including the people of Israel. The translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (Septuagint) started about a generation later (approx. 285 BC) and Jews were given some freedom of worship God during Greek rule.
The Ptolomeys ruled over Israel after Alexander’s death for more than a century (323-200 BC. The Selucids ruled Israel from about 200-165 BC. The desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus IV led to a Jewish rebellion (Maccabean Revolt) that eventually led to the Hasmonean Kingdom (140-37 BC).
The Hasmonean Dynasty, as many call it, was an independent kingdom from about 110-63 BC and a client state of the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire until the Romans executed the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus, in 37 BC. Rome established Herod as King of Judea and we read about him in the New Testament.
The writings of the Intertestamental Period included in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible –
- 1 & 2 Esdras
- Rest of Esther
- Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
- Epistle of Jeremy (also called Epistle of Jeremiah)
- Song of Three Children
- Bel and the Dragon
- Prayer of Manasses
- 1 & Maccabees
Martin Luther translated the Bible into German about 80 years before the English KJV. He included a separate section called Apocrypha and placed the list between the Old and New Testaments. Luther followed Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, in stating that writings not found in the Hebrew Bible would not be viewed as canonical.
Does that mean we should not read the Apocrypha? Not necessarily. I think we can read them as long as we view them historically and not spiritually (not God’s Word). One of the things that stood out to me when I first read through the Apocryphal books was the lack of contemporary prophets from God mentioned in the books. There were no prophets in the land at the time. God was not revealing new information to Israel, but was continuing to speak to His people through the writings of previous prophets (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Malachi).
1 Maccabees is an example of Apocryphal writings. I find it a fascinating historical document and believe every Christian should read it to understand the historical and political structure of Israel in the years leading up to our Lord’s Ministry on earth. However, where is the prophet of God during the Intertestamental Period? Several times in the book we read that the people were going about their lives waiting for a prophet of God to come along and show them what to do. The prophet never came, thus the name “The Silent Years.”
These are the only verses in 1 Maccabees that mention a prophet.
“They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to shew what should be done with them.” 1 Maccabees 4:45-46
“So was there a great affliction in Israel, the like whereof was not since the time that a prophet was not seen among them.” 1 Maccabees 9:27
“Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet.” 1 Maccabees 14:41
Also, the name of God is used only a few times in 1 Maccabees and never in relation to His speaking to anyone. This is important. God spoke hundreds of times in the Old Testament and usually through prophets. Where are the prophets in 1 Maccabees? Where is God guiding His people by Voice? While an interesting historical read, I can’t find the kind of proof necessary to support adding 1 Maccabees to the Canon of Scripture.
What we see in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) is a continual flow of God speaking to His people through prophets. What we see in the writings of the Intertestamental Period (Apocrypha) is a continued silence from God. Nothing. The history of the Jewish people continued day after day, year after year, but without even one new prophetic word from God.
Dead Sea Scrolls
Before we leave the Intertestamental Period, let’s look at something else of importance that occurred during that time. There was a Jewish community that viewed itself as the righteous remnant of Israel. The community was known as the Essenes and we learn many things about them from the 1st Century AD Jewish/Roman historian, Josephus. He wrote about the Essenes in his books The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities.
Josephus described the Essenes as –
- believing in the immortality of the soul
- striving for righteousness
- shunning pleasures as vice
- reputed to cultivate seriousness
- controlling anger
- peaceful toward others
- despising wealth
- the 4,000 in the sect holding their property in common
- living without wives or slaves in the community
- dressing in white
- extraordinarily interested in ancient writings
It is that last mention by Josephus that I’d like us to consider. The Essenes had an extraordinary interest in ancient writings, which is one of the reasons they hid many of those writings in multiple caves in the Judaean desert. Because the Essenes revered and protected ancient copies of the Hebrew Bible, we are able to compare those writings from the Intertestamental Period with copies of the Hebrew Bible translated more than a thousand years later (Masoretic Texts) that were used to translate the Old Testament into the translations we use today.
The scrolls of the Hebrew Bible found among the Dead Sea Scrolls were almost identical to the copies made more than a thousand years later. It demonstrated in a powerful and evidential way that the Jewish Masoretes who made the 10th and 11th century copies were not inventing or re-inventing text, but carefully preserving text that had been written centuries before.
Bedouins initially found seven ancient scrolls in clay jars in one of the caves soon after the end of World War II. The first seven scrolls included the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk, the War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Hymns and the Genesis Apocryphon.
Continuing the search for more scrolls in the caves became more difficult because of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but the original cave was found in the early part of 1949. During the next several years, more caves were discovered containing thousands of biblical and other Jewish documents. About 90% of the scrolls and fragments were found in Cave #4, including all or portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Daniel, Ezekiel, Song of Songs and various ancient commentaries on the Writings in the Hebrew Bible.
Other scrolls found in the 11 Qumran caves included portions of 1 and 2 Kings, Psalms, Jeremiah, a scroll of Jubilees, the Wisdom of Sirach, the Targum of Job, the Book of Enoch. Many other Jewish documents were also found, including the Temple Scroll, Angelic Liturgy, Hymn to King Jonathan, Testament of Joseph, the Copper Scroll and the Damascus Document. Along with the scrolls and fragments, searchers found tefillin cases (phylacteries), mezuzah, jars, lamps, linens and leather objects.
Carbon dating tests done on a piece of linen in 1950 showed it was from the early 1st century AD, plus or minus 200 years. Carbon dating done on the scrolls showed them to belong to the last two centuries BC and 1st century AD. Paleographic dating (handwriting analysis) done on the Dead Sea Scrolls showed them to be from the same period of time as the carbon dating tests. Other tests done on the scrolls included parchment and ink which also supported the dating.
Importance on New Testament
The importance of the Intertestamental Period on what we read in the New Testament cannot be overestimated. As we will see in upcoming articles in this series, what happened during the Silent Years, between the prophets Malachi and John the Baptist, set the stage for the kind of world God’s Eternal Son would enter. The way Jews viewed John the Baptist and Jesus Christ came from a powerful history that flowed from both the Old Testament time period and the Silent Years of the Intertestamental Period.