Intertestamental Period

I’m planning to wrap up the OT and cover a little bit of the intertestamental period in GD Sunday, with the intention of setting the table for our 2011 NT curriculum year starting the following week. I’ve been busy, first with work and now celebrating the holiday with family, so I thought I’d take a moment and jot down some thoughts about the gist of some of the things I hope will come out of the lesson in two days.

Ezra and Nehemiah (which we skipped last week so I could do my Christmas lesson) are a single book in the Hebrew Bible organization. They represent an historical appendix to Chronicles, which ends at the Babylonian captivity; these books tell us what happens following the Exile. After Cyrus gave the decree in 538 B.C. allowing the return of the Jews, some returned, basically in four waves over a period of years. But many Jews remained in Babylon. They had lived there for 50 or 60 years, and although they went as captives, many had done well for themselves in this new environment. Their presence in Babylon, and that of other Jews in Egypt, established what would be a permanent diaspora of Jews among the nations.

There was of course a desire to rebuild the temple, and they started to do so. But there was a lot of tension with the people who were then living in the land, some of whom we know as Samaritans (for Samaria, the capitol city of the former kingdom of Israel). They wanted to help build the temple, and the returning Jews refused to allow them to do so. The returning Exiles felt that the Samaritans had intermarried with foreigners and adapted syncretistic religious practices, which was probably true. But the Jews had changed as a result of the Exile as well. Things were simply not as they had been before the captivity. The tension between these two groups will be seen repeatedly in the NT itself. (Samaritans continue to exist to this very day near the city of Nablus. They roast lambs for Passover at their temple on Mt. Gerizim.)

The temple is finally completed about 515 B.C., even if it lacked the Ark of the Covenant and was a pale shadow of the temple of Solomon. This marks the beginning of what is called the Second Temple Period. Herod would begin a rehabilitation and expansion of the temple in 19 B.C. This temple will eventually be destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

A major theme of this period is the rise of hellenistic (Greek) influence, in the first instance occasioned by the conquests of Alexander the Great beginning in 323 B.C. At one time there were over 80 cities throughout the ancient world called Alexandria in his honor (the most famous being Alexandria, Egypt). He brought Greek religion and culture in his wake everywhere he went (his soldiers often marrying local women), and soon the Greek language was the lingua franca throughout both Europe and the Near East. He dies in Babylon in 323 B.C. (under suspicious circumstances), leading to a period of the division of the Empire. Eventually, the Ptolemies control Egypt and southern Syria and the Seleucids control northern Syria and Babylon, with Judea originally under Ptolemaic control from 301.

In the third century B.C., the OT begins to be translated into Greek, a process that will eventually be completed in the second century. This translation is called the Septuagint (“Seventy”), often abbreviated LXX, from a legend that it was accomplished by 72 elders of Israel in 70 days. The LXX contains material not included in the Hebrew Bible. Catholic and Orthodox canons include some of this material in the OT canon (called “deuterocanonicals”), whereas Protestants group these texts together as a noncanonical collection called the Apocrypha. When JS did the JST, he started with Genesis, then by revelation moved to the NT, then returned to where he left off in Genesis. When he finished the OT, he came to the Apocrypha, which was printed between the testaments of the marked Bible he used in the project. He asked whether he should translate that material, and received D&C 91, which provides excellent advice for approaching any noncanonical scriptural text. Often when the OT is quoted in the NT, it is the LXX version that is being used.

In 198 B.C. the Ptolemies lose control of Judea to the Seleucids, which are more aggressive in pushing hellenism. Instead of just trusting Greek culture to win out on the basis of its believed superiority, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“manifest” by God) tries to ram it down the throats of the Jews, both by law and by force. He wants Jerusalem to be a Greek polis. He builds a gymnasium in the city, from gymnos “naked,” where men and boys exercised in the nude, a practice deeply offensive to the religious sensibilities of the Jews. He appoints the high priest based on bribes, and aspirants begin to assasinate each other. Circumcision (the sign of the covenant), keeping the Sabbath and possession of scripture became capital offenses, and many men, women and children were executed. Young children were forced to eat pork and other ritually unclean foods, and pigs were sacrificed on the temple altar. The last straw was a statue of Zeus was erected on the temple mount. This happens in 167 B.C. and is the event alluded to in scripture as the “abomination of desolation.”

Many Jews had already become deeply hellenized and were fine with these developments, but others were deeply offended. There was a split of opinion over retaining traditional Jewish religion v. embracing the new Greek world view; it was a split rather like our red states and blue states. The priest Mattathias and his five sons, led by Judah (nicknamed Macabee “the Hammer”), lead a revolt against these practices, which turns into a sort of civil war. At first a thousand of them are slaughtered on the Sabbath Day when they refuse to defend themselves, but they quickly learn certain compromises are going to be necessary. They employ guerilla tactics and are very successful. In a few years the revolt succeeds, and the Jews win their religious freedom again, even though still nominally under Seleucid control. The temple is rededicated, which is celebrated to this day in the festival of Hanukkah.

This begins Hasmonean rule (named for an ancestor of Mattathias), where members of this family are both king and high priest. But they do not stop at restoring their religious privileges; they aggressively seek new territories, and over time adopt Greek practices, ironically undercutting the original reason for their revolt in the first place (see D&C 121). The instability among the Seleucids and Hasmoneans leaders forces Rome to take control of the region under Pompey in 63 B.C. Rome allows Hasmoneans to remain as high priest, but not as political rulers. In 37 B.C., the Idumean Herod is named “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate; he serves as a client king to Rome until his death in 4 B.C., upon which the territory is divided among three of his sons as Tetrarchs.

During the Hasmonean rule the parties of Sadducees and Pharisees develop. The Sadducees are the political aristocracy, control the temple, and accept only the Torah. They are rather pragmatic about hellenistic practices. The Pharisees in contrast accept a broader array of scripture and are more religiously conservative; they are the predecessors of what will become rabbinic Judaism. A third party, the Essenes, are not directly referenced in scripture and separate themselves entirely from what they view as the evil practices of mainstream Jews.

The first page of this pdf is going to be my handout:

Click to access SS-IntertestamentHOs1.pdf


  1. Kevin, thank you for putting this explanation of the intertestamental period together. I found it very informative and interesting. It also makes me want to go to read Ezra and Nehemiah and take a look at how it is organized in the Hebrew Bible.

  2. I notice you have no discussion of Ezra’s role as the final editor of the Torah. The Jewish Bible was still evolving two centuries later when the Septuagint test emerged, as witnessed for example by the significantly different LXX text of Jeremiah. There is little or no discussion of this post-Exile development of the Jewish Bible in the OT manual (which seems to think “Moses wrote it” is the last word on the subject) or even in LDS scholarship more broadly … which doesn’t say much for LDS scholarship, IMHO.

    Here’s what the LDS Bible Dictionary says about Ezra: “A good many traditions have gathered around Ezra. He is said to have formed the canon of Hebrew scripture …. But for none of these traditions is there trustworthy evidence.”

    Even the term “intertestamental period” buys into this misunderstanding, implying the Old Testament was a done deal in 587, as if the departing Jews just tucked bound copies of the Jewish Bible under their arm as they were hauled off to Babylon.

    Fine post, Kevin — the historical overview is very helpful. it just seems like in an OT curriculum that spends 48 lessons on the OT, the development of the OT needs better and more informed coverage.

  3. it was a split rather like our red states and blue states

    I am not sure that is particularly fair to the blue states. The Greeks were certainly more than just liberal or progressive Jews.

  4. Awesome, Kevin. Thanks.

  5. Mommie Dearest says:

    This was illuminating. I am inspired to start attending sunday school again. I love the NT and have high hopes that our newly called teacher can deliver. This was a good prep to read. Thanks.

  6. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    This is a great transition to this year, thank you.

  7. Kevin, thank you very much! Best to you this new year.

  8. Thanks, Kevin. I feel better prepared to attend class tomorrow with this background. You always deliver something interesting and well-researched.

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