The most recent 'history' book in the Old Testament – the Book of Nehemiah – ends by recording the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445BC. The prophesies of Malachi and Joel also date from around this time. There are no other books in the authorised Jewish and Christian scriptures that cover the period between the 4th century BC and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in c.6BC. This four hundred years of ‘inter-testamental’ history lies between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
To gain some knowledge of this period, we have to resort to other religious books (such as the Books of the Maccabees) that are not considered by many to be part of the authorised scriptures, and to ancient accounts such as those written by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.
The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus (created c.1480) - Condé Museum, Chantilly
Josephus, in his Antiquitates Judaicae (‘History of the Jews’) and Bellum Judaicum (‘The Jewish War’) gives a vivid account of Jewish history in this period, though the details are not always reliable. The apocryphal First and Second Books of the Maccabees give parallel accounts of the Jewish rebellion of 167BC, led by Mattathias Hasmoneus and his son Judas Maccabaeus. They also describe subsequent events leading to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings, who reigned until the coming of Herod the Great in 37BC.
The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt and completed in 516BC during the period of Persian rule following the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by King Cyrus in 539BC (see Ezra 6:13-15). Nehemiah was appointed Governor of Jerusalem by Artaxerxes I, and returned with a group of Jewish exiles in 445 BC in order to make the defensive walls of Jerusalem secure (see Nehemiah 2:4-9).
This period of Persian rule ended when the Macedonian (Greek) king, Alexander the Great, defeated the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in Syria (now in south west Turkey) in 333BC. The whole of Palestine was conquered by Alexander in 332BC and, for more than a hundred and fifty years, Judaea became part of the Hellenic (Greek) world, ruled first by the Seleucid (Greek) kings of Syria, and then by the Ptolemaic (Greek) kings of Egypt, and again by the Seleucids after 201BC. During this time, life in Judaea became more cosmopolitan, and Greek ideas began to influence both religious and secular life in Jerusalem.
Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 332BC (Istanbul Archaeological Museum)
The orthodox Jewish religious community in Jerusalem became increasingly hostile to the Greek kings’ attempts to introduce pagan religious practices in the Jewish Temple. Matters came to a head when Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid King of Syria, banned circumcision and Jewish religious practices, and re-dedicated the Jewish Temple to the Greek god Zeus, installing what the Jews described as ‘the Abomination of Desolation’ (a statue of Zeus) in the Temple in 167BC (see Daniel 12:11, 1 Maccabees 1:54 & 2 Maccabees 6:2). (See also the feature on The Abomination of Desolation.)
The Jews rose in rebellion, first encouraged by the leadership of a Jewish priest, Mattathias Hasmoneus, and then under his son Judah the Maccabee (‘Judas Maccabeus’ meaning ‘Judas the hammer’) (see 1 Maccabees 2:23-28 & 3:1-4:24). The Jewish rebels gained control of Jerusalem in 165BC, and celebrated the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple (now commemorated annually by the Jewish festival of Hannukkah) (see 1 Maccabees 4:36-59). Hannukah (the ‘Festival of Lights’) recalls the miracle by which the Temple candelabra were lit and then remained alight for the whole eight days of the celebrations with just a single flask of olive oil.
A contemporary Hannukak Menorah by Gil Dekel (39james)
After some setbacks, the rule of the independent Hasmonean (Jewish) kings gradually became secure (with Roman support) after 152BC with the accession of Jonathan, the brother of Judas (see 1 Maccabees 10:1-21). The Hasmonean dynasty successfully expanded the influence of Judaea and its borders until disagreements between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (conflicting schools of Jewish religious thought) led to a revolt by the Pharisees during the reign of Alexander Yannai (103-76BC).
Further infighting between Alexander’s sons Aristobulus and Hyrcanus prompted the intervention of the Roman emperor Pompey, who invaded Syria in 67BC and created the Roman province of Judaea, with Hyrcanus as a ‘puppet’ ruler, reliant on the patronage of Rome.
Judaea remained a Roman ‘client kingdom’ when Herod the Great – the son of Antipater of Idumaea (Edom), who had been appointed Roman governor of Galilee – defeated the Parthian (Persian) invaders in 40BC (with the assistance of the Roman army), and was rewarded by the Romans with the title ‘King of the Jews’.