period was a period dominated by Greek and Roman rule of Palestine with only a brief period when the Jews were masters of
their own destiny. This period generated the conditions that resulted in Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots
having significant socio-political impact immediately during and after the time of Christ.
The intertestamental period is generally considered to begin when the Persians took over Babylon in B.C 537. In B.C.
536 they allowed Jews to go back to build their temple. Prior to this time and even for a short while afterwards, the majority
of Israel was in exile in Babylon. While it is not conclusively proved it is postulated that the time of exile is considered to have influenced the formation
of the synagogue. This is where the Jews formed groups of 10 or more men to worship God in the absence of the temple. This practice evolved as a substitute for the formal
temple worship that was the focus before the exile. It allowed the Jews to maintain their relationship with God until the
temple could be re-established. The development of the synagogue supported the Jewish community and leaders in subsequent
years giving strength to those in leadership of this establishment. This group later became known as the Pharisees, but it
was a while before this occurred.
The Persians by permitting the Jews to re-build
their temple, were also conducive to re-establishing the temple worship practices and this supported another Jewish leadership
group who dominated this temple worship forum of society and who later became known under the term of Sadducees.
The temple as a building was a central part of the Jewish culture and so it can be said that the influence
and perspectives around the validity of practices around this spiritual hub were predominant reasons for differentiating and
motivating the four key Jewish socio-political groupings that formed just prior to the first centaury. Conflict with temple
beliefs were key causes of conflict with both Greek and Roman cultures as they collided in attitudes, morals and deeds with
this central icon of Jewish beliefs.
The support of the temple beliefs were
imbedded in the Old Testament scriptures and oral traditions, providing the conduit of values and practices that differentiated
the inhabitants of Palestine from others who occupied the territory from time to time or that resided in the neighboring nations.
The Temple that Jesus was familiar with was still being completed during his lifetime and
the rebuilding of the temple during the Roman control of Palestine was a result of the work started by Herod the Great in
about B.C 20. It was therefore just prior to Jesus’ time that the splendor of this edifice became evident again. This
rebuilding was necessary because Pompei in B.C.63 had destroyed and desecrated the temple (that Cyrus of Persia had authorized
to be rebuilt in B.C 536) as part of the suppressing of the Hasmonean revolt. This revolt occurred as a reaction to the Greek,
Selucide rule and abuse of temple practices prior to this time. The Greek rule of Palestine started in B.C. 337 when Alexander
the Great took control of Palestine.
Alexander the Great had ousted the Persians
as part of his campaign that started when he assumed the Throne of Macedonia upon the death of his father Phillip in B.C.
336. To a large extent his policies caused many of the conflicts that plagued the Jews. His proclamation that everyone in
a region he conquered would have to know Greek was a prime cause of conflicts. His intent was to establish the Greek culture
and he wisely understood that by injecting the Greek language as a part of the environmental pre-requisites of the cultures
which he captured, he would be able to gain a cultural foothold and establish control of these territories.
When Alexander died in 323BC, the region he had ruled was divided since he had no heirs and there was
no assigned successor. From a perspective of the areas bordering Palestinian, Ptolemy took over Egypt, Seleucus took over
Babylon, and Antigonus took on Macedonia and Asia minor. Conflict between these groups started soon afterwards but by then
the Greek language was a common denominator in the known world communications. Jesus would have been exposed to what is now
referred to as the Septuagint-LXX(or old testament Apocrypha). This is a Greek OT created during the time that Ptolomy I ruled
Palestine in about B.C. 284. It was created by what is believed to be 72 translators working on the Hebrew scriptures.
This Septuagint-LXX was to become
“the people’s Bible to that large Jewish world through which Christianity was
afterwards to address itself to mankind”
Jesus would have been familiar with this
text that was made possible by Ptolomy I taking control of Palestine in B.C. 320. The need to occupy Palestine came from it
being a central area of trade between east, west, north and south. Unfortunately it was also located between the Greek empires
that were continually in conflict with each other and this resulted in the Palestinian Jews being continually at risk of another
invasion by one or other foreign power wanting to wrest power from the current ruler of their region. This was unsettling
and generated a significant dislike of the influence of the occupiers that was fueled by the conflict between the cultures.
The Greek culture was the first significant threat to the Jewish culture after the Persians allowed
them to return to their land. It appeared as if the conflict could be averted when the Greeks initially allowed traditional
religious freedom, but soon the Jews started to differentiate into those that supported the “new world” approach
of Hellenisation, and those that perceived it as a threat to their traditions and culture. This really became distressing
to the pious Jews when the Seleucide Ruler, Antiochus IV wanted himself worshiped as “Epiphanies” after he had
taken the throne in B.C. 175.
Around this time the
group of Jews that resented “Epiphanes” and the other Hellenising impacts on their lives became known as the “Hasidim”.
This was fueled by the way the Seleucide rulers appointed Jason as high priest(who Josephus indicates in his Antiquities had
rejected his original Hebrew name of Jesus), and built a gymnasium alongside the temple. The Hasidim found the nakedness of competitors
in the Gymnasium just a short way away from their center of worship detestable. They were probably even more insulted when
some of the Jews decided to try and mask their own Jewish heritage evident by their circumcision by having a chirurgical operation.
This was accompanied by more and more acceptance of the Greek values which ran counter to the Jewish values system in many
areas and angered the Hasidim. The Jewish high priest role was also given additional responsibility by the rulers as explained
by du Toit;
addition to his other offices, he was now responsible for the Jewish tax intended for the insatiable Syrian state coffers.”
The conflict between the Hasidim and Hellenisers
was worsening and when in exchange for additional promised income, the Seleucides removed Jason from the high priest office
and instituted in B.C. 171 a person, Menelaus, who was not even of the priestly family. This disregard of their forefather’s
traditions further inflamed the Hasidim.
External conflict erupted again as Antiochus
IV tried to capture Egypt and upon failing, probably short of funds and wanting to give his soldiers something of a success,
he turned his vengeance on Jerusalem, killing thousands, desecrating the temple, stealing temple treasure, and then building
the Ancra, a walled fortress, not far from the temple. As a ruler Antiochus IV tried to suppress the Jews and to this effect
he prohibited the Torah, circumcision, Jewish festivals, and sacrifice to Jehovah. The Hellenisers were now considered traitors
in the eyes of the Hasidim and the anger in Palestine was reaching volcanic proportions. The Hasidim’s hate of the occupiers
were now only a little more than the hate of their own Hellenising counterparts.
The tremors undergirding
the Hasidim anger erupted into fully fledged violence during an incident in a little town of Modiem, when a Jewish priest
Mattathias, killed both the Jewish defector who was about to perform a repulsive sacrifice at the orders of a Seleucide official,
and the official himself. Knowing that vengeance would be sought, he fled with his sons and their families into the mountainous
terrain of the Judean hills to hide and mount a resistance. This group soon joined by other Hasidim became known as the Maccabaeans.
The Hasidim joined and strengthened this group and soon the Seleucides had more of a problem than they expected.
Judas Maccabee took over this group from his father when he died in B.C.166 and successfully led a revolt.
They pushed out the occupiers and re-dedicating the temple in BC 164. During this time he asked the Romans to assist in removing
this Syrian oppression, but got not real assistance. Judas pushed on with the resistance and in B.C.163 the conflict with
the occupiers seemed to be over when he got agreement on religious freedom for the Jews. This was consolidated by his brothers
Jonathon and then Simon who took over and finally drove the occupiers from the Ancra fortress.
This victory became a significant part of the Jewish national mindset and by the time of Jesus had influenced
the expectation of how the Messiah would return and set the nation free. Simon was given further influence being named;
“high priest, military
commander (stratēgos) and ethnarch (= governor
of the nation), with the implication that these titles were hereditary and would devolve upon his descendants. By his own
people he was thus sanctioned as their religious, military and political leader, and the Hasmonaean dynasty was established “
This apparent victory over the occupiers
was however short lived as the “peace” now unmasked what was entrenched as civil conflict between the Hasidim
and Hellenisers. Simon was succeeded by his son John Hyracanus who extended the Hasmonaean empire and added to the list of
conflicts within Palestine by destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim.
During the rule
of John Hyracanus the Hasidim became known as the “Pharisees” and the Jews that controlled the temple worship
via the High priest position became known as “Sadducees”. A group of the Hasidim who were even more disillusioned
separated even from the Hasidim and extracted themselves from the temple worship and society as a whole forming a cult type
following in the more desolate area near the north east side of Dead Sea. This was the start of the “Qumran” society
in about B.C. 151 and is considered to be what is often referred to as the “Essene” group of Jews.
This group wanted to withdraw from mainstream society and live a life of dedication to religious purity.
They sacrificed to God themselves rather than attend temple sacrifices and while they did not attend the temple, they did
send gifts there. They had particular beliefs around the eating of a common meal where they considered the table to be an
altar. They believed all other groups had rejected God’s true covenant and wanted to be sure they would not be influenced
by them. They believed in the coming of three messiahs. These were a prophet, a king and a priest. Ritual cleaning was a high
focus with the community. Josephus describes their doctrine as;
“The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They
teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for; and
when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices, because they have more
pure lustrations of their own”
The Pharisees who were part of the “ordinary”
people also believe in this ritual washing and purity but did not exclude themselves from the community at large. They focused
on the Levitical purity that characterized their daily lives and with which the reader of the New Testament becomes immediately
faced when Jesus’ communications with this group. The Essenes also believed in life after death which the Sadducees
The Sadducees or the “priestly” people believed one should base everything rigidly
on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). They did not believe in angels and demons as did the Pharisees and
Essenes. The Pharisess included the prophets and had an oral tradition or “Mishna” that contained rules placed
around the Torah to ensure that the law would not be contravened. It is often termed a “hedge” around the Law.
The Sadducees held the positions of political and religious leaders, they were the ones which had most contact with the foreign
rulers and were therefore the ones who had to bend the Jewish will to that of the occupying force, or alternatively bend the
will of the occupying forces to the Jewish values and traditions. As such compromise became a way of life with them and it
was this that made them resented by the other groups. In addition they grew wealthy from the controlling position in which
they found themselves. They also owned a lot of the land around Jerusalem.
It was into these
social conflicts that John Hyracanus found himself immersed during his lifetime. He seems to have had a particular dislike
of the Pharisees and perhaps realized towards the end of his life that this conflict had done him no good. When John Hyracanus
died in B.C. 67, he wanted his wife to rule and his son Aristobulus to become high priest urging her to make peace with the
Pharisees. This was not quite how it worked out. Aristobulus starved his mother to death, killed one brother and imprisoned
the rest. Later however when he died, his wife and then his sons took control over Palestine.
Civil war of a particularly violent nature broke out when one of Aristobulus’ sons Aristobulus II reigned.
Judea suffered by violence between the Sadducees and Pharisees that extended to the point that Rome conquered the weakened
empire in the form of a conquest by Pompey. Pompey captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple during this event. The civil
wars were ended, but Palestine was now occupied by Rome. This was the power that would be in control as Jesus walked through
Palestine. The rule of Rome changed hands and when Julius Ceasar came into power he appointed Antipater who made Herod governor
and had the walls of Jerusalem reconstructed.
When Julius died the Roman conflicts
that followed his death were weathered well by the shrewd Herod who was appointed King of the Judea, and then with cunning
(and getting his son’s murdered) finally got himself established as King in Jerusalem. In B.C 20 he started the important
re-building of the temple mentioned previously. In so doing he drew the Jews together sufficiently that the conflicts between
the Sadducees and Pharisees settled to the point that it appears as if the Sadducees allowed Pharisees to sit on the Sanhedrin,
the governing council for the Jews. It was into this state of tension and conflict that Jesus was born. Within
a short time Herod’s sons, who inherited the Kingdom and split it, were in conflict with each other and so in Jesus’
lifetime, (perhaps when he was about 2 years old) the Romans brought in the services of the Roman Procurator to control Judea
as Herod’s son’s were inadequate to the task from the Roman perspective.
It was under this yoke that the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes following their culturally diverse perspectives
permitted the uneasy truce in the face of control by the oppressor.
with Sadducees and Pharisees are documented by the apostles and Acts, perhaps giving a slightly slanted view of them, but
there is no real evidence of the Essenes in his discourses. There was however another group that was forming at that time.
When Jesus was about 13 or 14 years old it is reportedly believed that;
“the party of the Zealots, although existing, and striking deeper root in the hearts
of the people, was, for the time, rather what Josephus called it, ‘the philosophical party’—their minds
busy with an ideal, which their hands were not yet preparing to make a reality.”
This group was forming in mind and intent
under the savages of roman rule although mention is made of a man, Ezekias, who led guerilla bands around that time. This
was a nationalist group who wanted the nation to rise above the bounds of the Roman dictators. Herod Antipas (not Herod the
Great) had Ezekias executed but this did not stop this group. A High Priest named Joazar added fervour
to this movement by being sympathetic towards it.
Some sources point out the likelihood that
Judas who betrayed Jesus could have been a Zealot and could have believed that by doing what he did he would propitiate the
establishment of Israel. The logic being premised on God not allowing Jesus to die. This was a thinking pattern of the Zealots.
They believed that by antagonizing the Romans to the point that they would be willing to destroy the Jews, they could somehow
“force” God’s hand into bringing in the end of the age and destroying Israel’s enemies.
They were wrong! The Zealots or Sicarii as they also became known later for their use of the Roman dagger
of that name, were destroyed in the suppression of the revolt against Rome in AD. 66 when the temple was also destroyed.
This final destruction of the temple also proved to destroy the Zealots and the temple priesthood, the
Sadducees. These groups never recovered as a force to be reckoned with again. The Essenes slowly died out, probably as a result
of their practice of abstinence from sex. This left the Pharisees to continue to evolve their “hedge” around the
law and practice meeting in synagogues.
The Greek language both during Jesus time
and afterwards was a key means of communicating the gospel. Roman intervention probably provided a brief period in time that
allowed Jesus to perform His ministry, but it also facilitated his death in the end. The Pharisees and Sadducees had huge
influence in establishing the condition in which Jesus chose to die and rise again. The Essenes probably brought into cultural
understanding concepts that Jesus was able to use to explain the kingdom, and if Judas was a Zealot then Jesus betrayal, while
incorrectly understood to be the solution to Israel’s problems, actually achieved its purpose not only for Israel, but
for all Mankind.
The intertestamental period is a period of conflict dominated
by Greek and Roman rule which generated the conditions that resulted in Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots
having significant socio-political impact that can be seen as key to understanding the enabling gospel of Jesus Christ our
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Page 29.
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du Toit, A.B. The New Testament Milieu. Halfway House: Orion, 1998.
Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged.
Includes index., Ant 18.18-19. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1987.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Page 243.
Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1896, 2003.