Judaism Before Jesus: Exploring the History Between the Old and New Testaments

What happened in Israel between the time of the end of the Old Testament, and the coming of John the Baptist in the New Testament?

Many Christians, primarily of an evangelical Protestant conviction, know very little about the so-called “time between the testaments,” the 400-ish-year period after the Book of Malachi and before the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes this period is also called “the silent years,” in that we have no recognized biblical prophet speaking for those roughly 400 years, before John the Baptist.

By the end of our Old Testament, the Jews were back in their homeland, after being sent into exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. They were struggling to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, along with the city itself, as we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, but things finally came together. The narrative of Jewish history pretty much stops at this point.

Then all of the sudden, we get to the New Testament, and we run into groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, and King Herod, and an occupation by the Romans. It seems like all of these people just come from out of nowhere!

Author Anthony J. Tomasino, in his Judaism Before Jesus, gives us a helpful analogy: Imagine you are watching a thrilling movie one night. Then you get a phone call, let us say, from your boss, a baby-sitter, or whomever, and you need to deal with a situation right away, so you step out from watching the movie. You get the issue resolved, and then 20-30 minutes later walk back in and watch the rest of the movie.

But you have missed at least 20 minutes from a story told over a 2-hour period! All of these new characters pop up out of nowhere. You struggle with trying to figure out what is going on, as you have lost the continuity of the story line.

That is pretty much what happens to most Christians when they try to study the Bible, and yet completely ignore the story of what happened between the times of the Old and New Testaments, what others call the “intertestamental period.”

Were the 400 years after Malachi and before the New Testament really “silent?” While Protestant Christians recognize that there were no canonical prophetic writings directly associated with this time period, the extraordinary history that God was working through the nation of Israel was anything but “silent.” But what do we know about those years, and does that knowledge help us to read our New Testament better? (credit: excelnetwork.org)

Looking for a Good Introductory Book for Exploring Second Temple Judaism?  Look No Further

…  A side note, for a few paragraphs…. : I have been looking for a good book to recommend to people, who lack a technical theological or historical background, who want to learn about this often neglected part of the Biblical story, and I think I have found a good introduction to the topic. A lot of books are available today, at a popular level, that seek to remind Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith, such as Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham. But very few of these books sufficiently lay out the history of Judaism leading up to the time of Jesus, and the theological ferment bubbling up during that crucial period, overlooked in Protestant Bibles.

Last year, I had read Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, that covered this time period (reviewed earlier here on the Veracity blog). Jenkins is a world-class scholar, and great writer. However, I was surprised to learn that he tips his hand towards the insights of liberal, higher critical scholarship, and this distracts too much from the broader storyline that he tells. In other words, while Jenkins is a fantastic historian, he is weaker in the area of biblical scholarship, which really is not in his area of expertise.

In contrast, Dr. Michael Heiser, the author of Angels, an exceptional book that I also reviewed also on Veracity, is a top-caliber semitic languages and biblical scholar, but he does not specialize as an historian, per se. In other words, read Jenkins for the history but take what he says about the higher criticism of the Bible with a grain of salt. Read Heiser if you want to dive into some excellent biblical scholarship, but you will probably be wanting more historical background than what Heiser gives you. Tomasino, on the other hand, combines the best of both worlds, at an introductory level: communicating a good grasp of history AND a good grasp of biblical scholarship, without assuming too much of the reader… Back to the main story

Here we move ahead!….

Anthony J. Tomasino’s Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World is really the right kind of introductory for most evangelically-minded Christians to read, for studying this period in history. As Tomasino states on page 7, “This book has been written for readers who wouldn’t know an apocalypse from an apostrophe, or a Hyrcanus from a hurricane. It’s an introduction for the uninitiated.” I had no idea who Tomasino was before reading this book, but I became aware of him through theologian Preston Sprinkle, who studied the world of Second Temple Judaism in depth, at the PhD level. Sprinkle recommends Tomasino’s book for his students.

One example stands out as a benefit to Tomasino’s approach. The Persian king who conquered Babylon, Cyrus, is viewed by many Jews as a hero, by allowing and encouraging the Jews to return from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon back to Jerusalem, in order to rebuild the Jewish Temple, and re-instate the primacy of the Jewish Law.  Many historians have concluded that the positive relationships post-exilic Jews thus had with the Persian empire led to an incorporation of certain Persian theological beliefs into Judaism, such as certain concepts regarding angelic hosts and demons (the same also could be said about theological beliefs that the Greeks had, and tried to pass onto the Jews, after the Persians dropped off the world stage, in that era). It would be very tempting then to conclude that the Jews simply borrowed Persian beliefs, thus smuggling foreign ideas into their theological mindset, as a form of syncretism. This would seem to contradict the Scriptural emphasis on theological purity for the Jews, who went to great lengths to discourage intermarriage with non-Jews, as a means of resisting religious syncretism and spiritual compromise.

Tomasino instead gives us a more contextual appreciation for why certain Persian ideas find parallels in the history of Judaism. He argues that “the Jews never adopted any notions from the Persians that were contrary to the revelation already given in their Scriptures. Many of the new developments in Judaism during the Persian period are firmly grounded in the faith of the Old Testament. There are no fundamental changes in the basic affirmations of the Jewish faith here. But there are some significant new concepts that relieve some tensions and fill in some gaps in Old Testament revelations” (Kindle location 802).

This is a really helpful insight that makes a lot more sense than the less-than-helpful ideas often gained from controversial, liberal higher critics. More secular-minded critics contend that the Jews simply borrowed ideas from other cultures, in a more haphazard and pragmatic fashion, without any regard for theological purity. But such higher criticism assumes that the Bible is merely a human document. Instead, a more balanced and historic view of the Bible affirms that the Scriptures are not only human in character, but rather, the Bible is also the divine Word of God. Yet just because the Old Testament is the very Word of God does not necessarily mean that Jews fully understood its proper interpretation, right out of gate, as the ink was drying on the pages. Things took time before the mysteries of God were fully grasped by God’s people in Israel. In other words, the idea of “new” concepts developing within Judaism during the Persian period really is not “new,” but rather it is a discovering of revealed truth already embedded in Scripture, that was either neglected, or simply not thought about that much.

This type of theological development is fully consistent with a traditional outlook towards progressive revelation. We already see this in the New Testament, as with the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, in the history of the early church. Likewise, progressive revelation in the Old Testament understands the story of the Old Covenant among the Israelites as building up the long story of God’s redemptive purposes over many centuries, to find their ultimate fulfillment and completion in the coming of Jesus Christ (Read my review of Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith for more details, for gaining the contextual background necessary to appreciate the perspective that Tomasino gives in Jesus Before Judaism).

Jesus Before Judaism: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World, by Anthony J. Tomasino. A fine introduction to the so-called “silent years” between the Book of Malachi (Old Testament) and Book of Matthew (New Testament). A non-technical analysis of the history and theological development, that helps us to make better sense of the New Testament.

Historical Nuggets Gained from Understanding the So-Called “Silent Years” (Not as “Silent” as Many Presume)

Much of what we read in Jesus Before Judaism, such as with respect to conflict between the Jews and Seleucid Syrian-Greeks, can be gained from reading sources like 1 and 2 Maccabees, found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, and the writings of the Jewish first century historian, Josephus. In some ways, you can simply read books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the last chapters of the Book of Daniel, to get the main storyline and be done with it! But Tomasino gives us a more high level view, with the right amount of perspective to make better sense of the story, without getting bogged down in the weeds with so many details that would confuse those unfamiliar with this time period of history. I can give some examples below of where Jesus Before Judaism helped to correct my own understanding of the so-called “silent years.”

First, I gained a greater appreciation for Jewish apocalyptic writings that proliferated in later Jewish history, before the coming of Jesus. The most well-known book in this category is the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The literary genre of Jewish apocalyptic is complex, but it served an important purpose, particularly during the “silent years,” as some of the greatest threats to unity among the Jewish people often came from within the Jewish communities themselves, as Jews suffered under a succession of regimes, ranging from the Greeks to the Romans, following the Babylonian Exile. There were Jews who sought to find favor with their Greek and Roman overlords, who clashed with more conservative Jews, leading to a lot of back-stabbing, violence, and deceit among those who claimed to be followers of Moses. A lot of the vagueness, symbolism, and other mysterious elements within Jewish apocalyptic writings can be attributed to Jewish authors seeking to protect and encourage those among the persecuted Jewish faithful (more on this below).

Secondly, Tomasino includes some excellent analysis of a debate between scholars concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls. Was the Qumran community, near where the scrolls were found, part of the Essene movement, or part of a different group? For the majority of scholars, the connection between the Qumran community and the Essenes is pretty clear cut. Both the Essenes, according to Josephus, and the Qumran community were strong advocates for predestination, in contrast with other Jewish groups that more positively emphasized freewill. Both groups required new recruits for their movements to undergo a lengthy initiation period before joining. Both groups were communal in structure, requiring the pooling of resources instead of permitting private ownership of material wealth.

However, some other scholars are not convinced. For example, according to Josephus, the Essenes mostly practiced celibacy, whereas some Dead Sea Scrolls do allow for marriage, among community members. The Dead Sea Scrolls never use the term “Essene” to describe the community at Qumran. The Qumran community preserves a text, the Damascus Document, that features rules regarding the sale of slaves and the taking of oaths, whereas both Josephus and Philo emphatically insist that the Essenes did not own slaves, nor did they take oaths. It is an interesting debate, though it might be fair to conclude that even if the Qumran community was not entirely Essene, their beliefs overlapped greatly with the Essenes, particularly when it comes to their mutual critique of Jewish establishment and Temple practices, of their day.

The topic of the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls is really important, in that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, as it gives us tremendous insight into the world that Jesus lived in. However, at the same time, a caution is in order. Someone like Josephus would count adherents to Jewish groups, like the Essenes, and the Pharisees and Sadducees as well, as numbering in the thousands. Nevertheless, most scholars today would estimate the total number of Jews in Jesus day, including those not living in Palestine, to have numbered in the several millions. Groups like the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees clearly had a major impact on their fellow Jews, but the vast majority of Jews living in Jesus’ day were not ideologically as driven as these splinter groups.

One of the more disconcerting elements I learned from Jesus Before Judaism is the terrible wickedness of the Jewish high priesthood during the Hasmonean era, roughly about 100 years before the birth of Jesus. The legendary figure, Judas the Maccabee, had become a romantic fixture in my mind as a great Jewish hero, who rid the temple of Greek pagan statues, thus purifying the central Hebrew faith practices in the 160s B.C.E., that are commemorated in the celebration of Hanukkah. But Judas did not live long, and within a few decades, several of his successors, members of the Hasmonean family, were downright bloodthirsty and treacherous. As the Hasmonean kingdom expanded, starting with John Hyrcanus, in the 110s B.C.E., many inhabitants of these areas, such as Galilee, the home of Jesus, were forcibly converted to Judaism.  Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerazim around 110. After John Hyrcanus’ death, his wife succeeded him as ruler, but later one of Hyrcanus’ sons, Aristobulus, sought to control Judea all for himself, and perceiving her as a threat jailed his mother and starved her to death. The wickedness of Aristobulus equalled, if not surpassed, the treachery of any other wicked ruler mentioned in the Bible, resulting in continued civil wars, with different Jewish leaders wrestling for control of the land. When two nephews of Aristobulus (a few decades after Aristobulus’ death) sought for control of the Temple leadership, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that when a pious Jew known for his prayer life, Onias, came forward with a call for peace between the two sides, a mob supporting one of the sides became so angry with that pious Jew that they stoned him to death.

In fairness, it must be stated that not every Hasmonean leader acted as a tyrant. Some have well-regarded reputations, looking back on history. Furthermore, when considering those really wicked Hasmonean leaders, it should be noted that both Rome and Greece, the larger powers in the Mediterranean region, had rulers that were just as wicked and treacherous. That is just how ruthless the pre-Christian world was in those days. The quarrels within Judea eventually prompted the Roman emperor, Pompey, to finally invade Judea in 63 B.C.E., putting an end to the intra-Jewish conflicts, thus eventually making Judea a client state of Rome. Trouble was always brewing, as the Herodian family asserted themselves to control Palestine, all while seeking to curry the favor of Rome. This is all the backdrop for when Jesus finally comes on the scene, in roughly the third decade C.E.

The Silent Years: The Key to Understanding Much of the New Testament

This is all a fascinating story. Yet it pretty much disrupts the narrative of a perfectly united Jewish community, suffering under the dismal occupation by Rome, during the time of Jesus, that many Christians learn in Sunday School. Nearly all Jews mutually despised the Romans, but the historical tensions between different Jewish groups led to a lot of bitterness among Jews themselves. While most Jews in Jesus’ day were members of neither main Jewish parties, the Sadducees, Pharisees, or the Essenes, the disputes among these various groups serve as a backdrop to the Gospel story. If you do not have a basic grasp of what these tensions were, a great deal of the New Testament will remain difficult to fully comprehend.

This neglected period, covering several hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus, may not find a place in our records in sacred Scripture (at least, for Protestants), but it was far from being “the silent years.” How did the Jews, in the centuries leading up before Jesus, develop in their understanding of the afterlife and the “End Times”? What about the Samaritans, and what roll did they play in Jewish history? Who really were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? How does Alexander the Great, and Greek culture, fit into the story of Judaism? What is the story behind Hanukkah, and the Maccabean wars? Did Jesus speak Greek? Jesus Before Judaism explores all of these topics.

Preston Sprinkle offers a helpful review, correcting a few mistakes made by Tomasino. There were a few moments where I was not sure where Tomasino was going with his analysis of history, leaving me puzzled in places until he eventually lands on solid ideas. The standout misinterpretation of history that left me dumbfounded was Tomasino’s statement that Saint Augustine believed that “the Jews had been utterly rejected by God, and the church was now God’s only chosen people” (Kindle location 4026). This mischaracterization of Augustine is rightly corrected by Paula Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews, where she observes that a matured Augustine, in his later years, while clearly affirming the Christian faith as the true vehicle of salvation, nevertheless taught that the Jewish community be given the freedom to practice their faith, serving as a means of reminding Christians of the rightful place of the Old Testament, in the Christian story. In other words, for Augustine, the Jewish people still serve a vital role in the Christian story, even though most Jews do not profess Jesus as their Messiah.

At times, conservative readers of Tomasino might be bothered by his 2nd century BCE dating for the Book of Daniel (p. 76). While a growing number of evangelical scholars would now agree with Tomasino, there are still good arguments for affirming the traditional, 6th century BCE authorship date. A couple of other, like-minded critiques were made by Dallas Seminary’s Thomas Constable, in his review of Tomasino’s book.

But overall Tomasino does an excellent job in presenting an engaging narrative of an extremely fascinating and too often neglected period of Jewish history, and rightfully sets the stage for the New Testament, correcting a lot of misunderstandings Christians have when approaching the life and times of Jesus. In other words, if you like your typical “all-Jews-in-Jesus’-day-thought-such-n-such”, then you might not like this book. But if you desire to have a more nuanced understanding of the world in which Jesus lived, then Jesus Before Judaism will help you gain a better understanding of the Bible. As someone who received a seminary degree, I learned a lot of things myself from Jesus Before Judaism that were pretty well neglected in my theological training. If I could change the typical curriculum for seminary students (and all Christians for that matter!!), I would require at least one course in studying these so-called “Silent Years.”

The biggest punchline is this: If you feel like making the bridge between the Old and New Testaments is like trying to figure out the plot holes that you missed for 20-30 minutes, out of a 2-hour movie, then Jesus Before Judaism is an excellent place to start your education, regarding this pivotal period in Bible history.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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