One of the courses I facilitate at Tyrannus Hall at Nairobi Chapel is Navigating the New Testament. If you’re curious what that course looks like, here is one week taken from the course notes.
Before next week, complete the following reading and assignment.
Assigned Reading: 1st Maccabees, chapters 1 – 4 (pages 517 – 526, attached as an appendix and as a PDF). Go through the reading with the following questions as a guide, and you write down the answers to these questions as you read. There will be a short quiz on the reading next week!
- In what year did Antiochus Epiphanes become king? (518) _____________
- What are the two basic responses the Jews had to the culture and nations surrounding them? (518-522)
- First Response: __________________________________________________________________
- Second Response: ________________________________________________________________
- Describe some of the ways that Antiochus Epiphanes persecuted the Jews (519-521)
- How did Matthias and his family respond to the persecution? (520-524)
- What does Matthias identify especially as causing him the most grief? (520)
- How are the Hasideans described? (521) _________________________________________________
- What is the name of the son of Matthias who succeeded him as leader of their movement? (522)
- What was the outcome of the battle between Judas and Apollonius? (522) ________________________
- How did Judas and his men respond when they were facing opponents of overwhelming strength and numbers? What was the outcome each time? (523-525)
- What did the sons of Matthias do after their military victories? (525-526)
Assignment. Read Hebrews 1:1-4. Following the four steps of interpretation listed above, spend some time writing down your findings. How can this passage help us to understand the New Testament?
By the end of this session the participant should be able to:
- Explain the major events in the years leading up to the time of Christ
- Understand the significance of the cultural legacy of the Greeks
- Describe some of the main aspects of the Messianic expectation of the 1st century Jews
- Relate the example of the Maccabees to our own spiritual life and devotion to God
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son….” God did not select this time randomly, but carefully determined the right time to send his Son. The events of the Hebrew Scriptures had all built up to this coming, as well as what had been happening in the world of that time. For us to understand the New Testament, we must understand the culture and situation of that time. Many of us do know the story of the children of Israel, and have read the Hebrew Scriptures. However, between the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist, there was around 400 years in which no new scripture was written. This is called the ‘inter-testamental period’, the time between the end of the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of the NT. This was a significant and often overlooked period, which plays a major role in laying the foundation for our understanding of the NT.
A number of empires ruled over the Near East between 600 BC and the coming of Christ. The powerful Babylonian Empire collapsed in 539 BC and was replaced by the Persians, led by King Cyrus (Thompson, 1986:299). Israel had lost much of her power and influence, and over the next several centuries her fate was largely to be determined by the shifting dominant empires of that time. The Persians retained control for just over 200 years, but lost to Alexander the Great in 333 BC at the Battle of Issus. Thus began the Greek empire (see the map). 
Alexander the Great’s most enduring legacy was the spread of Greek language and culture around the Mediterranean and throughout his empire. This is referred to as Hellenization, turning the world Greek, and reflected his desire to unify the world in terms of language, philosophy, business, learning, folk heritage, and cultural practice (Sproul, 2014). Widespread use of Greek is why the NT was composed in that language as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic. Alexander was quite accommodating of those he conquered, and allowed the Jews to continue their religious practices. This would not last, however, and after Alexander’s death his empire was split into four sections by his generals. The two most significant were the Ptolemaic line over Egypt and Palestine and the Seleucids over Syria and other areas. The Ptolemies continued to control Palestine until 198 BC, when Antiochus III defeated Ptolemy V and took over the Holy Land (MacArthur, 2003:281). Things became to get worse for the Jews. Antiochus began to emphasise Greek customs more strongly and restrict the Jews’ religious freedom.
Go through the reading questions above.
Summary: A group of Jews emerged who resisted this Greek influence and sought to maintain their Jewish purity. They became known as the Hassidim or “the pious ones” (Sproul, 2014). We still hear of Hassidic Jews today. The Pharisees also emerged during this period. The year 175 BC is marked by the ascension of Antiochus IV to power. Thompson vividly describes how terrible his reign was for the Jews:
Those attempts [of subjecting the Jews] became more sinister and forceful when Antiochus IV came to the Syrian throne in 175 BC. He called himself ‘Epiphanes’, God-manifest. He was a Seleucid, and his dynasty, which had suffered heavy defeat by the Romans in 189 BC, was also warring against the Ptolemies. The Romans extracted heavy financial tribute from Antiochus, and he began to covet the wealth of the Jews. In order to acquire some of it, and to buttress himself against the Romans, he attempted to force Egypt into subjection and to Hellenize the whole region.
In 169 BC he bullied the Jews and ransacked the temple treasury. The next year he looted Jerusalem, killing several hundred Jews and demolishing parts of the city wall. Then he built a citadel called Acra and put in a garrison which remained there for twenty-five years. He banned the Sabbath, circumcision and temple sacrifices, and destroyed all the scrolls of the Law which he could find. He built an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the temple and sacrificed a pig there. Altars to Greek gods were erected across the land and Jews were forced by armed soldiers to sacrifice at them. (Thompson, 1986:301)
Hundreds of years earlier, Daniel prophesied of the abomination of desolation, generally understood to be the sacrifice of the pig, an unclear animal, in the temple itself, which is unspeakably offensive for a Jew (Dan 11:29-32). The entire eleventh chapter of Daniel is helpful in understanding this period. Under the rule of Epiphanes, observing the Sabbath and possessing any scriptures was a capital offense, and the Jews were forced to eat unclear meat and offer unacceptable sacrifices (Sproul, 2014; MacArthur, 2003:282). This extreme behaviour led the Jews to nickname him ‘Epimanes’, the madman.
The Jews refused to accept such treatment, and a priest named Mattathias led a rebellion against these foreign overlords. Mattathias had five sons, and following his death his son Judas Maccabeus took over the rebellion, known as the Maccabean Revolt. They fought for 24 years, and defeated the Seleucids. The reopening of the temple is still celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah. The Maccabees formed the Hasmonean dynasty, and became the high priests of Israel (MacArthur 2003:282).
The Jews lived in freedom from 142-63 BC, when Palestine was again conquered, now by the Roman general Pompey. In 40 BC, Herod the Great was appointed by the Romans to be king over Palestine, now infamous for its instability, in an attempt to maintain Roman control. He is known for his building projects and rebuilding of the temple, and is the Herod mentioned in the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.
Timeline of the Inter-Testamental Period
- 539/538 BC – Babylon conquered by the Persians
- 333 BC – Alexander the Great defeated the Persians at the Battle of Issus
- 323 BC – death of Alexander, splitting of empire
- 198 BC – Antiochus III defeated Ptolemy V, Seluicids took over Palestine
- 175 BC – ascension of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
- 169 BC – ransacked the temple, offered a pig
- 166-142 BC – Maccabean Revolt
- 142-63 BC – Jews live in freedom
- 63 BC – conquest of Palestine by Pompey
- 40 BC – Herod the Great appointed to be king
Is it important for Christians to have some understanding of the events that transpired in the four hundred years before Jesus was born? Why might it be helpful to the interpretation of the New Testament?
- Which four major empires controlled the Near East region from 600 BC until the birth of Christ?
- What are the two significant divisions of Alexander the Great’s empire? How would this affect the Jews?
- Think carefully about all these events, and how this would affect the mindset of the Jews. What would the Jews expect their Messiah to do?
Epler, M.J. 2012. ‘The Apocrypha.’ URL: http://earlyenglishbibles.com/miscpages/Apocrypha.html (2.2.2014).
MacArthur, John. 2003. The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Sproul, R.C. 2014. ‘Lecture 1, The Intertestamental Period.’ Dust to Glory: A Teaching Series by Dr. R.C. Sproul. Video format. URL: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/dust-glory-new-testament/the-intertestamental-period/?lb=true&format=audio (2.2.2014).
Thompson, J.A. 1986. Handbook of Life in Bible Times. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
 Map of Alexander’s empire from https://davidbawks.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/b339c-empireofalexanderthegreatc-323bc.jpg.