The Inter-testamental Period (Fifth to first centuries: 440 - 6 BC)
The history of the Old Testament comes to an end with Nehemiah and the prophecy of Malachi. Before the beginning of the New Testament, there was a period of about 400 years, when there were no prophets, and the Word of God was silent. The Spirit of the Lord seemed to be quenched. However, during this period many important historical events took place, which we need to know about, many of which were predicted by Daniel and other prophets.
The Persian empire began with a series of fairly benevolent rulers, who ruled well and
reasonably graciously, but the later rulers became more and more oppressive and tyrannical. As with
all empires, the Persian empire eventually fell apart from within, and a new empire grew to replace it.
Alexander the Great (The 'he-goat' - Dan 8)
Alexander came from Macedonia, in northern Greece. His father Philip conquered and united the whole of Greece under his control, and prepared to march east to attack the Persian empire. He died and was succeeded by Alexander, who continued the exploits of his father. After three great battles (Granicus, Issus, and Guagamela) and major victories over the Persians, he conquered the entire Persian empire, in only about 12 years, while still he was a young man in his twenties. He conquered a vast empire, stretching from Greece, to Egypt, as far east as northern India, and north into central Asia. Many Biblical predictions of judgement on foreign nations were fulfilled by Alexander's conquests. Then rather mysteriously, he died, either by disease or because he was poisoned.
The Ptolemies & Selucids
Alexander conquered a vast empire, but had no time to consolidate it, so his empire did not
survive him. However, Alexander had brought the Greek civilisation (language, gods, learning) to his
empire and this persisted for many generations. After his death, there was a civil war, and his empire
was divided between four of his generals.
Two of these are important in Biblical history:
1. Ptolemy - in Egypt ('The king of the south' - Dan 11)
2. Seleucus - in Syria and the east ('The king of the north' - Dan 11)
Each of these began a dynasty of kings. In Egypt, they were very unoriginal in their choice of
titles, each king was called Ptolemy, so they are easy to remember (Ptolemy 1, Ptolemy II, Ptolemy III,
up to Ptolemy XII). In Syria, they were slightly more original in their titles, as they alternated between Seleucus and Antiochus.
Israel was a buffer between these two rival kingdoms, and was fought over several times. To start with, it was part of Egypt, and later part of Syria. The exploits of the kings of these two kingdoms
and their impact on Israel were predicted in amazing detail in Daniel chapter 11.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes (The 'little horn' - Dan 11) KEY DATE: 167 BC
Antiochus IV snatched the throne of the Seleucid kingdom and strengthened the kingdom by a policy of Hellenisation (making everything Greek). Antiochus believed that he was an incarnation of the Greek god Zeus. In an attempt to conquer Egypt, he was surprised when he encountered the Roman army. The Roman general drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus and gave him a choice: either to agree to go home, or if he stepped out of the circle he would be dead. Antiochus decided to go home. However, in his humiliation, he took his revenge on the Jews. After attacking Jerusalem on the Sabbath, because he knew the Jews would not fight, he began a strict policy of making Israel Greek, in order to make Israel a buffer state against a Roman-occupied Egypt. He prohibited Jewish customs (including circumcision, and the Jewish festivals), and burned copies of the Torah. Many Jews were killed in a time of dreadful persecution.
He seized the Jewish temple and rededicated it as a temple to Zeus, and did the worst imaginable
thing to horrify the Jews. He built a new altar on the top of the altar of burnt offering and offered pigs as sacrifice. Because pigs are unclean animals, this made the temple unclean. This act became known as the 'Abomination of Desolation' and for 3½ years, there was no daily burnt offering.
The Maccabees (or Hasmoneans) KEY DATE: 164 BC
During this time, a group of zealous Jews rose up. These were Mattathias, and his son, Judas
Maccabeus , who became great Jewish heroes - or terrorists from the point of view of Antiochus.
Through an amazing series of heroic exploits they managed to cause so much trouble that Antiochus
Epiphanes withdrew from Israel, as recorded in 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha. The nation was free for
the first time since Ahaz called on Assyrian 'help' about 600 years before.
The Maccabees cleansed the temple and rededicated it to God. This event is still remembered by
Jews in the festival of the Dedication of the Temple, or Hanukkah. The early Maccabean rulers were
godly men, who sought God and lived according to his ways, but the later rulers became increasingly
ungodly and corrupt.
Roman conquest KEY DATE: 64 BC
Through this period, the power and influence of Rome had been increasing, as they conquered a
huge empire all around the Mediterranean Sea. In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey captured Israel
and made it a Roman province. When Pompey captured Jerusalem, out of curiosity he had a look around
the temple, and to the dismay of the priests, he even looked into the Holy of Holies and was amazed to
find that it was empty. There was no ark, no mercy seat, and no glory of God in the post-exilic temple.
The glory of God had left the temple at the time of Ezekiel, and never returned until the baby Jesus was
brought into the temple, which of course was not recognised by most of the people. The Romans
appointed Herod the Great as 'King of the Jews', even though he was not truly Jewish, but half Idumean
(Edomite), and because of this he was greatly resented by the Jewish religious establishment.
So Jesus was born in a nation under Roman occupation, with an extremely legalistic religious
system, at a time when there was great expectation that God was about to send his promised Messiah.