Chapter Two - The Inter-testament Period


This chapter is divided into the following five parts:

  1. introduction;
  2. brief Jewish history of the inter-testament period;
  3. three centers of Judaism during the inter-testament period;
  4. influence by Greek during the inter-testament period; and
  5. influence by Roman during the inter-testament period.



1.1 Significant Changes in the Holy Land During the 400 Silent Years

As the pages of the New Testament are opened, it soon becomes apparent that many things have changed since the close of the Old Testament. It would he a mistake to assume that the world in which Jesus and the apostles lived was the same one that Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi lived in. Things were quire different. It is important, therefore, to note some of these changes before entering into a study of the text of the New Testament.

Political control of Palestine had changed hands several times since the days of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. At the time of Christ, the rulers of the world were the emperors of Rome Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Caesar (Luke 2:1; 3:1), and their successors. How the Roman Empire came into being and how it managed its territories is part of our investigation. The world felt the impact of a great Greek culture during the inter-testament period. It was "Hellenized." The Hellenistic influence was pervasive, touching language and customs. It also touched the world of ideas: religious, political, and social. The influence of Hellenism on Jewish life is an issue of great importance in our study.

Between the prophet Malachi and the New Testament writers there elapsed over four hundred years silent years to one who reads only the Bible. Many of the factors which made up the New Testament picture originated during this period. Reading the New Testament, we come across names which are not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Pharisee, Sadducee, and Herodian. We read of the synagogue and the "feast of the dedication" (John 10:22). There was a disagreement between Grecian Jews and the Hebrews (Acts 6:1). Who were these people? 

Because of this, it is important to familiar with the changes during the inter-testament period (i.e. 400 silent years). Below chart illustrated the significant changes in the holy land during the four hundred silent years.

(Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 42, by Irving L. Jensen)

The Holy Land, Before and After the 400 Silent Years

In chapters two and three, our task is to investigate the historical events of the Inter-testament period and New Testament period and their effects on the writings included in the New Testament canon.

1.2 Relationship Between the Old Testament, 400 Silent Years and the New Testament

All the years before Christ, beginning with the time of Adam and Eve, looked forward to His appearance on the earthly scene. That was the pre-Christian era. Let us now focus on the two immediate pre-Christian settings of the New Testament, namely the Old Testament and the four hundred silent years.

(Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 39, by Irving L. Jensen)

Relationship Between the Old Testament, 400 Silent Years And the New Testament

The Old Testament is promise and expectation, the New Testament is fulfillment and completion. Below table illustrated the relationship between them.

(Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 41, by Irving L. Jensen)

Relationship Between the Old Testament And the New Testament History

Old Testament History New Testament History
foreshadow fulfillment
promise performance
problem solution
commencement consummation

1.3 The End of the Old Testament

The Old Testament recorded the spiritual failures of the nation of Israel. Israel repeatedly violated the commands of God until God disciplined His people by sending them into Babylonian captivity. After seventy years in captivity, God allowed His people to return to their land and to function as a nation again. Men like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi were instrumental in this return and restoration. However, as the Old Testament came to a close with the historical hook of Nehemiah and the prophetic book of Malachi, once again the spiritual life of Israel began to deteriorate. God's final word, through the prophet Malachi, was primarily a rebuke fur Israel's sinfulness. But included in that message was the promise that the Lord and His messenger would someday come (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). That promise would not be fulfilled for about four hundred years, when John the Baptist (the messenger) would announce the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Source: Survey of the New Testament - Everyman's Bible Commentary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1990 Revised Edition, p. 22, by Paul N. Benware)

Four Hundred Years of Prophetic Silence

The time between the Old and New Testaments is called the "Four Hundred Silent Years," that is, no Scripture was written and no direct revelation came through prophets. However, many things took place during those centuries and those events affected life in the times of the New Testament. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate briefly the history of the inter-testament period. 



2.1 The Persian Period (539 - 331 B.C.)

An independent Jewish state came to an end when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon overran Judah in 605 B.C. For about twenty years after that the Jews did have a king, but he was clearly under the authority of the Babylonians. In 586 B.C. the Jews attempted to revolt against Babylon, but failed in that attempt. That resulted in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the plundering and burning of the Temple, and the deportation of many to Babylon. And for the next fifty years the Jews remained under the domination of the Babylonians (cf. 2 Kings 24:1-25:30; Jeremiah 39:1-18).

The Jews came under Persian control when the Persians and their allies wrested world domination away from the Babylonians in 539 B.C. Under the Persians the Jews were treated fairly well. Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed the Jews to return to their own land and gave them permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4). With the encouragement of the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, opposition and problems were overcome and the Temple was completed in 516 B.C. (Ezra 1:5-6:22). Later, under the leadership of Ezra (458 B.C.) and Nehemiah (444 B.C.), others returned and built the walls of Jerusalem. Those leaders, aided by the prophet Malachi, attempted to bring about moral and spiritual reformation. Although they were not totally successful in their efforts, they did impact the nation of Israel for the inter-testament period. They elevated the Word of God to new heights of importance and strictly applied the principles of the Law to everyday life. So while most of the Jews fell away from the Law of God during those centuries, some held firmly to the Word of God, refusing to compromise with pagan influences.

2.2 The Greek Period (331 - 143 B.C.)

2.2.1 Alexander the Great (331 - 323 B.C.)

In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great, son of Philip II of Macedon, crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor and launched his attack against the Persian armies of Darius III. He won decisive battles at the Granicus River (334), Issus in Cilicia (333), and Gaugamela near Nineveh (331). After a campaign into India, Alexander retraced his steps to Babylon. There he became ill with a fever and died in June, 323 B.C.

Alexander's conquests caused the rapid and thorough spread of Hellenism (Greek culture). This culture permeated life everywhere, including Palestine. The Greek language became the common trade and diplomatic language and by New Testament times it was the language of the common man. This factor of a nearly universal language would come to have a significant impact on the rapid spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ in New Testament times. By Jesus' day many Hellenized Jews had adopted the Greek ways, customs, and speech and had been freed from an exclusive spirit of Hebrew tradition and ancestry.

With the early death of Alexander at the age of thirty-three (323 B.C.), his vast empire was divided into four parts. Because Alexander had no heir old enough to take his throne, four of his generals eventually partitioned the empire. Of the four, only two (Ptolemy and Seleucus) are important for our study of New Testament backgrounds. The empire of Ptolemy was centered in Egypt, while Seleucus's empire was centered in Syria.

2.2.2 The Ptolemies (321 - 198 B.C.)

The land of the Jews became part of Ptolemy's empire at the division of Alexander's empire. The Ptolemies controlled the Jews for more than a century. The Jews generally lived quiet and prosperous lives during this period, though periodic wars between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids turned Palestine into a war zone, resulting in damage to Jewish life and to the economy. But even in this situation the Jews were often treated favorably because both sides were desirous of Jewish support.

An important event occurred in the reign of Ptolemy Phitadelphus (285-247 B.C.). He had the Hebrew Old Testament translated by Jewish scholars into the Greek language in order to meet the needs of Jews who had been reared in Greek culture. Many Jews, such as those who were born and reared in Alexandria, Egypt, understood Greek far better than Hebrew. This version, which is called the Septuagint, became a significant document to the Jewish community living outside of Palestine. During this period the first copies of the Greek Septuagint were distributed (Pentateuch, 280 B.C.).

Some Bible students hold that the seventy-member Sanhedrin council of New Testament times originated around 250 B.C. That council performed the judicial functions of the Great Synagogue council of Ezra's day (450 - 400 B.C.).

2.2.3 The Seleucids (198 - 143 B.C.)

Warfare and intrigue characterized much of the relationship that existed between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. In 198 B.C. Antiochus III of Syria, with the help of a strong Jewish faction, defeated the Ptolemies and drove them back into Egypt. With the victory of Antiochus III, Hellenism swept the land of Palestine. The advancement of Hellenism continued under Antiochus IV (Epiphanes). Antiochus IV not only promoted Hellenism among the Jews, but also attacked Jewish religion and culture.

The major internal struggle of these years was between Hellenistic Jews and Hasidim Jews. The latter resisted all forms of diluting their Hebrew heritage. The Pharisees were successors to that group.

Many non-canonical writings were beginning to appear during this period. The two main kinds were:

  1. apocryphal (e.g. 1 and 2 Maccabees) books recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as canonical, but rejected by Protestants;

  2. pseudepigraphal (e.g. 1 Enoch) spurious writings excluded from the canon by all.

It is interesting to observe that during this period, by 180 B.C., all the books of the Old Testament were translated into Greek by the Alexandrian translators. Later, it was the Bible of the early church.

Further information of the non-canonical writings will be discussed in Section 3 of Chapter 3 of this course. The wicked Antiochus IV

Another crisis in Judaism arose in the second century B.C., when the Syrian king Antiochus IV (175-163 B.C.) attacked Jerusalem. The primary account of this period is in 1 Maccabees, a book included in the Apocrypha ("hidden" books, later regarded by Jews as "false," "noncanonical" writings). Antiochus, who surnamed himself Epiphanes ("the revealed One," or, "the distinguished One"), was a Syrian ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, a line of kings which reigned in Asia from 312-64 B.C. The dynasty was founded after the breakup of Alexander the Great's kingdom by one of his generals, Seleucus.

Antiochus IV or Epiphanes (175 - 163 B.C.) replaced the Jewish high priest Onias III with Onias's brother Jason, a Hellenizer who started making Jerusalem into a Greek city. A gymnasium with an adjoining race track was built. There Jewish lads exercised nude in Greek fashion, to the outrage of pious Jews. The track races opened with invocations to pagan deities, and even Jewish priests attended such events. Hellenization also included attendance at Greek theaters, adoption of Greek dress, surgery to remove the marks of circumcision, and exchange of Hebrew for Greek names.

In 169 B.C., the Temple was plundered of its treasures and was converted into a shrine of Olympian Zeus. On December 15, 168 B.C., an image of the god was set up on its altar, and ten days later (i.e. 25th day of December, Chislev) a sow was sacrificed in the god's honor (1 Maccabees 1:54, 59). Heathen altars were erected everywhere throughout the country, and the observance of heathen festivals was made compulsory. Judaism was proscribed completely. The death penalty was inflicted upon those who possessed or read the Torah. Sabbath observance and circumcision were forbidden.

So wicked was Antiochus IV that he is used in the Bible as a picture of the Antichrist who will appear in the end times. The Maccabean Wars

This situation was, of course, intolerable to those pious Jews who were devoted to God's law. A rebellion against the Seleucids of Syria was inevitable. The revolt started when a prominent priest, named Mattathias, from the town of Modein, defied a Syrian official who came to Modein to enforce a pagan sacrifice. The courageous Mattathias not only refused to obey the king's representative, but opposed such a sacrifice by killing a Jew who willingly stepped forward to carry out the sacrifice.

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king's command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law.

Mattathias realized the seriousness of his actions and fled to the hills with his five sons and other pious Jews. Mattathias soon died, but the movement was taken over by his son Judas (known as "Maccabeus," which means "the hammer", see 1 Maccabees 2:23-28; 3:1). Astonishingly, the small force of the rebels achieved great success under Judas's leadership. Initially the Jews engaged in a guerilla warfare, making it nearly impossible for the armies of Antiochus IV to subdue them. These victories were gained by Judas with greatly inferior forces, due to his strategy and his religious enthusiasm. Three years after Antiochus IV had desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, Judas and his forces soundly defeated the Syrians and were able to recapture Jerusalem and cleanse and rededicate the temple (December 165 B.C.). On the 25th day of Chislev, 164 B.C., the temple was rededicated to the worship of the LORD. The Feast of Lights (Hanukkah) is a perpetual reminder of the victory over Antiochus (1 Maccabees 4:52-59).

Several years later, the Maccabees won political independence for Judaea (1 Maccabees 13; 41-42; 15:6-7). Finally, in 143 B.C., peace with the Syrians was achieved and the Jews had become independent of them. Maccabean leadership continued until 63 B.C. when the Roman general Pompey, captured Jerusalem.

2.3 The Hasmonean Period (143 - 63 B.C.)

Simon, a brother of Judas, was the first ruler of the independent Jewish state. (Note that the term Hasmonean is derived from the family name of Mattathias, Hashmon.) Simon was declared to be the high priest and the civil leader of the Jews for as long as he lived. This act brought a new power to the office of the high priest, as both the religious and civil authority resided in it. (The increased power in the office of high priest is evidenced in the days of Christ and the apostles.) Simon's reign was short but beneficial to the Jews. "A treaty was negotiated with Rome which was confirmed in 139 B.C., recognizing the independence of the Jewish state and commending it to the friendship of Rome's subjects and allies. Economic conditions improved, justice was ably administered in the courts, and Jewish religious life was revived." Unfortunately, however, much of the Hasmonean period was characterized by power struggles and strife. Various factions within the Jewish state had very different views, and the tendency to divide was constantly present.

Simon and two of his sons were murdered, but another son, John Hyrcanus, became the political-religious ruler. John Hyrcanus did much to further the strength and position of the new Jewish state. He was a capable military leader and regained territory that had once belonged to the Jews. He was able to defeat the Syrians, Samaritans, Edomites, and Idumeans. In many ways, those were great days for the Jews, But not all that John Hyrcanus did was applauded by the people, and those differences led to strife and civil war later. For example, John Hyrcanus made an alliance with Rome. That alliance was seen by the separatists (such as the emerging party of the Pharisees) as a compromise of their faith and religious convictions. Also, Hyrcanus forced Judaism on the Idumeans, which was seen as a defilement of the Jews' special covenant relationship with God. Furthermore, many of the Jews refused to accept the priestly claims of the Hasmoneans, knowing that they were not descendants of Aaron. It is also probable that John Hyrcanus wanted to be viewed as "king" even though he was not of the Davidic line. Those issues did not disappear at the death of John Hyrcanus in 106 B.C. Internal strife became a part of life in the new Jewish state until it reached its climax in 63 B.C. In that year the Roman army intervened in a civil war being fought by two members of the Hasmonean dynasty. The Roman army brought peace into that situation. But with the coming of the Roman army there came Roman domination.

During this period Palestine was geographically divided into the three familiar divisions of:

  1. Judea;

  2. Samaria; and

  3. Galilee.

Also, it was during this time that the rival religious sects (Pharisees and Sadducees) became rival political enemies.

2.4 The Roman Period (63 B.C. - New Testament Period)

Roman rule began when Rome intervened in the Jewish civil strife in 63 B.C. At that time Rome set up John Hyrcanus II as king, but he was subject to Rome. It was clear that real power belonged to Rome. Even while Hyrcanus II ruled, an Idumean named Antipater rose to favor with the Romans. Antipater was able to get his sons placed into positions of power in Palestine. One of his sons was Herod. Herod the Great would eventually be declared king and be the dominant force in Palestine. He would rule from 37 to 4 B.C. Herod the Great was a man of great ability, but he was also a man of great wickedness.

The history of the rise of Herod's Kingdom is a drama of extraordinary moves of political trickery accompanied by a succession of atrocious crimes arising from jealousy mostly within Herod's own heart, and against his own family. With rare ability he gained and kept the favor of succeeding Roman Emperors, sacrificing all scruples in order to do so. His reign was one succession of monstrous crimes until his death.

The life and rule of Herod the Great brings us into the days of the New Testament as one of his last "monstrous crimes" (the killing of the babies of Bethlehem) is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. The family of Herod continued to play an important role in the days of Christ and the early church. Given below is a chart listing those of Herod's family found in the New Testament.

Other Herodian relatives mentioned in the New Testament:

  1. Herod Philip I (Mark 6);

  2. Herodius (Mark 6);

  3. Drusilla (Acts 24); and

  4. Bernice (Acts 25).

None were rulers.

(Source: Survey of the New Testament - Everyman's Bible Commentary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1990 Revised Edition, p. 28, by Paul N. Benware)

The Herodian Rulers in the Bible

Person Years Ruled Territory Relation To Herod Scripture
Herod the Great 37 - 4 B.C. King of Palestine - Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5
Herod Antipas 4 B.C. - A.D. 39 Tetrarch of Galilee, Perea Son Luke 3:1; 13:31; 23:7
Archelaus 4 B.C. - A.D. 6 Ethnarch of Judea, Samarie, Idumea Son Matthew 2:22
Herod Philip II 4 B.C. - A.D. 34 Tetrarch of Iturea, Trachonitis Son Luke 3:1
Herod Agrippa I A.D. 37 - 44 King of Palestine Grandson Acts 12:1-23
Herod Agrippa II A.D. 48 - 70 Tetrach of Chalcis, other territories Great-Grandson Acts 25, 26

For the most part there was little interference by Rome in the religious life of Palestine. The Jews paid taxes to Rome and were subject to the rulers appointed over them by Rome. The conflicts and struggles of the Jews of that day were mainly of the heart, and the darkness and sin were overwhelming. The Jewish world to which Jesus came had the following characteristics:

  1. the upper classes devoting themselves to selfishness, courtiership, and skepticism;

  2. the teachers and chief professors of religion lost in mere shows of ceremonialism, and boasting themselves the favorites of God, while their souls were honeycombed with self-deception and vice; and

  3. the body of the people misled by false ideals; and seething at the bottom of society, a neglected mass of unblushing and unrestrained sin.

When Jesus was born (5 B.C.) the political situation was generally stable, but opposition to the Messiah's coming was quickly demonstrated by King Herod's reactions and decree (read Matthew 2:1-18).



With the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. the Jews entered a phase of being scattered around the world such that by the time of Christ every large city of the Roman Empire had its large colony of Jews, and towns and villages together contained them by the thousands. During the silent years, the greatest impressions made upon Judaism originated in the three great centers of:

  1. Babylon;

  2. Alexandria; and

  3. Jerusalem.

Observe on below map the relative location of those cities.

 (Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 44, by Irving L. Jensen)

Three Centers of Judaism During the Silent Years

3.1 Babylon

Changes in Judaism that originated in Babylon were carried over into Jerusalem during the silent years, because there was a continuing program of migration of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, which had begun under Ezra and Nehemiah. Some of the major changes, not all good, were:

  1. Theology The exile had eliminated idolatry and had fostered a pure monotheism ("one God").

  2. Worship The Babylonian captivity witnessed the rise of synagogue worship among the Jews. Groups of the faithful banded themselves together and formed congregations in which the Law was taught and revered. Teachers were appointed who took the place of the temple priesthood as religious leaders. The study of the Law became a substitute for animal sacrifices, and ethical observances took the place of ritual. By New Testament times synagogues were located throughout the Mediterranean world. The apostle Paul usually sought out the synagogue when he first arrived in a city on his missionary journeys (see Acts 13:5).

  3. Tradition The Law was amplified to include other writings, mainly Mishnah and Haggada, which were together known as Talmud. Mishnah was a book of man-made rules of living; Haggada was the theology and commentary of the rabbis. Rabbis formulated their own tradition. The Jews became more and more steeped in traditionalism during those years.

  4. Culture and education The new professions of teachers and interpreters of the Law, called rabbis and scribes, originated here. Scholarship was advanced, and culture was developed.

3.2 Alexandria

A large number of Jews migrated to Egypt a few months after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (see Jeremiah 41-44). When Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 B.C., the Jews constituted an eighth of the population of Egypt in Alexandria, almost a half. He favored them very highly and assigned them a special section of the city, Alexandria became the capital of the Jewish Dispersion (Diaspora), and the events and movements of that city affected the life of Judaism for centuries to come.

Since Alexandria was a Greek-speaking city, the Jewish population gave up its Palestinian Hebrew vernacular as it began learning Greek. Eventually the Jews were without Scripture in their new vernacular, so the need arose for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Such a translation (later called the Septuagint) was soon made the Pentateuch by 280 B.C., and the whole Old Testament by 180 B.C.

The Jews prospered and multiplied in Egypt during the silent years, such that by New Testament times there were almost one million Jews residing there. Egypt was not far from Judea, and the contacts between Jews of both lands were very close. (Read Matthew 2:13-18, one of the first stories of the New Testament, which is about baby Jesus' parents' escape with Him to Egypt, to flee Herod.) The contributions of the Greek background, including the Septuagint translation, to the New Testament setting will be discussed later.

3.3 Jerusalem

Approximately 450 B.C. Ezra and Nehemiah had led about 50,000 Jews back to Judea from exile in Babylon. Those remained in the land, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and trying in small measure to preserve their religious heritage. But before long the people gave up their allegiance to God and, in their vain pursuit of holiness, surrendered faith for works. The one bright note was that there always remained a faithful remnant in the land who awaited the Messiah. The book of Malachi, though written around 400 B.C., prophetically describes the evil generations of Jews during the inter-testament period. Read Luke 2:25-38 for two examples of believers of this period.

It was during those silent years that two ruling classes of the Jewish religion appeared:

  1. the Sadducees; and

  2. the Pharisees.

As rival religious sects, they became rival political parties by New Testament times.

The Sadducees were the political party of the Jewish aristocratic priesthood. They were not popular with the common people. Among their false doctrines were:

  1. denial of the resurrection of the body and future retribution; and

  2. denial of the existence of angels and spirits.

The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews, often identified in the New Testament with the scribes. They were the most influential leaders and were very popular with the people. The Pharisees taught such sound doctrines as:

  1. divine providence;

  2. immortality of the soul; and

  3. a messianic hope.

But they were rigid legalists, and by Jesus' day their sect had degenerated into an empty religion (read Luke 11:37-54).

Further information of these parties will be discussed in Section 3 of Chapter 3 of this course.



The Greek background of the New Testament is chiefly cultural, including such things as language and philosophical perspective. Many of the influences of that Hellenistic culture were very important, because they paved the way for the world-wide proclamation of God's message of salvation in New Testament times.

4.1 An Attempt to Hellenize Palestine

The Greek way of life did, indeed, offer a possible basis for a "one world" society. In Palestine, however, there were many who resisted this intrusion. The Hasidim, who were the pious, conservative element in second century Judaism, fought to maintain the traditions of the fathers. Elements of foreign culture, such as the broad brimmed hat (associated with the pagan god Hermes (Mercury) and the gymnasium (site of nude athletics), and prayers to pagan deities, were despicable in the eyes of Jews in Jerusalem.

The writer of 1 Maccabees tells the story of a specific attempt by the Syrians to Hellenize Jerusalem during the reign of Antiochus IV. Some in Israel advocated making "a covenant with the Gentiles" (1 Maccabees 1:11), which led to the construction of a gymnasium and the abandonment of circumcision. The king forbade Jewish sacrifices in the temple, advocated idolatry, and urged the Jews to forget the Law and change the ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:44-49).

4.2 Greek Philosophies

During the silent years the mind of the Greek thinkers and philosophers was reaching out to discover the secrets of life and the universe. The answers to the questions of the searching Greeks were in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the philosophers and false religionists rejected that revelation and posited their own answers. Some books of the New Testament, such as Ephesians and Colossians, were written partly with those philosophers in mind, and the appeal was to accept God's full revelation by His Son Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 3:1-13; Colossians 2:2-3, 8).

Among the leading philosophers and religionists of the period were:

  1. Plato (427-347 B.C.) This world is only a shadow of eternal realities.

  2. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Reality resides in individual things themselves.

  3. Zeno (c. 300 B.C.), founder of the Stoicism (i.e. live according to nature) The teachings of Stoicism were pantheistic. A divine world soul, rational in nature, was supposed to permeate all matter. All men were thought to possess a divine spark. The Stoics taught that all men are brothers, and that every man is engaged in a struggle against the flesh. At death, one enters a hazy existence, and later is reabsorbed into the world soul.

  4. Epicurus (c. 300 B.C.), founder of the Epicureans (i.e. pursue pleasure) Epicureans sought for pleasure (avoiding pain as much as possible). Regarding the world as mechanistic. Epicureanism taught that the gods are quite disinterested in human affairs, and that to die is to experience disintegration (all living things being composed merely of atoms). It taught that there is no afterlife and no Judgment. The present life is the totality of existence.

Paul encountered Stoics and Epicureans among the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:16-34). In his remarks to these people, he included certain important affirmations about the world:

  1. God made it and rules over it;
  2. Men are responsible to Him, since He has appointed a day of judgment when men must answer;
  3. He now calls men to repentance in view of this judgment; and
  4. He has raised Christ from the dead to be the Judge of all men.

The concept of the Resurrection was foreign to the Greek mind and many scuffed. They considered the body, being material, to be evil. Thus, it was not worthy of resurrection and continuing life.

For many persons in the ancient world, neither philosophy nor the formal state religions (such as worship of the Roman emperor's genius) were spiritually satisfying and the traditional gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome were shadowy figures to others. Often persons who longed for spiritual reality turned to the mystery religions.

4.3 Greek Mystery Religions

In the main, these secret societies were based on the cycle of nature. They celebrated in the life of the god of the cult the death and rebirth of natural vegetation. There was an elaborate initiation which involved the worshiper in a detailed ritual, climaxing with his entrance into the presence of the god. While the feature of spiritual rebirth was sometimes involved, the initiate was not demanded to follow a new way of life, as was insisted by Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, a person hoping for a greater feeling of security could be initiated into several cults. This was the secret sickness of the mystery religions, their adherents believed, and yet they did not believe.

The main cults of this time were the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece, which celebrated the revival of corn in the spring time; the celebration of Cybele in Asia Minor (known as Magna Deum Mater in Rome); the worship of Isis in Egypt; the worship of Mithra from Persia; and the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine. Of this group, Mithraism was the most powerful competitor of Christianity during the early centuries of the church.

4.4 Greek Language

The Greek language was widely spoken in Palestine, in use from the days of the Maccabean conflict with Syria. Many people were bilingual, speaking Aramaic and Greek. Commerce encouraged the spread of the Greek language in Palestine, particularly in the northern section where trade routes from Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria converged. Galilee, the homeland of Christ, was called "Galilee of the Gentiles," testifying to the wide influence of Greek-speaking people.

Greek had become the international language of the time. How providential that the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, thus making the gospel available to the world population! Scholars generally call this language Koine (common) Greek, distinguishing it from the literary Greek of the day.

Both Jesus and the apostles had contact with Greek people:

  1. The Syrophoenician woman who approached Jesus seeking help was a Greek (Mark 7:26).

  2. Certain Greeks requested a visit with Jesus at Jerusalem (John 12:20-21).

  3. Paul's missionary travels were largely in Greek-speaking territories (Acts 14:1; 17:4, 16; 18:4; 19:10-17).

  4. There were Grecian (Hellenistic) Jews in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1).

  5. Some of the refugee Christians who fled to the Greek city of Antioch (in Syria) spoke to the Greeks (possibly Grecian Jews) there (Acts 11:20).

The common language thus facilitated the spread of the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world.

4.5 Greek Bible

As noted earlier, the need for a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek arose because Greek had become the new vernacular of the Jews in Egypt. In fact Greek was by then the common language of the world, as a result of the world conquests of Alexander the Great.

Alexandrian scholars translated the first five books of the Law (Pentateuch) by 280 B.C., and by 180 B.C. all the books had been translated. Over the next two centuries that "modern version" (later called the Septuagint) of the Old Testament was circulated around the Greek empire, so that by the time of Jesus and the apostles it was widely used. Very many of Jesus' quotes of Old Testament passages are from the Septuagint version. This is true also of the New Testament authors.

The Hebrew Old Testament was still cherished by Jews as God's Holy Scriptures, and rightly so. See below Chart for illustration.

 (Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 50, by Irving L. Jensen)

The Greek Septuagint And the Christian Greek Bible

Some of the significant contributions of the Septuagint to the New Testament setting are:

  1. The New Testament writers had a Greek theological vocabulary to work with as they wrote their books in Greek. For example: the Hebrew word Torah, which referred only to God's Law, had been translated nomos in the Septuagint, even though in those days nomos referred to the whole range of codified custom, not exclusively to God's Law. For almost two hundred years Jews reading nomos in the Septuagint gradually began seeing it as meaning only God's Law in those passages where it should be so interpreted. So by the time the New Testament writers did their composing, the word nomos very adequately served the theological purpose, and their readers identified the word with God's Law, without having to make a mental adjustment to a secular word.

  2. When the New Testament canon was complete, the Septuagint Old Testament and the Greek New Testament formed a unity, the Greek Bible.

  3. The Greek Bible made God's whole written revelation accessible to the whole world, where Greek was the common language.

  4. This "modern version" of Scripture prepared the way for the Jews' acceptance of God's revelation in a language other than the revered Hebrew language. The barrier of Scripture being rejected in a so-called unholy language was not a problem during the first centuries after Christ.

4.6 Greek Influence in the New Testament

Some scholars emphasize the Greek influence on the ideas and attitudes in the New Testament, while others emphasize the Hebrew influence. But in recent years, particularly since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Hebrew element has become more prominent in this discussion. For example, Paul's teachings of the discord between "flesh" and "spirit" has been regarded by some as a reflection of the Greek influence in his thinking (Galatians 5:17; Romans 8:5-6). Yet, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that this antithesis was a concept familiar to the Jews as well. Keep this discussion in mind as we peruse the literature of the New Testament. You will be better equipped to draw an intelligent conclusion after you have examined the documents within their original setting.



The Roman background of the New Testament is mainly political and social. The status of the Roman Empire from its birth (eighth century B.C.) to the time of Christ can be represented by the two words expansion and peace:


EXPANSION 8th century B.C. Founding of Rome
5th century B.C. Organization of republican form of government
4th to 1st century B.C. Wars
PEACE beginning with Augustus, 27 B.C. Rule of emperors
law and order in the empire Roman peace

Unity and political stability of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ's birth was one of the bright aspects of the Roman background of the New Testament. However, the Greek influence had not died away, however. The Roman Empire was like a reservoir of the Hellenistic culture, which had spread throughout the Mediterranean world from the time of Alexander the Great.

Some of the characteristics of the Roman background are briefly noted here:

  1. World Centralization The unifier was the emperor, the ruler of the Mediterranean world. Worship of the emperor was inevitable, and so religious clash with Christianity was unavoidable. As an example, Paul was executed by Nero (reign: A.D. 54-68), and John was exiled on the Island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9) during Domitian's reign (A.D. 81-96).

  2. World Communication The highways and sea lanes of the Roman Empire made world traffic possible, and when the time came for the missionary journeys of the early Christians the cities were easily accessible. The Roman system of roads and bridges also helped expedite mail deliveries between cities.

  3. World Peace Although the reigns of some emperors were marred periodically by times of war (such as Augustus, who ruled from 30 B.C. to A.D. 14), the Roman period was a time of peace. The benefit of international peace to the church's birth and growth cannot be overstated. When you are studying in the New Testament you will not read about the kinds of wars that were so commonplace in the years of Old Testament history.

  4. World Spiritual Disorder Rome became a venerator of all deities, often horribly grotesque, senselessly confused, ill-formed sickly phantasies. The entire Mediterranean world resembled a gigantic cauldron of mixture. Aristocratic society wallowed in moral depravity, idleness of wealth, pursuit of pleasure. The middle class lived on a higher plane morally and had strong religious feelings. Members were searching for the truth but never finding it. Many religions found their way into People's hearts. From Egypt came the worship of Isis and Osiris; from Persia, the cult of Mithras; from Asia Minor, the cult of Cybele. Many gods and idols, representing secret and nature religions, were among those who moved in from the Orient. But none brought redemption of sinners, none brought eternal salvation.

"When the fulness of time came, God sent forth his Son" (Galatians 4:4). Concerning preparation, the time was right, for the law had served its disciplinary and instructive purposes. The time also was right concerning the political, religious, and social climate, because those were conducive to the ministry of the gospel; and it was right regarding need, with a spiritual vacuum waiting to be filled.

The world of Jesus' day was ruled by Gentile Rome. The particular people to whom He primarily ministered were Jews of Palestine (see Matthew 15:24). Below Chart is a summary tabulation intended to describe those two worlds of Jesus' day, Gentile and Jewish.

  (Source: Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1978 Edition, p. 54, by Irving L. Jensen)

World of Jesus' Day

When you read the New Testament, try to visualize the hearts of people Jew and Gentile throughout the Roman Empire, hearts that are confused and guilt-ridden. As you do that, you will better understand and appreciate the words and ministry of Jesus, the preaching of the early apostles, and the letters of the New Testament writers.



  1. Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, 2001 Edition, by H. Wayne House.
  2. Exploring the Scriptures, Chicago: Moody Press, 1981 Paperback Edition, by John Phillips.
  3. Jensen's Survey of the New Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1981 Edition, by Irving L. Jensen.
  4. New Testament Survey, Chicago: Moody Press, original by Merrill C. Tenney, 1961 Revised Edition by Walter M. Dunnett.
  5. Survey of the New Testament - Everyman's Bible Commentary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1990 Revised Edition by Paul N. Benware.


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