The Old Testament dwindles to silence so innocuously, so subtly, that it almost closes without notice. The year is circa 430 BC and all has been set aright: the children of Israel have begun to return from Persian exile; the Temple has been rebuilt, albeit ingloriously; the Law has been reestablished; and a portion of Jerusalem’s wall has been reconstructed.
Welcome to the Second Temple period, where the Old Testament ends and the blank page begins.
Enter Ezra and Nehemiah: The Postexilics
Contrary to chronological indications, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (as opposed to Malachi and Zechariah) serve as the historical denouement of the Old Testament. They delineate a narrative that is on the cusp of triumph, and, although bittersweet, are celebratory nonetheless.
Consider, for example, Ezra 6:16: “Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy” (NIV).
Verse 22 of the same chapter reads, “For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”
Or Nehemiah 12:43, “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”
Joie de vivre bounds triumphantly from these pages: Israel was in exile, but she has returned to Zion! She was abandoned, but God has not forgotten his covenant! The Temple was in ruin but it has been restored!
So conclude Ezra and Nehemiah.
And then silence. Absolute, impenetrable silence. The blank page does not speak.
Enraptured by the story, we cling to the edge of our seats and flip to the grand sequel that is the New Testament, only to discover that it doesn’t pick up where the Old Testament left off. Questions abound: Did the Jews return from the diaspora (the dispersion)? Was Israel freed from foreign rule? Did they establish a sovereign state?
These questions are swiftly replaced with those of a different kind as we are sucked into the vortex of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: Who are these Romans and when did they show up? Quirinius, who? Wait, Pharisees and Saducees? Ermmm… who is this Herod guy and who made him king? But if Herod is king, who is Pontius Pilate? The Sanhedrin what? So, the gospels were written in Greek: what gives?
Heart palpitations ensue. Accepting, but refusing to admit publicly, that we’re lost, we stifle a feeble whimper and press on. Over time, the gnawing concern that maybe, just maybe, we’re missing something due to our historical ignorance, is expunged by sheer familiarity alone.
Enter the rise of Alexander the Great.
No doubt we’re all familiar with the famed conqueror whose armies swept the known world in a wave of conquest, overthrew the magnificent Persian Empire, ushered in a period fondly referred to as the Hellenistic era (after Hellenes, the term for ancient Greeks), and established the largest empire of the ancient world– all before his 33rd birthday (not that anyone was counting).
Enter Alexander the Great, king of Macedon.
To set the scene: the year is 334 BC. Approximately sixty-six years have passed since the anonymous compiler completed Ezra and Nehemiah. And despite the return of many Jews from captivity, Judaea remains a vassal state of the Persian Empire.
At this time, having united the previously discordant Greek city-states under Macedonian rule, Alexander crosses Hellespont into Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), launching his campaign against the Persian Empire and advancing eastward.
By 331 BC, his empire has expanded to incorporate Judaea. History affords us no dramatic conquest story. Indeed, evidence is insufficient to suggest that Alexander took Jerusalem by force at all.
a digression on Josephus
According to an account by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus of (very) dubious authenticity, the high priests of Jerusalem, upon hearing of Alexander’s approach, threw wide their gates and went out in procession to meet him. Upon saluting the high priest, Alexander relates a vision he received, describing the Jewish God as playing an important role in his conquest of the Persians. Josephus then goes on,
“[And when Alexander] had given the high-priest his right hand, the priests ran along by him, and he came into the city. And when he went up into the temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the high-priest’s direction, and magnificently treated both the high-priest and the priests” (Ant. 11.336).
The high priests subsequently show Alexander the Book of Daniel (likely 7:6; 8:3-8, 20–22; 11:3). Alexander, deeming himself the person which it spoke, agrees to grant the Jews a series of favours, including that “they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year” (Ant. 11.338). (In fact, Alexander granted the Jews nothing that hadn’t already been afforded them by their Persian overlords. Political strategy at its finest.)
Due to its general incredibility, the whole story has been deemed false by the preponderance of historians. The whole account can be found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, 11.317-345.
In 323 BC, Alexander died mid-conquest and far from home, his sweeping empire fractured amongst his generals: Antipater, Perdiccas, Ptolemy I, Seleucus I, Antigonus I, and Lysimachus.
Control over Egypt and Judaea fell to Ptolemy I.
Despite their new rulers, the Jews were left much as they had been for the past century: governed by foreign powers but otherwise exerting surprising hegemony over their own affairs. They remained little aware that in time a Greek king would arise who would spearhead a devastating Hellenistic program– a program that would transform the holy Temple into a cesspool of paganism and push the very existence of Judaism, and indeed monotheism, to the edge of eradication.
The Hellenistic era had just begun.
The Blank Page Chronicles:
- The Silent Years Between Testaments
- From Ezra to Alexander
- The Ptolemies in Judaea
- The Seleucids in Judaea
- Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163 BC)
- Maccabean Revolt (167-152 BC)
- Hasmonean Priesthood and Kingship (142-63 BC)
- Arrival of Rome: Pompey (63 BC)
- Herod the Great (39-4 BC)
References and Recommended Reading
Cantor, Norman F. Antiquity: From the Birth of Sumerian Civilization to the Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.
Hill, Andrew E., and Walton, John. H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities. Translated by H.St.J. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.
See also James D. Newson’s Greeks Romans Jews, Charles F. Pfeiffer’s Between the Testaments, James C. Vanderkam’s An Introduction to Early Judaism, and Elias Bickerman’s From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees.
(As a disclaimer, I know well the complexities of this time period but chose to overlook them nonetheless in favour of providing a brief overview that is both accessible and engaging.)