The apostle Paul wrote: “[B]ut when the fulness of time came, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4). The phrase “fulness of time” is extraordinary. It reflected the most ideal time in world history for the birth of Christ and the inauguration of Christianity. The commencement of the Christian religion was a turning point in world history (note the common B.C. – A.D. designations). Fundamental to an understanding of this event are the several centuries just prior to Jesus’ birth.
When Old Testament history closes, the Jewish people have resettled Palestine after seventy years of captivity in Babylon. The final exile return occurred in 444 B.C. The Old Testament record ends, therefore, about four centuries before the birth of Christ.
These “four silent centuries” really are not silent at all. Secular history sheds considerable light on this period—and it is tremendously important. God’s providential activity (i.e., his orchestration of human events in a non-miraculous manner) was, in retrospect, both active and effective. This historical period should be considered from several vantage points.
When the Old Testament regime ended, the Hebrews had been under Persian rule for about two centuries. In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and the Jews yielded to Greek control. The brilliant military commander was reasonably tolerant of the Hebrews but sought to immerse the nation in Greek culture. When Alexander died (323 B.C.) without an heir, his empire fell into a brief state of disarray; ultimately however it was divided into four segments. The prophecies of these events in Daniel 8, written more than two centuries earlier, are stunning.
One of these powers, the Seleucids of Syria (especially a butcher named Antiochus Epiphanes), persecuted the Jews horribly, outlawing Judaism and attempting to eradicate all copies of the Hebrew Scriptures. This was the “midnight” hour of the interbiblical era. Eventually (167 B.C.) the Jews initiated a revolt. They struggled for more than forty years before gaining a measure of independence. That freedom was to be short-lived.
In 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompey swept through Syria and Palestine, annexing both territories to the empire; the “holy land” thus came under Roman rule. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Augustus (31 B.C. – A.D. 14) was on the imperial throne (Luke 2:1ff). In A.D. 66 the Jews rebelled against Rome; four years later Jerusalem was demolished, more than a million Hebrews were killed, and thousands were taken into slavery (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 6.9). From about 37 B.C. to A.D. 6, the Jews were permitted to have their own “king” under Herod, and then his son, Archelaus (Matthew 2:1, 22). Afterward they were governed by procurators appointed by Rome, of whom Pontius Pilate was most notable.
The social environment in the time of Christ was different from that of the Old Testament. During the ministry of Jesus there was sharp hostility between the Jews and Samaritans (Luke 9:51-54; John 4:9). The Samaritans were a mongrel mixture of ancient Hebrews and foreigners (the Assyrians; cf. 2 Kings 15:29), and a people afflicted with paganism (2 Kings 17:29). By the permission of Alexander, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim; this became a matter of contention between Jews and Samaritans (cf. John 4:20). Remarkably, the Samaritans became a fertile field for gospel evangelism (cf. John 4:35, 39-41; Acts 8:5ff).
During his control of Palestine, Alexander vigorously sought to Hellenize the Hebrew people, i.e., immerse them in Greek culture. This process had strong advocates even among certain Jewish leaders. This influx of Greek influence began to weaken certain elements of Hebrew society (a Greek amphitheater was even built in Jerusalem), and tensions between the Gentile Greeks and the Jews flared. This explains some of the actions and reactions within the Gospel records (for instance, why the Jews washed their hands and all their vessels that potentially had been in contact with the “unclean” Gentiles, before meals [cf. Mark 7:1-4]). There was even a strained relationship in the early church between Hebrews and Hellenists (Acts 6:1-6).
When the early Christians took the message of Christ throughout the antique world (cf. Acts 17:6b), they found Jewish communities almost everywhere they went. These scattered Hebrews were called the Dispersion (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). Ptolemy I (322-285 B.C.) transported many Jews from Palestine to Egypt. Antiochus of Syria likewise dispersed some two thousand Jews, who had remained in Babylon, to Lydia and Phrygia. Hundreds of Hebrews were taken to Rome following the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This widespread distribution of Judaism (with its monotheistic conviction of God and its Scriptures containing the messianic prophecies) was tremendously instrumental in the success of Christianity in the days of its youth.
Greek and Roman Culture
A number of cultural developments in the inter-testament period were significant. Beginning about 300 B.C., the Koine (“common”) Greek tongue became the spoken-written language of the Roman world. Paul even wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome in Greek, not Latin! This amazing language was the most precise conveyance for human thought in the history of the world. Little wonder, in the providence of God, that it was the language in which the New Testament was composed. About three centuries after the death of Christ, it became a dead language, thus, in a manner of speaking, embalming the precious truths of the New Testament record without further linguistic development.
According to tradition, the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Known as the Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX), this allowed the Greek world access to the hundreds of Old Testament prophecies regarding Christ. These could be examined in preparation for the Lord’s arrival upon earth (cf. Luke 24:44; Acts 9:22).
The Romans also facilitated the advancement of Christianity in a number of important ways:
- The Roman conquest unified the civilized world. From around 27 B.C. to A.D. 180, the empire was in a state of relative peace, known as the Pax Romana. This allowed early missionaries to travel freely with their message of salvation.
- Roman highways laced the empire, providing easy land transportation.
- The extension of Roman citizenship to many throughout the empire doubtless was an advantage to numerous gospel preachers (cf. Acts 22:25ff).
- The Roman legal system of the first century was the finest of the ancient world. By this system Jesus Christ was put on trial for the false charges leveled against him. Three times he was judged innocent before Pilate (John 18:38; 19:4, 6), yet his “judgment” was taken away (Acts 8:33). This fact relates to his qualification, as an innocent victim, to die for sinful humanity, allowing God to remain just, yet justify those who obey him (Romans 8:26; 6:17-18).
When one enters the New Testament he is introduced to several Jewish sects. The Pharisees (about six thousand in number) were an outgrowth of the Hebrew opposition to Greek influence. These were the “straitest” sect of Judaism (Acts 26:5), and Saul of Tarsus (later Paul the apostle) was of this group. The Sadducees developed out of the Jewish rebellion of this era. They were a blend of Greek and Jewish influences, significantly associated with the Hebrew priesthood. They were the religious “liberals” of Judaism (Acts 23:8). These sects were heavily involved in the prosecution of Jesus. The Zealots were fiercely supportive of attempts to overthrow Roman oppression by violence. They initiated several revolts. One of Christ’s apostles came out of this sect (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
In 20 B.C., Herod the Great began a reconstruction project on the decaying Hebrew temple of the Persian era. The effort lasted until A.D. 64—shortly before its destruction by the Romans (which was a divine judgment upon a rebellious people [Matthew 22:7; 24:2ff]). The temple complex embraced approximately thirty-five acres, and the large Court of the Gentiles could accommodate thousands.
It is not difficult to see how important the centuries of interbiblical history were. They are wonderful illustrations of divine oversight in world affairs.