Sunday School Lesson – Between the Testaments

[1] A number of Old Testament scriptures speak of the Messiah and make it plain that he will not only restore the kingdom of Israel, but he will also restore the Temple. For example, Haggai 2:6-7 and 22-23 [2] make it clear that Haggai’s prophecy is not only about the return of Israel from Babylon, but also eschatological, concerned with the coming of the Messiah. Thus, as did pre-Christian, post-exilic Jews, we can read Haggai’s discussion of the restoration of the Temple and of the Lord coming to his Temple (for example Haggai 1:8) not only as a prophecy about the return from Babylon, but also as describing what the Jews expected to happen with the coming of the Messiah: the Temple would be restored and the Messiah would come to it.

Perhaps no scripture could be read as a messianic prophecy of the Temple more than Zechariah 6:12-13:

Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord: Even he shall build the temple of the Lord; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.

Passages such as these show that, for those waiting for the Messiah at the time of Jesus’s birth, the expectation was that he would be a priest-king who would build (or restore) the Temple just as he would institute (or restore) the kingdom of Israel.

We see a similar expectation in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, specifically in the Testament of Levi 17-18. Though the textual history of The Testament is, as one commentary says, “Byzantine,” [3] and though chapters 17 and 18 show redaction by a Christian editor or interpolater, those chapters also reflect pre-Christian ideas and messianic understandings. In 17:8 through 18:1, the Testament of Levi describes an apostasy, and it describes that apostasy as a corruption of the priesthood [4]. Then, verses two through three in chapter eighteen describe the restoration of the priesthood in a new priest-king. Even if, as some argue, the verses in question are Christian rather than pre-Christian, they show two things: first, that apostasy was understood as the corruption of the priesthood and, second, that the Messiah was understood as a priest-king who would restore the priesthood. [5]

Judah’s history also prepared them to see the Messiah as bringing a restoration of temple worship. That history specifically explains why the promise to Zachariah of a Messiah would come as a promise to restore the temple cult. The history of disputes over the Temple begins at least with the return from exile in Babylon. As we see in Ezra 5, on the return from Babylon there was considerable debate about who could participate in rebuilding the Temple and who had appropriate priesthood. This dispute resulted in the creation of a “new” group composed of those who had stayed in the Jerusalem area during the exile and who are seen by the exiles as unclean, those who came to be called the Samaritans. Subsequent history created even more factions in this dispute.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and the consequent breakup of his kingdom, a number of Alexander’s generals established empires in the resulting parts. Among them were the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Judea was dominated by the Ptolemies until 198 , when the Ptolemies lost a battle to the Seleucids near what, in the Gospels, is called Caesarea Philippi. With that battle, Judea changed hands. But neither the Ptolemies nor the Seleucids were heavily involved in Judean politics; the Jews had considerable autonomy and were, essentially, a religious state ruled by the law of the Pentateuch and the high priest of the Temple, a descendant of Zadok, the high priest in Solomon’s Temple.

Under the domination of these two states, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, each with a fundamentally Greek culture, there was considerable pressure to “Hellenize,” pressure for what today we would call modernization: the most up-to-date laws and political systems (in other words Greek law and politics), schools with the latest educational methods focusing on the latest knowledge (in other words, Greek schools in the Greek language), as well as participation in the wider Hellenic economy. The temple priests collaborated with the Ptolemies and Seleucids in the attempt to Hellenize Israel, perhaps at least partly as a defensive measure. Perhaps they thought, “The Seleucids will leave us alone if we are Hellenized.” However, not long after the change from Ptolemaic domination to Seleucid domination, Jason, the brother of Onias III, the legitimate high priest, offered the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV [6], a bribe if he would make Jason the reigning high priest in Onias III’s place. The king needed the money to pay heavy taxes he owed to the Romans and Jason was an ardent Hellenizer, so Antiochus IV accepted the bribe and made Jason the high priest. A few years later, Menelaus, who was even more interested in Hellenizing Israel than Jason had been, offered a larger bribe if Antiochus IV would make him high priest in Jason’s place—even though Menelaus was not a descendent of Zadok. Antiochus IV accepted the bribe and made Menelaus high priest in 171.

In 168, Israelites loyal to their religion tried to oust Menelaus and reinstall Jason, but Antiochus IV interpreted this attempt as rebellion against his rule, though it seems not to have been, and he laid Jerusalem waste, destroying its walls, looting the temple treasury, banning Jewish religious practices, and giving Judea a Hellenistic government. Retaining Menelaus as the high priest, Antiochus IV defiled the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, and he converted the Temple into a temple for Zeus, which it was for three years, from the end of 167 to the end of 164. The result of this attack on Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple was full-scale revolt led by the Hasmonean priestly family of Mattathias and his five sons. In 164, the revolutionaries won the right to practice Judaism, and they purified the Temple and resumed temple worship. In 142, they won full autonomy: “they recovered the law out of the hand of the Gentiles, and out of the hand of kings, neither suffered they the sinner to triumph” (2 Maccabees 2:48).

Since those of the legitimate, Zadokite priesthood lineage had fled to Egypt when Onias III was replaced by Jason (setting up a temple in Leontopolis), after the Hasmonean revolt it was impossible to have a high priest from the Zadokite family. Instead, first Jonathan, son of Mattathias, accepted the high-priest’s position from the Seleucids (in 152). Then, after Jonathan was captured and executed in 143, Simon, the last of Mattathias’s sons, was elected “governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet” (1 Maccabees 14:41; my emphasis), though the Hasmonean family was not the family from which the high priest was to be chosen. The Hasmoneans held the position of high priest until the destruction of the Temple (70 AD) [7].

The reaction to these events was varied. Some, such as the Pharisees, went along with the election of Simon, though grudgingly. Others, such as the community at Qumran, protested by leaving Jerusalem completely.

The Pharisees gradually coalesced over time to become one of the most powerful groups in Judea, but their origin is unclear. (The word pharisee probably originally meant “separatist.”) They seem to have been a response to the difficulties of this period, including and perhaps especially the difficulties with the high priest, but perhaps starting as early as the return from Babylon. The priesthood of the Temple had been corrupted and its restoration under Simon was far from unambiguous. There were many Hellenizers in Judea, encouraged by official policy, so Judaism seemed in danger of disappearing in the melting-pot of Hellenic culture. Looking to strengthen Israel, groups of people gathered together to encourage one another, and in the absence of full faith in the temple practices, they turned their devotion to the Law, building on already existing tendencies among some [8] and turning their attention from righteousness exhibited in Temple ritual to righteousness exhibited in adherence to the Mosaic Law.

By the time of Christ, the Pharisees were a full-fledged political and religious party with a fully-developed oral tradition supplementing the Mosaic Law. By then, the Pharisees vied with the Sadducees (another way of saying “Zadokites,” the party of the Hasmonean rulers) for political authority in Judea, and they had considerable power and influence, though contrary to the way we often think of them, they were not, in and of themselves, the rulers in Israel.


1. This began life as a few paragraphs from a longer essay on the New Testament concept of apostasy. I am heavily indebted to the first part of F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York: Anchor, 1972).

2. “For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts. [. . .] And I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the Lord, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the Lord of hosts.”

3. H. W. Hollander & M. De Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985), 2.

4. Robert J. Kugler, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 47-52.

5. If these passages are Christian rather than pre-Christian, they show not just that the Temple and the priesthood were important during the intertestamental period, but that they were probably a part of Christian understanding as well. If these passages are the result of Christian redaction, they show that the concern for priesthood and Temple was a part of Christian and not only pre-Christian thinking.

6. Antiochus IV is also called Antiochus Epiphanes, a title that suggested that he was a manifestation of Zeus on earth.

7. The section on “Chronology” in the LDS Bible Dictionary has a time line of these events that may be useful.

8. Bruce suggests that Malachi (450 B.C.) describes these tendencies in Israel already at a much earlier time: wide-spread inattention to the Law, with a few groups of those who remain faithful. (See Malachi 3:13-16.) I believe we see signs of the changes that precipitated these difficulties in Nehemiah 8:4-8, when Ezra reads the Law to the people: the scribe has taken precedence over the priest (though Ezra is also a priest), and the reading and interpretation of the law (verse 8 ) is, I believe, mentioned for the first time, though it later comes to occupy center stage in Israelite-Jewish culture.

14 comments for “Sunday School Lesson – Between the Testaments

  1. JWL
    December 19, 2006 at 1:29 am

    The intertestamental period lends itself to connecting the Bible to some of the best known (and most widely celebrated in popular culture) events of ancient history. We have been reading about the Persians thorughout the end of the Old Testament. These are the same Persians wo were conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander is also the reason the New Testament is in Greek, and Alexander’s heroic stature and conquests are why Hellenization equaled modernization in the time of Jesus. The whole story of Chanukkah is a great way to tell the story of the Maccabean revolt, which in turn illuminates the Jewish expectation of a conquering and liberating Messiah. And who can not be fascinated at how the rise of the Herodian family is tied to their alliance with the Caesarians in their conflict with Cleopatra and Antony (Cleopatra, of course, being the last of the Ptolemies to rule Egypt). Maybe not the most spiritually focused approach, but apt to hold the attention of kids of all ages — and I believe it makes the New Testament more real, and therefore more powerful.

  2. Jim F.
    December 19, 2006 at 1:54 am

    JWL: Thank you for pointing at these events contemporary with the end of the Old Testament and the rise of the New. There is a tremendous amount of interesting history during this time, much of it the stuff that kids (and their parents) have at least heard about, the kind of thing we may be able to use to help get people involved. I don’t know, however, how to make this connection once we actually get into the texts of the New Testament. Were you thinking that a teacher could do that? If so, can you offer some suggestions?

  3. Mike Parker
    December 19, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    I’ve prepared a one-page handout with a chronology of events from the post-Exhilic period through the birth of Jesus. Feel free to use it as you see fit:

    Handout (PDF, 16 Kb)

  4. Mike Parker
    December 19, 2006 at 8:53 pm

    Make that “post-Exilic.”

  5. JWL
    December 19, 2006 at 9:46 pm

    The specific figures don’t necessarily appear in the NT. However, they are instrumental in establishing the social environment which permeates the NT. Understanding the anti-Hellenization tensions helps students understand why Jews expected a political Messiah or why Jewish Christians were so disturbed by the conversion of Gentiles. Jesus’ message and manor stand out more starkly when contrasted against an age which universally idolized the ruthless masculinity of Alexander. Any time understanding the NT text is illuminated by understanding the Greek words or phrases that are used, it helps students understand why it is that we study about Jesus in Greek rather than Hebrew. Understanding that Greek was the “English” of its time, and that Hellenistic ideas were the modern, progressive elite views also lends itself to relating various NT incidents to our times. There is also a possibly amorphous value to simply seeing the “big” picture — how Jesus was a real man in real history (“in the world …”) which means that we can strive to be like Him as real people in our contemporary real history.

  6. December 29, 2006 at 12:00 am

    JWL #5: could you explain your thinking regarding this comment: “Any time understanding the NT text is illuminated by understanding the Greek words or phrases that are used, it helps students understand why it is that we study about Jesus in Greek rather than Hebrew.” What value do you see in studying the Greek vs. the Hebrew? Wouldn’t the original Hebrew be better in getting the original message…forgive me but I don’t know much about NT origins.

  7. JWL
    December 29, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Re: #6 — Almost all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the most widely spoken language in the time of Jesus and the early Church, so that is what the New Testament writers used.

    Sometimes it is helpful in understanding the New Testament to study what words and phrases mean in the the original Greek form. A good example of this is Matthew 5:48 where the word translated in the King James as “perfect” — telos — really means “whole” or “complete” rather than “without flaw” which is the more common understanding of the meaning of the English word (see footnote 48b on page 1195 in the LDS edition of the Bible). This can give us a whole new perspective on this important commandment by the Savior.

  8. Victoria Wilcox
    December 30, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for this great info, which I stumbled onto today while studying for my lesson tomorrow. As a teacher, I was bewildered about the empty space between the testaments, and will use this to tie it all together!

  9. December 30, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    JWL #7: I would think Aramaic would be the secondary candidate, not Hebrew. My rough understanding is that Aramaic is an off-shoot language of Hebrew (or somehow closely related) and that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic but likely learned his bible (something like what we call the Old Testament) in an older Hebrew dialect. Here is a relevant wikipedia article which I’ve only skimmed (not that I’d know how accurate it is if I did read it carefully…). If this, my rough understanding, is off-base, I’d appreciate anyone who could correct me.

  10. December 30, 2006 at 11:42 pm

    Robert C, #9: I’ll add my barely informed comments to yours. Aramaic arose from a Semitic language group and is therefore better seen as a sister langauge to Hebrew–as opposed to a derivative of Hebrew (see this language tree.). The Jews for the most part stopped speaking Hebrew after the exile and took up Aramaic. Alexander’s conquests introduced Greek, which became the common language for commerce and the learned. So it’s safe to assume that Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic, was familiar enough with Hebrew to read in synagogue, and had limited use of Greek.

    Nevertheless, most of the NT was written in Greek because the writers were writing to the world at large, so they needed to use the common language of the helenized world.

    So if one had to choose a language to learn in order to better understand the Bible, it would be Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT. Aramaic would be of lesser use.

  11. December 31, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    JWL & Robert C. & BrianJ, Thank you. I appreciate your sharing information regarding the origins of the NT. Your comments always help me in my study. I have been reading the new 2006 BYU Sperry Symposium from Oct. book re: origin of the NT. It is timely considering the increased interest in the gnostic gospels. I think these issues must be addressed so that we know why we consider the KJVNT cannonical vs. the Roman Catholic bible. In researching apochryphal books I saw that non-LDS consider the Book of Mormon in that category. Ha! This did give me a moment to consider what apochrypha is.

    Question for anyone with the experience: have you read the Josephus history and found it helpful in teaching the NT? Deseret Book has a book ABOUT Josephus & his history (thus an LDS perspective) & then of course there’s the real thing by Josephus himself. As a student of history with the obligation to teach LDS doctrine from a pulpit, do you think reading the Josephus history would be of benefit or a waste of time?

  12. BrianJ
    January 1, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    nhilton: It is interesting to note that most of the NT authors probably studied the books which are now in the Apocrypha. Those books were rejected by a later group who canonized the Jewish scriptures. You might also want to see what the D&C says about the Apocrypha (sorry, no time to look up the section #).

    I’ve never read Josephus, though I’d like to.

  13. January 3, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    BrianJ, I don’t think the NT authors read much of what is considered the Apocrypha since most of it was written after the death of the apostles, the authors of the Gospels, and much of it was written after Paul, too, thus the rejection of so much of it from the cannon. I’m familiar with the D&C comment on the Apocrypha, however, these writings questioned by J.Smith were small in comparison to what’s in that category today. Check out for an overwhelming list of these books. I don’t think J.Smith was considering all of them. Knowing what, if any, of them are of value is where the D&C comment is helpful.

  14. Julie M. Smith
    January 3, 2007 at 11:56 pm


    I would not choose to spend limited study time on Josephus. I say this because he is somewhat peripheral to the NT and somewhat unreliable. I think the time would be far better spent working through, say, the footnotes to the netbible, a solid commentary series such as Anchor or Word or NICNT, or even‘s notes.

    As far as NT writers reading apocrypha: lots of it predates the NT texts–they probably knew of it.

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