New Series: The Second Temple Period


Over the next few months I will be posting on the history and literature of the Second Temple period. I had an opportunity to teach an eight-week series in my church on the “Time between the Testaments.” This began with the Persian period and ran through the Jewish War in A.D. 70, and I included on session on Herod the Great so I could show pictures of Masada and the Western Wall from a recent trip to Israel. The series was well received and I had the chance to develop the material in more detail for a semester long undergrad class.

In teaching the class two things were clear to me. First, Most Christians have little or no knowledge of the history or literature of this period. There is some general knowledge of the Maccabean revolt and the Apocrypha as literature produced during this time, but most people attending an Evangelical church have not spent any significant time learning about this period. However, in general I think most people are hungry for this kind of study because the recognize the importance of knowing what went on before the New Testament for the purpose of understanding the New Testament. Whether or not this is a good motivation is beside the point, there is a hunger for a study like this in Christian churches.

Second, as I worked through the material in order to present it to a generally conservative, Evangelical congregation, I was struck by how applicable the struggle of the Jewish people could be to western Christians today. For the most part the Jewish people find themselves a small minority within the larger Greek or Roman world. They struggle to define what elements of their ancestral faith is important and what can be adjusted to the culture in which they finds themselves. This struggle speaks to western Christians who find themselves marginalized in a post-Christian culture. To what practices and beliefs should Christians tenaciously cling, and what should they leave behind?

Two questions before I begin. First, what do we call this kind of study? Is this “New Testament backgrounds”? Or is this an afterward to the Old Testament? By calling this period intertestamental, am I prejudicing myself to a Christian worldview?

Everett Ferguson begins his introduction to New Testament Backgrounds with a brief discussion of the misleading nature of the title of his book, “Backgrounds.” In many cases the material covered in a course like this is critically important for understanding a text properly; calling it “background” seems to make this study somewhat secondary. A few other options have been suggested, such as environment, milieu, context, culture, but the term “background” has become as accepted description for what we do in this sort of a course, or Ferguson in the textbook, however misleading it may be.

One additional problem is what to call this period of history. Traditionally the “time between the Testaments” is called the Intertestamental Period, This is a cumbersome title and not always accurate since these sorts of studies focus on the Pharisees or Samaritans for the purpose of understanding the Gospels, or go a little beyond the New Testament era by including the Jewish War.

Others have called this period “middle Judaism” to distinguish it from ancient Judaism and later rabbinic Judaism. I am attracted to this as a designation for the period from exile to the destruction of the temple, but the title also implies a three-part history of Judaism (early, middle and late). There is far more complexity in the development after the events of A.D. 70 and 135, but calling this period “late-early Judaism” is really too much.

Often this history and literature will be called the “Second Temple Period,” indicating the time from the rebuilding of the temple until A.D. 70. There is some protest to this designation because Herod’s temple is sometimes considered a third temple. Of the several suggested titles for the period, I will use Second Temple (period, history, literature) while recognizing it is not perfect.

I hope you find this series as exciting as I do, I look forward to your comments as I work through this important section of history and literature.

10 thoughts on “New Series: The Second Temple Period

  1. You raise a number of interesting questions. I agree that what we label periods, movements, etc. has influence and importance. Also that there is often no good “label” but we can’t readily do without them.

    However, I’d go one step prior, to the suggestion even Evangelicals should try to move away from “Old” and “New” Testaments to something closer to what most of the biblical scholarship world tends to use: Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures. I’m not fully happy with that either, though. “Greek” seems to imply that of the Greek people, which is misleading in that the roots and earliest growth were primarily Hebrew (or Jewish). So maybe simply “Christian Scriptures” for the NT, tho not a strict parallel to “Hebrew Scriptures”…. Maybe “Greek Christian Scriptures”? But that’s unwieldy.

    I understand why most Evangelicals don’t care much about such changes and don’t mind that “Old” and “New” strongly suggests Jewish obsolescence or a “supercessionist” view that galls many Jews and also many of us more progressive, inter-faith minded Christians. And I was noting just yesterday that most times even in my United Church of Christ church (2nd most liberal denomination) we are using “Old” and “New” Testament terms.

    As to the period, I tend to prefer “Second Temple Judaism” but I am much more used to the term because of the semi-scholarly to scholarly reading I do that hardly anyone does unless they are in the field. Even most pastors don’t, I’d venture.

    As you say, the general ignorance of “backgrounds” (or whatever) to both “Testaments” and history of the period is severe and sad. Both among Christians and the general culture. Steven Prothero has a good book on that titled something like “Religious Literacy”. Pew Research has also documented it. One of the reasons I’m very concerned, in relation to Evangelicalism, is that it strongly supports the continuance of the traditional/orthodox “myth of origin” of Christianity, which has major historical, cultural, religious distortions within it.

    Now, I’ll grant that large elements of this story and mental reconstruction of presumed history (not “myth” in the sense of totally untrue) comes from Acts. (Hence why I keep reading “Reading Acts”.) But if Acts is read closely and critically, and without being presumed (wrongly, I’m 99+% certain) to be written pre-70 A.D., it doesn’t really support the typical view of the earliest years of Christian faith.

    When I say “critically”, that centers a lot around its treatment of Paul and how Paul’s direct testimony is often in serious conflict with Acts. Following this thread and others presents a very different (and more useful, explanatory) “myth of origins”. For example, we must better account for the very Hebrew/Greek (Jewish/Gentile) interactions and tensions implied in your post… and one big help is the “social interest theory” worked out very systematically and helpfully by Burton Mack and Jonathan Z. Smith. I certainly don’t expect most Evangelicals to accept many of Mack’s explanations of how things “came down”, but to ignore his important overall work and the boost it gives to good biblical interpretation (and general understanding of religion/culture) is a serious loss.

    • Thanks for the detailed response, always insightful. I think there is very little in my thinking (or my students) that might be considered “Jewish obsolescence” or supercessionist”. At least the people I usually interact with regularly would not consider Christianity a superior form of the old religion or a replacement for the old Jewish covenant (and most have robust, almost Jewish expectations for the future!) I am confident most of the Christians I deal with find the “between the testaments” period fascinating, and not just as a way to understand the New Testament better.

      Nevertheless, the use of “Old Testament” certainly sends a negative message. I was trained to say Hebrew Bible in grad school, which I try to use most of the time. Old habits die hard, they say!

      You are right, evangelicals are not going to be friends with Burton Mack for the most part.

      • Thanks for the response. You’ve got me curious: What are “robust, almost Jewish expectations for the future”?

  2. There are quite a few traditional dispensationalists in my church, and not a few I would describe as quite pro-Israel. A solid belief in the return of Jesus as the Messiah, gathering Israel to the land and establishing a messianic kingdom for Israel. Some would say, a kingdom which does not include the church (they will be in heaven, not the earth!)

    • Thanks. I get the pro-Israel position, etc., that you refer to. But I sure can’t see how their view does NOT imply a “superior form of the old religion”… and one that indeed “supersedes” the “Old Testament/Covenant”.

      I’ve never known the vast majority of Evangelicals, certainly including Dispensationalists (how I was educated in youth, Biola, Talbot), to feel that present-day Judaism is a legitimate way to God/salvation, etc. Rather its rejection of Jesus as Messiah means it has resisted the truth of God’s revelation and Jews not accepting Jesus AS Christ are under judgment. Are we just using a term or two differently?

  3. Having an understanding of what happened between the two Testaments can help equip individuals to better understand the transition between the Old and New Testaments. I agree that most evangelicals do not know much of what happened in this time period. I think it is interesting to look at all the names that we consider to label this time period. Tomasino, in his book Judaism before Jesus, has also used the designation “Second Temple” (period, history, or literature). I agree that the struggle that the Jews had is applicable to western Christians today. In our reading of Malachi, I noticed that a lot of the struggles that the Jews had: injustice, divorce, withholding tithes (Mal 1-4), reflected the struggles of modern Christians as well. Their acts fall short because their heart is not in the right place.

  4. The comparison you pointed out between the contemporary Christian and the Jews living in ancient Hellenistic culture made an impression on me. I believe that one of the greatest challenges for Christians in the 21st century is the battle against conformity. When do we compromise? When do we draw the line? Every day we’re faced with a culture that challenges the Christian’s views and behaviors, and its all too easy to become confused. In 1 Corinthians 9:20, the Apostle Paul advocates adapting to one’s culture for evangelical purposes, so there’s certainly something to be said for Christians changing along with the culture. However, the dilemma presented by the conformity-tradition conflict is still a grey area. My hope is that through the study of Intertestamental Literature we can learn more about the action we’re called to take as Christians in regard to this conflict.

  5. In regards to what to call the time between testaments, I can see where a possible debate could definitely happen. However; I, do think that the decision on what to call this time period again varies on what side of the spectrum religiously a person happens to fall under. As professor Long had mentioned, if we call this time between the testaments “Intertestamental Literature” is that leaning toward a Christian bias? It’s hard to say but I do believe whatever name is picked there will be controversy as well regardless. Striding to a new topic, I would like to talk about something interesting I learned in my first couple weeks. Specifically Ezra 1: 1-4 was interesting for me to read. Out of all the people God chose to free His chosen people, the fact that Cyrus was chosen out of all the people shocked me. Then again Cyrus was ambitious and in a position of power to free God’s Chosen People so it makes sense, but it was still shocking to me none the less.

  6. I am excited to learn about this period as well! After Israel’s long history of rebelling against God and God warning them that there would be judgement, God finally used Assyria and Babylon to punish and conquer them. Of course, though, God eventually restored Israel which showed His love for His people. I like to think of this period as another chance, in a way, for the Jews to rebuild Israel as something better than what it had been during the time of the kings. The Jews could dispose of idol worship and serve God alone. To my knowledge, I think that they did refocus the nation in many ways but with several shortcomings as is inevitable with us sinful human beings.

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