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.