Why Study the Second Temple Period?

Why would someone interested in the New Testament study the history of the Greco-Roman world?  This history is important because the key to understanding the New Testament is context….If we do not try to put ourselves into the context of the original readers of the Scriptures, we can very easily read our own culture into a passage and reach wrong conclusions about what it meant to the author and therefore what it should mean to us. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1999), 293.

The years between the two Testaments are critically important for understanding the New Testament. Let me offer two easy examples. First, the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often based on-going discussions in the Second Temple Period over Jewish practice. The Pharisees have a rich history prior to their role in the Gospels. Most Christians think of the Pharisees as the evil, works-for-salvation religious leaders who hated Jesus and were constantly trying to trick him into saying something worthy of death. But this is far from the case! Anyone who thinks this mischaracterization of the Pharisees is accurate is reading their own culture back into the New Testament (As Jeffers says in the quote above).

A second example is Paul’s struggle against what he calls Judaizers in Galatians. This group of Jewish Christians insisted Gentile converts submit to circumcision in order to fully convert to Judaism. There are a number of factors here, but these Pauline opponents should be understood in the light of circumcision as a boundary marker during the Maccabean Revolt. What define a person as “Jewish” 200 years before Paul’s day was the ritual of circumcision and to reject that practice struck at the heart of what it meant to be Jewish at that particular time.

The main struggle of the Jews during this 400 year period was how to integrate into a world which was decidedly not Jewish. As Greek and Roman culture came to pervade the post-exilic world, how could a Jewish person live out their lives in faithfulness to God’s Law yet also live in a pagan world?

One option is it withdraw entirely, as the Essenes will in the mid-second century. I do not think the Essenes were a monastic community who lived completely separate from other people (this is a misreading of the evidence and imposes a later Christian view of asceticism on the Essenes). But they certainly separated themselves from the mainstream of Judaism as we know it in the first century. For the group at Qumran, it appears they sought to live in a state of ceremonial cleanliness required for priests in the Temple as the waited for the messiah (or messiahs) to come to their community and lead them into battle against the “sons of darkness,” the Jews who were in charge of the Temple!

A second option is to become wholly integrated into the culture, as many Jews did. Philo of Alexandria’s brother is a chief example of this, since he rejected Judaism entirely. Although Herod the Great kept some Jewish practices, for the most part he intentionally lived as a Roman and he certainly ran his kingdom as a Roman. Throughout the Second Temple period there were Jewish people who completely Hellenized and walked away from their ancient Jewish practices.

Pharisees, Sadducees, and Christians fall in-between these two extremes since they found ways to remain loyal to God’s Word, yet also found a way to interact with the pagan world. In the case of Christianity, the motivation was to reach the lost world with the Gospel of Jesus.

This is exactly the same struggle American Christians face today as our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian. It is the same struggle Christians face in countries where Christian was never the majority religion. It is impossible to completely withdraw from the world, although some Christian communities have tried to be as separate as possible. It is also the case many Christians have become so integrated into their culture they have ceased to be Christian by any objective definition of the word.

Can the struggle of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period be a model for contemporary Christians as they struggle with similar issues?

27 thoughts on “Why Study the Second Temple Period?

  1. Wow! This background helps to shed light on the N.T, and especially the fledgling new Christian community as it tries to find its place in a society hostile to its teachings.

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  2. I’ve been concentrating on second Temple Judaism (which covers a lot more centuries than just the intertestamental period) for a few years now, because I was particularly interested in Christian Origins and how the idea of the messiah(s) developed in Jewish/Israelite thought. There are many fine (small) introductions, such as Lester Grabbe’s. It is a fascinating period that sheds enormous light on the perfect storm into which Jesus was born.

    For those interested, Eerdmans published a comprehensive dictionary of early Judaism in 2010. A shorter version that contains only the essay portions is also available at a more modest cost.

    http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/2549/the-eerdmans-dictionary-of-early-judaism.aspx

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  3. I have really enjoyed reading this post and the first chapter of Anthony Tomasino’s, “Judaism Before Jesus”. I have never really put a lot of thought into what happened or went on during the Intertestamental period. The first chapter in “Judaism Before Jesus” gives us a little bit of background information and history about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Flavius Josephus; where they came from and how they were created. It also gives a brief history of how different translations came about and how some writing were removed/taken out to get the Bible that we now have today.
    I look forward to continuing to learn more in-depth about these not so ‘silent years’.

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  4. It is so true that our culture, and we as Christians, are dealing with a society that is a post-Christian culture. We need to learn about the society Jesus was ministering to in the Intertestamental period and the origins of their ideals to better understand Jesus and the Scriptures. The only way to grasp their ideals is by understanding the history of the men and women in Israel who dealt with conquerors. As I study this period, I get a deeper understanding of how rich the hope was that people had for a Messiah who would bring militant results. Anthony Tomasino tells us in his book Judaism before Jesus, that the Israelites were good at being influenced by the culture, but not influencing the culture around them. The Jews were constantly falling into apostasy. I find it most encouraging that Israel becomes what God called them to be while they were in exile. They held tightly to their family units, collected and organized Scriptures, and most famously, Daniel and other Jews, find high places in the new society’s government for influence. God even uses the Kings ruling over Israel during the exile for his glory. He drags King Nebuchadnezzar through a beastly keyhole, and after making an example out of him uses Cyrus to release the Jews, so that they may return to Israel and build their temple (Ezra 1:1-4). What is the task for us if we are going to be a counter culture in society?

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    • That is an intriguing comment to end with. “What is the task for us if we are going to be a counter culture in society?” As I read what Tomasino wrote about Ezra working hard to bring the Torah law and obedience back into mainstream Jewish life I saw the beginnings of a restoration. One can imagine quite easily how such dedication to the law would, if continued, lead to creation of groups such as the Pharisees and the Essenes. This dedication that was spurred on by the symbol of the Temple. For us there appears to be no symbol like the rebuilding of the temple to unite us once again under God, but we are under the symbol of Jesus sacrifice. It is that sacrifice that is our rebuilding of the temple, and for us just as it was for the Jews in Ezra’s day it is returning to scriptures teaching that is our task.

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  5. The process of understanding the culture that exists, and had existed for many years, in the New Testament is absolutely crucial to being able to fully understand what the scripture states. I especially appreciated your remark about how the level of knowledge we have has drastic effects on how we perceive certain groups throughout the New Testament. Too often the Pharisees are painted as the enemy of Christian progress, and while they often oppose the early church, at least if we can understand their history, we can better understand their intentions. This is why it is so crucial that we devote time learning the stories behind people, both in a biblical sense and a personal sense. When we begin to put in effort to understand people, it paints them in a whole new light. This is why it is crucial that Christians study the second temple period. When we understand the motives behind actions it can be much easier to act with grace and mercy.
    As far as whether or not the second temple period can be a model for our current issues, I think it can absolutely provide certain principles that apply to our lives today. While we struggle with similar issues, acting as a Christian in our current culture carries drastically different repercussions. We, as Americans, don’t risk imprisonment, beatings, or stoning at the hands of our persecutors. With this in mind, we should have at least the same sense of boldness as the figures we see in the scriptures. If Paul, Peter, and Stephen can risk their own physical lives, we should not be hesitant to risk our social standings. I concede that this is in no way some original thought, and pretty much every single Christian would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. The important part is doing more than agreeing and stating it. How can the leadership in the modern American church move Christians from agreeing to risk more to actually doing it?

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  6. When exploring new content, it is critically important to establish its significance and relevance in order to study it effectively (especially where Scripture is concerned). So why bother with the study of the second temple period and literature that isn’t canonical? How is it important to the believer? Essentially, there is far too much subplot to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament for the reader to effectively interpret them without a solid grasp of the time preceding them. Therefore, we study this era and its literature to avoid false assumptions about the culture, and to better understand the meaning of Scripture.
    Another major concern here is that there are definite theological ramifications when a study of Scripture is done improperly – when one “reads their own culture” into the content. For example, the idea of giving grace in the contemporary Church is everywhere. You practically can’t enter a church building without hearing about God’s grace, or “grace and peace to you,” but to apply this concept to a second-temple period Jewish culture would be a complete misrepresentation of their beliefs during that era. That said, the challenge as we begin to study the Intertestamental Period will be to remove all cultural assumption and build our understanding from a wholly objective point of view.

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  7. The intertestamental period is extremely important for understanding the transition to the New Testament. Historical context is a key component in order to avoid reaching “wrong conclusions about what it meant to the author and therefore what it should mean to us” (Jeffers, 293). Long provides an excellent example of the common misconception of the Pharisees as the enemy, and the dangers of reaching false conclusions when not put into the proper context. Thus making it essential that Christians understand this second temple period as accurately as possible to fully understand the struggle of God’s people.

    During this time period, the Jews struggled with how to remain obedient and faithful to God’s law while living in a pagan world. So when asked the question: “can the struggle of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period be a model for contemporary Christians as they struggle with similar issues?” I would say that the same principles can be applied even though the circumstances slightly differ. Christians today struggle with how to be “in the world” but not “of the world”. Nehemiah 1:8-9 talks about the instruction given to Moses saying that if they obey His commands, God will gather them and “bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name” (1:9). It is vital that Christians remain strong in their faith and obedience to God even in a world where religion, in particular Christianity, is not well received.

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  8. The fact of the matter is, no matter what kind of history it is, all history is important. Why would history be important to study one would ask? The answer to this question is actually simple. There’s so much to learn from history especially when talking about the Bible. That’s why indeed the Intertestamental Period or the Period between the Testaments is so important to learn about. Especially considering the fact that the time between the Testaments is rarely discussed today. The world today is easily much more different then it was within this time period. However: It’s important to remember the fact that everything that was written in the Bible centuries ago is still applicable today. If one is righteous in there ways then they will certainly be treated as such, if not they will be punished for it (Mal 4:1-2).

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  9. I think that what the Jewish people were conflicted with during the second temple period can totally be related to the struggle that modern day Christians face in today’s society. Today I see more and more Christians abandoning righteous works and fully assimilating themselves into what the church would consider a secular society. I can imagine how challenging it would have been for the Jews of the second temple period to discern how to carry out their faithfulness to God in the midst of a religiously cultural shift. In the same way, I notice many Christians today struggling to determine which cultural norms to except, and even practice, and which norms they would consider to be “too worldly”. I think it is so important to study the second temple period because it is a great example of the history of the church “repeating” itself (so to speak). During the 400 year period culture, doctrine, and practices shifted immensely, and the same is happening today (especially with the most recent presidential election). It is this concept that helps the modern church understand the relatability of the scriptures, and to not discredit or be ignorant to its teachings because of “how-our-culture-is-so-different-today-from-what-it-was-back-then”.

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    • I agree with what you said about Christians “abandoning righteous works” in today’s culture. I have seen this happen among many of my friends who are believers. I think that believers today are attempting to create a form of Christianity that allows for secular works to be enjoyed and practiced. However, it is dangerous to drift away from what God has called us to do. There is certainly a “shift” taking place in the church in various areas. The Jewish people had to determine how to stay faithful to God and His Word in the midst of change and chaos. As it mentions in Nehemiah 1:8-9, God told moses to remain faithful to His commands, and He would restore the people who had fled.

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  10. I agree that Christians in today’s culture can accurately be compared to the Jews in the Second Temple Period. There is a fine line of how much one should be completely “in the world” and how much one should be seperated from the world. I think that there was a fair point being made here regarding how we read our own culture and our own circumstances in the scripture. It is vital to seperate the two so that we can fully understand how the culture was back in this time period. Studying the Second Temple Period is not seen as crucial to many Christians in this day in age; however, it is important when looking at how we are to remain in Christ but also be living in the world for the time being.

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  11. I throughly enjoyed reading about the importance of understanding Intertestemental history in Jewish culture. For some reason, I have never really considered studying what exactly happened intwine both the Old and the New Testament. As mentioned in Tomasino, many theologians consider these years to be somewhat “silent.” However, it is evident that in order to fully understand both pieces of literature and how they relate to one another; it is necessary to study the history which took place in between the two testaments. I appreciate the comparison between the struggles that Jewish people faced in the Second Temple period and contemporary Christians in today’s society. I certainly think that looking at how the Jews lived during those trying times can be used as a model for similar struggles for Christians today. Many post-Christian’s struggle with following the Gospel while living in a sinful world, and that is very apparent in today’s day and age. There is extensive change happening within the church today, and it could be useful to look at how previous groups of people responded to similar circumstances.

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    • I think that this is really going to stretch me as well as I learn about this period of time; I know nothing about it and it will be nice to have a better understanding of the history and things that the Israelites went through at this time. It is really interesting to see how the book of Malachi ends and then all of a sudden Matthew starts up with no real background information as to how we got there. It is interesting to see that nothing has really changed when it comes to the way the Jews lived and how we as Christians are living today; we are still doing the same things, sinning, and wonder why things are difficult for us.

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  12. Its always interesting looking at how does a religious group come to terms and live with and reach a culture far from what it practices. Western Christianity has always had the same problem from people who fully engage the culture of their time like the rock band Stryper, to those who would state when the radio was invented who said it was of the devil and turned their heads the other way. Unlike the second temple age Jews, Protestants have never really been sent to exile nor understand what it means when God just stops talking to us giving us an easier way to see how this works. In modern society today we have way more people engaging in the culture then those who have shunned it. Then again when the Church started hymns were formed out of bar songs and they tended to borrow things from the cultures around them. I feel the blessing of the study of this in between time will give us a richer understanding of the players in the New Testament and many even change how we see the leaders, and maybe give us insight into our cultural bends.

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  13. I think that the struggle of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period can be a model for contemporary Christians because in today’s society, American teenagers in the public school system listen to what their peers say and they want to be included in their school. Many teenagers believe that in order to be accepted, they have to act similarly to how their peers act on Monday through Saturday. On Sunday they get up and go to church with their parents and act as if they were still “good” Christians. I believe that many Jews during the four hundred years between the testaments had to struggle with similar things. Maybe not quite to that extreme, but similar.

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  14. I absolutely agree that we need to know this context. If we do not understand the cultural context of Israel two-thousand years ago, we either may be a little confused or may mistranslate passages possibly by trying to understand them with the framework of our own culture. It is obviously important that the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, is understood correctly.

    You also make a very interesting observation about how the Jews struggle in the intertestamental period is applicable to us today. We should not try to be as far apart as possible with unbelievers, obsessing about how holy we are. But, on the other hand, we should not try to fit in with the world that we are indistinguishable. We are called to serve and glorify God with our lives, which includes pursuing the lost.

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    • I liked what you had to say about trying to understand certain passages within the framework of our own culture. However, if this is an issue that we face when reading scripture (which I agree with completely), what’s to say that we won’t try to smash the literature listed on this post into our own cultural concepts as well? How do we practically avoid this issue both for scripture and non-canonical scripts? Thanks for your input!

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  15. Wow, lots of comments on this post. You would think that living in exile in Babylon would teach the Jews how to exist in a non-Jewish culture. However, as it stands, there were Jews who were enthusiastic about returning to rebuild Jerusalem and others who couldn’t care less. There was clearly a spectrum of reaction to the culture which surrounded them. The same case applies both to the Judaism of the first century and the Christianity of the modern west. In both cases, it is clear that every Jew at that time and every Christian today reckons with this tension in a different way. Thus, you have a spectrum of ways to deal with it.

    Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5 provide some insight. “I wrote…not to associate with sexually immoral people-not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (v. 9-13)

    I read a comment on this subject from a blogger: “There isn’t any question that American culture is in a transition from a dominantly Christian culture to a dominantly secular culture. We can no longer expect America society to uniformly embrace Christian values or morality. How the Christian community chooses to respond to this will be critical. Angry rhetoric, and bitterly contested lawsuits and elections create adversaries, but no one ever made an enemy by offering the hand of friendship, helping the down and out, mentoring kids, giving generously to others or helping people after a hurricane get their lives back together. Paul was right – “against such things, there is no law”.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-stearns/living-as-an-authentic-christian-in-a-non-christian-world_b_2171648.html

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  16. I think the idea of having to withdraw from a world that is decidedly not a certain religion or concrete belief system is something most people — Jewish, Christian, Pagan — struggle with. Because who is to decide?
    When we look at the Pharisees and the Sadducees(and boy do I love to), I would go as far as to say that they had a great amount of success in integrating. Perhaps because they were in a position of political power in their own right, but even though Pharisees and the like weren’t inherently bad despite how a fraction of them went against Jesus, their theological beliefs were law. So why would they have to submerge with any other belief system or pay heed to it?
    If we look at the withdrawal tactic with the Essenes — do contemporary Christians not have the same mindset? Of course this isn’t conclusive to all of them, but one can either attempt to adapt to the cultures around them — even if not participating. I would raise the question, does integrating into a world that is not Christian really mean we are in an unholy place?
    Would it be more appropriate to shun the ideas of other belief systems or to not make peace with them? The meek inherit the earth — and that includes more than just us.

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