The Silent Centuries

by Keith Macnaughtan

There is a period in Israel's history, terminating with the public ministry of one who is known from the New Testament as John the Baptist, when no prophet arose to speak God's word to His people. We have called this period "The Silent Centuries" because, while God still controlled the affairs of Israel and indeed the affairs of other nations who had contact with Israel, yet during these centuries no voice spoke from heaven, no prophet arose to say: "Thus saith the Lord."

Malachi is the last of the Old Testament prophets. Indeed, we cannot be certain that the prophet's name was really 'Malachi' for the word itself means simply: 'My Messenger' and the first verse of the book he wrote could just as readily read: "The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by my messenger." With the last assurance of this book: "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet . . . lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" , the voice of prophecy was stilled for "the silent centuries".

Approximately four hundred years must go by before one came with authoritative command: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

The Political Scene

In the world scene the silent centuries were a time of great and significant changes. One of the four great empires of Bible prophecy had passed from power before these centuries began; Babylon had fallen before the Medes and Persians. The second empire, the Persian, had almost run its course; it terminated approximately one hundred years after Malachi wrote the last words of the Old Testament. In its place Greece came to power. Then Rome, that dreadful and terrible empire which Daniel had described under the figure of a beast which was "strong exceedingly" with its "great iron teeth, devouring and breaking in pieces and stamping the residue with its feet" , rose up to become the ruler of the world.

Rome conquered Judea and Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and from that time interfered more and more in the affairs of Israel, at last destroying the Jewish nation and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

But, while these centuries passed in silence as far as prophecy is concerned, they contained much of interest and importance both politically and religiously for God's people, Israel. Politically they were centuries of heroic resistance to the overwhelming might and power of Persia and Rome, in particular, and of Syria and Egypt. The land of Israel was a kind of 'buffer state' especially in regard to Syria and its rival, Egypt, and before that, Persia and Egypt.

When Persia fell to Greece and when the Greek empire broke up into four divisions (as foretold in Daniel 8:8), Israel came under the power, now of Syria, now of Egypt. To this period belong the depredations of Antiochus Epiphanes. The temple was profaned, many Jews were slain and others enslaved, a sow was offered on the altar and an altar was erected to Zeus, the 'father' of the gods of Greece.

To this period belongs, too, the rise of the Maccabees. Judas Maccabaeus – the word means 'hammer' – freed Jerusalem and the temple. The temple was purified from the abominations of Antiochus, and rededicated. In the New Testament (John 10:22), we read, "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of dedication, and it was winter." Thus did the Jewish people preserve the memory of the deeds of Judas Maccabaeus in the Feast of Dedication.

The Rise of Jewish Sects

Religiously, too, these silent centuries held much of interest and importance for Israel and for the world at large. To them belong the rise of the Jewish sects of which we read so much in the New Testament. The Pharisees, for example, came into being during this period, at about 150 B.C. their name means 'separated' and they gained favour and a reputation with the ordinary people. It was said, for example, that if only two people entered heaven, one of them would be a Pharisee!

The Sadducees also came to prominence in this period of the silent centuries. Doctrinally they were the opposite of the Pharisees as they denied the resurrection and the existence of angels and spirits. Never really popular with the people, they were the aristocratic sect. For more than a hundred years B.C. they were prominent in the affairs of the nation, and in New Testament times all the high priests were Sadducees.

The First Translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint

But to the silent centuries belongs, too, the great Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which is called the Septuagint. It would seem that it was made at the order of Philadelphus, the king of Egypt, some two or three hundred years B.C. It is said that at the suggestion of the royal librarian in Alexandria, Philadelphus wrote to the High Priest, Eleazar, in Jerusalem. He asked him to send to Egypt six elders from each of the twelve tribes to make a translation of the Jewish Scriptures. When they came, they brought with them the copy of the Jewish Law written in letters of gold on a roll made of six skins!

The Apocrypha

To these silent years, too, we must ascribe the origin of the Apocrypha, adding that no part of this was ever in the Jewish Bible, the canon of Scripture in the Old Testament.

Nor can it be shown that in any part of the New Testament is there a quotation from the Apocrypha. True, one passage of the Scriptures may amplify another, or give an added detail omitted from the earlier one. For example, Hosea tells us that Jacob, in his wrestling with the Angel, "wept and made supplication unto him." Nowhere, in the story of Jascob given in the book of Genesis, do we read of his weeping and supplicating the Angel.

And in the New Testament Paul tells us of a saying of Jesus of Nazareth not recorded in the gospels: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But, we repeat, the Apocrypha contributes nothing to the Jewish Scriptures, or to the Old or New Testaments.

Jude, in the New Testament says: "And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these saying, Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgement upon all . . . " Some have assumed that Jude here quotes from the Apocryphal book of Enoch, but there is no proof that the Apocryphal book of Enoch, was in existence in the first century.

Jewish Faithfulness to Their Scriptures

Of the Jewish Scriptures, one writer says that the Apocrypha was never included in them. "(It) has never been thought of in authoritative Jewish schools for reading in the synagogue." By combining some books which in the English Old Testament are separated. Jewish people number their Scriptures as twenty-two. Hence, Cyril of Jerusalem says: "Read the Divine Scriptures, namely the twenty-two books of the Old Testament . . . " Josephus tells us: " . . . the exact succession of the prophets ceased" -- the silent centuries. He adds: ". . . though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or to take anything from them, or to alter anything in them."

Of the Jews and their Scriptures Philo of Alexandria says: "They have not changed so much as a single word in them. They would rather die a thousand deaths than detract anything from these laws and statutes." (Quotations from How to Read the Bible by Urquhart).

Yes, the silent centuries have much to teach us, both in what they do, and do not contain. And they point forward to the time when God would break the silence and send Him Who was to be the Saviour of both Jew and Gentile, Yeshua haMashiach.