Before beginning this project I had no idea that there was a 400 year gap between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. It had never occurred to me to wonder what happened between the Old and New Testaments. Why would they even have been separated? The entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek for the Library of Alexandria before the time of Jesus and called the Septuagint. A few sites I ran across even claim that the apostles more often quoted the Septuagint than the actual Torah.
So, what happened? When we leave the Old Testament, we know that the people have gone into and returned from captivity, and have rebuilt the Temple to a much lesser extent than it’s former glory. They were running their own show politically, though not exactly listening to God in the way they do it, or even honoring Him the way the covenant requires. When we come back to Jerusalem in the New Testament, about 400 years have passed. After looking into it a bit, I discovered this was a fairly active time in that region. Jerusalem actually changed hands a few times and I recall from church services that it was not run by the Jews themselves during the time of Jesus.
At the end of the Old Testament, the Jews have left captivity under the great Persian Empire that had succeeded the Babylonians. After them came the Greeks under Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, there were quite a few wars in the region to settle things before it all got absorbed in the conflict between Carthage and Rome, leaving Jerusalem in the hands of the Roman Empire by the time John the Baptist is born.
Yes, I could dig in deep and be more detailed, but that’s not the point of this particular exercise. The point is that the Jews continue to go through a lot in the time that passes from Malachi to Matthew. No one in the community probably even remembered what it was like for them to have their own rule, let alone how glorious it once was. The people must have thought God had forgotten about them and this time He wasn’t talking at all. No prophets. No help. Not a word. A lot like today.
So, what did they do? They went with what they knew and seemed to be doing the best they could with what they had, but like any kid does without proper supervision, they weren’t quite hitting the mark. They separated into different sects that we’re likely to run into along the way and that may be familiar already. The four sects that I know of at the time are the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots. Each was a kind of political or social party that had different beliefs as to what the Jews should be doing as a country and how much control they should have over their own destiny. If coming in while the country is under rule of a larger empire wasn’t complicated enough, Jesus also came during this time when several parties vied for control of popular thought among themselves.