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An Interview with George Athas, author of Bridging the Testaments

GEORGE ATHAS (PhD, University of Sydney) is director of research and senior lecturer in Hebrew, Old Testament, and early church history at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs in The Story of God Bible Commentary series.

What prompted your interest in writing about the “intertestamental” period?

There were two primary reasons.

First, I have found that the postexilic period is largely a mystery for students, especially its history and theological developments. If it’s a mystery for seminary students, then it is an even deeper mystery for the person in the pew. I wrote the book for both groups, hoping to expand the knowledge of all believers in this area.

Second, I wanted to eradicate the whole notion that there is such a thing as an “intertestamental” period. This is idea is unbiblical and not warranted by history. Yet it continues to be touted unhelpfully in Christian circles. I wanted to show how divine revelation did not stop during the four centuries between Malachi and Jesus. We have unwittingly estranged the testaments with this spurious “intertestamental” idea, and this has affected both our historical and theological understanding. My desire is to reconnect the testaments and provide a new historical and theological framework.

Where did the idea of “four hundred years of silence” between the testaments come from? What is missed when we accept it?

The idea of prophetic silence has its seeds in the second century BC when the Hasmonean family (a.k.a. the Maccabees) established a priestly dynasty that soon became a royal dynasty. They had several opponents within Judaism who continued to believe that God would one day restore a Davidic Kingdom, fulfilling his prophetic promises. The Hasmonean Dynasty denied this possibility by arguing that prophecy had ceased.

The Hasmoneans argued they themselves were the fulfillment of God’s purposes. This soon led to the suppression of prophetic figures who critiqued their power, a suppression of prophetic speech that continued after the Hasmonean Dynasty as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians gained power.

This is why John the Baptist, Jesus, and Stephen were all executed by the authorities of their day. But it was not until the second century AD that Judaism expressed the idea that prophecy had ceased in the fifth century BC. This early date came from the influence of the Pharisees, who wanted to trace their own theological ideas as far back in the past as they could—to give them antiquity and legitimacy—and also to deny the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

When Christians espouse four centuries of prophetic silence before Jesus, they unwittingly adopt a view that was intended to suppress the movement that gave rise to the early church. The result is a breaking of the trajectories that join the Old and New
Testaments, severing some major theological arteries. It causes the Old Testament to be misconstrued and thus harms our reading of the New Testament. It is time for Christians to shed this unbiblical idea by understanding where it came from and seeing both
the biblical literature and the history that gave rise to free it of such shackles.

How does understanding the political, social, and theological situation in the five centuries preceding Jesus’s birth affect how we read, understand, and preach the New Testament?

Prophecy is God’s comment on human affairs, as well as the proper response to that comment. It serves us to understand those human affairs since God was speaking about them and through them to bring about his purposes among his covenant people.
These purposes reached their resolution—without pause—in the ministry of Jesus. Just as we need to learn the biblical languages to gain a proper appreciation of the biblical texts, so we also need to understand the political, social, and theological situation of these centuries to do justice to biblical literature and our theological endeavor.

My hope is that this book will be a surprising and satisfying discovery. It can be read from cover to cover to get the grand sweep of the history and theology, but it also can be a kind of reference tool to consult when needed. It will be useful for courses on specific biblical books or those covering historical background, Old Testament theology, and apocryphal literature.

This interview was originally published in the Fall 2023 Zondervan Academic Catalog.

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