There was approximately 500 years between the last writings
of the Old Testament and the birth of John the baptist and Jesus
Christ. The following outline is in part taken from a writing by
Leon J. Davis in 1960.
The great Persian Empire was used by God to restore the
chastened Jews to their home land and to help them re-establish
their old way of life. The Jews were ruled by high priests, who
acted under the syrian governors who had annexed Palestine. These
priests were both spiritual and civil heads of state. An assembly
of leaders, called the Sanhedrin, advised the priests and checked
In religious life, scribes replaced the prophets to guard
and recopy the sacred Scriptures. It was while in captivity that
the Jews started to assemble in small groups throughout the land
on the Sabbath day, in order to keep alive their religious
worship towards God. This was the start of the popular Synagogue
gathering custom that was firmly established as a part of the
religious practice by the time of the birth of John the baptist
The Persian Empire under which the Jews were granted fervour
to re-establish themselves in the land of promise, reached the
height of her power in about 500 B.C., but in time of her fifth
emperor, Nehemiah's Artaxerxes 1, she weakened.
The seat of power gradually changed from Asia to Europe, and
Greece became the world power.
In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great defeated the Persians.
afterwards, he took possession of northern Africa and went on to
conquer Jerusalem. He treated the Jews well and encouraged them
to settle in new cities, particularly Alexandria, Egypt.
In 301 B.C., after Alexander's death and a time of civil
strife, four generals began to divide the empire. Palestine went
to a man named Ptolemy from Egypt, as did Libya and Arabia.
Another one of the four generals was Seleccus, who obtained syria
and the Asian countries not given to Ptolemy. Hence, Seucid kings
were kings from Asia, and Ptolemy kings were from Africa.
The Palestinian Jews had their own priests as they had under
Persian domination, but now they had to pay tribute to the
Egyptian government. Ptolemy had brought many thousands of Jews
from palestine to Egypt and gave them religious freedom and full
citizenship rights. Greek culture prevailed there and Jews found
it difficult to maintain their separation.
In about 280 B.C. a group of Jewish scholars began to
translate the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, the common
language of the day, for the Jews in Alexandria and other places
were now speaking Greek. Seventy-two men did the translating; it
was to many a holy and supernatural event; each translation
produced the same words and phrases, which was seen by many to be
a miracle from God's guiding hand. It took 150 years to complete
the entire Old Testament and is called the Septuagint Version
today (translation of the seventy).
During these centuries from the return of the Jews to
Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah and the Ptolemy kings there
arose two distinct religious parties among the Jews. They were
the Sadducees, who mainly came from the higher class
intellectuals and sophisticated members of the Jewish people.
Some claimed they were descendants of the priests of Moses' time.
The Sadducees did for most of the time, right down to the
days of christ, govern the physical aspects of the Temple in
Jerusalem. The other part of religious leaders were called the
Pharisees. They were religious leaders from mainly the common
people. They were very orthodox and as time went on they added
hundreds of laws to the basic laws of the Old Testament. By the
time of Christ they taught that it was unholy and sin to break
even all these hundreds of added laws. It was these religious
leaders that governed the Sabbath services in the local
synagogues throughout the land of Palestine.
The famous Jerusalem Sanhedrin (a governing body of men that
set the announcement of the new month day, as well as other
religious and none-religious matters for the Jews), by the time
of Christ consisted of men from both the Sadducean and Pharisean
parts, as well as elders (men who had gained local respect as
older wise men of the community) from the Jewish population.
In 204 B.C. the last strong Ptolemy ruler died and their
rival, the Selucid kings began to control Palestine. It was
Antiochus the Great that took Palestine from a weak king of
Egypt. His son, Antichus 1, wanted to make a great empire for
himself. His goal was to destroy the Jewish religion and its
teaching that they had the One true God and His true religion. In
Palestine he replaced spiritual priests with unspiritual ones; he
outlawed Judaism, desecrated the temple, abolished worship of the
Jewish God, and set up pagan worship with its sacrilege and
immorality. Further, in 168 B.C. he forced the Jews to sacrifice
on heathen altars to heathen gods.
The Jews eventually rose up and prepared to oppose the
decrees of this king. Mattahias, an aged priest objected and
killed a Syrian officer. His son, Judas Maccabeus, became the
Jewish military leader and organized people to oppose and fight
what they considered an evil and satanic government. Thousands of
Jews were killed in the ensuing conflict, including Judas
himself. His two brothers, Jonathan and Simon led the fight to
bring political and religious independence and freedom back to
The Jews began to make alliance with Rome at this time, to
help guarantee its independence. By december 25, 164 B.C., the
Jews had cleansed and re-dedicated the Temple.
Civil war broke out in Palestine led by two opposing
brothers. One brother, Aristobolus, who was in power in
Jerusalem, was planning to lead a revolt against Rome. Pompey, a
great Roman military leader. quickly besieged Jerusalem in 63
B.C. and took it over; 12,000 Jews were killed. Pompey made the
other brother, Hyracanus, the governor of Palestine and required
him to pay annual tribute or taxes, a certain amount of money to
him each year.
A man named Herod reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. over
Jerusalem and Palestine. It was this man that was responsible for
the orders to kill the Bethlehem children, as he wanted Jesus the
baby to die. All this and the reason why we shall see later as we
go through the birth of Jesus Christ.
In 20 B.C. this man Herod began to rebuild the Temple at
Jerusalem, partly to please the Jews and partly for his own
Announcement to Zacharias about the birth of John the baptist
In the days of Herod, the king of Judea, one of the priests
serving in the Temple at Jerusalem was a man called Zacharias and
his wife was called Elizabeth. They were both very dedicated to
the work of God and were righteous in the eyes of the Lord. They
lived and walked in all the commandments of God blameless. This
does not mean they never sinned or made mistakes in their life,
for all human beings make mistakes at times. But their attitude
of wanting to walk humbly with God and to keep His commandments
meant that God forgave them their mistakes, remembered not their
mistakes and so were in His eyes blameless.
This priest and his wife had no children, and now as they
were getting very old, it certainly looked like they would never
have any children. They had given up hope of ever expecting to
have any children (Luke 1:5-7). But one day while he was doing
his priestly work in the Temple, and the people were praying
outside, an angel from the Lord appeared to him. He was very
fearful and became troubled as to what this was all about.
The angel said to him, "Fear not Zacharias for your prayer
has been heard by God, and your wife Elizabeth shall have a
child, a male child, and you shall call him John. You both shall
have joy and gladness, and many others will rejoice at his birth.
For he shall be great in the eyes of the Lord. He shall be filled
with the Holy Spirit, even from the time he is within his
mother's stomach, before he is born. He shall help bring many of
the children of Israel to walk in the ways of God, and shall
speak as the prophet Elijah, with the same attitude of mind and
power of life. At his preaching many people will be brought
together to acknowledge what are the true values of life and
family. Those many shall turn to the wisdom of the righteous and
so a people will be prepared for the Lord to work with" (Luke
The promise that this man John would come in the spirit and
power of Elijah had been a promise and prophecy from the Lord
hundreds of years before. The prophet Malachi (the last book of
the Old Testament in most Bibles bears the name of this prophet
Malachi) wrote about a man that would come in the likeness of the
famous Elijah. Jesus Himself also reaffirmed that John fulfilled
this Elijah prophecy in Matthew 17, which we shall come to later.
Zacharias wanted to believe what the angel had said. Oh, how
his wife and he had wanted a son, so he really did want to
believe the angel, yet Zacharias was a human man and he knew that
both he and his wife were very old, and he knew his wife was
passed the years of being able to have a child. So he asked the
angel how he might know that this miracle would take place.
"I am Gabriel, that stands in the very presence of God,"
said the angel, "and I have been sent to speak to you this truth
and give you this good news. But if you need to have a sign, then
this is what it shall be." The angel Gabriel continued to say,
"You shall loose your voice and shall not be able to speak until
the child is born, because you have doubted that which the Lord
has promised to you and your wife" (Luke 1:18-20).
The appearance of the angel to Zacharias took some time, and
so his stay inside the Temple was longer than usual, and the
people outside knew that he was taking longer to fulfil his
priestly duties. They marvelled at how long he was within the
Temple. When he did come out they soon realized he could not
speak to them, and by the look on his face and by his hand
gestures they knew he had seen a miraculous vision of some sort
in the Temple.
Zacharias continued to serve his allotted time in the Temple
for that season of the year (the many priests took turns of a
certain number of days to work in the Temple, what the Bible
calls "order of his course" - Luke 1:8), and then returned home
to his wife.
It was not long after he returned home that his wife
Elizabeth got pregnant, and so was going to have a baby just as
the angel from the Lord had announced to Zacharias.
Elizabeth was overjoyed, yet she stayed around home for five
months, not telling anyone that she was going to have a child