The Law in the Intertestamental Period

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35).[1] The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon.

When the exiles returned Maccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset.

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities.[2] The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community.[3] Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs. 

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community.[4] Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last.[5] Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing.[6] Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten.[7]

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear.[8] However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community.[9] Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.[10]

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education;[11] to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.[12]

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets.[13] The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading.[14] The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years.[15] Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, [16] so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both.[17] The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.[18]

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses.[19] Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue.


[1] What’s unclear is if all Deuteronomy, or Exod. 21–23, or some other portion of the law was intended by this command. We call Torah Gen–Deut., but that may not have been what Moses meant.

[2] Josephus seemed to posit that some might have lived in cities (Wars 2.8.4), but Philo posited that they lived in isolated villages (Quod Omn. Prob. xii [76]) and cities (Hyp. [11.1]).

[3] 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.6, 12; Quod Omn. Prob. xii (75).

[4] 1QS I, 13–15.

[5] 4Q266 fr. 11; 270 fr. 7 ii.

[6] 1QS viii, 6.

[7] Quod Omn. Prob. xii (82, 84); 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.5.

[8] Philo Som. 2.18; cf. Contra Apion 2.18. The Theodotus Inscription on a first-century Judean synagogue read that the synagogue was “for the reading of the Torah and studying the commandments.”

[9] Cf. Bab. Tal. Taan. 4.2–3; 4 Macc. 18:10–11.

[10] Philo Vit. Cont. 9–10; Cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.18.

[11] Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27

[12] Bab. Tal. Sot. 7.7, 8; Bab. Tal. Yoma 7.1–3.

[13] Bab. Tal. Megillah 4.1–5; cf. 3.4–6; Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14.

[14] Acts 13:15; 15:21

[15] Megillah 29b

[16] Bab. Tal. Gittin 5.8

[17] Cf. John 7:14–15. On the literacy of Jesus see Tor Vegge, “The Literacy of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son: On the Literary Study in the Words of Jesus,” Studia Theologica 59, no. 1 (2005): 19–37.

[18] Megillah 4.4

[19] Acts 12:12; 17:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; et. al.

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