There is No "Intertestamental" Period
Perhaps it is merely a product of our overexposure to dispensational theology, but many Christians refer to the time between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew as the “intertestamental” period. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. Before we go further, it must be told that I am one of the many Christians who referred to this period of time by that term myself up until recently. Thankfully, Peter Leithart has come to the rescue once again.
I’ve recently begun going through his book The Four with a friend from church. My friend and I just finished going through the second chapter but it is something that Leithart wrote in the book’s introduction that I would like to bring to your attention here.
Leithart opens his critique of the “intertestamental” term by noting that it tends to breed certain assumptions about the 500 years in between the Jews return from exile and the coming of Christ. For starters, Leithart notes that the term tends to give people the impression that nothing is going on with Israel during this time. Another option is that people tend to believe that the period of time just isn’t very important to understanding the Bible:
Today Christians usually refer to the period between Israel’s return from exile and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an “intertestamental” period. Like the phrase “Middle Ages,” it is a misleading term. The phrase “Middle Ages” was invented by writers of the Renaissance who believed that the world was in darkness between the end of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. They disliked the Christian civilization that developed between 500 and 1400, and spoke of it either as a “dark age” or as an unimportant “middle age.” When we call the period between Malachi and Matthew an “intertestamental” period, we are saying that the period between Malachi and Matthew is not very important. (pg. 22)”
But Leithart offers another, more profound critique of the term as well. It’s one thing to simply believe that a five hundred year long period of time isn’t important. It’s quite another thing to believe that God has entirely “checked out.” While a learned dispensationalist would argue against this language, the reality is that dispensational laity essentially believes that the “intertestamental” period is a time when God is not actively involved with his covenant people.
Leithart makes a strong argument for why that may be. The reason that Leithart gives has to do with the actual language of the term “intertestamental.” Biblically speaking the terms “testament” and “covenant” are synonymous. So if we are going to have the Bible shape our language (which we should) then the term “intertestamental” means “between covenants.”
On the surface this might not seem like a big deal to people. Some might ask, “Well isn’t it the time between the covenants Michael?” That’s just the thing. To believe that there is a time between covenants is to believe that there is a period of time when God is not in covenant with his people, something people who believe in the Bible must never believe. God’s covenant is eternal. Here’s how Leithart puts it:
In Scripture, “testament” is another word for “covenant” Yahweh’s covenant is the marriage relationship that He enters with human beings, especially with Israel, which includes His commitment to bless his people and the demands He places on them. “Testament” or “covenant” refers to the whole collection of rites, signs, rules orders, and offices that make up the life of God’s people.
When we understand “testament” in the biblical sense, “intertestamental” is clearly a misleading label. It implies that there is a period between about 500 B.C. and 4 B.C. where the covenant between Yahweh and Israel lapses. If this period is “inter-testamental,” then the history of God’s dealings with the world that starts with Adam suddenly ends with Malachi. The phrase implies that Yahweh is in a covenant with Israel from the time of Abraham to the time of Nehemiah, but then after Nehemiah there are 500 years of blank pages in the story. (pg. 23)
History belongs to God. He is the great author. To look at periods of time in history and assume that God is not acting is to think like a pagan. Leithart goes on to show in chapter one how the Bible gives an abundant amount of information about the history between 500 B.C. and 4 B.C. (see the book of Daniel). And with the perspective and history that Leithart offers, one’s view of God’s covenant reaching its climax in Jesus takes on a whole new light.
Food for thought.