It’s popular in Protestant circles, especially around the time of Advent, to talk about the “four hundred years of silence” that preceded the coming of Christ. The phrase, also known as “the intertestamental period,” usually refers the period of time between the prophecy of Malachi and the emergence of John the Baptist. Malachi is generally regarded as the last “official” prophet of the Old Testament period whose ministry took place sometime in either the fifth or sixth century BCE and whose book closes out the Old Testament canon, at least in Protestant bibles. (The Hebrew Bible, although it contains the same books as the Christian Old Testament, is actually arranged quite differently and it closes with Chronicles).
The idea that God was silent from Malachi to John the Baptist is derived largely from the fact that in Protestant bibles there is nothing in between the book of Malachi and the Gospel of Matthew. A person reading a Protestant Bible from cover to cover would find that the Old Testament ends with God’s people living in Jerusalem under Persian rule and then that the New Testament begins roughly four hundred years later with God’s people living in Jerusalem under Roman rule. What happened during those four hundred or so years between the testaments? Since there’s nothing in the Bible, the assumption is that God must have been “silent” during that time.
A Fair Assumption?
It seems to me, however, such an assumption is a result of Protestant tunnel vision and lack of imagination. Why should we assume that God was silent just because we don’t have “official” bible books covering that time period? What implications does such an assumption have on, say, the last 2000 years? Do we believe that God has been “silent” since John the Apostle wrote the final “Amen” in the book of Revelation? I know I sure don’t.
Not Without Witness
In the book of Acts, Luke recounts the story of Paul and Barnabas traveling to Lystra, a city in modern-day Turkey, and healing a man who had been lame from birth. The inhabitants of the city mistakenly believed that Paul and Barnabas were “the gods come down…in human form” and tried to worship them (Acts 14:8-13). Paul and Barnabas used this opportunity to point them to the one, true God:
Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without witness: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy (Acts 14:15-17, emphasis added).
In other words, according to Paul and Barnabas, even among the non-Israelite nations, God had left a witness to his existence and power. The rain from heaven, the crops in their fields, and even the joy in their hearts were all evidence of the one true God’s power, provision, and presence.
Paul makes a very similar statement in his epistle to the Romans when he says the following: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). According to Paul, creation itself testifies to God’s presence and power and that people knew God intimately and personally (Romans 1:21). There seems to be an echo here of Psalm 19, in which the Psalmist the writes the following:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
This all becomes even more interesting when we remember that in Genesis creation itself is a direct result of “the word of God.” God literally speaks creation into being and that creation bears witness through the ages to God’s presence, power, and provision. Perhaps we limit God when we insist that the only time he “speaks” is when we have an “authoritative” or “inspired” written record of what he said.
At Many Times and In Various Ways
The New Testament book of Hebrews opens up with the following statement:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe
-Hebrews 1:1-2, emphasis added.
“At many times and in various ways.” That phrase alone seems to indicate that God’s method of communicating with his people cannot be limited merely to divinely inspired and preserved writings.
As a matter of fact, the divinely-inspired and preserved writings that we have contain numerous accounts of God speaking to his people at many times and in various ways. Of course, the only way we know about these various ways God communicated with his people is because we read about them in the scriptures, but the recording of those events in writing is not the same as the events themselves. For example, your birth certificate is the written record of your birth. If, however, someone burned your birth certificate, you would not cease to actually exist. Your birth still would be a real historical event, even if there was no written documentation to prove it.
It seems quite likely to me that there were many instances throughout history in which God communicated with his people in some way and yet, for whatever reason, chose not to have that communication recorded in a divinely-inspired and preserved document. To state it differently, it seems silly to me to think that every interaction God had with his people is recorded in scripture. This is true both for the time periods covered by the canonical writings, as well as for those time periods not covered by the canonical writings.
What About the Apocrypha?
Tragically, Protestant Christians have been taught eschew the apocryphal writings from the intertestamental period. Somewhere along the line, for far too many Protestants, “non-canonical” came to mean “useless” or worse. This has led to a great deal of ignorance among Protestant Christians about the historical events and beliefs of the Jewish people during the time period between Malachi and Matthew. The fact is, we actually do have an abundance of writings from that time period. Even if we don’t accept them as divinely-inspired and authoritative in the way that we do other biblical writings, there is much that we can learn from them. My guess is that anyone who actually takes the time to read them, even without regarding them as canonical, would be hard-pressed to continue to argue that God was silent during that time. It certainly appears that God was still at work to bring his people along to the moment “when the set time had fully come” at which point “God sent his Son, born of a woman” into the world (Galatians 4:4).
It may come as a surprise to most Protestant Christians that many of the early Christians, including some of the writers of the New Testament(!), regarded these apocryphal works quite highly. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few indirect references and even a few direct quotations of apocryphal books found in the New Testament. Later, as early Christians were debating which books should be included in the official canon, some of our esteemed Church Fathers argued that at least some of the apocryphal books should be fully included in the canon. Others argued that while they should not be included as authoritative, that they should be included as useful.
The point I’m trying to make from all of this is that we should strive to be open in our thinking and careful with our language. To say that God really was “silent” for four hundred years just because we Protestants don’t regard any of the writings from that time as divinely-inspired and authoritative is short-sighted. To state it another way, the argument for silence is actually an argument from silence, and it’s an argument that ignores the fact that God can and does speak in more ways than just the canonical text. As a Christian, preacher, and amateur Bible scholar, I love the scriptures, but I’m well aware that the voice of God is not limited to Protestant canon of scripture.