When it comes to history, a 500-year gap leaves a jarring discontinuity in the narrative. But that's what the modern Protestant (and LDS) Bible gives us, with Malachi signing off around 450 BC when Jerusalem and Judea were under the political control of the Persians, then Matthew and his fellow evangelists picking up the story 500 years later when Judea was under the political control of the Romans. And the casual reader might never even know that, in between, the Greeks ran the place for almost 200 years! To help me out a bit with all this, I picked up Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew (Deseret Book, 2002) by S. Kent Brown and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, a couple of BYU profs. I don't normally spring for correlated titles, but I was wandering through the BYU Bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and with hundreds of LDS books on display I felt like I just had to buy something.
I'll throw out a couple of useful things I've picked up so far in the first half of the book, which covers the history from the Babylonian Exile to Herod the Great. First, contrast how the Jews and the Greeks dealt with military threat of the Persian Empire and its predecessors. The Jews were simply outmatched by the military powers of the East, with Israel falling to Assyria in the 8th century and Judea to Babylon in the early 6th century. Then Cyrus the Persian (who defeated the Babylonians around 539 BC) picked up Judea and surrounding territory as possessions of Babylon, then sent a contingent of Jews back to Judea in 538 BC. But only 50 years later, the Greeks beat off two withering assaults by huge Persian armies early in the 5th century BC (Thermopylae, Salamis, and all that), then unleashed Alexander against the East in the 4th century. He was unstoppable. Despite often being at a disadvantage numerically, he marched through the Persian Empire from one end to the other. The result was two centuries of Greek hegemony over Judea and neighboring lands. This "Hellenization" left a legacy of Greek culture and language over the entire area even after Greek political power was ecliped.
Second, Herod the Great, sometimes depicted as a marginal Jew for being an Idumean (or an Edomite), emerges from the text as something of a hero and benefactor to the Jews. He became wealthy and supported civic buildings all over the Roman world, and in his prime was the third man of the Roman world, behind only Augustus and Marcus Agrippa. Apart from his great contribution of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple as a splendid religious complex, here's what he did for the 7 million Jews of the Empire (10% of the population):
With Herod's help and influence, Jews of the Diaspora were guaranteed freedom to worship, to follow their dietary and sabbatical laws, to send the temple tax to Jerusalem as prescribed in the Mosaic law, and to avoid military service in the Roman army. ... It seems obvious why the Diaspora Jews were favorable to Herod. They, of course, were engaged in the same balancing act of trying to live their Judaism while living within the Roman world. (p. 96)
The second half of the book covers religious writings (Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and groups (such as the Pharisees and the Essenes). I'll put up a post on these topics in a week or two.