The more than 400 years of Israel’s story from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to the first centuries of our era are for many people largely a blank. It is a mysterious time “between” – for Jews, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Mishnah; for Christians, between the Old Testament and the New. Portions of that “blank,” however, are marked by events that in many ways transformed the western world, redirected the history of the Jews and made possible the rise of Christianity.
The period is often referred to as “Second Temple Judaism,” since it begins with the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian exile and continues until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the first century of our era. As the ancient Jewish historian Josephus noted, it marks the time when the ancient Israelites became the Jews and their religion and culture became Judaism. Much of the first half of this long era of Jewish history is obscure, since few documents or artifacts survive to illuminate events. The province of Judah was a small backwater of the might Persian Empire.
In 332 BC, however, an event occurred that radically changed the environment in which the Jews and all the peoples around them lived. Alexander, the young king of Macedon, swept through Palestine with his army of Greeks and Macedonians, already well on his way toward one of the most important conquests of all time. In a matter of a few years his lightning war had erased the supposedly invincible might of Persia, and the king of kings, Darius III, was on the run before Alexander’s advancing army.
Alexander not only conquered Egypt and became successor to the ancient pharaohs, but also, he founded a new city at the western edge of the Nile delta. That new Greek city, Alexandria, was to become the cultural capital of the new era – the “Hellenistic era” – and preeminent among many such new cities. Alexander envisioned not only military conquest, but also cultural conquest – bringing to the non-Greek world the Greek way of life that he had been taught by the philosopher Aristotle and others.
New cities dotted Alexander’s empire, which reached all the way to the borders of India. The cities were marked by Greek style, thus beginning the spread of Greek culture and the establishment of Greek as the new common language of the empire.
Alexander the Great died in 323 at the age of 32 or 33, and the next two decades were marked by wars among his subordinates over the pieces of his empire. When the dust settled, two powerful empires struggled against each other for control of Palestine. In Alexandria, a Macedonian named Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s close associates, had begun the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was to rule Egypt for 300 years. In Syria, Seleucus, another of Alexander’s subordinates, established the Seleucid kingdom, which covered the vast eastern stretches of Alexander’s empire and Asia Minor.
For a century Israel was under Ptolemaic rule. It was apparently granted a high degree of self-government under its ancestral law and thus developed as a kind of theocracy, governed by the high priest in Jerusalem. Many of the ordinary people in Israel were hardly touched by Alexander’s revolution, but others, especially those in the upper classes, felt a growing attraction toward a Greek way of life and the doors that it opened to the outside world.
The Seleucids in the north repeatedly pressed the borders of the Ptolemies till at last in about 198 BC Antiochus III of Syria wrested control of Palestine from Egypt. The simmering struggle over Hellenistic culture among the Jews soon came to a boil, as the story is recounted in the books of First and Second Maccabees in the Apocrypha.
In 175 BC Antiochus IV came to the throne of Syria, while Onias III was the ruling high priest in Jerusalem. Onias was undoubtedly an opponent of any move to “Hellenize” Judaism, that is, to assimilate Greek patterns of religion and government. Onias’ brother Jason, however, was a leader of the “Hellenizers” and was at the very center of the high-priestly aristocracy.
Jason in effect carried out a government coup by persuading King Antiochus to appoint him as high priest in place of his brother. He also arranged to establish a gymnasium based on the Greek model in Jerusalem, and to promote Greek customs at the expense of Jewish law. Thus the Jews’ law was displaced form its central role in national life. Once this process was begun, Jason could not control it. he was soon replaced by another Hellenizer named Menelaus, who most likely was not part of the traditional high-priestly family.
Many Jews were outraged. they apparently began an uprising against royal appointees and their policy of Hellenization, just at a time when King Antiochus was being pressed by Rome. A frustrated Antiochus tried to suppress them and support Menelaus by putting down the revolt with considerable slaughter and by banning all observance of the Law of Moses. The Jerusalem Temple was rededicated to Olympian Zeus; circumcision and Sabbath observance were outlawed; copies of the torah were burned; and all Jews were required to partake of pagan sacrifices.
In 167 BC, when the Syrian King Antiochus’ officers came to the small town of Modein outside Jerusalem in order to enforce publicly the requirement of pagan sacrifice, they encountered a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons. Mattathias assassinated one officer who was enforcing the decree and a Jewish supporter. He then fled to the hills with his sons and summoned the people to join him in guerrilla warfare against the king. Soon after, Mattathias died, and his son Judas, nicknamed “Maccabeus,” probably meaning “the hammer,” brilliantly led the growing guerrilla army.
In spite of the vast resources of the Seleucid kingdom, the revolt was successful, and within three years the temple had been retaken, and could be cleansed of its pagan elements and rededicated. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, approximately December, exactly three years after is desecration, the new altar was consecrated and an eight-day festival was begun. Thus Judaism had survived a full-scale onslaught by the power of Syria, and the joy of that celebration was commemorated annually in the festival of Hanukkah. In later centuries the story was told that during the period of rededication, a small vial of holy oil found in the Temple had miraculously burned in the Temple lamp for eight days until more oil could be supplied. The celebration became a festival of lights, a remembrance not of the military victory but of the spiritual one, perhaps reflecting the lighting of the candle-bra of the Jerusalem Temple.
During Hanukkah, Jews the world over celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple by the lighting of an eight-branched candelbrum, or menorah. Often there is a ninth branch, called the shammes or “servant,” used as a pilot light. Why eight branches? One legend states that the Maccabees had only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one night. Miraculously, the lights burned for eight. Hence, Hanukkah is also called the “Festival of Lights.”
Over the years that followed, Judas and his brothers after him established Judea’s independence. It is one of the ironies of this period, however, that they dynasty, called Hasmonean after their family name, and born in rebellion against Greek culture, eventually became highly worldly and ambitious itself. The fact that the Hasmoneans took for themselves both the office of high priest and that of ruler offended many pious Jews, who believed that the high priesthood was reserved for a single family.
The religious and political struggles of the time caused various groups with differing religious and political philosophies to emerge. The three that became especially prominent were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. All three were active until the Romans brought an end to the Second Temple period, at which point only the Pharisees, the “moderates” of their day, managed to survive in a significant way.
The Pharisees developed as a group devoted to the application of the torah to the life of all Israel. They handed down a system of oral law which expanded the written law and applied it to the needs of the people in their own time. Though somewhat involved in the power politics of the Hasmonean kingdom, they became more identified as the religious teachers of Israel.
The Sadducees were closely connected with the priestly aristocracy and the temple with its sacrificial worship. They rejected the Pharisees’ oral traditions and took a more conservative view that only the written torah was binding. As representatives of a well-ensconced, hereditary establishment, they were able to provide a valuable continuity and base of power that both the Hasmoneans and later the Romans valued.
The most radical of the groups was the Essenes. Led by a man whom they referred to only as the “Teacher of Righteousness,” they rejected the legitimacy of the entire Hasmonean government and temple establishment. They set up as their main base a monastery at Qumran near the northern end of the Dead Sea. They devoted themselves to careful observance of the torah and the rules of a highly structured community. Believing that the last days of the world had drawn near, they practiced baptism, and focused their entire life on preparation for that denouement of history.
The Jews were dispersed. Indeed, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods many Jews – perhaps the majority – lived outside Palestine. Large communities were located in Babylonia, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome. Some of these communities had existed since at least the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC and had developed deep roots in the local culture. Many were quite wealthy. In the first century AD, the Jewish community in Alexandria numbered perhaps 100,000 or more. It was here that the Jewish philosopher Philo, who was born some 20 years before Christ and lived to see Rome in 40 AD, worked out his doctrines seeking to reconcile Greek philosophy with biblical religion.
The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in Egypt and were often interpreted by Jewish scholars who could draw on both the Scriptures and the well-known Greek philosophers for insight. It was a time of probing the limits of Jewish tradition, a time of struggle and hope. With the destruction of the Second Temple under the Romans, in 70 AD, the synagogue became the central Jewish religious institution.
These Jews were in their own way on the front line of the conflict of culture. They lived in a Greek-speaking world, and Philo was by no means the only one who actively took on the task of interpreting ancient tradition in the light of the cosmopolitan world. Their central local institution was not the Temple, with its rites, rituals, and priesthood, but the synagogue, a place of prayer, study, community, and education.
The scattering of the Jews outside the Holy Land that began in 587 BC, when Jerusalem fell to Babylonia, is called the Diaspora – Greek for “dispersion.” Today, the term refers to the voluntary dispersion of the Jewish people outside the State of Israel, in contrast to the forced exile (galut in Hebrew) of the Babylonian conquest. Thus, a modern Jew living in the United States is said to be living in the Diaspora.