Modern reconstruction of what the Second Temple would have looked like after its renovation during the reign of Herod I / Photo by Juan R. Cuadra, Wikimedia Commons
Exploring Judaism from 515 BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple and the following rise of anti-semitism in early Christianity.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 10.28.2018
Second Temple Judaism is Judaism between the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, c. 515 BCE, and its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. The development of the Hebrew Bible canon, the synagogue, Jewish apocalyptic expectations for the future, and the rise of Christianity, can all be traced to the Second Temple period.
- Babylonian exile, 586–539 BCE
- Persian, 539–333 BCE
- Hellenistic, 333–164 BCE
- Ptolemaic, 301–200 BCE
- Seleucid, 200–164 BCE
- Hasmonean, 164–63 BCE
- Roman, 63 BCE – 70 CE
Jerusalem and Yehud
Yehud Medinata (in pink) under the Persian Empire, image by George Adam Smith, 1915 / Wikimedia Commons
The period of the First Temple ended in 586 BCE when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple of Solomon, and deported the elite of the population to Babylon (the “Babylonian exile”). In 539 BCE Babylon itself fell to the Persian conqueror Cyrus, and in 538 BCE the exiles were permitted to return to Yehud medinata, as the Persian province of Judah was known. The Temple is commonly said to have been rebuilt in the period 520–515 BCE, but it seems probable that this is an artificial date chosen so that 70 years could be said to have passed between the destruction and the rebuilding, fulfilling a prophecy of Jeremiah.
The end of the Persian period is conventionally dated from Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Mediterranean coast in 333/332 BCE. His empire disintegrated after his death, and Judea, including Jerusalem, fell to the Ptolemies, the descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who ruled Egypt. In 200 BCE Israel and Yehud were captured by the Seleucids, the descendants of another Greek general ruling Syria. Around 167 BCE, for reasons that remain obscure, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to suppress Jewish worship; this provoked a Jewish revolt (the Maccabean Revolt) that eventually led to the effective end of Greek control over Jerusalem.
Hasmonean Judea was a client kingdom of the Romans, and in the 1st century BCE the Romans first replaced them with their protege Herod the Great, and, on Herod’s death in 6 CE, made Judea a province under Rome’s direct rule. Heavy taxes under the Romans and insensitivity towards the Jewish religion led to revolt (the First Jewish–Roman War, 66–73 CE), and in 70 CE the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, bringing an end to the Second Temple period.
Paths of Jewish deportation / Wikimedia Commons
The Jewish exiles in Babylon were not slaves or prisoners, nor were they badly treated, and when the Persians gave permission for them to return to Jerusalem the majority elected to remain where they were. They and their descendants formed the diaspora, a large community of Jews living outside Judea, and the 1st century CE historian Josephus reported that there were more Jews in Syria (meaning the Seleucid empire) than in any other land.There was also significant Egyptian diaspora, although the Jews of Egypt were immigrants, not deportees, “…attracted by Hellenistic culture, eager to win the respect of the Greeks and to adapt to their ways” (John J. Collins, “Between Athens and Jerusalem). The Egyptian diaspora was slow to develop, but in the Hellenistic period it came to outstrip the Babylonian community in importance. In addition to these major centres there were Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic and subsequently the Roman world, from North Africa to Asia Minor and Greece and in Rome itself.
Samaria, as depicted in 1894 by George Adam Smith in Historical Geography of the Holy Land / Wikimedia Commons
The separation between Jews of Jerusalem and those of Samaria was a long and protracted process. For most of the Second Temple period Samaria was larger, richer, and more populous than Judea—down to about 164 BCE there were probably more Samaritans than Judeans living in Palestine. They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim near Shechem and regarded themselves as the only true Israel, the remnant left behind when Israel was deceived by the wicked priest Eli to leave Gerizim and worship at Jerusalem. Second Temple Judeans regarded them as foreign converts and the offspring of mixed marriages, and therefore of impure blood. Relations between the two communities were often strained, but the definitive break dates from the destruction of the Gerizim temple and of Shechem by a Hasmonean king in the late 2nd century BCE; before that the Samaritans seem to have regarded themselves as part of the wider Jewish community, but afterwards they denounced the Jerusalem temple as completely unacceptable to God.
Sefer Torah at old Glockengasse Synagogue (reconstruction), Cologne / Photo by Willy Horsch, Wikimedia Commons
In recent decades it has become increasingly common among scholars to assume that much of the Hebrew bible was assembled, revised and edited in the 5th century BCE to reflect the realities and challenges of the Persian era.The returnees had a particular interest in the history of Israel: the written Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), for example, may have existed in various forms during the Monarchy (the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah), but it was in the Second Temple that it was edited and revised into something like its current form, and the Chronicles, a new history written at this time, reflects the concerns of the Persian Yehud in its almost-exclusive focus on Judah and the Temple.
Prophetic works were also of particular interest to the Persian-era authors, with some works being composed at this time (the last ten chapters of Isaiah and the books of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and perhaps Joel) and the older prophets edited and reinterpreted.The corpus of Wisdom books saw the composition of Job, parts of Proverbs, and possibly Ecclesiastes, while the book of Psalms was possibly given its modern shape and division into five parts at this time (although the collection continued to be revised and expanded well into Hellenistic and even Roman times).
In the Hellenistic period the scriptures were translated into Greek by the Jews of the Egyptian diaspora, who also produced a rich literature of their own covering epic poetry, philosophy, tragedy and other forms. Less is known of the Babylonian diaspora, but the Seleucid period produced works such as the court tales of the Book of Daniel (chapters 1-6 of Daniel – chapters 7-12 were a later addition), and the books of Tobit and Esther. The eastern Jews were also responsible for the adoption and transmission of the Babylonian and Persian apocalyptic tradition seen in Daniel.
Worship and the Jewish Community
Israel as a Holy Community
Remains of Essene living quarters at Qumran / Photo by Wilson44691, Wikimedia Commons
The Hebrew Bible represents the beliefs of only a small portion of the Israelite community, the members of a tradition that insisted on the exclusive worship of Yahweh, who collected, edited and transmitted the biblical texts, and who saw their mission in a return to Jerusalem where they could impose their vision of genealogical purity, orthodox worship, and codified law on the local population. In the earliest stages of the Persian period the returnees insisted on strict separation between themselves (“Israel”) and the Judeans who had never gone into exile (“Canaanites”), to the extent of prohibiting intermarriage; this was presented in terms of religious purity, but there may have been a practical concern for land ownership. The concept of the Jewish people as a people chosen by God gave rise to innumerable break-away movements, each declaring that it alone represented Jewish holiness; the most extreme example was the Qumran sect (the Essenes), but Christianity too began as a Jewish sect that saw itself as the “true Israel”.
Textual Judaism: Priests and Scribes
Second Temple Judaism was centered not on synagogues, which began to appear only in the 3rd century BCE, and the reading and study of scripture, but on the Temple itself, and on a cycle of continual blood sacrifice (meaning the sacrifice of live animals). Torah, or ritual law, was also important, and the Temple priests were responsible for teaching it, but the concept of scripture developed only slowly. While the written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets were accepted as authoritative by the 1st century CE, beyond this core the different Jewish groups continued to accept different groups of books as authoritative.
The Priesthood and the Autonomy of Yehud
Jewish expansion under the Hasmoneans / Image by Effib, Wikimedia Commons
The priesthood underwent profound changes with the Second Temple. Under the First Temple the priesthood had been subordinate to the kings, but in the Second Temple, with the monarchy and even the state no longer available, they became independent. The priesthood under the High Priest (a position largely unknown in earlier times) became the governing authority, making the province of Yehud in a sense a theocracy, although it seems unlikely that it had any more autonomy than was typical of the empire as a whole. In the Hellenistic period the High Priest continued to play a vital role with both cultic and civic obligations, and the office reached its height under the Hasmoneans, who made themselves priest-kings. Both Herod and the Romans severely reduced the importance of the office, appointing and deposing High Priests to suit their purposes.
Asherah, Goddess of motherhood and fertility Lady of the Sea / National Maritime Museum, Israel, Wikimedia Commons
There was a sharp break between ancient Israelite religion and the Judaism of the Second Temple. Pre-Exilic Israel was polytheistic; Asherah was probably worshiped as Yahweh’s consort, within his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria, and a goddess called the Queen of Heaven, probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, was also worshiped. Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period, but were considered irreconcilable after the 9th century. The worship of Yahweh alone, the concern of a small party in the monarchic period, only gained ascendancy in the exilic and early post-exilic period and it was only then that the very existence of other gods was denied.
Messianism and the End Times
Zerubbabel displays a plan of Jerusalem to Cyrus the Great, by Jacob Van Loo, c.1640 / Wikimedia Commons
The Persian period saw the development of expectation in a future human king who would rule purified Israel as God’s representative at the end of time – that is, a messiah. The first to mention this were Haggai and Zechariah, both prophets of the early Persian period. They saw the messiah in Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David who seemed, briefly, to be about to re-establish the ancient royal line, or in Zerubbabel and the first High Priest, Joshua (Zechariah writes of two messiahs, one royal and the other priestly). These early hopes were dashed (Zerubabbel disappeared from the historical record, although the High Priests continued to be descended from Joshua), and thereafter there are merely general references to a Messiah of (meaning descended from) David.
Wisdom and the Word
Wisdom, or hokmah, implied the learning acquired by study and formal education: “those who can read and write, those who have engaged in study, and who know literature, are the wise par excellence” (Grabbe, 2010, p.48). The literature associated with this tradition includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, the so-called Sapiential books.
The Emergence of Christianity
A 3rd-century Greek papyrus of the Gospel of Luke / Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Wikimedia Commons
Christianity emerged within Judaism, the key difference being the Christian belief that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah. Judaism is known to allow for multiple messiahs, the two most relevant are Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David. The idea of two messiahs, one suffering and the second fulfilling the traditional messianic role, was normative to ancient Judaism, and in fact predated Jesus. Alan Segal has written that “one can speak of a ‘twin birth’ of two new Judaisms, both markedly different from the religious systems that preceded them. Not only were rabbinic Judaism and Christianity religious twins, but, like Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, they fought in the womb, setting the stage for life after the womb.”
The first Christians (the disciples or students of Jesus) were essentially all ethnically Jewish or Jewish proselytes. In other words, Jesus was Jewish, preached to the Jewish people and called from them his first disciples. Jewish Christians regarded “Christianity” as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah. The doctrines of the apostles of Jesus brought the Early Church into conflict with some Jewish religious authorities (Acts records dispute over the resurrection of the dead, which was rejected by the Sadducees, see also Persecution of Christians in the New Testament), and possibly later led to Christians’ expulsion from synagogues (see Council of Jamnia for other theories). While Marcionism rejected all Jewish influence on Christianity, Proto-orthodox Christianity instead retained some of the doctrines and practices of 1st-century Judaism while rejecting others, see the Historical background to the issue of Biblical law in Christianity and Early Christianity. They held the Jewish scriptures to be authoritative and sacred, employing mostly the Septuagint or Targum translations, and adding other texts as the New Testament canon developed. Christian baptism was another continuation of a Judaic practice.
Recent work by historians paints a more complex portrait of late Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Some historians have suggested that, before his death, Jesus created amongst his believers such certainty that the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead was at hand, that with few exceptions (John 20: 24-29) when they saw him shortly after his execution, they had no doubt that he had been resurrected, and that the restoration of the Kingdom and resurrecton of the dead was at hand. These specific beliefs were compatible with Second Temple Judaism. In the following years the restoration of the Kingdom, as Jews expected it, failed to occur. Some Christians began to believe instead that Christ, rather than simply being the Jewish messiah, was God made flesh, who died for the sins of humanity, marking the beginning of Christology.
While on one hand Jesus and the early Christians had all been ethnically Jewish, the Jews by and large continued to reject Jesus as the Messiah. This was a source of embarrassment for the Church and affected early Christianity’s relationship with Judaism and the surrounding pagan traditions. The anti-Christian polemicist Celsus criticised Jews for deserting their Jewish heritage while they had claimed to hold on to it. To the Emperor Julian, Christianity was simply an apostasy from Judaism. These factors hardened Christian attitudes towards Jewry.
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- see also: Jonathan Bourgel, “The Destruction of the Samaritan Temple by John Hyrcanus: A Reconsideration”, JBL 135/3 (2016), pp. 505–523 https://www.academia.edu/34049422/The_Destruction_of_the_Samaritan_Temple_by_John_Hyrcanus_A_Reconsideration
- Coogan, Brettler & Newsom 2007, p. xxiii.
- Coogan, Brettler & Newsom 2007, p. xxvi.
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