Day 6 - History

Day 6: The period from 530 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., known in Jewish tradition as the Second Temple period, was a time of significant religious and cultural development as Israel tradition encountered the cultural force of Hellenism and the political power of Rome.  From the resulting turmoil at the end of the period emerged two of the religious traditions in the Abrahamic family.

The first two centuries of this period, from the return from Babylon in the sixth century down to the end of the fourth century, were politically quiet.  The Persian Empire governed the Middle East and the inhabitants of Judah went about the business of rebuilding their temple state and assembling a collection of sacred writings. The context changed when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in a campaign starting with the Battle of Issus in 333.  After his death in 323 the vast area of his conquests was divided among his generals. The Land was first ruled by the Ptolemies, headquartered in Egypt with its new capital at Alexandria.  The Seleucids, ruling in Syria, defeated the Ptolemies in 198 B.C.E. and assumed control.  The high priests of Jerusalem, in charge of the Temple state of Judea, were involved in a process of Hellenization -- we might call it modernization or globalization -- of their territory. The process met resistance from conservative elements who favored traditional ways of worshipping Israel’s God. For a modern equivalent, think of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt.  The tense situation came to a head in 167 when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, favoring the Hellenizing high priests, tried to outlaw traditional practice.  He also tried to impose some religious artifact, perhaps a statue, in the Temple, something that the traditionalists considered an “abomination that makes desolate.” A revolt erupted, lead by Judas Maccabeus (“The Hammer”) of a priestly clan of the Hasmoneans. The revolt proved to be at least a partial success, as prophesied by the book of Daniel, written during this period.  By 164 the Temple was rededicated, an event celebrated to this day in the Jewish feast of Hannukah.  Jerusalem and its Temple remained under the political control of the Seleucids until 140, B.C.E., when the Hasmonean family gained a significant degree of political independence as the Greek kingdom declined.

The reign of the Hasmonean family lasted for about eighty years, until the Romans, led by Pompey the Great, arrived on the eastern scene in 63 B.C.E.  During the Hasmonean period different strands of Judaism emerged.  Among them were the sectarians who inhabited a settlement near the Dead Sea at the site of Qumran.  Use of the site continued intermittently until the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed the site.  Though the sectarians vanished from the stage of history, they left behind a large collection of written materials, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Another group of religious Judeans was also forming at this time, the Pharisees or Separatists.  We know them from the Jewish historian Josephus, from the New Testament, and from their heirs.  Their emphasis on a holiness permeating all of life and on obedience to the “oral Torah,” their application of the Biblical laws, would form the basis of rabbinic Judaism.

The Roman rulers displaced the last of the Hasmonean high priests in 40 B.C.E. with a local military figure, Herod, who lead a campaign against Parthians, who had invaded Judea iin support of the last Hasmonean, Antigonus.  Herod’s success, backed by Roman military might, inaugurated a reign that lasted until 4 B.C.E. and shaped the politics of the Land for the next two generations.

Among other things, Herod, who respected the religious traditions of the Judeans, at least in their home territory, reshaped the physical appearance of the Land.  Imitating his imperial patron, the first emperor Augustus, who transformed a Rome of brick to a Rome of marble, Herod developed a program of monumental architecture.  The Temple Mount in Jerusalem took its current form under his direction, and some of the massive stones from the Herodian construction form the Western or Wailing Wall, long sacred to Jews, where we will stop to pray.  The administrative center of the realm shifted to Caesarea Maritima, which was developed as a thoroughly modern city, with harbor, theatres, palaestra, and all that a cosmopolitan would expect.  Herod also refurbished old Hasmonean forts, such as the one at Masada, and built a magnificent complex around what would be his burial place at the Herodion, just outside Bethlehem.  Herod’s massive building campaign provides the framework for much of our visit to the Sacred Land.