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History of Judaism
During the Intertestamental Period
The Second Temple Period

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The title I use for this class, “Intertestamental Period,” has a Christian basis because it acknowledges the existence of two “testaments” while the Jews only recognize one scripture. In Jewish terms the period we’ll be studying could be referred to as the “Second Temple Period,” but in Jewish scholarship that term has more to do with events in Judea than elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora. Since we’ll be looking at the history of the entire region, I’ve chosen the more encompassing term for this class.

Most of us have a vague idea of the history of Judea during the last half of the first millennium BCE that goes along these lines: after the exile, the Persians controlled Palestine until the Greeks under Alexander conquered Asia Minor; then the Syrians took over northwestern Asia Minor. Judea was liberated from the Syrians by the Hasmoneans who ruled until the advent of Rome. And Judaism developed from a cult to a religion as the power of the priests gradually gave way to the power of the people as Judaism developed under the Pharisees, whose leaders became the rabbis. The Pharisees grew in power at the expense of the other sects and the priesthood, which was rapidly marginalized. End of story? Correct? Not quite, and not really correct, especially the part about the Pharisees. The history is in the details, and it’s the details that make the history so much more interesting.

Figure 1. Timeline (dates BCE)
(click figures to enlarge; to really enlarge some images, right-click, select "View Image," and then, if you see a magnifying-glass cursor on the resulting image, left-click it )

It was toward the end of the fifth century BCE, during the rise of Greek philosophy and the age of Socrates, that the Intertestamental period began. According to the Book of Ezra (Ezr. 6:15), the Temple had been completed and dedicated in 516 BCE. Nehemiah had returned to Jerusalem for the final time somewhere between 430 and 420 and by 418, tradition says that the final prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had been uttered (Figure 1). Although the history of the Jews of the period between the end of the fifth century and the date of the Hasmonean uprising is the least documented of any period of Jewish history, these centuries have been shown to be an important transition period in the history of Judaism. During the fourth and third centuries, the Jewish diaspora grew significantly; Jewish religious writings began to become canonized; this period witnessed the writing of significant non-biblical works; prophecy gradually became transformed into apocalyptic visions of the future; and a class of lay people learned in the sacred traditions, the scribes, arose.

In addition to the composition of the Deuteronomistic History and much of the Priestly writings during the exile, the redaction of the books of the Torah and the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, Esther, and Daniel were written during the Persian and Hellenistic periods and the books of Song of Songs and Job were likely put into their current form just before or during this time. Some memories of this period are preserved in the writings of Philo and Josephus and other events are suggested in several apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings (notably Sirach, Jubilees, and 1 Esdras), in letters found at Yeb (Elephantine), Egypt, the location of a Jewish military colony, and, of course, in the books of Maccabees. Additional historical material has been found in the writings of Greek and Roman historians and in archaeological discoveries from the region. We shall cover the period shown in the timeline (Figure 1), from the exile to the beginning of Herod’s rule. This is a challenging period to fully understand and even to summarize, but we shall attempt to do both. But before we can explore the poorly understood history of this period, we first need to go back several centuries prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar and review the fall of the northern kingdom.

Background to Hellenism

Figure 2. Divided kingdom

Figure 3. Dispersions in 722 BCE

Until 722 BCE, two monarchies—Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms—controlled the area of ancient Canaan (Figure 2). In that year, Assyria under Shalmaneser V invaded the northern kingdom and the deportation of the population of the Kingdom of Israel was completed during the following year under Sargon II. (Figure 3) But most casual students of history don’t realize that only a small portion of the population of the northern kingdom was actually deported. Those primarily affected were the people of the upper classes, mainly the residents of the cities: Samaria, the capital, plus Shechem, Beth-Shean, Megiddo, Shiloh, Dan, Ramoth, Hazor, and Bethel; these were some of the major towns affected. Essentially only the largest towns were affected because that’s where the higher classes lived.

In reality the so-called “Ten Lost Tribes” did not number ten and were never lost; Simeon and Benjamin had earlier been absorbed into Judah while the territories of Reuben and Gad were in Ammon where there were few large towns. The people in the countryside, the farmers and village-dwellers, were mostly undisturbed. The evidence for countryside communities remaining intact is the Assyrian records of the tributes imposed on the agricultural lands and villages by Sargon immediately following his deportations.

Many of Samaria’s intelligentsia avoided deportation because they were able to flee to Judah. We know this because we can detect the arrival of refugees in Judah from the appearance of certain cultural changes that occurred in Jerusalem at that time. Also of interest, in Ezra’s list of the first returnees to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, there are recorded among the returnees many whose names correspond to those of families from the eighth century who lived in localities within the northern kingdom. A late eighth-century Aramaic ostracon discovered at Nimrud on the Tigris lists a number of common Samarian personal names, such as Elisha, Haggai, Hananel, and Menahem. While some of those returnees could have been descendants of those who were exiled to Mesopotamia in the Assyrian deportation, there’s another possibility too, as I will mention below.

Another hint of an important ancient Jewish population of early exiles who later returned to Judea is related to a possible source of the story of Noah, especially the site of the ark’s landing. Babylonian mythology placed that location in the ancient kingdom of Urartu in eastern Turkey and western Iran, within the Ararat mountain range in the Lake Van vicinity. In the Babylonian flood myth from the Gilgamesh Epic, the ark rested on Mt. Nisir in modern Iraqi Kurdistan, and it is precisely to this region that many of the exiles of the northern kingdom were sent by Sargon II. There they may have learned details of the flood story and shared it with later exiles who later returned to Judea with that knowledge.

About the Assyrian deportation, according to Abraham Malamat, “ is evident that as a rule [the exiles] did not possess the status of slaves or of an oppressed population. The exiles were first settled in Mesopotamia as land tenants of the king ... while the craftsmen among them were employed in state enterprises. Eventually, some of the exiles achieved economic and social status and even occupied high-ranking positions in the Assyrian administration. They were given the right to agricultural holdings and to observe the customs of their forefathers, and enjoyed a certain measure of internal autonomy.” He concludes, “The return to Zion apparently included remnants of the ten tribes, as alluded to in the Bible...” and cites references from the books of Zechariah and Ezekiel in support of this claim.

Following the conquest of Israel, colonists from other parts of Assyria were sent to Samaria; these people came from distant regions and mostly consisted of captured populations from the Assyrians’ military campaigns in the east. Resettlement of populations was a technique the Assyrians used to destroy any sense of natural cohesion in conquered territories and make the prospect of a revolt much more unlikely. To further cement their hold over Samaria, the Assyrians also established military garrisons throughout the country since several strategic roads traversed the region. The new settlers were polytheists and, upon their arrival, they quickly began to adopt and worship the local deities of Samaria, where the most important local gods were the Canaanite god Ba’al and the Hebrew God Yahweh.

Thus, by the time that Babylonia invaded the southern kingdom in 597, a strong Yahweh-worship cult had grown among the newcomers in Samaria, but, in true syncretic fashion, the population had incorporated elements of worship of the Canaanite gods as well. Since Shiloh had been the site of the first Israelite shrine to Yahweh (as mentioned in Joshua and 1 Samuel), importance of this town to the northern Yahwist cult had always been strong and the cultic ties to Shiloh were very strong. Also, Jeroboam I had golden bulls set up at shrines to Yahweh in Bethel and Dan and these towns continued to have some cultic significance. But Jerusalem’s temple was important to the northern Yahwists, too. After it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586, and during the entire period of the exile, people from the region, especially residents of Shiloh and Samaria (whom I will call Samarians and reserve the term “Samaritan” for the religious sect), came to the site of the destroyed temple to worship.

Also, during the period of the exile, Jerusalem and environs were not depopulated. Had the Babylonians done this, the region, very desirable land, would have been become absorbed by the Samarians, Edomites, and Ammonites from the neighboring countries. Recent textual and archeological scholarship has shown that a Jewish presence in Jerusalem existed during the entire exilic period; Jews did remain in the city, even members of the wealthy classes. In fact, it’s been persuasively demonstrated that biblical texts may contain liturgical passages of mourning said by the remaining Jerusalem residents over the temple’s ruins. Hugh Williamson has shown that if Nehemiah 9:5–37 is read without including several clearly interpolated passages, the resulting text is a prayer for the restoration of the land from conquering kings. Otherwise, looking at it in context, if this prayer had belonged to the period of Nehemiah, it would be completely incompatible with the favorable conditions of the returnees, who, in fact, were actually living in their restored land. A second example is noticed in Isaiah 63–64, where a prayer very similar to that in Nehemiah may be found. Psalm 106 also contains similar wording. These texts preserve the memory of an observant Jewish population in Jerusalem during the exile and taken together with archeological discoveries from exilic-period Jerusalem, we can see that the exile didn’t come close to emptying Jerusalem of its Jews.

Exilic and Post-Exilic Texts

During the Jews’ exile in Babylon the prophet Ezekiel was active and his prophecies and visions are familiar to many of us. But less apparent to most casual Bible readers was the appearance of the extremely important, brilliant, but anonymous author whose writings became combined with the much earlier (eighth century) prophecies of Isaiah as chapters 40–55 of that biblical book. The writings of this prophet, known as the second (deutero-) Isaiah, who lived through the period of the transition from Babylonian to Persian rule, were arguably the most radical and far-reaching of any of his predecessors’. He wrote, in the first absolutely clear statement of monotheism by a prophet, that God was both the ruler of the world and a unitary deity; no other gods existed other than Israel’s God. “That they may know from the rising of the sun and from the west that there is none beside me; I am the Lord and there is none else” (Isa. 45:6). The phrase “rising of the sun and from the west” is known as a “merism,” a rhetorical term that describes the totality of the subject, in this case, existence, and is a class of synecdoche.

Deutero-Isaiah affirmed that the Jews were the chosen people of God and provided a powerful vision of the future glory of a restored Zion. He claimed that the Persian king Cyrus had been sent by God as His messiah—God’s anointed messenger—to restore the Jews to their homeland and provided a description of a new exodus where Yahweh would lead His people in a return to Zion. “Thus said the Lord to his anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken to subdue nations before him ...” (Isa. 45:1). The message of deutero-Isaiah helped to internalize the messages of the other prophets among the deportees and gave them a clear vision to strive for in the restoration of Jerusalem.

A second vitally important effect of the exile was the Jews’ exposure to a vibrant, cosmopolitan world. Babylon was not only at the crossroads of the East, it was also a mixing pot of the world’s western cultures. There the Jews came into close contact with Parthians, Medes, Bactrians, and Indians from the east, but also Lydians, Thracians, Greeks, and Ionians from the west. There the Jews came into contact with Zoroastrianism, a faith that maintained that the deity is universal and transcendent. Zoroastrianism, which was the most widely observed religion in Mesopotamia, affirmed the beliefs in free will and in living through the performance of good deeds, which became essential components of Judaism. Its influence on the development of Jewish theology is underestimated by many casual students of the history of religions.

Most scholars believe that this religion exerted a strong influence on how Judaism developed. Some aspects of the religion, such as a dualistic view of the deity, were strongly rejected. We see hints of this rejection in late biblical writings; for example, deutero-Isaiah wrote, “I form the light and make darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am the Lord who does all of these things” (Isa. 45:7), a statement obviously made in contravention of Zoroastrian dualism. Some dualistic elements were maintained, even the good-evil dichotomy; we will see later how the idea of goodness and evilness in creation became a major component of a significant early Jewish theology. While the question of whether the priority of certain ideas or practices should be attributed to Judaism or Zoroastrianism is the subject of ongoing debate, Zoroastrianism, as best as scholars can tell, developed the ideas about demonology, eschatology, the doctrine of reward and punishment, and the laws of purity including ritual immersion which became embedded in the Judaism that developed following the exile.

Another important text written at the end of the sixth century or during the early fifth century was an account of the history of the kings of Judah and Israel that was put into writing by an author who had strong biases toward both the Davidic dynasty and the Zadokite priesthood. This history became included in the Tanakh as the two books of Chronicles, among the last books in Ketuvim, Writings, the Tanakh’s third division. The historiography of Chronicles was very strongly influenced by Greek histories written by authors like Herodotus and Hecataeus (of Miletus); in the early Greek histories the relating of past events and practices was “corrected” to be in conformity with the authors’ own historical standards. Thus, in reading Chronicles one frequently finds discrepancies in the same events as described in the books of Samuel and Kings; one notable example is in 1 Kings 9:12, where Solomon was said to have given several cities to Hiram of Tyre. This strained the credulity of the Chronicler—Solomon certainly never could have done such a thing—so he made his version of history read so that Hiram gave the cities to Solomon (2 Chr. 8:2).

Figure 4. Judea Under Persian Rule

When the Jews began to return to Jerusalem in 538, as described in Ezra 1–6, the Samarians actually claimed a share in the rebuilding of the temple, which began in 537, but since the returning Jews saw that the Samarians’ worship practices were different from their own (this is obvious, but perhaps they were reminded of the unfamiliar worship practices that they had seen in Babylon), they refused the offer and this eventually culminated in a schism—once again, between north and south (Figure 4). The returnees were also aware of the existence of Samaria’s shrines to Yahweh and probably felt threatened by any challenge to the importance of the new temple to be built. The animosity between the returnees and the Samarians grew; soon the Samarians sent a letter to the Persian capital accusing the Jerusalemites of planning to revolt as soon as their temple was built. The Persians responded by forcing the work on the temple to be stopped; nothing further was done for some fifteen years and then the new Persian emperor, Darius I, was persuaded to let the work proceed.

By the time Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, the Samarians under their Persian-appointed governor Sanballat, a member of the Ephriamites, having lost their battle to prevent the temple from being rebuilt, now turned their attention to attempts to prevent Jerusalem’s walls from being repaired. When Nehemiah began to fortify the city his work crews were attacked. The Samarians strongly opposed repairing the walls of Jerusalem because they feared, rightly as it turned out, that having a strong Jerusalem resurrected as the capital of Judea would compete against Samaria’s own fortress city. Furthermore, having the temple situated inside a walled city controlled by the powerful priesthood that was being developed under Ezra and Nehemiah, meant that Samaria would forever be shut out of any possible compromise over their participating in the temple priesthood. Even though the political and economic power of the region was largely held by Samaria, Jerusalem had the support of the Persian government; a political struggle had now turned into a religious schism that was never healed.

The Book of Nehemiah attempts to explain that the break between the Jews and Samarians was completely political, not religious, by ascribing it to the marriage between a scion of the high priest’s family and a Samarian noblewoman, possibly a daughter of Sanballat himself (Neh. 13:28), an act bordering on treason. But the expulsion of Sanballat’s new son-in-law from the Jerusalemite community had institutionalized the rivalry between Jerusalem and Samaria. According to Josephus but widely considered to be a legend, Sanballat promised that his son-in-law would assume the high priesthood of his own temple to Yahweh, to be constructed on the summit of Mount Gerezim, overlooking Shechem. This location was chosen based on Deuteronomy 11:29, the site where Moses commanded the people to “set the blessings,” and since Deuteronomy requires a single sanctuary but does not specify its location, the later Samaritans, a third-century offshoot of Judaism, felt justified in locating it at Mount Gerezim in place of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. While Samaritan histories assert that its actual construction began soon after Alexander’s conquests and with Alexander’s permission, archeological dating of the temple remains suggest that its construction began some time around 200 BCE.

Another challenge to Nehemiah’s restoration of Jerusalem and the temple organization was from the wealthy and powerful Tobiad family of Ammon, a close ally of the Samarians. This clan, consisting of Ammonites who identified as being of Israelite origin and who had lived apart from Judah in the territory east of the Jordan River across from Jericho, had escaped being exiled to Babylonia. During the exilic period they had built up their wealth and held wide influence in the region, moving into the political vacuum caused by Jerusalem’s fall. By Nehemiah’s time, Tobias, the clan’s leader, had been appointed as a local governor by the Persians. He tried to seize control of temple operations during Nehemiah’s absence from Jerusalem and was partially successful in undoing some of Nehemiah’s political and social reforms. When Nehemiah returned the final time he had to reassert political control to remove the Tobiad influence but the struggle appears to have continued for a decade or longer. Eventually the Zadokite priesthood that had been installed by Nehemiah, as described in Chronicles, prevailed but the Tobiads remained as powerful players in the politics of Judea well into the Hellenistic period.

And this brings us to the end of the period of Jewish history as related in the books of the Tanakh and to the beginning of the period that historians of Palestine refer to as the “Intertestamental Period.”

Theological and Political Conditions: Exile and Return

Figure 5. Egypt (sixth century)

Figure 6. Hebrew Temple at Elephantine

With virtually no exceptions, whenever a culture was uprooted from its homeland and its people dispersed, that culture ceased to exist after a generation or two. When the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon, however, their culture maintained enough coherence that when the descendants of the deportees returned, some four generations later, they were able to re-establish their culture so that it closely resembled that of their ancestors. How this could occur is a product of many different factors, both internal and external to the Judahite society.

Jewish Coherence Dependent on Internal Factors

Loss of cultic center. An internal factor in the ability of the exiles to maintain their ancient practices was that certain elements could be observed away from the cultic center. For example, observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a holiday that seemingly hadn’t yet been linked to Passover, was already known in communities outside Judah. A striking example of this comes from the Elephantine Papyri (ca. 400 BCE), which consists of documents and letters found on the island of Yeb, called Elephantine in Greek, located north of the first cataract of the Nile opposite Aswan (Figure 5). This was the site of colony of Jewish mercenaries established around 650 during Manasseh’s reign to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. (Some historians claim the colony was founded by refugees fleeing from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, but there is little justification for such a claim.) Judah had been paying tribute to Egypt for some years during the seventh century and part of the payment must have been in troop levies.

The Elephantine papyrus texts illuminate the affairs of this colony in Upper Egypt, especially for the period 425–400, and some of the questions raised in these texts concern the rules of celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Figure 6). Furthermore, the Jews at Elephantine, a syncretic group that worshiped both Yahweh and the Egyptian ram-god Khnub, maintained their own temple and performed sacrifices, modeling the rites after the Jerusalem temple. It doesn’t appear that the exiles in Babylon performed sacrifices, but they certainly did maintain other observances, such as marking the new moon, Shabbat, the Passover holidays, and other occasions noted by Ezekiel.

In mentioning Ezekiel, we also need to realize that there may have been a Jewish temple in Babylon too. Ezra mentions, at Ezra 8:17, that the new Jerusalem temple didn’t have sufficient Levites to officiate and he calls for them to be sent from “b’khasif’ya ha-maqom”; “in the Casiphia place.” Maqom is a term reserved in the Bible to designate a holy place or shrine. Casiphia (Ctesiphon) is located near Baghdad, and thus it appears that the Levites were officiating at some kind of shrine there throughout the Exile. Furthermore, the Book of Ezekiel describes temple rites that differ significantly in places from those described in the Torah. Most scholars wonder about Ezekiel’s cultic descriptions, which match neither first nor second Temple rites, but this problem disappears if we assume that Ezekiel was describing the temple rites at Casiphia. This is an intriguing thought that no one seems to have advanced, to my knowledge.

Additional hints of a Babylonian temple appear in Zechariah 3:4 where the kohen gadol Joshua was described as officiating while wearing filthy garments. Commentators have sought reasons for this strange way of describing his loss of ritual purity; condemnation of the priests for losing their ritual purity while officiating is always harsh and unforgiving while in Zechariah it’s gentle and chiding. I believe the reason can be accounted for if he was being criticized for officiating at a temple in Babylon, which would have been a transgression against Deuteronomic law since it took place away from the prescribed one in Jerusalem.

Attachment to prophetic and priestly traditions. Another internal element was the strong attachment to the Levitical priests and to the prophetic tradition as strongly espoused by Ezekiel and deutero-Isaiah. Other pseudepigraphical manuscripts exist that imply that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, was in exile in Babylon even though Jeremiah wound up in Egypt. These personalities were certainly instrumental in keeping the memory of Jerusalem and temple worship alive among the exiles.

Acceptance of proselytes. A third element was the openness of Judaism to accepting proselytes. No other cultural group anywhere in the entire region was as accepting of “the stranger in your midst” (cf. Lev. 19:33–34 among others), instructing the stranger that he was expected to participate in the rites, ceremonies, and culture of his adopted community. Other cultures, particularly those of the Greek states and Mesopotamia, limited participation to those born into the culture and pointedly excluded all others.

Providing translations of theological texts. Related to the acceptance of proselytes is the degree to which Jewish theological texts were translated into local languages, thus making the learning of the laws completely accessible to anyone desiring to learn about the religion. While the Jews only made a Greek translation of the Torah (the primary language of Egypt of the late first millennium BCE), other texts were translated freely into other languages. Later in this period, the Tanakh or parts of it were translated into Aramaic and its Syriac dialect by proselytes. Such translation activity was in contrast to other religions of the period, where knowledge of the religious rites, procedures, and practices was kept limited to the priests. It was by translating its works into the vernacular that the Jews preserved their vitality as a people.

Jews as a chosen people. And a final internal element seems to be the Jews’ idea that God had set them apart from the other nations (expressed in Lev. 20:24), and even though they were no longer in the land where, according to cultural belief, their God was held to be supreme, they steadfastly kept the idea that they would be redeemed. So even though Persian records show that the exiles engaged in active commercial activities with Persians, Greeks, Asiatics, and Indians, it appears that they didn’t much intermarry and held closely to their faith.

Jewish Coherence Dependent on External Factors

No less important to Judaism’s survival were a number of elements that were not under the control of the people but were imposed by external forces.

Community was not completely dispersed. One major factor was that the Jewish community remained mostly intact during the exile and was assigned to live “in the most convenient districts of Babylonia,” according to Berossos, a third-century BCE Babylonian priest-historian whose original writings were lost. This area was Nippur, “by the river Chebar” (Eze. 1:1), a city that was one of the most important commercial districts of the empire and situated in the vicinity of Babylon, the capital. There are hints that the Assyrians settled some groups of northern-kingdom exiles in this vicinity, allowing the mingling of groups having a common culture, which could account for the astonishing economic successes the Judahite exiles achieved during the first generation of their exile. Jeremiah had actually sent his advice to the exiles in Babylon concerning their adapting to a life in exile. In Chapter 29, he told them, “Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.” The Jewish people have always taken that advice to heart and prospered in many countries of their diaspora. The fact that only a small number of the exiles’ descendants chose to return to Jerusalem attests to their favorable living conditions; the Babylonian diaspora set the model for Jews living outside Jerusalem for more than 1500 years.

How many actually returned? The most common estimates maintain that 42,000 returnees came under Zerubbabel and 5,000 returned under Ezra out of a total diaspora population that must have numbered hundreds of thousands by that time. However, Charles Carter, in a 1999 study, estimated that the population ranged from a low of 11,000 in the decade around 500 BCE to a high of 17,000 around 400 BCE, numbers, he claims, that are more in keeping with the portrait of the period given by the texts in Nehemiah and Haggai.

Protection by the empire. A second external element was the fact that the tiny Jewish province of Judea existed within and under the protection of the pagan empires under which it was governed. The Persian Empire, and later, the Macedonian Empire, by maintaining their military garrisons within Judea, served to shield the little country from being overrun by the Moabites, Edomites, and Arabic nomads, who certainly would have eliminated the Jews from this highly vulnerable little pocket of desirable real estate in an otherwise arid region.

Exile of short duration. Of course, the fact that the period of the exile was relatively short had some effect on the Jews’ ability to keep their faith intact, although it’s unclear exactly how important this factor was since most Jews didn’t return to Judea when they had the opportunity to do so. The first group of Jews was deported to Babylon in 597–596 and the first returnees arrived back in Jerusalem in 538. This exile, lasting about three to four generations, was not so long that the collective memory of life in Jerusalem would have been completely extinguished. Allowing the exiled Jews to return was a humanitarian policy of the Persian conqueror Cyrus, who unlike other rulers of the period, had a very liberal view of empire as a colonial power. In contrast, when the Assyrians deported the population of the northern kingdom in 722–721, they established military colonies throughout Samaria because of its strategic location astride the main roads between Egypt and Babylonia. This effectively precluded the organized return of any of those exiled peoples, and of course there was no Assyrian government policy to facilitate the return of any exiled groups as there was in the case of Persia.

Documentation of the laws. Then there is the extremely significant directive from Cyrus I that charged Ezra, when he returned to Jerusalem as a Persian commissioner, to establish Persian law in the province. This directive mandated that “the Law of your God” would stand at the same legal level as the law of the empire; offenders of Moses’ laws would suffer punishments such as imprisonment, banishment, death, and deprivation of their material property as surely as offenders of the empire’s laws. This charge required that Ezra undertake the codification of Moses’ laws into a written document, and thus the Torah became the basis for Judea’s secular as well as religious law. Whether Ezra actually assembled the Pentateuch into its final form is unknown, but Ezra’s laws and what we know of the ancient document show close similarity.

Ending of the role of the prophet. Another external factor that is linked to the demise of the Judahite monarchy is the ending of the role of the prophet. With the last prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (and the fifth-century Isaiah school) in about 418, no prophet was formally recognized as such, even though there are apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works that have prophetic sections, like Baruch and the Apocalypse of Enoch. Nor was Daniel viewed as a prophet when that work was written. I consider this an “external” factor because accepting an individual as a prophet is not a cultic decision; prophets were universally regarded as such by the entire population. Furthermore, the prophets typically existed in counterpoint to the monarchies—a kind of check-and-balance relationship. In post-exilic Judea, there was no divinely ordained king for a prophet to challenge. And prophesying solely to the people, as did the last five prophets (Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and the late Isaiah writers), was no longer urgent. The people had returned to their land, the temple had been rebuilt, and no “evil” that the people could do would affect a remote empire. The government was in the hands of outside powers. Also, culturally, the prophetic muse had begun to yield to a more mystical viewpoint of the future: the apocalyptic vision.

Development of venues for public worship. A factor which is neither exclusively internal nor external is the development of local gathering places for public worship. While these probably existed in pre-exilic Judah, by necessity they grew strongly in Babylonia and we now know this institution by its Greek name: synagogue. In these houses of worship, priests did not preside, but other, knowledgeable individuals might lead the prayers. These individuals usually were the most literate in the community and could also have served as scribes. Scribes would also serve as a resource for judges, priests, and rulers and they served in respected positions in society. As we will see later when we discuss the scribes in detail, they gradually supplanted the priests in the interpretation of the religious laws. Thus the creation of places of public worship and people to help lead that worship began the first movement of Judaism away from a cultic religion.

Events in Judea Following the Return

Figure 7. Persian Empire

Figure 8. "Across the River"

Figure 9. Elephantine Papyrus requesting authorization for temple reconstruction.

Figure 10. Local Texts Theory

The tiny province of Judea was only an insignificant fraction of the vast Persian empire (Figure 7), which stretched from Cyrene (Libya) and Thrace to India. During the period 538–332 BCE, Judea (Yehud to the Persians) was a province (part of a satrapy) of the Persian Empire which was ruled by governors who, like Nehemiah, were appointed by the Persian emperor. Judea was part of a very large satrapy called “Across the River,” i.e., west of the Euphrates (Figure 8), outlined in green in the center of this map. The years after the end of the Book of Nehemiah in about 420 BCE to Alexander’s arrival in Asia Minor in 336 are marked by virtually no contemporaneous historical records concerning Judea. From the years 432 to 332, the last century of Persian rule, Judea apparently existed in relative peace until the end of this period. There are some records that show that Persia was involved in the activities of the Jews in its widely diverse empire; a letter dated to the period 423–404 indicates that Darius II authorized—actually commanded—celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the Elephantine Temple.

I mentioned earlier that the Jews of Elephantine were active in emulating the temple rites of Jerusalem in their own temple; in fact, in 411 a local incident led to the extensive damage of their temple and in 410 the Jews of Elephantine wrote a letter regarding plans for its reconstruction to Johanan, high priest at Jerusalem (cf. Neh. 12:22) and the grandson of Eliashib (cf. Neh. 3:1, 20) (Figure 9). This Eliashib was known to be a contemporary of Nehemiah. Presumably not receiving a reply, since the priests at Jerusalem were firmly opposed to the existence of a competing temple anywhere else in the world, the Elephantine Jews sent a long appeal in 407 on the same subject to Bagoas, then governor of Judea, in which they mentioned a similar letter to “Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria.” Again we have a scriptural confirmation if we make the reasonable assumption that this is the same Sanballat who was the inveterate enemy of Nehemiah (cf. Neh. 2:19; 4:1 [MT 3:33]). But by the end of the fifth century Egypt rebelled against Persia, and although the Jewish military settlement remained and was ultimately taken over by the Macedonians, their temple was never rebuilt.

As we mentioned earlier, one of the texts that most scholars believe was completed soon after the Jews’ return to Jerusalem was the Pentateuch or Torah. It is believed that the text of the Pentateuch from the mid-sixth century BCE forms the basis for its three textual traditions, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the Masoretic Text. Figure 10 shows the theorized development of the book of Exodus; you can see that the version of the Torah that we use is based on the textual family that remained in Babylon rather than the version that was carried back to Jerusalem with the returnees. We know this by comparing the Qumran texts with the Masoretic version and we also find hints of the primacy that the rabbis gave the Babylonian version of the Torah’s text in the Talmud. This provides us with some insights of how the Torah developed during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. This kind of textual development not only affected the Torah; separate textual families can also be detected in the historical books, particularly that of Samuel, while for books like Isaiah, only a single textual strain is known.

The Qumran texts have answered many questions about the evolution of our biblical texts while they pose additional ones. About 60 percent of the Qumran texts follow the Masoretic text, while 5 percent follow the Septuagint. The readings found in the Samaritan Pentateuch are supported by another 5 percent, and the remaining 30 percent of the texts contains readings that are unique or otherwise non-aligned. This shows that during the Persian period and well into the Hellenistic period the text of the Bible was still in flux. We won’t discuss the biblical textual differences any further but we will discuss the development of the late canonical texts as well as some important non-canonical texts later in this presentation.

I mentioned that Judea was small (see Figure 4). The total extent of Judea was about thirty-five miles north-to-south and between twenty to thirty-five miles east-to-west. Of this period in Judea, no records exist, except that there is a Persian record of—what else?—a Jewish rebellion! Well, not exactly solely a Jewish rebellion; Sidon and other cities in Phoenicia rebelled against Persia and apparently leaders of Judea sympathized with or supported the revolt.

Figure 11. Dispersions from Judea, 722–343 BCE

Figure 12.Judea before Alexander

Figure 13. Alexander's Conquests.

Figure 14. Alexander's Cities

To understand this rebellion, we need to return to the end of the fifth century. That’s when Egypt had revolted against Persia under Artaxerxes II. Some fifty years later, in 351 his son and successor Artaxerxes III embarked on a campaign to recover Egypt. (See the Chronologies of the Intertestamental Rulers.) He was defeated and with this failure, Cyprus and Sidon declared their independence and apparently Judea was somehow involved too. Artaxerxes then gathered an immense army and in 343 took Cyprus and captured Sidon, burning it to the ground. Then he continued on with a second invasion of Egypt and this time he was completely victorious. Persian records reveal that during and after this campaign, Artaxerxes deported a significant number of people, Jews included, from Egypt, Phoenicia, and Judea to the “Siberian gulag” of the time, Hyrcania, on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, and to other remote towns in Persia (Figure 11).

The map in Figure 12 clearly shows just how tiny an area Judea occupied at the end of the period of Persian rule. But toward the midpoint of the fourth century, the political landscape in Judea had begun to change. While Nehemiah was alive, and for many decades after that, Jewish public affairs were under the control of secular leaders, the functionaries appointed by Persia. Yet some hundred years later, Hecataeus (of Abdera) informed his readers that the priests were in charge of administering the country. This is certainly the impression we get from Persian records from this period.

Macedonian Empire

Then in 332, Alexander and his Macedonian army arrived in Phoenicia and Palestine and the people in most of the cities of the region opened their gates to him (Figure 13). Samaria did not, and for their resistance many Samarians were deported to Egypt and Macedonian settlers were brought in. Alexander pursued his military campaign into Egypt and then into the east until he died of illness in Babylon in 323; thus he did not have much of a chance to implement his personal ideas of governance in an empire now mostly at peace. But he did introduce an unprecedented policy that proved to have immense consequences for the history of the region. Until Alexander, the conqueror would typically exile the upper classes and intelligentsia of the conquered region in order to eliminate one major potential source of any future uprising, thus securing a stable rule. However, throughout his conquests, Alexander instead founded cities in which he settled principally Greek or Macedonian colonists drawn from his veterans and from immigrants attracted by grants of property.

The cities that Alexander founded were entirely Greek. They had Greek charters, Greek laws, and were occupied by Greek citizens. City governance and customs were modeled after Greek cities like Athens and, like the Greek city-states, the cities were fully autonomous within the region (but still subject to the empire). The agricultural areas surrounding the cities were apportioned among the residents who had received grants of land and the members of the indigenous population, many of whom formerly owned the land, were displaced or reduced to tenant farming; these peasants were subject to the city’s citizens and enjoyed few rights. All along the eastern Mediterranean coast, and inland as well, Greek cities began to spring up (Figure 14). Bucolonpolis, Ptolemais, Apollonia, Philoteria—especially Alexandria—and others all came into being following Alexander’s conquests. The influx of the Greeks into the area—Athenians, Spartans, Macedonians, Lydians, and Ionians—had an enormous effect on the culture of the Jews.

During this period the entire region—all of the Levant and Egypt—had developed essentially the same culture, a Hellene-Asiatic-Egyptian mixture of elements that were common throughout the entire former Persian Empire. Pottery, jewelry, artwork, and weapons, all of similar basic designs, have been found as a result of archaeological exploration throughout the region. This similarity was a result of widespread commerce as well as the relocation of populations, usually not through enforced resettlement but through voluntary colonization and establishing Greek cities as mentioned above. The cultural orientation of the population was becoming international in scope. So by the fifth century, the possession of Greek products by the inhabitants of Phoenicia and coastal Syria had become a matter of great prestige and by the fourth century, this flood of Greek products began reaching the Judean interior.

Yet another indication of the penetration of hellenistic practices into inland Judea and Samaria is the coinage of these provinces. In Asia Minor, coinage that was based on stamped pieces of pre-weighed silver was first developed in Lydia in western Anatolia in the seventh century. However, the practice of producing coins in this manner didn’t reach Judea until the fifth century and when it did arrive, its introduction seems to have been influenced by local adoption of Greek customs as evidenced by the Greek inscriptions that these Judean coins bear. Since most of these coins consisted of very small denominations, they were produced for local use and not for international trade; thus their appearance reflects local cultural preferences and not those of any outside trading partners.

Another cultural matter concerns governance and its connection to traditional Jewish mythology. You probably have heard of the term, “The Great Assembly” or Anshei Knesset HaGadolah, “Men of the Great Assembly.” This institution, also known as the “Great Synagogue,” according to Jewish tradition was an assembly of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets that existed from the time of the last prophets into the Hellenistic period. They are mentioned in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1.1) as those who transmitted the oral law from the prophets to the earliest Jewish scholars identified by name. Where did their number, 120, come from? We don’t know. Nehemiah (Neh. 10:2–29) lists 85 names, people identified as elders, Levites, and priests, who signed a “covenant” to keep God’s law. To this number traditionalists have added a count of prophets who supposedly were preaching in Judea during this time to make a total of 120. However, there is no evidence, in contemporaneous Jewish texts or any other source, that even hints at the existence of such a body.

Figure 15. Kingdoms of the Diadochi, 301 BCE

Figure 16. Alexander's Successors

If historians have little information about Judea during the Persian period, there is even less available from the following period, 333–200 BCE, when Judea fell under the rule of the Ptolemies (Figure 15). However, we do have extensive information about the circumstances of Alexander’s succession (see the Chronologies of the Intertestamental Rulers). After Alexander died, his generals divided his conquests among themselves to rule. Naturally this division wasn’t accomplished peacefully and the rule of Greece and Macedonia was heavily contested in a series of wars lasting some forty years. The diadochi (Alexander’s successors, Figure 16) were Antigonus, Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy. Antigonus, Alexander’s most talented general, through political intrigue and military force, by 306 won the rule of Macedonia and Greece, but was subsequently killed in 301 in a battle to retain his throne. Cassander, son of Antipater who was Alexander’s regent in Macedonia, then became king of Macedonia and Greece (founding the Antipatrid dynasty), while Lysimachus took the rule of Thrace, a country located in the region of modern eastern Greece and southern Bulgaria, plus western Turkey.

Alexander’s final two diadochi were Seleucus Nicator and Ptolemy Soter; both were Macedonians and served as commanders in Alexander’s armies. When Alexander died, the diadochi had initially agreed that Syria and Mesopotamia would be governed by Seleucus and Egypt by Ptolemy. Almost immediately, however, the wars for control of Macedonia broke out, and Seleucus and Ptolemy both became heavily involved in them, variously supporting or opposing Antigonus and each another, at times in cooperation with or working against the other diadochi. After Cassander finally became ruler of Macedonia and Greece, Seleucus retired to Syria, while Ptolemy solidified his rule in Egypt, the province that he had originally been allotted. It is the dynasties established by these two diadochi that controlled Judea until the Hasmonean revolt.

The fragmentary knowledge of the history of Judea that we have of the period from 323 to 282, a period when Palestine was the location of many battles for Alexander’s succession, does not tell us whether or to what extent Jerusalem and Judea were affected. Being up in the hills and distant from the coastal highway, it’s assumed that the province was spared much of the violence. Although Ptolemy controlled Egypt beginning in 323, he didn’t proclaim himself as king (taking the title pharaoh) until 305; we don’t even know when he asserted his rule over Judea since the territory was disputed with Seleucus. The few existing records from Judea of this period only give us the names of several high priests and some very limited information about taxation, economics, and commerce. But such information is of interest only to specialists. What I find fascinating is how the Greek philosophers and historians of the late Persian period and the period following Alexander’s conquests of southwest Asia reacted to the opening of the Orient and Judea to hellenistic culture.

Hellenist Philosophy

While the Greeks were quite familiar with Egypt and held Egyptian wisdom in great esteem, they were less familiar with the Orient, and strangely, with Judea—despite their being familiar with nearby Phoenicia and the rest of the Mediterranean coastline. We know of only one Greek author prior to Alexander who mentions the Jews and does this only by inference. Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century, mentions the circumcision practiced by the “Phoenicians and Syrians of Palestine,” a custom actually not practiced by Syrians and many Phoenicians but by Jews. After the Greeks occupied Asia Minor, Greek writers began to pay more attention to the Jews but rather than learning about them by visiting Asia Minor, they got their information from immigrants or Jewish soldiers in the returning Macedonian army. But why would the Greek writers want to learn about the Jews? If they had been so impressed with Egyptian wisdom, why wouldn’t they have admired Jewish wisdom as well?

Actually, they did admire the Jews but one has to search Greek writings to see how this admiration was manifested. First, Elias Bickerman has suggested that since Aramaic was the common language of the entire Near East from Ethiopia to India, that language became the vehicle that facilitated the exchange of information between the Greeks and the easterners. One early sign of this cultural cross-fertilization may be found in Plato’s Republic; in this work the episode known as the “Myth of Er” may have come from an Aramaic source. It appears that the knowledge of Jewish wisdom grew out of a desire to learn about the development of societies and the cultures of the Orient provided ideal subjects.

Next, we know that Aristotle, and later the school of his followers, had formulated a number of social theories and these philosophers were interested in seeking evidence supporting their theories in the cultures of the Orient. One popular theory held that modern religion had been so altered by the influence of modern civilization that it had lost its original purity. The philosophers thought that the closer that humankind was to its original, natural state, the closer its social organization approached perfection. “Perfection,” as we all know, was one of the ultimate goals of Greek society and Greek philosophy sought it in all areas of human activity, including knowledge. They had learned that in the East, knowledge was the sole possession, a monopoly even, of the priestly groups of the different societies. They began to compare what they could learn about the Persian magi and Indian Brahmans, because they found that these groups claimed that their laws came directly from the divinity. Of course they quickly learned that Jewish law was divinely given too, which proved to them that the Jews must be closely related to those other cultures and saw in the Jews representatives of a higher philosophy and morality.

The Greek approach to historiography was utterly unhistorical. It appears that the Greeks were enamored with superficial similarities between cultures and tended to disregard their deeper differences. They assumed that each culture’s gods were the same entities; they simply had been given different names. Apart from the outward signs of a culture’s beliefs, like the names of their deities, some Greek philosophers did try to obtain a deeper understanding of the cultures’ philosophies. In his well-known report of a meeting with an anonymous Jew in the mid-fourth-century, an impressed Aristotle asserted that the Jews were descended from the Indian philosophers.

Other writers elaborated on this theme, so in several Greek historical-philosophical texts we variously read that the Jews were considered to be a “philosophical race,” that actually the Jews themselves were the origin of philosophy, that it was a well-known fact that the Jews believed in the immortality of the soul, and that during his meeting with Aristotle, the Jewish sage had provided him with proof of the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul as recounted in the “Myth of Er.” Many other unlikely attributes were also ascribed to the Jews. Greek writers also examined Jewish culture from a politically oriented viewpoint and here it was noted that the priestly caste formed the basis of the Jews’ leadership. So Greek writers traced priestly leadership back to Moses, known to them as the lawgiver of the Jews’ constitution, and who, according to Hecataeus in writing his history of Egypt at the end of the fourth century, had conquered the promised land and founded Jerusalem—and in doing so, demonstrated a political system that was based on endurance, bravery, and obedience—the very attributes so valued in Greek culture. He obviously had Sparta in mind here, and Sparta continued to have a strong affinity for Judea for several hundred years, as we’ll see.

The Greek philosophers wrote about how the social organization of the Jews was based on the common welfare, as demonstrated by land ownership laws, where the concentration of land and wealth into a small number of hands was prevented by the jubilee laws, and protective laws regarding the orphan and widow. Another Greek ideal was the importance of the individual, and the Jewish laws certainly codified the individual’s importance.

Josephus provided an amusing analysis in his comment on the theological background of Greek philosophy when he wrote, “Our earliest imitators were the Greek philosophers, who, ostensibly observing the laws of their own countries, yet in their conduct and philosophy were Moses’ disciples, holding similar views about God.”

Cultural Changes Under Hellenist Rule

Figure 17. Ptolemaic Kingdom

Soon after Alexander’s conquests, change came to the immediate area of Judea and Samaria which continued well into the Ptolemaic period (Figure 17 shows the Ptolemaic Kingdom). Colonists were needed to populate distant areas, particularly areas that had strategic importance. Colonists who could bring their occupations to these areas were valued for both economic reasons and also because the influx of skilled immigrants would dilute the power and influence of the indigenous populations. Soon after he arrived in Asia Minor in the mid-fourth century, Alexander relocated some of Samaria’s population (of whom most were of ethnic Assyrian origin) to Egypt as punishment for their resistance to his army’s taking control of the region, and populated Phoenicia and Samaria with Greek and Macedonian colonists. Later, during the wars for Alexander’s succession at the end of the fourth century and in the following decade, Jews were affected too when many were taken as slaves from Palestine and sold in the slave markets of Syria and Egypt and other Jews were relocated as well. At the start of the third century, Ptolemy I transferred significant numbers of Judeans and Samarians from Palestine to Egypt.

Such movement of populations periodically occurred, even later too; toward the end of the third century, the Seleucid government relocated about two thousand Jewish families from Babylon to Lydia and Phrygia (in Anatolia) as military colonists. But not all colonists were compelled to relocate; some Jews were attracted by the reputed humanitarianism of the Ptolemaic government and migrated to Egypt voluntarily. Many colonists were obtained by recruiting volunteers with the promise of grants of land; Josephus implies that Jews who went as colonists to Hellenist cities were given the same privileges as any other colonist and an equal status to the cities’ Macedonian and Greek citizens.

Life under Greek culture was cosmopolitan in many ways. The Greeks had a simple criterion for determining whether a person was civilized or a barbarian: if one did not speak Greek and did not follow Greek customs, he was a barbarian by definition. In order to be considered worthy of interacting with the Greeks, it was important that one be regarded as being civilized. So the social and cultural pressure to adopt hellenistic customs and to learn the Greek language became extremely powerful. In addition, being a citizen of a hellenized city involved to some extent following the Greeks’ religious practices. Every Greek city had its own protecting patron god. All festivities and public celebrations, even sporting games, included sacrifices to the patron god as an integral part of the celebration. People who held public office and even prominent members of the city, such as merchants, were expected to participate and obviously Jews could not do so, thus their right to be considered to be full citizens limited their social standing. But neither could they be relegated to “foreigner” status, the only other possibility, because the Jews typically contributed as much to the city’s economy as did any full citizen. The rulers, both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, all understood this and thus permitted the Jews to organize separate communities within their cities and allowed Jewish law in addition to Greek law to be used in most cases involving Jews and Gentiles. Thus the only major limitation that Jews experienced as a citizen was in holding public office, but even this limitation was waived in certain cases where allowances were made for talented individuals.

Figure 18. Hellenist Athletics in Art

Examples of even-handed treatment can be found in how the Jews’ exclusiveness was dealt with by the authorities. Alexander himself pardoned the Jewish soldiers of his army who had refused to participate in the construction of a pagan temple in Babylon. Greek cultural practices had become such a norm of everyday life that many if not most Jews participated in them too. One of the foundations of Greek life was the public physical training exercises that were conducted in the “gymnasia,” the centers of Greek intellectual and physical activity (Figure 18). Gymnasia comes from the term gymnós meaning “naked”; as you know, the Greek exercises and games were performed in the nude and before exercising or engaging in the games, the participants would anoint their skin with oil provided by the “gymnasiarch.” It appears that in Hellenist cities the Jewish youth fully participated with everyone else because a document from Antiochia (Tarsus) tells us that Jewish gymnasia participants refused to use pagan oil. As a result, Seleucus I ordered that money be given so that Jews could obtain their own oil. In these matters and similar ones, the Jews became recognized members of their communities.

Under hellenistic culture, the gymnasia were the places where business deals were arranged, politics was discussed, and one’s social standing was established; participation in athletics was normally the chief way to enhance one’s reputation. However, there was a major impediment for Jews engaging in gymnasia activities; the problem was that Jewish men were circumcised. To the Greeks, the bare glans of a circumcised man was considered obscene and thus circumcised Jews not only caused great offense when they appeared nude, a circumcised man exposed himself to public ridicule. But social expectations and societal norms for anyone of means or having ambitious intentions made gymnasia participation almost mandatory. This problem could be managed, though; there was an solution available for males who were circumcised—for the Jews and for the Egyptians, who also practiced circumcision, and also for those who had a congenital condition called aposthia (missing foreskin) or a partial foreskin—foreskin restoration or circumcision reversal procedures could be performed.

Figure 19. Egyptian Circumcision. Relief from “The Physician’s Tomb,” Ankh-ma-Hor, at Saqqara, ca. 2400 BCE
The inscription above the younger boy says “Hold him so that he doesn't faint.” The older boy on the right is capable of enduring the ritual without support, but he is bracing himself firmly for the ordeal.

The original form of Jewish circumcision appears to have been adopted from the Egyptians. The coronal sulcus (skin just behind the coronal rim of the glans) was not exposed when the prepuce was removed; a little preputial skin overlapping the glans was preserved. The presence of this small amount of remaining prepuce allowed the development of different foreskin restoration techniques. In fact, it was precisely the development of circumcision reversals that led the rabbis of the Talmud to ordain the techniques still used in modern Jewish circumcisions—removal of the entire prepuce from the coronal sulcus back to where it joins the shaft skin.

There were several reversal techniques; a few of them involved the gradual stretching of loose penile skin over the glans, but the most effective technique was an operation called “epispasm.” This was a surgical repositioning of the penile skin down the shaft and over the glans, an operation about which one first-century CE practitioner, Celsus, assured his perhaps incredulous readers that it was “not so very painful.” Enough men underwent epispasm to result in copious contemporaneous descriptions of and instructions for the performance of this surgical procedure.

Judea Under the Ptolemies

Even though Jews now lived all over the hellenistic world, from Egypt to Greece to Persia, and mostly enjoyed full citizenship rights by law in all of these regions, we need to consider how Judea itself fared under Hellenist rule. Dominion over Judea was at first under Ptolemy beginning somewhere around 320. The designation “Jew” was actually a political term and was reserved solely for, as the Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200–118 BCE) wrote, those “who lived around the temple of Jerusalem.” As a political entity, Judea was self-governing. Although there was no administrative representative of the king in Jerusalem, Egyptian royal troops maintained a garrison in the city. Jerusalem, like every other city, was expected to provide troop levies for the king’s armies; we mentioned earlier that Jewish troops served under Alexander. Also, a cavalry regiment of Jerusalem Jews was known to have served in Ptolemy’s army.

Figure 20. Judea under Hellenistic Rule

Under the Ptolemies, Judea was regarded as the “land of the Jews” and was given considerable autonomy (Figure 20) (see the Chronologies of the Intertestamental Rulers). The Ptolemaic administration of Judea was extremely orderly and very much hellenistic in character, having a highly complicated system of economic planning at the heart of the government. Fixed and movable property was taxed and taxes were collected using a system of tax farming. To ensure that tax collection was diligently pursued, members of the upper classes, particularly the priests, were designated to collect taxes and the pharaoh granted personal tax exemptions to both the tax farmers and to the upper classes. The high priest served as the pharaoh’s spokesperson and generally held this office for life. The position was usually hereditary but the pharaoh reserved the right to appoint to the position, a right that seems was never exercised. The result was that the high priest effectively was Judea’s political head and he was referred to that way in contemporaneous texts. Under the Ptolemies, Judea’s influence expanded and it was no longer thought of as solely consisting of Jerusalem and several dozen outlying smaller villages. Soon, other Hellenist cities of the region became closely associated with Judea. In the north, Samaria/Shechem, Gadara, and Beth-Shean; on the coast, Azotus, Joppa, and Ascalon; and in the east, Rabbath-Ammon, Gerasa, and Pella. As a result, hellenistic culture was gradually becoming the norm of Judea and Jerusalem.

According to Martin Hegel and numerous other scholars, during the mid-third century Judea itself began to experience extensive “hellenization.” Jews living in the regions of the diaspora had lived in societies strongly influenced by Greek cultural practices for a hundred years and had begun to embrace some of its attributes, but now Greek influence was beginning to appear in the towns and cities of Judea itself. Hellenistic influences began to spread into Judea from the Mediterranean coast, where the population was mixed, and its spread was facilitated by social and commercial interactions. The amount of penetration of hellenistic influence into the Judean interior at this time is unclear from extant records, but because of the lack of significant commercial thoroughfares in the region, it probably was not significant. The high priests of the time were probably more likely to want to embrace some of the features of hellenistic society because, as rulers, they saw that there could be strong economic incentives to doing so.

All throughout Palestine, in regions formerly known as Syria, Ammon, Philista, Samaria, Edom, and Phoenicia, the old cities began to assume new Greek names: Acre became Ptolomais, Hippus became Antiochia, and Rabbath-Ammon called itself Philadelphia. People assumed hellenized versions of their names or even new Greek names; Alexander was one very popular name. Even the local gods were renamed, mostly by identifying them with the analogous Greek gods. These cities engaged in active trading among themselves, thereby spreading their culture along with their trade goods. But Judea remained as a land of peasants with only one city, Jerusalem, that was worthy of the term. Judea produced agricultural products and exported much of its produce in trade. While residents of Jerusalem were somewhat influenced by the inroads of Hellenism, the people in the outlying countryside were mostly insulated from the cultural changes occurring in the cities and remained traditional in their basic beliefs. Culturally, those Jews who “hellenized” would be rewarded by enhanced social standing in view of the Ptolemaic government but those who hellenized appeared not to antagonize those among them who remained more orthodox.

The issue of land ownership during this time is unclear, but the little information available seems to imply that the rural population was mostly poor and probably farmed land owned by wealthy town-dwellers including the Levites/priests. It’s true that the Torah denied the right to own land to the Levites, but since they were empowered by the Torah itself to be the interpreters of the law, they evidently must have engaged in some highly creative interpretations in order to justify legal land ownership. The heavy taxation of the province under the Persians had tapped much of the rural populations’ wealth; then taxes to support Judea, its temple, and the local aristocrats were added. Much of the populace likely went into debt paying taxes and had to become tenant-farmers on the land they once owned. Scholars know much about the taxing methods that were used under the Ptolemies from Egyptian records, as described earlier.

The question of the social organization of the period is another open question. Some theories have been proposed that include the organization of families into clan-like groups, some of which may have owned property collectively. In rural areas, towns would have been the center of all local economic activity, but how the towns interacted with the central government in Jerusalem is unknown. The fact that social stratification existed is obvious and the division of the classes was along city-rural lines. Under the Persians, the division between the classes seems to be more acute than it later became under the rule of the Ptolemies as economic conditions improved and the market for Judea’s products expanded. During the third century there is no record of any significant confrontation between the Jews and the Ptolemaic rulers. As best as we can tell, the Ptolemies never interfered with any of the essential matters of the social, cultural, or religious organization of Judea.

You may recall that earlier I mentioned the Tobiad family. When we left them last, their influence in Jerusalem had been all but nullified by Nehemiah, under whose watchful eye the Zadokites were established as the official temple priesthood. Josephus, in Antiquities, informs us that during the third century not only did the Tobiads prosper, their influence in Judean affairs increased greatly. They achieved this power in large part as tax farmers, winning the right from the Ptolemaic government to collect the regional taxes in Judea; this power led to members of their family becoming the defacto civil rulers for the region. Not only did the Tobiads consolidate their political power; they also actually achieved significant influence in the temple hierarchy when the family’s leader, Tobiah, married a sister of the high priest Onias II. A son from this marriage, Joseph, played an important role in Judea’s history as a prostasia, political representative to the king, during the latter part of the third century. With this appointment, any political power Onias II had was lost. The linking of the Tobiad and Zadokite dynasties was met with virtually no opposition from other influential Jerusalem aristocrats and their descendants were active in business and political affairs in addition to serving in the temple.

Jews of the Diaspora

Throughout the entire Hellenist world, it appears that among the gentiles there was a general acceptance of the Jews’ tendency to isolate themselves in cultural and religious affairs; however, the pressures on the Jews to embrace hellenistic culture remained great. It even appeared to many that Jewish and hellenistic practices could be blended to harmonize their respective ethnic, cultural, and religious practices. The evidence for this occurring is extensive; we can see this harmonizing in both historical and religious works. In religious writings, authors like Demetrius the chronographer (Alexandria, late third century BCE) provided synchrony between Israelite history as reported in the biblical texts and the histories of other peoples of the region. Such attempts at synchrony enabled the claim, found in both 1 Maccabees and Josephus, that Sparta’s King Areus (309–265), had written to the high priest Onias that Sparta, like the Jews, preserved strong traditions of law and community spirit. He was said to have stated that “the Spartans and Jews ... are brethren and they are of the stock of Abraham.”

An author who demonstrated another form of synchrony, historical syncretism, was Artapanus of Alexandria (third to second century BCE). A historian of Jewish origin, his work, Concerning the Jews, has not survived, but quotes from it and citations of it (by Alexander Polyhistor, Eusebius) tell us it was written in Greek between 250 and 100 BCE. Artapanus used the books of Genesis and Exodus as the source for his narrative, liberally manipulating its stories to create his own unique account. His description of the Egyptian careers of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses depicts them as being responsible for many of the cultural innovations of the ancient Near East. The following description of how Moses is portrayed shows just how effectively hellenistic syncretism was used to promote Judaism as a form of inclusive culture.

As a grown man [Moses] was called Mousaeus by the Greeks. This Mousaeus was the teacher of Orpheus.... [Moses] bestowed many useful benefits on mankind, for he invented boats and devices for stone construction and the Egyptian arms and the implements for drawing water and for warfare, and philosophy. Further, he divided the [Egyptian] state into 36 nomes and appointed for each of the nomes the god to be worshiped, and for the priests the sacred letters, and that they should be cats and dogs and ibises [hieroglyphs].... He did all these things for the sake of maintaining the monarchy firm.... On account of these things then Moses was loved by the masses, and was deemed worthy of godlike honor by the priests and called Hermes, on account of the interpretation of the sacred letters.

Notice the reference to Hermes, a god in the Greek pantheon (in the Egyptian pantheon, Hermes was Thoth). Equating Moses with Hermes was not a statement of religious syncretism; it’s clear from the context of this work and from related writings that the idea was to demythologize and humanize the Greek gods, making them into human historical heroic figures, just as Jewish tradition regarded Joseph, Moses, Abraham, and the other patriarchs. In this way the door could be opened to Jewish participation in hellenistic festivals and rituals without the fear that this could be regarded as acts of idolatry; these events were simply celebrations in honor of the ancient heroes. In this way, under hellenistic influence Judaism was moving toward a kind of inclusive monotheism, a movement that gained very wide popularity that even took root in Jerusalem itself, and, as we will see, gained supporters even among the temple priesthood.

Artapanus also attempted to justify circumcision to the Hellenists. He argued that since Moses founded the Egyptian religion and had also given the custom of circumcision to the Ethiopians, that these peoples, in following their ancestral practices, continued to follow Moses’ teachings. Therefore, should the Jews not be permitted to follow their own ancestral practices as well?

One major step in a syncretic acculturization of the Jews into hellenistic practices occurred in the middle of the third century—the translation of the Torah into Greek. According to various contemporary accounts, the project was not only supported by the pharaoh, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246), he was reported to have initiated it. However the idea for making the translation originated, its completion made the Jewish laws accessible not only to the Jews of Alexandria for whom Hebrew was almost certainly no longer spoken colloquially, but also to all speakers of Greek.

This Greek Torah translation, which was performed in Alexandria, is called the Septuagint, which means “seventy” in Latin. This name actually only became attached to the translation six hundred years later, during the time of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), when the work was described in Latin as the versio septuaginta interpretum, “version of the seventy interpreters,” or the Septuaginta. The early church fathers considered that the convocation of seventy elders that Moses assembled, as mentioned in Numbers 11:16–17, or alternatively, the seventy whom Jesus commissioned (Luke 10:1–20, Alexandrian text tradition), represented the spiritual roots of the translators, according to Moses Hadas. The original Alexandrian translation is actually known as the “Old Greek” version of which only fragments exist; the Septuagint as we know it is a revised Greek version from about 250 years later.

Many legends have grown up around the making of this translation and a first-century BCE pseudepigraphical text, the Letter of Aristeas, provides a romanticized account of its composition, which includes attributing the work to seventy-two scholars, six from each tribe of Israel, who were sent to Egypt by Judea’s high priest. One may gain some interesting political insights when reading the Septuagint and comparing it to its Hebrew source. Beginning with the First Syrian War in 274, the Hellenist realms of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies had fought no less than five wars during the following seventy-five years over the control of Palestine and Judea. In the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy we read the passage, “A wandering Aramean was my father and he went down into Egypt” (Dt. 26:5). This same passage in the Septuagint reads, “My father forsook Syria and went down into Egypt,” clearly giving the passage a pro-Ptolemaic bias.

In addition to the Septuagint translation, during the third and early second century BCE a number of other important Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, particularly the books of the Prophets and Psalms, and during this period other books were written and translated that are now part of the Apocrypha. No other culture approached the level of translating activity of the Jews in making their works available to a wider audience. In speaking of the amount of translating activity of the third century, Bar Kappara in the Jerusalem Talmud interpreted the passage, “May God enlarge Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen. 9:27) as “Let them speak the language of Japheth [= Greek] in the tents of Shem [= the Jews]” (jt. Meg. 1:11 [71b]).

Texts and Sects

Figure 21. Evolution of Jewish Sects

During the Ptolemaic period several significant Jewish works were composed (Figure 21). One, an important biblical work and arguably the Bible’s most enigmatic, Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, was composed in Jerusalem during the early to mid-third century, as most scholars believe. The Hebrew name “Kohelet” is said to mean “Preacher,” but actually is best translated as “Convener” after the root qof-heh-lamed, “assemble.” This sense of the word could also allow it to mean “shepherd,” which was an ancient epithet for middle-eastern royalty. This is a work which is in its majority influenced by Greek philosophy while its genre is very much in the Oriental wisdom-literature mode: a collection of aphorisms and proverbs. Its philosophy is one of skepticism about traditional beliefs, in God’s justice, and the efficacy of wisdom and hard work. In the end, beliefs in these matters are futile and ultimately the nature of the universe is incomprehensible. In this work, the author takes for granted God’s total withdrawal from the world and advocates righteous behavior simply for pragmatic reasons: conformity would be less painful than nonconformity. The author advances the ideas that all of humankind’s actions are preordained, that nothing one does can alter one’s destiny, and that death brings finality. Similar ideas can be found throughout wisdom literature of the East. This work stands as evidence of a major turning point in the development of Jewish theology, as we’ll discuss soon.

A second work, written in the early second century but no later than the 160s, was the Book of Jubilees, which on its face is an account of the biblical history of the world from creation to Moses at Sinai. Its name is derived from how the work divides the history it describes into periods (“jubilees”) of 49 years each. This work was extremely popular in Qumran; fragments of about fifteen copies of the scroll have been discovered. For the most part the text’s narrative follows the traditional account in Genesis and early Exodus but provides many additional details nowhere else mentioned. In its telling, its anonymous author seems to be reflecting on the morality of the Jews of Judea after their 150-year exposure to hellenistic culture. He was concerned with Jews who did not observe the Sabbath and ignored the commandments. He fulminated against those who associated with pagans. He had Abraham adjure his sons not to take wives from the Canaanites and to have nothing to do with idols. He warned about the need to observe the biblical prohibition against public nudity in a clear polemic against Jews participating in the gymnasia. Further, he interpreted Greek culture as a product of the demons and claimed that through circumcision the Jew is raised out of an evil existence into the realm of God’s rule. He even ascribed to the Patriarchs a knowledge of the commandments and had them observing them and teaching them to their sons. In Jubilees we also find criticism of a number of Greek philosophical tenants together with many other political overtones. For example, the reason that the pharaoh enslaved the Jews was “because their hearts and faces are toward the land of Canaan” which was then ruled by the Seleucids of Syria.

The community at Qumran preserved another work whose writing is dated to the second century that shows that some groups followed a different “Torah” than the version that was held to be canonical to the mainstream Jewish world. This document is called the “Temple Scroll,” and it presents itself as the Torah, rewriting the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy by expanding on them, rearranging their order of presentation, and introducing additional laws not found in the Torah. The Temple Scroll reads not as a narrative that describes how God spoke to Moses who then relays God’s words to the people, but in a far more direct manner. Where the Torah refers to God in the third person, the Temple Scroll refers to God in the first person, making it clear that the book’s intent is to show that its author is God rather than Moses. The rewriting of the Torah laws in the Temple Scroll is reminiscent of the way Jubilees rewrote the history in Genesis and Exodus; thus it is probably not a coincidence that Jubilees ends precisely at the point that the Temple Scroll begins.

There were other Jewish works that were composed in the third century; a number of them were collected into a book known as 1 Enoch. This is an anthology of pseudepigraphical works preserved in complete form only in Ge’ez (Ethiopic) but fragments written in Aramaic have been found among the Qumran scrolls. In common with Job and Ecclesiastes, the book is very much concerned with the presence of evil in the world, but while Ecclesiastes has God withdrawing from the world and Job portrays God as remote and uncaring, Enoch implies that some humans can actually access God’s mysteries through divine beings that God left to manage the world after he withdrew from it. In this decidedly dualistic view of theology, the author sought to explain how evil can exist in a world created by God by ascribing its existence to a subclass of divine beings.

The book of 1 Enoch is a member of a group of texts from the third and second century that provides us with understanding the basis of a political and theological division between the Zadokite priests of the temple and a group now known as the Enochic Jews. We don’t know what the members of this sect called themselves, but as the philosophy of the members of this anti-Zadokite sect coalesced around the ancient myths concerning the antediluvian Enoch mentioned in Genesis, modern scholars have used the name “Enochic” as a convenient label. The pseudepigraphical texts known as the Aramaic Levi, the Book of the Watchers, and the Astronomical Book provide us with some understanding of early Jewish mysticism and apocalypticism that appears to have underlain some of the sect’s beliefs. The myths of Enoch are told in 1 Enoch, which describes how Enoch was transported to heaven while still alive. The sect’s belief in how evil and impurity had spread in the world and how this was proof of God’s withdrawal, leaving only disorder and chaos as a result, was in direct opposition to the Zadokites’ view of the underlying stability and order in the world.

The heritage of the Enochic viewpoint is evident in the belief in the “end of days,” a messianic time where the end of the current “creation” is heralded and a new and different “creation” will begin a new existence, ideas that are present in both Judaism and Christianity. The Enochics brought the ideas of apocalypticism into the Jewish mainstream of thought. We see strong elements of this line of theological thought in three biblical books: the part of Zechariah known as deutero-Zechariah (Chapters 9–14) of which Chapters 12–14 are demonstrably eschatological; much of Malachi (which might actually be a continuation of Zechariah 12–14); and the latter part of the book of Daniel. The first and third of these works are assigned to the middle of the second century BCE and Malachi probably belongs to that period too. The study of the anti-Zadokite movements, which include Enochic Judaism and a lay opposition movement interestingly termed “Sapiental Judaism” by scholars is fascinating in itself, as it involves the analysis of many pseudepigraphical texts written from the seventh to the third century BCE, but doing so is outside of the scope of this presentation; however, it will be useful to examine how crucial the ideas of the Enochics and Sapientals were to the development of modern Judaism.

The direction of the development of Judaism into its modern form was set by the competition of these three movements, the Zadokites, the Enochics, and the Sapientals, for primacy in attracting adherents to their theologies. The Zadokites based their religious observance on temple sacrificial rites and by following the priestly laws set down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, serving God through observing all of the cultic rituals that had developed during the first temple period. As I mentioned above, the Enochics had a dualistic view of not of the deity as in Zoroastrianism, but of the world, separating good and evil into two opposing forces apart from the deity, who had completely withdrawn from human affairs, by a kind of sub-creator class of divine beings who were in control of the affairs of the world. Enochic philosophy is embodied in several independent books collected into the pseudepigraphical works shown in Figure 21.

The contributions to Jewish theology of Sapiental Judaism are best illustrated by three biblical books, Job, Jonah, and Ecclesiastes, which scholars generally agree were composed during and following the post-exilic period. While Job is based on an ancient Semitic story known throughout the Middle East since the mid-second millennium BCE, the Jewish version was likely compiled and its prologue and epilogue were written and appended to the underlying ancient poem during the late Persian period. These three books all belong to the same class of skeptical wisdom, a genre of writing that appeared during the Hellenistic period. As Thomas Bolin wrote of these books, “All three emphasize the pain of an existence under a rule of an omnipotent but inscrutable deity. All three emphasize the futility of the foundational religious and theological issues of prayer, sacrifice, repentance, and right living.” The earlier books, Job and Jonah, are indirect in criticizing the Zadokite theological view of the deity and simply point out the fallacy of believing that God’s methods are knowable and consistent. However, these books both end on a positive, even optimistic note, rewarding repentance and true faith. With such a conclusion, these works did not dramatically contradict Zadokite thought.

On the other hand, Ecclesiastes is both brutally direct and forceful in approach, exposing Zadokite theology to the scrutiny of the reader’s personal experience. Its author vividly reminds his readers how the righteous suffer while the wicked seem to be rewarded too frequently for one to believe that reward comes from obeying the Torah laws. The lives of the wicked and righteous are too often so similar that they are indistinguishable. And living a righteous life is so rarely rewarded by the comfort of thinking that one’s memory will be everlasting; Kohelet holds that neither the “wise or ... fool” may expect to be remembered.

While mauling Zadokite thought with critical abandon, Kohelet doesn’t spare Enochic writings from his fierce gaze either. Kohelet challenges the Enochic search for heavenly knowledge through dreams and visions, chiding the believer that anyone can see the conditions that exist “under heaven” or “under the sun” with no need to dream. In other words, Kohelet implies, don’t pay attention to thoughts of what might be; think about what is. To the Enochic claim that a person, like Enoch, should have the “desire to know everything” (1 Eno. 25:2), Kohelet responds that the work of God is a total mystery to humans and the future is unknown and unknowable. While the Enochic view of the world is one of disorder, Kohelet likens the divine order of heaven to the efficient Hellenist government of Ptolemaic Egypt: “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields” (Eccl. 5:8–9).

And finally, Kohelet calls into question the apocalyptic view of afterlife judgment as expressed in Enochic theology. There’s so much more to Ecclesiastes, material that places it more into the genre of political philosophy than theology, but we’ve got to move on.

We know which theological viewpoint was the one that eventually became generally accepted in Judaism. Most people, even those who have read about the hellenistic period of Judea, have never heard of the Aramaic Levi, the Book of the Watchers, the Astronomical Book, Dream Visions, or the book of 1 Enoch, but virtually everyone has heard of Job, Jonah, and Ecclesiastes.

One of the more interesting and unusual results of Judaism’s encounter with Hellenism was how the contact between these cultures affected the Jews’ use of God’s divine name, Yahweh, and the other Hebrew terms referring to God. Before the sixth century BCE, apparently speaking the divine name wasn’t avoided, as long as it wasn’t used frivolously (conforming to the third commandment). During the course of the fifth century, however, its use came to be limited to temple rites and the taking of oaths, a usage attested to by Philo. While the Samaritans continued to pronounce the divine name until at least the fifth century CE, it seems that the Jews ceased to do so because the belief grew strong that using God’s proper name must be avoided since it held magical powers, an idea that was held by many Semitic cultures. By the end of the fifth century the Jews began to substitute the word Elohim (“God”) and Adonai (“my Lord, my master”) for the divine name instead, and then the Jews encountered the Greeks, whose philosophical concept of a supreme being fit the use of an abstract term for a deity so perfectly.

The Greeks used the terms theos, “god,” and theion, “divine,” in place of a deity’s proper name, and in a kind of reverse copying, this Greek usage took hold among the Jews. They were now using Adonai regularly in place of God’s proper name, and when they were writing (and perhaps speaking) Greek, did not use the Greek theos and theion terms but used instead the Greek literal translation of Adonai: kyrios, which is a legal term meaning “one who is a master.” Although “Yahweh” was transliterated into Greek in the early versions of the Septuagint, the name was pronounced kyrios, and the Greek text did not use corresponding translations of the other Hebrew terms for God such as Adonai or Shaddai. (As you may know, the Greek kyrios later got picked up in the Latin mass as Kyrie Eleison, “Lord have mercy.”) Then the Jewish usage referring to God mutated yet again, since using the term kyrios in a theological context made little sense to non-Jewish Greek speakers, so third-century Jewish authors writing Greek in Palestine began using Hypsistos, “the Most High,” whereupon this usage promptly crept back into Hebrew as Elyon, the “Most High God,” a usage frequently found in Sirach and Jubilees and which was eventually officially adopted by the Hasmoneans to refer to God.

While discussing the Jews’ exposure to and use of the Greek language, I should point out that scholarly review of surviving Greek manuscripts written by Jews during the Hellenistic period show that the Jews did not write in pure Greek and later comments by Josephus imply that their spoken Greek wasn’t very pure either. Josephus admitted that even though he spent years in the Roman courts, he never learned to pronounce Greek properly; also, for his writings he employed native Greek speakers to correct his texts. In the Septuagint, parts of which were composed between the third century BCE and first century CE, and in the Christian scriptures, composed in the first century CE, so many semeticisms exist that it had appeared to some nineteenth-century scholars that in writing these, the Jews used a hybrid Aramaic-Greek dialect analogous to the use of Yiddish and Ladino many centuries later.

This theory was abandoned after later scholars learned more about the dialect of the Greek language that was used in Egypt and Palestine; this vernacular tongue is now known as koiné Greek. And the semeticisms that were used by Jews are also found in contemporaneous texts written by non-Jewish orientals for whom Aramaic was their native tongue. One thing is very clear about the use of language by the Jews in this entire region: the use of Hebrew as a spoken language had completely disappeared and had been supplanted by Aramaic in Judea and Babylonia and by Greek in Egypt and Palestine, especially when it was ruled by the Ptolemies. As it turned out, translations from Hebrew to Greek, especially the Septuagint, were done in such a mechanical a fashion that many hebraisms were not properly rendered into Greek and unfamiliar Hebrew words were simply transliterated into Greek characters.

The linking of the Tobiad and Zadokite dynasties began the rapprochement between Zadokite and Sapiental Judaism, but the final merger of these groups was still to come. It is around this time that the book of Tobit, another pseudepigraphical work, appeared. It was produced in the late mid-third century and its writing seems certain to have been intended to enhance the reputation of the Tobiad family. The book is a fictional account—actually a romance—that describes the activities of a very pious Israelite living in the time of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser just after the fall of the northern kingdom. The book is at once pro-Zadokite, and anti-Enochic (and even anti-Samaritan) and describes how Tobit scrupulously follows Mosaic laws but his observance runs afoul of the king and he has to flee. He had entrusted funds to a relative in a distant province so he has his son Tobias travel there to retrieve the funds. During his travels Tobias meets and marries a woman relative—a cousin, actually. Among the instances of anti-Enochic polemic, the book’s author, while keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek, describes Tobias’ encounters with an angel and demon that are reminiscent of descriptions in the Book of Watchers. It’s clear from how the protagonists are treated in the work that Tobit is very much an anti-Job figure while Tobias is the anti-Jonah—even down to an encounter with a big fish, this one being aggressive and carnivorous, which he kills. Even Kohelet’s author doesn’t get off lightly, being mocked on occasion by the very optimistic, romantic, and upbeat tone of Tobit, where it’s made apparent to the reader that the protagonists are being carefully guided by supernatural forces.

Earlier I mentioned the scribe as being an important element in the development of post-exilic Jewish culture and promised to discuss this at greater length. Although scribes certainly had existed from time immemorial, for the Jews under the influence of Hellenism, their role dramatically shifted away from the role of simple copyists and stenographers. Under Greek influence, a class of intelligentsia began to grow, people who were not priests nor were connected to the temple in any way. Modern research has shown that a surprisingly large fraction of the ordinary Jewish population was mechanically literate; that is, they could read and write, at least enough to be able to transact ordinary business. For the drafting of contracts and important letters, however, people typically visited a scribe. So the scribes, in pursuing their craft, became familiar with a wide variety of subjects and it is this group which began to form the core of this new intelligentsia.

In the Egypt of the Ptolemies and in Babylonia, legal courts were formed that were headed by priests or secular judges and staffed by scribes. Schools for scribes were established. In Judea, the same function was handled at the temple where the priests would interpret the laws of Moses and decide cases based on those laws. But members of the new scribal class were learning the laws too, and in the administrative chambers of the secular rulers, scribes were now advising the rulers and the judges. The role of the priest as a sole interpreter of the law was slowly being usurped by the scribe. In fact, by the third century in Judea, the administration of justice was no longer solely limited to the priests.

We can see this progression of legal interpretation in the texts written during this period. Chronicles includes the scribe among the ranks of the Levites. Ecclesiastes makes the comment, “Wisdom makes one sage more powerful than ten rulers in a city” (Eccl. 7:19); the “sage” referred to is a chakhem, “wise one,” this was not a priest or prophet or ruler, leaving the scribe, the only remaining profession reputed to be “wise.” Ben Sirach, writing in the early second century and upholding the authority of the priest, advises his readers to honor the priest and acknowledge his superior knowledge in interpreting the laws. He states that the scribe’s role is to advise the ruler rather than judge legal matters. The fact that Sirach, a work that we’ll discuss soon, devotes much space to describing the scribe’s authority, activity, and responsibilities is a telling indication of how important the scribes had become by the second century. In addition to their other activities, many scribes taught, and they frequently taught interpretation of the Torah. The term “rabbi” means “my master/my teacher”; it was the learned people, including the scribes, who were the proto-rabbis. This is clearly illustrated in the Christian Bible; the title “rabbi” occurs in the books of Matthew, Mark, and John where it is used to speak of “scribes and Pharisees.”

Jews and Hellenist Culture

Let’s return to a discussion of the Jews’ cultural life between the end of the Persian period and the Maccabean revolt. As I mentioned earlier, there is very little information available about this period except that there exists some limited data concerning Jewish life in Egypt. Many Egyptian cities had significant Jewish populations and all of its cities were thoroughly hellenized. The Jews were regarded as “Hellenes” in contrast to the native population, who were obviously referred to as “Egyptians.” Jews transacted business with other city residents, had their legal cases heard before courts that enforced Greek laws, and wrote their contracts and correspondence in Greek. They also proselytized among the Greeks; it was during this period that proselytism became widespread. Jubilees speaks of the “strangers who joined themselves to the Lord” (Jub. 55:10). Later, the Talmud speaks of the “God-fearers” and the “proselytes before the gates,” but it isn’t certain how widespread this class of converts became during the Hellenistic period.

The number of people who became fully Jewish through circumcision and a purifying bath in the mikvah was certainly not large, but these people subsequently would circumcise their sons and raise their children as fully Jewish. It is clear from records of the period that more women than men became Jewish for the obvious reason that they weren’t confronted with the major obstacle to conversion. However, the presence in the community of large numbers of “not-quite-Jews” certainly had an effect on the overall cultural evolution of the entire Jewish community. And we can surmise that the kinds of cultural changes that occurred among the Egyptian Jews were mirrored to some degree among the Jews in Judea. The seeds were being planted for a new form of Judaism, one where the customs and traditions one observed could be relaxed just a bit from the numberless ritualistic practices demanded by traditional Jewish observance.

Figure 22. Jewish Diasporas

The Jews who lived in Judea during the fourth to first centuries BCE were but a small fraction of the world’s Jewish population. The documented Jewish diaspora extended from Cyrene and Rome in the west to the south coast of the Black Sea, and south to Yemen and Ethiopia and east to India (Figure 22). There is evidence that suggests that Jews were also in Morocco, Carthage (Tunis), and Spain. By the first century BCE, the largest populations were in Syria, Babylon, Persia, and Egypt, each of which probably held a population of one million or more. By the first century CE, Jews comprised about 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire and about 25% of the population of the eastern Mediterranean region.

In Alexandria alone, the city was about 40% Jewish with a total regional population variously estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000. So it would be fairly safe to say that even before the destruction of the second temple, the population of the Jews of the diaspora greatly outnumbered that of Judea, even after the conquests of the Hasmoneans. Some of this growth was a result of natural population increase, but as mentioned above, much was a result of proselytization. Thus the ideals of ethnic purity so vigorously championed by Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century had, by the second century, become extensively diluted by the sheer numbers of gentiles adopting the faith of the Jews. The numbers of new adherents to Judaism actually began to foster the belief among the Jews of Judea that the promise of a messianic age, as foretold by Micah and Isaiah, would soon be fulfilled: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isa. 2:2).

Acceptance of proselytes as full Jews actually varied by community and century. In some places, one became regarded as a Jew immediately, while in others, a convert was not immediately regarded as a Jew and neither were his descendants, before the second or even third generation (which was the ancient law of Judah). In most communities, however, parentage was required of a fully Jewish father or mother, or of converted parents, before a person was treated socially as a full-fledged Jew. In Judea, however, Jewish “pedigree” was still mostly by direct descent although through increased intermarriage, mostly among the wealthy, high-class families, where dynasties were joined and family holdings were preserved by linking powerful families, many gentiles became linked to Jewish families.

Judea Under the Seleucids

Although social and religious conditions in Judea were favorable during the period of the rule of the Ptolemies, culturally the Jews were much closer to their co-religionists living in inland Syria and Babylon. These areas, especially Babylon, had not been quite as heavily “hellenized” as Egypt and the most common spoken language of the East was Aramaic, not Greek as in Egypt. Among the priests and more traditional Jews there was a stronger affinity with the eastern Jews than the Egyptians even though religious life under the Ptolemies was not burdensome. Even so, there were still powerful forces in Jerusalem that supported the Ptolemies in opposition to the strong pro-Seleucid party that had appeared. The emergence of these Jewish parties even split the Tobiad-Zadokite family and both Josephus and Jerome (in his commentary on Daniel) mention the division of Jerusalem into pro-Ptolemaic and pro-Seleucid factions.

Figure 23. Antiochus III the Great

The Ptolemies and Seleucids had contested Palestine ever since Alexander’s empire had been divided; I’ve mentioned that during the third century alone these kingdoms had fought five wars over the possession of Palestine. In 204 BCE, Ptolemy IV died and during the transition of rulers in Egypt the balance of power shifted to Syria. Antiochus III the Great (Figure 23) immediately reopened hostilities, commencing the Fifth Syrian War, where the Seleucid army defeated the Ptolemaic forces at the Battle of Panion in 200 and wrested Palestine and Phoenicia from Egypt. During this struggle between Egypt and Syria, when control of Jerusalem changed hands several times, a majority of the population actively assisted the Seleucids in fighting the Ptolemaic forces and the pro-Seleucid party eventually prevailed. The high priest Simeon II was a member of the pro-Seleucid faction and his support was greatly valued by the Seleucid king.

After his victory over Egypt, Antiochus III didn’t assert his rule over Judea until 198, and few cultural changes came to Judea as a result of its new ruler (see the Chronologies of the Intertestamental Rulers). Actually, certain conditions improved significantly for Jerusalem’s aristocracy. Since Simeon and the pro-Seleucid party had actively supported Antiochus in the war, the king reciprocated by granting Judea the right to govern itself according to its own laws, making a large contribution to the temple, and giving tax exemptions to temple personnel and many of the aristocracy. He affirmed the sanctity of the temple to the Jews, the authority of the Zadokites within Jewish society, and the right of the Jews to permit only kosher animals within the city’s precincts. For all essential purposes, Antiochus regarded Simeon as the ruler of Judea, giving him the power to collect the empire’s taxes and retain part of them; Simeon was made a kind of secular prince and he assumed all the trappings of nobility.

Now, within the merged clans of Tobiads and Zadokites, the political and economic power had shifted in favor of the Zadokites, who now held all the reigns of power: political, economic, and religious. In fact, the economic importance of Judea had become so significant that even the king could not ignore it. The beginning of the period of Seleucid control over Palestine began a kind of “golden age” of the Zadokite priesthood; the high priest was not only the head of the temple cult, he was the political head of the secular state as well.

An extremely significant work in the evolution of Judaism was composed in Jerusalem by Yeshua ben Sirach in the early second century. Mentioned earlier, this is the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus; it is a philosophical work that contains an extensive collection of ethical teachings. Like Jubilees, Sirach is also concerned with the drifting of the Jews away from following the commandments and speaks disapprovingly of Jews who are ashamed of the Torah. Ben Sirach was a strong supporter of the temple priesthood and an admirer of the high priest Simeon, but he was a realist and his book ignores Hellenist influence on Jewish culture, as opposed to Jubilees, which is decidedly anti-Hellenist. The Zadokites were now among the most wealthy and powerful members of Jerusalem’s society and the ideas of Sapiential Judaism, such as those found in Ecclesiastes, were no longer politically tenable.

Sirach comprises, in effect, a complete rejection of the ideas presented in Job and Ecclesiastes. The genre of the text’s maxims, advice, and moral viewpoint closely follows Oriental wisdom literature and maintains that observance and not materialism is the path to a rewarding life. This work is important to us because, even though it was not canonized, its messages were sufficiently important that the rabbis of the Talmud frequently quoted from the work and parts have become the basis of Jewish liturgy—in part of the Yom Kippur service and in Judaism’s arguably most important prayer—the Amidah. Sirach provides the vocabulary and framework for many of the Amidah’s blessings.

Finally, there is another biblical book I mentioned earlier that seems to refer to the period 200–165; this is the second part of Zechariah, or deutero-Zechariah. In this book the Greeks are described in 9:13 as enemies of Judea and the Assyrians and Egyptians are similarly mentioned in Chapter 10, these names were certainly intended to represent the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. In verses 9:1–2, Damascus, Hamath, and Hadrach are seats of the Seleucid kings, a situation which is known to have existed during 200–165 BCE. The internal conditions of the Jewish community immediately before the Maccabean uprising appear in the second subdivision, where the “shepherds” referred to are the tax-farmers. In verse 11:13 there seems to be an allusion to Hyrcanus, son of Tobias, who was an exception among the rapacious shepherds. These historical sections, together with Zechariah’s apocalyptic visions beginning in Chapter 12, appear to have been added to the prophetic work by a later author either for convenience or to give these additions the theological authority afforded by being part of an accepted prophetic work.

Figure 24. Seleucid Empire

Judea was now part of the enormous Seleucid Empire, but unlike the virtually monolithic Egyptian empire of the Ptolemies, the Seleucid Empire consisted of a large number of highly disparate cultures spread over a much larger region (Figure 24). While much of the western areas of the empire had become extensively hellenized, these cultural changes had been mostly restricted to the larger cities and towns; the villages and the general countryside held the indigenous populations whose ancestors had lived there for many generations and were mostly isolated from hellenistic influences.

Between the fifth and second centuries, Jews of the diaspora had faithfully sent their annual “shekel” tax to the temple in Jerusalem; this was an important source of revenue for Judea. The secular rulers mostly allowed these contributions to continue although there were occasional restrictions on the practice. But by the second century, Jerusalem was attracting ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims who traveled from Egypt and the greater distance from Babylonia to offer sacrifices and to worship at the temple. These visits increased during the periods of the pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot, but the traffic was likely highest for Pesach, when weather and road conditions were generally the most favorable for long-distance travel. Also, at Pesach, pilgrims would be able to participate in the paschal sacrifice and in the festival meal that commemorated the sacrifice; this biblically ordained ritual could only be fully observed in Jerusalem. The Passover seder meal was not a feature of Jewish observance until after the temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

To accommodate the masses of tourists who brought with them the coinage of their various home cities, entrepreneurs operated money-changing facilities to allow the visitors to obtain the local coinage necessary for making purchases in Jerusalem. The Christian Gospels mention this practice which by the first century CE was hundreds of years old. The contributions to the Judean economy from the tourist trade were quite significant, and by the early first century Judea had become a important political, if not economic, power in the region. A example of this power in the first century BCE is revealed by Josephus, who mentioned in his Antiquities of the Jews that when Judea’s independence was threatened by Ptolemy IX Lathyros in about 85, Ananias, an influential Jewish general in the Egyptian army, warned Ptolemy’s mother and co-regent, Cleopatra III, that, “An injustice to this man [Alexander Yannai, the Judean ruler] will make all of us Jews your enemy.”

During the Seleucid period there was much political interaction between the Jews of Judea and the Jews of the diaspora who became involved in both the internal and external politics of the country. Diaspora Jews repeatedly meddled in internal Judean affairs; in one later case, when an internal Jewish faction in Jerusalem approached the Roman government for support in replacing the existing Judean government, many Roman Jews appeared at the Senate in support of this faction. But Jews of the diaspora received political as well as moral support from the Judean government through its negotiations with the Seleucid government to receive guarantees, in the form of “charters,” to safeguard the Jews’ religious and cultural autonomy throughout the kingdom.

While both the economic and religious conditions in Zadokite Jerusalem were the most favorable than perhaps any time in the past, world conditions were starting to affect the Seleucid kingdom. Antiochus III the Great, seeing himself in the mold of Alexander the Great, had designs on increasing his empire to the west. During this period, waging war was an essential component of a king’s success and was the chief way of raising funds. A Seleucid force crossed from Lydia in Anatolia into Thrace and in 192 began to besiege Larissa. Winter ensued, and Antiochus learned of the imminent arrival of a Roman force that had been summoned by the Macedonians, lifted the siege, and in 191 took up defensive positions in the valley at Thermopylae. In this replay of the Battle of Thermopylae (as opposed to the one involving the Greeks vs. the Persians in 480), Antiochus was defeated and driven out of Greece by Rome and her allies. Rome’s army, led by their famed general Scipio, counterattacked into Lydia and in 190 at Magnesia, Antiochus suffered a major defeat.

The resulting peace treaty concluded at Apamea in 188 was ruinous for the Seleucid kingdom, requiring a huge war indemnity and the loss of Anatolia north and west of the Taurus Mountains. Antiochus was also required to limit the size of his army and navy. Further, he was compelled to send his third son Mithridates (the future Antiochus IV), who was not in the direct line for the Seleucid throne, to Rome as a hostage against any further military action in the west. When Antiochus was defeated by Rome, several provinces of Persia in the eastern empire took this as a sign of weakness and Elymais (at the head of the Persian Gulf) revolted. In response, in 187 Antiochus III marched off on a military campaign to Elymais during which he was killed in a raid. Thus began a period of severe upheaval for the Seleucid dynasty.

Antiochus III’s oldest son had previously died so his second son Seleucus IV succeeded to the throne and took the throne name Philopater. Seleucus immediately faced some major problems, ones that continued to plague him during his reign. First, as we saw above, his father’s defeat by Rome resulted in the revolt of several provinces in the east. Second, he needed to come up with the funds to pay Rome’s tribute and the loss of the eastern provinces didn’t help the tax revenues. Third, and most important, he was a weak and ineffectual ruler. It is at this point in history that two literary works pick up the story: the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Prelude to the Jewish Revolt

Most of the sources of historical information for this period come from 1 and 2 Maccabees, Philo, and Josephus. While they may be factually suspect in many areas, these works have enough corroboration from historians like Polybius (c. 200–118 BCE), Strabo (c. 64 BCE–24 CE), and Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) to suggest that many portions of Maccabees (and Josephus) can be assumed to be factual. Of course, we have to assume that those writers themselves did not rely solely on those same sources. There is reason to believe in their general accuracy, however; recent work on the Qumran fragments has identified texts that support some details found in the traditional histories. On the whole, there is no reason to seriously doubt the accuracy of the traditional descriptions of events that are not overtly theological or polemical in nature.

The book of 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew (but only survives in its Greek translation) some seventy years after the revolt (ca. 100–80) from the author's nationalistic perspective. It concentrates on the details of the temple cult and the activities of the Hasmoneans while taking the position that all non-Jewish rulers are bad and additionally assuming that the other nations are anti-Jewish. The work also extensively describes internal Judean political and religious factional disputes. On the other hand, 2 Maccabees came before 1 Maccabees; it was written in Greek in Alexandria shortly after 120 BCE, about forty-five years after the events described; its author takes a cosmopolitan hellenistic approach to the events of the period. Its primary concern is the fate of Jerusalem, seeing the sects of the Judean Jewish community as acting in harmony while viewing the rulers of the surrounding nations as benevolent and having good relations with Judea. This book is an adaptation of part of one volume of a lost five-volume history of the Jews written about 120 in Greek by Jason of Cyrene; only fragments from the other books exist in the form of quotations found in other works.

Figure 25. Seleucid Palestine

Figure 26. The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Bernardo Cavallino, ca. 1650

Figure 27. Stele authorizing Seleucid control of sanctuary treasuries

Figure 28. Antiochus IV Epiphanes

During the early and mid-second century, Judea was an insignificant part of the Seleucid empire geographically (Figure 25), but it was fairly important economically. In Jerusalem, mostly unaffected by the woes of the Seleucid kingdom, the economic machine was creating prosperity for the Zadokites, indeed, for much of the aristocracy. But since all of the political and economic power had become concentrated in the Zadokites, naturally other ambitious factions had become envious of their wealth and power. Also, no significant economic enterprise could be launched without their cooperation; for example, the money-changing operations in the temple precincts were controlled by the Zadokites (and these entrepreneurs were required to collect the temple taxes from pilgrims); the obvious result was that a strong competition began to grow for the control of the high-priesthood. Reported in 2 Maccabees is an incident involving an Aaronite (but non-Zadokite) temple official named Simon who, after a clash with the high priest Onias III (185–175) over the administration of the city market, reported to an agent of the king that the temple had a large cash excess that “could fall under the control of the king.” The stability of Zadokite control of the temple was beginning to slip.

According to 2 Maccabees 3, Seleucus IV immediately sent his minister Heliodorus to investigate and obtain this “excess” cash but the text reports a magical encounter (illustrated in Figure 26) where Heliodorus was flogged by celestial beings. The account in Maccabees may preserve an element of historical accuracy. A stele dated to August 178 has recently surfaced in the antiquities market containing a proclamation from Seleucus IV that bears directly on his policies (Figure 27). The text of the stele’s inscription clearly documents the intention of the Seleucid government to establish tight fiscal control over the treasuries of its provincial temples by appointing local governors to closely manage their affairs, thus forcing the sanctuaries, including Judea’s, to submit to governmental financial oversight. The stele was recently published by Cotton and Wörrle who point out that this proclamation could have been one of the first signs of Jewish resistance, since 2 Maccabees implies that the Syrians were thwarted by Onias in their attempt to loot the temple

Somewhat later, Simon accused Onias of being a “plotter against the government.” In 175 Onias was compelled to go to Antioch to defend himself. While he was enroute, Heliodorus, apparently believing that the weak king was a liability to the empire, assassinated him. Earlier, Seleucus had negotiated the release of his younger brother Mithridates from Rome in exchange for his son and heir, Demitrius, so when Seleucus was killed, Mithridates seized the throne and took the throne name Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Figure 28). Antiochus was far more competent and ambitious than his older brother. He saw the need to be relentless in his governing to ensure that taxes would be efficiently collected throughout the kingdom and that meant having more complaisant regional officials in power. And Onias? He was never permitted to return to Jerusalem.

Under Hellenist law the king appointed the tax collectors who bid for the right to be appointed. In Judea, the Zadokites had controlled the tax-collecting franchise and the high priest, as the head of the Zadokites, was the king’s de facto tax official. Also, the high priesthood was traditionally a hereditary office held for life and the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings had respected this tradition. But since tax collection was a secular activity, Antiochus held that the high priesthood was not an internal religious position, it was a secular position as the local government head, and thus he asserted his legal right to pick his favored candidate to serve as his tax collector. With Onias now out of the picture, there was suddenly no lack of claimants for the office. The successful candidate was Jason (Joshua), a brother of Onias, who offered the king a huge bribe to secure the office.

The fact that a new high priest had been designated while the former high priest was still living, and that the designation was done by the king and not in accordance with Zadokite law, seems to have been accepted in Jerusalem. This was certainly because of Jason’s membership in the Zadokite family and his political connections; he was, after all, also a relative of the Tobiads. Under Jason, the Hellenist aristocrats who had been shut out of Jerusalem’s economic picture were now able to assert their own influence in both the secular and religious affairs of the province. This meant that now the city could be open to more hellenizing practices than were previously allowed, including the building of a gymnasium. According to 1 Maccabees, when this occurred a number of Jews “made themselves uncircumcised,” that is, underwent epispasm. This didn’t mean that the city became Greek overnight. The Hellenist changes were not mandatory; in fact, they were quite in order with Jewish law, which recognized that the law of the king had equal standing with the law of Moses (cf. Ezra 7:26).

The acceptance of the hellenizing influences under Jason is bourne out by all of the ancient Jewish sources, none of which accuse Jason of transgressing Zadokite law or mismanagement of the temple’s cultic rites. Jason didn’t last long as high priest, however. Within three or four years he found himself outbid for the post by Menelaus, an Aaronite priest not of the Zadokite family—he was in fact a brother of the Simon whose agitation had resulted in Onias’ ouster. Antiochus accepted Menelaus’ bid, ignorant of its consequences for the religious balance in Judea. Jason fled to Ammon where he could receive protection from the Tobiads. The transition of power to Menelaus was nowhere as easy as when Jason became high priest. Onais was still alive in Antioch and Jason was in Ammon. Both had a legitimate claim to the high priesthood and thus were threats to Menelaus’ position. Despite this, and sensing a positive shift in their political influence, the hellenizing faction in Jerusalem supported Menelaus, but as Josephus reported, the Tobiad and Zadokite partisans strongly challenged the Menelaus faction. They even appealed to the king but he reaffirmed his support for Menelaus.

But Menelaus had a problem. He had to pay for his appointment. To raise funds, 2 Maccabees accuses him of selling temple vessels. It’s likely he used temple resources to pay at least part of his bribe because Onias, being held as an enforced “guest” of the Seleucid king in a town near Antioch and who still had contacts in the temple, learned of the questionable disposition of some temple property, perhaps by a subordinate priest, whereupon he exposed the theft of which he accused Menelaus. This immediately resulted in considerable public outrage and the situation became a political threat that Menelaus could not ignore; 2 Macc. 4:34 reports that he arranged Onias’ murder, which probably occurred in 170. Antiochus was enraged because having Onias alive was politically useful; he had the assassin executed but he couldn’t take immediate action against Menelaus because he had become involved in a developing problem with Egypt. Allowing Menelaus to bribe his way out of trouble, Antiochus permitted him to remain as high priest in order to maintain Seleucid control and stability in Jerusalem until the Egyptian problem could be resolved.

The threat presented by Egypt was in the form of their aggressive demands that Syria return Palestine (which had been captured in 200 by Antiochus III), threatening an attack unless the Seleucids relinquished the territory. Antiochus quickly responded with a peremptory strike on Egypt in 170–169 that drove deep into Egypt, captured Ptolemy VI, and conquered most of the Nile delta area but stopping before reaching Alexandria. Antiochus made Ptolemy a puppet king and forced him to execute a non-aggression treaty. Meanwhile, during this campaign the report of Antiochus’ death reached Jerusalem. Acting on this false rumor and believing himself to be the legitimate high priest, Jason attempted to take Jerusalem by force, but Antiochus, returning from his successful campaign in Egypt, intervened and Jason had to flee the region, eventually seeking sanctuary in Sparta, a country that had warm relations with Judea, as mentioned earlier.

According to the histories in Maccabees, Antiochus saw this incident as a revolt against his kingdom and marched into Jerusalem, taking the opportunity to loot the temple of all of its valuables, kill numerous residents, restore Menelaus, and appoint military governors in the province to enforce his rule. The traditional histories further tell us that Antiochus installed the Jewish Hellenist party as Jerusalem’s government and changed the temple into a Greek facility. Any Jews who continued to follow the Zadokite laws were persecuted; the Hellenists enforced Greek law in all areas including religious activities. This is how the histories read. But did all of this actually happen, and if so, how could such a radical shift in the Seleucid king’s moving from a policy of non-interference with the internal religious practices of Judea to the imposition of Greek worship practices have happened?

Some of what is described did actually occur, but not quite in the way the books of Maccabees relate the events. Traditional Jewish mythology based on Maccabees places the blame for Jewish persecutions squarely on the shoulders of Antiochus, claiming that it was his campaign to hellenize every province of his realm and replace local customs and culture with those of the Greeks. It’s true that Antiochus wanted to get his hands on the temple’s riches and Jason’s revolt gave him the opportunity to do so as a punitive measure. But a close reading of Josephus, Polybius, Livy, and some Dead Sea Scroll fragments, gives a different impression of the events that occurred in Judea in the years between 169 and 167. After Jason failed in his attempt to regain the high priesthood, Antiochus intervened in Jerusalem to restore order, as described above, but probably only to the extent of looting the temple. Then in 168, Egypt came under a co-regency where Ptolemy VIII joined Ptolemy VI and the emboldened rulers broke Egypt’s treaty with Antiochus that had just been concluded in 169. When Antiochus reacted and sent troops against Egypt, this time he was stopped by the Roman ambassador and was forced to withdraw his forces, thus making control of Judea once again of ultimate strategic importance.

A historic and cultural note: It is the encounter between Antiochus and the Roman ambassador, Gaius Popillus Laenas, who forced the Seleucids’ withdrawal that gave rise to the famous metaphor of “crossing the line drawn in the sand.”

It is at this point that we must consider a cryptic report from Josephus: “The sons of Tobias were cast out of the city and fled to Antiochus and besought him ... to make an expedition to Judea” (Jewish War 1:31–32). Clearly a second event had occurred in Jerusalem, one that the Seleucid king considered a grave threat. It appears this threat was in the person of Onias IV, the son of the murdered Onias III, who upon reaching his majority, had now emerged to challenge Menelaus as the legitimate heir to the high priesthood under Jewish law. Menelaus had to flee the city. Apparently the Zadokite faction, supported by the traditionalists, rallied around Onias IV and posed so great a threat to the Hellenists that they called for Syrian aid.

Enraged by his humiliation at the hands of Rome and faced with a potential fifth column in the now strategically important Judea, Antiochus had no choice but to react swiftly and decisively. He entered Jerusalem, slaughtered many Jews, and established a military citadel, the Acra, in the city. He realized that in order to maintain control of Judea, he would need to eliminate all of the opposition to Menelaus’ party. Apparently the advice for how this could be accomplished was provided by the Jews themselves—a program of forced hellenization would be begun. Forced hellenization would expose the political leanings of the traditionalists, who, in opposing the adoption of Greek law, would show that they were against the Seleucid government and under the martial law now imposed, they could be executed as traitors. Onias IV escaped capture and fled to Egypt where he and his followers were able to build a temple at Leontopolis that was modeled after the one in Jerusalem. This temple existed for 243 years; Roman emperor Vespasian, fearing that this temple might become another center for Jewish rebellion, ordered its demolition in 73 CE.

Scholars are fairly certain that the Hellenist Jews were behind much of the Greek practices now introduced in Judea. It is highly unlikely that Antiochus and his advisors would have been sufficiently familiar with Jewish law to have come up with some of the “abominations” attributed to him by the books of Maccabees, such as banning circumcision and the observance of Shabbat, defiling the sanctuary, sacrificing swine, destroying law books, erecting rural altars, and offering incense in the streets. The latter two practices were more a violation of Zadokite law than traditional law, and the forced consumption of swine didn’t even reflect a forced conformance to Greek customs; eating swine was not typical of Gentiles of the region or even of the Greeks in general. Lucian of Samosata (ca. 125–180 CE), an ethnic Assyrian, wrote that eating pork was prohibited in Syria; other Greek authors writing about this period also affirm that eating pork was avoided throughout Anatolia.

These conclusions are generally accepted by modern scholars. According to Paolo Sacchi, “The very fact that Antiochus was able to individuate precisely which Jewish practices to abolish demonstrates that the person advising him on the matter knew the Judaism of the period very well and wanted to destroy that particular Judaism, not all Judaism.” The implication is that Antiochus’ advisor was Menelaus or a close priestly associate.

Furthermore, the religious oppression begun in Antiochus’ name was never a clash between Judaism and Hellenism. Martin Jaffee commented on the confrontation of Judaism and Hellenism as portrayed in contemporary writings, “From the perspective of hindsight ... it is clear that the debate was not between Judaism and Hellenism as opposed forces, but really over the degree to which an already hellenized Judaism would self-consciously conform even further to international cultural norms.” We can only conclude that Antiochus’ response to the civil unrest in Judea was not religious oppression, it was to quell a developing civil war at a time when the seizing of this region of the Seleucid empire was threatened by Egypt. And the role of Menelaus and his hellenizing party was not to abolish Judaism; it was to end the Zadokites’ religious and economic control of Judea.

The Jewish Revolt

We’ve set the stage for the political, economic, and religious conditions in Judea just prior to the Maccabean revolt. Based on this analysis, just how strong was the religious motivation for rebellion? The temple was the center of the province’s secular leadership as well as its cultic center. Many, if most of Jerusalem’s residents had long accepted, if not supported, the hellenistic customs that had been introduced beginning many decades earlier. There was no love for the priesthood either; recall that the priests were the secular tax collectors in addition to their priestly duties, and were likely the owners of land that was being worked by tenant farmers. But external secular rulers were always careful not to trigger the nationalistic sentiments of their subject peoples because this would certainly lead to political unrest and potential revolts.

We know that politically, the rulers of this period were quite sensitive to the religious beliefs of subject peoples; clear evidence for this comes from mid-first-century CE, when, in the midst of a punitive expedition against a Jewish village, a Roman soldier was executed for burning a Torah scroll he had confiscated. Under Greek rule the religious beliefs of subject peoples were also respected as long as they did not oppose or challenge the government. So it is against this background that Antiochus IV’s anti-Jewish edicts appear so unique and so strange. This is why it’s assumed that the idea for the edict came from the Jewish hellenizers and not from the king. Again we have to assume that the basic purpose of Antiochus’ hellenizing edicts were to identify the political opponents of the Menelaus faction, but the edicts also affected traditional Jews who probably had no particular political leanings.

Also recall that economically, the countryside dwellers were extremely disadvantaged. Mentioned earlier, land ownership was likely controlled by the priests and aristocracy, those of the Hellenist group, while the land was worked by tenant farmers, most of whom were traditionalists. Up until 167, most of the edicts of the Seleucid government had little effect outside of Jerusalem, but this changed in 167 when active hellenizing began to be conducted in the countryside and now widely affected the common folk. Such was the case in Modi’in when the hellenizers came to call, provoking Mattathias to resist. Mattathias was a Levite of the clan of Joarib, and according to 1 Maccabees, a direct descendent of Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson. His great-grandfather was a priest named Asmonaeus; thus the family was known as the Hasmoneans.

Just how many of the hellenizing changes introduced to the countryside were polemicized in Maccabees and in Josephus is unclear, but the effect of the policies that were introduced was sufficient to spark a violent response by traditional Jews. At first, the Hasmoneans’ violence was directed against the Jews who voluntarily offered pagan sacrifices; it was only later, when the Syrians mounted an offensive to stop the Hasmoneans, that they directly engaged in battle against Syrian forces.

During the early years of the revolt, the Hasmoneans actually conducted diplomatic negotiations with Antiochus, trying to reach a peaceful resolution of their grievances, but negotiations repeatedly broke down. It was only after the Maccabees had achieved some significant successes that Antiochus (or his representative in Antioch) took a conciliatory step; a letter dated October 15, 164 that was composed in the royal court and sent to Jerusalem, offered amnesty to anyone who wanted to return to their homes, freedom to observe their dietary restrictions and other laws, and forgiveness for any of their previous anti-government activity. This letter was secured by Menelaus and brought back to Jerusalem. Some fighters took advantage of the amnesty but most of the Hasmonean soldiers did not.

Figure 29. Hasmonean Dynasty

The military campaigns of the Hasmoneans (Figure 29) are well known to most people who know the Chanukah story. Judah Maccabeus, Mattathias’ third son, appears to have been something of a military genius and initially led the Hasmonean forces. The Maccabean campaign was based on guerilla tactics, highly effective propaganda, excellent intelligence, and most important, the fact that Antiochus was occupied with another major military problem in his realm, the revolt of Parthia, and he couldn’t bring anything close to his full military attention to deal with the Judean uprising. For the Maccabees, propaganda was essential in rallying the support of the Judeans. The most significant example of propaganda from this period is the book of Daniel; it was written at this time partly as a polemic against the rule of the Greeks and forecast the coming of a glorious kingdom of saints which would succeed the four kingdoms of the “beasts.” The Greeks were cast as one of the “beasts” which God would overthrow. By taking advantage of politics, conditions in the empire, and propaganda, the Hasmoneans succeeded in turning a civil war into a national war for religious freedom. (See the Chronologies of the Intertestamental Rulers.)

In late 164, the Hasmoneans captured Jerusalem and rededicated the temple; Antiochus IV died in the same year after becoming ill during a major military campaign against Parthia. This was the first significant turning point for Jewish fortunes in their revolt, since Antiochus was survived by a single heir, his nine-year-old son, Antiochus V Eupator. Technically Antiochus IV was a usurper; the rightful heir was Demetrius, son of Seleucus IV, who was still being held as a hostage in Rome, but the Roman Senate had refused to release him. They preferred to have Syria ruled by a boy and a regent than a potentially ambitious and vigorous young man. The effect was that the Seleucid Empire was severely crippled in dealing with both the major revolt in Parthia and the minor one in Judea.

Throughout the period of the struggle for Jerusalem and even following the rededication of the temple, Menelaus remained as high priest and Syrian forces continued to hold the Acra. The fact that the Maccabees allowed Menelaus to continue to officiate as high priest suggests that the situation involving Menelaus, the hellenizers, and Antiochus was far more complex than we can even imagine. The capture of Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 164 prompted a Syrian response, and in 163–162, a Syrian force led by Antiochus V’s regent, the general Lysias, arrived at Jerusalem and besieged the city. After capturing the city, Lysias had Menelaus executed, presumably holding him responsible for the advice Antiochus IV had been given that caused the king to become involved in the persecutions of the Jews (or possibly for Onias’ assassination). He appointed Alcimus, an Aaronite who was a moderate hellenizer, in his place. Then, before he could fully pacify the city, Lysias learned that Antiochus V’s throne was being threatened by Philip, the commander of the majority of the Seleucid army, who was returning to Antioch from the east. Since he had to return to Antioch immediately to defend the throne, Lysias felt compelled to offer peace to Judea under the favorable terms of Antiochus III.

The Maccabees accepted the Syrian peace offer, but the spirit of the treaty was immediately broken by the Syrians who, on leaving Jerusalem, had the city walls torn down. Lysias’ army immediately marched to Antioch to defend against this new rival. Judah Maccabeus then began to take steps to establish full Maccabean control of Jerusalem; some were political. The book of 1 Maccabees reports that in 161 he sent Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan as envoys to Rome where supposedly they signed a treaty with the Roman Senate. While the historical accuracy of this event has been challenged by some scholars, there is secure evidence that an embassy was sent to Rome in 139 by Simon Maccabeus to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Seleucid kingdom.

The departure of Lysias from Jerusalem was the pivotal moment in the revolt. The Maccabees now had a treaty that restored the religious freedoms they had previously enjoyed. But this wasn’t enough; perhaps the Maccabees wanted to remove all hellenizing influences from Jerusalem because as soon as the Syrians left, the Hasmonean party attempted to bar Alcimus from taking office. The Syrians responded by again sending troops to intervene and a series of military operations in support of Alcimus’ high priesthood ensued. In the last of these, in 160, Judah Maccabeus was killed in battle against Bacchides at Elasa, and in a skirmish with the Nabateans shortly afterward, John was killed. Hasmonean leadershipwas assumed by the youngest brother Jonathan, who had demonstrated strong military skills.

But the regency rule of Antiochus V had been cut short when in 162, Demetrius, having escaped from Rome, had returned to Syria where he was received as the true king. Antiochus V and his regent Lysias were soon put to death. The Syrians were able to support Alcimus as high priest only until 159, when he died. Then, wary of imposing another appointee of their choice for the office and probably just as happy to see the high priesthood vacant, the Syrians did nothing; the Jews, still embroiled in internal factional disputes, selected no one for the office either. Despite Josephus’ claim in Jewish Wars (but later reversed in Antiquities), there is no historical record of anyone serving as the high priest following Alcimus until 152, although the high priest’s cultic religious functions must have been performed by someone.

Two questions arise about the rebellion: once it began with a family group from a little town, how did it grow large enough to challenge the Syrians? And how could the rebellion sustain itself despite repeated setbacks and continue even after attaining its objective? To answer the first question we have to assume that whatever the hellenizers did to prohibit Jewish practices, it was so outrageous that it threatened the basic beliefs of a significant number of even politically neutral Jews. We know from 1 Maccabees of the existence of a group known as the “hasidim,” “righteous ones,” who were devout traditionalists. The hasidim joined the revolt early and it is a number of members of this group who were mentioned as being slaughtered when they refused to fight on the Sabbath. The Maccabees themselves, even though they were an Aaronite priestly family, had no such reservations. We also must assume that the Joarib clan of Mattathias must have been large and provided members who immediately joined his five sons in their revolt. Apparently these Judeans were sufficient to serve as the nucleus of a disciplined fighting force.

The initial Maccabee resistance was not against the Syrians; it was directed against the hellenizing Jews who had adopted pagan practices and only secondarily against Syrian troops who arrived to stop what essentially had become a religious civil war. After reorienting their campaign to oppose the Syrians instead of punishing hellenizing Jews, the Maccabees were able to sustain their resistence by spreading throughout Judea their message that their resistance was on behalf of all of the people. They now asserted that their purpose was to remove Antiochus’ anti-Jewish laws that prevented the people from following the laws of Moses. There was no question of political independence from the Seleucids, however. Judea had been a subject country of an outside power for over 400 years and even the prophets of the Tanakh spoke of the need to follow the laws of their kings, whoever they may be. Cyrus of Persia was even said by deutero-Isaiah to be God’s anointed king. The assumed goal of the Maccabees was simply to restore the religious freedoms they had enjoyed ever since Persian rule; this is the impression one gets from reading 1 Maccabees. So, returning to our second question, once the goal of religious freedom was reached, the rededication of the Temple and the restoration of religious freedom, how was the Hasmonean resistence sustained?

We can understand how small groups can react violently against a challenge to their beliefs, but it’s well known that rebellions can be widely sustained more likely for economic reasons than religious or idealistic ones. It’s possible that the Maccabees were able to attract fighters to their cause after they had secured religious freedom more by appealing to economic motives—for example, the control of the hellenizers over land ownership—than for any idealistic reason, or the two reasons could have co-existed with equal support. Another factor was undoubtably the increasing instability of the Seleucid kingdom. During the period of the Maccabean uprising, there were several revolts among other subject provinces elsewhere in the empire. This distracted the Seleucid government, keeping the bulk of their military power occupied elsewhere, and allowed the Hasmoneans to build a political and economic base and to become a dynastic power, just as the Zadokites and Tobiads had done generations earlier, and just as similar dynasties were forming in other subject regions in the empire. Further, the geographical position of Judea as a buffer between Syria and Egypt served the Hasmoneans as a bargaining point; if the Seleucids allowed the country to follow its own laws, then Judea could provide a certain amount of protection in a sensitive border area. By pursuing a careful and astute mix of military and diplomatic operations, the Hasmoneans were able to turn their resistence into a legitimate government that the Seleucid kings could tolerate and even support.

Aftermath of the Revolt

Now began a fascinating period during which the Hasmoneans under Jonathan, the youngest son of Mattathias, and the Syrians under Bacchides, the general who had defeated Judah Maccabeus, tiptoed carefully around each other, not wanting to upset a fragile de facto armistice. Jewish factions still battled each other in Jerusalem and some even tried to draw the Syrians into their conflict, but Bacchides, having the memory of the Hasmonean defeat of three prior Syrian generals to ponder, wasn’t about to take the bait. Instead and incredibly, he offered a generous treaty to Jonathan guaranteeing peace, which Jonathan accepted, apparently in exchange agreeing not to occupy Jerusalem or to contest the continued Syrian rule of the area.

This was a watershed moment for the Hasmoneans since this treaty afforded Jonathan the status of a recognized leader and the guarantor of peace and stability for the Syrians in the region. The treaty affirmed Jonathan as the de facto political leader of Judea and appointed Simon, Jonathan’s surviving brother, as governor of the coastal region of Palestine. This recognition also enabled Jonathan, who set up his headquarters in Michmash and not in Jerusalem, to consolidate Hasmonean power without any opposition from the Syrian government. By not entering Jerusalem, Jonathan was symbolically acknowledging that the Hasmoneans were not challenging Syrian rule over Judea. The Syrians accepted that the Maccabean rebellion had been directed against the anti-Jewish policies of Antiochus IV and not against the rule of the Seleucid government and were happy to support the presence of a friendly stabilizing force in Judea. The region was at peace for a few years and then the Seleucid crown was again challenged.

Figure 30. Seleucid Judea under the Maccabees

A rival to Demetrius I’s throne, Alexander Balas, a pretender who claimed to be the son of Antiochus IV, appeared, and having the backing of the rulers of Egypt and Pergamon in Anatolia, challenged Demetrius for the crown. Both Demetrius and Balas contacted Jonathan with offers to secure his loyalty and Hasmonean support. According to 1 Maccabees, Demetrius had either acknowledged or appointed Jonathan as high priest in 153; the existing details about this are uncertain, but Jonathan eventually threw his support to Balas. Alexander Balas succeeded in overthrowing Demetrius in 150 and accorded Jonathan royal honors. Under Jonathan and with Judea remaining as a province under Seleucid control, the Hasmoneans began to expand their territory (Figure 30). Then in yet another Seleucid war with Egypt, in 145 Balas was defeated by Ptolemy VI and the Seleucid throne was taken by Demetrius’ son Demetrius II Nicator.

A period of unstable relations, treachery, and internal challenges for Seleucid rulership then ensued and Judea was a victim of the turmoil. Diodorus Trypho, a general under Demetrius II, rebelled, seeking to rule the empire as regent of the young son of Alexander Balas. Trypho had promised Jonathan to make his brother Simon the governor of all the coastlands from Egypt to Tyre in exchange for Jonathan's support, but instead Trypho betrayed him, entrapping and capturing Jonathan in 143 and eventually murdering him in 142. Simon, the last surviving brother, assumed leadership in 143. Simon, however, did not contest the overall Seleucid authority over Judea, he simply ignored Trypho and recognized Demetrius II. In return, a grateful Demetrius granted Judea full immunity from any taxes, thus basically conceding its independence from Syria. Simon immediately besieged the Seleucid garrison at the Acra, which soon fell; he also occupied the hellenized cities of Beth-zur and Joppa.

Hasmonean Dynasty

In 140, Simon proclaimed the creation of a new dynasty under the Hasmoneans; according to 1 Maccabees this was ratified by “the priests and the people and ... the elders of the land.” With Simon, the legitimacy of a Hasmonean high priest was finally settled; the Hasidic party finally could justify a non-Zadokite in the office, recognizing that since Onias IV had fled to Egypt about twenty years earlier, the Zadokite family had forfeited any claim to the high priesthood. I mentioned above that in 139 Simon sent an embassy to Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Seleucid kingdom. Then in 138, Antiochus VII Sidetes ascended to the Seleucid throne and immediately demanded that Judea give up the Hellenist cities it had annexed. Simon refused, provoking a military clash near Gezer in which the Judeans prevailed. Simon’s life was cut short in 134 when his son-in-law, in a conspiracy instigated by the Seleucids, assassinated him. His two oldest sons were murdered at the same time but his third son, John Hyrcanus, was warned and was able to escape. He succeeded his father in Judea’s leadership.

Hyrcanus had to face immediate demands from Antiochus VII. At the beginning of his rule, he was compelled to furnish troops to Antiochus for the Seleucid campaign against Parthia. When the Judean troops arrived, however, Antiochus was dissatisfied—perhaps with their numbers—and dismissed them. Then in 131, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem with a large force, and in a siege that lasted more than two years, threatened its destruction. Hyrcanus had to endure humiliating terms, including paying a large ransom, providing hostages, and permitting the destruction of the city’s walls, but was able to negotiate not acceding to Antiochus’ initial demand to have a Syrian garrison restored to the Acra. While Antiochus recognized Hyrcanus’ rule over Judea, Hyrcanus had to accept Judea’s status of a subject domain of the Seleucids. Once this status of Judea was settled, relationships between the states returned to civility. For the next twenty years, Judea continued to remain in the Seleucid sphere of influence and further challenges to the Seleucid crown resulted in drawing Hasmonean troops to the aid of one or another contender.

Figure 31. Political Palestine, 130 BCE

But events in the ever-shrinking Seleucid kingdom were anything but stable (Figure 31). Antiochus was killed in 129 in a battle with the Parthians; the resulting disorder in Seleucia gave Hyrcanus the opportunity to expand Judea’s boundaries. During the following years, the Seleucids were plagued with constant challenges for the crown and external setbacks such as provinces like Judea breaking away and wars with Egypt, Parthia, and Armenia. In addition, the threat of Rome was always present for Syria. The list of Seleucid rulers in the last half of the second century shows the extent of the internal strife for control of the throne. During the last decade of John Hyrcanus’ rule and high priesthood, Seleucid interference, although present, was diminishing. During this period, the occasional interferences that arose in the Hasmonean rule of Judea by the Seleucids were cut short by internal struggles for control of Seleucia’s throne. Also at this time, the empire was rapidly breaking apart as one province after another seceded. In Judea’s immediate vicinity, the Ituraeans of Lebanon, the Ammonites of the Transjordan, and the Arabian Nabateans were other provinces that broke away from Seleucid control to become independent. By the end of the century, the only territory that remained of the once-sprawling Seleucid Empire consisted of Antioch and a few nearby cities.

Figure 32. Hasmonean Expansion

While the Seleucid Empire was crumbling, the Hasmoneans were expanding their sphere of influence and under Hyrcanus I, the area under Judean control grew to over four times the size that it had been at the time of the Maccabean revolt. Hyrcanus, using a new mercenary army he had assembled, added the areas shaded in medium green in the Figure 32 map during his comparatively long reign of thirty years. Since the Seleucid kingdom was roiled with internal turmoil during most of his reign, Hyrcanus was able to exploit their lack of interference with Judea to increase Judea’s boundaries. In 128, Hyrcanus invaded the Transjordan, ancient Moab, and invested the city of Medeba, capturing it after a six-month siege, and then took a number of other cities in the region. In about 126, Hyrcanus embarked on an extensive campaign against Samaria, which appealed to Seleucia for help. After a siege of the city of Samaria that lasted for more than a year, the troops provided by Antiochus IX for its defense were defeated, Samaria was destroyed and its inhabitants were sent into slavery. During this period the Judean army overran Samaria, occupied Scythopolis, reduced Shechem, and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerezim. Hyrcanus’ campaign against Idumaea in about 125 is particularly noteworthy. Josephus reports that he converted the Idumaeans to Judaism by force, having those who refused conversion murdered; such forced conversions were an unprecedented action in Jewish history. By 115 to 110 Judea had become totally independent of any Seleucid influence.

The conquered territories became politically part of the Jewish state, but culturally they probably changed not at all. Jewish law was imposed and Jewish holidays were instituted; likely the only significant result was that markets were closed on the Sabbath. The custom of these Semitic provinces was for males to be circumcised, so forced conversions had little effect on conforming to this practice although it was obviously a sore point (!?) for men living in the captured Hellenist cities. Some groups did not accept the rule of the Judeans; a community of Idumaeans fled to Egypt so they could continue to practice their religion. Undoubtably the inhabitants of these captured regions engaged in some form of religious syncretism. It is interesting to consider that Christianity, a sect that was quite ambivalent about traditional Jewish practices, had its roots in the Galilee region, a part of Palestine that was annexed late in the Hasmonean period.

During the period of Hyrcanus’ rule, a number of new political parties made their first appearance, including the Pharisees and Sadducees (cf. Figure 21). Until this time any political power not held by the Hasmoneans was associated with the Hasidic party and the Hellenist party. The hasidim consisted of the most traditional Jews; this party had been somewhat aligned with the Maccabeans during the war for religious freedom but most broke with the Hasmoneans over their occupying the office of high priest. The Hasidic position insisted on religious autonomy, strict adherence to the Torah’s laws, and total rejection of hellenistic culture. The Hellenists consisted of those who supported assimilation with Greek culture and this group shared strong affinities with the Hasmoneans. By the time of Hyrcanus’ reign, as Josephus reports, the hasidim group had generally evolved into the Pharisees, a name that some scholars believe came from the Hebrew perushim, meaning “those who separate themselves,” and some scholars believe the Essene sect (discussed below) was another Hasidic offshoot.

In my introduction I mentioned that the idea of the evolution of the rabbis from the Pharisees, as is commonly believed, is a simplistic viewpoint and not quite correct. It appears that the early Pharisees were mainly a political group and only later, by the first century BCE, had evolved into a religious sect. If you read the Talmud (e.g., BT Sotah 22b) or the Dead Sea Scroll Nahum Pesher (4QNahP)—and especially the book of Matthew (Mt 23:1–36)—you’ll immediately notice the venom that these writings pour on the Pharisees. Many Pharisees were reviled for their ostentatious piety; for example, some were ridiculed for wearing in public not one, but two sets of tefillin! The later Pharisaic sect did not directly evolve into the rabbinic movement; it was more likely that earlier offshoot sects of the Pharisees did. Matthew’s anonymous author of the first Gospel collected some Jewish writings about the Pharisees from the mid-first century CE; these writings, in a common form of Jewish admonitions, captured much of the disgust many Jews felt about their pietistic pretensions.

The more traditional-leaning Hellenists, meanwhile, had evolved into the Sadducees, ts’dukim in Hebrew, a term some think may be linked to “Zadok,” the high priestly dynasty that ended during the Maccabean war, although the root means “right, just, or proper.” The Sadducees never fully assimilated into Hellenism; they felt that the Torah laws did not have to be strictly followed but their observance could be modified to conform with the current times. The doctrinal split between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and between the Pharisees and Hasmoneans, can be traced to this period; by this time the Pharisees had come to view the Hasmonean high priesthood as illegitimate and the Sadducees as being too hellenistically secular.

Essene Subgroups

Anshe Ma’aseh (men of miraculous deeds)
Banna’im (the builders)
Hashsha’im (the observers of secrecy)
Kehala Kaddisha (holy congregation)
Kesherim (the blameless ones)
Naḥum (most holy ones)
Nekiyye ha-Da’at (pure-minded)
Watikim (the men of firm principles)
Yire’e Ḥet (fearers of sin)
Zanu’a or Kadosh (saints)
Zenu’im (the chaste ones)

The third group that we know existed as part of Judea’s political landscape of this period was the Essenes. Scholars regard this group as more of a religious sect than a political party. The etymology of the Essene name is unknown but the sect is mentioned using that name by a number of ancient writers. The first to mention them was the Roman Pliny the Elder (died ca. 79 CE) in his Natural History where he related that the Essenes do not marry, possess no money, and “had existed for thousands of generations.” He referred to a settlement near the Dead Sea. The group was also mentioned by Philo and in detail by Josephus, who gave an extensive description of them in Jewish Wars, where he claimed first-hand knowledge of their practices. The Essenes were never a homogeneous group (see the sidebar); they called themselves by a number of different names and their communities were to be found all throughout Palestine and possibly in Egypt. A majority of scholars believe that the community at Qumran was an Essene subgroup because of their extreme isolation and Pliny’s reference. The Essenes grew out of the roots of Enochic Judaism and many of the hasidim became Essenes. The Pharisees and some Zadokites who joined the Essene sect were those who strongly objected to the Hasmonean high priesthood; in fact, some scholars believe that the sect began to form in response to Simon’s ascension as high priest.

In secular politics, Hyrcanus I was active in soliciting relations with outside powers. Rome, which had been friendly to Judea under Simon, continued to maintain a good relationship and required that their allies in the region, such as Athens, Pergamum, and Ptolemaic Egypt were to do so as well. It appears that the Roman Senate adopted two resolutions establishing a treaty of friendship with Judea at this time. Internally, an inscription found on coins minted under Hyrcanus I, “Johanan the High Priest and the Assembly of the Jews,” shows that some kind of political advisory group existed. It’s possible that Hyrcanus considered himself primarily as high priest and shared the rule of Judea with a governing body of some kind, or the body could have served a legitimizing function for Hyrcanus’ decrees. As Hyrcanus was not a member of the Zadokite line, his acting as high priest was an irritant to the Pharisees, but when he attempted to assume the title of king late in his rule, traditionalist objections became intense, since they believed that only a descendent of David could be Judea’s king. Thwarted by the Pharisees, Hyrcanus severed relations with them and abolished many of the laws that they had championed.

John Hyrcanus had designated his wife, whose name is not known, to succeed him as Judea’s ruler, but when he died in 104, his oldest son, Judah Aristobulus, imprisoned her and seized control and the high priesthood with some assistance from his brother Antigonus, who died in the same year of unclear reasons. According to Josephus, Aristobulus’ wife Alexandra Salome played a major role in his death, which was accomplished by some form of psychological torment. While Hyrcanus had a Hasidic background and was sensitive to the religious sensibilities of the traditionalists, it appears that his son lacked a traditional background in his education because he was completely Hellenist in his policies. Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean high priest to formally proclaim himself king; apparently Pharisaic opposition could not prevent him from doing so. His short rule of one year was characterized both by brutality and cruelty; he imprisoned three of his four brothers in addition to his mother and everyone but one brother died of starvation. During Aristobulus’ reign, the Jewish assembly known as the knesset became known by its Greek name synedrion, “sanhedrin” in Hebrew. Aristobulus expanded Judea’s territory into the north, annexing the Galilee region of the Itureans and like his father, judaizing its inhabitants. His death in 103 was probably a result of illness.

Figure 33. Hasmonean Conquests

Upon Aristobulus’ death, his sole surviving brother, Alexander Yannai (or Jannaeus), was released from prison by his brother’s wife Alexandra and proclaimed high priest and king. She then married him in a levirate marriage but as he was also high priest, this was a violation of Torah law and greatly upset the traditionalists. Yannai was a vigorous but ruthless ruler. He apparently had been disliked by his father and had been banned from Jerusalem; consequently he spent his youth in the Galilee where he became strongly indoctrinated by hellenistic thought. His reign was characterized by constant and almost indiscriminate warfare to acquire new territories (Figure 33). On becoming king, he immediately began a military campaign to capture the Hellenist cities on the coast and subsequently annexed Iturea, east of the upper Jordan valley. Later in his rule he added the area of Gaza and its surroundings, but his forays against the Nabateans were not as successful; much of the territory initially gained was lost within several years.

Politically, Yannai was merciless in his persecution of the Pharisees; he used his Greek mercenary soldiers against any groups who opposed him. One incident related by Josephus that occurred late in Yannai’s career concerned Yannai’s mockery of the Sukkot “Water Libation Ceremony,” a highlight of the festival observance. As high priest, he was to perform the ceremony by pouring the water on the altar; instead he poured it on his feet. The outraged crowd of pilgrims pelted him with their etrogim (citrons). According to Josephus, Yannai turned his troops on the worshipers and some six thousand were killed. This incident undoubtably was a significant contributing factor to the civil war that began within a year.

The civil war was triggered in the aftermath of a battle between Yannai and the Nabateans in which Yannai’s forces were defeated. Yannai’s earlier capture of Gaza had seriously interfered with the Nabatean trade routes to the Mediterranean; the Nabateans went to war to force Yannai to relinquish the territory he had earlier annexed including Gaza. When Yannai returned to Jerusalem after his defeat, he faced a rebellion in progress; a sizeable number of Pharisees and other Judeans had begun a campaign to force Yannai’s overthrow. The resulting civil war lasted over six years and cost some 50,000 Judean lives; toward the end of the war the Seleucids became involved—at the rebels’ request—and initially defeated Yannai at Shechem. But then the rebellious Judeans, realizing that a victorious Syria could again put Judea under Selucid rule, turned against the Seleucid army, which was routed and withdrew. According to Josephus, a vengeful Yannai then had 800 of the rebels arrested, brought to Jerusalem, and crucified. Before executing them, however, he had the throats of their wives and children cut while they watched. This account is corroborated by the Nahum Pesher (4QNahP) where the Judean civil war and Yannai’s brutal retribution are specifically mentioned. By the end of Yannai’s reign, the acrimony between the Pharisees and Sadducees, who supported Yannai, was at an all-time high.

First-Century CE Jewish Sects

(proto) Karaites

By mentioning only the Pharisee and Sadducee parties and the Essene sect, I don’t want to give the impression that these groups were the only political and religious groups in Palestine at the time. These three were the major ones. By the mid-first century CE some thirty different parties can be identified; a partial list is shown in the sidebar. While we know the names of many of the groups that existed, we know little of their members’ religious beliefs. Some may have been apolitical, support or opposition of the high priesthood was a religious and not political stance. Some groups probably were in general alignment with either the Sadducees or Pharisees. Some were probably quite small but their names came to be preserved in contemporary writings because they were so radical, particularly the Zealots and Sicarii (literally “dagger-men”). Despite the fact that so many sects existed and flourished during the late Hellenistic period, a vast majority of Jews belonged to no sect, either religious or political.

Although he had two sons, Alexander Yannai named his wife, Alexandra Salome, as his heir. This was a common practice among Hellenist rulers but this was the first time this had been done in Jewish history—although John Hyrcanus had attempted to do it. Yannai died in 76, and Alexandra designated her older son, Hyrcanus II, to serve as high priest because that role was forbidden to women. She appointed her younger son Aristobulus II as the military commander. Under Alexandra and in a complete reversal from Yannai’s policies, the Pharisees were treated very well; the reasons for this are completely unknown. The legend grew that when Yannai lay dying, he had instructed Alexandra to make peace with them. Whether or not this was true, the Pharisees did so well under her rule that they began to persecute many of Yannai’s Sadducee partisans. The period of her rule was peaceful for the most part. She was able to keep the kingdom secure by maintaining good relations with the surrounding countries and bribing their rulers when necessary. The rabbis of the Talmud were most complimentary in discussing her reign.

Although Alexandra had named Hyrcanus II as her successor, three months after her death in 67, her younger son Aristobulus II seized the throne. Hyrcanus was not a very aggressive or ambitious person and did not initially resist his younger brother, who left him to hold the high priesthood in peace. But Hyrcanus had powerful friends who preferred that he remain king; one of these friends was Antipater, the son of the governor of Idumaea under Yannai and a friend of Yannai’s. Through Antipater, Hyrcanus also had the support of the Nabataean king and Antipater attracted the backing of some Iturean nobles as well. This powerful group of nobles persuaded Hyrcanus to resist his overthrow and the result was a civil war that ebbed and flowed over the next thirty years. From Josephus’ account of this period it appears that the Pharisee and Sadducee factions played virtually no role in the war between the brothers, which culminated with the ending of the Hasmonean dynasty and the loss of Judea’s independence.

In 66, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as Pompey and who had been given the task of subduing any opposition to Rome in Asia Minor, defeated the Armenian king in Anatolia, Mithridates of Pontus, and in 65 Roman troops arrived in Syria. Almost immediately various delegations from Judea approached the Romans in Damascus; separate contingents from each of the warring brothers and a third group, possibly representing the Pharisees, wanting to abolish Hasmonean rule altogether. When word of these delegations and of the state of affairs in Judea reached Pompey, after some initial indecision he decided to back Hyrcanus II. Aristobulus refused to yield to his brother; however, so in 63 Pompey entered Jerusalem, massacred a large number of people, and forcibly removed Aristobulus. Then to ensure Aristobulus’ future behavior, Pompey took as a hostage Alexander, his oldest son. Hyrcanus was restored to Judea’s leadership but now served only as a vassal of Rome. He was no longer king; now he was ethnarch, “leader of the people,” but remained as high priest. He was able to keep his position mainly through the skillful offices of Antipater, who was adept at cultivating the friendship of whichever Roman official held power at that moment. But this change in Judean leadership and Pompey’s backing of Hyrcanus had little effect on Judean politics; it actually only served to intensify the Judean civil war.

But now Rome could not take an active part in suppressing the partisan dispute since it had become embroiled in its own factional warfare between Pompey and Julius Caesar and later between Octavian and Mark Antony. Roman troops only responded with force when overt rebellions twice broke out. The first, an organized military challenge to Hyrcanus, occurred in 57–55, when Alexander (Aristobulus’ son), who had earlier escaped from Pompey’s custody, led a rebellion that was put down by the Roman general Aulus Gabinius. A second rebellion was triggered in 53 after the Parthians, who were still smarting from the defeat of Mithridates, defeated Crassus at Carrhae. This revolt began in Galilee in 53 and was led by another partisan of Aristobulus, one Pitholaus, and lasted more than two years. Under Gaius Cassius Longinus, then a senior official in Syria (and one of the future assassins of Julius Caesar), the Roman forces finally quashed the uprising and captured and executed Pitholaus. But Cassius soon had other problems to keep him busy; in 51 a light force of Parthians invaded Syria and besieged Cassius in Antioch. After about a month of fighting, not having sufficient forces to capture the city, they withdrew after plundering towns in the region.

Figure 34. Pompey's Settlements

After Pompey had occupied Jerusalem, the independence of Judea had basically come to an end. Pompey divided the country into a number of regions and only Idumaea, Peraea, and Galilee remained as part of the state (Figure 34). The other regions reverted to the control of their ancestral inhabitants and Rome appointed military governors to manage their affairs. Later, as a province of the Roman Empire under Herod, Judea was divided somewhat differently, but its overall size remained about the same.

Pompey died in 47 leaving Caesar in undisputed control of the Roman Republic. Earlier Caesar had been inclined to appoint Aristobulus as ethnarch but Aristobulus had unexpectedly died in 49, so Caesar reconfirmed Hyrcanus in both his positions. However, he made Antipater a Roman citizen and nominated him as procurator (Rome’s representative) for Judea, a position superior to Hyrcanus. Then the chaos in Rome came to a peak in 44 when Julius Caesar was assassinated and the Romans again became preoccupied with their internal affairs. Meanwhile, unrest continued in Judea when in 42, Antipater was assassinated, possibly by a Hyrcanus factionalist. Following this, Mark Antony, who had been a confidant of Caesar’s, appointed Antipater’s sons, Herod and Phasael, as tetrarchs (governors) of Galilee and Jerusalem respectively. With Phasael’s presence in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus continued to be virtually powerless, while Herod’s activities in the Galilee roiled that already troubled region.

The events in Rome in the years following Caesar’s assassination had thrown the Roman government into total disarray and in 40 the Parthians took this internal turmoil as an opportunity to attack Syria again, this time with a considerably larger force, with detachments attacking into Palestine. The Parthian invasion gave Aristobulus’ second son, Mattathias Antigonus, the opening he had been seeking. He had been involved in several abortive attempts to overthrow Hyrcanus, but the Parthian invasion presented a new way for him to gain the throne. He sent a large bribe to the Parthian king and the promise of slave women, if the Parthians would assist him. An agreement was reached and a detachment was detailed to assist Antigonus in capturing Jerusalem; these forces met Antigonus at Mt. Carmel where the combined army began to move on Jerusalem, defeating all opposition on the way. The Parthians seized Jerusalem, arrested Phasael, and deposed Hyrcanus. Antigonus cut off one of his uncle’s ears to make him unfit to serve as high priest and the Parthians exiled him to Mesopotamia where the Jewish population received him with great esteem. Antigonus was installed as king and high priest under Parthian protection. Now under Parthian arrest, Phasael committed suicide. Earlier Herod had escaped being captured and fled, first to Masada, and then was able to make his way to Rome.

Antigonus only ruled for three years. Herod was able to put his trip to Rome to good use; he succeeded in having the Roman Senate appoint him as king—but they specified no territory for him to rule; instead they assigned him the task of retaking Palestine from the Parthians. So, in 39 with a detachment of Roman troops and other forces he was able to recruit from among the Jews, mainly Idumaeans and Galileeans, Herod gradually managed to capture the districts of northern Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumaea. In 38 the Parthian king was killed during a skirmish in northern Syria against the Romans leaving the Parthians with no leader of comparable skill to replace him. Almost immediately, the Parthians withdrew most of their troops from Judea. Then in 37, now having eleven Roman legions at his disposal under the command of Sosius, Mark Antony’s general, plus his army of troops from the provinces, he was able to take Jerusalem. The capture of Jerusalem was marred by the Jewish soldiers in Herod’s army slaughtering a considerable number of the inhabitants of the besieged city and Herod, only with great difficulty, finally managed to curb the massacre.

With the capture of Jerusalem in 37, Antigonus was seized and sent to Antioch where he was executed on the orders of Mark Antony. The rule of the Hasmonean dynasty ended. Herod was now the client-king of Judea under Rome. Within eight years after Herod’s rule began, the paranoiac king had executed the last surviving Hasmoneans, his wife Mariamne and their two sons, Aristobulus and Alexander. The period of the Herodian dynasty and Roman control of Palestine are topics that are familiar to most of you, so at this point we will end the class.


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