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Historical and Archaeological Background, Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

Greco-Roman Period
In the fall of 539 B.C.E., Cyrus (II) the Great, already king of Persia and Medea,
vanquished the Babylonian army and gained control of the entire area of Mesopotamia.
He immediately adopted a policy which was to be characteristic of his reign- he
encouraged the repatriation of exiles and the rebuilding of shrines, motivated by a
benevolence which seemed to sit well both with his temperament and with the need to
govern a large and farflung empire.

In 538 B.C.E., Cyrus decreed that the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt
and that all the exiles who wished might return to Judea, the Persian province of Yahud.
This decree inaugurated the period of the Second Temple, also known as the Second
Commonwealth. The rise of Cyrus and the fall of Babylon were viewed by the Jews as
God’s work. While then, as today, settling in the Land of Israel was an option exercised
only by a devoted minority, the Jews of the Diaspora gave financial and moral support to
the newly reestablished community.

With the beginning of the Persian period, a new kind of bureaucracy came into power.
While at times the Judeans had trouble with the government, Jews throughout the empire
were able to rise in the civil service and even formed military units that were deployed on
the frontiers of the Persian Empire. Under Persian rule Jerusalem was rebuilt and its
sacrificial ritual reconstituted. In addition, and a most important development, temporal
(and not just religious) authority was granted to the high priesthood.

Little is known about the period between the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Ezra and
Nehemiah in the sixth century B.C.E. and the coming of Alexander the Great in the
fourth, but the incomplete biblical picture of this era is supplemented by archaeological
evidence. Sites in northern Palestine, especially along the coastal plain, show evidence of
strong Phoenician influence, especially evident in the building techniques. At the same
time, more southern sites show strong Aegean influence. In fact, such influence was
constantly on the increase in the centuries leading up to the Persian period. Imported
pottery from the Hellenic world is found extensively. Most significant is the almost total
dependence on Attic (Athenian) standards of coinage. Thus, it is evident that Hellenistic
influence was already being felt throughout the country.

Other evidence indicates that Judea at the beginning of this era was an independent
province. Samaria in the north remained a separate unit, however. A complex
administrative bureaucracy collected and distributed taxes in kind. The discovery in
Egypt of correspondence between the Jewish garrison of Elephantine (modern Assuan on
the Nile) and the rulers of Jerusalem and Samaria has led to the realization that religious
syncretism was still very much alive in this period. At the same time, many areas of
Jewish law were moving toward standardization at this early date.

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