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The Power of the Word, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.

Bible and Beyond

(Sixth Century B.C.E. to Second Century C.L)


The kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and many Israelites and their nobility were exiled to Babylonia. There they reestablished their lives and learned how to worship their God in a strange land. They were now called Jews, people who had come from the kingdom of Judah. The Babylonian Empire fell with the conquests of Cyrus who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Some took advantage of his offer, and after a number of difficult years, they were able to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Like the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire was also defeated in war. This time the conqueror was Alexander the Great. His victory meant not only the supremacy of Hellenic power but also the spread of Hellenistic civilization throughout the empire. The Jews, as other peoples, learned from Hellenistic culture. But they disagreed among themselves about the desirable limits of Hellenistic influence on the Judaean population. A civil war erupted broadening into a revolt against the Jews’ Hellenistic overlords. The victories, led by Judah the Maccabee, led to the purification of the Temple, an act which was commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah.

The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean state, and the new Jewish state grew and became more powerful. With the rise of the Roman Empire, Judaea finally came under its control in 63 B.C.E. Within the Jewish religion a number of sects developed, each practicing according to its own beliefs.
Roman rule became harsher and the Jews were oppressed economically and politically. Men appeared and declared themselves the messiah—the long-awaited redeemer of the Jewish people; these individuals claimed they would save the Jews from Roman domination. A great revolt erupted in 66 C.E. against Rome, but in four years Jerusalem was captured and the second Temple destroyed. Some Jews continued fighting, as did those at Masada, while others followed Yohanan ben Zakkai, leader of the Pharisee sect, who sought a policy of accommodation with Rome. He emphasized the continuation of the Jewish faith through the study of Jewish law and the practice of good deeds, and he believed that Judaism could survive without a temple. Still, Jews smarted from their loss and another rebellion, led by Simon Bar Kokhba in the next century, suffered devastating defeat in 135 C.E.


• Understand the messages of the prophets of the Babylonian exile as an answer to the national despair.

• Learn of the renewal of the Jewish community in Israel under the Persians.

• Follow the fortunes of the Jews in their attempts at independence both under Greece and Rome.

• Comprehend the decisive effect of Hellenistic civilization upon the Jews and Judaism.

• Understand the complex reasons for the destruction of the “second Temple” under the Romans.

• Appreciate the various sects that thrived in Palestine in the first century of the common era and understand their ideals.


The unit opens with the Judaean exiles, recently transported from their homeland and living on Babylonian soil. It was a traumatic period for them. While the Psalmist wondered how the Israelite God could be worshipped in a foreign country, the prophet Jeremiah counseled the Judaeans to continue to live a normal existence and shoulder any requisite civic responsibilities in their new country. (These two views are set forth in Source Reader Selection 1.)

The dethroned king of Judah was supported by the Babylonian government. (Evidence for this is supplied in Source Reader Selection 2.) Babylonia was also hospitable to ordinary Judaeans. There, prophets arose preaching a universalist view of the Jewish religion and promising that God had not abandoned the Judaeans.

The Persian Empire rose to power and destroyed the Babylonian government. (The puzzling policies of Babylonia’s last dynasty are reflected in Source Reader Selection 3.). Footage of the physical remains of both of these superpowers are integrated into the TV program. The Persians under the leadership of Cyrus had a different policy towards their conquered populations than did the Babylonians. Cyrus’ idea was to restore these peoples to their native lands. (See Selection 4.) Cyrus’ proclamation to the Jews, as the Judaeans came to be called, is preserved in many forms in the Bible. The text of the Persian Cyrus cylinder can be found in Source Reader Selection 5, and photographs of it are included in the show. Some Jews took up Cyrus’ call to return, while others remained in their adopted homeland. The students should understand that this pattern of Jewish life in both a Diaspora (exile) and a homeland continues to be a feature of the Jewish community.
The Diaspora contained far-flung communities. Jews lived in Egypt, Babylonia and the area that is today Iran. The Egyptian Jewish community mainly consisted of mercenary soldiers and boasted a temple, despite the Deuteronomists’ injunction against such cultic worship outside of Jerusalem. When these Jews were threatened by the local population, they sent an appeal to their brethren in the homeland. This revealing document can be found in Source Reader Selection 6. It is a fine indication of the ties that Jews felt towards each other even though they did not live in the same territories. This point should be stressed.

The Jews who remained in Babylonia appeared to have thrived economically, as reflected in the documents of the banking house of Murashu contained in Source Reader Selection 7. The beauty of Babylon, revealed in the footage of a model of the city at the beginning of the TV program, makes it abundantly clear why the Jewish community stayed there and prospered.

In the center of the Persian Empire, the Jews appeared to have achieved distinguished governmental posts, yet their political positions were [13] still tenuous. The biblical book of Esther preserves interesting details of Persian life and was written to commemorate the festival of Purim, although the historical events it reports cannot be authenticated. As Professor Hallo explains in Source Reader Selection 8, the word purim means “dice,” and the use of dice in Persian statecraft during this period is documented.

The Jews who lived in the homeland, now called the province of Yehud by the Persian government, set out to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Prophets such as Haggai (see Source Reader Selection 9) encouraged this work despite the political difficulties it created. Some of these problems were caused by the Samaritans, a people who were a mixture of the native population of, the former kingdom of Israel, the Assyrian conquerors and others who had settled there. They were opposed to the rebuilding of the Temple, as they had their own place of sacrifice on Mount Gerizin near the city of Samaria. (A glimpse into Samaritan society can be found in Source Reader Selection 11.)

But the Jewish community of Yehud needed both political reorganization and a spiritual overhaul, and two individuals attempted to meet these challenges. Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah, an official in the Persian court, sought to strengthen the Jewish population. As a means of keeping Jewish traditions intact, Ezra and Nehemiah forbade the intermarriage of Jews with other people. But certain Jews felt that even foreign peoples could bring nobility of spirit to the Jews. Source Reader Selection 10 contains an excerpt from the books of Nehemiah and Ruth, the latter indicating a positive attitude towards a Jew marrying a Moabite woman who sought to join the Jewish community. Comparing these two sources will help students understand conflicting opinions of how a culture and nation can best flourish.

The Persian Empire, like the empires of Assyria and Babylonia before it, was not destined to endure. In the fourth century B.C.E., Alexander the Great swept out of Macedonia with a Greek army and conquered much of the Middle East, including Yehud. After Alexander’s death his dominions were split among the generals Ptolemy and Seleucus, and Ptolemy became master of Judaea (Yehud). Alexander’s conquests were not only repercussive politically, but culturally as well; Hellenistic civilization spread to the far corners of his new dominions. In Egypt, the Bible was translated into Greek (Septuagint), and Philo, a Jewish philosopher, tried to synthesize Greek and Jewish teachings. The TV program contains much footage that depicts the glories of Greece, especially its magnificent edifices. No wonder its culture proved such a strong attraction to the subject peoples. In Judaea, the Jews lived comfortably under their Ptolemaic overlords. Their relations are highlighted in Source Reader Selection 12, in which we find a Jew corresponding with a Ptolemaic official living in Egypt.

[14] At the turn of the second century B.C.E. the Seleucids wrested control of Judaea from the ptolemies. At first this did not disrupt the daily life of the Jews. But internal dissension arose over the desired limits of Greek cultural influence on Jewish traditions and practices. Finally, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV intervened and sought to impose Hellenistic patterns of worship upon the Jews. This conflict, students should note, was present whenever the Jews encountered a highly sophisticated foreign culture. Many reasons have been advanced for this unprecedented involvement in the practices of a local religion. For example, some scholars have attributed it to Antiochus’ mental instability; others have seen it as a result of his desire to unify the empire.

At any rate, many Jews were aghast and in apocalyptic messages sought to predict the downfall of these new enemies. Source Reader Selection 13 reproduces part of the biblical book of Daniel, which foretells the destruction of the four kingdoms, and an extra-biblical text that utilizes parallel literary themes. The more traditional Jews, under their leader Judah the Maccabee, revolted against the Seleucid Greeks and were victorious. Judah purified the Jerusalem Temple, which had been desecrated, and commemorated the event in the festival of Hanukkah. Source Reader Selection 14 contains two selections on the origins of the holiday. One reflects the military victory while the other stresses the miraculous events that transpired in the Temple. A flask of oil used to light the candelabrum was expected to burn for only one day. Instead the flame burned for eight days until a new supply was available.

The Maccabees (Hasmoneans) continued to fight even after the purification of the Temple. Finally, by the year 142 B.C.E., they had extended the borders of the Jewish polity and declared independence from their weakened Seleucid overlords. The extent of their dominions is shown in map 3 of the Study Guide, and a glimpse into the ideology that motivated the Maccabees can be found in Source Reader Selection 15.

The Hasmonean Empire could not last, especially with the emergence of Rome as a major military factor in the Mediterranean world. The student will remember from the last program how an independent Jewish state thrived in the Middle East only when the other powers were weak. In 63 B.C.E. Pompey, the Roman general, was invited to arbitrate between the rival claims of two brothers to the Hasmonean throne; Pompey came and never left. Although Jewish independence had come to an end, the Maccabees had left a precious legacy. They had saved Judaism from being totally overwhelmed by Hellenistic culture. While they adapted themselves to Hellenistic civilization after the Greeks came to power, they defined the limits of influence of these foreign ideas. Indeed, when viewing the beautiful model of the reconstructed Temple of Jerusalem, you can note Hellenistic architectural influence at the central shrine to the God of the Jews.

As Shaye Cohen points out in the section “The Threat of Rome,” relations between Jews and Romans started out amicably. But gradually, the Romans [15] attempted to extend their influence in Judaea through local rulers more subservient to their wishes. Herod, a “half-Jew,” was one of these individuals. In attempting to please Rome, he often alienated the local population. However, look at the glorious port city of Caesarea, which he erected in honor of the emperor. When Herod died in the year 4 B.C.E., the sound of revolt was heard in Palestine, the latter a Roman name for the Holy Land derived from Philistia, the land of the Philistines.

By the year 66 C.E., after many tumultuous years, war did indeed erupt. The Jews felt religiously, politically and economically oppressed. They fought valiantly but could not withstand the Roman legions; Jerusalem was captured and its Temple destroyed. In later years, the rabbis glorified not the rebels but those who attempted to safeguard Jewish survival in the aftermath of the revolt. See the wonderful story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and the destruction of Jerusalem, reproduced in Source Reader Selection 16. The rabbi survived and established an academy for Jewish learning at the seaside town of Yavneh. Some Jews, though, continued to fight the Romans, and of these, a few barricaded themselves in the fortress at Masada near the Dead Sea. The TV program shows the precise location of Masada, its fortifications and its living quarters, which have been laid bare by recent archaeological discoveries. According to some sources, a number of these defenders committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. (Recently, some scholars have argued against the notion that any large number of Jews took their own lives.)

The Study Guide retraces its steps chronologically to discuss the religious development within Judaism from the time of the Maccabees to the destruction of the second Temple. During this period, several sects emerged. These schools of thought, such as those of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Christians, were followed by members who gathered in small groups not only to practice their own methods of worship but to live a religious life.

A description of these various groups is given by the first-century C.E. historian Josephus. His report, which is one of historians’ major sources regarding this religious phenomenon, appears in Source Reader Selection 12. Early Christianity, which shared many ideas with one of the sects, the Essenes, was also described by Josephus. The authenticity of the relevant paragraph is debated at length in scholarly literature. The passage can be found in Source Reader Selection 18.

It must be remembered that the Jews did not reside only in Palestine. The Diaspora communities had grown and were to be found throughout the Roman Empire and in Babylonia. (See map 4 in the Study Guide.) In Rome, for example, where many Jews were taken as slaves after the destruction of the Temple, a thriving community existed, as revealed by the footage of the Jewish catacombs in the TV program. The city where the Arch of Titus was erected, glorifying the downfall of Judaea, was also an urban center for many Jews and their families. A passage from the New [16] Testament describes the Jews who visited Jerusalem from many countries all over the world. It is reproduced as the last Source Reader Selection for this chapter, number 19.

Jews were generally tolerated throughout the Diaspora and eventually were granted Roman citizenship in the year 212 C.E. by the emperor Caracalla. The TV program shows the archaeological remains of some of these communities, which indicate that the Jews thrived religiously and economically.


(From the Study Guide)

Before Viewing the Show

Examine map 3 which shows the extent of the Hasmonean state in the second century B.C.E., and map 4 which notes the major Jewish population centers in the Mediterranean world from the first through fifth centuries C.E.

Watch for . . . and Think About

Note the ruins of the Babylonian Empire. Why was it hard for Jews to mix with Babylonian society?
Observe the glories of Greece and Hellenistic civilization. What did the Jews find attractive in this culture and what repelled them?

Examine a model of the second Temple erected in Jerusalem. Do you see Hellenistic influence in its architecture?

After the defeat in 70 C.E. by the Romans the Arch of Titus was erected in Rome. What did it symbolize?

While Reading the Study Guide and Source Reader

Look for the following-
• Jeremiah comforting the Babylonian Jewish exiles.

• Cyrus’ policy towards the Jews.

• Where Jews lived outside of their homeland. Identify the Diaspora.

• The attempt of the Jews returning to rebuild the Temple. What problems did they face? Identify Yehud, Judaea, and the Samaritans.

• The Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and Judah Maccabee. Why did the Maccabees revolt against the Seleucid rulers? Were they successful?

• The stages of Roman rule in Judaea. Identify Herod, the procurators, and the messiah.

• The forms Judaism took during the last two centuries B.C.E. and the first century C.E. Identify synagogues, sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.

• The issues that concerned the Jews living in the Diaspora during Roman rule.

After Viewing and Reading

• Did the Babylonian exile end with Cyrus’ call for the return of the Jews to their homeland? Why did some remain?

• What type of religious worship was established by the Jews of the island of Elephantine?

• [18] How did Ezra and Nehemiah help consolidate the renewed Jewish settlement in the Holy Land? Who were the Samaritans and why did they cause problems for the Jews?

• How did Daniel respond to the conflict between the Hellenizers and the Jews who wished to follow closely their own traditions?

• Why was the festival of Hanukkah instituted?

• Did the preaching of Jesus correspond with the ideals of the Jewish sects that flourished in the first century C.E.?

• What were the options faced by the Jews after the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E.?

Suggested Readings

Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel- Its Life and Institutions, trans. by John McHugh (McGraw-Hill, 1961)
John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller, Israelite and Judaean History (Westminster Press, 1977)

W. Stewart McCullough, The History and Literature of the Palestinian Jews from Cyrus to Herod- 550 B.C. to 4 B.C. (University of Toronto Press. 1975)

David M. Rhoads, Israel in Revolution 6–74 C.E. (Fortress Press, 1976)

Morton Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament (Columbia University Press, 1971)

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