Judaism, Hellenism and Sectarianism, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Coin of Antiochus III

Coin of Antiochus III. By Antiksikkeler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119616931

The Qumran corpus began in the distinctive historical experience of a sectarian group, one that emerged out of Second Temple Judaism and then withdrew to Qumran, where it accumulated a library. The sect came into being the moment the group came together as a recognizable movement with its own self-consciousness and self-definition. At that point, the group’s distinct ideological stance distinguished it as separate from others.

Although the sect’s early ideology emerged out of the religious culture of Second Temple Judaism, the group that finally bequeathed us the manuscripts at Qumran was nevertheless unique in many respects. Therefore, we must seek to establish historically when and how the group arose and what specific conflicts shaped its history and ideology.

The Qumran sect inherited many texts and traditions that helped generally to formulate its teachings, and with the aid of recently released material, we can now establish specifically the main influences. In particular, a new text, the Halakhic Letter, offers us vital information not only on the ideologies of that time but also on the era’s political realities. Let us now review the political and religious situation in Judea so that we can understand how the Halakhic Letter fits into the history of the sect.

The corpus of scrolls we will study illumines primarily the period from the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. through the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome in 66–73 B.C.E. During those crucial years, the Jewish people entered into a confrontation with Hellenism, laid the groundwork for the Second Commonwealth, and reestablished their national existence, only to see it extinguished by their Roman conquerors. It is out of this historical and cultural background that the Qumran scrolls arose. In particular, the information the scrolls provide us is most relevant to the years between the Maccabean Revolt of 168–164 B.C.E. and the turn of the era.

In 538 B.C.E., immediately after his conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus (III) the Great, king of Persia and Media, decreed that the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt and that all the exiles who wished might return home. This decree inaugurated the period of the Second Temple, also known as the Second Commonwealth.

The Persian period was formative for the Second Jewish Commonwealth. During that time, Jerusalem was rebuilt and its sacrificial ritual reconstituted in the Second Temple. Equally significant was the granting of temporal—not just religious—authority to the high priesthood. This system of government survived into the Hasmonaean period after the Maccabean Revolt, becoming an object of protest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in other contemporary literature.

The Hellenistic period began formally with Alexander’s conquest of Palestine. However, the date of conquest does not mark the beginning of Hellenistic influence in the region. Already in the fourteenth century B.C.E., the Near (Middle) East as a whole, and Palestine and its Jewish residents more particularly, came under the sway of increasing Aegean influence.

Due to increased trade connections, that influence became much more extensive during the Persian period, when Greek coinage became the standard in the Land of Israel. The cultural phenomenon we call Hellenism exercised such power in ancient Judea that it left a lasting imprint on Judaism and the Jewish people. Indeed, the phenomenon of sectarianism in Judaism, to which the scrolls are our best witness, was largely the indirect result of forces set in motion by the influence of Hellenism.


After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., his generals, known as the diadochi (successors), were unable to maintain the unity of the empire. Individual generals claimed control over specific areas. Palestine found itself caught in a tug of war between Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt, and Seleucus, ruler of Syria, until 301 B.C.E., when Ptolemy finally secured his hold on Palestine. In the shadow of this political instability, local Jewish autonomy and the already significant role of the high priest grew stronger. This continuing instability also retarded the inroads of Hellenism.

During the third century, Ptolemaic and Seleucid armies conducted five major battles in Palestine, but the Ptolemies maintained control. Because the country was often beset by Seleucid attacks and Bedouin incursions, Ptolemaic military units were stationed throughout Palestine. Many Greek cities were established as military colonies, and many of the soldiers stationed there married native women. In addition, an extensive Ptolemaic bureaucracy existed in Palestine to manage the affairs of government, taxation, and the economy. Ptolemaic presence allowed Hellenism to gain a more secure foothold in Palestine, but Judaea continued to be governed by the high priest and the priestly aristocracy.

In 201 B.C.E., the Seleucid king Antiochus III invaded Palestine and quickly conquered it. Although Antiochus affirmed the right of the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws, Hellenism was by now firmly established in Palestine.

The Hellenistic Period

332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquers Palestine

323 Alexander’s death and division of Empire

301 Ptolemaic rule over Palestine established

201–198 Seleucid conquest of Palestine

175–164 Antiochus IV Epiphanes

175–171 Jason High Priest

c.175 Hellenistic Reform

171–167 Menelaus High Priest

168–164 Maccabean Revolt

167–166 Antiochus decrees persecution

166–160 Judah Maccabee leads rebellion

164 Judah conquers Jerusalem and rededicates Temple

160 Judah defeated and killed

157 Jonathan enters Jerusalem

152 Jonathan establishes independence and is appointed high priest

143 Jonathan murdered

142 Simon assumes rule

140 Public assembly confirms Simon as high priest and ruler

134 Murder of Simon

134–104 John Hyrcanus

104–103 Aristobulus I

103–76 Alexander Janneus

76–67 Salome Alexandra

67–63 War between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II

63 Roman conquest by Pompey

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