During their exile in Babylon, Levite scribes and priests successfully maintained a continuous tribal identity for their people by meticulously maintaining the genealogies and histories of the Jews. They wished to avoid what happened to the tribes of the northern kingdom.
After Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, conquered the Babylonians he instituted a policy of repatriating the Jews back to Palestine. The first parties he sent began the task of rebuilding the temple of Yahweh. Many Jews in exile regarded this Cyrus to be appointed by God.
Later a man named Ezra led a second group of Jews back to Jerusalem. He compiled a scroll called the Torah from a set of older source documents including copies of the missing White Scroll of Leliel, and he also instituted fundamentalist restrictions against intermarriage.
The character of Moshe (or ‘Moses’) made his world debut in Ezra’s new scroll. Ezra made him out to be a brother of the high priest Aaron in the sixth generation from Abraham. According to Ezra, Moshe mediated a second covenant between Yahweh and the children of Abraham.
This second covenant, strangely enough, was more to the liking of Ezra and the priesthood he and his family had led for twenty-one generations from Abraham. It incorporated a pale copy of the Code of Hammurabi which Jewish scribes had encountered during their captivity.
The day of ‘sabbatu’ occurring mid-month in the Babylonian calendar, when the people reposed from labor out of superstition the day was bad luck, was inverted by Ezra and became a weekly holy day when people rested to honor the creator whom Ezra said also rested on that day.
Ezra also compiled the chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah, recasting events in such a way as to favor the south. None remained of the northern kingdom of Israel to contradict his take that Yahweh, not El, had always been the God of Abraham and Yishak and Yakob.
With all these religious reforms in place and with the second temple under construction, something resembling the final form of Judaism began to emerge, although it would have been unrecognizable to Levi and the first few generations of high priests to spring from his loins.
Decades later Nehemiah, a Jewish servant of the successor to Cyrus named Artaxerxes, was sent to Jerusalem to become the governor. This third group of Jews returning from exile was tasked to complete the temple, repair the royal palace, and rebuild the walls of the city.
Governor Nehemiah lent official weight to Ezra’s edict against Jewish men marrying ‘strange’ wives. But when the temple was complete older Jews wept with sorrow. They saw the second temple was a pathetic shadow of the glory that had been the original temple-palace complex.
Philip II, king of Macedon, conquered the Thebans and Athenians at Chaeronea and brought all of Greece except Sparta under Macedonian rule. When he died his twenty year-old son Alexander succeeded him. Alexander freed all the Greeks living in Asia Minor from Persian rule.
For the next twelve years Alexander forged the largest empire the world had ever known up to that time. After defeating King Darius at Issus, Alexander subdued Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria. In the following year the entire Levant fell under his domination.
Alexander reached as far as the east bank of the Indus River, but he died young and left no heir. Upon his death his generals, called the Diadochi, divided the empire between themselves and became rivals. The Diadochi put on royal crowns, and so did their sons after them.
Ptolemy I Soter was one of these Diadochi generals. After Alexander died he claimed Egypt for himself and defended the city of Alexandria from the other generals. He also founded the Library of Alexandria and became the first king of the Macedonian Dynasty of Ptolemies.
Ptolemy II Philadelphus succeeded him and brought Alexandria to its peak of power and influence. The Pharos lighthouse was constructed during his reign. Ptolemy III Euergetes extended the Ptolemaic Empire to embrace Palestine, Asia Minor, and the islands of the Aegean.
After his death the Ptolemaic empire in Egypt gradually began to decline. A rival Diadochi named Seleucus I Nicator founded a similar empire centered in Asia Minor that ruled the lands conquered by Alexander from Thrace to India and the Ptolemies weakened even further.
Palestine fell under the rule of this Selucid Dynasty. At that time many Jews began to adopt the ways of the Greeks who dominated them. They tried to cover evidence of their circumcision and built gymnasiums where they would mix socially and participate in athletic events.
The Hellenized Jews no longer observed the hundreds of mitzvot specified by the Code of Moshe. With the enthusiastic support of these secular Jews the Syro-Macedonian king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes declared Judaism abolished and rededicated the temple in Jerusalem to Zeus.
But the priest Mattathias instigated acts to deter Jews from sacrificing to Zeus. Those who were caught breaking the precepts of the Law were killed, and boys were forcibly circumcised. The book of Daniel was circulated purporting to have predicted the temple desecration.
Eventually the campaign of terror based out of hiding places in the desert became a full-scale revolution to return to the fundamentalist doctrines originally instituted by Ezra. And upon the death of Mattathias his son Judas Maccabeus took over leadership of the revolt.
Judas Maccabeus defeated Apollonius and Seron, and turned back Lysias who came with half of the army of King Antiochus IV Ephiphanes. Then he re-purified the temple in Jerusalem after the abomination. But he was killed on the field of battle confronting governor Bacchides.
Jonathan Apphus, the fifth son of Mattathias, then led the revolt. He renewed the struggle against Bacchides, defeated Apollonius, then became the high priest of the Jews. Jonathan was taken prisoner and killed after an invitation to meet Trypho for peace negotiations.
Simon Thassi, the brother of Jonathan, then assumed leadership of the Jews. A king in all but name, Simon was also the high priest, as were his son and grandson after him. He obtained independence for Judea from Demetrius II, then battled Antiochus VII and defeated him.
But Simon together with two of his sons were betrayed and killed by the governor of Jericho, one Ptolemy, the son of Abubus, at a banquet in his own home. Ptolemy also tried to murder John Hyrcanus I, another son of Simon who was not present at the banquet, but he failed.
John rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and under his reign as ethnarch, not quite king, Judah prospered much. Aristobulus I Judah, son of John Hyrcanus, annexed the territory of Iturea to Judah. During his reign a curious belief that would have major ramifications took root.
An admixture of Greek and Jewish ideas held that everyone who had been born, lived, and died would be raised to life again in a simultaneous general resurrection to witness the power and sovereignty of God, and after that spectacle all life would come to a violent end.
Alexander Jannaeus, brother of Aristobulus, was the first high priest of the House of Mattathias to call himself King, thus founding the Hasmonean Dynasty. He lived by the sword, and so died by the sword. Under his reign the movement of the Pharisees came into existence.
Pharisee means ‘Separated One’. They opposed the Hasmonean innovation of combining the kingship with the high priesthood in one man. They also believed that all of the dead would be raised to life once again, but they denied it would be followed by a pointless apocalypse.
The Pharisees built new synagogues in every Jewish city and town. There men could study the Torah under the tutelage of like-minded scribes, who were called Sopherim, and also offer messianic blessings and prayers for the return of the House of David to power in Israel.
After that, Salome Alexandra, wife of Aristobulus, enjoyed a benevolent reign of nine years. Since Jewish priests could only be male, during Alexandra’s reign a high priest was chosen from the landed aristocracy of Judea. This elite group was also known as the Sadducees.
The policy of the Sadducees was to avoid rebellion at all costs, even to watering-down Jewish traditions with Hellenistic and Roman ideas. The willingness to accommodate with the world was criticized by the Pharisees. Were Jews not the very chosen ones of the Lord of all?
John Hyrcanus II therefore, the son of Queen Alexandra (who was also known as Shlom Tzion), became High Priest and was named to succeed the queen to the throne. He had reigned a scant three months before his younger brother led a revolt to drive him from both offices.
With John Hyrcanus sidelined, King Aristobulus II reigned until the Roman conquest of Syria. King Hyrcanus II was named ethnarch of the Jews and elevated over his brother but behind the scenes Gneaeus Pomeius ‘Pompey’ Magnus was the real king.
Pompey had won easy victories over the Selucid Empire and was styled by his own troops the ‘conqueror of Asia’. General Marcus Aemilius Scarus already ruled Syria in Pompey’s name but Pompey set Judea in his sights and swore to bring it under the direct rule of Rome as well.