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The Time of The Second Temple (430 BCE-132 AD)

Return from Exile  
The Babylonian empire fell to the armies of the Medes and Persians in 538 BCE.  The Persian ruler, Cyrus, adopted a policy of allowing exiles from various nations to return to their homeland. In 515 BCE, Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their place of worship.

Only a very small percentage of the Jews in exile actually returned to Jerusalem at this time. They very quickly became discouraged at the challenge of rebuilding not only the temple, but their lives in the ruins of Judea.   A second, larger group led by priests and scribes returned around 430 BCE.  Among this group was Ezra the scribe.  He brought with him the Pentateuch the Five Books of Moses probably in their present form.  This second group that returned from Exile succeed in establishing some form of government for Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the city.  In addition, they constructed a rather unimpressive temple.  Nevertheless, the Second Temple would grow into an impressive structure over the coming centuries.

The importance of the rebuilt Temple was significant. Sacrifice and the priesthood were reinstated, and the Temple became the focal point of Judaism. Tt  should be emphasized, however,  that the majority of Jews continued to live outside of Judea. These were the Jews of the diaspora.  Thus, the importance of the synagogue, the rabbi, the dietary laws, the Sabbath, etc. continued to be more important to most Jews than the Temple and priesthood in Jerusalem.


Hellenism and the Maccabean Rebellion
The political situation in Judea changed in 333 BCE  when Alexander the Great conquered the region. Greek or Hellenistic culture influenced all of society, but especially the upper classes. During the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BCE) an effort was made to impose Hellenistic (Greek)  culture on Judea.  This included outlawing the Sabbath, the Torah, circumcision and other aspects of Judaism.  In 164 BCE Antiochus ordered that the altar in the temple in Jerusalem be used to sacrifice pigs to the god  Zeus. Resentment boiled over into open rebellion, led by Judas Maccabeus. The rebellion led to a measure of independence for Judea under the successors of Judas
During the time of Maccabean rule, three main religious groups emerged:
  • The Sadducees: priestly, aristocratic, conservative, politically powerful. The Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch as scritpures, and they did not believe in angels or resurrection.
  • The Pharisees: focused on applying law to every day life of people. Pharisees accepted the prophetic books as scripture and believed in angels and the resurrection.
  • The Essenes: This ascetic group practiced communal living, obedience and study. They believe that the end of time was at hand and that there was to be a culminating battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.  The Essene apparently practiced ritual washings similar to baptism and encourage themselves and other to prepare for the end of the age. One group of Essenes that lived at Qumran was was responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. 
Roman Rule (63 BCE)
Led by Pompey, the Romans conquered Judea in 64 BCE. Their oppressive rule and insensitivity to Judaism led to unrest and calls for rebellion. During this time, two movements gained momentum:
  • Messianism:  expectation of a divine ruler who would intervene, defeat the Romans and establish God's rule on earth.
  • Zealots: anti-Roman militia based in Galilee.

Open rebellion broke out against the Romans in 66 CE.  70 CE, the Romans finally brutally suppressed the rebellion and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. By a remarkable coincidence the temple was destroyed on the 9th of Ab - the same day that the first temple was destroyed.

One group of rebels remained in the fortress of Masada in the Judean wilderness until Roman legions finally conquered it in 73 BCE.  Inside the fortress, only a few survivors were found.  Most had chosen to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.

 In 132 CE, another rebellion broke out in response to Roman plans to build a Temple to Jupiter on the site of Solomon's Temple. As a result of this rebellion, most of the towns of Judea were destroyed, and Sabbath observance, circumcision and reading of the Torah were forbidden.  Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem only once a year on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple. On that day they could go to the foundation wall of the Temple to pray and lament the loss of the Temple. This wall became known as the Wailing Wall.


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