Israel among the Nations
The Persian Period
Mary Joan Winn Leith
In the Persian period the concept of “Israel” changed. Before the Babylonian exile, Israel was defined not by worship but by its independent geopolitical existence, by occupying its own land. Exile and Diaspora forced a new, evolving sense of identity. The Persian period (539–332 BCE) constitutes an era of both restoration and innovation. The religious attitudes and practices characteristic of postexilic Judaism did not originate in the Persian period. The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple and of public worship at its sacrificial altar are only the most obvious in a list of continuities from preexilic Israel; others include the priestly families, the practice of circumcision, Sabbath and Passover observance, and prohibitions against mixed marriage. At the same time, however, with the figures of Ezra and Nehemiah we reach the end of biblical Israel.
In leading Jewish circles during this period, written words perceived as having originated in Israel's distant past came to assume a primacy previously uncontemplated—if not unanticipated (see 2 Kings 22–23 )—in legitimating the practice of worship and for determining social and ethnic identity. The movement toward compiling a biblical canon accelerated. The Psalms, the editions of the prophetic books, and, most important, the Torah or Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) approached their final shape during the Persian period. The period is also rich in literature by Yahwistic prophets, poets, priests, and philosophers whose names often elude us; they wrote pseudonymously, claiming the names of ancient Israelite heroes or sages, covering their creations with a validating veneer of antiquity. Late biblical works frequently quote from older Israelite writings (now become scripture) and contain early examples of traditional Jewish biblical exegesis. One of the era's most arresting images is that of Ezra the scribe, a contemporary of Socrates, reading aloud the “book of the law of Moses” (Neh. 8.1 ) to women and men assembled at the gates of rebuilt Jerusalem. Ezra's reading, however, is supplemented by interpreters (Neh. 8.7–8 )—or possibly translators—whose task is to ensure that all the listeners correctly understand the meaning of the Torah.
Formerly a nation with fixed borders, postexilic Israel became a multicentric people identified not geographically or politically but by ethnicity—an amorphous cluster of religious, social, historical, and cultural markers perceived differently depending on whether the eye of the beholder looks from inside or from without. The identity of this Israel could not be threatened by the Persian hegemony over the homeland or by military aggression. Rather, the danger to this new Israel lay in a different sort of boundary transgression: ethnic pollution, an offense variously defined.
The pronounced Jewish sectarianism of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, embodied in such groups as the Samaritans, the Qumran community, the Pharisees, and the earliest Christians, has its roots in the Persian period. Typically for this period, while Ezra and Nehemiah attempted to restrict membership in the privileged group they considered to be “Israel” (Ezra 10.2, 7, 10 ), the Bible itself preserves traces of rival Jewish groups engaged in an ideological struggle against the vision of Ezra and Nehemiah. During the Persian period Jewish communities—Yahweh worshipers—flourished not only in Judea, but also in Babylonia, Persia, and Egypt, in neighboring Samaria to the north, and in Ammon to the east.
The term Jew originates as an ethnic label for a person whose ancestry lay in the land of Judah (see 2 Kings 16.6 ); the earliest occurrence of the term to designate a religious community is in Esther 2.5 , a Hellenistic novel set in the Persian court. The word is used in a broad sense in this chapter to designate Yahweh worshipers—be they exclusive or syncretistic—in the Persian period.