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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Historical Context of Early Judaism

With the destruction of the ancient nation of Israel, followed within a few decades by the fall of the Babylonian empire responsible for its destruction, the historical contexts for the survivors of old Israel were dramatically changed, and consequently the communities of survivors took a very different shape. Persia, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, brought the lands reaching from India to Ethiopia under an administration that was comparatively systematic and effective. Especially under those successors to Cyrus who were capable leaders, the diverse territories ruled by Persia knew peace and a level of stability that had not characterized the Near East for some time.

For the first time in many centuries non-Semitic peoples ruled the area. The policy of the new rulers seemed designed to win the allegiance of the diverse peoples within their empire through an appeal to enlightened self-interest rather than through fear. Broadly, the Babylonians and Assyrians had sought to compel the allegiance of captured or allied states through what has been described as a policy of “calculated frightfulness” (a policy depicted, for example, on Assyrian reliefs that graphically portrayed the fate of people who did not give full allegiance to Assyria). Persia replaced this by a policy that encouraged as much development of local cultural and religious interests and traditions as would not conflict with an empire at unity and at peace. Thus Cyrus depicted his capture of Babylon not as conquest (and, in fact, the city was handed over to his army by Babylonians disenchanted with Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings), but as the grant of the Babylonian deity Marduk, who is said to have “grasped the right hand of Cyrus,” thereby legitimating him as chosen king. Even the exiled prophet known as Second Isaiah (see chs. 40–55 of the book of Isaiah) could speak of Cyrus in royalist terms generally reserved for Davidic kings (Isa. 44.28–45.1 ).

In line with this encouragement of local diversity, Cyrus not only permitted exiled Judahites in Babylon to return to their homeland, but is reported even to have been willing to contribute to the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem. That this construction, as well as the later rebuilding of the walls of the city, took some time and came only with some struggle and effort was not because of a lack of support from the imperial center. Rather, it was the result of local opposition, conflicts over authority within the Palestinian Jewish community, and disputes with other regional groups. Persia sought to create conditions within its empire that would make it worthwhile for regional groups with local traditions to support the empire as a stable context within which they could thrive. As is demonstrated by the possible fate of the post-exilic leader Zerubbabel and the dashing of nationalistic and royalist hopes pinned on him, however, tolerance of cultural and religious diversity would extend only to a point short of attempts to gain political independence.

Not that conflict and threats to Jewish communities in Palestine and elsewhere were absent from the empire. Indeed, the book of Esther presents Jewish communities faced with a pogrom. Yet the point at issue between Haman and Mordecai seems more one of power and possessions than of clear anti-Jewish bias. Haman took advantage of existing anti-Jewish feeling in his struggle with Mordecai, but such feelings were not the reason for his pogrom. In fact, this same book demonstrates that positions at the very heights of power in the Persian capital and court were open to Jews. Esther is, after all, queen, and Mordecai is an official into whose hands remarkable authority and wealth fall by the end of the novella. On a level more historically secure, both Nehemiah, who restored the walls of Jerusalem and undertook reforms there, and Ezra, who undertook additional reforms and also established some form of the Torah as the constitution for Judaism in the city and vicinity, came armed with the power held by royal officials of the Persian court.

The fact that the situation of Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. is more and more described as “diaspora” (dispersion) and less and less as “exile” reveals that the Persian setting for earliest Judaism was not uncongenial to the formation of religious communities and identities that were no longer limited to a particular nation or one's political identity. Certainly one of the most remarkable transformations in the biblical tradition and in the communities that produced and treasured it was that which led to the birth of early Judaism out of the old nation of Israel. It was by no means certain that a people could continue to exist and even thrive with a distinct religious identity that was not rooted in a nation-state. In fact, the policy of exile as practiced by Assyria and Babylon was precisely designed to destroy through attrition any religious allegiances and identities linked to the religion of a nation-state by removing people from their national homeland and setting them in new contexts into which they would most likely assimilate. The poignant cry, “How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137.4 ) states the crisis faced by Israelite exiles in their new historical context. It was against all expectation that this religious tradition proved able to define and maintain itself in the form of communities that were generally small and scattered across the face of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean.

In the common view, the death of a nation was the effective death of that nation's deity, or at least a sign of the deity's impotence or lack of concern for its people. That ultimately Jewish heirs of old Israel could come to perceive that there were other ways to understand the death of their nation; that they could sing new songs to their God; that this God's authority transcended all national boundaries; and that ways could be found to be both Jewish and citizens of diverse nations—all this was due in part to the relatively stable and even congenial context these early Jewish communities found in the Persian empire. “Exile,” a state of alienation and dislocation, became “diaspora,” a situation in which the struggle for new identities, new forms of religious community, and new ways of being the people of Yahweh, could be explored.

The shapes of these explorations were diverse, some allowing more interaction with the historical context in which one found oneself than did others. A style of Judaism reflected in the lives of Esther and Mordecai allowed, and even encouraged, full and active involvement in the larger world, even at the highest levels of power. Others, fearing assimilation that would result in the loss of a distinctive Jewish identity, sought to develop a style of life that would distinguish Jews, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, from those among whom they lived. Characteristic Jewish practices, rooted in the Torah—such as the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, dietary restrictions and regulations, and the celebration of an annual festival of Passover in each family unit—served the function of setting Jews apart. Whatever the roots of these practices in earlier Israelite tradition, such rules and observances distinguished Jews from their contexts and would, especially in the area of diet, restrict the extent of their full engagement in the social, political, economic, and cultural activities of the larger non-Jewish world. No one particular style of life characterized Jewish communities in the Persian world; this is shown, for example, by the fact that some later circles found it necessary to augment the book of Esther with additions, bringing it more into line with Judaism as defined in the Torah, while the unaugmented version of the book continued in use and was preserved in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. (The current edition of the Revised English Bible gives both versions of Esther in full, one in the Old Testament and one in the Apocrypha.)

In the last decades of the fourth century B.C.E. the Persian empire fell with remarkable rapidity to Alexander the Great. Upon Alexander's death a few years later, the empire was divided among three of his generals. One general, Ptolemy, gained control of Egypt and Palestine. A second, Seleucus, ruled the former Mesopotamian (Babylonian) empire and even, for a time, Alexander's conquests as far east as India. A third division of authority under Macedonian rule was subject to various wars of succession until the Romans conquered it in the second century B.C.E.

This political change once again transformed the context in which Jewish communities lived. These communities had been part of an empire where communication was made easy through a notable system of highways, so that Nehemiah in Susa, for instance, was well-informed of affairs in Jerusalem. On a political level, these communities were now separated from each other by often hostile borders. Jews in Egypt and Palestine, now under Ptolemaic rule, were cut off from Jews under Seleucid rule in Syria.

In fact, Jerusalem, with its walls restored and the second temple rebuilt, was in an area that was a focal point of contention between Seleucids and Ptolemies (the successors of the generals, who each founded a dynasty that bore his name). It appeared that the old poles of tension in the power alignments of the Near East, based in Egypt and Mesopotamia, had reasserted themselves. This further complicated the place of the old sacred city in the religious experience of Jews. Even for those in communities located far from Jerusalem and now cut off from it by contested boundaries, the sacred city was a focus of intense hope and interest. Yet for most Jews it was not a city they would personally visit even once in their lives. While the worship of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple was supported by communities all across the diaspora, other more immediate modes of expressing allegiance to the deity were also developing in local settings. The synagogue and the family came to be the focal points.

Greek conquest of the Persian empire offered an even more profound challenge to early Judaism. While the power of the state was not used directly to enforce conformity to Hellenistic cultural standards or patterns of religious practice, Greeks had a fine sense of the superiority of their traditions and ways of life. In the areas over which they had control they established Greek enclaves that included theaters, gymnasiums, and temples, in all of which Greek ways flourished. Hellenism was a compelling alternative to all who sought to be at the creative edge of cultural and even religious affairs in this new historical context. Jewish communities in Palestine and in Egypt were not immune to this influence. Greek became the language of many Jews, in many cases the only language in which they were fluent. This led Jewish communities in Alexandria in Egypt, during the last centuries B.C.E., to translate the Hebrew religious texts into Greek. This translation, which included all of the texts now in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) but augmented them with a number of other works, comprises what has come to be known as the Septuagint, a collection of writings that was the Bible for some Jewish communities for a time and for early Christian communities as well.

Culturally as well as religiously Jews felt the pull of assimilation. Some adopted Greek dress and manners, sought to take part in Greek games, and studied Greek philosophical traditions, comparing and blending them with their own heritage. Some even attempted to mask certain signs of Jewish distinctiveness such as restrictive dietary practices or circumcision. Not a few found it possible to accommodate life in this larger context with their vision of Judaism. Others condemned these attempts as apostasy, a betrayal of their heritage and their God.

The degrees to which Jews accommodated to and interacted with the larger world, or remained more or less apart from it, varied. Works like the Wisdom of Solomon are built upon both Jewish and Greek foundations and seem designed to recommend each to the other. The idea that there is a life after death (Dan. 12.1–3 ) enters Judaism at this time, spurred by Hellenistic and other influences. Motifs in apocalyptic literature reveal creative contacts with the Gentile nations, the very ones often condemned in the apocalyptic visions.

In Palestine, however, under the Seleucid Antiochus IV in the middle decades of the second century B.C.E., there were increasing demands to adopt Greek ways and reject those aspects of Torah that set Judaism apart and distinguished it. Attempting to hold together an empire that in size and in ethnic and cultural diversity was unwieldy at best, Antiochus could not tolerate potentially separatist groups so near his contested border with the Ptolemaic empire centered in Egypt. It thus became his policy to outlaw salient marks of Torah Judaism—observance of sabbath, circumcision, special dietary practices, possession of a Torah scroll—and to enforce worship of Greek idols and even of the king. The power of the military was available to enforce these state attempts to stamp out the distinctive marks of Judaism, marks that for many Jews were at the core of Jewish identity.

For those Jews especially attracted to Hellenistic ways these Jewish practices were outmoded and anachronistic customs anyway and easily given up. But for those not inclined to assimilate, the choices could be cruel. Some submitted only to save their lives and livelihoods. Some others withdrew into hiding and exile in order to continue to live by their cherished customs, often losing all they possessed. Still others became martyrs, as recounted, for example, in 2 Maccabees 6–7 . Among these latter groups we find the Hasidim, the “pious ones,” whose purpose it was to remain faithful to their heritage as their way of carrying out the will of God. Finally, some Jews in Palestine were provoked into overt resistance, and under the leadership of the sons of a priest named Mattathias a guerilla war broke out against Seleucid rule. Taking their name from the nickname given the most distinguished of these sons, Judah who was called the “Maccabee” or “Hammer,” this Maccabean resistance became a remarkably successful struggle for national independence. From about 165 to 63 B.C.E. the Maccabees and their Hasmonean descendants ruled a quasi-independent state centered in Jerusalem.

The situation remained unstable, however, both for Jews in Palestine and for the extensive Jewish communities in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The specter of Rome hovered on the historical horizon; in fact, pressure from Rome was a significant factor that led the Seleucids to come to an accommodation with the Maccabees. Moreover, the Hasmonean descendants who ruled Palestine soon seemed to model themselves on the pattern of Hellenistic princes. For the Hasidim it must have appeared that they had won the war but lost the peace. Independence did not ensure the reinstatement of Torah Judaism as they understood it. Yet what to them must have seemed betrayal of the cause for which they had struggled quite likely appeared to others as necessary accommodation in the struggle to sustain a viable state in the complex context in which Rome was increasingly dominant. By 63 B.C.E. Rome assumed control of Palestine and from this point on it was governed by figures who owed their authority to Roman appointment and support.

Initially Rome's representative was the Hasmonean Hyrcanus II, whom Pompey named High Priest and whose minister was the politically shrewd Antipater from the province of Idumea (the territory of Edom). In 40 B.C.E. Antipater's son Herod was named king, a post to which he succeeded in 37. Following Herod's death in 4 B.C.E., Rome appointed his son Archelaus as “ethnarch” (“ruler of the people”) of Judea and Samaria; Archelaus' competence was unequal to Rome's expectations and he was deposed in 6 C.E. After that time, except for one brief period, Judea was governed by procurators, Roman officials of whom few were capable of carrying out the sensitive task of understanding the unusual people they were sent to govern.

Out of these tensions emerged the several so-called “sects” or groups that characterized Palestinian Judaism from the last centuries B.C.E. through the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 66–72 C.E. At stake in the disputes between these groups was the identity of Judaism and the extent to which that identity allowed engagement on all levels of life with its larger historical contexts. What some saw as necessary to survival in a complex world, or even as an opportunity to refine their faith, others saw as apostasy from one's people and one's God. Some Jews became powerful figures in the larger political, economic, and cultural contexts in which they found themselves. Others withdrew from that world, for example to Qumran on the northwest edge of the Dead Sea, to maintain their particular patterns of life and devotion to their God. Still others sought to live in but not to be a part of this larger world. Whether in engagement or withdrawal, the Judaism that entered the common era was profoundly shaped in its many forms by its larger historical context.

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