The era of the second temple is like a treasure trove of history that can never be fully discovered. Despite its crucial role in shaping the future of Judaism, relatively little is known about it from sources written at the time. It is the period that straddles the historical chasm between the ancient period of the Bible and the more recent rabbinic period. It was unique in being an era that traditional Jews look back to as a time of religious glory, a time when things were going as they were supposed to be. It is also the subject of considerable scholarly research, owing to the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were likely written during much of this period. But even with the revelation of these scrolls, almost the entire period lies in the shadows, like some deep secret waiting to be revealed.
There isn’t even a consensus as to the beginning of the period. Talmudic tradition has it that the second temple lasted for 420 years (ten years longer than the first temple). The universally agreed upon date of destruction is the years 69-70 CE, the final years of the unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Romans. That should put the beginning at around 350 BCE. However, academic consensus concludes that the destruction of the first temple occurred in 586 BCE. Adding 70 years of Babylonian exile (well established by Biblical history) and we arrive at 516 BCE for the beginning of the second temple. This gap of 166 or so years is one of the central disagreements between Jewish tradition and secular history. One or the other must yield.
In any case, by the time of the arrival of the Greeks in the Holy Land, the second temple had been in full swing for quite a while. Its actual construction happened in stages under the authority of the Persian rulers. The key Jewish figures, in order of appearance were:
Sheshbazzar – an obscure leader whom Koresh (Cyrus), the Persian ruler, entrusted with organizing the rebuilding of the Temple
Rubberize – the equally obscure director of the rebuilding project in Israel and leader of first group of returning exiles around 516 BCE
Joshua – the first high priest
Ezra – the leader of the second, considerably larger group of returning exiles about 50 years later; and the spiritual leader of the growing community
Nehemiah – the administrative governor during Ezra’s time who directed the project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem
Haggai and Zechariah – prophets during the early stages who revealed God’s messages and commands to encourage the construction of the temple
Once the temple began functioning and Jerusalem was established as the central region of the Jewish settlement, the Biblical sources cease. At this point, our major source is the historical writings of a Jew named Josephus, who lived in the 1st century CE. Although his history is extremely complete, it was written around 500 years after the fact, so it hardly qualifies as 100% reliable. Nevertheless, it is basically all we have, so Josephus’ work, ‘Antiquities’, is the authoritative source on much of the remaining almost 500 years of the period.
At some point after Ezra, the spiritual and political leadership of the community moved into the hands of a somewhat vague group known as the Great Assembly. We have almost no knowledge of who they were and the extent of their authority. Although this group may have existed for as long as 150 years, and likely was extremely important in the development and growth of second temple Judaism, we can only associate a few names with it. Among this select few is one who goes by the name of Simon the Righteous. He will be one of the sources of this section.
Things went along quietly until the Greeks, under the dictatorship of Antiochus around 200 BCE, began insisting that the Jews assimilate into the influential Greek cultural system known as Hellenism. Many Jews were ready to do just this. However, a relatively small group, under the leadership of a priest named Mattityahu and his five highly capable sons, led a grass-roots rebellion facing insurmountable odds against the powerful Greek army. Somewhat miraculously, this small group was victorious, driving the Greeks first out of Jerusalem and the temple in 165 BCE, and then out of the whole of Israel during the next few decades. They rebuilt the temple into a considerably expanded complex. They also established the only Jewish dynasty of the second temple era, known collectively as the Hasmoneans. This dynasty lasted until a civil war between two heirs brought in the Roman legions and effectively ended Jewish independent rule around 60 BCE.
The remaining 130 years until the destruction of the temple was an illustrious yet humiliating time for the Jews. The Romans ruled the area through puppet governors or kings who wielded complete political authority. The Jews maintained a good deal of religious freedom during most of this period. Jewish thought and religious dogma expanded in many directions in the aftermath of the Hasmoneans. The two leading religious factions were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both of New Testament notoriety. The spiritual offspring of the Pharisees were the teachers who ultimately guided the Jews into the post-temple era, collectively known today as rabbis. .
The most powerful of the Roman puppet-kings of the region was the famous and infamous Herod. It was during the reign of Herod and his successors that the story of the birth of Christianity took place. While insignificant in its immediate time period (Josephus, who lived during the time, probably doesn’t even mention it), it gained tremendous significance in the ensuing centuries. Jesus was a Jew of the late second temple period, perhaps schooled within the increasingly influential group of rabbinic teachers, perhaps not. He and his disciples, all believing Jews, were the most noteworthy example of a popular phenomenon during late second temple times – the call for a messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain clear evidence of such a longing. Roman rule was intolerable to the religiously independent minded Jews and they saw no way out short of divine intervention in the form of a messiah. While it is likely that the original messianic aspirations called for a military leader, a spiritual revivalist leader like Jesus was also anticipated. We really have no idea how popular Jesus was in his time. What is clear, however, is that the Jews could no longer live under Roman rule.
It all ended with the Jewish War, as Josephus called it in a book devoted to just this subject. It lasted about four years and never really had a chance of success. The Romans were nearing the height of their power and the Jews had little in the form of an army or military expertise. The end was swift and brutal. The temple was destroyed in 69 CE, along with much of Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish population was killed or sold into slavery. Some escaped to other lands; some lived on in the surviving communities elsewhere in Israel. All in all it was a tragic ending to an otherwise glorious period.
In reality, it resulted in a monumental shift in Judaism itself. This single event forced the transition from the last dying vestiges of a Biblical religion centered around a temple in Jerusalem, to a rabbi-based, synagogue-centered religion located wherever Jews could be found in the many lands of exile known as the Diaspora. It was the influence of the final stages of the second temple period that formed the kernel around which the next 1800 years of Judaism developed.
Legacy and Influence
The second temple era encompasses another span known as the ‘Intertestamonial period’ - the time between the Old and New Testaments. We really don’t know when the Old Testament books were more or less completed, but it seems likely that it was before the revolt against the Greeks. The New Testament began at the tail end of the second temple period. Thus this approximately 200-year span from about 165 BCE to about 50 CE is the minimum span of the Intertestamonial period. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls there were few known Jewish writings from this period.
But some were known, and they give us a small window into what was happening during this crucial era of transition. Chief among these are the so-called ‘Apocryphal’ literature. These writings bore some similarity to Biblical works. There are histories, prophetic works, wisdom literature, and parables. For one reason or another, they were never accepted into the canon of the Bible, hence the name ‘Apocryphal’, meaning outside. The dates of composition are unclear, but most are probably from the Intertestamonial period. We shall delve more deeply into the Apocryphal literature in this section.
Other than these obscure texts, there are virtually no other primary sources to shed light on this period. It is almost like a black box in which the last works of the Bible enter at one end, complete with a fully functioning temple, and out at the other end emerge rabbinic teachings and no temple. The second temple period began firmly entrenched in the world of the Bible – sacrifices, priests, prophets, psalms, kings, and tribes. It ended with rabbis discussing the intricacies of the Oral Law, an activity that is never mentioned in the Bible. In addition, these rabbis elevated the teaching of morality to a scale that rivaled the ancient prophets. First among these was the famous Hillel, the founder of a dynasty of his own. This dynasty, though it lacked the absolute power of kings, wielded an infinitely greater influence on the Jews of the future. Indeed, it was Hillel and his successors who were the real spiritual survivors of the destruction of the second temple. Those successors, the authorities of the Mishna and the Talmud, would facilitate the long and complicated transition from the Biblical world of ancient Israel to the rabbinic world of the Diaspora.
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