The Second Temple Era ‎

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			The final books of the Tanakh were written during the period of the second temple. This period, ‎spanning roughly the years 500 BCE to 70 CE, were filled with events and developments that would ‎shape the future of Judaism, and to some degree, the rest of the world. Jewish tradition has it that ‎the second temple stood for 420 years. Being as the end date is indisputable (within one year) the ‎starting date according to tradition would be 350 BCE. ‎
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Although nothing of known Jewish significance happened at that time, it is clear that by then there ‎was a temple standing in Jerusalem. This took place in three stages, this last of which took place ‎around the year 460 under the guidance of the charismatic and non-compromising scribe named ‎Ezra. He organized a large group of over 40,000 people to make the huge move of returning to their ‎ancient homeland. There may have been religious figures living there when he arrived, such as the ‎prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, but they were visionaries and not on the ground leaders. ‎That was the role that Ezra filled. ‎
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Ezra took a hard-line position concerning the practice of the Judaism that he strove to implement. ‎Strict observance of the ‘law’ was paramount. Included in this ‘law’ were both the Torah’s ‎commandments and the growing body of new rules that were deemed essential for the ‎community’s cohesion. This growing body, now universally called the Oral Law, was the forerunner ‎of the vast collection of what eventually became rabbinic law. In its early stages it probably ‎included some form of organized prayer, though it is unknown exactly when such a formalized ‎mode of worship actually entered Judaism. ‎
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There is no question that the central feature of the Jewish community was the temple. Central to ‎the temple, of course, was the priesthood and the office of the High Priest. This was a throwback ‎to first temple rules that could not be overlooked. Whether the High Priest was a direct hereditary ‎descendant of the last High Priest of the first temple is impossible to determine. But the office ‎remained hereditary throughout second temple times, a custom that became a blight on an ‎otherwise rather glorious period of Jewish history. ‎
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The only really famous High Priest of the entire period, and the one who set the bar for what a ‎High Priest is supposed to be was Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Righteous). Although we’ve gone ‎into him in great detail elsewhere, it is worthwhile giving a brief review of what he was all about. In ‎addition to being the High Priest, he was a member of the highly influential governmental body of ‎the Jewish community known as the Great Assembly. The name of the modern Israeli congress, ‎the Knesset, comes from this group. Simon was a member of the final generation of this body, and ‎one of the very few whom we can name. He is famous for two things: a quote found at the ‎beginning of the Mishna section called Avot which we have discussed elsewhere and a semi-‎legendary meeting with Alexander the Great. ‎
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Simon himself experienced his own vision of glory. In a story found in the Jerusalem Talmud we ‎read of how he would see a ‘man dressed in white’ when he entered the Holy of Holies on the day ‎of Yom Kippur. This was the room at the core of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant had ‎been stored during first temple times (it was not installed in the second temple – it had ‎disappeared). This odd vision, which changed significantly during the year preceding his death, will ‎be the subject of the first image of the second temple period. ‎
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Sometime during this period prayer became organized in a manner that started to resemble what ‎it eventually became. Jewish prayer revolves around the Amidah, the series of blessings recited ‎silently while standing still. It was eventually called the Shemoneh Esreh, or 18, to describe the ‎number of blessings that it contained. The basic structure included what became the prototype for ‎all blessings – the words Baruch Atah Hashem (Blessed are You, Hashem). The first blessing is ‎modeled after the words stated in the book of Nehemiah that we have already looked into. These ‎words will form the second image from the second temple. ‎
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The Hellenistic period lasted for about 160 years (325-165). It was a period of progress and of ‎conflict. This combination would foreshadow the Jews for almost their entire history. The progress ‎came through the interaction of an ancient Bible-oriented culture with a newer culture based ‎around the discoveries of the human mind. Greek culture was probably the first in human history ‎to be willing to abandon religious traditions in favor of human insight into the nature of the world. ‎Judaism would join Greek culture along this path, but would experience a much more tortured ‎unity of the old with the new than the Greeks faced. While Socrates had to face death for ‎corrupting the minds of Greek youth with his modern ideas, the Jews faced a conflict of Biblical ‎proportions in both adopting and resisting the methods and temptations of intellectual progress. ‎
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Among the byproducts of the interaction of Greek philosophy and Biblical tradition was the ‎Wisdom Literature of the Tanakh. The book of Proverbs is the primary example of this but it is not ‎the only example. Interspersed throughout the main body of second temple writings, known as ‎the Apocrypha (‘outside books’ because they weren’t included in what became the traditional ‎Biblical Canon of the Jews) are more examples of this genre. The Wisdom of Solomon and the ‎Wisdom of Ben Sirah are among these. In addition, the Greek interest in history as an actual ‎retelling of historical events instead of a way of looking back at a glorious or tragic past entered ‎Judaism. The Books of the Maccabees and a few shorter works fit into this category. ‎
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But history was still largely seen as the interaction of God with man. Most of the histories of the ‎Apocrypha were slanted with this in mind. One is almost entirely composed of this view of history. ‎It is called the Book of Jubilees. It is a book that few Jews are familiar with and hardly any have ‎actually read. It is essentially a retelling of Genesis with important changes, additions, and ‎omissions throughout the text. It is unclear if this book was an alternative to the traditional Genesis ‎or an elaboration on it. Whatever the case, it is a fascinating retelling of the most famous and ‎probably most formative book in Judaism. It is also the subject of our third image from this section. ‎
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The Greek period saw the growth of three large Jewish population centers. The largest and most ‎significant was in Israel and was centered around Jerusalem and the temple. A second center was ‎the Jews who remained in Bavel. This group had nothing to do with the Greeks and we know ‎almost nothing about its development during this period. The third center was in Alexandria in ‎Egypt. It had an extremely large Jewish population, probably numbering in the hundreds of ‎thousands. For perhaps a couple of hundred years it even had its own fully functioning temple, ‎complete with sacrificial offerings. ‎
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In addition, the Alexandria community produced the Septuagint, the translation of the Torah and ‎the Tanakh into Greek. The significance of the Septuagint can hardly be overstated, despite the ‎fact that it was replaced by the Onkelos translation when the Christians adopted it as their ‎translation of the Bible. For about three hundred years, it gave the Greek speaking Jews a way of ‎meshing their Jewish history and traditions with the ever-growing Greek cultural influences. This ‎large community was probably the greatest example of Jewish immersion into Greek culture. A ‎byproduct of this immersion was the voluminous works of the Jewish-Greek philosopher Philo. He ‎lived at the end of the second temple period and his works attained great influence among early ‎Christians but almost none among the Jews. His philosophical/intellectual approach to Judaism as a ‎whole will provide the fourth image from this section. ‎
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However, there was another side to the interaction with Greek culture. This took place in ‎Jerusalem. By the end of the 3rd century BCE the Greeks were making major inroads in dominating ‎Jewish culture even in the central area of Judaism. This conflict resulted in a revolt against the ‎Greeks around the year 165. This was the famous revolt of the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees. The ‎Greeks were driven out of Israel physically, although the residue of Hellenist culture would never ‎really leave. From this successful revolt a new Jewish kingdom arose. Three distinct groups ‎emerged from this conflict – the Sadducees, who largely supported the Hasmonean authorities ‎and controlled the High Priesthood for much of the next 200 years; the Pharisees, who largely ‎opposed the dynasty though they never formally rejected it; and a third group who did formally ‎reject it and formed their own small communities that had little or nothing to do with the temple ‎hierarchy. ‎
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These three groups and the conflict between them dominated the religious scene in Israel for the ‎next 200 years. The Pharisees became the forerunners of the Rabbis, the legal body that guided ‎Judaism following the Roman exile in 70 CE. The Sadducees, whose power was concentrated in the ‎temple and governmental authority, lost everything with the destruction of the temple and largely ‎vanished from Jewish history. The third group, known by various names including the most ‎famous, the Essenes, also vanished with the revolt against Rome. However, their influence ‎remained part of Judaism as it was absorbed into the growing authority of the rabbinic system. The ‎Dead Sea Scrolls are generally considered to be a product of the Essenes. While this view has been ‎challenged recently, it remains firmly embedded in academia. In truth, it is more likely that the ‎Dead Sea Scrolls come from some combination of Essene, Pharisee, and Sadducee origins. ‎
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Among the scrolls are a few so-called ‘sectarian documents’ – texts that state the fundamental ‎rules and beliefs of these sectarian communities.  One such scroll found in the first cave was the ‎‎‘Thanksgiving Hymns’, a parallel to the Biblical book of Psalms. In addition to the typical praise and ‎thanks found in the Psalms, it also contains some remarkably lucid examples of Jewish theological ‎belief during the second temple period. This will be our final image from this era. ‎
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The second temple period ended with a revolt against the growing and virtually invincible power of ‎Rome. The Romans were first brought into Israel during a civil war between two factions of the ‎Hasmoneans around the year 60 BCE. Eventually the Jews revolted against Roman authority. The ‎Jewish Revolt, thoroughly documented by the Jewish historian Josephus, was remarkable in that it ‎lasted as long as it did (four years). In the end, it resulted in the destruction of the temple and the ‎first stage of the almost complete exile of the Jewish people from Israel. It also resulted in the ‎elevation of the rabbinic faction to become the guide of the Jews through their long exile. The ‎second temple was unsuccessful in that it ended in defeat, destruction, and exile. But it was a ‎smashing success in creating the religious and spiritual structure that became Judaism as we know ‎it. This period was the essential bridge between the ancient world of the Bible and the post-Biblical ‎world of the exile. It was the period that caused and witnessed the formation of the religion ‎known today as Judaism. ‎
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