The Second Temple Era
What is God?
| Total Comments: 0
| Total Topics: 0
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
There are no Comments to show. Comment and start the discussion.