Second Temple Judaism

Second Temple Judaism, Christianity, and the Emergence of ...Second Temple Judaism is the period of Jewish history between the reconstruction of their temple by Cyrus and its destruction by the Romans in AD 71. Rabbinic Judaism took shape in this time.

In 515 BC, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish elite to return from their 70-year exile in Babylon. Under Persian rule, they rebuilt the temple the Babylonians had destroyed and resumed their religious practices. In exile, the Jewish religion changed. New writings joined their holy book and new beliefs developed:

  • Only one God. Before the Babylonian Exile Jews believed other deities existed but only worshipped one.
  • Individuals, not entire nations, are held accountable for their sins.
  • There is an evil angel who rules in Hell.

Some of these ideas may have come from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persians which worships one god.

Jews accepted and tolerated Persian rule but not the Seleucids or Romans who followed. They rebelled many times and refused to recognise kings who called themselves gods. Judea became notoriously difficult to control.

In 160 BC, fundamentalist Jews gained independence after a long guerrilla war and cleansed the country of Greek and pagan influences.

Why the Maccabees Aren't in the Bible | My Jewish Learning

The Book of Maccabees describes this war and the origin of Hannukah. Whilst a part of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, it is seldom included by Protestants. The Romans annexed Judea in 63 BC.

By the first century AD there were six Jewish political movements:

  • The Pharisees were the largest and most popular among the common people. They believed in the Exile teachings and followed not priests but ‘teachers of the Law’ or rabbis. Pharisees believed everyone should follow Jewish dietary restrictions, not only priests. Saint Paul was originally a Pharisee.
  • Sadducees belonged to the Greek-speaking elite that supported foreign rule. The high priesthood and puppet kings like Herod were of this sect. They rejected most of the Exile teachings and did not believe in life after death.
  • Essenes lived in remote rural areas and were obsessed with cleanliness and ritual purity. We know of them mainly through the Dead Sea Scrolls. John the Baptist may have been one.
  • Zealots violently resisted Roman rule. They believed the Kingdom of God was imminent. Their Sicarii (dagger-men) murdered Roman officials, tax collectors and collaborators.
  • Nazarenes followed Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st-century preacher. By the 2nd century, they would break with Jewish tradition.

The First Jewish-Roman War (AD 70 – 74) began when the Jews rebelled over heavy taxes. In AD 71 Romans captured Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple to the ground. The Zealots made their final stand at the fortress of Masada. Using earthen ramps and siege ladders the Romans scaled the desert fortress until its 960 defenders killed themselves rather than surrender.

"Masada" The Most Popular Tourist Attractions in IsraelMost of the Judean sects died out by the 200s. Pharisee beliefs became the basis of modern Judaism while the Nazarenes evolved into a new religion altogether – the Christians.

The last Jewish revolt was in 132-136 under Simon bar Khokba, who claimed to be the messiah. By this point, the Romans had had enough. In its aftermath, Emperor Hadrian slaughtered the rebels, renamed both Judea and Jerusalem and expelled the Jewish people from its borders. They did not return en masse until the 19th century.

Sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia, Live Science, Livius

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Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the GreatCyrus II (Kūruš in Old Persian) founded the Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Once ruler of an insignificant city, he overthrew his Median overlords and established the greatest empire of its time. Cyrus is revered in Iran and is the Hebrew Bible’s only non-Jewish messiah. Like his admirer Alexander the Great, who would conquer his empire, Cyrus was among the greatest rulers of the ancient world. Unlike Alexander, his empire outlasted him by two hundred years.

When Cyrus was born
, four powers ruled the known world:

  • Median Empire (Iran)
  • Babylonian Empire (Iraq and the Levant)
  • Lydia (Turkey)
  • Egypt

According to Herodotus, who wrote the oldest account on Cyrus’s life, King Astyages of Media had a daughter called Mandane who married his vassal the king of Persia. One day Astyages had a disturbing dream: Mandane urinating over the world. The court magi interpreted it as prophecy. Her child would overthrow Astyages and destroy his empire. When Mandane gave birth to a son, the king dispatched his commander Harpagus to kill him. Unwilling to murder a baby, however, Harpagus gave the infant to a shepherd couple and presented their stillborn baby to the king instead. Years later Cyrus, now king of Persia, rebelled against Astyages. Harpagus defected to him and Cyrus overthrew his grandfather and seized his empire.

median empireCyrus then invaded Babylon. After defeating its unpopular king, he entered the city peacefully and portrayed himself not as a conqueror but a saviour restoring legitimate rule. Cyrus allowed the captive people of Babylon to return to their respective homelands, declaring so in the famous Cyrus Cylinder (below), which Iranians claim to be the first declaration of human rights.

The Cyrus Cylinder as Design Object | The Getty Iris

Hearing of this upstart king, Croesus of Lydia consulted the Oracle of Delphi, at least according to Herodotus. The oracle told him that if he goes to war with Persia, a great empire will fall. Croesus sent his armies against Cyrus, only to find the empire that fell was his own.

Cyrus ruled his empire indirectly. The Persians were far more merciful and less imposing than the Babylonians and Assyrians who went before them. Cyrus often spared his enemies; he retired Astyages to a summer house and made Croesus a leading advisor.

So revered was Cyrus, that for centuries later, Persia’s male beauty standards were based on one’s resemblance to him.

Scholars disagree on Cyrus’s fate. Herodotus claims he died fighting Tamyris of the Massagetai, a barbarian queen to the east. Other accounts claim he died peacefully in his capital. His tomb still stands in modern-day Iran. Though the inscription has faded away, Strabo recorded it saying:

Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire and was king of Asia. Begrudge me not, therefore, this monument.

Since the early 2000s, thousands of Iranians gather at his tomb to celebrate ‘Cyrus the Great Day’ every October 29th, the day Cyrus entered Babylon. Iran’s government does not recognise or condone the event.

cyrus the great day
Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’
depicts Cyrus as an ideal ruler all others should emulate. Its fans included Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Cyrus promoted religious freedom. Although likely Zoroastrian himself, he portrayed himself as chosen by the gods of all his subjects, be it Ahura Mazda, Marduk or Yahweh and patronised temples across his empire. Cyrus ended the Jews’ 70 year ‘Babylonian Exile’ and helped rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Of this ‘Second Temple,’ only the Western Wall stands today and is the religion’s holiest site. The Persian king’s decrees ensured the Jews did not assimilate into mainstream Babylonian culture. Without Cyrus’s intervention, there might be no Judaism, no Christianity or Islam today.

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Herodotus – The HistoriesReuters

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The Allegorical Babylon

tower of babel

The Allegorical Babylon (400 BC -) is a city rooted in the Judeo-Christian imagination, first referenced in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Revelation. It is a bustling, cosmopolitan, decadent and oppressive place that symbolises human ambition and vanity in equal measure. It is the Mecca of the material world and the Ilium of the spiritual. Detractors see the Allegorical Babylon as the manifestation of the modern world and all its evils. Millenarian sects frequently invoke it in their theologies.

According to Genesis, Babylon (Babel in Hebrew) was founded by Nimrod, a mortal king and great-grandson of Noah. He turned his people from the worship of Yahweh and had them construct a tower so big it would not only survive another deluge but reach to heaven itself. Yahweh punished the people of earth by turning their one language into many and scattering them across the globe so, in the resulting confusion, the tower of Babel could never be completed.

babylonian captivity.jpg

Following the ascendance of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the sack of Nineveh, a war ensued between the Babylonians and a coalition of Egyptians, Assyrian remnants and Greek mercenaries led by the Pharaoh Necho. Jehoachim, the king of Judah, sided with the Egyptians and his kingdom was crushed. Three years later, in 586 BC, the Jews rebelled again. This time the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed its temple and enslaved its people. Nebuchadnezzar, their king, exiled the Jewish elite to Babylon. This was called the Babylonian Captivity.

In exile, the Jews penned the Talmud and gave form to their religion. Their writings immortalised their Babylonian oppressors as not only the enemies of the Jews but of monotheism and spirituality in general.  The book of Isiah prophesied Babylon`s doom, and the Jewish people rejoiced when the Persians destroyed their empire and returned its displaced peoples to their homes.

From Isiah chapter 21:

“ And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”

The Book of Revelations, in the New Testament, talks of Babylon again. Described is the terrible ‘Whore of Babylon’, riding a multiheaded monster; an instrument of the antichrist in the End Days. The ‘Mystery Babylon’ is described in apocalyptic terminology as a sinful and corrupt but all-powerful empire as it had been in the Old Testament.

The Book of Revelation was written in the 1st century AD however, centuries after the historical Babylon was destroyed. It is likely a reference to Ancient Rome, which fits the same characteristics as the Babylon of the Old Testament:

  1. A metropolitan and diverse state
  2. Seat of an empire oppressing different peoples and states
  3. Enemy of the Allegorical Zion
  4. Perceived as immoral, decadent and corrupt
  5. Pagan

jehovah's witnesses

The millenarian Jehovah’s Witnesses liken ‘Babylon the Great’ to the ostensibly corrupted world religions that govern the world today. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold them responsible for all the bloodshed suffered by mankind.

Some fundamentalist groups, including 7th day Adventists, explicitly identify the Whore of Babylon’s ‘purple and scarlet robes and golden cup’ with the Roman Catholic Church.

Identifying the African Diaspora with the exiled Jews of the Old Testament, Rastafari equates Babylon with the western world order. Babylon is the enemy of Zion. More broadly Babylon refers to any oppressive force – be it the slave trade, white imperialism, the Christian church, the USA, Great Britain, corrupt governance or the police.  This is why references to Babylon appear frequently in reggae music. The capitalist world order, or ‘Babylon System’, clearly demonstrates characteristics 1, 3 and 4, the British Empire all but 5. Similar discourse is found in the ‘African Zionism’ of Swaziland and South Africa.

Sources: King James Bible, JW.Org, Jewishhistory.org. Society of Biblical Literature

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