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.
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.
Most 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.