Exiled in Babylon, these survivors of the lost kingdom of Judah were just one ethnic group among many. They had lost the temple of Solomon: the center of their community and identity. They had to respond creatively to the challenge of maintaining their distinct identity amidst so many peoples without it.
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel had been similarly exiled by the Assyrians in 721 BC. They had failed to respond creatively to that challenge. They simply vanished as the distinct people Yahweh had originally called them to be.
The people of Judah in Babylon, now referred to as Jews, decided to affirm their distinct identity, first, by clarifying the distinct ethical and legal norms by which they would live: circumcision, diet, and Sabbath. They also created the synagogue as the new center of their communal life: regular meetings without ritual but with a reading of scripture, reflections on it, and prayer.
Jews in Babylon also had to come to an understanding of what they were doing there. Exilic prophets explained that Yahweh had sent them to live amidst Olympians for persisting in being Olympian themselves. Yet Yahweh promised to renew them as a faithful witnesses to him and to restore them to Jerusalem. The Jews enjoyed a covenantal (solemn, mutual) relationship with Yahweh as his chosen witnesses to humankind. Though Yahweh had punished them for their Olympian ways, his was a relationship of steadfast love with them and he would restore them.
The prophet Jeremiah had proclaimed, Hear the word of [Yahweh], O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” For [Yahweh] has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him (Jeremiah 31:10-11, New Revised Standard Version).
Jeremiah spoke of Yahweh restoring Israel after it had suffered catastrophic loss. This pattern of prosperity, loss, and restoration has repeated itself in the history of Judaism from his time to our own.
Persian rule (538-332). In 538 the Babylonians themselves suffered defeat by armies led by Cyrus of Persia. In 537, Cyrus financed the return to Jerusalem of Jews exiled in Babylon.
These returning Jews faced many obstacles. They began construction of a second temple in 520 and finished it in 515. Problems remained. Reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem and, more importantly, of the community in Jerusalem as distinctly Jewish, took the combined efforts of Nehemiah as governor, Ezra as scribe, and Malachi as prophet. These individuals finally effected the establishment of Jerusalem as a community dedicated to Yahweh by about 440 BC.
Nehemiah in particular made significant reforms: marriage of Jews to Jews only, regular collection of tithes to support the priesthood, rest from work on the Sabbath, forgiveness of debts to liberate the poor from them, and a rebuilding of the city walls for proper defense.
Ezra was a scribe: a theologian knowledgeable about the written law and skillful in interpreting it. This was a new role in Jewish society, created during the exile in Babylon, which only increased in social significance following Ezra’s help in strengthening Jewish identity in Jerusalem.
At the same time the social significance of prophets declined to the point of disappearing. Malachi was the last traditional prophet whose words became canonical (included in Jewish Scripture).
Hellenian rule (332-165). Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon defeated Darius, king of Persia, and established Hellenian control of Levantia in 332. With that rule came an extraordinarily exciting Hellenian culture. That confronted Jewish rulers of Jerusalem with this problem: at what point does assimilation of this Olympian culture become disloyalty to the one true god?
That worsened another problem. Jerusalem and the Jewish towns surrounding it were ruled by a high priest. That meant the high priest served as a political as well as a religious leader. In other words, he served both Jupiter, false god of politics, and Yahweh the one true god.
Different contenders for political rule as high priest had different ideas about the degree to which Jews could adopt Hellenian culture and still remain loyal to Yahweh. They locked themselves into a very Olympian power struggle over this issue. The Olympian gods were delighted to see the leaders of Yahwehs people so blatantly betray their loyalty to him.
Maccabean rule (165-63 BC): Antiochus 4th, Hellenian ruler over Jerusalem, sided with Jewish priestly leaders sympathetic to Hellenian culture. In 167, he led an army against Jerusalem, slaughtered tens of thousands of its inhabitants, sold as many into slavery, forbade the distinct practices of Judaism, placed a statue of Jupiter in the temple of Yahweh, and restored a Jewish Hellenian to the high priesthood.
That was it. Jews in central Levantia saw rebellion against Hellenian rulers and their wayward ways in apocalyptic, good vs. evil, end-of-history terms. The revolt was led by a man named Judah who later became known as “the Hammer” (the meaning of "Maccabee"). In 165 his army took control of the temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to Yahweh.
Sadly, the Maccabean rulers who followed this joyous rededication were just as mediocre and Olympian as any other rulers. Once in power, they too simply wanted to maintain that power and used purely political means, so pleasing to Jupiter, to do so. The Romans under Pompey were able to take control of Judea in 63 BC by helping one rival for high priesthood overcome another.
Roman rule (63 BC to AD 70 and beyond): Roman rule, including that of the Herodians, often conflicted with conventional Jewish beliefs and practices. For Jews in coastal Levantia, rebellion, as in the days of Judah the Hammer, remained a constant temptation.
Under Roman rule, four significant movements within Judaism thrived in Judea. The Sadducees were conservatives, upper class, and controlled the Sanhedrin (the governing Jewish Council). They believed that only the written law was normative.
The Pharisees started with the written law but regarded an oral tradition of interpretation to be normative. This tradition clarified how an ancient written law might apply meaningfully in the current context. In this way the Pharisees were progressives. They were led by middle-class professionals: theologians (scribes) and community leaders (rabbis).
There were two schools of thought within Pharisaism. One, led by Shammai, was “rigorous and legalistic”; the other, led by Hillel, was “more pragmatic and humanistic” (Cantor, 35).
The Zealots were Jews advocating the armed overthrow of Roman rule. In this they acted as restoratives or advocates of the restoration of a lost golden age of Jewish autonomy.
The Essenes completed the spectrum of possible social movements (conservative, progressive, restorative, and preservative) by being preservatives; that is, by wanting to withdraw from a lost world to preserve their distinct identity as Yahweh’s people. They lived communally, simply, celibately, and without personal property. They practiced prayer, charity, and study.
At that time, Olympian Romans had mixed views of Jews. On one side, they admired Jews for their ancient religion, written law, and piety. On the other, they regarded them as arrogant, stubborn, and a threat to peace.
For Diasporan Jews, such as the large, prosperous, and powerful community in Alexandria, these four movements meant little. Their challenge was living in an Olympian context and responding to it in a manner faithful to Yahweh. Not even Pharisaism helped them to do that. This lack of meaningfulness led “hundreds of thousands” of them (Cantor, 37) to find greater meaning in quietly adopting Olympianity.
By Roman times, Judaism had developed five emphases: (1) a set of rules and rituals governing priests and sacrifices and centered on the Temple in Jerusalem; (2) a prophetic tradition proclaiming Yahwistic ethics, the universal significance of Yahweh, and a coming day of judgment when Yahweh would set all things right; (3) the synagogue as the center of community life; (4) a belief in the resurrection of the dead, and 5) the coming of a redeemer chosen by Yahweh who, as the Jews as a whole or as a person, and as suffering servant or Son of David, or some combination thereof, would save Jews and the world through them (Cantor, 37-8).
In AD 66, Jews in Jerusalem rebelled against Roman rule. In response, Roman armies attacked Judea and, in AD 70, destroyed the second temple and most of Jerusalem. They also swept away the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes.
In Levantia, that left only Pharisaic Judaism and what had been Christian Judaism. By 70, Pharisaic Jews no longer recognized Christian Jews as Jews, the original Christian community had abandoned Jerusalem for Pella, and the dynamism of the Christian movement had moved to the non-Jewish Christian community in Antioch. By 70, then, Pharisaic Judaism had become normative Judaism and Christianity had became the distinct religious movement of a new historical age.
In the Diaspora, a Jewish Hellenianism and a mystical Judaism remained meaningful possibilities until early in the 100s.
(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor's The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 19-50].)
Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.