In 459 BCE Ezra led about 50,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon back to Jerusalem where he re-established the Laws of Moses. Fourteen years later Nehemiah, cupbearer to Artaxerxes the Persian emperor, was appointed governor of Judah. He further rebuilt Jerusalem, and enforced Ezra’s ban on intermarriage between the Jews and others. Jerusalem remained a backwater. It was not on any of the main trade routes: the caravans that stopped at Petra or Gaza had no reason to go to Jerusalem, which lacked the raw materials to develop its own industry. In 334 BCE Alexander crossed the Dardanelles (ancient Hellespont) in northwestern Turkey extending the Greek Empire from Egypt to Persia. So now not only Persian and Babylonian but also Greek influences entered Israel. During the wars of his six successors, Judea was constantly invaded by one army after the other, with Jerusalem itself changing hands six times between 320 and 301 BCE.
Jews were divided in their response to the Greeks. Some felt at home in their world and became pioneers of their new ideas in Jerusalem. Others found this foreign influence extremely threatening and wanted to maintain the old laws and customs. This developed into a serious conflict with some Jews wanting to convert Jerusalem into a Greek-style city called “Antioch in Judea.” For them Hellenism was a perfect vehicle for Judaic ideas, while others, in contrast, saw the Greek ways and philosophies as entirely contrary to their heritage. At about the year 200 Ptolemy Soter (Savior) extended his boundaries northward from Egypt to include Jerusalem and Judea. By this time, though, there was already a Jewish diaspora in Egypt and Greek had become their native language. Thus, the first translation of the Bible was the famous Greek version known as the Septuagint, translated in stages between the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BCE in Alexandria.
The Ptolemys ruled until 198 BCE, when they were forced to give way to the Seleucid Greeks from Syria. The Seleucids’ Hellenization was much more oppressive, much less tolerant of Jewish religion and identity. Antiochus IV issued edicts against the practice of Judaism that were extreme and unprecedented, and atrocities occurred: mothers who circumcised their sons were flung from Jerusalem’s walls to their deaths; a ninety-year-old man named Eliezar was executed for his refusal to eat pork. The culmination came when Antiochus deliberately desecrated the Temple. As you can imagine, these actions galvanized the people against the Greeks. A small band of warriors under Judas the Maccabee – his name literally means Judas the hammer – began a guerrilla war against them. Finally in 164 BCE they managed to retake the Temple and, while holding off the Greek armies, proceeded to re-purify and rededicate it.
The Maccabean Revolt was largely successful in creating a new independent Jewish state ruled by the descendants of Judas the Maccabee: the Hasmonean kings. A synthesis of Jewish and Greek thought prevailed, though many Jews rebelled against it. The Hasmonean rule lasted about a century until two heirs of the dynasty started fighting each other over who would be the next king. This came to a head in the year 63 BCE at a time when the great Roman general Pompeii was in Damascus. The leaders of Jerusalem appealed to Pompeii for help. The Romans came to help but, unfortunately for the Jews, they stayed.
In 42 BCE Octavian’s adopted father, Julius Caesar, was posthumously recognized as a God, so Octavian improved his stature, calling himself Divi filius, “Son of God.” In 27 BCE he became the first Emperor “the exalted” Augustus of the Roman Empire which extended from Spain and Britain in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, where the land of Judaea on the eastern Mediterranean became important as a point of entry.
A month after his own death in 14 CE, Augustus was himself declared a God by the Roman Senate and was worshipped, with statues venerating him throughout the Empire, including in Jerusalem. Pax Romana meant that it was by the will of the Gods that Rome ruled, because of its virtue, strength and nobility. The Jews, on the other hand, had their own destiny which many believed reflected the one true God’s plan, worked out through a revealed sense of history in the apocalyptic tradition. For many Jews 2,000 years ago, political liberty was a religious ideal. They were activists for the “kingdom of God.”
Revolutionary thoughts were exacerbated by people’s dissatisfaction with the greed and perversions of the infamous Herod the Great and his expansive building program in the Roman style. This included rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem which soon became for many Jews a symbol not of national identity, hope and God’s will, but of corruption and evil. Some criticized the way the priests ran the temple, often benefiting themselves at the expense of their people. During the time of both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, succeeded his father and ruled over Galilee (4 BCE - 39 CE).