Babylonian Exile
Babylonian Exile

Babylonian Exile

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Philosophy & Religion

The Babylonian Exile

The survival of the religious community of exiles in Babylonia demonstrates how rooted and widespread the religion of YHWH was. Abandonment of the national religion as an outcome of the disaster is recorded of only a minority. There were some cries of despair, but the persistence of prophecy among the exiles shows that their religious vitality had not flagged. The Babylonian Jewish community, in which the cream of Judah lived, had no sanctuary or altar (in contrast to the Jewish garrison of Elephantine in Egypt); what developed in their place can be surmised from new postexilic religious forms: fixed prayer; public fasts and confessions; and assembly for the study of the Torah, which may have developed from visits to the prophets for oracular edification. The absence of a local or territorial focus must also have spurred the formation of a literary centre of communal life—the sacred canon of covenant documents that came to be the core of the present Pentateuch. Observance of the Sabbath—a peculiarly public feature of communal life—achieved a significance among the exiles virtually equivalent to all the rest of the covenant rules together. Notwithstanding its political impotence, the exile community possessed such high spirits that foreigners were attracted to its ranks, hopeful of sharing in its future glory. This moment marks the origin of conversion to Judaism for distinctly religious reasons rather than for reasons of politics, culture, or nationalism.

Assurance of that future glory was given not only by Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s consolations, which were made credible by the fulfillment of the prophecies of doom, but also by the great comforter of the exile, the writer or writers of what is known as Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–66), who perceived the instrument of God’s salvation in the rise and progress of the Persian king Cyrus II (the Great; reigned 550–529 BCE; see Isaiah, Book of). Going beyond the national hopes of Ezekiel and animated by the universal spirit of the pre-exilic Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah saw in the miraculous restoration of Israel a means of converting the whole world to faith in Israel’s God. Israel would thus serve as “a light for the nations, that YHWH’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In his conception of the vicarious suffering of God’s servant—through which atonement is made for the ignorant heathen—Deutero-Isaiah found a handle by which to grasp the enigma of faithful Israel’s lowly state among the Gentiles. The idea was destined to play a decisive role in the self-understanding of the Jewish martyrs persecuted by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175–164 BCE)—as recounted in the Book of Daniel—and later again in the Christian appreciation of the death of Jesus.

The period of the restoration
After conquering Babylonia, Cyrus allowed those Jews who wished to do so to return and rebuild their Temple. Although some 40,000 eventually made their way back, they were soon disillusioned and ceased their rebuilding as the glories of the restoration failed to materialize and as controversy arose with the Samaritans, who opposed the reconstruction. (The Samaritans were a Judaized mixture of native north Israelites and Gentile deportees settled by the Assyrians in the erstwhile northern kingdom.) A new religious inspiration attended the governorship of Zerubbabel (6th century BCE), a member of the Davidic line, who became the centre of messianic expectations during the anarchy attendant upon the accession to the Persian throne of Darius I (522 BCE). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah understood the disturbances as heralds of the imminent overthrow of the Persian empire, as a worldwide manifestation of God, and as a glorification of Zerubbabel (see Haggai, Book of; Zechariah, Book of). Against the day of the empire’s fall, they urged the people to quickly complete the building of the Temple. The labour was resumed and completed in 516, but the prophecies remained unfulfilled. Zerubbabel then disappears from the biblical narrative, and the spirit of the community flags again.

The one religious constant in the vicissitudes of the restored community was the mood of repentance and the desire to win back God’s favour by adherence to the rules of his covenant. The anxiety that underlay this mood produced a hostility to strangers and encouraged a lasting conflict with the Samaritans, who asked permission to take part in rebuilding the Temple of the God whom they too worshipped. The Jews rejected the Samaritans on ill-specified but apparently ethnic and religious grounds: they felt the Samaritans to be alien to the Jewish historical community of faith and especially to its messianic hopes. Nonetheless, intermarriage between the two peoples occurred, precipitating a new crisis in 458, when the priest Ezra arrived from Babylon, intent on enforcing the regimen of the Torah. By reviving ancient laws excluding Canaanites and others and applying them to their own times and neighbours, the leaders of the Jews brought about the divorce and expulsion of several dozen non-Jewish wives and their children. Tension between the xenophobic and xenophilic in postexilic Judaism was finally resolved some two centuries later with the development of a formality of religious conversion, whereby Gentiles who so wished could be taken into the Jewish community by a single, simple procedure.

The decisive constitutional event of the new community was the covenant subscribed to by its leaders in 444, which made the Torah the law of the land. A charter granted to Ezra by the Persian king Artaxerxes I empowered the latter to enforce the Torah as the imperial law for the Jews of the province Avar-nahra (“Beyond the River”), in which the district of Judah (now reduced to a small area) was located. The charter required the publication of the Torah, which in turn entailed its final editing—now plausibly ascribed to Ezra and his circle. The survival in the Torah of patent inconsistencies and disagreements with the postexilic situation indicate that its materials were by then sacrosanct, to be compiled but no longer created. But these survivals made necessary the immediate invention of a harmonizing and creative method of textual interpretation to adjust the Torah to the needs of the times. The Levites were trained in the art of interpreting the text to the people; the first product of the creative exegesis later known as Midrash (meaning “investigation” or “interpretation”; plural Midrashim) is to be found in the covenant document of Nehemiah, chapter 9—every item of which shows development, not reproduction, of a ruling of the Torah (see Ezra and Nehemiah, books of). Thus, the publication of the Torah as the law of the Jews laid the basis of the vast edifice of Oral Law so characteristic of later Judaism.

Concern over observance of the Torah was raised by the stark contrast between messianic expectations and the harsh reality of the restoration. The contrast signified God’s continued displeasure, and the only way to regain his favour was to do his will. Thus, the Book of Malachi, named after the last of the prophets, concludes with an admonition to be mindful of the Torah of Moses. God’s displeasure, however, had always been signaled by a break in communication with him. As time passed and messianic hopes remained unfulfilled, the sense of a permanent suspension of normal relations with God took hold, and prophecy died out. God, it was believed, would some day be reconciled with his people, and a glorious revival of prophecy would then occur. For the present, however, religious vitality expressed itself in dedication to the development of institutions that would make the Torah effective in life. The course of this development is hidden from view by the dearth of sources from the Persian period. But the community that emerged into the light of history in Hellenistic times had been radically transformed by this momentous, quiet process.

Moshe Greenberg
Hellenistic Judaism (4th century BCE–2nd century CE)
The Greek period (332–63 BCE)
Hellenism and Judaism
Contact between Greeks and Semites goes back to Minoan and Mycenaean times and is reflected in certain terms used by Homer and other early Greek authors. It is not until the end of the 4th century, however, that Jews are first mentioned by Greek writers, who praise them as brave, self-disciplined, and philosophical.

Antiochus III
Antiochus III
After being conquered by Alexander the Great (332 BCE), Palestine became part of the Hellenistic kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt, the policy of which was to permit the Jews considerable cultural and religious freedom. When in 198 Palestine was conquered by King Antiochus III (reigned 223–187 BCE) of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty, the Jews were treated even more liberally, being granted a charter to govern themselves by their own constitution—namely, the Torah. Greek influence, however, was already apparent. Some of the 29 Greek cities of Palestine attained a high level of Hellenistic culture. The mid-3rd century-BCE Zenon papyri, which contain the correspondence of the business manager of a high Ptolemaic official, present a picture of a wealthy Jew, Tobiah, who through commercial contact with the Ptolemies acquired a veneer of Hellenism, to judge at least from the pagan and religious expressions in his Greek letters. His son and especially his grandsons became ardent Hellenists. By the beginning of the 2nd century, the influence of the Hellenistic Age in Judaea was quite strong; indeed, it has been argued that, if the Seleucids had not forcibly intervened in Jewish affairs, Judaean Judaism would have become even more syncretistic than Alexandrian Judaism. The apocryphal writer Jesus ben Sirach so bitterly denounced the Hellenizers in Jerusalem (c. 180 BCE) that he was forced by the authorities to temper his words.

In the early part of the 2nd century BCE, Hellenizing Jews took control of the high priesthood itself. As high priest from 175 to 172, Jason established Jerusalem as a Greek city, with Greek educational institutions. His ouster by an even more extreme Hellenizing faction, which established Menelaus (died 162 BCE) as high priest, occasioned a civil war in which Menelaus was supported by the wealthy aristocrats and Jason by the masses. The Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who initially granted exemptions and privileges to the Jews, intervened at the request of Menelaus’s party. Antiochus’s promulgation of decrees against the practice of Judaism led in 167 BCE to the successful revolt of the priest Mattathias (died 166 BCE) and his five sons—the Maccabees (Hasmoneans; see also Hasmonean dynasty). It has been conjectured that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, mirrors the fierceness of this struggle.

The extreme tactics employed by the Hasmoneans in their struggle with Hellenizing Jews, whose children they forcibly circumcised, indicate the inroads that Hellenism had already made. On the whole, the chief supporters of the Hellenizers were members of the wealthy urban population, while the Maccabees were supported by the peasants and the urban masses. Yet there is evidence that the ruthlessness exhibited by the Hasmoneans toward the Greek cities of Palestine had political rather than cultural origins and that in fact they were fighting for personal power no less than for the Torah. Indeed, some of the Jews who fought on the side of the Maccabees were idol worshippers. In any event, the Maccabees soon reached a modus vivendi with Hellenism: thus, Jonathan (died 143/142 BCE), according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 38–c. 100 CE), negotiated a treaty of friendship with Sparta; Aristobulus I (died 103 BCE) actually called himself Philhellene (a lover of Hellenism); and Alexander Jannaeus (died 76 BCE) hired Greek mercenaries and inscribed his coins in Greek as well as in Hebrew. Greek influence reached its peak under King Herod I of Judaea (reigned 37–4 BCE), who built a Greek theatre, amphitheatre, and hippodrome in or near Jerusalem.

Social, political, and religious divisions
During the Hellenistic period the priests were both the wealthiest class and the strongest political group among the Jews of Jerusalem. The wealthiest of the priests were the members of the Oniad family, who held the hereditary office of high priest until they were replaced by the Hasmoneans; the Temple that they supervised also functioned as a bank, where the wealth of the Temple was stored and where private individuals also deposited their money. From a social and economic point of view, therefore, Josephus is justified in calling the government of Judaea a theocracy. Opposition to the priests’ oppressive rule arose among an urban middle-class group known as scribes (soferim), who based their interpretation of and instruction in the Torah on an oral tradition probably going back to the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile (538 BCE and after). A special group of scribes known as Hasidim, or “Pietists,” became the forerunners of the Pharisees, or “Separatists”—middle-class Jewish scholars who reinterpreted the Torah and the prophetic writings to meet the needs of their times. The Hasidim joined the Hasmoneans in the struggle against the Hellenizers, though on religious rather than political grounds.

Josephus held that the Pharisees and the other Jewish parties were philosophical schools, and some modern scholars have argued that the groupings were primarily along economic and social lines; but the chief distinctions among them were religious and go back well before the Maccabean revolt. Some modern scholars have sought to interpret the Pharisees’ opposition to the Sadducees—wealthy, conservative Jews who accepted the Torah alone as authoritative—as based on an urban-rural dichotomy, but a very large share of Pharisaic concern was with agricultural matters. To associate the rabbis with urbanization seems a distortion. The chief support for the Pharisees came from the lower classes, whether in the country or in the city.

The equation of Pharisaic with “normative” Judaism can no longer be supported, at any rate not before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. According to the Palestinian Talmud (the annotations and interpretations of the Oral Law compiled by Palestinian Jewish scholars in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE), there were 24 types of “heretics” in Palestine in 70 CE, thus indicating much divergence among Jews; this picture is confirmed by Josephus, who notes numerous instances of religious leaders who claimed to be prophets and who obtained considerable followings.

The chief doctrine of the Pharisees was that the Oral Law had been revealed to Moses at the same time as the Written Law. In their exegesis and interpretation of this oral tradition, particularly under the rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE–1st century CE), the Pharisees were flexible, and their regard for the public won them considerable support. That the Maccabean ruler John Hyrcanus I (reigned 135–104 BCE) broke with them and that Josephus set their number at merely “more than 6,000” at the time of King Herod indicates that they were less numerous and less influential than Josephus would have his readers believe. The Pharisees stressed the importance of performing all the commandments, including those that appeared to be of only minor significance; those who were particularly strict in their observance of the Levitical rules were known as ḥaverim (“companions”). They believed in the providential guidance of the universe, in angels, in reward and punishment in the world to come, and in resurrection of the dead, all of which were opposed by the Sadducees. However, in finding a modus vivendi with Hellenism, at least in form and in terminology, the Pharisees did not differ greatly from the Sadducees. Indeed, the supreme council of the Great Synagogue (or Great Assembly) of the Pharisees was modeled on Hellenistic religious and social associations. Because they did not take an active role in fostering the rebellion against Rome in 66–70 CE, their leader, Johanan ben Zakkai, obtained Roman permission to establish an academy at Yavneh (Jamnia), where in effect the Pharisees replaced the cult of the Temple with a regimen of study and prayer.

The Sadducees and their subsidiary group, the Boethusians (Boethosaeans), who were identified with the great landowners and priestly families, were more deeply influenced by Hellenization. The rise of the Pharisees may thus be seen, in a sense, as a reaction against the more profound Hellenization favoured by the Sadducees, who were allied with the philhellenic Hasmoneans. From the time of John Hyrcanus the Sadducees generally held a higher position than the Pharisees and were favoured by the Jewish rulers. Religiously more circumscribed than the Pharisees, they rejected the idea of a revealed oral interpretation of the Torah, even though they had their own tradition, the sefer gezerot (“book of decrees” or “decisions”). They similarly rejected the inspiration of the prophetic books of the Bible, as well as the Pharisaic beliefs in angels, rewards and punishments in the world to come, providential governance of human events, and resurrection of the dead. For them Judaism centred on the Temple; but, about 10 years before the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, the Pharisees prevented the Sadducees from entering it, and in effect the Sadducees disappeared from Jewish life.

Not constituting any particular party were the unlearned rural masses known as ʿamme ha-aretz (“people of the land”), who were found among both the Pharisees and the Sadducees and even among the Samaritans. The ʿamme ha-aretz did not give the prescribed tithes, did not observe the laws of purity, and were neglectful of the laws of prayer; so great was the antagonism between them and the learned Pharisees that the biblical verse “Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast” was applied to their daughters. The antipathy was reciprocated, for in the same passage in the Babylonian Talmud (the annotations and interpretations of the Oral Law compiled by Babylonian Jewish scholars in the 5th century CE) are added the words, “Greater is the hatred wherewith the ʿamme ha-aretz hate the scholar than the hatred wherewith the heathens hate Israel.” That there was social mobility, however, is clear from the Talmudic dictum, “Heed the sons of the ʿamme ha-aretz, for they will be the living source of the Torah.”

Proselytes (converts) to Judaism, though not constituting a class, became increasingly numerous in Palestine and especially in the Diaspora (the Jews living beyond Palestine). Scholarly estimates of the Jewish population of this era range from 700,000 to 5,000,000 in Palestine and from 2,000,000 to 5,000,000 in the Diaspora, the prevailing opinion being that about one-tenth of the population of the Mediterranean world at the beginning of the Christian era was Jewish. Such numbers represent a considerable increase from previous eras and must have included large numbers of proselytes. In a probable allusion to proselytism, in 139 BCE the Jews of Rome were charged by the praetor with attempting to contaminate Roman morals with their religion. The first large-scale conversions were conducted by John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus I, who in 130 and 103 BCE, respectively, forced the people of Idumaea in southern Palestine and the people of Ituraea in northern Palestine to become Jews. The eagerness of the Pharisees to win converts is attested in The Gospel According to Matthew (23:15), which states that the Pharisees would “traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte.” To be sure, some of the proselytes, according to Josephus, did return to their pagan ways, but the majority apparently remained true to their new religion. In addition, there were many “sympathizers” with Judaism (known as sebomenoi, “fearers of the Lord”), who observed one or more Jewish practices without being fully converted.

Outside the pale of Judaism in most, though not all, respects were the Samaritans, who, like the Sadducees, refused to recognize the validity of the Oral Law; in fact, the break between the Sadducees and the Samaritans did not occur until the conquest of Shechem by John Hyrcanus (128 BCE). Like the later so-called Qumrān covenanters (the monastic group associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls), they were opposed to the Jewish priesthood and the cult of the Temple, regarded Moses as a messianic figure, and forbade the revelation of esoteric doctrines to outsiders.

Scholars have revised the conception of a “normative” Pharisaic Judaism dominant in Palestine and a deviant Judaism dominant in the Diaspora. On the one hand, the picture of normative Judaism is broader than at first believed, and it is clear that there were many differences of emphasis within the Pharisaic party. On the other hand, supposed differences between Alexandrian and Palestinian Judaism are not as great as had been formerly thought. In Palestine, no less than in the Diaspora, there were deviations from Pharisaic standards.

Despite the attempts of the Pharisaic leaders to restrain the wave of Greek influence, they themselves showed at least superficial Hellenization. In the first place, as many as 2,500 to 3,000 words of Greek origin are found in the Talmudic corpus, and they supply important terms in the fields of law, government, science, religion, technology, and everyday life, especially in the popular sermons preached by the rabbis. When preaching, the Talmudic rabbis often gave the Greek translation of biblical verses for the benefit of those who understood only Greek. The prevalence of Greek in ossuary (burial) inscriptions and the discovery of Greek papyri in the Dead Sea caves confirm the widespread use of Greek, though it seems few Jews really mastered it. Again, there was a superficial Hellenization in the frequent adoption of Greek names, even by the rabbis; and there is evidence (Talmud, Soṭa [a tractate in the Mishna]) of a school at the beginning of the 2nd century CE that had 500 students of “Greek wisdom.” At the end of the 2nd century, long after the rabbis prohibited the people from teaching their sons Greek (117), Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (135–220), the editor of the Mishna, the authoritative compilation of the Oral Law, could still remark, “Why talk Syriac in Palestine? Talk either Hebrew or Greek.” The synagogues of the period are modeled after Hellenistic-Roman basilicas, with inscriptions in Greek and even pagan motifs. Many of the anecdotes told about the rabbis have Socratic and Cynic parallels. There is evidence of discussions between rabbis and Athenians, Alexandrians, Roman philosophers, and even the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161); despite all of these discussions, only one rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah (early 2nd century), appears to have embraced gnosticism, accepting certain esoteric religious dualistic views. The rabbis never mention the Greek philosophers Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) or the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (c. 15 BCE–c. 45 CE), and they never use any Greek philosophical terms; the only Greek author whom they name is Homer. Again, the parallels between Hellenistic rhetoric and rabbinic hermeneutics are in the realm of terminology rather than of substance, and those between Roman and Talmudic law are inconclusive. Part of the explanation of this may be that, although there were 29 Greek cities in Palestine, none was in Judaea, the real stronghold of the Jews.

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