David Solomon’s Jewish History lecture examines the Second Temple Period (Bayit Sheini), which spans from approximately the year -500 (or 500 BCE) to the theoretical year 0 (3260 to 3760 in the traditional Hebraic calendar).
In this six-part lecture series, speaker David Solomon provides an overview of Jewish history spanning 4,000 years, from 2000 BCE to 2000 CE. He explains that to comprehend the vast sweep of Jewish history, it must be examined in distinct phases of approximately 500 years each. David notes that every 500 years, the Jewish people undergo a major transition, propelled forward by a key spiritual project that progresses their larger purpose and covenantal destiny in the world. By identifying the core spiritual mission or essence of each 500-year era, one can better contextualise the historical details and mechanics of that period.
David stresses that this traditional phasing of Jewish history into 500-year segments applies for both a religious or academic perspective. His aim in this lecture series is to impart the crucial background knowledge needed to meaningfully grasp scholarly and religious discussions of any given period of Jewish history. He seeks to provide the “headline stories” for each phase – the skeleton framework and touchstones that allow one to comprehend the direction and underlying forces driving Jewish history.
The Second Temple Period (500 BCE–70 CE)
The first lecture focuses on the Second Temple Period, spanning approximately 500 years from 500 BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This era created the Judaism and Jewish identity that we would recognise today. It bore witness to the emergence of the Jewish people as a distinct civilisation and spiritual nation situated between the great powers of the Ancient Near East.
Return from Babylonian Exile
The Second Temple Period commenced with Cyrus the Great’s decree in 538 BCE. The decree allowed the Jewish people to return to Judea from Babylon and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The First Temple had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar when he conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE, exiling much of the population to Babylon. Around 40,000 Jews chose to join the return migration to Judea led by Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic line, and Yehoshua, a leading priest. The prophets Chaggai and Zechariah encouraged Zerubbabel and Yehoshua in their mission to reconstruct the temple in Jerusalem despite opposition from surrounding peoples.
Leadership of Ezra & Nehemiah
In the 5th century BCE, two pivotal leaders named Ezra and Nehemiah arrived from Babylon to reestablish the religious, cultural and political institutions of the Jewish people in Judea. Ezra took steps to consolidate Torah study amongst the people and prohibit intermarriage with non-Jews, emphasising the Jews as a unique spiritual and physical entity rather than just another ethnicity. Nehemiah focused on rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and instituting new structures of local governance.
Competing Visions: Sadducees & Pharisees
During this period, two competing visions of Judaism developed – the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees represented the temple priestly elite who saw temple rituals and sacrifices as the essence of the Jewish religion. The Pharisees, forerunners of the rabbis, emphasised observing the oral traditions of Torah interpretation and Jewish law that could be practised outside the temple in everyday life. The Pharisees ultimately emerged as the dominant force shaping Judaism after the temple’s destruction.
Greek Rule & the Maccabees
For around a century after Alexander the Great’s conquests, Judea was under Greek control, either directly or under the Greek-influenced descendants of Alexander’s generals. This generated significant cultural clashes, culminating in the outlawing of Jewish religious practices and desecration of the temple by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV in 167 BCE. This sparked the Maccabean Revolt led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers. After a series of stunning military victories, the Maccabeans achieved independence for the Hasmonean dynasty around 110 BCE.
The infighting of later Hasmonean rulers ultimately invited greater Roman interference in Judea from 63 BCE onwards. After conquering Jerusalem in 37 BCE, the Romans installed their ally Herod the Great as client king over Judea. Herod ruthlessly maintained control for over 30 years. However, he undertook a massive expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem which won favour with the Jewish population.
Life After the Temple’s Destruction
Growing Jewish discontent with excessive Roman rule culminated in the First Jewish Revolt starting in 66 CE. This ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman forces under Titus in 70 CE. In a farsighted move, the spiritual leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai established a new centre of Jewish learning at Yavne. This centre provided leadership and sustained Jewish religious life without sacrificial temple worship.
The Second Temple Period confronted the Jewish people with complex challenges and upheavals as they sought to retain their identity and faith situated between larger neighbouring civilisations. Key spiritual projects accomplished included transmitting the Oral Torah, distinguishing Jewish spirituality and peoplehood, resisting cultural assimilation, and ultimately adapting Judaism to flourish without a centralised temple cult. Despite destructive endings, the period birthed significant new beginnings that shaped Judaism and Jewish identity thereafter.
To properly comprehend the Second Temple Period, David emphasises the importance of understanding the broader geopolitical context of the era. In the preceding centuries, the Jewish people’s central place of exile had been in Babylon following the First Temple’s destruction. But the rising Persian Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. Cyrus allowed displaced peoples like the Jews to return to their homelands and sponsored the rebuilding of their religious structures. Judea thus became a province of the Persian Empire for the next couple centuries. It was only Alexander the Great’s conquests that ended this, spreading Greek culture and rule across the region.
Following Alexander’s death, Judea was caught between two major Hellenistic successor kingdoms – the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, and the Seleucid dynasty based in Syria. It changed hands several times as a buffer state contested between the two powers. The Maccabean Revolt enabled an independent Jewish Hasmonean state to emerge from the turmoil. But Roman power soon eclipsed the Hellenistic kingdoms, with Pompey annexing Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
Thereafter, Judea’s fate was largely subject to Roman control, though client rulers like Herod were granted some autonomy to govern on Rome’s behalf. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome from 66-73 CE resulted in Judea’s devastation. But Jewish communities remained active across the diaspora. Jewish centres existed in places like Alexandria, Rome, and Babylon where the Talmud would be produced. Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans following the failed Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 CE. With this new name, the Romans aimed to erase the city’s Jewish identity.
The Biblical Narrative
David also explores how the Second Temple Period relates to the biblical narrative. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the early return from exile and efforts to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. These are followed in terms of narrative timeline by the books of Chronicles, which retell biblical history from Genesis to the return from exile with new emphases on King David, the Jerusalem temple, and the Davidic dynasty.
Most biblical prophets whose writings are included in the Tanakh lived in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE prior to and during the Babylonian Exile. But the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi originated in the Second Temple Period. These books provide encouragement regarding the rebuilt temple and warnings against spiritual complacency.
The Hashmonean dynasty later gained control of the high priesthood, merging political and religious authority. This set the stage for intense conflicts with the Pharisees who opposed the priest-kings. The Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran community provide one contemporary perspective on these tensions.
According to traditional dating, the final books of the Tanakh were composed during the late Second Temple Period under Persian and early Greek rule. These include the five megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) along with Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. The era’s complex challenges likely influenced the perspectives voiced regarding divine providence and the people’s spiritual condition. But enduring hope is affirmed through God’s covenants with Israel and David’s dynasty.
The Second Temple Period represented a formative era that shaped Judaism and Jewish identity for centuries thereafter. Major spiritual projects included consolidating the nascent biblical canon, transmitting the oral Torah, resisting pressures to assimilate, and ultimately adapting Judaism to continue without temple sacrifices.
The period bore witness to great upheavals as the land of Israel changed hands between major powers of the Ancient Near East. But the Jewish people proved remarkably resilient and innovative in retaining their distinct identity and faith through whatever circumstances they encountered. By understanding the essence of this era as the rearticulation of Judaism for life in their ancestral homeland, students of Jewish history can better appreciate how Second Temple developments drove the Jewish spiritual mission forward to engage new challenges.
This is an AI generated summary of a transcript made of this lecture. If you discover any errors or inconsistencies, please let us know.
This is an edited lecture of the live talk given in 2020 for Chabad South Africa and Daminyan Shule in Melbourne. It is the first part of a six-part overview series of Jewish History that starts with the Second Temple Period and ends (at the beginning) with the Biblical Period.