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500 BCE - 0

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  • The Jewish community that returned to Jerusalem was vulnerable because the city walls had been destroyed in 586, and the neighboring tribes, including the Samaritans, were hostile to the idea of a rival power arising again in Jerusalem. The situation was stabilized with the arrival of Nehemiah, who supervised construction of the new city wall in 437. For the balance of the Persian period (to 332), the restored community in Judah remained relatively peaceful. During this time, the late books of Tanakh were written, including Job, Jonah, Ecclesiastes, and Chronicles. The redaction of Tanakh was completed about 330 BCE. The date of final standardization of the contents and order of the canon is estimated to be 140 CE.
  • Zoroastrianism was the major religion of the Persian Empire, which ruled both Judah and the Jewish community in Babylonia to 332. While the Persian emperors professed belief, Zoroastrianism was not the state religion, and Cyrus was able to deal leniently with the Jews without resistance from the priestly caste. Many languages were spoken within the Persian Empire, but the official language was Aramaic.
  • The Greek city-states on the mainland came into prominence from about 800. In contrast to the Israelites, the Greeks were by necessity maritime-oriented. With limited agricultural land and a growing population, the Greek cities, particularly Athens, were dependent upon imports for food supplies. Approximately 2/3 of the grain supply for Athens came from overseas, principally via the Black Sea. The Greek economy was very much slave-based; probably more than half the inhabitants of Athens during the “Golden Age” were slaves, mainly from Asia Minor. Athens established colonies from Sicily to the Dardanelles. Through trading, the Greeks were in frequent contact with all lands bordering the Mediterranean, including Phoenicia and the Philistine coast.
  • The Greek city-states fought off invasions by Persia with victories at Marathon (490) and Salamis (480). Under the dominance of Athens, Greek arts and literature flourished in the height of the Classical Age. However, the Greek cities were then weakened by in-fighting, particularly between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404). The independence of the Greek city-states was ended by Philip of Macedon in 338.
  • Philip’s son, Alexander, in a few years shattered the centuries-old pattern of dominance of the eastern Mediterranean by superpowers in Egypt and Mesopotamia.. Alexander invaded Asia Minor and defeated the Persian army in 333. He then marched down the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and conquered Syria, Judah, and Egypt in 332. Next he turned east and subdued the entire Persian Empire to the border of India. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 at age 32, and his vast empire fragmented after his death. The two major successor states were Egypt under the Ptolemys; and the Seleucid Empire, which included Judah (captured from Egypt in 200), Syria, Babylonia, and Persia. In 247 a renewed Persian empire, the Parthians, defeated the Seleucids and drove them west of the Euphrates River. The Jewish community in Babylon, east of the Euphrates, was returned to Persian control.
  • The lasting result of the conquests of Alexander was the spread of Hellenism, the Greek language and culture, throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Seleucids actively engaged in Hellenizing their territory to unite the various ethnic communities. Hundreds of new cities, including Antioch, were established for trade and garrison purposes. The new cities adopted the Greek language, philosophic ideas, religious sentiments (including polytheism), and politics. In Egypt, Hellenizing centered on the new city of Alexandria. Alexandria became probably the largest Jewish city in the world. Although Greek-speaking, the Jewish community in Alexandria retained their allegiance to YHVH, made annual contributions to the Temple, and recognized Jerusalem as “the metropolis.” The translation of Tanakh into Greek, the Septuagint, was completed in Alexandria about 200 BCE.
  • An additional result of Hellenizing was the opening of the Mediterranean world to previously insulated peoples, including the Judeans. Jews emigrated and established communities in seaports in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, North Africa, and later in Rome. In common with the community in Alexandria, the Diaspora communities maintained their distinctive customs and rituals, and made contributions and frequent festival pilgrimages to the Temple.
  • The Hellenizing activities of the Seleucids provoked increasing resistance in Judah, finally resulting in the successful Maccabean revolt (165). The Hasmonean dynasty ruled independent Judah for about 100 years, with increasing internal strife. The Hasmoneans greatly extended their territory by conquering and forcibly converting neighboring states, probably the only instance in history of forcible conversion by Jews. During this period Rome became the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. In 63, warring Hasmonean factions invited Rome to annex Judah. Under Roman control and with Diaspora contributions, Jerusalem prospered and expanded, particularly with the total rebuilding of the Temple and Temple Mount by Herod (39-4). At the same time, the Pharisees were developing a Judaism based principally on study and prayer, independent of the Temple sacrificial cult.