HELLENISM AND THE ROMAN CONQUEST
In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great of Macedon destroyed the Persian
Empire but largely ignored Judah. After Alexander's death, his
generals divided--and subsequently fought over--his empire. In
301 B.C., Ptolemy I took direct control of the Jewish homeland,
but he made no serious effort to interfere in its religious affairs.
Ptolemy's successors were in turn supplanted by the Seleucids,
and in 175 B.C. Antiochus IV seized power. He launched a campaign
to crush Judaism, and in 167 B.C. he sacked the Temple.
The violation of the Second Temple, which had been built about
520-515 B.C., provoked a successful Jewish rebellion under the
generalship of Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus. In 140 B.C. the Hasmonean
Dynasty began under the leadership of Simon Maccabaeus, who served
as ruler, high priest, and commander in chief. Simon, who was
assassinated a few years later, formalized what Judas had begun,
the establishment of a theocracy, something not found in any biblical
Despite priestly rule, Jewish society became Hellenized except
in its generally staunch adherence to monotheism. Although rural
life was relatively unchanged, cities such as Jerusalem rapidly
adopted the Greek language, sponsored games and sports, and in
more subtle ways adopted and absorbed the culture of the Hellenes.
Even the high priests bore such names as Jason and Menelaus. Biblical
scholars have identified extensive Greek influence in the drafting
of commentaries and interpolations of ancient texts during and
after the Greek period. The most obvious influence of the Hellenistic
period can be discerned in the early literature of the new faith,
Under the Hasmonean Dynasty, Judah became comparable in extent
and power to the ancient Davidic dominion. Internal political
and religious discord ran high, however, especially between the
Pharisees, who interpreted the written law by adding a wealth
of oral law, and the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly class
who called for strict adherence to the written law. In 64 B.C.,
dynastic contenders for the throne appealed for support to Pompey,
who was then establishing Roman power in Asia. The next year Roman
legions seized Jerusalem, and Pompey installed one of the contenders
for the throne as high priest, but without the title of king.
Eighty years of independent Jewish sovereignty ended, and the
period of Roman dominion began.
In the subsequent period of Roman wars, Herod was confirmed by
the Roman Senate as king of Judah in 37 B.C. and reigned until
his death in 4 B.C. Nominally independent, Judah was actually
in bondage to Rome, and the land was formally annexed in 6 B.C.
as part of the province of Syria Palestina. Rome did, however,
grant the Jews religious autonomy and some judicial and legislative
rights through the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, which traces its
origins to a council of elders established under Persian rule
(333 B.C. to 165 B.C.) was the highest Jewish legal and religious
body under Rome. The Great Sanhedrin, located on the Temple Mount
in Jerusalem, supervised smaller local Sanhedrins and was the
final authority on many important religious, political, and legal
issues, such as declaring war, trying a high priest, and supervising
certain rituals. Scholars have sharply debated the structure and
composition of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish historian Josephus and
the New Testament present the Sanhedrin as a political and judicial
council whereas the Talmud (see Glossary) describes it as a religious,
legislative body headed by a court of seventy-one sages. Another
view holds that there were two separate Sanhedrins. The political
Sanhedrin was composed primarily of the priestly Sadducee aristocracy
and was charged by the Roman procurator with responsibility for
civil order, specifically in matters involving imperial directives.
The religious Sanhedrin of the Pharisees was concerned with religious
law and doctrine, which the Romans disregarded as long as civil
order was not threatened. Foremost among the Pharisee leaders
of the time were the noted teachers, Hillel and Shammai.
Chafing under foreign rule, a Jewish nationalist movement of
the fanatical sect known as the Zealots challenged Roman control
in A.D. 66. After a protracted siege begun by Vespasian, the Roman
commander in Judah, but completed under his son Titus in A.D.
70, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were seized and destroyed
by the Roman legions. The last Zealot survivors perished in A.D.
73 at the mountain fortress of Massada, about fifty-six kilometers
southwest of Jerusalem above the western shore of the Dead Sea.
During the siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakki received
Vespasian's permission to withdraw to the town of Yibna (also
seen as Jabneh) on the coastal plain, about twenty-four kilometers
southwest of present-day Tel Aviv. There an academic center or
academy was set up and became the central religious authority;
its jurisdiction was recognized by Jews in Palestine and beyond.
Roman rule, nevertheless, continued. Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-38)
endeavored to establish cultural uniformity and issued several
repressive edicts, including one against circumcision.
The edicts sparked the Bar-Kochba Rebellion of 132-35, which
was crushed by the Romans. Hadrian then closed the Academy at
Yibna, and prohibited both the study of the Torah and the observance
of the Jewish way of life derived from it. Judah was included
in Syria Palestina, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and
Jews were forbidden to come within sight of the city. Once a year
on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, controlled
entry was permitted, allowing Jews to mourn at a remaining fragment
on the Temple site, the Western Wall, which became known as the
Wailing Wall. The Diaspora, which had begun with the Babylonian
captivity in the sixth century B.C.,and which had resumed early
in the Hellenistic period, now involved most Jews in an exodus
from what they continued to view as the land promised to them
as the descendants of Abraham.
Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and especially
after the suppression of the Bar-Kochba Rebellion in 135 A.D.,
religio-nationalist aspects of Judaism were supplanted by a growing
intellectual-spiritual trend. Lacking a state, the survival of
the Jewish people was dependent on study and observance of the
written law, the Torah. To maintain the integrity and cohesiveness
of the community, the Torah was enlarged into a coherent system
of moral theology and community law. The rabbi and the synagogue
became the normative institutions of Judaism, which thereafter
was essentially a congregationalist faith.
The focus on study led to the compilation of the Talmud, an immense
commentary on the Torah that thoroughly analyzed the application
of Jewish law to the day-to-day life of the Jewish community.
The complexity of argument and analysis contained in the Palestinian
Talmud (100-425 A.D.) and the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud
(completed around 500) reflected the high level of intellectual
maturity attained by the various schools of Jewish learning. This
inward-looking intellectualism, along with a rigid adherence to
the laws and rituals of Judaism, maintained the separateness of
the Jewish people, enabling them to survive the exilic experience
despite the lure of conversion and frequent outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
Data as of December 1988