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Israel

 
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Israel

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 text.

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, Christianity.

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

 

Israel - TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Introduction
  • Section >History & Historical Setting

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