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HISTORY OF JUDAISM
 
 


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Judah and the Greeks: 4th - 3rd century BC

Judah remains a province of the Persian empire until 332 BC when a new conqueror, Alexander the Great, passes by. The high priest of Jerusalem makes him welcome.

Jerusalem suffers a certain amount of turmoil during the warfare which follows the death of Alexander in 323, but by 301 it is firmly under the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The Ptolemies prove benevolent - so much so that a thriving community of Jews develops in their capital city, Alexandria.
 









The Jews of Alexandria demonstrate the ability of a Jewish community to flourish in a new context without losing its identity. They integrate so fully with the secular life of the city that their own first language becomes Greek. It is they who first use the word diaspora (Greek for 'dispersion') to describe Jewish communities living outside Israel.

Soon many of them no longer understand Hebrew. But they refuse to let this diminish their strong sense of a shared identity as God's special people, according to the covenant revealed in a book which they now cannot read. They commission, with Ptolemy's support and approval, the first translation of the Bible, the famous Greek version known as the Septuagint. And their synagogue is the earliest of which there is evidence.
 






Sadducees and Pharisees: 200 BC - AD 70

After the return from exile in Babylon, in the late 6th century BC, the Jewish community in Jerusalem is ruled by the Temple priests. Control of the Temple has remained with the descendants of Zadok, high priest in the time of David and Solomon. This priestly family is the central element of the party of the Sadducees, formed in about 200 BC and deriving its name from Zadok.

Linked with the priests are the aristocratic families and leading merchants of Jerusalem. Priests, aristocrats and the rich often form an alliance of this kind, conservative in mentality and intolerant of opposition. But from 141 BC the Sadducees find themselves confronted by an opposing party in the new Sanhedrin.
 









The members of the Sanhedrin include scholars and teachers who are learned in the Jewish law but are not themselves priests. They tend to be more flexible than the Sadducees in their understanding of the Torah, arguing that the Mosaic law must be interpreted in a way relevant to contemporary life. They also give much greater weight than their rivals to the large body of oral law and custom which has developed over the centuries.

The Sadducees, who insist on a literal reading of the Torah, describe their opponents dismissively as Pharisees - a word meaning 'dissenters'. As often with religious dissent (the Methodists among Christians, for example), the reformers proudly adopt the abusive name.
 







The Pharisees become associated with the piety of the Synagogue (where words are central, in the reading of holy texts or in prayer) as opposed to the rituals of Temple worship (blood and sacrifice).

The pattern of development in other religions suggests that the future must eventually lie with the Pharisees and with their new form of priest - the rabbi (meaning 'master' or 'teacher'), a man distinguished by his learning rather than his caste. Rabbinical schools will later become the heart of Judaism.
 






Zeus in the Temple: 2nd century BC

Judah benefits during the 3rd century from the religious tolerance of the Ptolemies. But it suffers, subsequently, from the aggressively Greek attitude of the other great Hellenistic power in this region - the Seleucid empire in Persia. The Seleucid rulers attempt on several occasions to dislodge the Ptolemies from the whole region of Palestine. They finally succeed in doing so in about 200 BC.

At first the priests in Jerusalem may not notice the difference. But a king who comes to the Persian throne in 175 makes it very plain what he thinks of their religion. Antiochus IV gives himself the Greek title Ephiphanes - meaning 'god revealed'. In this he identifies himself with Zeus.
 









In 168 Antiochus sets up a statue of Zeus above the great altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, and sacrifices are made to the idol. He employs an Athenian philosopher to supervise the temple worship, and (a necessary precaution in view of all this) he instals a Greek garrison in a new fortress in Jerusalem, on the site of the citadel of David.

Similar Greek rituals are organized in provincial centres. One of them provokes violent resistance. An elderly priest, Mattathias, refuses to sacrifice to the idol and kills a colleague who is willing to do so. Mattathias has five sons, three of whom play leading roles in the resulting revolution.
 






The dynasty of the Maccabees: 2nd - 1st century BC

One of the sons of Mattathias is Judas, who has the surname Maccabaeus or the Maccabee (it is thought to mean either the 'hammer' of the Seleucids, or the 'appointed one' of God). After a rapid series of victories over Seleucid armies, Judas is able in 165 BC to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem of Greek abominations. He then rededicates it to the one God - an event celebrated each year in the Jewish festival of Hannukah.

Judas is killed in battle in 160. His brother Jonathan picks up the torch. He is succeeded, after his death in 143, by a third brother, Simon. In 142, after twenty-five years of warfare against the Seleucids, Simon secures a treaty which gives Judah political independence as well as religious freedom.
 









The people of Judah (or Judaea as the Romans will call it) appoint Simon Maccabaeus political leader and high priest. Both positions are declared hereditary within his family. He therefore becomes the founder of a ruling house sometimes known as the Maccabees but more often called by historians the Hasmonaean dynasty (from Hasmon, a distant ancestor).

The Hasmonaean rulers bring prosperity to Judah, though not without a considerable amount of internal strife and drama. Opposition to them appears to have driven the Essenes into the desert. And an innovation of 141, the Sanhedrin, becomes the forum for hostility between two religious sects, Sadducees and Pharisees.
 






Judaea and the Romans


The Jews and their former persecutors, the Seleucids, fall in successive years to a far greater power - the Romans. In 64 BC Pompey annexes Syria, the last remaining territory of the once great Seleucid empire. In 63 he takes Jerusalem.

Roman rule starts brutally, with priests slain at the altar of the Temple. For the next two decades the Hasmonaean family try to lead a new rebellion, fired by the same sense of outrage as prompted their ancestors a century earlier, but in 40 BC Mark Antony captures and executes the last of the dynasty. Their line does nevertheless continue in the next Judaean dynasty - that of Herod, who marries the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne.
 










Herod's position is anomalous. He is a Jew, but he has been appointed king of Judaea by the conquering Romans. His reign involves a constant balancing act between Jewish religious sensibilities (a Roman eagle above the Temple gate is taken as inflammatory evidence of idolatry) and Rome's demand that he control this troublesome region.

On the whole Herod balances well. The Jews are free to practise the religion which he shares with them. The Romans are grateful for peace in the region. Step by step they extend Herod's kingdom until it includes all of Palestine together with modern Jordan and much of Lebanon.
 






Herod and his successors: 37 BC - AD 66

Herod proves a great builder. He founds new Roman cities, in particular Caesarea (now Qesari, on the coast south of Haifa), which later becomes the capital of Roman Palestine. And he creates a spectacular new Temple on the holy mount in Jerusalem (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

But many of his actions are violent. In an outburst of jealousy he kills not only a favourite wife, Mariamne, but also her grandfather, mother, brother and two sons. He could well have been capable of the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem (if so in about 4 BC, the last year of his life), but the gospel account of this incident is inherently improbable as history - and no mention is made of the atrocity until Christian documents of a century later.
 









In his will Herod divides his large kingdom between three of his sons. Their inability to control an increasingly turbulent Palestine prompts Rome to give more power to its provincial governors, or procurators. But they have no greater success in pacifying the Jewish people, resentful of Roman rule and horrified by any encroachment of Roman religious symbolism (which by now includes the idolatrous theme of a divine emperor).

This is the period when the Zealots emerge - a radical political group committed to the ending of Roman rule in Palestine, using terrorism as one of its main forms of argument.
 







The impossibility of a working relationship between the Jewish and Roman authorities is well suggested in the New Testament account of the last days of Jesus Christ. The Jews of the Sanhedrin are determined that he shall die for blasphemy, but they want the Roman governor of Judaea (Pontius Pilate) to condemn him. Jerusalem is in Pilate's province, but he tries to shift the responsibility on to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who is ruling Galilee - on the grounds that Galilee is where Jesus comes from.

The lack of effective government implicit in this story is now typical of Palestine, apart from a brief period starting in AD 41. In that year Herod Agrippa is appointed king of Judaea.
 







Herod Agrippa is a grandson of Herod the Great and of the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne. He therefore has a direct link with a great Jewish dynasty. He also, like Herod the Great, has valuable contacts in Rome. He has been friendly since childhood with the family of Claudius, and Claudius - in his first year as emperor - appoints Agrippa to the kingdom of Judaea.

For a while, under the rule of this devout Jew who has the confidence of Rome, Palestine seems set to enjoy again the stability associated with the long reign of Herod the Great. But Agrippa dies after only three years, in AD 44. The region returns to Roman governors and revolutionary ferment.
 






Civil unrest: AD 44-66

The violent creed of the Zealots now acquires growing support, reinforced by their assassination of Jews who collaborate with the Romans. The Zealots have an alarming habit of wandering among the crowd on public occasions, with short daggers under their garments, and stabbing opponents before melting away unseen among a populace increasingly supportive of their aims (or else plain terrified).

Zealots are prominent in a popular uprising which in AD 66 expels the Romans from Jerusalem, and in the revolutionary government which then briefly rules Palestine. Their violent behaviour in power outrages many of their previous supporters. But they remain at the heart of resistance to the Romans.
 








Vespasian and Titus: AD 67-70

Nero sends a veteran general, Vespasian, to put down the rebellion in Judaea; and Vespasian involves his own son, Titus, in the campaign. Together father and son make steady progress in recovering Palestine, until the suicide of Nero in Rome prompts the crisis which has caused AD 69 to become known as the 'year of the four emperors'.

The last of the four candidates, and the only survivor of that year, is Vespasian. Marching back to Rome, he leaves Titus in command of the campaign in Judaea.
 









By the year 70 Titus is besieging Jerusalem. With an impressive array of battering rams and catapults, he succeeds in demolishing parts of the city wall against strong resistance from the Jews. The siege lasts six months. Josephus, a Jewish historian who is with the Roman forces, provides vivid details of famine and cannibalism within the beleaguered city.

Those who attempt to escape, as refugees, fare little better. Appalling horrors follow the discovery that one such fugitive has swallowed his wealth in the form of gold coins.
 







Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).
 






The rabbi at Jamnia: AD 70

The end of the Temple is also a beginning, dramatically captured in a story from the siege. It is said that the learned rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai has himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. Coming into the presence of Titus, he prophesies that the young man will become emperor and asks for a favour - to be allowed to establish a rabbinical school at Jamnia (modern name Yavne).

He is granted what seems like a small concession. But the resulting college (which soon moves elsewhere, and prompts the founding of other similar establishments) is of great importance in the history of Judaism. In such institutions, known as yeshiva, the Jewish sense of identity is nourished by intense scholarship.
 









The tradition of the yeshiva spreads round the world and through the centuries. In yeshivoth (the plural of the word) Jewish scholars compile the Talmud, an encyclopedic collection of oral traditions and customs. Ranging over the wide fields of law, history, religion, legend, folklore and philosophy, these texts encapsulate the Jewish experience.

For a people scattered and persecuted, as the Jews are after the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud - along with the Torah and the synagogue - makes it possible to put down roots no matter how alien the soil.
 






Masada: AD 73

For three years groups of Zealots hold out against Roman domination in a few rocky fortresses in Palestine. The last to fall, Masada, is the most dramatic site of all.

Standing high and sheer on the western shore of the Dead Sea, Masada is a natural stronghold. Its top forms a large flat area of some 20 acres. Herod the Great has recently added to the defences of the summit, providing powerful walls, an administrative building, storehouses for grain and massive reservoirs for natural water. A Roman garrison here is massacred in the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The Zealots, occupying the fortress, build a synagogue, ritual baths and family houses.
 









After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews of Masada - under an inspirational leader, Eleazar ben Jair - prepare for a siege by the Romans. In 72 the tenth legion arrives in the plain below, armed with elaborate siege engines. For several months they make little impact on the stone defences. But eventually flaming torches, catapulted against a temporary wall, succeed in starting a fire.

Eleazar decides that the time has come to make a dramatic end. In the words of Josephus, 'he had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all'.
 







Without any sense of irony, Josephus - who has himself escaped deceitfully from a suicide pact urged upon his followers - describes with admiration the oratory by which Eleazar persuades the Jews of Masada to die, and the courageous discipline with which the deed is carried out.

Each man, after final caresses and tears, kills his wife and children. He then lies down beside them, for his own throat to be cut by one of the ten men selected by lot for this task. Then the ten draw lots as to who among them shall die first. The final survivor kills himself - the only case of suicide in the death of 960 men, women and children. Two women, who escape by hiding, live to tell the tale.
 







It is a matter of controversy, particularly in Israel, how much reliance can be placed on Josephus' account of these events. Archaeological excavations in 1963-5 were at first assumed to provide evidence of his heroic version, though the findings of human remains or artefacts were relatively scanty. Thirty years later doubt is cast by some on the reliability of the first archaeological assumptions.

Underlying the controversy is the debate about Israel today. Was Eleazar ben Jair a heroic nationalist or a bigoted extremist preferring death to compromise? The question of whether peace was possible with Rome becomes transferred to opposing ideas of the peace process in Israel in the 1990s.
 






The last Jewish rebellion: AD 132-135

For two generations an uneasy truce prevails between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Although there is no Temple in Jerusalem and the city has been largely destroyed, the Jews continue to worship freely in their synagogues.

But any suggestion of calm is shattered after the emperor Hadrian, visiting Jerusalem in AD 130, decides to rebuild it as a Roman city. It is to be called Aelia Capitolina, echoing the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Most offensive of all is the emperor's plan for Jerusalem's most prominent hill, the Temple mount.
 









On the ruined Temple mount there is to be a shrine to Jupiter, in which Hadrian himself will be honoured. Jewish opposition to this sacrilege is led by Simon Bar-Cochba, calling himself the prince of Israel. Simon's prestige increases dramatically when a leading rabbi recognizes him as the Messiah. In 132 his Jewish forces defeat a Roman legion and capture Jerusalem.

Not till 135, after a large army has been sent to regain control, is Jerusalem recovered by the Romans. In a bitter campaign, fought village by village throughout the region, half a million lives are lost. The whole area of Palestine is devastated. Aelia Capitolina becomes, for the moment, an unimportant provincial town.
 







In the reprisals after Simon Bar-Cochba's revolt, the Jews are forbidden to set foot in Jerusalem. They even seem to have been expelled from the surrounding region of Judaea. Only further north, in Galilee, do they retain a presence within their ancient kingdom of Israel.

There is by now another significant community in Jerusalem - the Christians, who have played no part in the recent rebellion. They survive within the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Two centuries later these Christians in Jerusalem, and the city, benefit from a change of religious policy in the Roman empire.
 






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