- Daily Bible section entitled “Influences on a Dispersed People”
- Daily Bible section entitled “Hellenism and the Jews”
- Daily Bible section entitled “Judaism Under Roman Rule”
After the Babylonian captivity ended, most Jews did not return to their homeland, instead choosing to remain in the land where they had built a life. Some were in Babylon, some in Egypt and others in various nations. The cultures of these foreign people had a strong influence in the Jews living there. For example, the Hebrew language was less prevalent among the people and had given way to the Aramaic language—the language Jesus actually spoke, by the way. The influence of the Law of Moses among these people was lessened. Many Jews neglected the eating requirements of the Law and adopted the eating habits of the nations where they lived.
The Persians negatively impacted the spiritual condition of the people by their belief that GOD is not close and personal with us, but rather He is distant. This, of course, is not true but it was widely believed at the time. Under GOD’s instructions, the temple was to be the center of their sacrificial system of worship, with the priests responsible for teaching the law to the people. Living away from their homeland, however, the Jews weren’t close to the temple and weren’t able to properly offer the required sacrifices. Therefore the faithful among the exiles had set up buildings called synagogues where people gathered for singing, prayer and discussion of GOD’s law. Synagogues were a man-made substitute for the temple. The further away from Jerusalem one might travel, the more synagogues they might see.
The synagogues influenced Jewish religion significantly. The overall role of the priests declined and was replaced by the rabbis, which means teachers. Rabbis were skilled students of the Law of Moses and therefore they were highly respected by the Jews, serving as the teachers in the synagogues. The growing influence of the rabbis combined with the declining influence of the priests in the new synagogue environment leads to the rise of sects. A sect is a group of people who subscribe to a certain set of ideals, or ways of thinking. Also, these rabbis would write their teachings down and, over time, the people began to ascribe greater importance to what the rabbis taught than what the Law of GOD actually said. The first of these collections of rabbi writings is called the Midrash. It is closely linked to the Law but future writings would begin to add traditions of men without ties to Scripture.
With all of these changes going on, the rising sects create division among the people over feelings that they—and only they—are the true Jews and everyone else has fallen away from GOD. The remnant who had returned to Judea condemn those who are living in other lands for failing to return home and for the adoption of these “unauthorized” synagogues. While all of this is happening, the Persian Empire is crumbling after the death of Artaxerxes, and it will fall in 330 B.C. to Alexander the Great of Greece.
Alexander the Great pushed through Syria, Canaan (which is now referred to as Palestine), and Egypt. He destroyed the city of Tyre and established an Egyptian city known as Alexandria. This city would be home to a lot of Jews and would play a significant role in Jewish religion. Eventually Alexander pushed his army all the way to the Ganges River in India, linking together eastern and western culture for the first time. The Greek language would become the standard throughout the territories Greece conquered and would be the language by which the New Testament is largely written.
When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his top generals engaged in a power struggle and the Grecian empire was split. A man named Ptolemy I captured Jerusalem and took a number of Jews to colonize Alexandria. It is in Alexandria that the Jews first come under the influence of Greek philosophy, and several of the Apocrypha writings were composed there. Ptolemy II would later command that a Greek translation of the Old Testament be written for the great library of Alexandria. Over the next 300 years, this Greek version, called the Septuagint, will replace the vast majority of the older copies, which were written in Hebrew.
The Romans rose to power in the late 2nd century B.C. The Seleucids (a fragment of Alexander the Great’s empire) retained control over Palestine at the time. The Seleucid ruler was Epiphanes. He did a lot of evil which caused a group of Jews known as the Maccabeans, under the leadership of Mattathias, to revolt against Epiphanes. The Maccabeans defeated the Seleucids and had about 75 years of peace in the land. By now the nation of Israel is even smaller and weaker than when they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day.
In 63 B.C., the Roman general Pompey invaded Palestine and captured Jerusalem. In 43 B.C., Herod became the tetrarch, or ruler, over Galilee. In 27 B.C., Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavius becomes Augustus Caesar and gets credit for founding the Roman Empire. During the next 200 years there would be peace throughout the civilized world. This would provide optimal timing for the coming of the Messiah in GOD’s eternal purpose. During his reign, Herod restored the temple in Jerusalem which had all but been destroyed by Epiphanes. Herod went to great lengths to protect his throne, killing anyone who he perceived as a threat.
The sects we discussed earlier had continued their rise to power, becoming more influential politically and culturally than they were religiously. The Pharisees have become masters of the oral traditions passed down through the years by the rabbis. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, believed in life after death. They were the prominent sect among the Jews and were widely looked up to by the common people. Many Pharisees were therefore chosen for important government positions, including the Sanhedrin, which was the highest court of the Jews. Other sects at the time included the Essenes, Zealots, Herodians, and the Samaritans.
In summary, a tremendous amount has transpired since the Scripture’s last recorded events of Nehemiah and Ezra. The stage is now set for the Son of GOD to come into the world, and for GOD’s 400-year silence to be broken.