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The Bible provides little information about the years in the sixth century B.C. when many of the Israelite people lived in exile in Babylonia. Though the people could no longer worship God in the temple in Jerusalem, the Babylonians allowed them to gather and practice their religion. The Israelites told the stories of their ancestors, heard the words of prophets, and studied the Law of Moses. Some believe that it was during the time of the exile that some of Israel's priests added to the old Scriptures and wrote new ones, so the people would not forget who they were and where they came from.
Back Home in Judea
Many of the Jewish people had been sent into exile between the years 597 to 582 B.C. In 539 B.C., Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylonia. About one year later he gave the Jewish people permission to return to their homeland of Judea. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Old Testament tell about the hundred-year period that followed the time of the exile. The books of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah also come from this time. Sometime between 500 and 425 B.C. the priest named Ezra encouraged the people to return to their Jewish traditions and to obey the Law of Moses. He went so far as to force Jewish men to give up their foreign wives (Ezra 9,10).
Two religious issues were most important to the people who had returned from exile: (1) worship of the God of Israel in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, and (2) study of the Law of Moses to see how God's people were to live in the present situation. Also in this period, Nehemiah served for a time as governor of Judea and helped supervise the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls. Though the people had the freedom to worship as they wished, their land was still under control of the Persians.
Outside of Judea
While some of the Jewish people were settling back in Jerusalem, others stayed in the lands ruled by Persia or moved on to other major cities in the eastern Mediterranean world. Some of these groups developed their own collections of the Jewish Scriptures and their own methods of interpreting them. Jewish groups also appeared in Syria and Asia Minor, in North Africa, and on islands in the Mediterranean. Many Jewish writings of the period after the exile come from Alexandria in Egypt, where Jewish teachers read their Scriptures along with Greek philosophy. These teachers believed that this approach would help people to understand the basic truths of the Bible.
The Influence of Alexander the Great
Between 336 B.C. and 323 B.C., Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered much of the eastern Mediterranean world, including Egypt, Palestine (where Jerusalem was located), and much of Persia. After Alexander died, these lands were ruled for over a century by his generals or those who followed them. The most important of these rulers were the Seleucids, who controlled Syria, and the Ptolemies, who controlled Egypt. One or the other of these royal families ruled Palestine, the land of the Jewish people, for much of this time. However, in 168 B.C. the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, began to try to stop people from practicing the Jewish religion. He declared that it was forbidden to study the Law of Moses, observe the Sabbath, or practice circumcision. Antiochus IV also set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Jewish temple. His actions deeply offended the Jewish people.
Most Jews continued to worship in Jerusalem and to pay yearly fees to support the temple and its priests. From the time of their captivity in Babylonia, Jews had met informally in homes or in public halls to study the Scriptures. The moral teachings and the understanding of God contained in the Jewish Scriptures attracted many non-Jews (Gentiles) to these meetings. Some non-Jewish men were circumcised in order to become full members of the Jewish community (see Acts 2.11; 16.1-3; see also the note on circumcision at Gen 17.10-11).