After the Exile: God’s People Return to Judea

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In Babylon 

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).

Greek, Roman, and Persian philosophies and ideas influenced Jewish writings of the time. This influence is apparent in many of the books that are included in some editions of the Bible and known as “deuterocanonical” or “apocryphal.” (See the article called What Books Belong in the Bible?) Jewish writers also copied the style and form of a kind of popular Roman literature called “sibylline oracles,” which told of prophecies concerning Caesar and the Roman people. The Jewish Sibylline Oracles told about God's plan for the future of his people.

The religion of the Jewish people after the exile in Babylonia did not move toward one single pattern or style. People were practicing Judaism and living as Jews in a variety of ways. This was the situation when Jesus came to teach the people many new things about God and God's kingdom. For a description of this next phase in Jewish history, see the articles called People of the Law: The Religion of Israel and The World of Jesus: Peoples, Powers, and Politics. See also the mini-article called Synagogues.

The Jewish People Reclaim Their Land

The Jewish people revolted against Antiochus. The rebellion broke out suddenly. Soon the rebellion had a leader named Judas Maccabeus. (One of the possible meanings for his last name is “the hammer.”) Led by Judas Maccabeus, the small bands of Jewish fighters defeated the mighty army of Antiochus. This revolt is described in 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha. (See the article What Books Belong in the Bible?). Eventually the rebels purified the temple, an event still remembered by Jews today in the celebration of Hanukkah. 

Finally, the Maccabees set up their own government. Those Maccabean rulers who came after Judas called themselves by the title of king, even though they were not descendants of King David or from the tribe of Judah. This upset many Jews, who did not like the Maccabeans' cruel style of control and the agreements they made with Rome in order to remain in power. The rule of the Maccabees lasted until the Roman general Pompey invaded Jerusalem and brought all the land under direct Roman control in 63 b.c.

Because they were bitterly disappointed over the Maccabean style of political rule, some of the Jewish people turned to other kinds of religions or philosophies. For example, one group of Jews became very disappointed with the temple priests in Jerusalem who seemed to love the wealth and power connected with running the temple. This group withdrew from Jewish society and lived as a separate community in a barren area near the Dead Sea. They remained there, living in complete obedience to God's Law as they understood it. They believed that God would help them drive out the present priests and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple. In the middle of the twentieth century, many books and writings of this group were discovered in a place called Qumran near the Dead Sea. These writings are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Included in these scrolls is the oldest surviving copy of isaiah, as well as the rule books for this community. For more about this, see the article called Archaeology and the Bible.

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