Second Temple Judaism refers to the religion of Judaism during the period between the construction of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 515 BCE, and its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE This period witnessed major historical upheavals and significant religious changes that would affect not only Judaism but Christianity and Islam as well. The origins of the authority of scripture, of the centrality of law and morality in religion, of the synagogue and of apocalyptic expectations for the future all developed in the Judaism of this period.


The primary literary sources for information about late Second Temple Judaism are the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Apocrypha, Old Testament pseudepigrapha, and the works of Josephus and Philo.


Babylonian captivityEdit

Main article: Babylonian captivity

The deportation and exile of Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II, starting with the first deportation in 597 BC[1] and continuing after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE,[2] resulted in dramatic changes to Jewish culture and religion. During the 70-year exile in Babylon, Jewish houses of assembly (known in Hebrew as a "beit knesset" or in Greek as a "synagogue") and houses of prayer (Greek: προσευχαί, proseuchai; Hebrew Beit Tefilah), were the primary meeting places for prayer, and the house of study ("beit midrash") was the counterpart for the synagogue.

During the period of captivity, Jews continued to practice and develop their religious traditions, many of which became distinct from their origins, due to the influences of the local culture.

The Babylonian captivity had a number of consequences on Judaism and the Jewish culture, including changes to the Hebrew alphabet and changes in the fundamental practices and customs of the Jewish religion. Many suggest that during the First Temple period, the people of Israel were henotheists, that is, they believed that each nation had its own god, but that their god was superior to other gods.[3][4] Some suggest that strict monotheism developed during the Babylonian Exile, perhaps in reaction to Zoroastrian dualism.[5]

Return from Babylonian captivityEdit

After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persian Empire in 538 BCE,[6] the Persian Cyrus the Great gave Jews permission to return to Judea,[7][8][9] and more than 40,000 are said to have returned, as noted in the Biblical accounts of Jehoiakim, Ezra, and Nehemiah.[10]

Cyrus did not, however, allow the restoration of the Judean monarchy, which left the Judean priests as the dominant authority. Without the constraining power of the monarchy, the authority of the Temple in civic life was amplified. It was around this time the Sadducee party emerged as the party of priests and allied elites. However, the Second Temple (completed 515 BCE) had been constructed under the auspices of a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for the development of various sects or "schools of thought," each of which claimed exclusive authority to represent "Judaism," and which typically shunned social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects. In the same period, the council of sages known as the Sanhedrin codified and canonized the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), which, following the return from Babylon was read publicly on market-days.

The Temple was no longer the only institution for Jewish religious life. After the building of the Second Temple in the time of Ezra the Scribe, the houses of study and worship remained important secondary institutions in Jewish life. Outside of Judea, the synagogue was often called a house of prayer . While most Jews could not regularly attend the Temple service, they could meet at the synagogue for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. On Mondays, Thursdays and the Sabbath, a weekly Torah portion was read publicly in the synagogues, following the tradition of public Torah readings instituted by Ezra.[11]

Although priests controlled the rituals of the Temple, the scribes and sages, later called rabbis (Heb.: "my master") dominated the study of the Torah. These sages identified with the Prophets and developed and maintained an oral tradition that they believed had originated at Mount Sinai alongside the Holy Writ. The Pharisees had its origins in this new group of authorities.

The first significant return of exiles commenced with Ezra, who assembled at the river Ahava all those who wanted to return. These consisted of about 1,800 men, or 5,500 to 6,000 souls (Ezra 8), besides 38 Levites and 220 slaves of the Temple from Casiphia. With this body, which was invested with royal powers, Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded, after great difficulties, in establishing the post-exilic Jewish community. From the list given in Nehemiah 7:6-72 (which parallels Ezra 2), which the chronicler supposed to be an enumeration of those who had returned under Cyrus, it appears that the whole Jewish community at this time comprised 42,360 men, or 125,000 to 130,000 people.[12]

This period saw the last high-point of Biblical prophecy in the person of Ezekiel, followed by the emergence of the central role of the Torah in Jewish life.[13] This process coincided with the emergence of scribes and sages as Jewish leaders (see Ezra and the Pharisees).

Hellenistic JudaismEdit

Main article: Hellenistic Judaism

The Hellenistic period of Jewish history began when Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 332 BCE. The rift between the priests and the sages developed at this time, when Jews faced new political and cultural struggles. After Alexander’s death his empire was divided by his generals. Henceforth, until the coming of the Romans in 63 BCE, the Land of Israel was to be ruled by the Ptolemaic (Egyptian) and Seleucid (Syrian) kings in alternating succession. It was during this period that Judaism suffered strife and war to determine its ultimate relation to Hellenism. A small minority had sought to gain control of the nation and to impose extreme Hellenism on the people. This would have meant the abandonment of the Torah as the national constitution and the norm of Jewish life. In its stead would have been the Hellenic cosmopolitan ideal and the Greek city-state, the polis. When intermittent civil war over this issue began, Antiochus Ephiphanes, the Seleucid ruler, reacted by supporting the Hellenists. His tactic was to outlaw Jewish practice and then mandate extreme Hellenization. It was against this policy that the Maccabees rose in revolt (167–164 BCE).

Late Second Temple PeriodEdit

The Late Second Temple Period (c. 200 BC to 70 AD) was a period of intense social changes for the Jewish people.


Main article: Maccabees

First led by Mattathias of the priestly Hasmonean family and then by his son Judah the Maccabee, the Jews subsequently entered Jerusalem and purified the Temple (164 BCE), events commemorated each year by the festival of Hannuka.

Following further Hasmonean victories (147 BCE), the Seleucids restored autonomy to Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called, and, with the collapse of the Seleucid kingdom (129 BCE), Jewish independence was achieved. Under the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted about 80 years, the kingdom regained boundaries not far short of Solomon’s realm, political consolidation under Jewish rule was attained and Jewish life flourished.

Roman Province of JudaeaEdit

In 6 CE, Rome formed Judea proper, Samaria, and Idumea into one province governed by prefects and later procurators which historians refer to as Iudaea province.

Jewish sectsEdit

In Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus describes four major sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots (of which the Sicarii are considered a subgroup). Josephus divides those sects into three groups: Philosophical (religious), nationalist, and criminal.[14] Of the five sects described by Josephus, the first three are more religious than political:

  • The Sadducees were priestly and aristocratic families who interpreted the law more literally than the Pharisees. They dominated the Temple worship and its rites, including the sacrificial cult.
  • Unlike the Saddducees, the Pharisees maintained the validity of the oral as well as the written law. They were flexible in their interpretations and willing to adapt the law to changing circumstances. By the first century CE, the Pharisees came to represent the beliefs and practices of the majority of Palestinian Jewry.
  • The Essenes were a separatist group, some of whom formed an ascetic monastic community and retreated to the wilderness of Judea. They shared material possessions and occupied themselves with disciplined study, worship, and work. They practiced ritural immersion and ate their meals communally.

The Sicarii and the Zealots were groups of extreme nationalists that Josephus characterized as political or criminal factions:

  • The Sicarii, were what Josephus characterized as a "Fourth Philosophy" [15]
  • The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee in the year 6 against Quirinius' tax reform, shortly after the Roman state declared (what had most recently been the territory of Herod Archelaus) a Roman Province, and that they "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." [16]

Hillel and Shammai Edit

Main article: Hillel the Elder

Hillel the Elder[17] in Jerusalem was one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaïm (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in the land of Israel until roughly the fifth century of the Christian Era.

Shammai was the most eminent contemporary and the halakhic opponent of Hillel, and is almost invariably mentioned along with him. Shammai founded a school of his own, known as the House of Shammai, which differed fundamentally from that of Hillel, though both were Pharisees.

Jesus MovementEdit

Among the significant events of the last century of the Second Temple period was the emergence of the Jesus Movement.

Jewish-Roman warsEdit

Main article: Jewish-Roman wars

The Jewish-Roman wars were a series of revolts by the Jews of Iudaea Province against the Roman Empire. Some sources use the term to refer only to the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73) and Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135). Other sources include the Kitos War (115–117) as one of the Jewish-Roman wars; however this revolt started in Cyrenaica, and merely its final stages were actually fought in Iudaea Province.

  • First Jewish-Roman War (66–73) — also called the First Jewish Revolt or the Great Jewish Revolt.
  • Kitos War (115–117) — sometimes called the Second Jewish-Roman War.
  • Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135) — also called the Second Jewish-Roman War (when Kitos War is not counted), or the Third (when the Kitos War is counted).

After the destruction of the Temple, Jews were deprived of a central place of worship and religious activity, were unable to fulfill the temple-related practices mandated in the Torah, and were scattered around the world. More specifically, just before the first war broke out, the Sanhedrin was relocated to Jamnia, after 70 they were required to pay the Fiscus Judaicus if they wanted to practice their religion in the Roman Empire, and after 135 they were excluded from Jerusalem, except for the day of Tisha B'av, see Anti-Judaism in the pre-Christian Roman Empire for details.

Attempt to rebuild the TempleEdit

Main article: Third Temple

In 363, not long before the Emperor Julian left Antioch to launch his campaign against Persia, in keeping with his effort to foster religions other than Christianity, he ordered the Temple rebuilt.[18] A personal friend of his, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote this about the effort:

Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once at Jerusalem, and committed this task to Alypius of Antioch. Alypius set vigorously to work, and was seconded by the governor of the province; when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more: and he gave up the attempt.

Ammianus Marcellinus

The failure to rebuild the Temple has been ascribed to the Galilee earthquake of 363, and to the Jews' ambivalence about the project. Sabotage is a possibility, as is an accidental fire. Divine intervention was the common view among Christian historians of the time.[19] Julian's support of Jews, coming after the hostility of many earlier Emperors, meant that Jews called him Julian the Hellene.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. by Michael D Coogan. Pub. by Oxford University Press, 1999. pg 350
  2. Jeremiah 52:28-30
  3. John Bright A History of Israel
  4. Martin Noth The History of Israel
  5. Ephraim Urbach The Sages
  10. Nehemiah 7:6-66 and Ezra 2:64
  11. See Nehemiah 8:1-18.
  12. Gottheil et al., "Babylonian Captivity". Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  13. According to historical-critical scholars, it was edited and redacted during this time, and saw the beginning of the canonization of the Bible, which provided a central text for Jews.
  14. Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities book 18
  15. Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities (18.12-25)
  16. Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities (18.1.6)
  17. Jewish Encyclopedia: Hillel: "His activity of forty years is perhaps historical; and since it began, according to a trustworthy tradition (Shab. 15a), one hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it must have covered the period 30 B.C.E. -10 C.E."
  18. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 23.1.2–3.
  19. See "Julian and the Jews 361–363 CE" and "Julian the Apostate and the Holy Temple".
  20. A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews, Avner Falk

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