From Abraham to Napoleon: Revival

Jewish Revival

The empire of the Babylonians was not fated to last, and Cyrus the Persian, after entering the city in triumph in 539, promulgated an edict authorizing the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.  It has been conjectured that the Persians were rewarding Babylonian Jews for their covert assistance in the defeat of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, but, there is no need to posit such a special relationship.   Cyrus’s general policy was to reverse the forced resettlement of inflicted on subject nations by Babylonian and Assyrian rulers, whose strategy of divide et impera would be emulated by later tyrants.  There was probably no immediate return of Jews en masse, though groups of settlers gradually made their way back to the homeland.  It is important to note that a sizable proportion of Jews did not return and continued to live in communities outside of Palestine.  

The rebuilding of the temple was actually undertaken about 520, and, despite their poverty and desolation, Jews set about the task of rebuilding their nation.  However, relations with their co-religionists in Israel did not improve.  The Israelites of Samaria offered to share in the cost and effort of rebuilding the temple, but their overtures were rebuffed, and the rupture was deepened with the arrival (perhaps, in the 5th century) of Ezra, who forbade intermarriage the people of Judah with Samaritans (Israelites) on the grounds that the latter, after the overthrow of Israel, had intermarried with the strangers settled among them.  Jewish opinion was not unanimous, however, and the stories of Ruth and Jonah may have taken shape at this time in protest against the policy of exclusivity. Samaritans accepted only the first six books of the Old Testament, perhaps because some of the later books displayed an overt bias against the northern Kingdom.  The break was made permanent, when the Samaritans constructed their own temple on Mt. Gezir, and in the Roman period animosity occasionally flared into open violence. 

The Persian Empire, while preferable in many respects to its predecessors, not only taxed its subjects, but, in adding the stipulation that taxes be paid in Persian coinage, it worked additional hardship.  By the mid- mid-Fourth century, revolts broke out in Egypt and Phoenicia.  Jewish participation may have been the motive for their deportation to the wilderness of Hyrcania (on the Caspian Sea).  In 333, however, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, and all of what was coming to be known as Judea (that is Judah and Israel) passed into the control of Alexander and his successors in Egypt and Syria.  

Although the Ptolemies, as successors to the pharaohs, attempted to maintain control of Palestine (323-c.200 B.C.),  Antiochus III the Great, the Seleucid ruler of Syria and Asia Minor, eventually succeeded in incorporating it into his empire.  Under the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms, much of the Middle East swiftly became Hellenized, as the material and cultural advantages of Greek civilization became known.  In the early 3rd century, there were even diplomatic overtures to the Spartans, though the claim (1 Maccabees 12: 5-23) that the Spartans acknowledged kinship with the Jews is highly implausible, but the Spartans may have been admired as a center of resistance to Macedonian power. 

Judea was far from immune to this process of assimilation, but there were limits.  Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-63 B.C.) , strapped for cash, was bribed by Jason, a Hellenized member of a noble priestly family who wanted to be appointed High Priest.  Jason added an additional douceur if the king would give Jerusalem the status of a Greek polis.  Antiochus granted the request, and was warmly welcomed by the elite class when he visited the country.  Still short of money, however, the king took a second bribe from Jason's rival Menelaus, whom he appointed high priest, thus violating Jewish tradition.   The followers of the rival priests soon began attacking each other, and when Menelaus plundered the Temple,  opinion turned against him and the king who appointed him.  Antiochus, who hardly knew what deep waters he was getting into, responded to Jewish unrest by forbidding circumcision and temple ceremonies and desecrated the temple itself.  This was an unprecedented act of religious persecution for a Greek  and very uncharacteristic of Antiochus, who was otherwise a humane ruler.  Jews were understandably outraged and even Hellenized Jewish aristocrats took part in the independence movement led by the priestly Hasmonean family (the  Maccabees).  Judas Maccabeus and Jonathan and Simon, his brothers and successors, with the invaluable support of his Roman allies, took advantage of Seleucid problems (foreign wars and disputed successions) to win independence for Israel and to establish a dynasty that ruled Palestine until the mid First Century B.C.   

Simon assumed the title “ethnarch,” and although after his murder in 135, Antiochus VII reconquered Judea, his son John Hyrcanus I, again in alliance with Rome, restored independence and expanded his territory to include Idumaea.  His successors, Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus (the Greek names are significant!), annexed  Galilee, where a policy of proselytization and forced conversion was carried out under Aristobulus.  John also took over Samaria, where he destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizim and destroyed the Hellenized town of Samaria.  His nephew Alexander Jannaeus, who assumed the title king, extended his power to include the coastline, where--hellenized, as he was--he treated the Greek cities with a brutal severity, arousing anti-Jewish resentments that would long outlast his reign.

Hasmonean kings forged the largest Jewish state since the time of Solomon, and the large number of Greeks and Hellenized cities included in their realm posed problems for a state founded in a war of religious liberation. On the other hand, the success of a thriving Jewish state was not sufficiently attractive to most Jews in the Middle East, who had never returned from the Babylonian Captivity and still preferred to live outside the borders of Judea.

Roman Judea

As an ally, Rome was all-too reliable, and in defeating the kingdoms established by Alexander’s successors (to say nothing of Carthage), the city on the Tiber became mistress of the Mediterranean world.   Lucullus had wrested Syria from Parthian control, and Pompeius Magnus established the region as a Roman province.  Putting his own candidate into the seat of the High Priest at Jerusalem, whose temple he profaned, the Roman general made Hasmonean Judea a client-state under the supervision of the Roman governor.  The days of Hasmonean rule were numbered, and Antipater, from Idumea (a territory of Edomite refugees who had recently converted, more or less, to Judaism), rose under John Hyrcanus II to become virtual dictator.  Under his son Herod (37 B.C.-4 A.D.),  whose mother was a Nabatean Arab, Judea was to experience one final moment of glory as a Jewish state.  

As a highly philohellenic convert (if that) to Judaism, Herod had to be a first-class statesman to foster Greco-Roman civilization without inciting rebellion among the Jewish majority.  He proved himself up to the job, though with the advancing years, controversies and conspiracies broke out in his complex family (he married perhaps ten times!)  His ruthless crackdowns and executions bore the mark of a paranoia that give some credibility to the otherwise uncorroborated biblical story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent.  

Augustus divided up the kingdom among Herod’s surviving sons, but in 6 A.D. Judea became a Roman province (though for a few years it was part of the principality of Herod Agrippa in 41-44) governed by a praefectus, rather than by a governor of the senatorial order.  The Roman prefect, in succeeding to the position of Herod and his sons, also inherited the right to appoint high priests.  Whether ruled by tetrarchs or controlled directly by Rome, Judea was always on the verge of revolt.  Significant uprisings took place in 4 BC (Augustus’ census), in 6 AD, and again in 39, when Jews attacked gentiles for worshipping the emperor.  Caligula responded by ordering his own statue placed in the Holy of Holies.  The prudent local commander took his time about complying, and the emperor was assassinated before the deed  was done.

Despite their recalcitrance, Jews enjoyed a unique position within the Roman Empire, where they were found, not only in Syria and Palestine but also in the cities of Egypt, Italy, Asia (Turkey), Greece, and even in Gaul and Britain.  (A large number also lived under Parthian rule, especially in Babylonian territory.) Not only was their religion tolerated, but Jews were exempted both from military service and from the obligation to worship the emperor.  Nonetheless, the incompetence of the procurators combined with Jewish national sensitivities to create an unstable situation that burst into violence (in the 60’s) when, after a series of clashes between Syrians and Jews over who could claim Caesarea, the provincial capital rebuilt built by Herod.  When the decision went in favor of the Syrian Greeks, it was the signal for the wholesale revolt, which broke out in 66. 

In the first and most important popular uprising against the Roman Empire, Jewish rebels unexpectedly defeated the Roman army (an unprecedented action) and forced it into retreat.  The disorders continued until the arrival of Vespasian, a seasoned commander, in 67.  On the death of Nero, Vespasian, returning to Rome to make himself emperor, left the war to his son Titus who captured and destroyed.  Judea became an imperial province governed by an imperial legate with Caesarea, not Jerusalem as the capital.  Although Jews retained their privileges within the empire, they were no longer treated as political community. 

Jews continued to give Romans trouble, and uprisings were serious enough to distract Emperor Trajan (115-16 A.D.) from re-exerting Roman control over Southern Mesopotamia.  In a classic case of escalation, Jews increased the disturbances, while Hadrian, determined to end the problem, forbade the reading of the Torah and the observance of the Sabbath. Under the brilliant (though doomed) leadership of Simon “Bar Kochba” (or Son of the Star-- he was acknowledged as messiah by Aqiba, the greatest rabbi of the day), Jews recaptured Jerusalem, and it took two years for the Roman army, in a merciless campaign, to restore imperial authority. The province was renamed “Syria Palaestina” and to finish the job of denationalizing the Jews, Hadrian established a Roman colony at Jerusalem (renamed Aelia Capitolina) and erected an altar to Jupiter on the site of the temple. Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem and its environs as well as other specified locations. The privileged status of Jews within the empire, however, went unchanged, and the rabbis turned from political aspirations to a renewed study of law and religion that they carried out in schools established in Galilee and all over the Middle East.

Judea became very much of a backwater in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  However, Jerusalem, which had sunk into insignificance, took on new significance with the conversion of Constantine, who restored the city as center of Christendom.  The entire province, which benefited from the construction of churches and from the steady stream of pilgrims, grew more prosperous, perhaps, than it has ever been.  Constantine’s anti-Christian nephew Julian, for rather different motives, sought to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, though his efforts were deterred by a combination of earth tremors and fireballs.

In the division of the Empire between East and West (395), Palestine was inevitably included in the portion assigned to Constantinople.  With the loss of the West and increasing Gothic pressures, eastern provinces such as Palestine and Syria assumed greater importance by end of 5th century.  Although Palestine was predominantly Christian, a sizable Jewish population existed, but even without a state or even a province to call their own, Jews remained a problem for the empire.  When Theodosius II (in 438) excluded  pagans and Jews (and thus also Samaritans) from public offices that conferred honor and forbade construction of new synagogues, the situation became dangerous.  In 484 Samaritans staged an uprising in which Christians were massacred, and a similar tumult took place under Justinian in 529.  The Samaritans must have expected help from the Persians, who naturally supported every uprising within the empire.   In 503 Emperor Anastasius, at war with the Persians, was informed that the Jews of Constantia were planning to deliver the city to the enemy.  Discovery of the plot led to a general massacre of Jewish inhabitants. 

During the dark days of the empire, after the loss of the West and the failure of Justinian’s glorious but impossible project to restore the empire, the Persians succeeded in conquering Syria in 611 and, with the help of Galilean Jews, Palestine in 614.  In the sack of Jerusalem, the Persians were assisted by Jerusalem’s Jewish population which rose up for revenge and were accused of playing a leading role in massacring much of the Greek Christian population.  The province was recovered by Heraclius, who in 630 restored the Holy Cross to Jerusalem.  


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina