Ancient Jewish Religion and Culture

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The Babylonian exile had a grave impact on Israelite religion.  The Temple was destroyed, the "eternal" Davidic dynasty interrupted, and the people driven from the land YHWH had given them.  Little is known about religious life during the exile except that solemn days were designated to mourn the loss of Israelite institutions.  The prophets attempted to soothe the pain of these losses by promising a glorious restoration, the promise of which was never fully realized.

The return from exile witnessed efforts to unify the Jews by the likes of Ezra and Nehemiah (early leaders of the Second Temple period) including the canonization of scripture and reaffirmation of the covenant with YHWH.  Such measures, however, were countered by growing discontent, as evident from the apocalyptic writings of the period and the emergence of numerous sects.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two most prominent groups of the period.  The Pharisees, the presumed predecessors to the rabbinic tradition, promoted incorporating religion into every aspect of life and generally rejected Hellenism. The Sadducees, with ties to the priesthood, maintained their religious identity, but were more open to Hellenistic culture. Other groups, such as the Essenes (who some scholars associate with the Dead Sea Scrolls) held more radical beliefs. The early Jewish Christians were yet another significant Jewish sect--not yet adherents of a separate religion.

The destruction of the Temple, which had served as the religious and political center for the Jewish people, presented a major challenge. The Jews survived this crisis by giving new prominence to institutions that played only minor roles during the Second Temple period. Synagogues absorbed the role of the Temple as places for worship and learning; prayer took the place of sacrifice; rabbis sought to replace priests as teachers and guardians over the law.

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