539 BCE to 632 CE: The Story

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In 539 BCE, Cyrus, the Persian emperor, arrived in Babylon, effectively inheriting the vast Babylonian empire including Palestine. Rather than employing the policies of conquest and exile like their Babylonian and Assyrian predecessors, the Persian emperors viewed themselves as liberators and restorers, and encouraged exiled peoples to return to their native lands and rebuild their religious and cultural institutions.

Many of the exiled Jews in Babylon took advantage of this new policy.  Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, several waves of Jews headed towards their ancestral homeland, in the former territory of the Kingdom of Judah. They gained autonomy and were eventually permitted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

The biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah attest to conflicts with fellow Jews who had not been exiled, as well as with neighboring peoples, obstructing and delaying the rebuilding process. Moreover, Judah was a Persian province; the Jews had only achieved token autonomy.  A longing for true independence figures prominently in the literature of the Second Temple period (539 BCE-70 CE).

Persian rule was nonetheless more amicable than the rule of the Greek and Roman empires that followed.  In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great extended his empire into Judea (the Greek and Latin term for Judah), but within a decade, Alexander was dead, and his empire dissolved into competing factions.

For the Jews, this instability was especially traumatic; their land served as a constant battleground between the rivaling Seleucids (in Syria) and Ptolemies (of Egypt).  The Greeks caused additional tensions by interfering in religious matters, levying heavy taxes, and encouraging the Jews to adopt Greek culture.  These factors, combined with Jewish infighting and the continued desire for autonomy, eventually led to the Maccabean revolt, an effort that achieved a brief period of independence in the middle of the second century BCE.  The situation changed little with the arrival of the Romans in the first-century BCE.

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