In recent years, the role of historiography in the process of Biblical exegesis has been thrust into the academia spotlight. Biblical scholars such as E.P. Sanders and N. T. Wright, along with others, have demonstrated the need for a proper historical understanding of the scriptures in order to develop proper Biblical doctrines. Such understanding becomes even more imperative with popular, but inaccurate, “historical Jesus” movements such as the Jesus Seminar infiltrating the world of scholarship.
Perhaps this point of history is in more need of study for the purpose of Biblical exegesis than that period known as the Second Temple Period. This discourse will attempt to offer a brief survey of the chronological history of the second temple period beginning with the decree of Cyrus (538 BCE) and ending with the storming of Masada (73 CE). In addition, this post will discuss the importance of temple theology during this period as such theology directly tied into the messianic hopes of Jewish people during this period.
In order to grasp the significance of the Second Temple Period, especially on the messianic aspirations of the time, the context of the events and attitudes which directly preceded the period must be briefly discussed. In 597 BCE, the Babylonian Empire captured the city of Jerusalem and deporting some 10,000 Jews to the city of Babylon. From Biblical texts such as Lamentations, Job, and several, it is evident of the despair and loss the Jews were experiencing as their homeland and nation were disappearing. In 586 BCE, the nation of Judah which had been a separate nation from the northern ten tribes of Israel, finally disappeared, marking the official beginning of what has become to be known as the Babylonian exile.
The interesting feature of this exile is the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar settled the Jews in a single area within the city. This allowed them to maintain their cultural and religious identity. As result, although many Jews adopted some of the Babylonian culture, in general they maintained a faith within Yahweh as seen in literature like the Book of Daniel. Out of despair, a hope of restoration and salvation emerged. This hope is expressed in books like Ezekiel and Isaiah
Chronological Survey of the Second Temple Period
The Second Temple Period refers to several decades of Jews from Mesopotamia, Judaea, and Egypt existing under the rule of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. It begins with the declaration of Darius, ruler of the Persian empire, allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (538 BCE) until its total destruction by the Romans in 70 CE (cf. Ezra 1:1-4).
From Occupation to Independence (538-63 BCE)
In 538 BCE King Darius of the Persian empire issued a decree to allow some 50,000 Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. There is some debate among scholars as to whether the decree recorded in the first chapter of the book of Ezra is a specific decree for the Jews or a general decree for all occupied peoples of the Persian empire. As Grabbe points out, “It seems very unlikely in his first year of reign, with all that had to be done in establishing a new empire, Cyrus took the time to issue an edict expressly on the behalf of a small ethnic community.” Whatever the circumstances for the edict, over the next four centuries the Jews slowly returned to their homeland and enjoyed various degrees and time as autocratic nation. The beginning of the period had the Jews flourishing under Ezra’s leadership. His re-nationalization efforts, the construction of the temple, and the formation of the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly), which became the chief judicial and ruling institution, all played a crucial role in this early success.
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. During the period under various Syrian Seleucid rulers, the Jewish people were able to maintain theocratic autonomy. However, in 166 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes decided “that all should be one people, and that each should forsake his own laws” (I Macc. 1:41). He desecrated the temple and attempted to transform it into Zeus Olympios (2 Macc. 6:2). He prohibited worship in the temple and worship of Yahweh.
This attempt to Hellenize the Jews led to revolt. In 164 BCE, two members of the priestly Hasmonean family, Matthathias and his son, Judah the Maccabee, entered Jerusalem and purified the temple. The Jews still celebrate this event each year during the festival of Hannuka. As result of continued Hamonean victories the Seleucid returned Jewish theocracy in 147 BCE, however they were still an occupied nation. Still, by this point the empire had begun to collapse and 129 BCE the Jews of Judea (which the land of Israel was now called) became independent. And remained that way for the next eight decades.
Roman Rule (63 BCE – 73 CE)
Rome replaced the Seleucid empire as the dominant power in Judea. In Roman tradition, the new occupying power allowed the Hasmonean King, Hycanus II, to retain limited amounts of authority. Of course, he was always subject to the Roman governor of Damascus. The Jewish people resented this new occupying power and soon became hostile. Finally, in 40 BCE, led by the Hasmonean, Matthathias Antigonas, the dream of restoring the Hasmonean dynasty and Judea as an independent state was finally snuffed out. With his death, the rule of Hasmonean dynasty ended and Judea officially became a full Roman province.
Three years later, Rome installed Herod, Hycanus II’s son in law as the new King of Judea. During his reign, he had almost unlimited authority in Judea’s internal political and religious affairs. Enamored by Greco-Roman culture, Herod undertook large and grand construction projects. He built the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste. He also was responsible for the contruction of the military fortresses of Herodium and Masada. Perhaps, his grandest achievement was the rebuilding of the temple. “Although, the Greeks counted Ephesus’s Artemis Temple as one of the seven wonders of the world, Jerusalem’s temple was actually far larger and more magnificent. The Jewish temple was one of the most splendid structures of all antiquity and seemed strong and invincible.”
Still, Herod’s strong ties with occupying Roman did little to endear him to the Sanhedrin (the ruling religious body evolved from the Knesset Hagedolah) and the populace at large. Jewish resentment continued to grow. Sporadic outbursts of revolutionary violence occurred throughout Roman occupation of Judea. Most of the revolutionaries responsible were usually caught and killed by Roman authorities.
After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Rome began to assume more and more direct control over the region. Tensions between the Jews and their Roman occupiers increased. Ten years following the death of Herod, Rome finally assumed direct authority over the province. During this time the seeds of revolt were sown as Rome increasingly infuriated the Jews through their appointing of High Priests.
It was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula that the seeds of revolt began to germinate. In 39 C.E. Caligula declared himself to be a deity. He ordered that all the temples in the empire set up a statue in his image. Naturally, the Jews of Judea refused. In response to Caligula’s threat to destroy the Jewish temple, a delegation was sent to try and appease the infuriated emperor. He is supposedly to have responded by saying, “So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity.” It was only the sudden and untimely death which prevented the emperor from carrying out his threats.
Following the death of Emperor Caligula, the Jewish religion found itself constantly exposed to various demeaning actions by Roman authorities. In one instance soldiers exposed themselves in the center of the temple. On another occasion scrolls of the Torah were destroyed by soldiers who burned them. Such actions, combined with financial exploitations galvanized even the most moderate of the Jewish people.
In 66 CE, the inevitable occurred. The last Roman procurator of the Judean province incited a riot by stealing vast quantities of silver from the Jewish Temple. This incited a riot of the Jewish people who subsequently over ran the garrison of soldiers that were stationed at Jerusalem. When a neighboring province’s procurator sent reinforcements, the mob defeated them as well.
For years, a small radical revolutionary group known as the Zealots had been undermining Roman authority through acts of violence and guerrilla warfare. Embolden by the recent victories, the Jewish populace flocked to this group, swelling its ranks exponentially. Many saw the victories as assurance of God’s hand and design. However, Rome was not to be so easily defeated.
Rome responded with a force of some 60,000 professional soldiers to attack the area of Galilee. Galilee had long been known to be the most radicalized region of Judea. This offensive led to the death or slavery of some 100,000 Jews. The Jewish leadership at Jerusalem did not attempt to offer much in the way of assistance to the Galilean Jews. Instead, their aim seems to be one of Roman appeasement and the limitation of Jewish deaths.
As Rome quickly moved through the region putting down the revolt with brutal efficiency, the refugees made their way to Jerusalem for a final stand. Zealot leaders put to death anyone who advocated Jewish surrender and peace with Rome. By 68 CE, moderate leadership of the Jewish people were all but wiped out by their fellow Jews. In 70 CE, Titus led Roman forces into Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In 73 CE, the last Jewish resistance was overcome at the Masada Outpost bringing the second temple period to an end.
Messianic Expectations and Temple Theology
The eleventh chapter of Ezekiel describes a vision of the presence of God leaving Solomon’s temple. Such a prophecy would have been very disheartening to Israelites of Ezekiel’s day. The Israelites had always experienced God’s presence in some form or fashion throughout their history up to this point. On Mt. Sinai it was fire, earthquakes and a thundering voice (Ex 19). In the desert, it was the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night which guided the Israelites (13:22). Even when the tabernacle was formed the cloud and fire remained in the middle of the tabernacle (40:38). So, it should not be strange when Solomon’s temple is completed that God’s presence filled it as well (2 Chr 7:1). So, when Ezekiel tells the people God is leaving them, it would have felt like part of their identity as people was being taken away. Especially when you combine Jeremiah’s admonition to settle into their captivity and build lives in a foreign land (Jer 29:4-9).
Still, Ezekiel does not leave the prophecy with God’s departure. He informs the people that God will return to his temple (Ezk 40-42). Ezekiel not only speaks of the temple being rebuilt, but of God’s presence returning to the temple. This combined with the image of the “one like the Son of Man” found in chapter seven of the book of Daniel would have shaped Jewish messianic expectations in such way that they would have been invariably linked together in the minds of the people. The temple and its ritualistic purity would have been seen as absolutely essential to the coming of the Messiah.
It is no accident that throughout Israel’s history of exile that the greatest revolts have been the result of desecration to the temple. It was the gross abomination by Antiochus Epiphanes that led to the Maccabean revolt. It is no accident that the revolt was led by a priestly family (1&2 Macc). It certainly, not by chance, that it was Jesus’s actions in the temple which provoked the religious establishment to want to kill him (Jn 7). It’s not a coincidence that the false charge brought at Jesus’s trial was concerning the temple (Mk14:58). Even Stephen’s stoning occurred after his speech on the temple’s inferiority (Acts 7). It was the pilgrimaging of the temple which led directly to the revolt that brought about its destruction. The temple for the Jewish people had become the place from where God’s salvation would emerge. It was the place where His presence would eventually reside forever. It was the symbol of their piousness. It was the mark of their faithfulness to Yahweh.
As noted scholar N. T. Wright has remarked, the temple is “the place where Israel’s true king would build, or cleanse, or restore for Israel’s God to come and dwell there.” In other words, for the Jewish people there could not be a messiah without the God-filled temple, nor could there be a God-filled temple without the messiah. Again as Wright points out, “The last four books of the canon (Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi), and in its own way the work of the chronicler all point to the restoration of the Temple under the leadership of a royal (Davidic), or possibly priestly figure.”
The purpose of this post was to briefly discuss the history of the Jewish people during the second temple period. In doing so, it attempted to highlight the significance of the temple and its theology in the formation of messianic expectations. It has been argued that the temple and the coming messiah were so linked in the minds of the Jewish people that it was indirectly responsible for most, if not all of the major Jewish revolts during their exile. It certainly was a factor in the Maccabean revolt and the Great revolt of 66 CE. It played a large part in the crucifixion of Jesus who the religious denied as a Messiah. It is so invariably linked that it may be possible to argue that temple theology and messianic theology are essentially the same thing under different terminology.
“Ancient Jewish History: The Great Revolt (66 – 70 Ce).” JewishVirtualLibrary. Last modified 1998. Accessed 05/06, 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-great-revolt-66-70-ce.
“History: Second Temple Period-Return to Zion.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Last modified 2013. Accessed 05/06, 2017. http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/history/pages/history-%20the%20second%20temple.aspx.
Akenson, Donald H. “Winnie the Pooh and the Jesus Seminar.” Queen’s Quarterly 104, no. 4 (1997): 644.
Grabbe, L.L. A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period (Vol. 1): The Persian Period (539-331bce). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.
Keener, C.S. and InterVarsity Press. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Sanders, E.P. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 Bce-66 Ce. SCM Press, 1992.
Wright, N. T., “Jesus at the Crossroads of History.” N. T. Wright at Perkins, Perkins School of Theology, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgOzZJodlyA.
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press, 1992.
Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Fortress Press, 2008.
 For examples of such work see E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 Bce-66 Ce (SCM Press, 1992); N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Fortress Press, 2008).
 For a critique on the inadequacy of the Jesus Seminar methodology see Donald H. Akenson, “Winnie the Pooh and the Jesus Seminar,” Queen’s Quarterly 104, no. 4 (1997): 644.
The timeline comes from “History: Second Temple Period-Return to Zion,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed 05/06, 2017. http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/history/pages/history-%20the%20second%20temple.aspx.
 All Old Testament references are NIV Looseleaf Bible (Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), unless otherwise noted.
 L.L. Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period (Vol. 1): The Persian Period (539-331bce) (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), 275.
 “History: Second Temple Period-Return to Zion.”
 Ibid. Also see 1 Maccabees and Josephus.
 C.S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 106.
 See the works of Josephus for more information.
 “Ancient Jewish History: The Great Revolt (66 – 70 Ce),” JewishVirtualLibrary, accessed 05/06, 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-great-revolt-66-70-ce.
 All New Testament scripture references are N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).
 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992), 265-66.