Published by Worldview Publications
January 2002 

The Second Temple: Persian Period


About 1000 BCE God acted to terminate possessive god-consciousness and to initiate a self-consciousness that embraced the consciousness of “otherness.” God then began to move mankind to the relational consciousness of God as the authoritative, mediatorial bridge between the “I” (self) and the “Thou” (other). To facilitate this transition, God chose the Habiru tribes who had been held in bondage in Egypt. God delivered them from slavery, pedagogically gave them his commandments at Sinai, and then led them to the Promised Land in Eden.

Once the tribes were settled in their Edenic land, YHWH chose David to record their history, emphasize God’s promises, and metaphorically teach them God’s intentions on their behalf. YHWH’s purposes were conveyed through the metaphor of the Temple that Solomon built to divine specifications. At the dedication of the Temple, “when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, . . . and the glory of the Lord filled the house” (2 Chronicles 7:1). Thus YHWH himself came to the Temple, and thus the Temple symbolized God’s presence with his people and his promised embodiment, birth and manifestation as the inaugural Human One. The Temple also symbolized God’s aspirations that the Chosen People should perceive, accept and celebrate his promised manifestation as their created reference, standard and authoritative “Third Voice” and his promised transformation of humanity in the new Creation.

Unfortunately, the Chosen People never discerned the nature of YHWH’s purposes for them. Instead, they adopted authoritarian power structures marked by monarchical misrule, priestly rivalry, prophetic tensions and general apostasy. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was finally conquered by the Assyrian emperor, Sargon II, in 722 BCE. Consequently, the northern ten tribes were dispersed and largely disappeared. The Southern Kingdom of Judah also was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 597/586 BCE. Thus, the Chosen People, like Adam and Eve, were banished from Eden.

The final result was that the metaphors for God’s relationality with his Chosen People were hidden. The Temple itself was destroyed, and the priesthood suspended. Monarchical rule and the kingdom were abolished. The divine presence of the Shekinah was removed, and the prophetic offices were soon to be terminated.1

Exilic Era

“Judah’s . . . [ruling class] was deported to Babylonia, and only the poor were permitted to remain in the devastated country. . . . [Nevertheless,] the Babylonians . . . believed in the possibility of the existence of a state or province of Judah governed by Judaeans and loyal to them. They knew of the existence of the pro-Babylonian party and of Jeremiah’s insistence on loyalty to them. In fact, while Jerusalem was besieged, many people, dissatisfied with the king’s policies, left the city to join the Babylonians.

“It was . . . this which prompted the Babylonians now to appoint as governor of the country Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, a high official in Zedekiah’s government. . . . Jeremiah . . . remained in the country with the purpose of aiding Gedaliah in the effort of rebuilding the land. Gedaliah chose Mizpah, to the north of Jerusalem, as his residence. At the news of his appointment, refugees who had fled to neighboring countries began to return. Remnants of the army with their commanders . . . now came to Mizpah, thus creating what in effect was a nucleus of a new Judaean army. An altar, and possibly some sort of edifice called ‘House of the Lord,’ was erected either in Mizpah or in Jerusalem. . . . The peasants who remained in the country began to till the soil, and the land seemed to be returning to normalcy.

“All this went on for two to three years. Gedaliah’s success was apparent, and it was perhaps possible . . . that . . . a new Judaean dynasty was emerging. It was probably this that prompted a member of the royal family, Ishmael, the son of Nethaniah, who found refuge in nearby Ammon, to return and assassinate Gedaliah [582 B.C.E.]. Even then Jeremiah still believed that the Babylonians would permit Judah to continue to govern itself. He was, however, unable to convince the commanders of Gedaliah’s small army to stay in the country. The commanders decided to leave for Egypt and took the prophet along against his will. Thus, ‘the last burning coal’ of Judah’s statehood was extinguished.”2

. . . [Meanwhile, those who were taken into Babylonian exile] did not live in ‘captivity’ . . . [T]hey were settled on deserted agricultural land where they were free, as Jeremiah says, to ‘build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.’ Their status probably did not permit them to be landowners; more likely they were land-tenants on royal estates. . . .

“Copies of contracts made by Jews and other documents concerning Jews testify to the existence of Jewish communities in 28 settlements in the Nippur area. . . . [T]hese records indicate that Jews had prospered in agriculture, trade and banking during . . . their settlement there. There appears to be no discrimination against the Jews even though they were descendants of foreigners. . . .

“The release of Jehoiachin . . . in 561 B.C.E. by Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Amel-Marduk . . . and the attendant hopes at reestablishing the monarchy could well have inspired his contemporary, the incumbent chief priest Jehozadak, to embark on the task of editing the authoritative texts of the emerging Bible: . . . [the Tetrateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers — and Deuteronomy] and Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The task of compiling and redacting these texts was certainly the most significant accomplishment of the exiled community. It is impossible to conceive of this activity without the involvement of the learned priestly stratum of Babylonian Jewish society. . . .

. . . [Not only had Jews been exiled in Babylon, but others had fled to Egypt. For example,] Jeremiah’s catalogue of areas of Jewish residence follows a line of defense systems [along the Nile River] established by the Egyptians, from the northeast border (Migdol) to Nubia (Pathros) [Ethiopia]. It was in these centers that Jewish soldiers and their families lived, and so it was to these centers that their compatriots would have come when settling in Egypt.”3

Persian Era4

“In 538 B.C.E. . . . King Cyrus II of Persia, who the year before had conquered the Babylonian empire, initiated a policy of permitting peoples deported by the Babylonians to return to their native countries. The Judaean exiles in Babylonia became beneficiaries of this new policy when in the same year Cyrus issued a decree permitting them to return to Judaea. Simultaneously the Persian king ordered that the Temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem at government expense and that the holy vessels, removed in 586 B.C.E. from the Solomonic Temple to Babylonia, now be returned to Jerusalem.”5

. . . [T]here were successive waves of Jewish repatriation under Persian rule. The first was led by Sheshbazzar, the son of King Jehoiachin, who had been taken into captivity in 597 B.C.E. (Sheshbazzar is called Shenazzar in 1 Chronicles 3:18). . . . Sheshbazzar was entrusted with the Temple vessels . . . and is reported to have laid the foundation for the rebuilt Temple. . . .

“A [second] major wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel and by the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak, apparently during the early years of the administration of Darius (522-486 B.C.E. . . . ). A census of the returnees, who numbered 42,360 people, plus 7,337 servants and 200 singers, is given in Ezra 2:1-67 and Nehemiah 7:6-73). [Nevertheless, most of the exiles chose to permanently remain in Babylon/Persia/Parthia.]

“Zerubbabel and Joshua apparently first established an altar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and then began to construct the Temple in the second year of Darius’s reign (520 B.C.E.). The [final] foundations of the Second Temple were laid on December 18, 520 B.C.E., to much fanfare and celebration. The involvement of Zerubbabel as a key player in the actual refoundation ceremony no doubt caused intense messianic expectation. . . . The Temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius (516 B.C.E.), with the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the support of the Persian court, despite strong local resistance (Ezra 6:1-15).”6

“With the completion of the Temple, a far-reaching constitutional transformation took place in Judaea. Up to this time the principle of dualism prevailed in the leadership of the new community. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah again and again addressed themselves to Zerubabel and the High Priest Joshua together as the leaders. One could speculate that had conditions continued to develop favorably, Zerubabel would have ultimately become king of Judaea under Persian sovereignty. . . . [H]owever, . . . sometime after the consecration of the Temple Zerubabel disappeared, for reasons and under circumstances unknown to us. . . .

“In the vacuum thus created, the high priest became the sole source of authority. A theocratic regime, sometimes characterized as Aaronid absolutism, thus established itself . . . and it remained Judaea’s form of government for a period of about 70 years. The high priest united in his hands both the spiritual and temporal power. Judaea thus became a ‘temple state’ . . .

“The high hopes which the returnees from Babylonia had for the future . . . did not materialize. The removal of Zerubabel was a great blow to the political strength of the country. The high priest . . . could not care for the strengthening of the country in the manner a secular ruler would have been able to. Thus, Judaea remained . . . a tiny political entity without significance. . . . On the economic front, too, the new community achieved little success. . . . By the middle of the fifth century, the community was composed of a thin layer of wealthy aristocrats and a mass of poor peasants and proletarians.

“Equally discouraging was the situation in the area of religious life . . . [with] a definite departure from the observance of the Jewish religious law. . . . The sad situation in Judaea did not remain unnoticed among the Jews in the Persian empire. . . . About the year [445 B.C.E.] . . . a certain Hanani returned to the Persian capital Suza from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Hanani was a brother of the king’s cupbearer, Nehemiah. Hanani evidently was deeply concerned about the conditions he found in Jerusalem and reported them to his brother. Nehemiah . . . was saddened by the report and decided to give up his high position in the court . . . He had . . . himself appointed by the king as governor of Judaea. . . .

“When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, his first task was to rebuild the walls [as a symbol of restored power]. In order to acquaint himself with the conditions of the wall ruins, he made a dramatic nocturnal journey around the city, after which he began energetically to organize the work of reconstruction. He evidently succeeded in persuading many people to do the work with great speed, always alert to the danger of an imminent attack on the part of neighbors [i.e., Samaritans led by Sanballat, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Kedarite].

“Nehemiah’s term of office . . . lasted 12 years. He introduced many improvements in the administration of Judaea . . . [These included repopulating the city and creating a scriptural library.] He also took strong action to bring relief to the poor. It seems, however, that he was not able to improve single-handedly the religious and moral life of the people. He carried out this task together with . . . Ezra the Scribe. It is not possible to determine whether Ezra preceded Nehemiah or came with him when the latter returned to Jerusalem from a visit to Persia. Ezra was a learned man, who . . . was officially appointed by King Artaxerxes I to go to Judaea for the purpose of teaching the people the Jewish law and establishing it as the law of the land.”7 Although Ezra was a Zadokite priest committed to the unconditional promises to Abraham, he also embraced the conditional Mosaic Law so long upheld by the rival Levitical priests.

In preparing for his epic assignment, Ezra enlisted the Levites, and together they determined to make Jewish Law the supreme authority of the postexilic community. They proceeded to detach Deuteronomy from the subsequent accounts — Joshua through Kings — and then to attach the book of Deuteronomy to the Tetrateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) to form the Pentateuch, which then constituted the primary canon of the Hebrew Bible. With this masterful editorial stroke, Ezra “shifted the focus and target of biblical religion from an essentially historical mode (that is, divine acts in human history) to the mode of law (that is, divine words or commands to regulate the behavior of the human community).”8 “ . . . [This also shifted the focus from the succession of kings and prophets to that of Moses himself,] who stands preeminently in both spheres: as the chief prophet of the Hebrew Bible and the supreme lawgiver. . . . As it turned out, . . . [Moses] was the authentic alternative, since he posed no threat to external authorities but could provide a structured way of life for survivors under foreign rule.”9 “Henceforth, law would be seen as, and at, the heart of biblical religion, the law revealed through Moses at Mount Sinai, while history and prophecy would be less central and play supporting roles.”10

“[Once this editorial task was underway, Ezra was ready to launch his mission.] Within the period of only one year, probably 428 B.C.E., Ezra succeeded in greatly strengthening the religious life of the Judaeans. In the month of the high holidays, when many Judaeans congregated in Jerusalem, Ezra read in solemn assembly the Pentateuch in order to acquaint the people with the law he had come to make obligatory upon them. He also convinced the people that marrying non-Jewish women was sinful, and he undertook a thorough action to make Judaeans divorce their foreign wives. . . .

“Additional steps were taken by Nehemiah and Ezra to establish a system of taxation which would insure sufficient income for the Temple . . . The people also promised to pay regularly the tithes prescribed in the Jewish law. Special measures were also taken to strengthen the observance of the Sabbath. . . . Finally, the release of debts and slaves, as well as abstention from tilling the soil, prescribed in the law for every seventh year, was henceforth to be observed scrupulously. After the events of the year 428 B.C.E., Ezra and Nehemiah ‘disappeared.’ . . .

. . . [At the same time, however, t]he country enjoyed the status of a semiautonomous commonwealth with the right to issue coins. It was administered by a succession of governors, some of whom were Jews. . . . The various towns and villages were now to a greater degree populated by Jews, and the countryside was thus made more securely a part of Judaea. The economy seems to have expanded, and a new class of artisans came into being besides the older classes of the nobility and the peasants. Judaea could thus more vigorously withstand the conflict with the Samaritans, which became more and more serious . . .11

Summary of Developments

Profound changes took place in Judea over the two centuries of Persian domination:

  1. The Temple was rebuilt and beautified, even though it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim and the Shekinah, which signified the divine presence. It was painfully clear that YHWH himself had not yet returned to Zion nor to the Second Temple.
  2. Some scholars believe that prayerful worship in local synagogues also emerged about this time or even earlier, during the Babylonian exile.12
  3. The monarchical form of government was terminated with the disappearance of Zerubbabel.
  4. Throughout the exilic period and even into the post-exilic era, the last prophets repeatedly emphasized the compassion, mercy and loving pity (racham = “womblikeness”) of YHWH for his people:

    [Thus Ezekiel said,] Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Now will I bring again the captivity of Jacob, and have mercy [racham] upon the whole house of Israel, and will be jealous for my holy name . . . — Ezekiel 39:25.

    [Deutero-Isaiah enquired,] Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion [racham] on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. — Isaiah 49:15. See also Isaiah 47:6; 49:10, 13; 54:7, 8, 10; 55:7; 60:10; 63:7, 15.

    [And Zechariah declared,] And I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph, and I will bring them again to place them; for I have mercy [racham] upon them; and they shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am the Lord their God, and will hear them. — Zechariah 10:6. See also Zechariah 1:12, 16; 7:9.

  1. Furthermore, in his prayers and utterances, Nehemiah also referred to YHWH’s compassion and mercy. Thus:

    . . . [W]hen they cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies [rachamim] . . . saved them out of the hand of their enemies. — Nehemiah 9:27. See also Nehemiah 1:11; 9:17, 19, 28, 31.

  1. After the ministries of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi had been completed, the prophetic office — which spoke for God to the people — was terminated.
  2. The historic rivalries between the Zadokite/Aaronic priests and the Levitical priests were resolved with the introduction of a single ecumenical theology.
  3. In support of this priestly union, the biblical documents were edited to transform them from an account of primary history to one of primary law. Among the reasons for this change was a desire to exalt Moses as prophet/lawgiver.
  4. While the Mosaic Law explicitly excluded dominating power structures, the editing by Ezra and his colleagues made room for the appropriation of a theocratic power structure.
  5. With the completion of editorial changes, the biblical documents began to be canonized as the Written Torah. Additional canonical writings were added, including Jonah, Ecclesiastes and the Chronicles. The Hebrew Scriptures were subsequently arranged as the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Joshua through the Minor Prophets) and, finally, the Writings (Ruth through Ezra/Nehemiah and the Chronicles). By placing the Writings after the Prophets, the scribal priests determined to show that the reforms of the Persian period represented the predicted covenantal fulfillment. In effect, the canonization of the Written Torah and the elevation of Moses as the prophet beside God’s throne served to supplant the return of YHWH to Zion and to replace the divine presence in the Temple.
  6. In the absence of the prophetic office, efforts were made by the priests, Levites and scribal scholars to develop an Oral Torah as the interpretation of the Written Torah.
  7. To make the biblical writings available to Jews both in Judaea itself and throughout the Diaspora, Nehemiah established a library in Jerusalem to reproduce the sacred documents and to assure their distribution (2 Maccabees 2:13).12

With the absence of the divine presence, the termination of the kingship and the prophetic office, and the mandatory institution of the Mosaic Law under a unified priesthood, Judea became a recognized theocracy in the presumedly “messianic” empire of Persia.13, 14 In the changes made by Ezra, he “was defining the identity of the Jews in a new way, not as a tribal or an ethnic group, not as citizens of a nation-state, but as ‘the people of the Law,’ the people of Torah. In their own land or in dispersion, with their own political institutions intact or living under the yoke of conquerors or oppressors, the Jews would constitute themselves as a community governed by the Law of Moses.”15 Judea claimed to have become “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).

There are profound implications to these developments. Not discerning YHWH’s promised covenantal embodiment, birth and subsequent life as human, the priesthood determined that the Chosen People would themselves fulfill the covenants. They would supposedly do this by embracing the human authority, freedom and possessive rights of God himself through and as a theocratic power structure. However, though carefully chosen with the best of intentions, theocratic power alone could not be sustained as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind. Furthermore, the termination of the prophetic office and the divorce of theology from history would lead to a millennial misapprehension of God’s true purposes.

Notes and References

  1. See “The First Temple: Divided Monarchical Period,” Outlook (Dec. 2001). (go back)
  2. Moses A. Shulvass, The History of the Jewish People, vol. 1, The Antiquity (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1982), pp. 49, 50. (go back)
  3. James D. Purvis (revised by Eric M. Meyers), “Exile and Return: From the Babylonian Destruction to the Reconstruction of the Jewish State,” in Hershel Shanks, ed., Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999), pp. 205-208, 214. It is deeply intriguing that large Jewish colonies settled at the northern frontier of Eden in Babylon, near the site of the “Tower of Babel,” reputed to be the entrance to heaven. At the same time, a contingent of Jewish mercenary soldiers settled Elephantine Island in the Nile River, at the southern frontier of Eden. In Egyptian mythology the entrance to the underworld chaos (“Nun”) of Hades (hell) was located immediately south of Elephantine Island, in the deepest bed of the Nile River! (go back)
  4. Persian emperors during the Second Temple period (BCE) were: Cyrus II the Great (559/539-), Cambyses II (530-), Darius I (522-), Xerxes I (486-), Artaxerxes I, (465-) Xerxes II, (424-) Darius II (423-), Artaxerxes II (404-), Artaxerxes III (359-), Arses (338-), Darius III (336-330). See Kelley L. Ross, Historical Background to Greek Philosophy, at (go back)
  5. Shulvass, History of the Jewish People, p. 59. Cyrus made these provisions after learning that Deutero-Isaiah had prophesied that he (Cyrus) would be the Messiah of Israel or learning that Deutero-Isaiah had proclaimed him (Cyrus) to be the Messiah because of his decree to rebuild the Temple (Isaiah 44:24, 28 – 45:5). (go back)
  6. Purvis, “Exile and Return,” p. 218. (go back)
  7. Shulvass, History of the Jewish People, pp. 61-64. (go back)
  8. David Noel Freedman, “The Formation of the Canon of the Old Testament: The Selection and Identification of the Torah as the Supreme Authority of the Postexilic Community,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 323. (go back)
  9. Ibid., pp. 316, 322. (go back)
  10. Ibid., p. 324. (go back)
  11. Shulvass, History of the Jewish People, pp. 64, 65. (go back)
  12. See Encyclopaedia Judaica, CD-ROM edition, s.v. “Synagogue: Origins and History.” (go back)
  13. See John W. Miller, The Origins of the Bible: Rethinking Canon History (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 20, 21. (go back)
  14. The high priests of Judah during Persian rule were Joshua, Joachim, Eliashib, Joiadah, Johanan and Jaddua. “Artaxerxes’ general Bagoses . . . tried to appoint Jesus (that is, Joshua/Jeshua) son of Eliashib as high priest and became enraged when Jesus was murdered by his brother, the high priest Joannes (Johanan).” See Purvis, “Exile and Return,” p. 228. (go back)
  15. Abba Eban, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (New York: Summit Books, 1984), p. 73. (go back)


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