Palestine Under Persian Rule II

Politics from Artaxerxes to Zerubbabel

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The later years of the biblical era are termed the Persian Period because Palestine and the rest of the Near East were under the domination of the Persian Empire at this time.  The Persian period was crucial for the development of post-biblical Judaism, for it served as a transitional era in which certain biblical approaches were giving way to the new approaches of the later age. The following article explores the politics of the Persian period. It is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Returning, Rebuilding, Restoring

Shortly after 538 B.C. E. the Davidic scion Sheshbazzar set from Babylon at the head of a group of returning Judeans and soon arrived in the Land of Israel. He apparently had the title pehah, governor, as did his successor, Zerubbabel. Sheshbazzar must have immediately taken steps to begin rebuilding the Temple, but the Bible credits Zerubbabel with its completion (Ezra 3:6‑11). With the rebuilding of the Temple came the restoration of the sacrificial ritual.

Challenges to the Judeans

The early years of the Second Commonwealth were difficult ones. Judea was actually no more than a small area around Jerusalem, and by 522 B.C. E. its population must have numbered less than twenty thousand. The holy city itself was in ruins and scarcely inhabited. The Samaritans to the north, a mixed people made up of remnants of the populace of the destroyed northern kingdom of Israel and various groups brought in by the Assyri­ans, were openly hostile. Many Judeans were so preoccupied with eking out a living that they took little interest in the rebuilding of the Temple. The situation deteriorated to the point that work on the Temple had to cease temporarily.

Zerubbabel Becomes Governor

At about this time, Zerubbabel, the nephew of Sheshbazzar, succeeded to the governorship. Zerubbabel was the son of Shealtiel son of Jehoiachin, a scion of the royal family of Judah. Sometime between 538 and 522 B.C.E. Zerubbabel had arrived in Jerusalem at the head of a group of returning exiles. The high priesthood was reconstituted under the Zadokite high priest Joshua ben Jehozadak. Nevertheless, eighteen years after the start of construction, the Temple had still not been completed.

Darius I Becomes King

The political circumstances leading to the ascension of Darius I (522‑486 B.C.E.) to the throne of the Persian Empire aroused messianic expectations among the Jews of Judea, as shown in the books of Haggai and Zechariah, both composed around 520 B.C.E. These two prophets agitated for the completion of the Temple and the restoration of the pure worship of the God of Israel to the exclusion of all syncretistic practices.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.