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.
The Temple is Completed
The leaders of Judea understood the importance of the Temple, and within four years it was finished. The work of building the Temple was apparently carried on despite efforts by the Samaritans to depict it as a messianic ploy aimed at reestablishing Judean independence under a Davidic king.
In March of 515 B.C.E. the Temple was completed amidst great rejoicing. Sacrifices and prayers for the king of Persia were offered. Judea now had its national and religious center. The future of the Jewish people in its ancestral land was assured forthe foreseeable future. God could be properly worshipped in accord with the ancient traditions. There is some reason for thinking that the messianic agitation surrounding the person of Zerubbabel led the Persian authorities either to remove him from office or to not reappoint him when his term ended. In any case, from now until the time of Nehemiah (mid‑5th century B.C.E.) the high priests ruled. Judea seems for a time to have been only a small theocratically ruled political unit within the larger province of Samaria.
This state of affairs lasted for about seventy years after the completion of the Second Temple. In the early years of this period, the Persian Empire attained its high point under Darius I. The little we know of the situation in Judea indicates that only limited progress was made toward repopulating it. Most of the empire’s Jews remained in the Diaspora. The sparse evidence tells us that Jews were settled, for example, in Babylonia itself, in Sardis (in Asia Minor), and in Lower (northern) Egypt.
Changes in Judea
By the mid‑fifth century B.C.E., the population of Judea had probably doubled, and additional groups of exiles had returned. Some Jews now lived in more northerly parts of the country, the territory of the erstwhile Kingdom of Israel. While the high priests controlled internal affairs, other matters rested in the hands of the governors of the province of Samaria who, according to the biblical account, were not above accusing the Jews of sedition when it was advantageous to them.
Because of difficulties with their neighbors, the security of Judea deteriorated, and sometime during the reign of Artaxerxes 1 (465/64‑4 B.C.E.) the rebuilding of the fortifications of Jerusalem was begun. The aristocracy of Samaria, with the help of an order from the king, was able to stop this project temporarily.
Ezra and Nehemiah
It was at this crucial juncture that the great reformers Ezra and Nehemiah made their appearance. Fortuitously, this was also a period of great instability in the Persian Empire. In an effort to shore up his lines of communication with Egypt, Artaxerxes wanted to regularize the situation in Palestine, and this provided Ezra and Nehemiah with the opportunity to make substantial progress.
The end of the fifth century and most of the fourth are represented by only scanty historical material […]The first two‑thirds of the fourth century were a period of persistent decline in the Persian Empire at large.
Greek Influence Dawns
As the Persian period drew to a close, the signs of Greek influence on the material culture of Palestine steadily increased. Greek mercenaries, traders, and scholars were visiting the country in ever larger numbers, making a distinctive mark on its character. Thus the dawning of the Hellenistic period came as the completion of a cultural process long under way.