Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <>
10 March 1997
Yisrael Shalem     4/12

Second Temple Period (538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) Persian Rule.

The Assyrians and Babylonians used mass exile to eliminate popular movements for national independence and maintain peace within their vast empires. King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylonia and established an even greater empire, reversed this policy and allowed local religious autonomy. Jerusalem became the capital of Yehud (named for the tribe of Judah; most Jews are descendants of the tribe of Judah) a small Persian province 40 km. by 50 km. The book of Ezra opens with Cyrus's call to the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple (in 538 B.C.E.).

Thousands returned to Jerusalem, led by Shesbazzar and Zerubavel (probably the son and grandson of the exiled King Jehoiakim of Judah) and Yeshua son of Yozadak (probably the grandson of the last high priest of Jerusalem). They built an altar on the Temple Mount and began rebuilding the Temple and the city. Three chieftains of provinces bordering on Yehud complained to the Persians, warning that if the Jews were permitted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem they would rebel. King Darius responded by stopping all building in Jerusalem. Subsequently the original building authorization was found in the royal archive and the work resumed with the encouragement of the prophets. Haggai criticized the people for sitting in comfortable houses while the Temple was not yet rebuilt (Haggai ch. 1-2).

Construction of the Second Temple began in 521 and was completed in 516. The Second Temple was apparently built on the spot where the First Temple had stood, with the same dimensions, but with an important difference: the First Temple had stood next to the king's palace, almost as if it were his private house of worship. At the beginning of the Second Temple period the royal palace complex did not exist, and the Temple towered over the city with no royal city intervening, making it appear more accessible to the common people. Thousands of pilgrims ascended to the Temple on the three annual pilgrim festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Tabernacles).

The completion of the Temple enhanced the prestige of the high priest, who became the religious and political leader of the Jews. The political leaders mentioned in the opening chapters of the book of Ezra disappear without a trace.

Despite the rebuilt Temple, Jerusalem had declined a long way from its former glory. It had no city walls. Many of its residents, including some of the priests, had married local non-Jewish women. Ezra, a Torah scholar and priest whom King Artaxerxes had permitted to return to Jerusalem (c. 457) to teach Torah and judge the Jews according to Torah laws (Ezra ch. 7) was shocked by the reality he found. He tried to persuade the people to divorce their foreign wives, and taught Torah to the public (Nehemiah ch. 8).

Thirteen years later he received invaluable assistance from Nehemiah, the Jewish Cup Bearer to the King, who was appointed governor of Yehud and arrived in Jerusalem c. 44. Nehemiah's first concern was Jerusalem's physical security. He made a secret nighttime survey of the broken city walls and resolved to rebuild them. He assigned sections of wall to different families, and repairs were quickly made. The reconstruction angered chieftains of adjacent towns, who made an alliance to attack Jerusalem. Forewarned, half of the men stood guard, and the builders worked with their tools in one hand and their weapons in the other. This show of strength deterred the chieftains, and the walls were completed in 52 days (Nehemiah ch. 2-5).

The book of Nehemiah mentions the names of gates, but their exact locations are still debated among archaeologists. Meir Ben Dov contends that Nehemiah's walls were congruent with those from the end of the First Temple Period. He contends that the old walls were basically intact and the Nehemiah's work consisted of repair and reinforcement; otherwise he could not have finished the project in only 52 days. Moreover, Nehemiah's description of six gates is evidence of a large city. A smaller city could have made do with one or two gates. Dan Bahat thinks that the walls built by Nehemiah were along the lines dating from the time of Solomon, encompassing the city of David and the Temple Mount. Many archaeological finds from the fourth and third century B.C.E. were uncovered in the City of David, but very little evidence from the same time period was found on the western hill, later known as the Upper City (the present Jewish and Armenian Quarters).

>From part of a wall dating from this period uncovered in the City of David it appears that Nehemiah's Jerusalem was even smaller than David's. Even after the walls were completed most Jews preferred to live outside Jerusalem. To augment the city's population Nehemiah conducted a census and then, by lottery ordered every tenth family to relocate to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1). He instituted social reforms, releasing the poor from their debts; and worked with Ezra teaching Torah and prevailing upon the Jews to observe the commandments. To stop commerce on the Sabbath he closed the gates of Jerusalem from Friday afternoon until after the Sabbath, and he divided the financial burden of maintaining the Temple among the families of the city.

The Jews remained loyal to the Persians and enjoyed peace and religious autonomy during most of their rule (538-333 B.C.E.). From the names appearing on coins minted in Jerusalem at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. (the first coins ever cast in Israel) and on jug handles it is clear that the governors of Yehud were Jewish. The eastern gate of the Temple Mount facing Persia was called the Shushan Gate (Shushan was the capital of Persia).

A large fortress called HaBirah (the capital) was built at this time to protect the vulnerable northwestern corner of the Temple Mount. Renovations were conducted in the Temple and the Temple's water supply system was repaired; some of the conduits from the First Temple period were patched.

Hellenist Rule. When Alexander the Great was laying siege to Tyre he asked the Jews for assistance. The high priest refused on the grounds that he was bound by his oath of loyalty to the Persians. One Jewish sources relates that Alexander angrily advanced on Jerusalem with the intent of punishing the Jews, but when the high priest came out to meet him he relented. There is no clear evidence that Alexander ever came to Jerusalem, but the Jews continued to enjoy religious autonomy under his rule.

Following Alexander's death his generals battled one another until the Mideastern part of the empire split into two dominions: Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemys; and Syria, with its capital at Antioch, ruled by the Seleucids. Jerusalem was conquered by Ptolemy c. 320 B.C.E. on the Sabbath, when the Jews refused to take up arms (only 150 years later, after the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt, did the Jews begin to defend themselves on the Sabbath). After years of indecisive battles from 301-200 B.C.E. Ptolemy subdued all of Israel and the land enjoyed about 100 years of peace. Jerusalem remained a small city during this time. The Hellenist rulers brought in Hellenist settlers and encouraged cities under their rule to emulate the Greek polis with its cultural and political institution. Jerusalem was an exception: the high priest continued to govern according to Jewish law, and the only non-Jews in Jerusalem were the military garrison. In theory any priest could become the high priest, but since the time of King Solomon the high priest was always chosen from the Zadok family. They served life terms and were often succeeded by their sons.

The Seleucid King Antiochus III conquered Jerusalem and all of Israel in 198 B.C.E. He continued the policy of Jewish religious and political autonomy and even lowered taxes, and the high priest continued to govern the Jews. However, following a major defeat at the hands of Rome in 188 the Seleucids were compelled to pay heavy damages and the royal treasury was depleted. Antiochus, who needed money desperately, was killed while plundering a Babylonian temple. His successor Selvecus IV (187-175) attempted to loot the Temple in Jerusalem.

At this time many of the wealthy Jews and one of the important priestly families, the Balga family, were deeply influenced by Hellenistic culture and endeavored to establish close ties with the new ruling powers. Once when a priest of the Balga family disagreed with the high priest about the conduct of the marketplace he sent a message to Selvecus informing him of vast treasures in the Temple, which served as a safe deposit for the population to store money. An attempt by the king's chancellor, Heliodorus, to remove money from the Temple provoked a riot in Jerusalem. (According to the book of Maccabees an angel struck him and he was about to die. The high priest, fearful of the political repercussions of the chancellor's death, prayed to God, who revived Heliodorus (II Maccabees ch. 3). This was the first of many confrontations between the Jews and the Seleucids and internecine battles among the priestly families.

King Antiochus IV, known as Epiphanes, (164-175) sought to unite his kingdom under one culture and encouraged the establishment of cities organized as poleis. He also needed money badly. Jason, the high priest's brother, made the king a proposal he couldn't refuse. He offered to pay to be appointed high priest, plus an additional sum "if he were given the authority to set up a gymnasium and a training place for the youth and to enroll the people of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch." Antiochus granted his request, breaking several time-honored practices: a new high priest took office only when his predecessor died, and no foreign power had ever played a part in selecting the high priest. Moreover, Jerusalem was now to follow the course of many other cities; its distinctive Jewish character would be replaced with Hellenistic culture. It is unclear whether Jason's request for citizenship of Antioch was a request to grant Greek citizenship to a select group of Hellenist Jews in Jerusalem, or perhaps to establish all of Jerusalem as a Greek polis.

The gymnasium was not only for athletics. It housed the library and served as a cultural center. Jason built the gymnasium at the northern edge of the Temple, next to HaBirah Fortress. The priests began to neglect the sacrifices, preferring to take part in the exercises at the wrestling school (II Maccabees 3:7-17). Jason, considered by scholars a moderate Hellenizer, held office as high priest for three years. Jason sent Menelaus, a priest of the Balga family, to pay off Antiochus IV in 171 B.C.E. When he arrived, Menelaus offered to pay an additional 300 talents if he were appointed high priest (II Maccabees 3:23). Antiochus obliged, replacing Jason with Menelaus, a radical Hellenist. Jason fled Jerusalem and Menelaus intensified efforts to Hellenize Jerusalem.

In 168 B.C.E. a false rumor spread that Antiochus IV had been killed in Egypt. Jason gathered a force of 1,000 soldiers and took Jerusalem, igniting a civil war. Menelaus took refuge with the Hellenist garrison in HaBirah Fortress. Antiochus stormed Jerusalem, massacred many Jews, plundered the Temple and reinstated Menelaus. Within a year Antiochus's forces again massacred a large number of Jewish residents, plundering and destroying part of Jerusalem. Apparently all the Jews still alive fled the city. The Temple was ritually polluted and abandoned.

The Hellenists built a stronghold called the Acra (Greek for fortress or high place) on the Ophel, at the southern end of the Temple Mount where Solomon's palace had been. For the first time, foreign Hellenists, from Cyprus or Syria, were relocated to Jerusalem. They lived in the Acra together with the Hellenist Jews and the military garrison, where archaeologists found remains of hundreds of jugs of imported wine from Rhodes.

It is not clear whether the other, Antiochus's unprecedented decrees compelling all Jews to abandon Judaism or die precipitated the Maccabean revolt, or whether the revolt precipitated the decrees; but fighting broke out in 167 B.C.E. After three years of war against the Syrian army and aristocratic Hellenist Jews, Jerusalem's common people were able to return home. Entering the Temple Mount, they "found the sanctuary desolated and the altar polluted, the doors burned and weeds growing in the courts" (I Maccabees 4:38). The Jews cleaned and rededicated the Temple (in Hebrew the word Hanukah means dedication). But the war was far from over. While the Jews were purifying the Temple they had to defend themselves against the Greek garrison still in place literally next door.

Seleucid armies continued to invade Judea, and they reconquered Jerusalem in 162 B.C.E. Judah Maccabee was killed in battle two years later, and his brother Jonathan, who assumed the leadership, fled the country. Only in the year 152 B.C.E. was Jonathan able to return home. Though the city was capital of the Maccabean (Hasmonean) dominion for the next 89 years, many battles were still fought in Jerusalem. The Hellenist garrison in the Acra was not subdued until 141. Jerusalem withstood a two year siege 134-132 B.C.E. but had to tear down part of its walls in compliance with the armistice.

The Hasmonean dynasty expanded its borders over the decades and reached its height under King Yanai (103-76 B.C.E.) when its boundaries approached those of David's kingdom. Jerusalem became, for the second time in its history, capital of a large and powerful dominion. As before, the city grew dramatically. One of the biggest enterprises of the Hasmonean period was the reconstruction of the city walls. Jonathan began the project, and his brother Shimeon completed it. The walled city encompassed an area of about 650 dunams (162 acres) with an estimated population of 25,000. Part of the new city wall followed the course of the wall from the First Temple period.

The Hasmonean kings served as high priests as well as military and political leaders. They greatly increased the Temple's grandeur and the size of the Temple court. A valley to the south of the Temple was filled in and leveled off, creating an area of about 250 x 250 meters. It is assumed that the description of the Temple in the Talmud (Midot ch. 1,2,5) dates from the Hasmonean period. Many cisterns were dug under the Temple Mount. The Acra, the symbol of Hellenism, was razed, though, paradoxically, the new villas built by the wealthy Jews in the upper city were in the prevailing Hellenistic style, as were two impressive graves, the tomb of the sons of Hezir in the Kidron valley, and Jason's tomb, discovered in Rehavia.

HaBirah Fortress, protecting the northern edge of the Temple Mount, was the residence of the Hasmonean King Hyrcanus I. He kept there the clothes of the high priest (Josephus, Antiquities 18, '). In later years, Herod tore it down and built Antonia Fortress over it. All that is left of HaBirah Fortress from the Maccabean period is a tunnel, discovered by Warren in 1867, blocked in 1870, and rediscovered by Israeli archaeologists in 1987. The opening of this tunnel to tourists in 1996 lead riots in the West Bank. When the Hasmonean Queen Shlom-Zion (76-67 B.C.E.) died, both her sons laid claim to the throne and civil war broke out. The older son, Hyrcanus II, held his brother Aristobulus II's wife and children hostage in Jerusalem, but eventually surrendered and left the city. Hyrcanus returned with a Nabatean army, attacked Jerusalem and besieged Aristobulus, who had barricaded himself on the Temple Mount. At the time the Roman general Pompey was in the area conquering Syria. Each brother appealed to Pompey to recognize him as the lawful king; Pompey chose Hyrcanus. While Aristobulus's forces held off Hyrcanus from inside the well-protected Temple Mount, Pompey entered Jerusalem and headed for the Temple, whereupon Aristobulus destroyed the bridge linking the upper city to the Temple Mount. Pompey spent three months building a ramp to bring siege machines up to the Temple walls, and launched the final assault on Yom Kippur, 63 B.C.E. Thousands were killed on the Temple Mount and Hyrcanus was installed as high priest, but the independent Hasmonean dominion was finished. For the next four centuries Rome ruled Israel.

[prev.] [index] [next]

This page last modified Wednesday, March 12,1997