The Second Temple Period (536 BC-70 AD)
Persian Rule (536-333 BC)
After the fall of Judah in 586 BC. the Babylonian Empire under the rule of the mighty king Nebuchadnezzar continued to expand and gain power. But according to the Word of God, Babylon would be destroyed.
After the death of the great Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar, his empire started to decline. Nebuchadnezzar was followed by Amil-Marduk (called Evil-merodach in 2 Kings 25:27), who ruled for less than two years. Then came a series of bad and corrupt rulers culminating with Nabonidus, who ruled for sixteen years, from 555 to 539 BC. He spent most of his time at the Oasis in Arabia and left the affairs of state in Babylon in the hands of Belshazzar, his son. Under Belshazzar, the empire reached the height of corruption.
As Babylon was declining, two nations in the east and north of the Persian Gulf were coming to power: the Medes and the Persians, with king Cyrus who united them under his rule. He spent two year conquering the nations of northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and then moved in on Babylon. Without much fighting he took over the Babylonian Empire. (Daniel 5)
The Persian Empire was now great with conquered territories throughout the ancient Near East, including the land of Israel. Under the Persian rule, Israel enjoyed a reasonable amount of freedom and peace.
King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra). Zerubbabel led the first group of 50,000 returning to the Land.
Without much wealth and with much opposition from local non-Jewish residents, the people returning from exile became discouraged. The Lord sent the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to encourage the people to get busy building the Temple. It took about twenty years to complete the rebuilding of the Temple. The restored temple marked the renewed Jewish life after the devastation of the exile. Unlike the first temple that was built by a great king, the second temple was built by the people themselves who were determined to keep it. (Neh 10:32-39).
In 458 BC, Ezra led a second group of about 2,000 back to the Land. In 445 BC, King Xerxes allowed Nehemiah to return to rebuild the city of Jerusalem despite opposition from some of the locals. After these and other delays, the temple was completed in 516/515 B.C.E, during the time of the Persian king Darius (525-486 B.C.E.). (read Ezra and Nehemiah for more details)
Greek Rule (333-323 BC)
Alexander the Great from Macedonia was probably the greatest military leader of all time. In 333 BC He defeated the mighty Persian army when he was only in his twenty’s. He believed he was the son of the Greek god Zeus. But died a sudden death in 323 BC at the age of thirty-three as a mere mortal. By the time Alexander died at age thirty-three in 323 B.C.E., he had conquered the entire area from Macedonia to India. Israel was part of this new empire.
Alexander’s policy was not to destroy the cities he conquered but to “Hellenize” them. To establish a Greek colony, Greek culture, Greek language, Greek philosophy, Greek gods and Greek practices, and that’s what he started in Jerusalem just before he died.
Ptolemy Dynasty (King of the South – 301-198 BC)
After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided among his generals who fought over the control of his empire. Ptolemy took control of Egypt and established the Ptolemaic dynasty. He was officially crowned in king in 305 BC. In Daniel 11, the Ptolemaic dynasty is called the “King of the South.”
Seleucid Dynasty (King of the North – 198-164 BC)
The Greek generals who succeeded Alexander and ruled from Syria were called the “Seleucids.” This is the “King of the North” mentioned in Daniel 11. Their dynasty was from 198-164 BC.
During this period, small Israel was caught in the middle and changed hands between the Ptolemaic Empire and the Seleucids five times. At that time the influence of Hellenism was still small in Jerusalem and allowed for a certain degree of Jewish autonomy, allowing the High Priest to maintain his the role in the affairs of Judea. In 201 BC the Seleucid king Antiochus III, invaded Judea and conquered it. By 198 BC the Seleucids gained complete control over Judea and Jerusalem.
With the rise of the son of Antiochus III, Antochus IV Epiphanes came to power (ruled from 175 BC until 164) and things changed for the worst for the Jews.
Antiochus’ ambition was to Hellenize all the territories under his rule, which included Israel and Jerusalem. He forbade the Jews to practice their ancient faith; like circumcision, observing the Sabbath, celebrating the feasts, keeping dietary laws, studying the Torah, or in any way worshipping God. The sanctuary in Jerusalem was desecrated and its name was changed to “Zeus Olympius”.
Antiochus erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple bearing his own image. He built a new altar to Zeus on which he offered a sacrificial pig. He then poured the pig’s blood over the Torah.
Antiochus built shrines and altars throughout the land and forced the people to make sacrifices to the Greek gods. Those who disobeyed were tortured or killed. Their bodies were mutilated, many were crucified. Babies who were circumcised were strangled and their mothers crucified with the dead bodies of their children wrapped around their necks.
The Maccabean Era (164-63 BC)
Unfortunately, many of the leaders in Israel embraced Hellenism. However, the ones faithful to God rebelled. The revolt started in 167 BC when one of the king’s officers erected a pagan altar and commanded the people to sacrifice a pig as a show of loyalty to Antiochus. The King’s officer ordered an elderly priest named Mattityahu the Hashmonai to be the first to obey in order to set an example for the rest of the town of Modi’in. But he refused and when another Jew was willing to do it, Mattityahu killed him and the king’s officer. He and his five sons fled into the hills, and Judah the Maccabee; one of Mattityahu’s sons took the lead to start the revolt against Antiochus and the Greek army. Judah’s brilliant tactics and the divine intervention of God, gave the Maccabees the victory over the Greek armies at Bet-Horon, Emmaus and finally at Mt. Zion. They captured the Temple in Jerusalem and in Dec. 164 BC, exactly three years after the altar to Zeus had been set up, the Temple in Jerusalem was cleansed, and sacrifices to God on a clean alter were resumed, as well as the other religious ceremonies. That rededication of the Temple is still commemorated each December as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
The Maccabees continue fighting the Greek army and had many additional victories in Gilead, Transjordan and Galilee. Eventually Judah Maccabee was defeated in one of the battles north of Jerusalem and was killed in 160 BC. He was buried in the family sepulcher in Modi’in. Jonathan, Judah’s brother succeeded him and the descendants of his brother Simeon became the leader of the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea.
The Hasmoneans reestablished Jewish sovereignty over Israel, with Jerusalem as the capital of the independent Jewish state. The Hasmonean dynasty maintained their independent rule for about 100 years from about 164-63 BC. It was during this time that the Sadducees and the Pharisees emerged along with other factions and groups, mentioned in the New Testament.
The Hasmonean descendants, who were from the tribe of Levy, appointed themselves also as kings. Their reign has been generalized as cruel and oppressive with never ending conflict. After the last queen died, her younger son Aristobulos rebelled against his older brother John Hyrcanus who was the rightful heir. The brothers met in battle near Jericho with Aristobulus gaining the victory. As the Hasmoneans were allies of the Romans, both brothers sent their delegates to the Roman general Pompey, who favored Hyrcanus over Aristobulus, considering the weaker older brother a more reliable ally of the Roman Empire.
In the fighting Pompey defeated the Jewish armies, and took the fortresses of Judea. It took him, however, three months to break through the fortifications of the Temple Mount and take control of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. In June, 63 BC, on a Sabbath, Pompey entered the most sacred place in the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Aristobulus and his sons Alexander and Antigonus were captured in 63 BC until Julius Caesar released them in 49 BC in order to turn Judea against Pompey.On his way back to Judea, Aristobulus was poisoned by Pompay’s men. His son Antigonus became king and high priest in 40 BC.
Antigonus and his supporters led a rebellion against the Romans in Jerusalem until the Romans took over the city and reached the inner courtyard of the Temple. Antigonus was taken to Antioch and executed, ending Hasmonean rule in Judea. .
Roman Rule (63 BC-312 AD)
Herod (37-4 BC)
There was a power struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar; Caesar emerged as the winner. He appointed a governor to keep watch over Judea, which became a Roman province. It was a son of an Idumean who had been forced to covert to Judaism, a man named Herod. After Caesar’s death, Cassius, Mark Antony and Octavian all struggled for control of the Roman Empire. They all kept Herod in power and eventually Rome appointed Herod King of Judea.
Herod had complete authority in the country’s internal affairs, and he used it ruthlessly. He established an enormous secret police force and brutally killed anyone suspected of plotting against him. He became one of the most powerful monarchs in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. A great admirer of Greco-Roman culture, Herod launched a massive construction program, which included the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste and the fortresses at Herodium and Masada. Herod was a very good administrator who was totally loyal to Rome. He built numerous monuments to Caesar and held festivals throughout the land which he dedicated to Caesar. Herod is best known for expanding the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a major building project he began in 20 BC and was not finished until 64 AD, many years after Herod had died. Herod’s expanded Temple was a magnificent structure and one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Herod appointed the High Priest to serve in the Temple regardless of his lineage or character. Most were servants who wouldn’t dare to oppose him. As a result, Temple administration and worship in the time of Jesus was very corrupt. The Sadducee priests in Jerusalem made a fortune from the Temple activities.
God chose this time and place to send His Son into the world. Yeshua/Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just 8 kilometers (5.5 miles) south of Jerusalem when Herod was king of Judea. On the 8th day after birth, Yeshua’s parents, Joseph and Miriam took baby Yeshua to be circumcised in the Temple and dedicated Him there. At age twelve they went up to Jerusalem for the holiday. Yeshua was found in the temple discussing Torah with the Rabbis. (Luke 2) for more of the events of Yeshua’s life, death and resurrection, read the Gospels in the New Testament. And for the events of the early body of believers, read the book of Acts
Herod ruled from 37-4 BC. From all we know about Herod, he was a charming, clever, cruel, paranoid, and an evil genius.
Before Herod died in 4 BC, he divided his kingdom among three of his sons. Archelaus (4 BC-6 AD) was given the area that included Judea and Samaria. This means he had to administer Jerusalem. He was an incompetent, unwise man who sought to rule by cruel force. Jews and Samaritans hated him. Augustus realized that Archelaus could never keep the peace and banished him from his position.
In 6 AD Augustus took direct Roman rule over Judea and Jerusalem and appointed Roman governors.
One of the most famous Roman governors was Pilate who was governor from 26-36 BC. Pilate was a cruel, cold-blooded, weak administrator. He executed prisoners without trials, slaughtered any group that he perceived as a threat, oppressed the residents of Jerusalem robbed the treasury of the Temple and mocked the Jews and their sacred Temple. God used Pilate to fulfill His divine plan of redemption of Israel and the word by offering His beloved Son to die on the cross for the sins of all humanity. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
After Yeshua’s death and resurrection at Passover, His disciples stayed in Jerusalem, as He instructed in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8, until they were endued with power from above, at Pentecost (Shavuot) when the Holy Spirit fell on them in the upper room (located in today’s old city of Jerusalem around the area of the Temple Mount.) The first church (body of believers in Yeshua) was established in Judah. The number of believers in Yeshua (mostly Jews) grew but were still a small minority among the other Jewish factions such as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Scribes. Judah was under Roman rule at that time.
As long as the Jews obeyed Roman law and paid their taxes, they enjoyed religious freedom and Jewish Temple worship. There was ongoing rebellious fighting from the militant Jewish Zealots against the Roman soldiers, which resulted in brutal acts by the Romans to enforce their rule and repress the rebellious attempts. There was also fighting between the Zealots and the local Jewish population as the Zealots would raid and rob their homes for food and supplies they needed.
Destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple
Vespasian, who was acclaimed Emperor in 69 A.D., left for Rome to secure his throne and gave his son Titus the responsibility for ending any Jewish civil war and rebellion against Rome. In April, 70 A.D, the Roman General Titus, with his legions began the siege of Jerusalem, and on the 10th of August, 70 A.D. (the 9th of Av of the Jewish calendar, the same day when the First Temple was destroyed by the king of Babylon in 586 B.C.) the Second Temple was destroyed as Titus set Jerusalem and the Temple on fire.
Jerusalem was devastated and the Holy Temple was totally destroyed, just as Yeshua had prophesied in Matt. 24:2 – not one stone was left upon another. When the Temple was set on fire the Roman soldiers tore apart the stone to get the melted gold. The temple treasury was robbed, the Menorah (Temple candelabra) and vessels were carried to Rome in triumph. Most of the Jews were taken captive to Rome.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 A.D. the second exile of the Jews from the Land of Judah began, and they were scattered throughout the earth. Some million Jews remained in the land in villages along the plains of Judah, growing crops and having small businesses. However, the burden of taxation to the Romans and the expropriation lands by the Romans choked from them any remaining of freedom, and frustration mounted. A generation later the sparks of revolt started to flare up again against Roman rule by a charismatic leader, Shimon Bar-Kochva (132-135A.D) who was backed by the famous religious leader Rabbi Akiva. At that time Hadrian was the Roman Emperor who decided to build up Jerusalem as a Roman city by the name of Colonia Aelia Capitolina, and build on the vacant Temple mount a Roman temple as part of his vision of a united Roman Empire.
Hadrien’s action aroused the anger of the Jews and caused ongoing rebellion against the Romans. In response, the Romans murdered large numbers of Jews in cities and communities. These murders sparked a larger scale rebellion led by Bar Kochva who massacred the famous 12th legion of the Roman army. Jerusalem was liberated for three years and Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Bar Kochva as the Messiah who was to deliver the Jewish people and build the new Temple. Bar Kochva started to establish a system of an alternative government by issuing coins and weights and measures for trade. One coin showed the facade of the Temple. Another showed an article from the Temple.
Hadrian, being a brilliant military commander, figured out the strategy of the Jews and within three years of fighting conquered Jerusalem again and killed Bar Kochva, who was pronounced by the Sanhedrin Rabbis as a false Messiah.
In Hadrian’s attempt to erase all traces of a Jewish city named Jerusalem as being connected with the Jews, renamed Jerusalem again Aelia Capitolina and Jews were forbidden to enter the city, including Jewish Christians. After the massacres, persecution and devastation and the exile of Jews by Hadrian and the Romans from the land of Israel and Judea, he also wanted to eradicate all traces of connection of the Jews to the Land of their forefathers, and renamed the land “Palestine” after the Philistines, an ancient enemy of Israel who occupied the southern coast area of Israel and no longer existed for more than 600 years.
Hadrian erected on the Temple Mount a temple to Jupiter and a statue of himself. (The next Emperor, Antonius Pius, added another statue.) Jews were allowed to enter the city and the Temple Mount only on memorial days to mourn the destruction of the Temple.
Although most of the nation was in exile from their Land, the Jews did not forget Jerusalem or the Temple Mount. Their daily prayer was for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The traditional Jewish prayer book contains the following passage:
Because of our sins we were exiled from our country and banished from our land. We cannot go up as pilgrims to worship You, to perform our duties in Your chosen house, the great and Holy Temple which was called by Your name, on account of the hand that was let loose on Your sanctuary. May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, merciful King, in Your abundant love again to have mercy on us and on Your sanctuary; rebuild it speedily and magnify its glory.
For the next two thousand years, while most of the Jewish people were in exile and the remaining Jews in the Land were not allowed to go up to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount was for the most part neglected and profaned. Though this time constituted a period of neglect some significant events concerning Jerusalem and the Temple Mount did occur…