Short History of the Jews

From its earliest history, the Jewish religion has been characterized by monotheism, adherence to a body of written scriptures, called the law, dietary and food restrictions, a deliberate separation from non-Jews, and fractious dissent within and among the different Jewish communities. The Jews' long and complicated history encompasses several periods of domination by political overlords who, to some extent, seem always to have recognized Judaism as a religio licita, "tolerated religion": the Persian Empire from 539 to 333 B.C.E., the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great from 333 to 320 B.C.E., the Seleucid Empire from 320 to 140 B.C.E., and the Parthian period from 140 B.C.E. to 226 C.E. The Roman period overlapped with the Seleucid and the Parthian empires and extended from 163 B.C.E. to 132 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.

For centuries, Judaism and the Hellenism of Alexander the Great and his successors' kingdoms were assimilated and polarized in mutual exchanges. Hellenism, as it appeared in Old Testament accounts, was a derogatory term and referred particularly to those customs that contravened Jewish law, especially the Hellenic athletic pursuits practiced at the gymnasium. In 2 Macc 4.14-15, the Jewish priests were criticized for neglecting the Temple sacrifices to participate in unlawful athletic exercises like discus throwing. This "craze for Hellenism" as it was called in Maccabees not only reflected the Jews' resentment of their foreign domination but also provided the first strong ancient example of the antagonism between personal and civic religious obligations. Jewish monotheism was not compatible with any polytheistic traditional religions and it forbade the worship of the Roman emperor. Nonetheless, in the Temple in Jerusalem the Jews willingly offered a daily sacrifice for the well being of the emperor.

Despite their long resistance to foreign rulers, the different Semitic communities throughout Palestine did not form a homogeneous religious entity. There were many different groups who worshipped the Jewish Yahweh and they variously resisted, accommodated, and mixed with their fellow Jews. There were several sects of Jews with sharp discrepancies in degrees of Hellenization: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and the Qumran community. The Sadducees and Pharisees were priests and lay religious leaders who differed acrimoniously in their interpretation of Mosaic law: the Sadducees were realists, therefore collaborationists, who trusted only the written scripture, called the Torah; the Pharisees, in addition to the Torah, also honored laws handed down by oral tradition and they believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. The Essenes were an ascetic sect who lived outside of the urban Judaism of Jerusalem. Akin to the Essenes was the Qumran ascetic community, known by the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered on the northern shore of the Dead Sea in 1947.

In addition to these sects, there were class distinctions among the various Semitic communities. By and large the priestly class was wealthier, better educated, and more likely to collaborate with their Hellenized rulers. This kind of collusion ensured social mobility and financial security, and it was the primary riff in the separation between the Hellenizing Jews and the traditionalists in Jerusalem. Four families—the Oniads, Simonites, Tobiads, and Maccabees—contended through the Hellenistic period for the high priesthood and were (at different times depending upon who was in power) pro-Seleucid, pro-Ptolemaic, traditionalists, or Hellenizers (to different degrees).

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