Origins

With the blessing of the Persian king Cyrus, many Judeans would come back to Jerusalem to rebuild their Holy Temple anew under the leadership of the priest Ezra in 516 B.C.E. The Sanhedrin, the original body of legal interpreters began to construct the rough outlines of what would later become rabbinic Judaism by instituting the oral tradition in 444 B.C.E., a collection of ongoing oral interpretations of the written Torah received by Moses at Mt. Sinai. The later Pharisees or "interpreters" of the 1st century B.C.E. would go further by claiming that one cannot understand the written law without consulting the parallel "oral law" that was also believed to be transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai by God.

The conquest of Alexander the Great brought the Persian era to an end in 333 B.C.E., ushering in the Greco-Roman period in which there was a process of Hellenization, or infusion of Greek culture into Judean society, reflected at the popular level with the introduction of a common language, dress, and schools. Yet Judean assimilation into Greek culture even occurred at the institutional level with different priestly families competing for the position of High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple based on how much tribute they could give the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings of the Greek empire to sanction their office.

The worst offender was Menelaus who embezzled funds and stole sacred vessels from the Temple treasury to pay debts to the Seleucid King Antiochus, even dedicating the Jerusalem Temple to the Greek god Zeus. This political and religious corruption ignited a civil war between the Maccabee traditionalists and the Hellenized reformers, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, a brief return to autonomous Jewish self-rule. Yet the Judean political and religious infighting would continue through the 1st century B.C.E., when the Romans took over Judea and appointed Herod, an Idumean (from Edom) convert to be King and High Priest over the Judeans in 40 B.C.E.

During this period of extreme religious and political instability, the Pharisees were one of three major groups vying for the mantle of divine truth, separating themselves from the priestly Sadducees who denied the legitimacy of the oral law largely to preserve their own political and religious authority. The Essenes further distanced themselves from a Judean society that they saw as tainted by the material world, opting for an ascetic existence near the Dead Sea.

It was in this volatile mix of first century C.E. Judean subcultures that Jesus of Nazareth most likely lived and preached, demonstrating a clear affinity for the teachings of the Pharisees. Unfortunately this theological and discursive volatility contributed to social and political instability, which the Romans would not tolerate. This further Roman intervention in Judean society sparked the "Great Revolt" in the years 66-70 C.E., which catastrophically lead to the destruction of the Second Temple, exile, and the inevitable fragmentation of Judean culture.

The rabbis of the 2nd century attempted to fill the religious and political void left in the wake of the destruction by pragmatically introducing three changes in the Jewish worldview with both religious and political implications. First, they reinterpreted the oral law of their pharisaic predecessors by arguing that all future interpretations of the Torah were already transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai, thus legitimizing their new role as the authoritative interpreters of their generation. Next, they proclaimed that the age of prophecy had been replaced by Torah study, in effect democratizing Jewish communication to God. Finally, they taught that following the destruction of the Second Temple, God had actually gone into exile with God's people. In a sense, with the loss of Jewish power, God allowed divine power to somehow be diminished in order to suffer with the Jewish people, ultimately leaving room for the rabbis to assume a more active political as well as religious role in the world.

With these three innovations, the rabbis built a bridge between Judean culture and what became classical Judaism by preserving the Jewish connection to Israelite religion while at the same time extending it to further generations.


Study Questions:
1.     Why is patriarchy important to Judaism's history?
2.     What do Judaism's literary motifs reveal about its status?
3.     What is the role of covenant in Judaism?
4.     Who was Abraham? Jacob?
5.     Describe the relationship between politics and the Jewish Temple.

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