Persian and Hellenistic Periods (538–142 b.c.e.)
In the sixth century b.c.e., the Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple, and while some did, most remained in the Diaspora. In 538, an estimated 40,000–50,000 repatriates embarked on the First Return, led by Zerubabel, a descendant of the house of David, to create the second Jewish commonwealth.
The Temple was rebuilt between 520 and 515. Less than a century later, in about 450, the Second Return was led by Ezra the Scribe. Over the next four centuries, the Jews knew varying degrees of self-rule under Persian (538–333) and later Hellenistic (Ptolemaic and Seleucid) control (332–142).
The repatriation of the Jews, Ezra’s inspired leadership, the rebuilding of the Temple, the refortification of Jerusalem’s walls, and the establishment of the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly) as the supreme religious and judicial body of the Jewish people marked the beginning of the second commonwealth (Second Temple period). Within the confines of the Persian Empire, Judah was a nation centered in Jerusalem, whose leadership was entrusted to the high priest and the Council of Elders.
In 332, Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and ended its rule over Judah. After he died, his generals divided the empire. In 301, Ptolemy I took direct control of the Jewish homeland. Ptolemy’s successors were replaced by the Seleucids. Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes) seized power in 175 and launched a campaign against Judaism.
In the course of the Hellenistic period, the Syrian-based Seleucid rulers prohibited the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Second Temple in 167 in an effort to impose Greek-oriented culture and customs on the entire population. In response, the Jews rose in rebellion (166), led at first by Mattathias of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty and upon his death by his son, Judah, known as the Maccabee.
The latter won a number of victories against the Seleucid army, the Temple was purified, and freedom of worship was restored (164). These events are celebrated each year during the Festival of Hanukkah (the Feast of Lights).