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Scrolls By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, we thought of Zion.

Psalm 137:1

The ancient world saw the successive rise and fall of empires. From the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century CE, the Land of Israel was conquered first by the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. Each empire incorporated the strategically located land into its own domain and left an indelible mark on Judaism and the history of the Jews.

The Persians began their expansion under Cyrus, who in 539 BCE put an end to the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus permitted the exiled Jews to return to the sub-province of Judea (consisting of Jerusalem and its environs) and to reestablish the Temple. According to some historians, it was during this time that the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) may have been completed and canonized as sacred scripture.

During the 5th century BCE, the Athenians tried to build their own empire on the Aegean Sea. Although the Athenian empire was one of the smallest and shortest-lived of the ancient states, it made some of the most significant contributions to Western culture. Athens was home to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and to the great tragic playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The defeat of the Athenians in 404 BCE at the hands of a league of other Greek city-states led to the birth of a Greek, or more accurately, Hellenistic Empire. The Greek Macedonians, led first by Philip II, and subsequently by his son Alexander, conquered virtually all of the territories formerly held by the Persians, including Judea.

At the end of the 3rd century BCE, the Hellenized rulers of Syria known as the Seleucids wrested control of Judea from the Ptolemys, the Hellenized rulers of Egypt. Once again the political affairs of the Jews were thrown into turmoil. The second of the Seleucid rulers of Judea was the infamous Antiochus IV, during whose reign Judaism came under attack. Judah the Maccabee led a revolt in 164 BCE and full Jewish sovereignty was established in Judea in 140 BCE. For close to a century the Hasmonean dynasty, founded by Judah’s brothers, ruled the Judean state.

While the Hellenistic dynasties dominated western Asia and Egypt, the Romans began to form an empire in Italy and the western Mediterranean. By 288 BCE, they controlled most of the Italian peninsula. The Roman empire continued to expand throughout the next two centuries, eventually defeating all of the Hellenistic powers. In the faction-torn independent Judean state, a battle for succession in the year 63 BCE provided a pretext for the eventual establishment of Roman rule over Judea. That rule was to last, in one form or another, until the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE.

The confrontation between Jews and Romans in the first two centuries of the common era (CE) was a bloody and tragic chapter in Jewish history. The most fateful event was the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Paradoxically, this cataclysm unleashed powerful creative forces within Judaism. In response to the challenge, Jews fashioned legal and theological foundations for Judaism that have lasted to the present day.


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