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The Second Temple – Beginnings

Original Date
October 3, 2009

Rebuilding the Temple

According to biblical sources, there were successive waves of Jewish repatriation under Persian rule. The first was led by Sheshbazzar, the son of King Jehoiachin, who had been taken into captivity in 597 BCE (Sheshbazzar is called Shenazzar in 1 Chronicles 3:18). This first return occurred not long after 539 BCE, when Cyrus conquered Babylon and subsequently issued a decree that provided for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple (Ezra 1:1–11). Sheshbazzar was entrusted with the Temple vessels (Ezra 1:7–8, 5:14–15) and is reported to have laid the foundation for the rebuilt Temple (Ezra 5:16).The rebuilding of the Temple becomes a centerpiece of the Book of Haggai and First Zechariah (chapters 1–8), which presumes that this took place in the time of Zerubbabel (520 BCE), the son of Shealtiel and grandson of Jehoiachin. The nature of the actual work done at the time of the first return, however, remains a mystery. No figures are given for those who returned under Sheshbazzar; it was at best a modest and unpretentious beginning.

A major wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel, and by the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak, apparently during the early years of the administration of Darius (522–486 BCE; see Ezra 2:2, 3:2, 8, 4:2–3, 5:1–2; Nehemiah 7:7, 12:1, 47; Haggai 1:1, 2:2; Zechariah 3:1–4:14). A census of the returnees, who numbered 42,360 people, plus 7,337 servants and 200 singers, is given in Ezra 2:1–67 and Nehemiah 7:6–73.

Zerubbabel and Joshua apparently first established an altar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and then began to construct the Temple in the second year of Darius’s reign (520 BCE). The foundations of the Second Temple were laid on December 18, 520 BCE to much fanfare and celebration. The involvement of Zerubbabel as a key player in the actual refoundation ceremony no doubt caused intense messianic expectation; he was hailed by Haggai as “servant” and “signet” (Haggai 2:23) and by Zechariah as “my servant the Branch [or shoot]” (Zechariah 3:8). The Temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius (516 BCE), with the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the support of the Persian court, despite strong local resistance (Ezra 6:1–15).

This repatriation and restoration should be understood against the background of Darius’s career. When Darius came to power in 522 BCE, he suppressed rebellions throughout his realm, including revolts in Babylon led by Nebuchadnezzar III (522 BCE) and Nebuchadnezzar IV (521 BCE). Darius also reorganized the satrapies and provinces and the command of the armies. He introduced imperial coinage, a road and postal system, and royal building projects. The return of the Jewish exiles and the appointment of Zerubbabel as governor over Judah was part of Darius’s reform of the empire’s political structure.

Though some of Zerubbabel’s supporters saw in these circumstances the opportunity for the restoration of monarchy under Davidic rule, the majority of Judahites clearly understood that the dual leadership of priest and governor was the only form of local rule that would be tolerated by the Persians. The dual messianic sentiments concerning Zerubbabel expressed by the prophet Zechariah (“and he will bear royal majesty, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. A priest will be on his throne, and there will be peaceful counsel between the two of them” [Zechariah 6:13]) unequivocally express the eschatological hopes of the community that were acceptable to the Persians.

It is commonly thought that Darius removed Zerubbabel from office because of the messianic claims that were supported by those who wanted to reinstate the office of kingship. But there is no evidence of this. The argument is based primarily on the low state of Jewish affairs at the next wave of immigration and on the silence of our sources concerning Zerubbabel after the Temple construction began. It is not clear whether he was still in office in 516 BCE, when the work was completed. But Zerubbabel was not the only person in the post-Exilic history of Ezra-Nehemiah who vanished from the scene without explanation. True, Zerubbabel was no ordinary figure; he was the last active claimant to the Davidic throne of whom we have knowledge from the Hebrew Scriptures. Naturally, we speculate on what may have happened to him. But the evidence for any clear conclusion is absent.

Equally intriguing, and subject to speculation, is the figure of Joshua, the high priest who led the return with Zerubbabel. He receives as much attention as Zerubbabel (perhaps even more) in Zechariah 3–6. He and Zerubbabel are linked together as “the two anointed who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14). Joshua’s authority was focused primarily on religious affairs; the coronation scene in Zechariah 3 underscores his significance at the center of the Temple. Whether or not his working relationship with Zerubbabel survived the rededication of the Temple, the pattern of leadership involving a high priest and governor survived for many years to come.


Unfortunately, Judah’s Samaritan neighbors sought to influence the Persians to limit the development of the renascent Jewish community. Initially, “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (that is, the rulers of Samaria) offered to assist Zerubbabel in rebuilding the Temple of Yahweh, claiming that they too were worshipers of the Hebrew God and had been since they were settled in the land by the Assyrians. Zerubbabel rebuffed the Samaritans’ proffered assistance, however, and this led to their harassing the returning Judahites through correspondence with Persian officials (Ezra 5:1–6:18).

The Yahwistic inhabitants of what was formerly Israel, whose help Zerubbabel rejected, were descendants of Syrian-Mesopotamians. After the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 BCE, they sent colonists to settle the district. These Syrian-Mesopotamian colonists subsequently adopted the religion of the land (2 Kings 17:24–41). The biblical writers explain the hostility of the Samaritans, as these people came to be known, as resulting from the petty jealousy of a people whose mixed ethnic background and syncretistic Yahwism precluded participation in a renewed Jewish cult. It is not difficult to see the political agenda, however, in strained relations between the peoples of these two regions. We are told that the “people of the land discouraged the people of Judah” throughout the reign of Cyrus (that is, from 539 to 530 BCE) to the time of Darius I, during the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes, 486–465 BCE), and in the days of Artaxerxes I (465–424 BCE; Ezra 4:4–23).

Despite the opposition of the Samaritans, the appointment of a Davidic scion (Zerubbabel), who was raised in Babylonia, with the support and full knowledge of the Achaemenid leadership was a stroke of political genius. It was also consistent with Persia’s overall policy of installing loyal representatives of the conquered indigenous populations who could prevent insurrection and foster loyalty to the imperial throne. Pairing the Davidic Zerubbabel with Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, as high priest was a move meant to assuage local concerns and give the newly established sub-province of Yehud (Judah) maximum freedom in invigorating its historic religion while limiting autonomy on the political level. The relative success of such an approach is best observed through the absence of organized opposition to Persia for at least two generations or more. The negative aspect of this was the apparent increase in the appeal of non-Yahwist religious practices in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Nonetheless, recent scholarship has attributed to the Persian period an unprecedented flurry of literary activity that surely found its support and inspiration in the reestablished Jewish community of Palestine.


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Babylon and the Second Temple Period

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