Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Under Persian Sway.

The story covered by the early dates in this table is not yet post-Biblical. It is already told in the later Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah i-viii. The history of this volume begins with the close of the life-work of these men.

The restoration of the Jews to Judea did not materialize as gloriously as Isaiah of Babylon had prefigured in his sublime addresses (Isaiah xl-xlvi.) Life's realizations very often disappoint their anticipations. Cyrus, the Persian king, opened the door; but only a poor remnant returned to a poor land. Even then, enemies made their appearance, envious of the royal grant, and plotted against their welfare. So it took many years to rebuild the Temple and many more to rebuild Jerusalem and to reorganize a new community. This service we owe to Nehemiah.

Political Silence.

After the chronicle of Nehemiah's service in placing the Jewish settlement on a working basis, we are told hardly anything more of the doings of Israel in this epoch. Either there was no further historic incident of the Jews under Persian sway, or it has never been told. There is a silence of about a hundred years after the last chapter of Nehemiah, which is, roughly speaking, the last chapter of Jewish history in the Bible. One reason for this silence of course, is that the Jews had no separate political life. They were a subject people; their State was gone. What there is to tell can be disposed of in a few sentences.

We perhaps infer from the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah that they suffered during the campaigns of the two Artaxerxes against Egypt. We know that some were banished to the Caspian Sea because they were implicated in a wide-spread insurrection against the fast declining Persia, instigated by the different peoples settled around the Mediterranean shore. We are told further that an upstart named Bagoas heavily taxed the Jews and made a quarrel over the priesthood an excuse to desecrate their Temple.

That is really all. When this intriguer attempted to place his own candidate on the Persian throne the knell had been rung. Persia's days were numbered. Like its Babylonian predecessor, it had been "weighed in the balance and found wanting." The Greek forces of Alexander were advancing and about the year 332 the Persian dynasty, founded by Cyrus—let us say "The Great"—passed away.

Religious Activity.

But silent though the period was in external doings, it was a stirring time in Israel for what we might call the experience of the soul. When we turn to the religious life of the Jews, the epoch, apparently so barren, is full of significance. Great achievements are here disclosed behind the historian's silence.

To tell the religious story, we must go back to Ezra again—the Ezra who came to Judea with the second group of Babylonian exiles and who revived the religious life of the community (People of the Book, vol. iii, ch. xxxiv), was the father of the Scribes. A scribe was not merely, as the name might imply, one who copied the writings of others, but one who expounded them. The Pentateuch, which contains many codes of law in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, came to be called "the Law" as a whole. (Torah.) We shall learn how this term later came to include the vaster code that was gradually deduced from these Biblical books. In fact, from now on, Judaism is interpreted as law.

How did it happen that the Jewish religion was accepted by its observers as a Law? In ancient times Religion and State were one. There was not that division between sacred affairs and secular that we are familiar with to-day. Duty to God and the King were allied; patriotism merged into piety. Hence the Pentateuch contains laws touching civil as well as spiritual relations, and regulates affairs both secular and sacred. For example, it contains laws about kings, servants, agriculture, war, food, dress, courts of justice, loans, inheritance, in fact every need that arose in the civilization of the time. It contains the Decalogue, regulations for festivals and sacrificial worship, duties to the poor, the stranger, the dumb animal, the code of Holiness (Levit. xvii-xxvii), and exhortations to noble living. It is beautiful to notice how the moral pervades the secular and gives to all a sanctifying touch.

Thus the scribes of this latter day had to interpret Scripture for the daily affairs of public life as well as for the regulation of the holy seasons and the religious ceremonial in Israel's semi-independent state. So the Sanhedrin (a Greek word), a body of seventy members, was both a House of Legislature and an ecclesiastical council. It numbered 70 like the Council of Elders appointed by Moses (Exodus xxiv, 1).

Thus it happened when all political power was taken, from the Jews, the presentation of religion through the forms of law very naturally survived.

There is yet another reason for Judaism being interpreted as Law, which touches the genius of Judaism. Judaism has always been less a faith to be confessed than a life to be lived. The emphasis was laid on deed rather than on dogma, on law rather than creed. We shall later see that it was on this very distinction that Christianity broke away from the parent religion to become a separate Faith.

The reduction of religion to law had its abuses as well as its excellences. It led to the multiplication of ceremonials. The laws of ritual cleanliness, especially for the priests and of Sabbath observance, were very voluminous and very minute. Perhaps too much importance was laid on minor detail; there was little room for voluntary and spontaneous action. On the other hand, too much freedom in religious observance has its dangers and pitfalls too. At its best the Jewish Law tended to sanctify every act of life and to bring the humblest obligation into relationship with God. But whenever a religion crystallizes into an institution, as it inevitably must, the spirit occasionally gets lost in the form. Then it becomes the function of the prophet to bring back the emphasis to religion's vital issues.

Priest and Synagogue.

A further word on the religious life of post-exilic Israel. We must remember at the start that Judea was a colony subject to Persia, but enjoyed complete autonomy in the management of its internal affairs. The head of the community was the High Priest. He not only regulated all functions in the Temple (the religious centre), but because religion and government could not be entirely separated, as explained above, he exercised secular power too. As the high-priesthood became a hereditary office it acquired quite a royal distinction. This regal splendor and "temporal" power in the High Priest's hands were to cause Israel much woe later and became one of the causes of its downfall.

Distinct from the Temple, Houses of Prayer were springing up, called Synagogues. The Synagogue gradually developed a distinct ritual, and Sabbath readings from the Pentateuch and the Prophets became a permanent institution. This is treated in fuller detail in chapter xxv.

The religious activities and conditions here described were not limited to the Persian era, but continued in the Greek period that immediately followed.

A word about the literature of this Second-Temple or post-exilic epoch. The most important of the later Biblical books are ascribed to it, notably the Holy Writings, specified below.

It was further the time of literary activity in editing Bible books already written and deducing new law from Scripture. But nothing of the Prophetic style of writing appeared. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were the last, and already we miss in them the earlier Prophetic grandeur. Ah, the days of prophecy were over! There were no more great names. But there was a general body called "Men of the Great Synagogue." "Synagogue" does not here mean House of Worship, but a Council of Scholars, consisting of 120 members. Under this title some noble masters of the Law contributed splendid literary service, satisfied to sink their identity in this general term.

The Bible Canon.

A sacred collection of writings, accepted as books of authority on religious life is called a Canon, a Greek word meaning rule. The task of deciding what was worthy to be admitted into the Canon of the Hebrew Scripture was a task of great responsibility. Nor was it completed at one time. Begun by the Men of the Great Synagogue, its final completion was postponed until nearly a century after the Christian era.

The Bible Books were placed in three groups, namely: Law, Prophets, Holy Writings. This sequence marked both the order of their importance in rabbinic estimate and to some extent, the sequence of their production. 1st, The Law consists of the five books of the Pentateuch, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2d, The Prophets fall into two groups: (a) the Former Prophets, comprising the historical books—Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, illustrative of the divine guidance of Israel; (b) the Later Prophets, the Prophetic Books proper: the three largest, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; the twelve smaller Prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. 3rd, The Hagiographa (Holy Writings), was a miscellaneous collections of Scriptures, some written very late indeed. It included Psalms, Proverbs, Job; five little books called Megilloth (Scrolls): Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther; Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and First and Second Chronicles.

These were doubtless selected from the larger library of Jewish literature only after long discussion. All were well weighed before being admitted into this sacred Canon. Some of those not chosen are doubtless lost. Some found their way into another collection, known as the Apocrypha, to be considered later.

Enough is assuredly indicated here to show that the post-exilic epoch was not a time of empty silence, but one of tremendous activity—one of the most fruitful literary periods in our history.


Persian Influence:—Persian ideas unconsciously exercised their influence on Jews living under Persian rule. As a result, conceptions of the future life and retribution beyond the grave became more definite than in their earlier Biblical presentation; the belief in angels and evil spirits received further development.

Judaism as Law:—That Israel laid small stress on creed is further proved by the late date of the formulation of any articles of faith. Even the thirteen creeds of Maimonides (see History Medieval Jews, p. 157), were drawn up rather to differentiate Judaism from Christianity and Mohammedanism, than to explain its teachings to Jews.

Israel's detractors say that Judaism interpreted as Law tended to blur moral distinctions. This is a superficial and erroneous inference, for it quite as often re-inforced them and prevented temporizing with duty.

Read "The Law and Recent Criticism," in the eleventh volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review (London, Macmillan) in reply to a criticism against Judaism as Law; Montefiore, "Bible for Home Reading," vol. ii, pages 12-18, on the Law; Hibbert Lectures, 1892, Montefiore, parts of chapters vi and ix on the Scriptures. Introduction Literature of the Old Testament. Driver, (Scribner.)

Bible Books:—The order of the Bible Books in the Septuagint, which order is followed by all Church translations of the Bible, differs from the Hebrew order, as follows: 1st, the Writings precede the Prophets. 2d, Ruth, Lamentations, Daniel and Chronicles are taken from the Writings and placed as follows: Ruth after Judges, Lamentations after Jeremiah, Daniel after Ezekiel, Chronicles after Kings. 3d, Job precedes Psalms.

Theme for discussion:—Discuss the relation between Judaism as law, and Mendelssohn's statement that "Judaism is not a revealed religion, but a revealed legislation." See Modern Jewish History, p. 78.