The Persians and First-Century Judaism

For those interested in Second-Temple Judaism and the religious tradition that Jesus knew first hand, you’ll be interested in the collaborative project ongoing between Lester Grabbe (of the University of Hull) and T&T Clark, “A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period.” Volumes One and Two are out (covering the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods respectively; that is from the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians in 587/6BC to the end of the rule of Antiochus IV in 175BCE).  The final two volumes are forthcoming (with publication dates to be announced).

Grabbe’s work is comprehensive, focused on primary texts, and includes archeological data as well.  Though I might wish for a more robust portrayal of the era, Grabbe offers a substantial (though cautious) reconstruction of the period that would sometimes will sit well with many who would link scripture’s portrayal of events with how things actually happened; he believes there is reality to be critically engaged with and events which can be accessed with the correct tools.  At stake here are the admittedly-conflicting stories which Ezra-Nehemiah tell, but also a larger understanding of the seeds planted in the Persian Period, which flower in the Judaism of the first-century.  (I might take this moment to point to the dueling blog series between Peter Enns and Michael Kruger  and their respective tribes, on the nature of scripture and history).  Even if you don’t agree with Grabbe’s conclusions, and I would consider much more of the biblical accounts as historical, this resource helpfully gathers the primary texts and serves as a nice sounding board for more robust retellings of the history.

Here are some of Grabbe’s interesting conclusions to Volume One:

In spite of the many gaps in our knowledge, we have more than enough data to recognize that the Persian period was one of the most crucial in the hisotry of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.  It is not because Cyrus personally issued a decree authorizing–or even requiring–a rebuilding of the temple and permitting a return of exiles.  It is not because Zerubbabel and Joshua led a mass return from the exile to an empty land.  It is not because Darius paid for the temple cult and warned Judah’s enemies not to interfere.  It is not because Ezra and Nehemiah came as Judah’s enemies not to interfere.  It is not because Ezra and Nehemiah came as reformers to purify the community and cult from sin and evil practices.  It is not because Mordechai and Queen Esther saved the Jewish community from extinction.  It is not because Jews were in high office or Persian kings lavished the Jews with wealth and favourable decrees over and above all other peoples of the empire.

The Persian period is important for the Jews because at that time the Jews were not important.  Yehud was a small, backward province with a rural subsistence economy…The Persian period was important because it was a day of small things.  Its accomplishments were not of might nor power but of the spirit…

By the end of the Persian period this ‘lawbook’, made up of the Pentateuch, Joshua to 2 Kings, the prophetic books, and some other writings, had gained a certain authority and began the long process of becoming a religious canon. Not of the other peoples of the Persian empire probably noticed, including the Persian overlords.  This was one of the ‘small things’, so vital for later Judaism, to which the Persian period gave birth.”  A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period. V1, 359-60.


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