Jews Return from the Babylonian Captivity

Cyrus the Great’s program of encouraging local religious cults allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, and codify their religious practices.

Summary of Event

The four centuries of Jewish history from 586 until 166 b.c.e. constituted a period of physical weakness but of religious growth and strength. The very destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the nation encouraged the author of Second Isaiah to reach such a lofty concept as the universality of God. Cyrus the Great

The return from the Babylonian exile was made possible by an edict of Cyrus the Great in 538 b.c.e., which gave evidence of his appreciation for local autonomy and for the cultural and religious integrity of his peoples. The books of Chronicles record that 42,360 Jews with their servants returned under the combined leadership of the prince Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua. The numbers appear to be exaggerated when compared to those suggested by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, who imply that the community was weak and struggling. To develop a new central shrine, a second temple was built and completed, probably by 516. Though not as large or grandiose as that of Solomon, it stood as a symbol of triumph and hope to a revived Judaism until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e.

The returned exiles, however, had their problems. First of all, Zerubbabel, a legitimate descendant of David, plotted to reestablish the old dynasty. Taking advantage of the death of Cyrus the Great’s son Cambyses II, with its consequent turmoil and open rebellion in the Persian Empire, he established himself as king in Jerusalem, but was either executed or deported.

Once the exuberance of the return had passed, the Jews were faced with the harsh realities of the situation. Palestine was agriculturally poor and isolated from trade routes. On to this mixed scene of joy and despair appeared first Nehemiah and then Ezra, presumably in that order because Nehemiah seems to set the stage for Ezra. Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes I, requested permission to go to Jerusalem as governor to help his coreligionists struggling to adjust to Palestine. The temple had been rebuilt, but it had been as quickly defiled, the Sabbath was regularly desecrated with commercial activities, and the city’s defenses were in disrepair. Intensive work enabled Nehemiah to rebuild the city’s walls and consequently to guarantee the integrity of the Jewish cult by isolating his people from their neighbors, including even the Samaritans, despite the fact that under the leadership of Sanballat they had sought some political and religious rapprochement with the Jews. Disregarding considerable intermarriage between the two groups, Nehemiah preferred to exclude the Samaritans as a mixed people, even going to the length of trying to separate couples who had intermarried. To thwart religious syncretism and to maintain a pure Yahwism, Nehemiah would unify only those Jews who, because of their experiences in the exile, were highly motivated religiously.

Hoping to solidify Nehemiah’s program, Ezra, a scribe, established the Law of the Pentateuch as the politico-religious constitution of the Jews. This official promulgation of the law, tantamount to its canonization as the first part of the Hebrew Scriptures, was the first important effort since the Deuteronomic reform of Josiah, king of Judah, to establish the Jewish community on the basis of the written word of God. Ezra’s dispensation fixed the basis for Judaism so effectively that normative Judaism continued to develop as a legalistic and exclusive community for the next thousand years.

The only vindication for the parochialism of both Nehemiah and Ezra is its desire to enable biblical faith to prosper in a protected environment. A new type of optimistic prophecy encouraged men such as Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Third Isaiah, and Joel, who labored in turn by emphasizing the temple, institutional reform, and the cult to provide a religious structure which could replace the crumbled political order. Concern for social justice and for a universal worship of God took second place.

The Jews maintained their peaceful isolation during virtually the whole Persian period, not even participating in the sole rebellion of the Syro-Palestinian provinces, that of the Phoenician cities in 351 b.c.e. Except for the abortive aspirations of Zerubbabel, the Jews devoted themselves to internal affairs, mainly the purification of Judaism and the maintenance of the law as the undisputed cornerstone of the community. The solidity and depth of this reformed Judaism was soon to be tested by the impact of Hellenism, which came with the Greek conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century.


Although the return from the exile is remembered among Jews as a reinstatement of the kingdom that had been lost, there were significant differences in the way in which Judaism was re-formed during this period. The program itself emphasized a studied hostility on the part of Jews toward alien life in general and justified their reaction against the outside world as a means to restore their own peculiar life and renew the conditions of the past.

This conservative course based on institutionalized religion was decisive in determining the future. Jewish leaders rejected the extreme proposals of Ezekiel, including the restoration of the kingdom with a descendant of Jehoiachim, the eighteenth king of Judah, on the throne, allotting equal portions of land to the twelve tribes (Jews of the dispersion) to unify them, and placing the temple and the priests outside the capital. He would have new laws for priestly temple service as well as new royal obligations to the cult. The new leaders chose instead to reinstate an ancient Levitical (Old Testament) law. Yet because conditions were different, some changes in the cult had to be made. The injunction of appearing in Jerusalem three times each year was quietly dropped because of the widespread Jewish dispersion. An offering sent to the temple would suffice. The temple with an elaborate priesthood and liturgy became a symbol of unity for a people bent solely on enriching their relationship with God.

Although all those developments gave a raison d’être to the life of the scattered nation, they still offered little opportunity for personal involvement. This gap between corporate and individual life was bridged by the development of an elaborate scheme of penitential atonement, an arrangement that tied the individual Jew to both God and the temple through sacrifices as means of justification. In this intensified ritual system, sin itself became chiefly ceremonial defilement rather than moral transgression as in the Mosaic and prophetic systems. However, this religion of outward forms and signs succeeded in enabling the Jews to sense quickly in a visible way any invading influences from their heathen surroundings. Sabbath observance and circumcision naturally assumed new importance in distinguishing Jews from the polyglot population of the Palestine to which the exiles returned. Although such stressing of the outward signs of nationality caused the faith to lose some of its prophetic universalism, the times called for a Judaism more interested in preserving itself than in enlightening the world.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Jeff S. The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. An overview of the developments in Judaism in the postexilic period.
  • Davies, W. D., and Louis Finkelstein, eds. Introduction: The Persian Period and The Hellenistic Age. Vols. 1 and 2 in The Cambridge History of Judaism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990-1999. A thorough history of the development of Judaism during the exile and postexilic period; looks especially at the interrelationships between Judaism and surrounding cultures and religions.
  • Grabbe, Lester L. Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from the Exile to Yavneh. New York: Routledge, 2000. This overview gives both a chronological account of the evolution of Judaism and discussion of thematic topics.
  • Hjelm, Ingrid. Samaritans and Early Judaism. Sheffield, England: Sheffield University Press, 2001. Discusses the questions of Jewish relationship to Samaritans, which was a fulcrum in Jewish postexilic self-definition. Includes a bibliography, index of references, and index of authors.
  • Shanks, Herschel, ed. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. 2d ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999. This history of Israel, edited by the editor of The Biblical Archaeology Review, includes separate chapters on the major eras of Judaism, including one on the period of exile and return. Maps, charts, illustrations, color plates, and bibliography.

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Cyrus the Great; David; Ezra; Isaiah; Solomon. Jews;return from Babylonian captivity