As well as a significant historical period in its own right, and in the history of Judaism, it is also relevant in studying the life of Jesus, since the historical background of Jesus is the history of the Jewish people leading up to the 1st century CE. Many concepts and factions that are relevant to the understanding of the historical Jesus date back a thousand years or more before his birth.
In the 1st century, when Jesus was supposed to have lived, most Jews were impoverished and politically marginalized. Various Jewish elites and social movements, grappling with both their own heterogeneous beliefs and practices and Hellenistic culture, and in competition for secular and religious power, argued over religious and politically significant issues such as the status of the Temple in Jerusalem, laws and values embodied in sacred scriptures, the restoration of a monarchy, Jewish sovereignty, and the Kingdom of God. These institutions and issues had their origins some centuries earlier, around 1000-586 BCE, in the so-called "First Temple Era".
In ancient Israel, as in most societies at that time, the priesthood was closely tied with the monarchy. According to the Hebrew Bible, the first Israelite king was Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, although the tribe of Judah anointed Saul's protegeé and son-in-law, David as their own king after Saul's and his son's death in the battle with the Philistines (). After David reigned over Judah seven years and six months, he became king of all the tribes of Israel for thirty-three years ().
According to the Hebrew Bible, God told the prophet Nathan of his love for David and his descendants, and had Nathan convey these assurances to David:
The religious authority of the priests was also formalized at the time the First Temple was constructed, around 950 BCE, when the high priest Zadok anointed David's son Solomon king, and was legitimized and limited by the monarchy.
After the death of Solomon, his kingdom fragmented in civil war into two kingdoms, being the Kingdom of Israel, which was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE in the North, and the Kingdom of Judah (capital Jerusalem) in the Center and South. (The terms "United Kingdom" and "Divided Kingdoms" are often used respectively when discussing this period, to denote respectively the united kingdom in the time of David and Solomon, and the twin separate kingdoms that followed)
In addition to being lawgivers and social reformers, various prophets also forcefully criticized the king, elites, or the masses and provided visions of a better life (stories about, and writings purportedly by, these prophets were eventually redacted into the Tanakh in the Second Temple Era). In the south (the kingdom of Judah, or Judea), the tradition was epitomized by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who primarily addressed issues of collective (national or communal) concern. In the north (the kingdom of Israel), it was epitomized by Elijah and Elisha, who healed people and performed other miracles, and who primarily addressed issues of individual (private or personal) concern (Crossan 1992: 137-167). These prophets were a potent political force.
Orlinsky, in W.H. Allen's World History of the Jewish People, comments:
Without the constraining power of the monarchy, the authority of the Temple was amplified, and priests became the dominant authority. However, the Second Temple had been constructed under the auspices of a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for various sects to develop within Judaism over the coming centuries, each of which claimed to represent "Judaism". Most of these typically discouraged social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects.
The end of the Babylonian Exile saw not only the construction of the Second Temple, but, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, the final redaction of the Torah as well. Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who later became the rabbis) monopolized the study of the Torah, which (starting from the time of Ezra) was read publicly on market-days. These sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ, and identified with the prophets. According to Geza Vermes, such scribes were often addressed using a basic term of respect, "lord."
The Hellenistic period of Jewish history began in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Upon his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. At first, Judea was ruled by the Egyptian-Hellenic Ptolemies, but in 198 BCE,the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire, under Antiochus III, seized control over Judea.
The Hellenistic Period saw the canonization of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), according to one theory, see Development of the Jewish canon for details, and the emergence of extra-Biblical sacred traditions. The earliest evidence of a Jewish mysticism tradition surrounds the book of Ezekiel, written during the Babylonian Exile. Virtually all known mystical texts, however, were written at the end of the Second Temple period. Scholars like Gershom Scholom have discerned within the esoteric traditions of the Kabbalah(Jewish Mysticism, which were restricted to sages), the influence of Persian beliefs, Platonic philosophy and Gnosticism.
2 Esdras 14:45-46, which was written in the second century CE, declares: "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people." This is the first known reference to the canonized Hebrew Bible, and the seventy non-canonical texts may have been mystical; the Talmud suggests other mystical traditions which may have their roots in Second Temple Judaism.
The Near East was cosmopolitan, especially during the Hellenistic period. Several languages were used, and the matter of the lingua franca is still subject of some debate. The Jews almost certainly spoke Aramaic among themselves. Greek was at least to some extent a trade language in the region, and indeed throughout the entire eastern portion of the Mediterranean. Judaism was rapidly changing, reacting and adapting to a larger political, cultural, and intellectual world, and in turn drawing the interests of non-Jews. Historian Shaye Cohen observed:
For example, Greek-style bath houses were built in sight of the Temple in Jerusalem, for instance, and even in that city the gymnasium became a center of social, athletic, and intellectual life. Many Jews, including some of the more aristocratic priests, embraced these institutions, although Jews who did so were often looked down upon due to their circumcision, which Jews saw as the mark of their covenant with God, but which Hellenistic culture viewed as an aesthetic defacement of the body. Consequently, some Jews began to abandon the practice of circumcision (and thus their covenant with God), while others bridled at Greek domination.
At the same time that Jews were confronting the cultural differences at their door, they had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their Torah laws applied only to them, and to proselytes, but their God, they believed, was the one and only God of all. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, some of which were influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism, for example see Noahide Law. It was in this period that many concepts from early Greek philosophy entered or influenced Judaism, as well as debates and sects within the religion and culture of the time.
Huge numbers of Jews flocked to Jason's side, and in 167 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea, entered the Temple, and stripped it of money and ceremonial objects. Jason fled to Egypt, and Antiochus imposed a program of forced hellenization, requiring Jews to abandon their own laws and customs under threat of slaughter. At this point Mattathias and his five sons, John, Eleazar, Simon, Jonathan, and Judah Maccabee, priests of the Hasmon family living in the rural village of Modein (pronounced "Mo-Ah-Dein"), assumed leadership of a bloody and ultimately successful revolt against the Seleucids.
Judah liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE and restored the Temple. Fighting continued, and Judah and his brother Jonathan were killed. In 141 BCE an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. When Simon was killed in 135 BCE, his son (and Judah's nephew) John Hyrcanus took his place as high priest and king.
The Essenes were another early mystical-religious movement, who are believed to have rejected either the Seleucid appointed high priests, or the Hasmonean high priests, as illegitimate. Ultimately, they rejected the Second Temple, arguing that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice.
Although their lack of concern for the Second Temple alienated the Essenes from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared by another group, the Pharisees ("separatists"), based within the community of scribes and sages. The meaning of the name is unclear; it may refer to their rejection of Hellenic culture or to their objection to the Hasmonean monopoly on power.
During the Hasmonean period, the Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties (the Essenes not being as politically oriented). The political rift between the Sadducees and Pharisees became evident when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai choose between being king and being High Priest in the traditional manner. This demand led to a brief civil war that ended with a bloody repression of the Pharisees, although at his deathbed the king called for a reconciliation between the two parties. Alexander was succeeded by his widow, whose brother was a leading Pharisee. Upon her death her elder son, Hyrcanus II, sought Pharisee support, and her younger son, Aristobulus, sought the support of the Sadducees.