1. Condition of the People.—
After the stress and strain of the religious revival under Ezra and Nehemiah, things settled down for a long while into a quiet, uneventful course. It was the seed-time of national character, the season when growth is active though it does not show. The Persian conquerors, busy with their Greek wars, did not much trouble their Jewish subjects in Syria. Every now and again another little band of exiles would join their friends in Judea, or would journey on to Egypt to form a new little Jewish community there. Even the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great made little difference to the Jews. Their personal government was in their own hands, and changes in political government made little outward sign in their lives. They were always law-abiding, and neither from Persian nor Greek did there come any startling or embarrassing demands on their loyalty. There is a story told of a dramatic meeting at the gates of Jerusalem between Alexander of Macedon and Jaddua the high priest, when the armed king, who came in anger, suddenly fell on his knees before the white-robed priest. But the anger, and the armour, and the robes, and the kiss of peace, and the meeting altogether, seem, with many another charming and somewhat shaky relic, to have been swept away by stiff new brooms into the lumber-room of history.
2. Literary Labours.—
The quiet time was good for scholars. In the hundred years between the death of Nehemiah and the death of Alexander there was a good deal of literary activity in Palestine. To the Pentateuch which Ezra taught in schools, and read and expounded in synagogues, a second portion of Holy Scriptures2—the Prophets—was added; and a third portion, Holy Writings—followed. What is called the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures,2 in the form and order of our Hebrew Bible, was definitely arranged yet a little later on. This work was almost all done in Hebrew, which was still the language of the people. Then a great store of wisdom, which had been the growth of ages, began at this period to be collected and sifted, and put into shape. There were proverbs and parables and wise sayings of all sorts, and quantities of long arguments and discussions, and some supplementary, and perhaps not always very accurate, history. It all began to be looked into. Partly in Aramaic, and partly in Greek, a good deal of it got gradually written down. Some of the wisdom and a great part of the history grew, in this and the next century, into what are called the apocryphal books. These, though they have not the value of inspired writings, have considerable merit of their own. The best, too, of the talks and the texts and the legendary lore was gathered together, and made a foundation for the Midrash, which had for its chief object the exposition of the Bible, and especially of the Pentateuch. And besides all these tasks, the energy and earnestness of the people found yet another channel. They set about formulating a ritual, that is a regular arrangement of prayer and service.
3. Alexandrian Jews.—
In the time of Alexander of Macedon, Alexander the Great, as he is called, the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, was founded in his honour. A great many Jews joined the Greek and Egyptian colonists, and were among the early settlers in the city. By degrees these Alexandrian Jews grew to be a little less Jewish than the Judean Jews. They had exactly the same rights and privileges as the Macedonians. Greek culture, Greek habits of thought, were in the very air they breathed, and they breathed it in more lustily, perhaps, than those to whom it was native. They spoke Greek, and after a while they neglected their national tongue, and were unable even to understand the Scriptures when read in synagogue. But though they let the language of their fathers grow strange to them, and were somewhat lax and unobservant, yet they never ceased to be Jews. Whether they were regular worshippers we do not know, but they certainly had a large and magnificent synagogue of their own; and in Heliopolis, another city of Egypt, there was a temple somewhat similar to the temple in Jerusalem. And it is further related in the Apocrypha that some 300 of these Egyptian Jews were once staunch enough to their faith to choose to be trampled to death by wild elephants rather than become converts. The sequel sounds a little legendary, as the elephants, it is added on the same authority, could not be induced to make martyrs of the Jews. They wisely turned aside, and trampled on the spectators instead of on the intended victims.
4. The Septuagint.—
The Jews in Egypt grew numerous, and many of them began to take important positions of trust in the State and in the army. The study of Hebrew became more and more neglected. These Egyptian Jews must have grown denationalised, since they grudged the labour of becoming familiar with their national tongue. But, however willing to give up the language, they had no mind to give up the literature. They desired still to read the law and the prophets, if only it could be managed without too much trouble. They determined to get a translation made. About 250 B.C. an embassy was sent to Jerusalem by the Egyptian king, Ptolemy Philadelphus, begging the high priest for the loan and labour of seventy-two learned scribes. It is said that each of the seventy-two made a separate translation, and that every one of the seventy-two translations turned out to be exactly alike. It is rather a doubtful story. But whether the seventy-two translators agreed—which, as they worked separately, seems not impossible—or whether it was their translations which were unanimous, which seems less likely, certain it is that a Greek version of the Scriptures was made, which was called the Septuagint. Some of those writers, who always will differ from the others, say that the scribes had nothing to do with it at all, but that the Septuagint owes its origin to different authors, countries, and ages.
5. Under Egyptian Rule.—
When Alexander died (323 years B.C.), all his great conquests were divided among his generals. Syria and Egypt became the rival powers in the East. Palestine, for over a century, was like a battledore between two shuttlecocks. For a while the Egyptians had the best of the game, and under the first three Ptolemies the Jews were very mildly tossed. They had to pay tribute to Egypt, but their home government was left to their own high priests, and their religion was not interfered with.
6. Under Syrian Rule.—
203 years B.C., Antiochus III. of Syria, called the Great, wrested Palestine from the fourth Ptolemy of Egypt. This change of masters in itself made no change in the position of the Jews. They continued to be mildly ruled, and their government was still left in their own hands. Seleucus, the son and successor of Antiochus, proved as peaceably inclined as his father. But trouble was brewing. The civilisation of the Syrians was Greek in its nature, and their habits of thought and their modes of worship were sure to jar terribly with the strict notions of Judean Jews. So long as the priests stood between the court and the people, and all actual contact was avoided, no collision occurred. When the priests were found wanting the crisis came.
7. Home Rule.—
In the course of time the government of the people had come into the hands of the high priest. The high priesthood was an hereditary office. From father to son, or to nearest of kin, the office was handed down, and for the most part worthily exercised as a trust as well as a dignity. It was not altogether an easy office. The Jews needed ruling, and their masters—Persian, Egyptian, Syrian, or Greek, as it might be—needed conciliating. The priests had to be firm in their faith and pleasant in their manners; a fault in either meant failure; disunion was to be dreaded, and weakness was altogether fatal. For a long while the difficulties were overcome. Jaddua and Onias, and Simon the Just, who was one of the last surviving members of the Great Synagogue which Ezra founded, were all towers of strength to the priesthood and to the people. But a certain incapable high priest, called Onias II. (230 B.C.) very nearly brought his nation into trouble with Egypt over the tribute-money, which he had let fall into arrears; and Onias III. (210 B.C.), though a good man, made the terrible mistake of calling in the Syrians to settle a family dispute. Antiochus took this opportunity to usurp the right of nominating to the high priesthood. A brother of Onias had long desired the office for himself. He offered a bribe to the Syrian treasury, and in further deference to the ruling state changed his Jewish name of Joshua to the Greek-sounding one of Jason. He gained his point, and he earned besides, it may be hoped, both the contempt of those he flattered and of those he forsook. Presently another candidate, named Menelaus, arose, and, to get means for the necessary bribery, he robbed the temple treasury. So far as the Syrians were concerned, the immediate moral to the Jews was the old one of the bundle of sticks. As long as the Jews were self-respecting and self-governing, they and their government and their religion had been respected and left alone. As soon as their leaders began to riot and quarrel among themselves the fate of the bundle of sticks fell upon the people.