03.02.15 723 – 539 BC: Summary of Significant Developments of Assyrian and Babylonian Captivities
As previously stated, there were several significant developments that pertained to the identity of the first century Jewish people. Knowing these developments and the political and social pressures that created them, aids the modern student to understand the cultural environment in which Jesus ministered. Many more developments would arise during the Inter-Testamental Period. However, at this time in history the focus is on the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities and influences.
- When the majority of the ten northern Israelite tribes were relocated by the Assyrians in 722/21 B.C., they seemed to have disappeared into the Assyrian culture after several generations. Hence, since their location became unknown, they are often referred to as the “ten lost tribes.” Note, however, that the disciple, James, did not consider them lost when he wrote his letter to them (cf. 1:1). Evidently, in the first century the Jews in Jerusalem knew where they were. These Israelites (later called Jews) did not make any significant impact upon Judaism in Israel, which was considerably different from the later deportation of the Israelites from Judea. When the latter group was relocated to Babylon, their religious beliefs intensified. One of the many nations they escaped to was Egypt. While Egypt was a country of slavery in the sixteenth century B.C., since then at times it was a country of refuge for many, including the prophet Jeremiah. That is why a vibrant Jewish community was established there long before the destruction of the first temple in 537 B.C.
- A new ethnic group known as the Samaritans emerged when the remaining northern Israelites intermarried with their new foreign neighbors who were brought in by the Assyrians. Their descendants became known as the “Samaritans.” Centuries later, the first century Jews did not recognize the Samaritans as true brothers of the faith, but rather, they were considered to be “half-breeds” or of “mixed blood.” Each group considered the other to have adopted certain pagan practices into their religious rituals, thus was defiled and impure.
- An important development is that both the Assyrians and Babylonians were exposed to Jewish thought, religion, and the hope of a coming messiah. The Babylonians were masters of divination, astrology, and other cultic rituals in an endless search for understanding truth and the mysterious knowledge of the gods. It was the ideal setting for the laws of God to spread, since they too recognized the literal fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies. Some scholars today believe that the Persian government administrators, who also became interested in the messiah, knew the Hebrew predictions. Since the Babylonians specialized in astrology, they were interested in the rising star mentioned in Numbers 24:17. It is understandable that by the first century all the peoples throughout the Ancient Middle East were waiting for the coming messiah.
- As the Babylonians were coming to attack Jerusalem, a number of wealthy Jews left Jerusalem. They went to Egypt, Spain, and other countries that belted the Mediterranean Sea. Among those who went to Egypt was the prophet Jeremiah. In Egypt, many traveled some 800 miles south along the Nile River and built a community on Elephantine Island along Egypt’s southern frontier. There they built a temple. Legend says that the Ark of the Covenant was hidden in this temple when King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple. Of course, the obvious question is that if the Ark was there, why wasn’t it returned during the Second Temple Period? The mystery remains veiled.
- It is believed that the synagogue as a local institution of worship and community center was established in Babylon.
- During the Jewish exile the Aramaic language, a sister language to Hebrew, was accepted by the Jews as well as the Aramaic square script alphabet. It was the official language of the Babylonian Empire.
- The Jews called upon God to bring them a messiah who would deliver them from bondage.
- When freedom was offered, not all Jews chose to return to their Promised Land. In fact, only a small contingent returned while some remained in Babylon and others migrated to India and China. Many who remained in Babylon maintained strict obedience to the Jewish faith as a means of survival in a pagan culture. Centuries later, their descendants produced the valuable and exhaustive commentary known as the Babylonian Talmud, which is considered by scholars to be more reliable than the Jerusalem Talmud, which was written in Tiberias.
- Under Ezra, a new class of religious leaders known as scribes was established in Jerusalem. These writers studied the Mosaic Law and became known in the first century more as lawyers than writers of contracts. The priests who had been the traditional interpreters of the Law now had that portion of their responsibility transferred to the scribes. By the time of Jesus, these scribes obtained a powerful aristocratic position in Judaism and frequently conflicted with Jesus on the interpretation of various religious issues.
- The Oral Law, as it was known in the days of Jesus, was established by Ezra. However, some Jewish scholars claim it originated with Moses. The Jews believed that the destruction of their temple in 587 B.C. and subsequent deportation to Babylon was the direct result of their disobedience to both the Written Law (i.e. namely breaking Sabbath rules) as well as the Oral Law. Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Oral Law was expanded immensely to prevent any possibility of future deportation. However, those who moved to India, China, Egypt, Spain, and elsewhere did not develop the restrictive Oral laws. Therefore, they did not have the theological problems the religious leaders in Jerusalem had concerning Jesus as the Messiah.
- The Israelites, while living in Babylon and elsewhere, changed their understanding of God. They knew the answer to, “Who is God?” They realized He was national as well as personal. He was everywhere, and with them in exile. This may be the only reason why they survived culturally and religiously when other people groups in similar situations throughout history lost their identity.
- The Jews in Babylon reflected upon the laws of cleanliness instituted by Moses; laws such as maintaining toilets outside the camp and not eating pork. Some scholars believe that they also observed the cleansing rituals of their pious pagan neighbors, and concluded that if pagans can maintain a high level of cleanliness, shouldn’t they do likewise? Examples of adopted rules of cleanliness are,
- Not to walk over a grave or one will become defiled.
- One must become purified if anything unclean has been touched.
- One must become purified before entering a holy place such as the temple.
- In particular was the matter of washing hands before and/or after meals. This issue was often debated between the first century schools of Hillel and Shammai. A person also had to wash hands before entering a house if he or she was at a funeral. It is believed that the immersion in the mikvah developed at this time as well. Archaeologists today are quick to identify the ancient ruins of a home or community as Jewish if they uncover a mikvah. Needless to say, some Pharisaic rules that Jesus confronted had nothing to do with the laws of Moses.
- Finally, the biblical faith in the one true God became known as “Judaism,” and the adherents of all twelve tribes who were known previously as “Israelites” were now called “Jews” (Esther 2:5). The identification of the descendants of Abraham is referred to in this work as “Jews” throughout their entire history for purposes of clarification. In a similar manner, the land in which they live is often referred to today as “Palestine” or “ancient Palestine” even though that name was unknown during the days of Jesus. When Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 135, he renamed the land in honor of the ancient Israelite enemy – the Philistines. Today, however, the name Palestine is often used for identification purposes when referring to various historical places and events, even those that occurred prior to 135 A.D.
03.02.15.A. A TABLET FROM BABYLON READS “IF I FORGET THEE, O JERUSALEM.” A cuneiform tablet dating to 498 B.C., found in Babylon contains a reference (in the third line after the blank line in photo and drawing above), to “al Yahudu” the town of Judah, meaning Jerusalem. Photograph and drawing courtesy of Andre Lemaire.
. There has often been name confusion between the southern region known as Judah or Judea, and the name of the entire country – Judaea. The name “Judaea” is often used interchangeably with “Israel,” although the latter term seems to have been used less often in the first century. Furthermore, the name “Judah” is generally that of a person, but the descendants of Judah are also known as “the people of Judah” or “the people of Judea.”
. Golub, In the Days. 229.
. See “Samaritans” 02.01.17.
. People of “mixed blood” or “half-breeds” are persons of various tribal or ethnic backgrounds. Both terms are offensive.
. Golub, In the Days. 228-30. Modern Bible students who examine the travels of the Apostle Paul sometimes question why the Jewish people were in the various countries where Paul preached. The answer is, that often either persecution or economic opportunities drove them there.
. See 03.04.18.
. Mould, Essentials of Bible History. 359-61, 379, 396.
. See “Language” 02.03.28.
. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development. 16-17. This book is an excellent study on worship during the second temple period. (New York: Dover, 1995. Orginally published by Henry Holt and Co. 1932). While Idelsohn (1882-1932) covers the entire history of Jewish worship, chapter 1 is specifically dedicated to the second temple period.
. Lemaire, “The Universal God: How the God of Israel Became a God for All.” 58.
. See “Defile” in Appendix 26.
. Golub, In the Days. 53-55.
. Blizzard, “Judaism – Part 1” Yavo Digest 1:5, 3.