The Beginnings of Hellenism
Although there is not a great deal of information about the period following the return from Babylonia, it was in this period that the foundations of Jewish civilisation were consolidated. Following Ezra and Nehemiah, the teaching of Torah became very intensive. The Torah was accepted as the constitution of the nation and the process known as interpretation got underway. By this process the text of the Torah was studied so as to infer from it new laws relevant to contemporary conditions, as well as moral and ethical axioms. A body known as the Great Synod came into being during this time. (It's Hebrew name - ha Knesset ha Gedolah - provided the source for the name of modern Israel's parliament, the Knesset). This Synod consisted of a group of sages whose task was to interpret the Torah. They were the forerunners of the later sages who produced the monumental codification of Jewish law and ritual, which was eventually assembled in the Mishnah.
The interpretation of the Torah also included educational activity. The Bible stories were embellished adding flesh and blood to the skeletons of the events related. This was most probably done by sermons in the synagogue which were later recorded in the various works of Midrash lit. exposition. It is most likely that this period saw the beginnings of an educational system which was already well developed a couple of centuries later. Ezra and Nehemiah mark the end of the prophetic period in Jewish religious history and beginning of rabbinic. The religious patterns that took shape then have remained the basis of Jewish life ever since. In the last third of the fourth century bce decisive changes took place. Till that time the country had been ruled or influenced by the great oriental powers; thereafter, until the seventh century ce, Judea and its neighbours fell under the influence of kingdoms and cultures whose main sources of inspiration were Greek and later Roman. Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 332 bce, meeting no serious opposition.
After Alexander's death the country changed hands frequently in the internal wars fought by his successors. In 301 bce it was conquered by Ptolemy I of Egypt and remained under Hellenist Egyptian rule until 198 bce when it passed to the Hellenist Seleucid kingdom of Syria. For most of this period the Jews enjoyed a considerable measure of autonomy. As long as they paid their taxes and tribute they were left alone and their internal religious life was free from interference. The high priest was the effective ruler of the state and responsible to the foreign governor. the Jewish settlement did however come under the influence of the foreign rulers, particularly the ruling classes, who adopted Greek manners, speech and social attitudes.
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