The Neo-Babylonian Empire began to decline after 587 B.C.E., ultimately falling to the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C.E. The end of Neo-Babylonian dominance made possible the return of the exiles to Judah and the restoration of their temple and community. Biblical texts (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:2-4) corroborate the Persian policy of governing subject peoples in their own land and respecting the various deities worshiped in the empire. Not everyone, however, took advantage of this policy. Many chose to remain in Babylon, where Jewish scholarship eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud, the primary work of Jewish rabbinical interpretation (about 500 C.E.). Other Jews of the Diaspora, in what was to become Alexandria in Egypt during the Greek period, produced the Septuagint (the enormously influential Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Apocrypha (found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles).
Those that did return to Judah found their homeland impoverished. Following the relocation of populations, political control was maintained through local governors whose primary task was to ensure the payment of royal taxes. The Persians also financed the restoration of temples, though the primary function of these institutions was the administration of Persian policy. Ezra 1 and 6 describe the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple as mandated and financed by the Persian crown. Nehemiah's commission by the Persian king to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem indicates the strategic importance of the province to the empire (Nehemiah 1), as does the heavy tribute paid to Persia (Nehemiah 9:36-37). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to rebuild the temple, promising that the "treasure of all the nations" would finance the project.
Significantly, the people were no longer defined politically and geographically, but ethnically and especially religiously. With the temple as the center of the restored community, the High Priest "ruled" in the absence of a king. The Jewish communities of Alexandria, Babylon, Elephantine, and elsewhere came to be known as the Diaspora and distinguished themselves from those who had not experienced exile, as did those who had remained in Judah. Both Judaism and Christianity would survive in a pluralistic world thanks to the lessons learned here.
During this time, the Pentateuch and much of the prophetic literature reached their final form. Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Isaiah 56-66, Job, parts of the Psalter and Proverbs, and perhaps Joel and Ecclesiastes were composed in this prolific period.
AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament