When Babylon fell, the Medes were absorbed by Persia, and Cyrus became a powerful king. Cyrus’ name was written in scripture by Israelite prophets; he was to be the one who would deliver the Jews back to their homeland after the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus did not convert to the Israelite religion, but another religion had grown into great influence in Persia, called Zoroastrianism. Cyrus was either a believer in this faith, or had been influenced by it. Zoroastrianism has many parallels with Christianity:
Zoroastrianism was dualistic, believing in the opposing forces of good and evil, but that God the Creator emanates nothing but good. This is the one transcendent, universal God (all surrounding nations believed in multiple gods and were pagan). God is a god of order, and without His influence, there is chaos. Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds are necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay. Free will is an important aspect of man’s existence. God will ultimately prevail over evil, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. At the end of time, a savior-figure will bring about a final renovation of the world , in which the dead will be revived.
The wise men who made the journey to visit and bring gifts to the young Christ-child may have been Zoroastrians from Persia. Or they may have been Jewish wise men from Babylon.
The Babylonian Captivity lasted for 70 years, and then Cyrus conquered and enabled the Children of Israel to return to Jerusalem. However, many of the Jews decided to remain in Persia rather than return to the Holy Land. A respected group of Jewish scholars remained based in Babylon, and much wise commentary came from that area. There are two versions of the Jewish Talmud, or commentary on the Law, one from Jerusalem (the Yerushalmy) and one from Babylon (the Bavli).
The fact that many Jews choose not to return to Judea marks the real beginning of the “diaspora,” or Jewish dispersion to areas worldwide. From Bablyon, Jews migrated to other locations. There were particularly important Jewish centers in the capital Antioch, in Damascus, and in Apamea. According to Philo, numerous Jews lived in Syria and in Asia Minor, where the settlement of Jews was greatly promoted by the policy of the Seleucid kings, whose rule extended over large areas of Asia Minor. By the time Christ was born, there were 1 million Jews in the great coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt. The Babylonian captivity reduced the Jews’ ability to read and communicate in Hebrew. Hebrew remained the language of the scriptures, but it came to pass that only the scribe could read it. Aramaic, the language of the Babylonians, became the language of commerce until Greek replaced it. The scriptures had to be translated in order for Jews to read them, and this is the reason for the Septuagint, the Greek translation for the Jews of Alexandria and elsewhere.
This early diaspora of the Jews helped pave the way for the gospel to be preached among the Gentiles. The Jews were the first Christians, but by the time of Christ, they were speaking Greek, and were able to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentile nations.
Jews were mostly respected in Persia. Daniel was at court in Persia, and Nehemia was the King’s cup-bearer. Queen Esther was also in Persia, in the capital, Shushan.
The Story of Esther
Esther was summoned to a sort of beauty competition when the king became disappointed in his wife, Vashti. Esther was chosen to be the new queen, but she still had to be cautious about gaining an audience with the king, Ahasuerus. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, was a great support to her, but a wicked vizier, name Haman, was not only an anti-Semite, but envious of Mordecai’s favor with the king. Through Haman’s machinations, a day was set aside for all the Jews in the land to be slaughtered. Esther’s bravery in approaching the king and enabling her people to defend themselves, made her a heroine throughout the history of the Jews. In the early spring, Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim to celebrate Esther and their deliverance because of her courage. The holiday has a carnival atmosphere, since everyone dresses up in costume. It is customary to deliver gifts of sweets to friends and to the poor, and all must hear the reading of the Book of Esther in the synagogue. This is quite a colorful synagogue service, since costumes are allowed, and noisemakers and booing are sounded upon hearing the name of Haman, while celebrants cheer at the mention of Mordecai or Esther.
The first group of returning exiles arrived in Judea sometime after 536 B.C. under the leadership of Zerubbabel or (Zorobabel), a member of the royal Davidic line (see 1 Chronicles 3:19 ), and Joshua (or Jeshua), a priest of the lineage of Zadok. (Zadok was the high priest at the dedication of Solomon’s temple.) The first return somewhat resembled a religious crusade. It consisted of forty to fifty thousand people. Small groups of exiles continued to come for the next century from Babylonia, but the majority of Jews did not return, and for centuries there was a greater number of Jews in Babylon than in the Holy Land.
Their first act was to repair the altar of burnt offering and to renew the regular morning and evening sacrifices. They then observed the feast of Tabernacles and other feasts in routine succession. (See Ezra 3:1–6 .) The Jews slowly began to rebuild the temple. Both the temple and the tumbledown walls of the city were grudgingly repaired, and various leaders tried (especially Haggai and Zechariah, see Ezra 5:1 ) strenuously to move the Jews into action. The natives in Jerusalem were descendants of the rag-tag poor left behind by the Babylonians. The Samaritans, who lived north of Jerusalem, were not of pure Israelite stock, but descended from the Assyrian invaders and their intermarriages. They had converted to Judaism, but still held on to some pagan traditions. The Jews returning to build the temple looked down upon the Samaritans, and then events occurred to increase that hatred.
The Samaritans wanted to help rebuild the temple, but they were rebuffed by the returning Jews. The Samaritans responded by doing everything they could to thwart the project, even sending petitions to Persia. The temple was finished in 515 B.C. This temple is known either as the second temple (Solomon’s was the first) or the temple of Zerubbabel. The second temple did not compare in splendor to the temple of Solomon, for the people were very poor at the time they built it.
Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem around 445 B.C., but it is difficult to know when Ezra arrived. In any event, there is a span of about three generations between the first return and the return of Ezra and Nehemiah. During this period, Persian culture reached its greatest height, as evidenced by the impressive ruins standing at Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. The luxury of the Persian court is described in the book of Esther. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. , the Jews simply transferred their allegiance from one monarch to another. Jewish tradition relates how Alexander was met by the high priest in Jerusalem and was read the prophecies of Daniel that one of the Greeks would destroy the Persians (see Daniel 7:6 ; 8:3, 20–22 ; 11:3 ). Alexander, supposing this meant himself, rejoiced and accepted the Jewish nation without going to war against them.