Jewish Attitudes Towards the Land of Israel during the Time of the Second Temple
Longing to Return to Zion?
Most observant Jews today assume that the desire to return to Israel and live in it was a dominant feeling among virtually all pious Jews from the time of the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.E.). Many of us have been taught that from this point forward, all Jews have “cried by the rivers of Babylon” (see Psalm 137), longing to return to Zion. While there is no doubt that many Jews did wish to return to Judah, and even took the opportunity when it presented itself some 50 years later, most Jews of the Second Temple period did not return to the land of Israel and adjusted to diasporan life remarkably well.
By the last two centuries of the Second Temple Period, Jews were living in cities all over the world. Some of these cities were major cosmopolitan centers, such as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Rome in Italy. In these communities, Jews preserved their religious identities while simultaneously embracing many of the cultural and social aspects that surrounded them. Their attitudes towards the land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple were complex, varied, and sometimes contradictory.
This article will suggest that there is no clear correlation in the Second Temple period between religious observance and living in Israel, even though the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing.
Three Approaches to Israel in the Second Temple Times Diaspora
I have discerned three basic attitudes or stances towards Israel among Second Temple (200 B.C.E. – 70 C.E.) Diaspora writers:
A – Jerusalem in the Center of the Jewish World
2 Maccabees and the New Testament book of Acts, two late Second Temple period books, attest to the world-wide prominence of Jerusalem and its holy Temple during this period:. 2 Maccabees, which was probably written towards the end of the second century B.C.E., highlights the importance of the Jerusalem Temple. The writer even introduces his story by describing the Maccabean victory over the Syrian Antiochids as essentially a story about the Temple:
The story of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, and the purification of the great temple, and the dedication of the altar, and further the wars against Antiochus Epiphanes and his son Eupator, and the appearances that came from heaven to those who fought bravely for Judaism, so that though few in number they seized the whole land and pursued the barbarian hordes, and regained possession of the temple famous throughout the world, and liberated the city, and re-established the laws that were about to be abolished, while the Lord with great kindness became gracious to them— all this, which has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book.
According to this writer, who wrote in Greek and is thought to have written his work in the Syrian city of Antioch, the Temple in Jerusalem was the religious nucleus of the Jewish world. The significance of the Maccabees’ achieving political autonomy was that this holy site was restored to its rightful owners.
The Acts of the Apostles, a book canonized in the New Testament, was written as the continuation of the Gospel of Luke by a Gentile Christian in the late first or early second century, perhaps in Rome or Ephesus. It expresses a similar worldview. Early on in his book, the author describes Jerusalem as a bustling town in which people of all nationalities converged on one another:
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’
In this passage, Jerusalem is presented as a destination spot for Jews who come from all over the world.
The author may be undermining his own objective here; although he strives to depict Jerusalem as a religious and cultural center, what is striking to me is the underlying implication that Jews were, in the first century, spread out all over the world. The writer’s point is that Jerusalem was the centripetal center of the world, but the reality may have been that the vast majority of Jews were living happily in their various corners of the earth.
These two sources testify to the fact that some diasporan Jews in the late Second Temple period considered Jerusalem and its Temple to lie at the physical and spiritual core of their religious identities.
B: Devotion to the Homeland and Patriotism to the Hostland: Philo of Alexandria
The late Second Temple diasporan voice that most explicitly tries to strike a balance between equal devotion to his spiritual homeland and physical host-land is the first century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.). Over and over in his voluminous writings, Philo emphasizes both aspects in his thought. When Philo was elected by members of the Jewish community in Alexandria to represent them to the Emperor Gaius Caligula in protest of anti-Jewish riots, Philo refers to the substantial financial contributions that Alexandrian Jews had been sending to the Temple and reminds Gaius that the previous emperor, Tiberius, had no qualms with these contributions, and never doubted the Jews’ loyalty to the Roman Empire:
[Tiberius] knew that they had synagogues, and that they were in the habit of visiting them, and most especially on the sacred sabbath days, when they publicly cultivate their national philosophy. He knew also that they were in the habit of contributing sacred sums of money from their first fruits and sending them to Jerusalem by the hands of those who were to conduct the sacrifices. But he never removed them from Rome, nor did he ever deprive them of their rights as Roman citizens, because he had a regard for Judaea.
Philo here insists that Jewish devotion to tradition and to the land of Israel in no way compromises Jewish loyalty to Rome and, therefore, should not compromise their rights to full citizenship. The idea that loyalty to both Rome and Jerusalem did not come into conflict with one another was, no doubt, a hard sell.
In another treatise, Philo explains that Jewish loyalty to Israel as their metropolis, or “mother city,” as well as their loyalty to their host countries, in which they have lived for countless generations, are almost complementary:
For no one country can contain the whole Jewish nation, by reason of its populousness; on which account they frequent all the most prosperous and fertile countries of Europe and Asia, whether islands or continents, looking indeed upon the holy city as their metropolis in which is erected the sacred temple of the most high God, but accounting those regions which have been occupied by their fathers, and grandfathers, and great grandfathers, and still more remote ancestors, in which they have been born and brought up, as their country; and there are even some regions to which they came the very moment that they were originally settled, sending a colony of their people to do a pleasure to the founders of the colony.
Philo’s emphasis on the many years that Jews have lived in diasporan countries was probably intended to counter accusations that Jews were not indigenous to any land, and not deserving of equal citizenship. It would have been easiest for Philo to respond to these claims simply by declaring the Jews’ fealty to their host country, but instead he takes a more difficult position by highlighting Jewish devotion to Jerusalem, even though it undermines his polemical objective to defend the Jews against charges of disloyalty. Nevertheless, Philo argues for a perfect balance between Jewish devotion to both Jerusalem and hostland. This argument crops up repeatedly in Philo’s writings.
The great first century historian Josephus also attests to the practice of diasporan Jews continually sending donations to the Jerusalem Temple. Josephus even quotes a Gentile historian, Strabo of Cappadocia, to affirm this practice:
And let no one wonder that there was so much wealth in our temple, since all the Jews throughout the habitable earth, and those that worshipped God, nay, even those of Asia and Europe, sent their contributions to it, and this from very ancient times. Nor is the largeness of these sums without its attestation; nor is that greatness owing to our vanity, as raising it without ground to so great a height; but there are many witnesses to it, and particularly Strabo of Cappadocia.”
The fact that the donations of Jews living in the diaspora reached the attention of Gentile historians and Roman politicians indicates how widespread the practice was. On the other hand, this expression of Zionism is not identical to the desire to reside in the Land of Israel.
C: The Irrelevance of Jerusalem – Temples at Elephantine and Leontopolis
Not all Jews in the late Second Temple period strove to express their loyalty to the land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple. Some Jewish communities in Egypt built temples in which to worship their God, presumably so that they could fulfill their obligation to bring sacrifices without having to travel to Jerusalem. Letters on papyri found on Elephantine, an island in the Nile near Aswan, attest to the existence of a small population of Jews on this island who presumably originally functioned as a military garrison for the Persian Empire.
The Temple at Elephantine may have been built as early as 500 B.C.E. for these soldiers. Letters written on papyri dated primarily to the fifth century B.C.E. have survived that document religious and social life for Jews who lived on this island. Likewise, the Temple of Onias in the Egyptian town of Leontopolis, which was built in the early 2nd century B.C.E., was a religious center for Jews living Egypt where Jews could bring sacrifices.
This temple is attested to in both Josephus and in the Mishnah. Josephus provides the historical background that galvanized the building of this Temple, noting that its builder was a pious priest living in Jerusalem who was driven out of Israel by corrupt priests:
Onias, the son of Simon, one of the Jewish high priests fled from Antiochus the king of Syria, when he made war with the Jews, and came to Alexandria; and as Ptolemy received him very kindly, on account of hatred to Antiochus, he assured him, that if he would comply with his proposal, he would bring all the Jews to his assistance; and when the king agreed to do it so far as he was able, he desired him to give him leave to build a temple somewhere in Egypt, and to worship God according to the customs of his own country…Onias built a fortress and a temple, not like to that at Jerusalem, but such as resembled a tower. He built it of large stones to the height of sixty cubits; he made the structure of the altar in imitation of that in our own country, and in like manner adorned with gifts, excepting the make of the candlestick, for he did not make a candlestick, but had a [single] lamp hammered out of a piece of gold, which illuminated the place with its rays, and which he hung by a chain of gold… Yet did not Onias do this out of a sober disposition, but he had a mind to contend with the Jews at Jerusalem, and could not forget the indignation he had for being banished thence. Accordingly, he thought that by building this temple he should draw away a great number from them to himself.
According to Josephus’ account, the founder of the temple at Leontopolis, Onias, was a righteous and God-fearing individual, and there is no insinuation in Josephus’ writing that Onias was wrong to build a separate Temple outside of Jerusalem. Even the Mishnah corroborates some degree of the religious legitimacy of the Temple of Onias by considering the question of whether one who vows to bring a sacrifice may be fulfilled at the Temple in Leontopolis:
[If a man said,] `I take upon myself to offer a burnt-offering, he must offer it in the Temple; and if he offered it in the Temple of Onias, he has not fulfilled his obligation. [If he said,] `I take upon myself to offer a burnt-offering but I will offer it in the Temple of Onias`. He must offer it in the Temple, yet if he offered it in the Temple of Onias he has fulfilled his obligation. R. Simeon says, such is no burnt-offering. [If a man said.] `I will be a Nazirite`. He must bring his offerings in the Temple; and if he brought them in the Temple of Onias he has not fulfilled his obligation. [If he said,] I will be a Nazirite but I will bring my offerings in the Temple of Onias`. He must bring them in the Temple, yet if he brought them in the Temple of Onias he has fulfilled his obligation. R. Simeon says, such a one is not a Nazirite. The priests who ministered in the Temple of Onias may not minister in the Temple in Jerusalem; and needless to say [this is so of priests who ministered to] another matter; for it is written, “Nevertheless the priests of the High Places came not up to the altar of The Lord in Jerusalem. But they did eat Unleavened Bread among their brethren.” Thus they are like those that had a blemish: they are entitled to share and eat [of the holy things] but they are not permitted to offer sacrifices.
The very record of a rabbinic argument regarding the legitimacy of bringing sacrifices at the Temple of Onias lends legitimacy to the Temple as an institution, and confirms that at least some Jews in the land of Israel knew about this temple and held it in high regard. The descriptions of Onias’ temple in Josephus and in the Mishnah show that in the late Second Temple period, all eyes were not exclusively on the Jerusalem Temple.
Conclusion: Israel’s Centrality in Jewish Ideology—not Practice
In short, there appears to have been three main attitudes towards the land of Israel, and the Jerusalem Temple in particular, among Second Temple period diasporan Jews. The first consists of great devotion to the land of Israel coupled with a total rejection the Hellenist world. The second is an attempt to balance devotion for the land of Israel with loyalty to one’s host-country. While Jews who adopted this attitude expressed a profound connection to the land of Israel by regularly sending donations to support the Jerusalem Temple, there is no evidence that they intended to move there, or felt guilty for not doing so. The third attitude was that the Temple in Jerusalem could be replaced by other, newer temples (in Egypt.)
The first and third attitudes represent opposite extremes of one spectrum; it is the second attitude that was the most dominant during this period. It is these Jews who felt a powerful connection to the Jerusalem Temple and the land of Israel, but did not move there.
I have tried to address and correct what I believe is an erroneous attitude that many Jews today have regarding ancient Jewish identity. Some modern Jews, ranging from A. B. Yehoshua to right-wing orthodox ideologues, believe that “true Judaism” originated in and can only be legitimately practiced within the land of Israel, and therefore the practice of Judaism outside the land of Israel will always be “second-best.” But in the very centuries that the Jewish religion was concretized, the majority of Jews were living in the diaspora and were faithfully practicing their traditions outside of the land of Israel. Most of these Jews were content to live with the tension of ideological commitment and love for the land of Israel with their choice to remain rooted in the diaspora. Modern attempts to superimpose a doctrine of aliyah and “return to Zion” onto Jewish life in the Second Temple period may be driven more by their own ideologies than by historical facts.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 20, 2015
April 19, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
Essays on Related Topics: