Following a decree by the Persian King Cyrus, conqueror
of the Babylonian empire (538 BCE), some
50,000 Jews set out on the First Return to the Land of Israel, led by
Zerubabel, a descendant of the House of David. Less than a century later,
the Second Return was led by Ezra the Scribe. Over the next four centuries,
the Jews knew varying degrees of self-rule under Persian (538-333 BCE) and
later Hellenistic (Ptolemaic and Seleucid) overlordship (332-142 BCE).
The repatriation of the Jews under Ezra's inspired
leadership, construction of the Second Temple on the site of the First Temple, refortification of
Jerusalem's walls and establishment of the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly) as the supreme religious and judicial body of the Jewish
people marked the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth (Second
Temple period). Within the confines of the Persian Empire, Judah was a
nation centered in Jerusalem whose leadership was entrusted to the high priest and council of elders.
As part of the ancient world conquered by Alexander the
Great of Greece (332 BCE), the Land remained a Jewish theocracy under
Syrian-based Seleucid rulers. When the Jews were prohibited from practicing
Judaism and their Temple was desecrated as part of an effort to impose
Greek-oriented culture and customs on the entire population, the Jews rose
in revolt (166 BCE). First led by Mattathias of the priestly Hasmonean family and then by his
son Judah the Maccabee, the Jews subsequently entered Jerusalem and
purified the Temple (164 BCE), events commemorated each year by the festival of Hanukkah.