Greeks, Romans and Jews
The Hellenistic period, starting with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, marked another turning point for the inhabitants of the Land of Israel. Greek influence was now stronger than ever, with political and cultural institutions such as the polis and the gymnasium spreading a new world view, that of Hellenism. Under Alexander, new cities were established and populated by Macedonian veterans, Greek mercenaries and traders, and elements of the local population. At the same time, many of the core values were retained from the original culture – cultic institutions and civil law for example. Moreover, though Greek became the lingua franca of administration and international commerce, Aramaic remained the first language for many inhabitants, especially those in rural areas. The artifacts on display from this period tend to show an amalgamation of eastern and western features. It was this amalgamation that provided fertile ground for the growth of new ideas and new religious movements. Following the death of Alexander and during the first part of the third century BCE Judaea was ruled by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. Later it came under the Seleucid kings of Syria. In the mid-second century BCE the Hasmonean family (the Maccabees) defeated the Seleucid armies and an independent Jewish kingdom emerged. Jewish life and culture now experienced a renaissance; sumptuous buildings and tombs were constructed displaying mixed oriental and Hellenistic styles. Independent coinage was minted bearing cultic and propagandist themes. While the Hasmonean revolt was to some degree a rebellion against Hellenism, the institutions and ideals of that culture retained much of their original force.
The Roman period in Judaea began in 37 BCE, when the Hasmonean dynasty was replaced by the rule of Herod under Roman patronage. In Israel this period is divided into earlier and later subperiods – the Herodian Period (37 BCE – 133 CE), and the Late Roman Period following the destruction of the Second Temple or the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (133 CE – c. 326 CE).
The Museum’s Herodian period collection emphasizes the rich finds yielded by systematic, large-scale excavations carried out in Jerusalem after 1967, mainly from the Jewish Quarter renovations, from the area south and west of the Temple Mount, and from Jewish tombs in the necropolis surrounding the city in antiquity. The villas of well-to-do priestly families situated in the area of the modern-day Jewish Quarter, destroyed in 70 CE by the army of Titus, rendered a wealth of finds from everyday life buried under burned and collapsed debris. Among these finds are the numerous stone and glass vessels that bear eloquent testimony to the observance of new Jewish laws pertaining to ritual purity (the ritual cleanliness of stone and glass was considered renewable while that of pottery was not). Pseudo-Nabatean pottery gives some indication of that southern people’s aesthetic influence (Herod was of ldumean, i.e. Nabatean stock. His father had converted to Judaism). Examples of Roman terra sigillata pottery imported from different places in the Mediterranean basin hint at widespread trade relations.
Herod greatly enlarged and beautified the temple and its surrounding podium, making it one of the wonders of the ancient world. In the final days of the Great Revolt of 66 – 70 CE the Temple was decimated by Titus’ men who tossed fragments originating in the magnificent sanctuary over the platform's side. Many such pieces were found in the thick conflagration debris at the base of the Temple Mount and some are on display in the Second Temple Period hall. One of these is an inscription indicating the place where the priests would blow the trumpets to announce the onset of festivals and the new moon. Perhaps this very inscription was seen by Jesus as he walked the temple precinct. The ossuary (a rectangular stone casket for the secondary interment of bones) inscription of ‘Simon the Temple Builder’ should also be mentioned in this context. Another find of historical and theological importance – one of very recent vintage – is now on view: the inscribed ossuary of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest who, according to the New Testament, disparaged Jesus and had him delivered to Pontius Pilate for judgement. Pilate’s name, too, was carved in a dedicatory stone inscription found at Caesarea.
The first century CE was the heyday of Jewish art, when both the Hasmoneans and Herod did their utmost to restore the glory of the First Temple Period. Ornamented architectural elements, decorated ossuaries and lamps, coins, jewelry and other objects all expressed an aesthetic akin to the sensuality of Roman art, albeit tempered by Jewish motifs and restrictions.