What Happened to the Jews During the Persian Empire?
Persia had become an empire about 550 BC under a great ruler named Cyrus. Later he allowed many peoples that the Babylonians had captured and assimilated into their empire the choice to return home. This gave the Jews great opportunity. Cyrus issued a decree to allow the Jews to return to their homeland. The only requirement was that they would remain a province of the Persian Empire. Most of the Jews did not want to return home because they made Babylon their new home. Zerubbabel from the house of David was the only Jew of royal blood who capitalized on the opportunity (Ezra 2). Jerusalem had become a wasteland and when Zerubbabel arrived he laid the foundations for a new Temple and with the encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah finished the great work in 516 BC in the sixth year of Darius exactly 70 years from when the Babylonians had destroyed it, as the prophet Jeremiah declared would happen. Later in 458 BC many more Jews returned under the leadership of Ezra (Ezra 7) who was a priest and a scribe. 12 years later Nehemiah obtain permission from the King of Persia to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and to become the governor. He arrived in 444 BC and against incredible opposition he rebuilt the walls in 52 days. There was great revival among the Jews seeing a new Temple and walls around the city. Ezra and Nehemiah canonized the books of the Old Testament. They read aloud to the people and gave interpretation.
Nehemiah 8:5-6 - And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with [their] faces to the ground.
The Close of the Old Testament
Near the close of the Old Testament, about 430 B.C., Judea was a Persian province. Persia had been a world power for about 100 years and remained so for about another 100 years, during which period not much is known of Jewish history. Persian rule was, for the most part, mild and tolerant. Hebrew was no longer the common Jewish language and it was replaced by Aramaic, only the more scholarly knew and spoke the original Hebrew. This made the common people rely on these scholars for instruction and guidance. This was the beginning of self righteous separatism and legalism. About 40 years later, the prophet Malachi condemned the people for backsliding into their sinful ways. The formalism and skepticism had reach its climax during the time Jesus with the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees.
During this time there arose a group of interpreters known as the "Sopherim". They were scribes who are authorized to interpret Scripture. They created extensive commentaries on the Torah which had gained an almost inspired status, and these commentaries eventually became more important than the word of God itself. The commentaries of the scribes later evolved into the Midrash, and the tangled web of the Talmud.
Map of the Persian Empire with Jerusalem as a Province