The exile of Israel in Assyria after the fall of Samaria in 722, and the exile of Judah in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 586, came to an end over a period of time when the Persians allowed the Israelites to return to their land. This seems to have been a protracted process, which took place in four stages:
- A return under Cyrus about 538; work began on the Temple.
- A return under Darius I around 500; Temple completed; support from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.
- A return under Artaxerxes I, led by Nehemiah, around 440.
- A return under Artaxerxes II, led by Ezra after 400.
After the invasion of the Middle East by Alexander the Great (334–330), followed by the dividing up of the region by his successors, Palestine was alternately controlled by the Syria-based Seleucids and the Egypt-based Ptolemies. The Jewish priests continued to preside over the Temple in Jerusalem until the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, intervened to convert the temple to a shrine in his own honor, and began to designate the high-priest.