A Brief History of Judaism

Dr. C. George Boeree

Palestine1 was a fertile area, warm and watered by Mediterranean rains -- a most desirable location. It lay between the sophisticated societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia, making it an ideal location for trade and, of course, war.

Tradition has it that the Hebrews came with father Abraham from Ur in Mesopotamia around 2000 bc, along with Abraham's El Shaddai ("god of the mountain"). It is more likely that they were native to the area just to the east and conquered their close relatives the Canaanites2 to establish their historical domain. Constant warfare with neighboring peoples apparently resulted in a large number of Hebrews being enslaved by the Egyptians, which sets the stage for the singular event of Jewish history, the Exodus.

Moses, probably an Egyptian, assisted the captive Hebrew population in its hour of need, possibly by introducing Egyptian cleanliness laws in a time of plague. Around 1300 bc, he led them, it is said, back into Palestine, where they would be of enormous influence on their settled brethren.

The Hebrews organized themselves into 12 tribes, with warrior-priest chieftains, referred to in the Bible as Judges. Intertribal wars led them to seek a monarch similar to the ones they had observed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In about 1010 bc, they found that monarch in a ruthless warlord named Saul.

Only four years later, his seat was taken by David. After defeating the Philistines -- the "Sea People" (possibly early Greeks) who had settled the coast -- he established Jerusalem as his capital.

In 966 bc, David was succeeded by Solomon. Under his rule, the Hebrews became rich, investing in the trade between Phoenicia and Egypt, as well as in sea routes to Arabia and east Africa. Solomon had a temple built in Jerusalem to contain the Ark of the Covenant.  The Ark was a gold-covered wooden box that presumably contained the tablets of the Law that Moses received from God Himself at Mt. Sinai.  It was the most sacred symbol of Yahweh, and was believed to give the Hebrews power over their enemies.

The Hebrews were originally polytheistic, even animistic. They believed in spirits and, as pastoralists, were particularly devoted to cults of the bull, the sheep, and so on. Animal sacrifice was the tradition, mostly at local altars and wilderness sites. They performed divination using dice, something which they would continue to do for many centuries.

It should be noted that much of Genesis consists of the common myths of the region (and many other regions), such as the creation story, the fall of man, the flood, and so on.

Yahweh, possibly the Canaanite god Yehu or Yaw, became the "national" god of the Hebrews. With Solomon and the Temple, he was made into the greatest god of all. He retained, as the Bible demonstrates profusely, very human characteristics: Jealousy, regret, anger, love of the scent of burnt offerings, and openness to bribery were among his qualities.

Early beliefs did not involve the concept of hell as we now know it. There was instead Sheol, a land of darkness beneath the ground. But, like Hades among the Greeks and Hel among the Germans, it was home to nearly all who died, not just those who sinned. Unpleasant, it was not yet a place of eternal torture.   But only a very few people went to heaven to live with the gods.

The religion revolved around laws -- many of them, and not unlike the laws of the Hindus. Sin could be lifted by means of prayer and sacrifice, and uncleanness (such as menstruation and childbirth) by ritual purification, all controlled by the priestly caste. Beyond the Commandments, the Laws of Moses regulated all of life for the Hebrews -- diet, hygiene, medicine, even sexuality.

After Solomon, the condition of the Hebrew tribes began to deteriorate. Rich and poor classes developed, and the caste of priests (descendants of Levi) became increasingly powerful. Solomon's kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 722 bc, Sargon II, the Assyrian emperor, overwhelmed the entire area.

The Assyrians were a particularly brutal group and the Hebrews, like others, suffered greatly. In the era of their overlordship of Palestine, a number of religious fanatics became influential among the Hebrews. They were disdainful of the rich and of the priests, and preached that the downfall of the Hebrews was due to their own sinfulness. These preachers were, of course, the prophets of the Bible: Amos, Hosea, Elijah, and Isaiah.

King Josiah ruled the area from 639 to 609. He and his priests saw the need for a codification of Hebrew traditions to provide solidarity among the people. In 622, they "discovered" (or created) a scroll presumably written by Moses, and called it the Book of the Covenant or the Law. It was probably much of Deuteronomy, and parts of Exodus (xx to xxiii?). The scroll was read out loud over two days and proved to be a hit! With that support, Josiah went on to destroy the idols to other gods in Palestine.

In 587 bc, in the midst of a war between Egypt and Babylonia, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Palestine, destroyed most of Jerusalem, including the Temple. He took much of Jerusalem's population to Babylon as slaves. This was the Babylonian Captivity.

Just prior to the captivity, Jeremiah gave his warnings, and later, Ezekiel reprimanded the Jews for bringing this on themselves once again. Also around this time there was a prophet, who also wrote under the name Isaiah, who developed a new image of Yahweh. His God was the only God, and he was the embodiment of love and kindness. And his ultimate victory over the evil of this world would be brought about by a redeemer, the Messiah ("anointed one").

In 539, Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylonia and made Palestine part of the Persian Empire. He freed the Babylonian Jews and restored their wealth, and they returned to Jerusalem. They supplanted the non-Jewish settlers, rebuilt the Temple, and reestablished priestly rule and the Law of Moses.

Ezra, in 458 bc, had this Law read out loud. This time, it took two weeks, because the collection included the entire five volumes of the Torah. The present form of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was developed by 300 bc.

Modern scholars view the Torah as having four authors (or groups of authors):

In 332 bc, Alexander the Great took Jerusalem. It surrendered without a fight. Alexander was supposedly an admirer of the Jews and their God. This introduced a long period of Greek rule – and accompanying Hellenization – which would affect Judaism greatly. Besides a translation into Greek called the Septuagint in about 200 bc, the prophets were added to the collection of scriptures during this period, as well as Proverbs, Psalms, the Song of Solomon, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

The development of a Hellenized Jewish community in Alexandria (Egypt) led to a split between those liberal Jews and the more conservative Jews of Palestine. Also, the Samaritans, who inhabited what was originally Israel, broke ranks with the Jews of Judea (Judah), keeping only the original Torah as their scripture.

In 168 bc, Simon Maccabee took Judea out of the hands of Alexander's successors (the Seleucids), and began his own dynasty. But in 63 bc, Pompeii conquered the area and made Judea a part of the Roman province of Syria.

The next hundred or so years were crucial ones for the Jews. In 37 bc, nationalistic Jews in league with Parthian invaders, revolted. The Romans had appointed Herod ("the Great") as King of the Jews two years earlier, and he repelled the invaders and eliminated their Jewish supporters. He ruled the area until 4 bc, which may have been the year in which Jesus was born.

Palestine probably had a population of about two and one half million at this time, with some 100,000 people in Jerusalem. Three sects became influential among the Jews:

Over time, the government of Palestine – mostly Roman-appointed Jews – would degenerate into incompetence and corruption. Groups of Zealots (fanatics) arose who swore to kill all disloyal Jews. They killed quite a few, and many Gentiles as well. The Gentiles of the area responded in kind. Emperor Vespasian sent his son Titus with Roman legions to Palestine and Titus offered the Jews a lenient settlement. The Zealots turned him down, so the legionnaires slaughtered them.

In 70 ad, Titus ordered the Temple destroyed and the Jews dispersed – the Diaspora. Millions of Jews spread throughout the Empire, which already contained some seven million Jews – roughly 7 % of the Empire's population. With the Diaspora, the Sadducees disappeared and the Pharisees, by means of their teachers (rabbis) kept the flame alive by preaching the Law in thousands of synagogues.

Around 132 ad, there was another uprising by Jews in the Near East. The Emperor Hadrian outlawed teaching of the Law, and destroyed most of Judea. Many Jews went to Babylon, where they were fairly well treated and did quite well. In around 500 ad, they completed the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of commentaries on and explanations of the Law.

Within the Roman Empire, the Jews were granted citizenship (like everyone else) in 212 ad. They were, however, greatly disliked by other Roman citizens: They insisted on dressing differently, celebrating different holidays, eating different foods. Even more annoying was their exclusivity, their firm conviction that they were better than everyone else, and their disdain for anyone else's gods. The increasing popularity of one Jewish messianic sect – Christianity – only made things worse.

In 417 ad, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, lowered the Jew's status to secondary citizens of the Empire. They remained in that precarious position for the next 1400 years or so.

© Copyright 2002, C. George Boeree

1. Palestine is the name that the Romans gave to the area.  It comes from their name for the Philistines, the people who once occupied the coast, and who may have been Greeks from Crete or Cyprus.  The earliest name for Palestine was Canaan, and today, of course, we call most of it Israel.

2. The Hebrews, the Canaanites, and the Phoenicians were ethnically the same people. Their languages were merely dialects of each other, and they shared in the use of the first alphabet.