Topics: Judaism


History of Judaism, from

History is of the utmost importance in Judaism. Whereas the sacred texts of most ancient religions focus on myths and philosophical concepts, the Jewish Bible is centered around historical narrative; and most Jewish holidays are intended to connect modern Jews with their historical ancestors and traditions. This article provides an overview of Jewish history from the biblical era to the modern day.

Historical and Religious Context

Judaism traces its history back to the creation of mankind, but the explicitly Jewish historical origins begin with Abraham and the Hebrews. According to the Torah, Abraham's home was the northern Mesopotamian town of Harran.

Under God's command, Abraham migrated to the region of Canaan, which is roughly equivalent to modern Israel and Lebanon. For a time the Hebrews lived in servitude in Egypt, then returned to Canaan. The ancient Hebrew people were seminomadic herdsman and farmers, organized into tribes and living in Mesopotamia. Contributions of nearby cultures include a West Semitic concept of divine messengers, Old Babylonian and Hurro-Semite law, Mesopotamian cosmogony and primitive history, Canaanite language and mythological literature, and Egyptian hymns and wisdom literature.

All of these cultures featured belief in creator and preserver gods, a system of ethics, and developed religious rituals. The head of the Canaanite pantheon was El, a powerful god depicted as both judgmental and compassionate.

Biblical Jewish History

The period of Jewish history designated by some historians as "Biblical Judaism" is the centuries covered by the narratives of the Tanakh, from the creation and primitive history of mankind to the last of the prophets in the 4th century BCE.

The Tanakh tells the history of the Hebrew people from a religious viewpoint, beginning with the creation of mankind and ending with the words of the last of the prophets in the 4th century BCE. This period is often referred to by scholars as "Biblical Judaism." The Tanakh follows the Hebrew nation as it experiences cycles of favor and discipline by God. {1} God establishes successive covenants with humanity (Adam, Noah and Abraham) and issues an extensive set of laws (through Moses) by which the Hebrews are to be set apart as God's people. When they stray, God sends prophets and invading armies to bring them back to himself. "It is this particular claim-to have experienced God's presence in human events-and its subsequent development that is the differentiating factor in Jewish thought." {2}

Abraham and the Patriarchs (19th or 18th century BCE)

The biblical book of Genesis begins with a single, all-powerful God creating the world out of chaos in six days, with human beings created on the sixth day. Genesis goes on to chronicle an ancient history in which mankind repeatedly turns away from God and to immorality until God destroys the earth with a flood. God then makes a covenant with Noah, the one man saved from the flood, that he will never destroy the earth again.

The specifically Hebrew element of biblical history begins with Abraham, who is considered the founder of the Jewish religion. However, he does not discover God but is rather called by the God who is already known into a covenant, in which God promises to many descendents and the land of Canaan.

Modern scholarship has identified significant differences between the religion of Abraham and the patriarchs and the later Israelite religion of Moses. Historians note that the God of Abraham is referred to using generic, not specifically Israelite terms (namely, various forms of El), the Mosaic issues of divine jealousy and idolatry are virtually absent, and God's role is as a kind of patron deity who has bestowed his favor on Abraham.

The religion of the patriarchs was simple, and centered on the agreement between Abraham and God. Religious practice consisted of sacrifice and prayer at a sacred altar, stone pillar, or sacred tree. Circumcision was the defining mark of the religious community. Its eschatology was the promise of land and many descendents.

From Egypt to Sinai: Moses and the Covenant

According to biblical tradition, a famine caused the Hebrew tribes to migrate to Egypt, where they were enslaved. God rescued them from bondage by afflicting the Egyptians with successive plagues then drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to escape.

At Mount Sinai, God established the nation of Israel (named for Abraham's grandson Jacob) as his own, and gave them the terms of his covenant with them. He then sustains the Israelites through 40 years of journeying in the wilderness before leading them into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. Central to all these events is Moses, who, like Muhammad, fulfills many leadership roles, including religious, political, legislative and military.

This general sequence of events is accepted by most scholars as historically reliable. As one source explains, "To disallow these events would make their centrality as articles of faith in the later religious beliefs of Israel inexplicable." {3}

Mosaic religion centers on the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The covenant required exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, who rescued them from bondage in Egypt. Worship of other gods, veneration of idols (even of Yahweh), and magical practices are prohibited. Rituals and festivals are established to celebrate God's historical and continuing provision.

Conquest of Canaan and the Judges

The conquest of Canaan is narrated in the biblical book of Joshua, with miraculous events (walls fell at a shout, the sun stood still) rivaling those of the Exodus. The process of occupation has been judged by scholars as more complex than that described in Joshua, incorporating a combination of military victories and treaty agreements.

After the conquest of Canaan, Israel was led by leaders called "judges," during which time the Israelites are described as repeatedly falling into idolatry and apostasy. Figurines discovered in the Israelite levels of archeological digs in Palestine support such a report. {4} At the same time, numerous altars to the God of Israel sprung up, and the Levites rose to the priesthood to conduct sacrifices at many of them. The ark of the covenant was housed and carefully protected at the Shiloh sanctuary, which was staffed by priests of the family of Eli.

The United Monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon

To maintain occupation of the Promised Land, it became necessary to have centralized authority and organized armies that could hold off external enemies. Two diverging views of the prospect of a monarchy arose: a rejection of God's kingship (1 Sam. 8-12) or a God-given way to defend Israel (1 Sam. 9:16). The former view is represented by the prophet-judge Samuel, who reluctantly crowned the first king.

Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, was made king (in c. 1020 BCE) after defeating the Ammonites. He ruled from his hometown of Gibeah, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Saul's reign was marred by conflicts with the prophet Samuel, who held ongoing authority over the kingship. King David, Saul's successor, solved these problems by combining religious and political authority in one person (David and his descendents) and in one place (the city of Jerusalem).

David was succeeeded by his son Solomon, whose history is recorded in 1 Kings 1-11 and 2 Chronicles 1-9. Solomon succeeded his father on the throne in early manhood, probably about sixteen or eighteen years of age. His father chose him as his successor, passing over the claims of his elder sons. His elevation to the throne took place before his father's death, and is hastened on mainly by Nathan and Bathsheba, in consequence of the rebellion of Adonijah.

During Solomon's long reign of 40 years the Hebrew monarchy gained its highest splendour. This period has well been called the "Augustan age" of the Jewish annals. In a single year he collected tribute amounting to 666 talents of gold, according to 1 Kings 10:13. The first half of his reign was, however, by far the brighter and more prosperous; the latter half was clouded by the idolatries into which he fell, mainly, accordingh to the scribes, from his intermarriages. According to 1 Kings 11:3, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. As soon as he had settled himself in his kingdom, and arranged the affairs of his extensive empire, he entered into an alliance with Egypt by a marriage with the daughter of Pharaoh.

The Divided Monarchy and Exile

After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BCE. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BCE. The Judahite elite was exiled to Babylon, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland, led by prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians. Already at this point the extreme fragmentation among the Israelites was apparent, with the formation of political-religious factions, the most important of which would later be called Sadduccees and Pharisees.

The Hasmonean Kingdom and the Destruction of the Temple

After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, his demise, and the division of Alexander's empire among his generals, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed. A deterioration of relations between hellenized Jews and religious Jews led the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to impose decrees banning certain

Jewish religious rites and traditions.

Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Hasmonean family, (also known as the Maccabees). This revolt eventually led to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BC to 63 BC. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated as a result of civil war between the sons of Salome Alexandra, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The people, who did not want to be governed by a king but by theocratic clergy, made appeals in this spirit to the Roman authorities. A Roman campaign of conquest and annexation, led by Pompey, soon followed.

Judea under Roman rule was at first an independent Jewish kingdom, but gradually the rule over Judea became less and less Jewish, until it became under the direct rule of Roman administration (and renamed the province of Judaea), which was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Judean subjects. In AD 66, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the Roman emperors Vesesapian and Titus Flavius. The Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, stole artifacts from the temple, such as the Menorah.

Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century when Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem, although this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

Various responses developed to Roman rule, ranging from armed revolt (the Zealots) or withdrawal from the world (the Essenes) to a renewed focus on preserving tradition in a new situation (the Pharisees), to integration with Greek society (the Sadduccees) and thought (Jewish Neoplatonists).

Rabbinical Judaism

Rabbinical Judaism developed out of the Pharasiac movement and in response to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The rabbis sought to reinterpret Jewish concepts and practices in the absence of the Temple and for a people in exile. Aside from some small side movements (such as the Karaites), Rabbinical Judaism was the dominant form of the Jewish religion for nearly 18 centuries. It produced the Talmud, the Midrash, and the great figures of medieval Jewish philosophy.

The Fall of Rome

The Eastern Roman Empire, under assault from barbarian invasion, passed a number of laws in the early Middle Ages, including the legislation of Justinian which culminated in the principle of taking away civil rights from heretics and unbelievers and of making their existence as difficult as possible. The restrictive laws of Constantine and Theodosius were renewed with increased rigor. The public observance of their religion was forbidden the Jews. The loss of their civil rights was followed by disregard for their personal freedom. In the wars waged by the Iconoclasts (eighth and ninth centuries) the Jews especially had to suffer, and mostly at the hands of iconoclastic emperors who were suspected of being heretics with Jewish tendencies. Many Jews fled to the neighboring states of the Slavs and Tatars, which were just coming into existence, and found refuge and protection on the lower Volga and on the northern shores of the Black Sea in the realm of the Khazars.

While the East-Roman empire was prolonging its inglorious existence by perpetual warfare with neighbors who were ever growing stronger, the Western Roman Empire fell prey to the barbarians. With the exception of the restrictive laws of the first Christian emperors, which still remained in force, the Jews were not troubled on account of their faith.

The Early Middle Ages

Not until the beginning of the ninth century did the Church succeed in drawing all humanity within her jurisdiction, and in bringing together and definitely settling the regulations in canonical law which the authority of the Church ordained for believers and their treatment of non-believers. Intercourse with Jews was almost entirely forbidden to believers, and thereby a chasm was created between the adherents of the two religions, which could not be bridged.

On the other hand, the Church found herself compelled to make the Jew a fellow citizen of the believer; for she enforced upon her own communities the Biblical prohibition against usury; and thus the only way left open to her of conducting financial operations was to seek loans at a legally determined rate of interest from the adherents of another faith. Through these peculiar conditions the Jews rapidly acquired influence. At the same time they were compelled to find their pleasures at home and in their own circles only. Their sole intellectual food came from their own literature, to which they devoted themselves with all the strength of their nature.

This was the general condition of the Jews in Western lands. Their fate in each particular country depended on the changing political conditions. In Italy they experienced dark days during the endless wars waged by the Heruli, Rugii, Ostrogoths, and Longobardi. The severe laws of the Roman emperors were in general more mildly administered than elsewhere; the Arian confession, of which the Germanic conquerors of Italy were adherents, being in contrast with the Catholic characterized by its tolerance. Among the Burgundians and Franks, who professed the Catholic faith, the ecclesiastical sentiment, fortunately for the Jews, made but slow progress, and the Merovingian rulers rendered only a listless and indifferent support to the demands of the Church, the influence of which they had no inclination to increase.

In the Pyrenean peninsula, from the most ancient times, Jews had lived peaceably in greater numbers than in the land of the Franks. The same modest good fortune remained to them when the Suevi, Alani, Vandals, and Visigoths occupied the land. It came to a sudden end when the Visigothic kings embraced Catholicism and wished to convert all their subjects to the same faith. Many Jews yielded to compulsion in the secret hope that the severe measures would be of short duration. But they soon bitterly repented this hasty step; for the Visigothic legislation insisted with inexorable severity that those who had been baptized by force should remain true to the Christian faith. Consequently the Jews eagerly welcomed the Arabs when the latter conquered the peninsula in 711.

Those Jews who still wished to remain true to the faith of their fathers were protected by the Church herself from compulsory conversion. There was no change in this policy even later, when the pope called for the support of the Carolingians in protecting his ideal kingdom with their temporal power. Charlemagne, moreover, was glad to use the Church for the purpose of welding together the loosely connected elements of his kingdom when he transformed the old Roman empire into a Christian one, and united under the imperial crown all the German races at that time firmly settled. When, a few decades after his death, his world-empire fell apart (843), the rulers of Italy, France, and Germany left the Church free scope in her dealings with the Jews, and under the influence of religious zeal hatred toward the unbelievers ripened into deeds of horror.

The Crusades

The trials which the Jews endured from time to time in the different kingdoms of the Christian West were only indications of the catastrophe which broke over them at the time of the Crusades. A wild, unrestrained throng, for which the crusade was only an excuse to indulge its rapacity, fell upon the peaceful Jews and sacrificed them to its fanaticism. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France suffered especially. Philip Augustus treated them with exceptional severity. In his days the Third Crusade took place (1188); and the preparations for it proved to be momentous for the English Jews. After unspeakable trials Jews were banished from England in 1290; and 365 years passed before they were allowed to settle again in the British Isles. The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320.

Persecution and Blood Libel

The justification for these deeds was found in crimes laid to the charge of the Jews. They were held responsible for the crime imputed to them a thousand years before this; and the false charge was circulated that they wished to dishonor the host which was supposed to represent Jesus' body. They were further charged with being the cause of every calamity. In 1240 the plundering raids of the Mongols were laid at their door. When, a hundred years later, the Black Death raged through Europe, the tale was invented that the Jews had poisoned the wells. The only court of appeal that regarded itself as their appointed protector, according to historical conceptions, was the "Roman emperor of the German nation." The emperor, as legal successor to Titus, who had acquired the Jews for his special property through the destruction of the Temple, claimed the rights of possession and protection over all the Jews in the former Roman empire.

They thus became imperial "servi cameræ." He might present them and their possessions to princes or to cities. That the Jews were not utterly destroyed was due to two circumstances: (1) the envy, distrust, and greed of princes and peoples toward one another, and (2) the moral strength which was infused into the Jews by a suffering which was undeserved but which enabled them to resist persecution. The abilities which could find no expression in the service of country or of humanity at large, were directed with all the more zeal toward the study of the Bible and Talmud, toward ordering communal affairs, toward building up a happy family life, and toward bettering the condition of the Jewish race in general.


Everywhere in the Christian Occident an equally gloomy picture was presented. The Jews, who were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450, were scattered in all directions, and fled preferably to the new Slavic kingdoms, where for the time being other confessions were still tolerated. Here they found a sure refuge under benevolent rulers and acquired a certain prosperity, in the enjoyment of which the study of the Talmud was followed with renewed vigor. Together with their faith, they took with them the German language and customs, which they have cultivated in a Slavic environment with unexampled faithfulness up to the present time.

As in Slavic countries, so also under Muslim rule the persecuted Jews often found a humane reception, especially from the eighth century onward in the Pyrenean peninsula. But even as early as the thirteenth century the Arabs could no longer offer a real resistance to the advancing force of Christian kings; and with the fall of political power Arabic culture declined, after having been transmitted to the Occident at about the same period, chiefly through the Jews in the north of Spain and in the south of France. At that time there was no field of learning which the Spanish Jews did not cultivate. They studied the secular sciences with the same zeal as the Bible and Talmud.

But the growing influence of the Church gradually crowded them out of this advantageous position. At first the attempt was made to win them to Christianity through writings and religious disputations; and when these attempts failed they were ever more and more restricted in the exercise of their civil rights. Soon they were obliged to live in separate quarters of the cities and to wear humiliating badges on their clothing. Thereby they were made a prey to the scorn and hatred of their fellow citizens. In 1391, when a fanatical mob killed thirty thousand Jews in Seville alone, many in their fright sought refuge in baptism. And although they often continued to observe in secret the laws of their fathers the Inquisition soon rooted out these pretended Christians or Maranos. Thousands were thrown into prison, tortured, and burned, until a project was formed to sweep all Spain clean of unbelievers. The plan matured when in 1492 the last Moorish fortress fell into the hands of the Christians. Several hundred thousand Jews were forced from the country which had been their home for 1,500 years. Many of them fled to the Balkan peninsula, where a few decades before the Crescent had won a victory over the Cross through the Osmanli Turks. These exiles have faithfully preserved the language of the country they were forced to leave; and to-day, after a lapse of more than 400 years, Spanish is still the mother tongue of their descendants.

The Enlightenment and Haskalah

During the period of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, significant changes were happening within the Jewish community. The Haskalah movement paralelled the wider Enlightenment, as Jews began in the 1700s to campaign for emancipation from restrictive laws and integration into the wider European society. Secular and scientific education was added to the traditional religious instruction received by students, and interest in a national Jewish identity, including a revival in the study of Jewish history and Hebrew, started to grow. Haskalah gave birth to the Reform and Conservative movements and planted the seeds of Zionism while at the same time encouraging cultural assimilation into the countries in which Jews resided. At around the same time another movement was born, one preaching almost the opposite of Haskalah, Hasidic Judaism. Hasidic Judiasm began in the 1700s by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and quickly gained a following with its more exubarent, mystical approach to religion. These two movements, and the traditional orthodox approach to Judiasm from which they spring, formed the basis for the modern divisions within Jewish observance.

At the same time, the outside world was changing. Though persecution still existed in some European countries (hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in the 18th and 19th centuries), Napoleon invited Jews to leave the Jewish ghettos in Europe and seek refuge in the newly created tolerant political regimes that offered equality under Napoleonic Law (see Napoleon and the Jews). At the same time, Jewish migration to the United States (see Jews in the United States) created a new community in large part freed of the restrictions of Europe.

The Holocaust

Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Adolf Hitler's fanatical anti-Semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, largely ignored when it was first printed, but which later became popular in Germany once Hitler acquired political power.

On April 1, 1933 the recently elected Nazis, under Julius Streicher, organized a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. This policy helped to usher-in a series of anti-Semitic acts that would eventually culminate in the Holocaust. The last remaining Jewish enterprises in Germany were closed on July 6, 1939. In many cities throughout Europe, Jews had been living in concentrated areas. During the first years of World War II, the Nazis formalized the borders of these areas and restricted movement, creating modern ghettos to which Jews were confined. The ghettos were, in effect, prisons in which many Jews died from hunger and disease; others were executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Concentration camps for Jews existed in Germany itself. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Wehrmacht and conducted mass killings of Communist officials and of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out by being rounded up, robbed of their possessions and clothing, and shot at the edges of ditches.

In December 1941, Hitler finally decided to exterminate European Jews. In January 1942, during the Wannsee conference, several Nazi leaders discussed the details of the "Final Solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). Dr. Josef Buhler urged Reinhard Heydrich to proceed with the Final Solution in the General Government. They began to systematically deport Jewish populations from the ghettos and all occupied territories to the seven camps designated as Vernichtungslager, or extermination camps: Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibór and Treblinka II.

Holocaust Aftermath and the State of Israel

The Holocaust and its aftermath left millions of refugees, including many Jews who had lost most or all of their family members and posessions, and often faced persistent anti-Semitism in their home countries. The need to find a homeland for the Jewish refugees led to many of them fervently joining the Zionist movement. Many Zionists, pointing to the fact that Jewish refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied lands had been turned away by other countries, argued that if a Jewish state had existed at the time, the Holocaust could not have occurred on the scale it did.

The sudden rapid growth of Zionism and the post-Holocaust displacement resulted in the emigration of a great many Jews to what became the modern State of Israel soon after. This immigration had a direct effect on the regional Arabs, many of whom firmly opposed a Jewish state in the Middle East. Some would say this stemmed from a lack of understanding of a need for a Jewish Homeland. While the Holocaust stands as a reminder that modern, "civilized" nations can engage in the most horrific of organized group behavior, it is also important to remember that during the Holocaust, many non-Jews risked (and often lost) their lives attempting to aid Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, for no conceivable gain other than to satisfy their own consciences. In order to recognize these examples of the most noble of human behaviors among the most debased, the Israeli government through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial set up a Righteous gentiles program to honor and memorialize as many of these heroic individuals as can be found.


1. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." (Amos, c. 8th cent. BCE)

2. "History of Judaism: General Observations." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

3. Ibid., "Judaism: The Mosaic period."

4. Ibid., "Judaism: The period of the conquest and the settlement of Canaan."

5. Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101.

6. George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).

7. "Jewish history." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Some public domain text from this source has been incorporated into this article.


Historic recreation of priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple (Source: