Jewish history

English » A Muslim’s Guide to Judaism » Jewish history


 

J
ewish history encompasses nearly four thousand years and hundreds of different populations, scattered around the world. Here, we offer a brief overview of the history of the Jewish people since ancient times.

 

 

 

Ancient Israelites

 

 

The history of the Jews begins in the Fertile Crescent, the area lying between the Nile River to the west and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the east. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of other cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

 

Traditionally Jews around the world claim descent mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Jewish tradition holds that the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons (one of whom was named Judah), who settled in Egypt. While in Egypt their descendants were enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh, often identified as Ramses II. In the Jewish tradition, the Israelites emigrated from Egypt to Canaan (the Exodus), led by the prophet Moses. This event marks the formation of the Israelites as a people, divided into twelve tribes named after Jacob's sons.

 

According to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty-one years after which they conquered Canaan under the command of Joshua, dividing the land among the twelve tribes. For a time, the twelve tribes were led by a series of rulers known as Judges. Afterwards, an Israelite monarchy was established under Saul, and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital. After Solomon's reign, the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel, consisting of ten of the tribes (in the north), and Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BCE.

 

 

Exilic and post-exilic periods

 

 

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 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.

 

 

Hellenistic Judaism

 

 

Currents of Judaism influenced by Hellenistic philosophy developed from the 3rd century BC, notably the Jewish diaspora in Alexandria, culminating in the compilation of the Septuagint. An important advocate of the symbiosis of Jewish theology and Hellenistic thought was Philo.

 

The Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great. After 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 BCE to 63 BCE. 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.

 

 

Roman rule

 

 

Judea under Roman rule was at first an independent Jewish kingdom, but gradually the rule over Judea became less and less Jewish, until it came under the direct rule of Roman and later Christian administration, which was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Judean subjects. In 66 CE, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the future Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. In the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, plundered artefacts from the temple, such as the Menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, until the 2nd century when Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt. 985 villages were destroyed and most of the Jewish population of central Judaea was essentially wiped out, killed, sold into slavery, or forced to flee. Banished from Jerusalem, the Jewish population now centred on Galilee.

 

 

The diaspora

 

 

Many of the Judaean Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. The book of Acts in the New Testament, as well as other Pauline texts, make frequent reference to the large populations of Hellenised Jews in the cities of the Roman world. These Hellenised Jews were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, absorbing the feeling of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy towards proselytism and conversion to Judaism, which spread the Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

 

Of critical importance to the reshaping of Jewish tradition from the Temple-based religion to the traditions of the Diaspora, was the development of the interpretations of the Torah found in the Mishnah and Talmud.

 

 

Land of Israel

 

 

In spite of the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews remained in the land of Israel in significant numbers. The Jews who stayed in Palestine went through numerous experiences and armed conflicts against consecutive occupiers of the Land. Some of the most famous and important Jewish texts were composed in Israeli cities at this time. The Jerusalem Talmud, the completion of the Mishnah and the system of niqqud are examples.

 

 

Byzantine period

 

 

Jews were widespread throughout the Roman Empire, and this carried on to a lesser extent in the period of Byzantine rule in the central and eastern Mediterranean. The militant and exclusive Christianity and caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire did not treat Jews well, and the condition and influence of diaspora Jews in the Empire declined dramatically.

 

It was official Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity, and the Christian leadership used the official power of Rome in their attempts. In 351 CE the Jews revolted against the added pressures of their Governor, one named Gallus. Gallus put down the revolt and destroyed the major cities in the Galilee where the revolt had started. Tzippori and Lydda (site of two of the major legal academies) never recovered.

 

Nonetheless it is in this period that the Nasi in Tiberias, Hillel II created an official calendar which needed no monthly sightings of the moon. The months were set, and the calendar needed no further authority from Judea. At about the same time, the Jewish academy at Tiberius began to collate the combined Mishnah, braitot, explanations, and interpretations developed by generations of scholars who studied after the death of Judah HaNasi. The text was organized according to the order of the Mishna: each paragraph of Mishnah was followed by a compilation of all of the interpretations, stories, and responses associated with that Mishnah. This text is called the Jerusalem Talmud.

 

The precarious existence of Jews under Byzantine rule did not long endure, largely for the explosion of the Muslim religion out of the remote Arabian peninsula (where large populations of Jews resided, see History of the Jews under Muslim Rule for more). The Muslim Caliphate ejected the Byzantines from the Holy Land (or the Levant, defined as modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) within a few years of their victory at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. A testament of the cruelty of the Byzantines towards the Jews can be noted in the great number of Jews who fled remaining Byzantine territories in favour of residence in the Caliphate over the subsequent centuries.

 

Yet, the size of the Jewish community in the Byzantine Empire was not affected by attempts by some emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success.

 

 

Jews in the Lands of Muslims

 

 

To be added soon...