Origins of Judaism

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This article discusses the historical roots of Judaism throughout the 1st millennium BCE. For the origins of the modern-day religion of Judaism, see Origins of Rabbinic Judaism.

The origins of Judaism lie in the Bronze Age polytheistic Ancient Semitic religions, specifically Canaanite religion, a syncretization with elements of Babylonian religion and of the worship of Yahweh reflected in the early prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. During the Babylonian captivity of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, certain circles within the exiled Judahites in Babylon redefined pre-existing ideas about monotheism, election, divine law and Covenant into a theology which came to dominate the former Judah in the following centuries.

From the 5th century BCE until 70 CE, Israelite religion developed into the various theological schools of Second Temple Judaism, besides Hellenistic Judaism in the diaspora. The text of the Hebrew Bible was redacted into its extant form in this period and possibly also canonized as well.

Rabbinic Judaism developed during Late Antiquity, during the 3rd to 6th centuries CE; the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud were compiled in this period. The oldest manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition come from the 10th and 11th centuries CE; in the form of the Aleppo Codex of the later portions of the 10th century CE and the Leningrad Codex dated to 1008–1009 CE. Due largely to censoring and the burning of manuscripts in medieval Europe the oldest existing manuscripts of various rabbinical works are quite late. The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy of the Babylonian Talmud is dated to 1342 CE.[1]

Historical background[edit]

Main article: History of Judaism

Pre-monarchic (tribal religion)[edit]

The founding myth of the Israelite nation is the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under the guidance of Moses, followed by the conquest of the Promised Land (Canaan). However, there is little or no archaeological or historical evidence to support these accounts, and although they may in part originate as early as the 10th century BCE, according to the Wellhausen hypothesis they reached something like their present form only in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE, when they are alleged to have been edited to comply with the theology of Second Temple Judaism.[2][3]

Monarchy (centralized religion)[edit]

Further information: Solomon's Temple and Canaanite religion

The United Monarchy of the 11th to 10th centuries BCE was one of the political entities of the Levant during the Early Iron Age.[disputed ] These states were organized as monarchies, with kings ruling city-states and each city claiming a patron deity to whom the city's main temple was dedicated (see also Syro-Hittite states, Ugarit, Byblos). In Jerusalem, this was Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, constructed during the 10th century BCE.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem was a Jebusite fortress, conquered by the Israelites and made into their capital around 1000 BCE (Edwin R. Thiele dates David's conquest of Jerusalem to 1003 BCE). As a result, the Jebusite cult exerted considerable influence on Israelite religion. The Jebusites observed an astral cult involving Shalem, an astral deity identified with the Evening star in Ugaritic mythology, besides Tzedek "righteousness" and El Elyon, the "most high God". It is plausible, however, that the application of the epithet Elyon "most high" to Israelite Yahweh predates the conquest of Jerusalem; the epithet was applied with sufficient fluidity throughout the Northwest Semitic sphere that assuming a transition from its application to El to the Yahwistic cult presents no obstacle.[4]

Both the archaeological evidence and the Biblical texts document tensions between groups comfortable with the worship of Yahweh alongside local deities such as Asherah and Baal and those insistent on worship of Yahweh alone during the monarchal period.[5][6] During the 8th century BCE, worship of Yahweh in Israel stood in competition with many other cults, described by the Yahwist faction collectively as Baals. The oldest books of the Hebrew Bible, written in the 8th century BCE reflect this competition, as in the books of Hosea and Nahum, whose authors lament the "apostasy" of the people of Israel, threatening them with the wrath of God if they do not give up their polytheistic cults.

The Yahwist faction seems to have gained considerable influence during the 8th century BCE, and by the 7th century BCE, based on the testimony of the Deuteronomistic source, monolatrist worship of Yahweh seems to have become official, reflected in the removal of the image of Asherah from the temple in Jerusalem under Hezekiah (r. 715–686 BCE) so that monotheistic worship of the god of Israel can be argued to have originated during his rule.[7]

Hezekiah's successor Manasseh reversed some of these changes, restoring polytheistic worship, and according to 2 Kings 21:16 even persecuting the Yahwist faction. Josiah (r. 641–609 BCE) again turned to monolatry. The Book of Deuteronomy as well as the other books ascribed to the Deuteronomist were written during Josiah's rule. The final two decades of the monarchic period, leading up to the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 597 BCE were thus marked by official monolatry of the god of Israel. This had important consequences in the worship of Yahweh as it was practiced in the Babylonian captivity and ultimately for the theology of Second Temple Judaism.

Babylonian exile[edit]

Main article: Babylonian exile
Further information: Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah

Following the second siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the city wall and the Temple. Judah became a Babylonian province, called Yehud. The first governor appointed by Babylon was Gedaliah, a native Judahite; he encouraged the many Jews who had fled to surrounding countries such as Moab, Ammon, Edom, to return, and took steps to return the country to prosperity. Some time afterwards, a surviving member of the royal family assassinated Gedaliah and his Babylonian advisors, prompting a rush of refugees seeking safety in Egypt. Thus by the end of the second decade of the 6th century, in addition to those who remained in Judah, there were significant Jewish communities in Babylon and in Egypt; this was the beginning of the later numerous Jewish communities living permanently outside Judah in the Jewish diaspora. According to the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, the Persian Cyrus the Great ended the exile in 538 BCE, the year in which he captured Babylon. The Exile ends with the return under Zerubbabel and the construction of the Second Temple in the period 520–515 BCE.

Second Temple period[edit]

Main articles: Second Temple Judaism and Zugot
Further information: Hellenistic Judaism and YHWH

The oldest surviving writings of Judaism date from the Hellenistic period. This includes Hebrew and Aramaic papyri with biblical fragments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Greek documents such as the Septuagint. The contact of Israelite and Greek cultures resulted in the development of strict monotheism which recast the national god of Israel in the role of the creator of the universe, corresponding to The One or The All of Hellenistic religion.[citation needed]

Other scholars[who?] contend that the development of a strict monotheism was the result of cultural diffusion between Persians and Hebrews. While (in practice) dualistic, Zoroastrianism believed in eschatological monotheism (i.e. only one god in the end). Some suggest that it is not merely coincidence that the Zoroastrianism's model of eschatological monotheism and the Deuteronomic historians strictly monotheistic model receive formative articulations during the period after Persia overthrew Babylon.[8]

Second Temple Judaism was divided into theological factions, notably the Pharisees and the Sadducees, besides numerous smaller sects such as the Essenes, messianic movements such as Early Christianity, and closely related traditions such as Samaritanism (which gives us the Samaritan Pentateuch, an important witness of the text of the Torah independent of the Masoretic Text).

During the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE, when Judea was under Seleucid and then Roman rule, the genre of apocalyptic literature became popular, the most notable work in this tradition being the Book of Daniel.

Development of Rabbinic Judaism[edit]

Scenes from the Book of Esther decorate the Dura-Europos synagogue dating from 244 CE
Further information: Tannaim, Amora, Talmud and Origins of Christianity

For centuries, the traditional understanding has been that Judaism came before Christianity and that Christianity separated from Judaism some time after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, some scholars have begun to argue that the historical picture is quite a bit more complicated than that.[9] In the 1st century, many Jewish sects existed in competition with each other, see Second Temple Judaism. The sects which eventually became Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity were but two of these. Some scholars have begun to propose a model which envisions a twin birth of Christianity and Judaism rather than a separation of the former from the latter. For example, Robert Goldenberg (2002) asserts that it is increasingly accepted among scholars that "at the end of the 1st century CE there were not yet two separate religions called "Judaism" and "Christianity"".[10] Daniel Boyarin (2002) proposes a revised understanding of the interactions between nascent Christianity and nascent Rabbinical Judaism in Late Antiquity which views the two religions as intensely and complexly intertwined throughout this period.

The Amoraim were the Jewish scholars of Late Antiquity who codified and commented upon the law and the biblical texts. The final phase of redaction of the Talmud into its final form took place during the 6th century CE, by the scholars known as the Savoraim. This phase concludes the Chazal era foundational to Rabbinical Judaism.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Golb, Norman (1998). The Jews in Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History. Cambridge University Press. p. 530. ISBN 978-0521580328. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, s.v. "Elyon", with reference to Sheow (1989), 41-54.
  5. ^ 1 Kings 18, Jeremiah 2; Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Fortress Press (1998); Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press (2001)
  6. ^ Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Fortress Press (1998); Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press (2001)
  7. ^ Steven L. McKenzie, Deuteronomistic History, The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 2, Doubleday (1992), pp. 160–168; Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press (2001) pp. 151-154
  8. ^
  9. ^ Jews and Christians: the parting of the ways A.D. 70 to 135 : the second Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism. 1989. 
  10. ^ Robert Goldenberg. Review of "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism" by Daniel Boyarin in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 3/4 (Jan. - Apr., 2002), pp. 586-588