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.
Main article: History of 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 Iron Age I, the Israelite religion became distinct from other Canaanite religions due to the unique monolatristic (proto-monotheistic) worship of Yahweh.

During the Babylonian captivity of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE (Iron Age II), certain circles within the exiled Judahites in Babylon redefined pre-existing ideas about monotheism, election, divine law and Covenant into a strict monotheistic theology which came to dominate the former Judah in the following centuries.[1]

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. Second Temple Judaism was significantly influenced by Zoroastrianism. 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.[2]

Iron Age Yahwism[edit]

Judaism's own explanation of its origins is to be found in its scriptures: God created the world, elected Israel as his chosen people, rescued them from slavery in Egypt, gave them their laws and land and made a covenant with them, punishing them when they strayed and forgiving them when they repented.[3] These stories, however, are not part of real history, and the books in which appear were written in a brief period of time in the 5th century BCE or later.[4][5] Judaism's actual origins lie in the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel (or Samaria) and Judah, which first appear in the 9th century BCE.[6][7] The two kingdoms shared Yahweh as their national god, in the same way Chemosh was the god of Moab, Milcom the god of the Ammonites, Qaus the god of the Edomites, and so on.[8][9] In each kingdom the king was his god's viceroy on Earth, and the various national gods were more or less equal, reflecting the fact that kingdoms themselves were more or less equal.[10][7] Within each kingdom a divine couple, made up of the national god and his consort – Yahweh and the goddess Asherah in Israel and Judah – headed a pantheon of lesser gods.[11][12]

By the late 8th century both Judah and Israel had become vassals of Assyria, bound by treaties of loyalty on one side and protection on the other. When Israel rebelled and was destroyed c.722 BCE), refugees from the former kingdom fled to Judah, bringing with them the tradition that Yahweh was not merely the most important of the gods, but the only god who should be served. Their outlook influenced the Judahite landowning elite, who became extremely powerful in court circles in the next century when they placed the eight-year-old Josiah (reigned 641–609 BC) on the throne. During Josiah's reign Assyrian power entered a rapid decline, and a pro-independence movement took power promoting loyalty to Yahweh as the sole god of Israel (the so-called "Yahweh-alone" movement). With Josiah's support they launched a full-scale reform of worship in the form of a covenant (i.e., treaty) between Judah and Yahweh, replacing that between Judah and Assyria.[13]

By the time this occurred, Yahweh had already been gradually absorbing the positive characteristics of the other gods and goddesses including Asherah, a process of appropriation that was an essential step in the subsequent emergence of one of Judaism's most notable features, its uncompromising monotheism.[11] The people of ancient Israel and Judah, however, were not followers of Judaism: they were practitioners of a polytheistic culture worshiping multiple gods, concerned with fertility and local shrines and legends, and not with a written torah, elaborate laws governing ritual purity, or an exclusive covenant and national god.[14]

Second Temple Judaism[edit]

Main article: Second Temple Judaism
Further information: Hellenistic Judaism and YHWH

Historical outline[edit]

The last half of the 1st millennium BCE is often treated as a single unit, in that the former kingdom of Judah became a province of other empires. In political terms it divides into three, the Babylonian Exile, Persian Yehud, and the Hellenistic, or Greek, period, but in religious terms Persian and Hellenistic periods are treated together as Second Temple Judaism.

In 586 BCE Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Judean elite – royal family, the priests, the scribes and other members of the elite – were taken to Babylon in captivity. The Babylonian exile ended in 538 (actually late in 539) with the capture of Babylon by the Persians, after which Judah became a Persian province under the name Yehud. Around 332 BCE Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great, after which Yehud was a province of two successive Greek-ruled kingdoms, first Ptolemaic Egypt and then Seleucid Syria (the names are those of the ruling dynasties).

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.[15]

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.[16] 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"".[17] 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. ^ Gnuse, Robert Karl (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 1-85075-657-0. 
  2. ^ Golb, Norman (1998). The Jews in Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History. Cambridge University Press. p. 530. ISBN 978-0521580328. 
  3. ^ Davies 2016, p. 1.
  4. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 81.
  5. ^ Berquist 2007, p. 3.
  6. ^ Schniedewind 2013, p. 93.
  7. ^ a b Smith 2010, p. 119.
  8. ^ Hackett 2001, p. 156.
  9. ^ Davies 2010, p. 112.
  10. ^ Miller 2000, p. 90.
  11. ^ a b Anderson 2015, p. 3.
  12. ^ Betz 2000, p. 917.
  13. ^ Rogerson 2003, p. 153-154.
  14. ^ Davies 2016, p. 15.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Dunn, James D. G., ed. (1999). Jews and Christians: the parting of the ways A.D. 70 to 135. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company. 
  17. ^ Goldenberg, Robert (2002). "Reviewed Work: Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism by Daniel Boyarin". The Jewish Quarterly Review 92 (3/4): 586–588. doi:10.2307/1455460. JSTOR 1455460.