, Research Paper
The Roots of Judaism and Christianity
The Jews are a people who trace their descent from the biblical Israelites
and who are united by the religion called Judaism. They are not a race; Jewish
identity is a mixture of ethnic, national, and religious elements. An individual
may become part of the Jewish people by conversion to Judaism; but a born Jew
who rejects Judaism or adopts another religion does not entirely lose his Jewish
identity. In biblical times the Jews were divided into 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon
(Levi), Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim,
The word Jew is derived from the kingdom of Judah, which included the
tribes of Benjamin and Judah. The name Israel referred to the people as a whole
and to the northern kingdom of 10 tribes. Today it is used as a collective name
for all Jewry and since 1948 for the Jewish state. (Citizens of the state of
Israel are called Israelis; not all of them are Jews.) In the Bible, Hebrew is
used by foreign peoples as a name for the Israelites; today it is applied only
to the hebrew language.
The origin of the Jews is recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Despite legendary
and miraculous elements in its early narratives, most scholars believe that the
biblical account is based on historic realities. According to the Book of
Genesis, God ordered the patriarch Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and
travel to a new land, which he promised to Abraham’s descendants as a perpetual
inheritance. Although the historicity of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his
grandson Jacob is uncertain, the Israelite tribes certainly came to Canaan from
Mesopotamia. Later they, or some of them, settled in Egypt, where they were
reduced to slavery; they finally fled to freedom under the leadership of an
extraordinary man named Moses, probably about 1200 BC. After a period of desert
wandering, the tribes invaded Canaan at different points, and over a lengthy
period of time they gained control over parts of the country.
For a century or more the tribes, loosely united and sometimes feuding
among themselves, were hard pressed by Canaanite forces based in fortified
strongholds and by marauders from outside. At critical moments tribal chieftains
rose to lead the people in battle. But when the Philistines threatened the very
existence of the Israelites, the tribes formed a kingdom under the rule (1020-
1000 BC) of Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul died fighting the Philistines
and was succeeded by David of the tribe of Judah.
David crushed the power of the Philistines and established a modest empire.
He conquered the fortress city of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been
controlled by a Canaanite tribe, and made it his capital. His son Solomon
assumed the trappings of a potentate and erected the Temple in Jerusalem, which
became the central sanctuary of the distinctive monotheistic Israelite religion
and ultimately the spiritual center of world Jewry.
The national union effected by David was shaky. The economically and
culturally advanced tribes of the north resented the rule of kings from pastoral
Judah, and after Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided. The larger and richer
northern kingdom was known as Israel; Judah, with Benjamin, remained loyal to
the family of David. Israel experienced many dynastic changes and palace
revolutions. Both Israel and Judah, located between the empires of Egypt and
Assyria, were caught in the struggle between the two great powers. Assyria was
the dominant empire during the period of the divided kingdom. When Israel, with
Egyptian encouragement, tried to throw off Assyrian rule, it was destroyed and a
large number of its inhabitants were deported (722 BC). Judah managed to outlive
the Assyrian Empire (destroyed c.610), but the Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire
that replaced it also insisted on control of Judah. When a new revolt broke out
under Egyptian influence, the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed
Jerusalem and burned the Temple (587 or 586 BC); the royalty, nobility, and
skilled craftsmen were deported to Babylonia.
Loss of state and Temple, however, did not lead to the disappearance of the
Judeans, as it did in the northern kingdom. The peasantry that remained on the
land, the refugees in Egypt, and the exiles in Babylonia retained a strong faith
in their God and the hope of ultimate restoration. This was largely due to the
influence of the great prophets. Their warnings of doom had been fulfilled;
therefore, the hopeful message they began to preach was believed. The universal
prophetic teaching assured Jews that they could still worship their God on alien
soil and without a temple. Henceforth the Jewish people and religion could take
root in the dispersion as well as in the homeland.
Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia in 536 BC. Subsequently he
permitted the exiles to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. (Many chose,
however, to remain in Mesopotamia, where the Jewish community existed without
interruption for more than 2,500 years until the virtual elimination of Jewish
presence in Iraq after World War II.) Leadership of the reviving Judean center
was provided largely by returning exiles–notably Nehemiah, an important
official of the Persian court, and Ezra, a learned priest. They rebuilt the
walls of Jerusalem and consolidated spiritual life by a public ceremony of
allegiance to the Torah and by stringent rules against mixed marriage. In the
following centuries leadership was provided mainly by priests, who claimed
descent from Moses’ brother Aaron; the high priest usually represented the
people in dealings with the foreign powers that successively ruled the land.
Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 322; his successors, the
Macedonian rulers of Egypt (the Ptolemies) and Syria; vied for control of this
strategically important area; eventually the Syrians won. Hellenistic influences
penetrated Jewish life deeply, but when the Seleucid king Antichus IV tried to
impose the worship of Greek gods upon the Jews, a rebellion ensued (168 BC).
The popular revolt was led by the Maccabees, a provincial priestly family
(also called Hasmoneans). By 165 they recaptured the Temple, which had been
converted into a pagan shrine, and rededicated it to the God of Israel.
Hostilities with Syria continued; but Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers,
consolidated his power and was formally recognized in 131 BC as ruler and high
priest. His successors took the title of king and for about a century ruled an
independent commonwealth. Dynastic quarrels, however, gave the Roman general
Pompey the Great an excuse to intervene and make himself master of the country
in 63 BC.
In subsequent decades a family of Idumaean adventurers ingratiated
themselves with the successive Roman dictators; with Roman help, Herod the Great
made himself ruler of Judea, eventually (37 BC) with the title of king. Able but
ruthless, he was hated by the people, although he rebuilt the Temple with great
magnificence. The Romans allowed Herod’s sons less authority and in 6 BC put the
country formally under the control of their own officials, known as procurators.
New spiritual forces emerged during the Maccabean and Herodian periods. The
leadership of hereditary priests was contested by laymen distinguished for their
learning and piety, who won the respect and support of the people. The priestly
conservatives came to be known as Sadducees, the more progressive lay party as
the Pharisees. The latter came to dominate the Sangedrin, which was the highest
religious and legal authority of the nation.
Burdoned by excessive taxation and outraged by acts of brutality, the
Judeans became more and more restive under Roman rule, all the more because they
were confident that God would ultimately vindicate them. Revolutionary groups
such as the Zealots emerged calling for armed revolt. The Sadducees were
inclined to collaborate with the Romans; the Pharisees advocated passive
resistance but sought to avoid open war.
In AD 66 the moderates could no longer control the desperate populace, and
rebellion against Roman tyranny broke out. After bitter fighting the Romans
captured Jerusalem and burned the Temple in 70; at Masada the Zealots held out
until 73, when most of the 1,000 surviving defenders killed themselves to defy
capture by the Romans. As a result of the revolt thousands of Jews were sold
into slavery and thus were scattered widely in the Roman world. The last
vestiges of national autonomy were obliterated.
The Pharisaic leaders, shortly thereafter given the title of Rabbi, rallied
the people for a new undertaking–the reconstruction of religious and social
life. Using the institution of the Syanagogue as a center of worship and
education, they adapted religious practice to new conditions. Their assembly,
the Sanhedrin, was reconvened at Jabneh, and its head was recognized by the
Romans and given the title of patriarch; the Diaspora Jews accepted his
authority and that of the Sanhedrin in matters of Jewish law.
Many Diaspora Jewish communities rebelled against Rome early in the 2d
century; however, their rebellions were crushed, with much bloodshed. Still more
bitter was the revolt of Palestinian Jewry led by Bar Kochba in 132; it was put
down after three years of savage fighting. For a time thereafter observance of
basic Jewish practices was made a capital crime, and Jews were banned from
Jerusalem. Under the Antonine emperors (138-92), however, milder policies were
restored, and the work of the scholars was resumed, particularly in Galilee,
which became the seat of the partriarchate until its abolition (c.429) by the
Romans. There the sages called tannaim completed the redaction of the Mishnah
(oral law) under the direction of Judah Ha-Nasi.
In the 3d and 4th centuries scholarly activity in Palestine declined as a
result of bad economic conditions and oppression by Christian Rome. Meanwhile,
two Babylonian pupils of Judah ha -Nasi had returned home, bringing the Mishnah
with them, and established new centers of learning at Sura and Nehardea. A
period of great scholarly accomplishment followed, and leadership of world Jewry
passed to the Babylonian schools. The Babylonian Talmud became the standard
legal work for Jews everywhere. Babylonian Jewry enjoyed peace and prosperity
under the Parthian and Sassanian rulers, with only occasional episodes of
persecution. In addition to the heads of the academies, the Jews had a secular
ruler, the exilarch. This situation was not significantly changed by the Muslim
conquest of the Persian empire. At the end of the 6th century, the heads of the
academies had adopted the title of gaon (Hebrew, “excellency”), and the next
four centuries are known as the gaonic period; communities throughout the world
turned to the Babylonian leaders for help in understanding the Talmud and
applying it to new problems. About 770 the sect of Karaites, biblical
literalists who rejected the Talmud, appeared in Babylonia. Despite the vigorous
opposition of the great Saadia Ben Joseph Gaon and other leaders, the Karaites
continued to flourish for centuries in various lands; today the sect has only a
few small remnants.
Jews had long been accustomed to living in neighborhoods of their own, for
security and for ready access to a synagogue. From the 16th century, however,
they were systematically compelled to live in walled enclosures, to be locked in
at night and on Christian holidays, and to wear a distinguishing badge when
outside the walls. The Jewish quarter of Venice (established 1516) was called
the GHETTO, and this local name became a general term for such segregated areas.
Cut off from normal relations with non-Jews, few Jews had any idea of the
cultural revival of the Renaissance. Even in the field of Jewish law they
tended to a rigid conservatism.
In Poland and Lithuania, social conditions also had a segregatory effect.
The Jews continued to speak a German dialect, mixed with many Hebrew words and
with borrowings from Slavic languages–now known as Yiddish). Intellectual life
was focused on study of the Talmud, in which they achieved extraordinary mastery.
They enjoyed a large measure of self- government, centralized in the Council of
the Four Lands. Persecutions became more frequent, however, inspired by
competition from the growing Christian merchant class and by overly zealous
churchmen. In 1648 a rebellion of Cossacks and Tatars in the Ukraine–then under
Polish rule–led to an invasion of Poland, in which hundreds of thousands of
Jews were massacred. Polish Jewry never recovered from this blow. A little over
a century later, Poland was partitioned (1772, 1793, 1795) among Prussia,
Austria, and Russia, and most of Polish Jewry found itself under the heartless
rule of the Russian tsars.
Some 18th-century liberals began to advocate an improvement of Jewish
status; at the same time Moses Mendelssohn and a few other Jews were urging
their coreligionists to acquire secular education and prepare themselves to
participate in the national life of their countries. Such trends were
intensified by the French Revolution. The French National Assembly granted
(1791) Jews citizenship, and Napoleon I, although not free from prejudice,
extended these rights to Jews in the countries he conquered, and the ghettos
were abolished. After Napoleon’s fall (1814-15), the German states revoked the
rights he had granted the Jews, but the struggle for emancipation continued.
Equal rights were achieved in the Netherlands, and more slowly in Great Britain.
Germany and Austria, even after 1870, discriminated against Jews in military and
academic appointments; in these countries much popular hostility continued, now
called Anti-Semetism and supposedly justified on racial rather than religious
grounds. In the American colonies the Jews had suffered relatively minor
disabilities; with the founding of the United States, Jews became full citizens-
- although in a few states discriminatory laws had to be fought.
Jews entered the life of the Western world with keen enthusiasm; they
contributed significantly to commercial, scientific, cultural, and social
progress. But the old structure of Jewish life was severely damaged: community
controls became less effective, and neglect of religious observance, mixed
marriage, and conversion to Christianity occurred. In response to such
challenges, new modernist versions of Judaism were formulated; these movements
originated in Germany and had their greatest development in North America.
In Russia hopes of improvement were soon abandoned; the government engaged
in open war against Jews. Under Nicholas I (r. 1825-55), 12-year-old Jewish boys
were drafted into the army for terms of more than 30 years (whereas other
Russians were drafted at 18 for 25 years); and Jewish conscripts were treated
with the utmost brutality to make them convert to Christianity.
After 1804, Jews were allowed to reside only in Poland, Lithuania, and the
Ukraine; Russia proper was closed to them. This Pale of settlement was later
made smaller. From 1881 on, anti-Jewish riots, tolerated and sometimes
instigated by the government, sent thousands fleeing to Western Europe and the
Americas. Because Russia refused to honor the passports of American Jews, the
United States abrogated a trade treaty in 1913.
In response to these policies, new trends appeared in Russian Jewry. A
movement of Jewish nationalism expressed itself in a revival of Hebrew as a
secular language and in a few attempts at colonization in Palestine. A Jewish
socialist movement, the Bund, appeared in urban centers, stressing the Yiddish
language and folk culture.
The violent outburst of hatred that accompanied the Dreyfus Aaair in France
inspired Theodor Herzl to launch the movement of Zionism, which sought to
establish a Jewish state. Its chief support came from East European Jews;
elsewhere Herzl’s proposals were considered impractical and a threat to newly
won civil status. During World War I, East European Jews suffered heavily from
troops on both sides. American Jewry now found itself for the first time the
leading element in the world Jewish community, bearing the major responsibility
for relief and reconstruction of the ravaged centers. The peace treaties
guaranteed equal rights to minorities in the newly constituted or reconstituted