The Roots Of Judaism And Christianity Essay

, Research Paper

The Roots of Judaism and Christianity

(i) Judaism:

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,

and Manasseh.

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

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