The Roots of Judaism and Christianity
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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
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Land of Israel, Semitic peoples, Books of Kings, Jewish religious movements, Jewish history, Kingdom of Judah, Tribe of Judah, Jews, Pharisees, Canaan, Hasmonean dynasty, Sadducees
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