Overview

  • Judaism emerged in the Near East, possibly as early as the eleventh century BCE
  • Judaism was relatively unique in the ancient world in that it was monotheistic—believed in only one God
  • Judaism was influenced by the historical contexts in which it developed

Contextualizing religions

Historians do not try to determine whether the beliefs of a certain religion are objectively true or not. Instead, historians ask questions about how religious beliefs and practices influenced people's actions and shaped historical events.
When historians look at how religions developed, they try to understand how contextual factors shaped the beliefs and actions of people who followed particular religious traditions. For example, a historian might ask what events were occurring in the Near East when Judaism first appeared. Who were Jews interacting with, and what did these people believe?
What are historians trying to do when they study the development of religions?
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Development of Judaism

Jews were monotheists—they believed in and worshipped only one god. This stands out to historians because monotheism was relatively unique in the ancient world. Most ancient societies were polytheistic—they believed in and worshiped multiple gods.
What was the most common form of religion in the ancient world?
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From some time in the eleventh century BCE until the end of the sixth century BCE, the Jews lived in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The two kingdoms split apart, probably around 930 BCE.
Map depicting the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth century BCE.
Map depicting the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth century BCE. Image credit: Wikimedia
In the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, the Assyrian Empire and then the Babylonian Empire, respectively, conquered these Jewish kingdoms. In both instance, these empires forced many—though not all—Jews to move other regions of the empire. The period after the conquest by the Babylonians is often called the Babylonian exile and it played a major role in shaping Jewish thought.
When the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians, the Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in 539 BCE. To celebrate their return, the Jews rebuilt the Temple of Solomon that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Historians call the time from 539 BCE until 70 CE the Second Temple period. It was during this time that many of the writings that would become the Torah—the history and religious thinking of the Jewish people—were compiled.
It was also during this time that Jewish monotheism became more clearly defined. According to Jewish beliefs, they had a special covenant—agreement— with their God. This covenant said that the Jews were God's chosen people, and in exchange they would follow God's laws, and worship only him. This was the source of an exclusive belief in the Jewish God.
Some historians have argued that Jewish monotheism was influenced by Zoroastrianism—a faith the Jews would have encountered during the Babylonian Exile and in their broader interactions with other Near Eastern peoples. Zoroastrianism was not entirely monotheistic, but it did teach that there was a single Supreme Being. Zoroastrianism was common in Persia under Cyrus the Great. It's possible that Cyrus the Great's actions of restoring the Jews to their homeland and helping them rebuild the Temple positively influenced Jewish views of Zoroastrianism.
Some historians have also argued that Hellenism—Greek culture and ideas—influenced Judaism during the Second Temple period. Alexander the Great's conquest of the Near East in the 330s BCE brought Greek influences to Jewish thinkers. It also led to divisions within the Jewish community, as some Jews opposed adopting Greek culture and ideas.
What religious and cultural influences likely affected the development of Judaism in the Second Temple period?
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Judaism and Rome

Communities of Jews lived under Roman rule from at least the second century BCE, and Jews had typically been allowed freedom to follow their own religious traditions. The Romans first became involved in Judea—the historical homeland of the Jews—in 64 BCE when the Roman general Pompey intervened in a civil war between two rival claimants to the Judean throne.
Once in control of Judea, the Romans maintained their usual practice of permitting most local traditions to continue. But there were political independence movements, as well as conflicts between rival political factions within Judea. These things made governing difficult for both local Jewish leaders and the Romans.
Between 66 CE and 70 CE, and again from 132 CE to 135 CE, there were full-scale Jewish revolts against Roman rule. After the Bar Kochba Revolt was crushed in 135 CE, the Romans renamed the province of Judea Syria Palaestina and changed Jerusalem’s name to Aelia Capitolina. This effectively erased the connections of the area to the Jewish people. Large numbers of Jews left Judea at this time and were relocated to other parts of the empire—many were enslaved.
Scene on the Arch of Titus depicting the Sack of Jerusalem during the Jewish War, from 66 to 73 CE.
Scene on the Arch of Titus depicting the Sack of Jerusalem during the Jewish War, from 66 to 73 CE. Image credit: Wikimedia, derivative work, Steerpike, CC BY 3.0
These conflicts raised questions about what it meant to be Jewish and also about what the relationship between Rome and its Jewish subjects should be. These conflicts also drew clearer distinctions between Judaism and the emerging Christian religion.
Stop and consider: How did Roman rule affect the Jewish people of Judea?
Even though the Romans did not force the Jews to alter their beliefs and practices in a serious way, Roman rule had several effects on the Jewish people. Roman rule caused some Jews to fight for independence. This raised questions within the Jewish community about whether or not to fight the Romans. In the end, resistance to Roman rule led to the Romans destroying the Temple and forcing many Jews to leave Judea. This resulted in the creation and expansion of many Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire.

Conclusion