To understand how the Church disentangled itself from Judaism, it is necessary to know a little bit about what the term “Jew” means. Modern Christians often seem to think that all the Old Testament patriarchs are Jews, though Adam and Abraham are obviously the ancestors of many nations. The “children of Israel” are, in tradition, the descendants of the sons of Jacob who left Egypt and conquered the Holy Land. This account is necessarily so brief as to be a bit misleading. Despite propaganda, the ancient Jews were not racial or religious purists. They intermarried with their neighbors and borrowed their customs, including idolatry and the charming custom of human sacrifice so favored by their first cousins the Phoenicians

Jesus and the Twelve were Jews, and eleven of the Twelve—like the Master—came from Galilee, the northeastern part of the ancient Holy Land. Indeed, Jesus’ early ministry is centered in the northern parts of Palestine, in Galilee, Samaria, and Phoenicia. To the Jews of Jerusalem and the rest of Judaea, these northern parts of what had been David’s kingdom were a sort of wilderness. What follows are mostly extracts borrowed from my article in our book Peace in the Promised Land.

Samaria had detached itself from the kingdom of David’s successors before being subsumed by the Assyrians. The Samaritans were of mixed blood and practiced a form of their religion that differed from that practiced in Judaea.

Their had always been tensions between the southern and the  northern tribes. After the death of Solomon, the northern tribes, repudiating the house of David (from Judah) invited Jeroboam, an exiled official, to rule over them. Henceforth there were to be two kingdoms: Judah (plus the southern Benjamites) in the South and Israel, covering the ten tribes in the north. Despite the common dangers they faced, the two kingdoms were as often in conflict as in alliance.

Almost immediately the two mini-kingdoms faced dangerous foreign pressures from Egypt and the Philistines, and by the middle of the 9th century the rising power of Assyria pushed into Israel, where King Ahab was defeated by Shalmaneser III, and he and his successors were forced to pay tribute. Shalmaneser V and Sargon II completed the conquest of the northern kingdom (about 722), driving out tens of thousands of inhabitants (many men were forced into the Assyrian army) and replacing them—in a standard Assyrian maneuver—with a mixed lot of foreign settlers. The Kingdom of Israel disappeared from history and was replaced with four Assyrian provinces.

The number of Jews deported and non-Jews actually introduced is a subject of controversy. The newcomers—Babylonians, Assyrians, and even Hittites—would have had trouble adjusting, and some are said (2 Kings 17: 24-28) to have asked the Assyrian king for a Jewish priest to teach them how to propitiate the God of Israel. But even after the settlers had intermarried with Israelites and adopted their religion (a process that had been going on in Israel since the first penetration of Canaan), these Samaritans were the object of bitter hatred from many Jews in the southern kingdom.

Tiny Judah lingered on precariously, saved in 735 by a timely submission to Assyria, but the fall of the Assyrian empire, at the hands of Medes and Babylonians, brought no relief to hard-pressed Judah, whose king made the fatal mistake of renouncing submission to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, who (in 597) conquered Judah and took the king, as well as several thousand Jewish leaders (including the king and his family) and skilled craftsmen to Babylon. A subsequent revolt (587-86) had even more disastrous consequences: The king was killed, the fiction of independence was ended, the walls and fortifications were destroyed, the temple was razed, and thousands of the inhabitants of Judah were driven from their land.  

Although the number of Jews who went into exile cannot be conjectured even approximately, the number cannot have been very great. Roughly 90% would have remained. Nonetheless, Jewish morale would have been disproportionately affected by the deportation of much of the elite class. During this period of Babylonian Captivity, many Jews were allowed to return to Judah and its ruined capital, ruled by an appointed governor. In Babylonia itself, exiles seemed to have done well, and it was during this period that many Jewish scriptures were written and others began to take on their final form. And, it was from these Babylonian exiles that a new Israel would be recreated. During this same period there was a sizable Jewish community in Egypt, where even a temple was constructed (at Elephantine).

The empire of the Babylonians was not fated to last, and Cyrus the Persian, after entering the city in triumph in 539, promulgated an edict authorizing the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It has been conjectured that the Persians were rewarding Babylonian Jews for their covert assistance in the defeat of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, but, there is no need to posit such a special relationship. Cyrus’s general policy was to reverse the forced resettlement of inflicted on subject nations by Babylonian and Assyrian rulers, whose strategy of divide et impera would be emulated by later tyrants. There was probably no immediate return of Jews en masse, though groups of settlers gradually made their way back to the homeland. It is important to note that a sizeable proportion of Jews did not return and continued to live in communities outside of Palestine.

The rebuilding of the temple was actually undertaken about 520, and, despite their poverty and desolation, Jews set about the task of rebuilding their nation. However, relations with their co-religionists in Israel did not improve. The Israelites of Samaria offered to share in the cost and effort of rebuilding the temple, but their overtures were rebuffed, and the rupture was deepened with the arrival (perhaps, in the 5th century) of Ezra, who forbade intermarriage the people of Judah with Samaritans (Israelites) on the grounds that the latter, after the overthrow of Israel, had intermarried with the strangers settled among them.

Jewish opinion was not unanimous, however, and the stories of Ruth and Jonah may have taken shape at this time in protest against the policy of exclusivity. Samaritans accepted only first 6 books of the Old Testament, perhaps because some of the later books displayed an overt bias against the northern Kingdom. The break was made permanent, when the Samaritans constructed their own temple on Mt. Gezir, and in the Roman period animosity occasionally flared into open violence.

The Persian Empire, while preferable in many respects to its predecessors, not only taxed its subjects but in adding the stipulation that taxes be paid in Persian coinage, worked additional hardship. By the mid-Fourth century, revolts broke out in Egypt and Phoenicia. Jewish participation may have been the motive for their deportation to the wilderness of Hyrcania (on the Caspian Sea). In 333, however, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, and all of what was coming to be known as Judea (that is Judah and Israel) passed into the control of Alexander and his successors in Egypt and Syria.

Although the Ptolemies, as successors to the pharaohs, attempted to maintain control of Palestine (323-c.200 B.C.), Antiochus III the Great, the Seleucid ruler of Syria and Asia Minor, eventually succeeded in incorporating it into his empire. Under the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms, much of the Middle East swiftly became Hellenized, as the material and cultural advantages of Greek civilization became known. In the early 3rd century, there were even diplomatic overtures to the Spartans, though the claim (1 Maccabees 12: 5-23) that the Spartans acknowledged kinship with the Jews is highly implausible. Sparta was, however, a center of resistance to Macedonian power.

Judea was far from immune to this process of assimilation, but there were limits. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-63 B.C.), strapped for cash, was bribed by Jason, a Hellenized member of a noble priestly family who wanted to be appointed High Priest. Jason added an additional douceur if the king would give Jerusalem the status of a Greek polis. Antiochus granted the request, and was warmly welcomed by the elite class when he visited the country. Still short of money, however, the king took a second bribe from Menelaus, whom he appointed high priest, thus violating Jewish tradition.  (Note, by the way, the two Greek  names!) The followers of the rival priests soon began attacking each other, and when Menelaus plundered the Temple, opinion turned against him and the king who appointed him. Antiochus, who hardly knew what deep waters he was getting into, responded to Jewish unrest by forbidding circumcision and temple ceremonies and desecrated the temple itself.

This was an unprecedented act of religious persecution for a Greek king and very uncharacteristic of Antiochus, who was otherwise a very civilized ruler. Jews were understandably outraged and even Hellenized Jewish aristocrats took part in the independence movement led by the priestly Hasmonean family (the Maccabees). Judas Maccabeus and Jonathan and Simon, his brothers and successors, with the invaluable support of his Roman allies, took advantage of Seleucid problems (foreign wars and disputed successions) to win independence for Israel and to establish a dynasty that ruled Palestine until the mid First Century B.C.  

Simon assumed the title “ethnarch,” and although after his murder in 135, Antiochus VII reconquered Judea, his son John Hyrcanus I, again in alliance with Rome, restored independence and expanded his territory to include Idumaea. His successors, Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus (again, the Greek names are significant!), annexed  Galilee, where a policy of proselytization and forced conversion was carried out under Aristobulus. Although some regular Jews had always lived in the region, Galileean Jews, henceforth, were viewed with considerable suspicion, hence the accusation that Jesus was a Samaritan.

John also took over Samaria, where he destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizim and destroyed the Hellenized town of Samaria. His nephew Alexander Jannaeus, who assumed the title king, extended his power to include the coastline, where—Hellenized, as he was—he treated the Greek cities with a brutal severity, arousing anti-Jewish resentments that would long outlast his reign.

Hasmonean kings forged the largest Jewish state since the time of Solomon, and the large number of Greeks and Hellenized cities included in their realm posed problems for a state founded in a war of religious liberation. On the other hand, the success of a thriving Jewish state was not sufficiently attractive to most Jews in the Middle East, who had never returned from the Babylonian Captivity and still preferred to live outside the borders of Judea.

Roman Judea

As an ally, Rome was all-too reliable, and in defeating the kingdoms established by Alexander’s successors (to say nothing of Carthage), the city on the Tiber became mistress of the Mediterranean world. The Roman general L. Lucullus had wrested Syria from Parthian control, and Pompeius Magnus established the region as a Roman province. Putting his own candidate into the seat of the High Priest at Jerusalem, whose temple he profaned, the Roman general made Hasmonean Judea a client-state under the supervision of the Roman governor. The days of Hasmonean rule were numbered, and Antipater, an “Arab” from Idumea (a territory of Edomite refugees who had recently converted, more or less, to Judaism), rose under John Hyrcanus II to become virtual dictator. Under his son Herod (37 B.C.-4 A.D.), Judea was to experience one final moment of glory as a Jewish state.

As a highly philohellenic convert (if that) to Judaism, Herod had to be a first-class statesman to foster Greco-Roman civilization without inciting rebellion among the Jewish majority. He proved himself up to the job, though with the advancing years, controversies and conspiracies broke out in his complex family (he married perhaps ten times!) His ruthless crackdowns and executions bore the mark of a paranoia that give some credibility to the otherwise uncorroborated biblical story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent.

Augustus divided up the kingdom among Herod’s surviving sons, but in 6 A.D. Judea became a Roman province (though for a few years it was part of the principality of Herod Agrippa in 41-44) governed by a praefectus, rather than by a governor of the senatorial order. The Roman prefect, in succeeding to the position of Herod and his sons, also inherited the right to appoint high priests. Whether ruled by tetrarchs or controlled directly by Rome, Judea was always on the verge of revolt. Significant uprisings took place in 4 BC (Augustus’ census), in 6 AD, and again in 39, when Jews attacked gentiles for worshipping the emperor. Caligula responded by ordering his own statue placed in the Holy of Holies. The prudent local commander took his time about complying, and the emperor was assassinated before the deed was done.

Despite their recalcitrance, Jews enjoyed a unique position within the Roman Empire, where they were found, not only in Syria and Palestine but also in the cities of Egypt, Italy, Asia (Turkey), Greece, and even in Gaul and Britain. (A large number also lived under Parthian rule, especially in Babylonian territory.) Not only was their religion tolerated, but Jews were exempted both from military service and from the obligation to worship the emperor. Nonetheless, the incompetence of the procurators combined with Jewish national sensitivities to create an unstable situation that burst into violence (in the 60’s) when, after a series of clashes between Syrians and Jews over who could claim Caesarea, the provincial capital rebuilt built by Herod. When the decision (probably correctly) went in favor of the Syrian Greeks, it was the signal for the wholesale revolt, which broke out in 66.

In the first and most important popular uprising against the Roman Empire, Jewish rebels unexpectedly defeated the Roman army (an unprecedented action) and forced it into retreat. The disorders continued until the arrival of Vespasian, a seasoned commander, in 67. On the death of Nero, Vespasian, returning to Rome to make himself emperor, left the war to his son Titus, who captured and destroyed Jerusalem. Judea became an imperial province governed by an imperial legate with Caesarea, not Jerusalem as the capital. Although Jews retained their privileges within the empire, they were no longer treated as political community. Jews continued to give Romans trouble, and uprisings were serious enough to distract Emperor Trajan (115-16 A.D.) from re-exerting Roman control over Southern Mesopotamia. In a classic case of escalation, Jews increased the disturbances, while Hadrian, determined to end the problem, forbade the reading of the Torah and the observance of the Sabbath. Under the brilliant (though doomed) leadership of Simon “Bar Kochba” (or Son of the Star– he was acknowledged as messiah by Aqiba, the greatest rabbi of the day), Jews recaptured Jerusalem, and it took two years for the Roman army, in a merciless campaign, to restore imperial authority. The province was renamed “Syria Palaestina” and to finish the job of denationalizing the Jews, Hadrian established a Roman colony at Jerusalem (renamed Aelia Capitolina) and erected an altar to Jupiter on the site of the temple. Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem and its environs as well as other specified locations. The privileged status of Jews within the empire, however, went unchanged, and the rabbis turned from political aspirations to a renewed study of law and religion that they carried out in schools established in Galilee and all over the Middle East.

Judea became very much of a backwater in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. However, Jerusalem, which had sunk into insignificance, took on new significance with the conversion of Constantine, who restored the city as the center of Christendom. The entire province, which benefited from the construction of churches and from the steady stream of pilgrims, grew more prosperous, perhaps, than it has ever been. Constantine’s anti-Christian nephew Julian, for rather different motives, sought to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, though his efforts were deterred by a combination of earth tremors and fireballs.