The history of the Jews begins among those people who occupied the area lying between the Nile river on the one side, and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan (later known as Israel) was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of other cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

The Jews, or Israelites (also known as Hebrews), settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Jewish tradition holds that the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons (one of whom was named Judah), who settled in Egypt. While in Egypt their descendants were enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh, often identified as Ramses II. In the Jewish tradition, the Israelites emigrated from Egypt to Canaan (the Exodus), led by the prophet Moses. This event marks the formation of the Israelites as a people, divided into twelve tribes named after Jacob’s sons.

Jewish tradition and the Bible tells that the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty one years after which they conquered Canaan under the command of Joshua, dividing the land among the twelve tribes. For a time, the twelve tribes were led by a series of rulers known as Judges. Afterwards, an Israelite monarchy was established under Saul, and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made it his capital. After Solomon’s reign the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel, consisting of ten of the tribes (in the north), and Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BC. There is no commonly accepted historical record of those ten tribes, which are sometimes referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

 

The kingdom of Judah was then conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The Judahite elite was exiled to Babylon, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland. Already at this point the extreme fragmentation among the Israelites was apparent, with the formation of political-religious factions, the most important of which would later be called Sadduccees and Pharisees.

Roman Rule

Judea under Roman rule was at first an independent Jewish kingdom, but gradually the rule over Judea became less and less Jewish, until it came under the direct rule of Roman and later Christian administration (and renamed the Iudaea Province), which was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Judean subjects. In 66 AD, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the future Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. In the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, plundered artifacts from the temple, such as the Menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, until the 132 AD when Roman general Sextus Julius Severus ravaged Judea crushing the Bar Kokhba revolt. 985 villages were destroyed and most of the Jewish population of central Judaea was essentially wiped out, killed, sold into slavery, or forced to flee. Banished from Jerusalem, most of Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire, as many were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire.

But, in spite of the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews remained in the land of Israel in significant numbers. The Jews who stayed in Palestine went through numerous experiences and armed conflicts against consecutive occupiers of the Land. Some of the most famous and important Jewish texts were composed in Israeli cities at this time. The Jerusalem Talmud, the completion of the Mishnah and the system of niqqud are examples.

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