Early History of Judaism


It has been argued that Judaism can be seen not only as a single
religion, but as a group of similar religions. It has also been
pointed-out that through all the trials and tribulations that Judaism
has suffered through, that there have been common themes that have
proven omni-pervasive. Any institution with roots as ancient and 
varied as the religion of the Jews is bound to have a few variations,
especially when most of its history takes place in the political and
theological hot spot of the Middle East.

 In this discussion, many facets of Judaism will be examined, 
primarily in the three temporal subdivisions labeled the Tribal / 
Pre-Monarchy Period, the Divided Monarchy, and the Hasmonean / 
Maccabean and Roman Era. Among all the time periods where the religion 
has been split, these three seem to be the most representative of the 
forces responsible.

 As for a common thread seen throughout all Judiasms, the area of 
topic will be covered in detail first, and then the multiple Judaism 
arguments will be presented. In this way, it is possible to keep a 
common focus in mind when reading about all the other situations in 
which the religion has found itself. A brief conclusion follows the 

 A Place to Call Home No other religion has ever been so attached 
to its birthplace as Judaism. Perhaps this is because Jews have been 
exiled and restricted from this place for most of their history. 
Jerusalem is not only home to Judaism, but to the Muslim and Christian 
religions as well. Historically this has made it quite a busy place 
for the various groups.

 Jerusalem is where the temple of the Jews once stood; the only 
place on the whole Earth where one could leave the confines of day to 
day life and get closer to God. In 586 BCE when the temple was 
destroyed, no Jew would have denied Jerusalem as being the geographic 
center of the religion. From that point on, the Jewish people have 
migrated around the world, but not one of them forgets the fact that 
Jerusalem is where it all began. It is truly a sacred place, and helps 
to define what Judaism means to many people; a common thread to run 
through all the various splinters of the religion and help hold them 

 Even today, as the Jewish people have their precious Jerusalem 
back (through the help of other nations and their politics) there is 
great conflict and emotion surrounding it. Other nations and people in 
the area feel that they should be in control of the renowned city, and 
the Jews deny fervently any attempt to wrestle it from their 
occupation. It is true that there is no temple in Jeruslaem today, nor 
are all the Jews in the world rushing to get back there. But it is 
apparent that the city represents more to the religion of Judaism than 
a mere place to live and work. The city of Jerusalem is a spiritual 
epicenter, and throughout Judaism's long and varied history, this 
single fact has never changed.

Tribal / Pre-Monarchy

 Judaism's roots lie far back in the beginnings of recorded 
history. The religion did not spring into existence exactly as it is 
known today, rather it was pushed and prodded by various environmental 
factors along the way. One of the first major influences on the 
religion was the Canaanite nation. Various theories exist as to how 
and when the people that would later be called Jews entered into this 
civilization. But regardless of how they ultimately got there, these 
pioneers of the new faith were subjected to many of the ideas and 
prejudices of the time. Any new society that finds itself in an 
existing social situation, can do no more than to try and integrate 
into that framework. And this is exactly what the Jews did.

 Early Judaism worshipped multiple gods. One of these gods was 
known as Ba'al, and was generally thought-of as a 'statue god' with 
certain limitations on his power. The other primary deity was called 
YHWH (or Yahweh) and enjoyed a much more mysterious and illusive 
reputation. He was very numinous, and one was to have great respect, 
but great fear for him at the same time. Ba'al was not ever really 
feared, as his cycles (metaphorically seen as the seasons) were fairly 
well known, and not at all fear-inducing.

 The fact that the early Jews and Canaanites had these two 
radically different representations of a deity active in their 
culture, basically assured that there would be splits in the faith. 
One group inevitably would focus on one of the gods, and another would 
focus on another. In this way, the single religion could support 
multiple types of worship, leading to multiple philosophies and 
patterns of behavior, which could then focus more and more on their 
respective niche, widening the gap into a clear cut distinction 
between religious groups.

 This early time period was generally quite temporary and
non-centralized, stemming from the fact that technology was at a very
low level, and people's lifespan was fairly short. These conditions 
led to a rapid rate of turnover in religious thought, and left many 
factions of people to their own devices. Widespread geographic 
distribution coupled with poor communication certainly did not help in 
holding the many faiths together. The Tribal Period in Jewish history 
is one of the more splintered eras in the religion, but since these 
people were all living in the area near Jerusalem, the common thread 
can be seen clearly through the other less-defined elements of the 

Divided Monarchy

 By its very name, it is apparent that this period of history is 
host to a great deal of divergence in the Jewish religion. As Solomon 
was king, people began to grow more and more restless. Some objected 
to worshiping a human king, while others balked at the oppression of 
the poor that was going on. Political unrest in this period led to a
decisive split in geographic territory, and thus a split in religious

 A group of people left the area of Judah and traveled North to 
found Israel, where they could be free to practice their own political
flavors, and their own religious flavors as well. This sort of 
behavior has come to be seen as common of oppressed people, and the 
result is almost always a great deviation in the ways of the 'old 
world'. A perfect example of this comes when examining the point in 
American history where independence was declared from England. Now, 
mere centuries later, America is as different in its politics, 
religions, and social forces from England as one could imagine. This 
was most likely the result when Israel was founded, far back in 
Biblical history.

 Communication between the two cities was sparse. The priests and
prophets were undoubtedly addressing items pertinent to one group, but
not neccesarily the other. The influence of foreign traders to each of
the two places, as well as the political attitudes of each all would
have had enormous impact on a newly-spawned religion. Thus, it can
easily be seen that the religion was split into (at least) two major
divisions during this time period.

 Toward the end of the Divided Monarchy, it seems that the 
prophets began calling for major changes in the basic foundation of 
the early Jews' lives. The kings and priests had no major disputes 
with the status quo, but apparently the prophets were calling for a 
reorganization. This sort of 'turmoil within' can do nothing but 
follow the kings and the priests, who have guided us and kept us safe? 
or follow the far-seeing prophets, who are more like us and honestly 
have our best interests at heart? As the next major historical 
division occurred this sort of argument would continue, and thus the 
Jewish people were left to practice their religion in whatever way 
many forms of Judaism as it existed toward the end of the Divided 

Hasmonean / Maccabean and Roman Era

 This time period in Jewish history is politically tumultuous, 
leading to high levels of splits and variations in the religion 
itself. One of the most disruptive types of all wars is a civil war. 
And this is exactly what occurs at the outset in the Jewish homeland 
of Jerusalem. The Jewish civil war was against the extreme Hellenizers 
(people who tended toward utter reason in their beliefs) and the 
moderate Hellenizers (people who can see things rationally, but 
believe there are more items to consider than this -- ex. the 
Maccabean family, who became the Hasmonean kings). So right away, it 
is apparent that the ideas that the Greeks introduced into Jewish 
culture have acted as time-bombs of social memes, and have created a 
major split in the religion.

 When the violence of the war has subsided, the moderate 
Hellenizers have won ("everything in moderation!") and rule for a 
short time, until the Roman empire attacks and throws even more kinks 
into the Jewish society. When the Romans take over, the Hasmonean 
kings are left in place as 'puppet kings,' which ultimately forces the 
general population to question their governing body.

 When the Romans destroy the temple in Jerusalem, it is made 
painfully clear that some changes are going to be made. Most obvious, 
the priests suddenly have no major role in the religion. Their primary 
purpose had been to tend to the sacrificing of animals, and since it 
is illegal to sacrifice an animal outside the temple, the priests were 
in an unsettling position.

 As can be seen in countless other examples, politics and 
religion are invariably tied, and people began practicing their own 
flavors of Judaism after their civilization had been so radically 
altered. At this point in history, there is really no solid rule to 
prevent such splits, and for a time a mixed form of Judaism with many 
varieties flourishes.

 No one was sure what to do once the heart of Judaism (the 
temple) had been destroyed, but it soon became apparent that an 
appealing option was arising. Two major social groups of the time 
period were vying for power. The first group, the Saducees were 
associated with the displaced Hasmonean kings. The second group, the 
Pharisees, had an idea that would help work around the tragic 
destruction of the temple. People were split, once again. They could 
stay with the traditional Saducees (who had the political power, 
believed in only written Torah, and did not subscribe to resurrection 
-- basically a conservative view), or they could side with the 
newcomers, the Pharisees (who had religious power, believed in both 
the written and the oral Torah, and believed in resurrection) and hope 
to preserve their Jewish heritage by worshiping outside of the temple, 
in their everyday life.

 It was not a hard decision, and the Pharisees eventually gained 
power, leading the Jewish religion into its next phase of Rabbinic 
Judaism. It is apparent that in each of the three time periods 
discussed above that many factions of the same religion were active. 
Competing philosophies, outside political forces, and geographic 
isolation are among the most obvious of the dividing forces. However 
many other influences 'pound' each and every day on a given social 
institution, subtly forming it and changing it into something it was 
not. For this reason, the answer to the debate whether Judaism is a 
single, or multiple religion(s) is an obvious one, depending upon how 
you choose to look at it. Every religion has many pieces, but as long 
as there are a few constants (such as the birthplace, the language, 
literature, etc) it is possible to view the whole as a single force, 
and still acknowledge variations that will inevitably spring-up.


Quotes: Search by Author