THE ORIGINS OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
Archeologists and linguists today widely agree that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites were an offshoot of the ancient Canaanites. Tensions arose between the Canaanites who worshipped multiple gods and those who worshipped a single god.
The word “Jew” means “someone from [the Kingdom of] Judah.” In other words: the term Jew comes from a place, not from a religion.
THE TORAH: A TRIBAL CHARTER
This post will discuss the origins of the Torah and the Jewish People from a secular historical, linguistic, and archeological perspective. If that bothers you to read, please skip this post. Thank you.
Jewish tradition dictates that the Torah was dictated from God to Moses, letter by letter. However, from a secular point of view, the writing and canonization of the Torah was a process that took many centuries.
Today most people view the Torah as a religious document with little to no basis in real history. This mischaracterization is primarily due to the appropriation and universalization of the Torah by other religions.
In reality the Torah was written as something of a tribal charter, outlining the spiritual beliefs, mythologies, laws, genealogies, and oral histories of the ancient Israelites. In other words: the Torah was written in a particular place for a specific nation. The mythological origins delineated in the Torah were passed down for many generations prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE.
At one point, these mythologies and secularly-verifiable history converged, which is what I want to discuss in this post. Again: if reading this will upset you, please skip this post.
GREEK MYTHOLOGY AS A FRAMEWORK
I will begin by stating the obvious: using a foreign framework to understand Jewish identity and history is inherently problematic. Jewish history and Jewish identity should be understood through the Jewish gaze, so to speak. However, today most people are at least marginally aware of both Greek mythology and the Greek people, so I find the comparison useful as a basic introduction.
The story of the Trojan War is one of the most important narratives in all of Greek mythology, fundamental to the shaping of how the ancient Greeks understood themselves and their history. The ancient Greeks of the ninth to sixth centuries BCE believed that the events of the Trojan War occurred between the thirteenth or twelfth centuries BCE*. Yet: historians and archeologists today very much question the historicity of the war.
Instead it appears that the story is a fusion of a number of Mycenaen Greek expeditions and sieges during the Bronze Age. Even archeologists who posit that the Trojan War happened as a single event still believe that the scope of the events was largely exaggerated. In other words, the stories were passed down orally from generation to generation until they were immortalized in works of Greek literature such as the Iliad in the eighth century.
The ethnogenesis of the Greek people — that is, when the Greek people became a nation — dates back to around the period when the events of the Trojan War are supposed to have taken place. Yet just because the historicity of the Trojan War is dubious, that doesn’t mean that the rest of early Greek history is also just a myth. Similarly, just because the early events in the Torah are probably largely mythologized, that doesn’t mean that the rest of early Jewish history is also just a myth.
*Coincidentally, the Israelites of the ninth to fifth centuries BCE believed that the events of Exodus also occurred during the thirteenth century BCE.
WHEN THE TORAH WAS WRITTEN
Historians widely agree that the Torah was composed by three or four authors: the Elohists, the Yahwists, the Deuteronomists, and the Kohanim (priests). Some scholars today doubt that the Elohists wrote a cohesive document; instead, they argue that the Yahwists incorporated earlier Elohist narratives that already existed in the Land of Israel into their own Yahwist document.
The “documentary hypothesis” posits that the Elohist source was written sometime in the ninth century BCE. In the Elohist documents, God is always referred to as “El” or “Elohim” (plural, meaning “gods”).
The Yahwist source, on the other hand, refers to God as YHWH (Yahweh). The Yahwist source focuses largely on the traditions of Judah, suggesting that it was written in the southern Kingdom of Judah sometime between the ninth and the tenth century BCE.
The third source, the Deuteronomist source, was likely written sometime in the seventh, sixth, and fifth centuries BCE. Deuteronomy is highly associated with the Assyrian invasion (740-720 BCE) and the Babylonian exile (587/6-539 BCE).
The last source is the priestly source; that is, the source written by the Kohanim (the inherited priestly class). Most historians agree that this portion was written sometime in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, during the exilic and post-exilic period (that is, during and after the Babylonian Exile, which took place between 587/6-539 BCE). However, a minority of Jewish historians are now challenging this theory, believing that the priestly source was written much earlier, given the archaic version of the Hebrew language used in those sources.
Events that were written contemporaneously — that is, they were written about at the time that they occurred — are generally true. On the other hand, events that were written about many centuries after they were purported to have taken place are generally largely mythologized or even legends.
SO WHAT'S CONFIRMED HISTORY? WHAT’S MYTH?
Essentially everything in the Torah up to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel (e.g. Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, the patriarchs and the matriarchs, the story of Exodus) is most likely very largely mythologized, probably based on oral histories that were passed down generation after generation.
CONFEDERATION OF HEBREW TRIBES/JUDGES PERIOD
Sometime around the second millenium BCE, an (unknown number) of Hebrew tribes formed a loose confederation. Archeologists believe that the “judges” depicted in the Torah were more like tribal chieftains.
THE KINGDOM OF ISRAEL (UNIFIED)
A unified Israelite state certainly existed sometime around 1000 BCE, though the grandiosity depicted in the Torah is most likely an exaggeration.
Maybe, though evidence is slim and hotly contested. In 1993, the Tel Dan Steele was discovered, which it commemorates an Israelite king’s victory over two rival kings. The inscription mentions a phrase that most scholars have translated to “House of David,” though a minority dispute that interpretation. The Tel Dan Steele is dated to the ninth or eighth century BCE.
Yes, though the grandiosity depicted in the Torah is probably an exaggeration. One of the main differences between Jews and the other Israelites, Samaritans, is a dispute over its location.
Most historians believe a Solomon-like figure existed, though again, the details are contested.
KINGDOM OF JUDAH
Yes. There is no doubt that the Kingdom of Judah was a real kingdom located in what is now Israel-Palestine.
ASSYRIAN CONQUEST & CAPTIVITY
Yes. The Assyrian conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the subsequent expulsion of the Israelites, is attested to in Israelite and Assyrian sources of the time period.
Yes. The Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah, and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews, is attested to in Jewish and Babylonian sources of the time period. Additionally, there is archaeological evidence attesting to the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah.
STORY OF PURIM
Probably a myth. Purim is the most mysterious of Jewish holidays, meaning we really have no idea where it came from.
Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. No archeologist doubts that it existed on Temple Mount. You can still physically touch its ruins.
MACCABEAN REVOLT (STORY OF HANUKKAH)
Yes, there is no doubt that the Maccabean Revolt really happened.
DESTRUCTION OF SECOND TEMPLE
Yes, there is also no doubt that this happened.
ROMAN EXPULSION OF JEWS
Yes, the overwhelming consensus among historians is that the Romans murdered, expelled, and/or enslaved some 600,000-1.1 million Jews in the aftermath of the Jewish-Roman Wars. This is attested to in both Jewish and Roman sources from the time period. Today genetic evidence can trace the origins of Ashkenazi Jews to Jewish men who arrived to the Italian Peninsula around this time period.
The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the sacking of the Jewish Temple and the enslavement of Jews.
ERASURE & DISMISSAL OF JEWISH HISTORY
Most people have no genuine understanding of the role that the Torah played in the shaping and unification of Israelite (and later Jewish) identity. The Torah is neither a historical document nor a religious fantasy; it’s a tribal charter written to delineate the laws, mythologies, histories, and spiritual beliefs of a specific nation. This, paired with the later appropriation and universalization of the Torah by other religious groups, results in the erasure and dismissal of verifiable Jewish history.
The erasure of Indigenous histories is nothing new. This case is no different. The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa were built atop the ruins of the Temple starting in 688 CE — nearly 1700 years after the First Temple was built — as a sign of conquest. In other words: colonizers built their religious symbol atop the ruins of the original Indigenous sacred site to assert their dominance over the conquered Indigenous population. This is no different to what colonizers have done elsewhere in the world.
“Temple denial” is the antisemitic conspiracy that the First and Second Temples did not exist or were located elsewhere. This conspiracy theory has long been advanced by numerous Palestinian politicians, intellectual leaders, religious figures, and authors. Additionally, the Jordanian Islamic Waqf in charge of Temple Mount continues to destroy Jewish archeological sites, further erasing Jewish ties to the site. Again, this is no different to what colonizers elsewhere have done to sacred Indigenous sites.
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