Updated: Jan 13, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Judaism is a religion that came about in the middle east in what is modern-day Israel over 3000 years ago. The earliest reference to Judaism is from the ancient Merneptah Stele, which refers to the nation of Israel as early as 1209 BC. The religious expression of the Jews has changed drastically over the years, going from the priesthood of the firstborn sons, to the organized Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system in their Temple, to the rabbis in lay-run synagogues. They had a large Temple built around 1000 BC, only to have it destroyed in 586 BC. Their second Temple was built around 515 BC, and lasted about the same amount of time as the first, getting destroyed around 70 AD. Judaism currently has four major denominations, and there are two main sources of authority today.
Old and New Testament History
The Jewish faith started with Abraham ≈1700 BC, who was called by God from modern-day Babylon to travel westward towards Eastern bank of the Mediterranean (known today as Israel). His offspring grew, and when a famine hit the land, the tribe traveled SW towards Egypt. After a few hundred years, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and God called a man named Moses (≈1400 BC) to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land of Israel. Once there, the people were led by local military leaders called judges until they made a man named Saul their first king. After Saul died, king David (≈ 1000 BC) reigned as the most famous king.
David’s son Solomon built a large Temple to God in Jerusalem. After Solomon died, his son king Rehoboam struggled to keep Israel together. A division ensued that lasted for hundreds of years, where most of the people left Rehoboam, and made an apostate kingdom under the leadership of a man named Jeroboam. Jeroboam headed up what became known as the northern kingdom of Israel. Those who stayed faithful to Rehoboam were called the southern kingdom of Judah. In 722 BC, the eastern kingdom of Assyria invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and overtook the land. Amazingly, the southern kingdom of Judah (which contained the Temple) stayed strong under the leadership of king Hezekiah. The end would come near, though, and by 586 BC, the eastern kingdom of Babylon had invaded the southern kingdom of Judah and destroyed the Temple. Many Jews were exiled from Jerusalem and were taken captive to live in Babylon. The royal lineage of Davidic kings effectively disappeared. Prophets gave hope to the people that one day a new Davidic king called the "Messiah" or "Christ" or "Anointed One" would arise (Micah 5:1-4, Isaiah 9:1-6, Ezekiel 37:24, Amos 9:11, etc.). Since the Temple was destroyed, the laity of Judaism erected local synagogues under the direction of a Scripture scholar called a rabbi to read their Scriptures.
The Temple would return when the miracle of 539 BC occurred. The Persians, under king Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians and sent the Jews back to their land to rebuild their Temple. This can be read about in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jews built a new Temple to God, and this time frame became known as “Second Temple Judaism.” In 332 BC, Alexander the Great from Macedonia went on a conquering spree in the East, and Israel was one of those conquered. Alexander spread his native Greek culture everywhere he conquered, and Israel was no exception. This upset many Jews who wanted to keep their Hebrew language and tradition intact. After Alexander died, his vast kingdom was divided up into five areas run by his five generals. After a few rulers lived and died, the ruler Antiochus Epiphanies rose in 175 BC. He persecuted the Jews who did not want to be like the Greeks, and he desecrated the Jewish Temple by putting an outlawed animal on the altar (a swine). This caused many faithful Jews to go underground. Some Jews, however, weren’t going to back down, and they took up arms to fight. They are known as the Maccabees, and they won independence for the people (167-160 BC). They purified the Temple, rededicated it, and kept intact their ancestral traditions. This is where the feast of Hanukkah came about. This Maccabean revolt caused the creation of an independent Jewish state called the Hasmonean Dynasty (140-34 BC). When the ancient Roman empire rose to prominence, however, things looked bad. The Hasmonean Dynasty ended when the Romans came and overtook the Maccabean leaders, causing Israel to be underneath Roman authority. From 37-1 BC, Rome had King Herod the Great rule over Israel, and he took the name "king of the Jews."
After King Herod, crowds of Jews became convinced that a man named Jesus was the Messiah, the true "king of the Jews," for the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 had said that the Messiah would come around 26 AD. Jesus performed the miracles that the Messiah was to do (Matthew 11:4-5). He said that He was ushering in a new covenant relationship between God and His people (Luke 22:20) and left twelve students behind to rule this new covenant community (Luke 22:29-30). Jesus died at around 30 AD in fulfillment of the prophecy that said that the Messiah (Greek: Anointed One) "shall be cut off" (Dan. 9:26). Jesus said that the Temple would be destroyed in Matthew 24:1-2, and this occurred in 70 AD. The Jews who did not follow Jesus as the Messiah were stuck with only synagogues and rabbis instead of a Temple with priests and sacrifices. The Jews who did follow Jesus followed the twelve men He left behind and their successors.
The authorities for Jews are two-fold: the written Scriptures and the oral Torah. Within the Scriptures there are 39 books, which are called the TaNaKh. The TaNaKh groups the 39 books into the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Writings). The oral Torah contains the interpretations of the rabbis on the TaNaKh. This oral Torah contains two parts: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud itself has two parts: Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah was originally passed on orally until it was written down around 200 AD. It contains rabbinical commentaries on Scripture, legal decrees, and the disagreements of the rabbis (ex. What books made up the canon of TaNaKh or Scripture). The Gemara was written down around 500 AD is an ancient commentary on the Torah and the Mishnah. The rabbis became the knowledgeable Jews whose duty it was to teach the people.
Today, there are four branches of Judaism, each of which varies in its obedience towards tradition. (1) Starting from the loosest (least strict) sect: Reformed Judaism. They focus more on the general principles instead of the specific traditions in order for life in the modern world to be easier. They are about a third of all American Jews. (2) The next camp is Conservative Judaism. These Jews are more of a middle road, making some compromises with the modern world, but not as many as the Reformed. For example, the Torah states to rest on Saturday for the Sabbath. Conservative Jews make the concession of breaking the Sabbath to use their cars only to drive to their synagogue services. (3) The next denomination is Orthodox Judaism. They are tighter on their observance of traditions, such as the Sabbath rest. Unlike Conservative Judaism, the Orthodox go so far as to not even drive on Saturdays. In fact, they cannot even touch the light switch! (4) Finally, the strictest Jews are the Ultra-Orthodox.
Judaism has an intriguing history. With all of the swerves and turns, the religion is still around today. The Temple has come and gone, but there is talk of reestablishing it (round 3). They follow their Scriptures and the rabbinical interpretations of those Scriptures. When their Davidic monarchy died out in the 6th century BC, their prophets tuned up the hope for a future king to arise and shepherd the people. A New Covenant relationship with God would occur (Jeremiah 31:31). This ultimately came to pass with the advent of Jesus in the 1st century. He established a “new covenant” in his blood (Luke 22:20) and is the “Christ” or “Messiah” (Matthew 16:16).