The story begins with David and Solomon, somewhere around the 10th century BC. David was a great warrior who smote the Philistines, the powerful nation occupying the fertile coastal plain, and established the Israelites as a major force. This was consolidated by his son and successor, Solomon, who built a magnificent temple at Jerusalem. The only trouble is the date. The traditional date of David and the foundation of Jerusalem is in the 10th century BC, but archaeology has revealed little evidence of occupation in Jerusalem as early as this – indeed there is very little pottery of this date anywhere. It looks therefore as if either the date must be brought down, or the temple must be reduced in size, – or a bit of both.
There is a big dispute between the ‘minimalists’ who want to downgrade both Solomon and the temple, and the ‘traditionalists’, who do not trust the archaeology. The 10th century was in the middle of the ‘dark ages’ when there were few major towns anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean, and thus the minimalists suspect that the whole story of David and Solomon was somewhat exaggerated, and was essentially built up several centuries later when it was finally written down.
But following David and Solomon, the kingdom split, between Israel to the north which is a larger and more fertile and generally richer area, but where they had a tendency to go off and worship other gods; and Judah, to the south, which was smaller and more impoverished and where therefore there was less temptation to go a-whoring after other gods – and where the future capital, Jerusalem, was situated.
The most powerful king at this time was probably Omri, the great King of Israel, who is barely mentioned in the Bible, except in hostile references, and whose daughter-in-law Jezebel became the typical wicked woman. Omri made Samaria his capital and founded other great cities such as Samaria, Hazor and Jezreel. However in around 722 BC Israel had its comeuppance when it was defeated by the Assyrians and its leaders were carried off to Assyria. However Judah continued to be semi-independent — though probably coming under the dominance of Egypt.
But in 587 Judah was itself defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and its leaders were carted off into exile and remained in exile in or around Babylon. However in 539 the Babylonians were defeated by the rising power of Persia under Cyrus the Great who had a very liberal policy and released all the captives to return, and between 520 and 515, the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt — with help from Cyrus.
It was in this period that Judaism began to acquire its peculiar characteristics. The Jews worshipped a single god from early in their existence. One wonders whether their sojourn in Egypt had introduced themselves to the idea of a single all-powerful ruler. Certainly the earliest semi-historical figures, Kings David and Solomon were presented as a single all-powerful rulers worshipping single all-powerful Gods. Subsequently in the time of the divided Kingdom, Israel in particular tended to slip away and worship other gods, notably Baal.
However following the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians, they began doing a strange thing, that is instead of blaming their defeats on their gods, they saw their defeats as evidence that they had been backsliding and they need to worshipped their god even more intensely.
The fall of the kingdom of Israel left the smaller Kingdom of Judah as the centre of the Jewish religion. Here the crucial figure seems to be that of Josiah, a king who reigned for all of 18 years, (639 to 609 BC). He plays a fairly modest role in the Bible, but modern scholars suspect that he was one of the most important kings of all, for it was under him that Judaism began to acquire some of its most important characteristics, and that the Old Testament, as we know it, began to be put together. This was the time when Jerusalem reached its greatest extent and the temple was rebuilt.
During the rebuilding of the Temple, a document was discovered known as the Book of the Law which is sometimes thought to be an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. This had the fortunate advice that sacrifice should only be offered in one central place, and that place was obviously Jerusalem, so all the other shrines in Judah had to be closed, and everything was concentrated on the Temple.
Finkelstein and Silberman in their minimalist version of Jewish history, suspect that it was at the time of Josiah that the story of David and Solomon was concocted, or rather given greater prominence, and that two perhaps rather minor rulers were elevated into being great warriors and great kings who ruled over a United Monarchy and formed a convenient precedent for his own centralising tendencies. David and Solomon no doubt existed, but only as rulers of a small village, which was all that Jerusalem was at the time; but it was very convenient to turn them into very important kings. But there seems to be little doubt that Josiah marks a major turning point in the evolution of the Jewish religion, in that hence forward there was not just one god, but also just one temple at Jerusalem. From now on, Judaism was a very centralised religion.
Following Josiah there is a sad story of weak and vacillating Kings until in 587 a great disaster occurred that marked the second great stage in the evolution of the Jewish religion, in that Judah itself was conquered by the Babylonians under their expansionist King, Nebuchadnezzar and the leading families were carried off to exile in Babylon. This could have meant the end of the Jewish religion in that their god had clearly failed to protect the Jews and his temple at Jerusalem which was pulled down and destroyed by the Babylonian conquerors. However, the exile had the reverse effect. They took it as evidence that they had fallen short and that they were being punished for their misdeeds. And during their exile they became even more extreme in their religion.
The exile only lasted for 60 years for 539 the Persians under their new King Cyrus the Great overthrew the Assyrians. Cyrus was a remarkable king who sought to consolidate his power by ruling lightly and he encouraged all the exiles whom the Assyrians had brought to Babylon as hostages to return home. This was a mixed blessing for the Jews. Some of them stayed in Babylon forming a strong Jewish outpost, but those that returned found that many of their compatriots were still there. Only the leading families had been taken into exile and those that remained did not always welcome the returning families.
Nevertheless the return was a turning point in Jewish history. The temple was rebuilt after considerable delays and was hence forth known as the Second Temple.
The social structure also changed. The kings died out, the line of David became no more and instead the Jews were led by the priests and the high priest became the chief spokesman, though in practice power lay with the governor imposed by the Persians.
The Bible has several traditions
And it was at this time too that the Old Testament received what became its canonical form. Two main traditions had come down reflecting alternative versions of Jewish history as seen in Judah (the Yahwist source, J), and in Israel (the Elohist version E) , but now these were put together by priestly editors to produce what 19th century German scholars the P or Priestly version of the Old Testament. Although books continued to be added, henceforth most effort went into interpreting the Bible in the form of the Torah. This time of the 6th and 5th centuries saw the beginnings of historical writings in the Eastern Mediterranean, for final recension took place at the same time as Herodotus in Greece was also writing the better known stories of Cyrus the Great.
The problem now for the Jews lay in the all pervasive influence of the Hellenistic culture spreading outwards from Greece and infecting every culture with which it came into contact. This culture was based on the edifice of the new market economy which brought with it the new flatter, more open society that proved extremely attractive to those who came into contact with it. In the Levant, the turning point came with Alexander the Great who, following his defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 332 BC, became the ruler of the former Persian Empire including their province of Judah. Following Alexander’s death, his Empire split into three rival powers: Judah at first came within the Empire of the Ptolemies ruling from Egypt, but in around 200 BC they became part of the Seleucid Empire with its centre in Antioch in the north.
This was a time of considerable prosperity for the area, even if the politics was complicated. Hellenistic culture became dangerously attractive. In particular the Book of Maccabees reports that young men were attracted by the gymnasia and the whole concept of practising athletics naked. This as always greatly upset the traditional Jews (though where their objection to nakedness came from, I have never been able to make out: the other great religions to the East: the Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians do not have the same objection). However, in 166 they rose in revolt against the Seleucids, led by one Maccabeus and a new line of kings was established known as the Hasmoneans.
By now of course external pressure came no longer from the Greeks but from the Romans and the Hasmoneans survived by becoming client kings of the Romans. First Antipater became a client king of Pompey, but the most successful, though the most ruthless of all, was Herod the Great who became the Client King under Augustus and who rebuilt the temple and indeed much of the rest of his kingdom, in what we would call the Classical style. And it was into this milieu, of Jewish traditionalists fighting desperately against the lure of Greek and Roman civilisation, that Christ was born.