Biblical Roots of Judaism Series

Biblical Roots of Judaism – An Outline of Progress #1

Throughout history, Jews have identified their roots in the Hebrew Bible, where they could read about their history, locate the major tenets and their faith, and find a comprehensive legal system to guide their behavior. It has been the ultimate authority for their religious history, beliefs, and practices.

But much of Judaism developed after the completion of the last books of the Hebrew Bible. Statutes of Mosaic Law, which Jews believe to have been revealed on Mt. Sinai, remained the standard of behavior for many years but underwent significant interpretation. Though it was deemed endowed with divine authority, it underwent constant revision and reconsideration of what it meant to be Jewish. However, at no time was it relegated to anything less than the ultimate source of all Jewish existence.

Innovations were treated as if each new practice or belief had already been incorporated in the divine revelation to Moses at Sinai. It is true that the Jewish religion successfully adapted to new realities and was also willing to accept a measure of diversity within its ranks. Jewish leaders attempted to make Judaism accessible to broad segments of the Jewish community as well as to non-Jewish circles.

Despite the critical role of the Bible in shaping Judaism, the beliefs and practices of many Jews today differ radically from the guidelines of the biblical faith.

  • They have not slaughtered and burned animals on an altar for 2,000 years.
  • They have worshiped in synagogues instead of in one centralized and sanctified location (after loss of the Second Temple).
  • They use a rabbinic model form of religious leadership, though the Bible makes no mention of rabbis.
  • They believe in a utopian future, a grander national restoration and a messianic figure, though the Bible does not articulate this dream.
  • Many believe in a framework of divine reward and punishment determined by each individual’s behavior, though there is no explicit formulation in Hebrew biblical literature.

Taken (with liberties) from the lectures of Professor I. M. Gafni, Ph.D, through

The Teaching Company

Biblical Roots of Judaism – An Outline of Progress #2

Instalment #1:

The innovations in the millennia that followed the original emergence of the biblical corpus were treated as if each new practice or belief had already been incorporated in the divine revelation to Moses at Sinai.

The Bible never ceased to be reread and reinterpreted by all generations of Jews. The challenges of an ever-changing world required continual retellings and reinterpretations of the biblical text. During that time, Jews produced a varied body of post-biblical literature, including translations of the Bible and historical and fictional works that contributed to the shared self-identity of Jews. Historical processes played a critical role in shaping Jewish behavior and religion.  

 During the centuries that followed the biblical period, Jews found themselves ruled by the Persian kingdom, Hellenistic monarchies, Rome and for a limited period, even a Jewish priestly monarchy 

 The destruction of the First Jewish Temple in 586 b.c. began a process that brought an end to the 1,400 year biblical period. Israelite history and religion both began with the patriarch Abraham, who was rewarded for his faith by a series of covenants with God. The historicity of the patriarchal epoch cannot be confirmed by external testimony, but the migration alluded to in Genesis has been dated by scholars to a period between the 20th and 16th centuries b.c .

The second critical stage in Israel’s emergence as a nation was the bondage of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt, which ended with their miraculous liberation from Egypt somewhere in the 14th or 13th centuries b.c. Wandering the desert following their liberation, the tribes of Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, where Moses received from God the complete system of laws and instruction he transmitted to the people of Israel, known in Hebrew as the Torah.

 After 40 years in the desert, the Israelites, under Moses’ successor, Joshua, entered and conquered the land of Canaan, thus fulfilling god’s promise of the land to Abraham. Described in the biblical book of Joshua, this conquest can be roughly dated to the 12th century b.c.

 Taken (with liberties) from the lectures of Prof. I.M. Gafni,The Teaching Company.  

Biblical Roots of Judaism – An Outline of Progress #3

Only 70 years (586 b.c.- 516 b.c.) passed between the fall of the Judean Kingdom and Jerusalem, and the consecration of a Second Jewish Temple. Persian rule over Israel lasted for about two hundred years, from 539 b. c. until the conquests of Alexander the Great in 333-331 b.c. Under Cyrus, the descendants of the Jewish captives who had been forcibly removed by the Babylonians from Judea were allowed to return to the land and to build a new Temple on the site of the destroyed one. Some of the final books of the Hebrew Bible describe how these Jews rebuilt Jewish communal life in their homeland. Under the leadership of Ezra (c.458 b.c.) the Law of Moses was publically read and interpreted before a gathering of Jews at the Temple. Ezra also set out to redress the phenomenon of widespread Jewish intermarriage with surrounding populations. He and his successor, Nehemiah (445-432 b.c.), both encouraged a vigorous religious revival aimed at rectifying a perceived general laxity in the observance of biblical commandments. Under Nehemiah, special attention was also given to the fortification and repopulation of Jerusalem, and to alleviating the plight of the poor through the cancellation of debts.

The sweeping religious and social revitalization under Ezra and Nehemiah laid the groundwork for a broad definition of Judaism for subsequent generations. The nation committed itself to follow the divine teaching revealed to Moses and to observe carefully all the commandments of the Lord.

From Beginnings of Judaism, Prof. I.M.Gafni, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Teaching Company

Biblical Roots of Judaism – An Outline of Progress #4

 Translating the Bible – The Septuagint

As Judaism evolved into a religion of “the book” with a canon of sacred texts at its core, access to those texts by all Jews was essential. The Greek version of the Bible that emerged, in staages, is known as the Septuagint (seventy). It was the first case of a major translation from an Eastern dialect into Greek. It reached its final form centuries after the initial submission of the first compoonent of the Hebrew Bible (Torah) to Greek.

The Septuagint was one of the most ambitions translating projects in all of antiquity, and the first case of a major translation from an Eastern dialect into Greek. Identical Hebrew words that apear in different books of the Bible are often given different equivalents throughout the Septuagint. Some words were not translated at all, probably because their Hebrew or Aramaic forms were familiar even to Greek-speaking Jews. The vocabulary used in the Hebrew Bible took on new meanings in post-biblical times. The translators often departed from the original intentions of the bible. Translators sometimes steered away from anthropormorphic descriptions of God. Where the Hebrew version off Exodus 24:10 reads “And they saw the God of Israel,” the Septuagint translates: “And they saw the place hwere the God of Israel stood.”

The nature of these discrepancies plays a major role in understanding the importance of the Septuagint for biblical scholarship… Translators are not only conduits of their sources, but also interpreters.

From Beginnings of Judaism, taken from the text by Prof. I.M.Gafni, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Teaching Company



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