The Birth and Evolution of Judaism:
The most profound spiritual and cognitive crisis
in Hebrew history was the Exile.
Defeated by the Chaldeans
under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC, the Judaean population was in part
deported to Babylon, mainly the upper classes and craftsmen. In
586, incensed by Judaeans shifting their loyalty, Nebuchadnezzar
returned, lay siege to Jerusalem, and burned it down along with
the Temple. Nothing
in the Hebrew world view had prepared them for a tragedy of this
magnitude. The Hebrews had been promised the land of Palestine by
their god; in addition, the covenant
between Yahweh and Abraham
promised Yahweh's protection. The destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the deportation of the
Judaeans, shook the Hebrew faith to its roots.
The literature of the Exile and shortly after betrays the despair
and confusion of the population uprooted from its homeland. In Lamentations
and various Psalms,
we get a profound picture of the sufferings of those left in Judaea,
who coped with starvation and massive privation, and the community
of Hebrews wandering Babylon. In Job,
a story written a century or so after the Exile, the central character
suffers endless calamities when he finally despairs of Yahweh's
justice, his only answer is that Yahweh is not to be questioned.
But Hebrew religion shifted profoundly in the years
of Exile. A small group of religious reformers
believed that the calamaties suffered by the Jews were due to the
corruption of their religion and ethics. These religious reformers
reoriented Jewish religion around the Mosaic books; in other words,
they believed that the Jews should return to their foundational
religion. While the Mosaic books had been in existence since the
seventh or eighth centuries BC, they began to take final shape under
the guidance of these reformers shortly after the Exile.
Above everything else, the Torah,
the five Mosaic books, represented all the law that Hebrews should
follow. These laws, mainly centered around cultic practices, should
remain pure and unsullied if the Jews wished to return to their
homeland and keep it.
So the central character of post-Exilic Jewish
religion is reform, an attempt to return religious and social
practice back to its original character. This reform was accelerated
by the return to Judaea itself; when Cyrus the Persian conquered
the Chaldeans in 539, he set about re-establishing
religions in their native lands. This included the Hebrew religion.
Cyrus ordered Jerusalem
and the Temple to
be rebuilt, and in 538 BC, he sent the Judaeans home to Jerusalem for the express purpose of
worshipping Yahweh . The reformers, then, occupied a central
place in Jewish thought and life all during the Persian
years (539-332 BC).
Beneath the surface, though, foreign elements creeped
in to the Hebrew religion. While the reformers were busy trying
to purify the Hebrew religion, the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism,
creeped into it among the common run of people. Why this happened
is anyone's guess, but Zoroastrianism offered a world view that
both explained and mollified tragedies such as the Exile.
It seems that the Hebrews adopted some of this world view in the
face of the profound disasters they had weathered.
Zoroastrianism, which had been founded in the seventh
century BC by a Persian prophet name Zarathustra (Zoroaster is his
Greek name), was a dualistic, eschatological,
and apocalyptic religion. The universe is divided into two distinct
and independent spheres. One, which is light and good, is ruled
by a deity who is the principle of light and good; the other, dark
and evil, is ruled by a deity who is the principle of dark and evil.
The whole of human and cosmic history is an epic struggle between
these two independent deities; at the end of time, a final battle
between these two deities and all those ranged on one side or the
other, would permanently decide the outcome of this struggle. The
good deity, Ahura-Mazda, would win this final, apocalyptic battle,
and all the gods and humans on the side of good would enjoy eternal
Absolutely none of these elements were present
in Hebrew religion before the Exile.
The world is governed solely by Yahweh; evil in the world is solely
the product of human actionsthere is no "principle of
evil" among the Hebrews before the Exile. The afterlife
is simply a House of Dust called Sheol in which the soul lasts for
only a brief time. There is no talk or conception of an end of time
or history, or of a world beyond this one. After the Exile,
however, popular religion among the Judaeans and the Jews of the
Diaspora include several innovations:
After the Exile, the Hebrews invent a concept
of a more or less dualistic universe, in which all good and
right comes from Yahweh, while all evil arises from a powerful
principle of evil. Such a dualistic view of the universe helps
to explain tragedies such as the Exile.
- Eschatology and Apocalypticism
Popular Jewish religion begins to form an
elaborate theology of the end of time, in which a deliverer
would defeat once and for all the forces of evil and unrighteousness.
Concurrent with the new eschatology, there
is much talk of a deliverer who is called "messiah,"
or "anointed one." In Hebrew culture, only the head
priest and the king were anointed, so this "messiah"
often combined the functions of both religious and military
Popular Judaism adopts an elaborate after-life.
Since justice does not seem to occur in this world, it is
only logical that it will occur in another world. The afterlife
becomes the place where good is rewarded and evil eternally
While the reformers resist these innovations, they
take hold among a large part of the Hebrew population. And it is
from this root the religion of the common person that
a radical form of Yahwism will grow: the religion of Jesus