Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Kurdistan .Yazidis .Judaism . Christianity ....
Kurdistan. Yazidis. Judaism. Christianity. Islam. (Photo credit: Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56, The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth:

As a foundation myth, the exodus myth therefore constitutes the Israelite people not as a normal people like any other around, but as a separate, elected people of God. The origin myth is simply that of a religious community, whether people or a congregation. It is not a normal myth of origin of a secular entity; it is the kind of mythology that follows other religious communities of this world, including Christianity. It is not history but beyond history, phrased in historical terms; it is the origin myth of a religious history of the chosen people, the holy congregation of God, who having sinned passed the judgment in order to reclaim their land and their God. (pp. 92-93 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)

Continuity and otherwise in Palestine’s history

But the biblical motif of a people exiling and returning in order to forge their identity is not what we find in the material remains of Palestine. Rather, there is a solid continuity of peoples in Palestine that the biblical narrative knows nothing about.

We find the first settlers in Palestine in the Neolithic period. The earliest villagers and farmers adopted the Semitic language and structured their own version of a Mediterranean economy.

The social and cultural continuities of Palestine’s population from that time are marked and unequivocal. We see them in the material remains and particularly in the styles of pottery from cooking pots and storage jars, as well as in the later developments of lamps and common ware. We find them in the structures of the economy, the political structures of patronage, the types of settlement, even the continuity of the trade routes. The establishment of empire, first with the Assyrians, which was to continue until modern times, changed few of these structures. (p. 254 of Our Mythic Past)

The same holds true, says TLT, for religious developments:

The development of religious beliefs was also progressive, involving as much a reinterpretation of the old as an introduction of the new. The foundations of biblical thought were centred in an inclusive monotheism, which was based on a reinterpretation of Palestine’s religious past. The characteristic of the Bible as a collected tradition confirms continuities it created. Judaism and Christianity, though themselves later than the writings taken up in the Bible, clearly understood themselves as heirs to this intellectual tradition. (pp. 254-55)

But what happened afterwards to “the people of the land”?

As Judaism gave way  to the dominance of Christianity in the Byzantine period in the course of the fourth century CE, and when both Christianity and Judaism gave place to Islam in the seventh, changes took place in the religious thoughts of the population, but such changes were both developmental and incremental. (p. 255)

But what of those migrations into the land?

Here we have the ideology of continuity. That is, even outsiders who migrate to settle in the land embrace an ideology that their presence is itself  seen as an act of continuity with the land:

Even the great displacements of the twentieth century, leading to the establishment of the state of Israel, have been understood in terms of return. They are spoken of in the language of continuity.

And it was always thus, though to detail it all would require more space than a single post:

Even the disruptions of imperial population policies had been reinterpreted in favour of continuities. Indigency was given the immigrants as their birthright. (p. 255)

But what is the historical fact? Is there on-the-ground continuity at the tangible historical level, too?

Historical continuities were also in fact great. Although deportation and exile, and subsequent changes to identity and self-understanding, have been the fate of many during the history of this region, continuity has played a countervailing role.

The state of Israel ceased to be in the year 722 BCE, but the people and many of the villages and towns of Israel continued and the historical continuities of this highland population with the medieval and modern Samaritan communities around Nablus can be confirmed through continuities of the agricultural population in the Shechem valley and elsewhere in the central highlands. Economic and cultural continuity can be traced back to the Early Bronze Age. One must not imagine the Assyrians creating a tabula rasa of the highlands in 722. They had a territory to administer and to draw taxes from. While the generic mix of the population must have been substantially altered by these changes, many remained in the region and provided the language, culture, religion and way of life for the varied ‘returnees’ who were brought to the land from Arabia, Elam and Syria. Not all went into exile; nor did all go to Egypt. The archaeological continuities are marked, as are the continuities of language, culture, religion and way of life. ‘Race’ in the modern discriminatory sense is not an issue during this period.

The year 586 BCE disrupted and changed political life in Jerusalem. That was politics. The lives of most people were picked up again and continued along old lines. The end of Palestine’s regional states brought the population into an imperial context. National identity with the formation of ethnicity had failed.

(p. 255, reformatted for easier reading)

The historical Yahweh

The distinctive feature of biblical Judaism is the worship of Yahweh. But what does the historical record tell us?

The Bible’s portrayal of the god Yahweh as understood through the period of the Iron Age is anachronistic. The biblical narrative was from a time long after the settings of its narratives in the ages of the patriarchs and the united kingdom. So what do we know of Yahweh worship in the region during the Iron Age from the historical evidence itself — as opposed to late theological narratives?

In brief outline here, the earliest references to Yahweh appear as a place-name in Egyptian texts of the fourteenth to thirteenth century BCE.

Further, we have much evidence of a plurality of Yahwehs from the Iron Age: Yahu or Yau of Nebo; Yahwehs of Teman and Samaria, graphic depictions of them from Kuntillat Ajrud (a ruin in northern Sinai). These references could well indicate the existence of cult places and temples for the worship of this deity.

We also have personal names containing Yah or Yau or Yahu, indicating a name meaning related to the god. These names are spread across a wide geographic area in the West Semitic world. These include royal names in the far north Hamat in Syria: Azriyau and Yau/Ilubidi.

Such well-known evidence reflects a number of societies that variously identified such central divine functions as fertility and weather with a deity whose name was Yahweh. Ba’al and Hadad are better-known names for this same divine function among West Semites. (p. 256)

In later periods, too, we find attachments to this god. There is Yahw in Elephantine of the Persian period and Yao in the writings of Philo of Byblos. Eusebius refers us to the god Ieuw in northern Syria.

In the Persian period we find coins with Yahweh’s image and symbols.

In both the Persian and subsequent Hellenistic era there are Yahweh temples at Elephantine, Jerusalem, Arad, Samaria (near Mount Gerizim), Leontopolis, Araq-el-Amir and Cyrenaica.

On the strength of assumed similarities to the biblical Yahwey temples excavated at Arad (Iron Age) and Beersheva (Hellenistic) are also claimed as Yahwist.


The Bible’s theological views of Jahweh thus bear no comparison with the historical Yahweh of Palestine. What we read in the Bible is a late theological narrative that anachronistically imputes its own view of Yahweh into its imaginary (theological-creative) view of the past.

Compare the Bible authors’ treatment of Canaanites, Amorites, Hebrews, Philistine, even the name Israel as a kingdom, as outlined in an earlier post. The authors — probably in the Persian and Hellenistic eras — have taken ancient names whose original contexts and meanings had largely been lost to them to weave a new identity narrative, more myth than history, for a religious community.

Many Judaisms

As with the names of peoples and god above, the “Judaism” of the authors was anachronistically projected back into the past as part of their theological myth-making.

First of all, the historical Judea:

The name Judea — Jaudáa — is a geographical term (referring to the highlands south of Jerusalem) in Assyrian period texts.

The same name — Yehud — becomes a political term in the Persian era.

[These names] were no more reflective of a people than were any of the other names for regions of the empire. Moreover, the geographical spread of people referred to as Yehudim is so great that it would be rash to assume that this name refers to their place of origin.

There is no evidence that the term had ethnographic associations.

Nor should we continue to understand this term as ethnographic, without evidence. By the beginning of the rabbinic period in the second century CE, the term yehudim is clearly religiously descriptive, and neither ethnic nor geographic. Folk-etiologically, the term yehudim has been associated with the divine name Yahu. It defines Yehudim as adherents of Yahu. It is this religious association that seems most constant in the spread of the use of the name Yehudim in the Roman empire. (p. 257)

The Elephantine texts of Egypt

Here we find the name Yehud applied to people who lived in a military colony and who seem to have had a particular religious affiliation. The term is not used in a geographic sense. The word Yehudim might be understood as a label for a people who had an affiliation with the god Yahweh.

These ‘Jews’ are not residents of Judea. Nor is it likely that they originally came from Judea rather than some other region of the south Levant. They are members of a religious association of those who centre their lives in Yahweh. These texts are well worth looking at more closely.

407 BCE, a letter from Yedoniah, a priest of the military colony at Elephantine, sent to the governor of Judea. The letter was sent on behalf of Yedoniah’s fellow priests and the ‘Jews’, the citizens of Elephantine:

  • Yedoniah asked for administrative permission to rebuild their temple, dedicated to the god Yaho.
  • Yedoniah also referred to an earlier explanatory letter he had sent to the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria.
  • . . . . and to another previous letter to the high priest in Jerusalem that was never answered.
  • Yedoniah accuses the priests of the temple of Khnub of conspiracy in the temple’s destruction, which had been carried out by troops from the fortress of Syene.
  • Yedoniah claims that the temple and military colony of the Jews had been in Elephantine since pre-Persian times.
  • He claims a religious kinship with temple community and ‘Jews’ of Jerusalem. (Is the sentiment reciprocated?)

The term ‘Jews’ makes no implicit reference to a place of origin in the Persian province of Yehud. The only indicators in the letter to places of origin are found in the words ‘Aramaean’ and ‘Egyptian’.

It is likely that the ‘Jews’ of Elephantine are originally from the south of Levant on the basis of

  • the dominance of West Semitic, especially Yahwist-theophoric, personal names
  • many Hebraisms in the Aramaic of the texts —
    • but the implied use of Hebrew language does not of itself indicate any specific ethnicity or ideology

And to that last point must be added that the texts also inform us that the Jewish garrison here also supported a range of other gods, too — Yaho, Ishumbethel, Anathbethel — thus indicating broader Syrian, probably south Syrian, origins.

It is impossible to conclude that these ‘Jews’ consist of a single ethnic unit:

Other deities — of international origin — are honoured by Elephantine’s Jews. An oath is sworn to the goddess Sati, and greetings are given in the name of Bel and Nabu, Shamash and Nergal, Yaho and Khnub. The nexus of religion and family makes it difficult to conclude that the ‘Jewish’ religious associations of the Elephantine community, suggested by their names and that of their deity, are to be translated with any confidence in terms of ethnicity. Ethnicity is difficult enough to identify in the best of circumstances. Far from the relative homogeneity of a provisional homeland, émigrés are, ethnically speaking, notoriously promiscuous. (p. 258)

Mibtahiah, daughter of Mahseiah the son of Yedoniah (Yahwist names all) is presented as “a good case for understanding Jewish associations in the diaspora.”

Her grandfather, Yedoniah, is described as an Aramaean or Syrian of Syene.

Her father, Mahseiah, in another text is described as a ‘Jew’.

So, being a Jew clearly did not exclude one from also being an Aramaean.

Further, in a contract for her third marriage, her father is this time described as a Aramaean of Syene (as his father, Yedoniah, is also described).

  • Mibtahiah’s first husband has a Yahwist name, Yezaniah, as well as a Yahwist patronym: ben Uriah.
  • Her second husband has an Egyptian name, Pi’, with an Egyptian patronym: Phy. He was a builder in the fortress of Syene.
  • Her third husband, also a builder, has the Egyptian name Ashor, with an Egyptian patronym: Seho. He later adopts the common Hebrew name Nathan. “Whether this was done for family or for religious reasons is a moot point.”

The Persian province of Yehud

In biblical traditions Yehud of Persian times is identified with the region of Judea and consists of a small temple society centred around Jerusalem and to the north of Judea.

It is undoubtedly in this Persian period that Jerusalem first becomes identified as the city of the Jews, of the Yehudim, but it is not clear that this has any geographical significance in the biblical texts. (p. 259)

The personal name of Yehudah also makes its first appearance during this period. It is found in the Bible as the eponymous ancestor of the biblical tribe of Judah/Yehudah, and as a cue-name for the one (Ehud)  who in Judges conquers the highlands of Yehudah.

Religious self-understanding: Elephantine texts, Book of Psalms, Josephus

The self-understanding implied of a religious Judaism (as in the texts of Elephantine) is found in the authorial voice of biblical texts such as the Book of Psalms. These texts look back upon ancient Israel as lost. They create a ‘new Israel’, centred in the study of the torah, given to them by the long forgotten God of Israel past. Like Israel’s troops in the story of Joshua 24, they reject the past to choose a new way, the way of Yahweh. This is also the perspective of the stories in Josephus about John Hyrcanus. He is seen as re-establishing a new Israel throughout the newly conquered lands of Palestine. (p. 259)

Eretz Yisrael, the ‘land of Israel’ — and the ‘true’ Israel

It is a striking fact that the concept of “the land of Israel” is nowhere established through ethnic identification with the land, but always through religious conversion.

This is again the understanding of a ‘true’ — not an ethnic — Israel that is given to the founding figure in the Damascus Covenant: the ‘teacher of righteousness’. We have seen that this language reflects a sectarian perspective. The true Israel is understood to refer to those who hold to the way of truth.

In just such a context, Josephus presents the Pharisees as Jews for the ‘new Israel’. In contrast, the Hasmonean-anchored Sadducees are presented as adhering to the old Israel and the temple. However, the historically indistinguishable sadiqim (‘the righteous’) stand solidly in just such a sectarian-define path of righteousness as the ‘new Israel’.

This is a profoundly theological, not an ethnic definition. It is, moreover, a perception and self-understanding that must force the historian to avoid speaking of Judaism and Israel as a people of God.

Jews, Idumeans, Galileans and Samaritans, as well as Essenes and Pharisees, the writers of the gospels as well as the early rabbis of the Talmud, all understood themselves with the self-defining term benei Yisrael [= children of Israel]. The gospels — with all of their seemingly anti-Semitic abuse of the term ‘Jew’ — are thoroughly ‘Jewish’ works that are centred in this same sectarian and biblical view of the ‘new Israel’. They see Judaism, as do the rabbis, from a religious perspective. (my formatting)

Niels Peter Lemche stresses in his discussion of the dual concept of Israel in the Bible the stories of blood purity — especially as found in the stories from the Patriarchs to the returnees of Ezra with their strident declamations against mixed marriages. This is to preserve the religious purity of the ‘children of Israel’:

The image of Israel in the Old Testament is ambivalent. On one hand it is the people of God, the elected one, God’s own possession, the light to the nations. On the other, it is a depraved people, a people who cannot understand, who have been warned, but nevertheless are following in the footsteps of their fathers, forgetting their God, a people to be swept away and punished. Before the Babylonian exile we see a people of sinners and transgressors, but after the exile a purified community of believers . . . . (p. 86 of The Israelites in History and Tradition)

The Gospel of Mark — implications for interpretation

It is from the likes of Thompson and Lemche drawing my attention to this refrain throughout the Jewish Scriptures that has been the source of my own interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. I have long seen this Gospel as being very much in the same tradition of biblical literature and the theology of the biblical books: Jesus is founding a new Israel, but the twelve chosen ones fail just as did the “Old Testament’s” original Israel fail. Like the “old Israel” they, too, failed to understand through their hardness of hearts, forgetting the great works of Jesus, and in the end failing by deserting Jesus. The lesson is for the true new Israel — the Christian audience of the gospel. And just as the biblical history of the old ‘Jews’ ended in ambiguity — exile, but with some glimmer of hope for the future with the restoration of the king to sit within the Babylonian royal court — so does the Gospel of Mark end in ambiguity. Such a conclusion is the licence for the readers/hearers to fulfil the hope held out at the end in their own lives.

Paul himself said the stories of the ‘old Israel’ were written for the spiritual benefit of ‘new’: 1 Cor. 10:1-6. That a new chapter was called upon to be written for the new Israel that was preserved out of the old Israel with the destruction of the Temple in 70 would seem to be the most logical next step in the theological-literary tradition.

To be continued:

Will conclude this with a second post addressing in depth what the term ‘Jews’ meant to Josephus, Philo and others.

(p.s. I will delete any pingbacks to this post that come from anti-semitic sites) 
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12 thoughts on “Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1”

  1. I expected this to be an interesting comment, having read one of the authors Lemche, The Old Testament: Between Theology and History and presented a thesis on this topic in my own book. However there seems to be so much over-looked or ignored that I feel the writer should consider Finkelstein, and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed. Then look at this writing with new eyes.

    1. I have written about F&S’s The Bible Unearthed and should do so again. I was quite disappointed with that book for the flimsy evidential supports they drew upon for major conclusions, and in particular for failing to address the questionable methodology upon which they presumed the historicity of Josiah’s reformation.

      1. The numerous clear 7th century BC references throughout the Primary History are strong evidence that at least a major part of it was written then, or during the Exile. There are also significant parallels between Deuteronomy’s portrayal of Moses and 2 Kings’ description of Josiah. However, Josiah’s reform, especially as described in Chronicles, is mostly pious exaggeration, and must be viewed through the lens of the Exile, or later. The abolition of polytheism was likely for Josiah only in official, not private religion. Also, any idea of expansion to the North beyond 5 miles is unlikely, since Psamtik I had a watchful eye on its nearby kingdoms, and would simply not allow an independent army to develop in any one of them.

  2. I have now read what you wrote and really cannot see why you draw the conclusions that you state. Perhaps it is because you interest in the book did not coincide with mine. I used their objective research, along with that of several hundred other people, to draw the conclusions that I reached in my book. I took their evidence as professional and reliable and worked with their conclusions: that the Canaanites had always lived there and that there had never been a grand Solomon and David, all of which make perfect sense and was corroborated by other evidence.

    Admittedly my book was an attempt to make sense of the origins of Christianity, but my research enabled me to start with an open mind. Unlike the majority of religious students, I wanted to understand, I did not want to justify any belief that I already held. Some of what I found shocked me, some surprised me, but most of it made perfect sense in its context. I started from the perspective of a historian. I have no interest in biblical understanding at all, seeing those who consider this in isolation from history as contemplating the navel fluff or theology. That is not to say that the Bible does not contain some theological message, but those who read it rarely understand what that was.

  3. “…a God without a home or a people searching for a people without a home or a God.”

    A people searching for a people? This quote looks garbled.

    “…a sectarian-define path of righteousness”

    Should this say “sectarian-defined”?

    1. Seems to make sense to me, but it needs mental brackets, perhaps it could say ” … a homeless God without a people searching for a godless people without a home.” But that conveys a very different meaning because of the double valence of “godless.”

  4. Oh, I see. You are right, it makes perfect sense after (and only after) I discard the notion that “people” is the subject of “searching.”

    This is one of those rare cases where a comma, though syntactically unneeded, is desirable for clarity:

    “…a God without a home or a people[,] searching for a people without a home or a God.”

  5. @ WH Uffington, —-

    Before I did read The Bible Unearthed I had fed myself a heavy diet of “minimalists-vs-maximalist” debates in journal articles and books. I tried to read everything available to me on both sides — and the minimalists and quasi-minimalists I covered went way beyond the ‘big 4’ of Thompson, Lemche, Davies and Whitelam. It was only after gorging myself in libraries on all of this stuff that I came to The Bible Unearthed primarily because I was intrigued at the apparent popularity of the book. I was looking forward to reading it myself but was very disappointed that it did not address most of the contrary evidence and claims that I knew were out there for its many assertions. It appeared to me to be yet another version of re-writing the biblical myth. I began to even wonder if its popularity was partly on the grounds that it could be read as a modern attempt to salvage a more sophisticated (in tune with latest archaeological finds) myth of and for Israel.

    It is for a popular readership so I can understand it not covering all the details of academic debates, I suppose. But I felt that there were some basics that simply ought not to have been overlooked so completely. I will try to do my own series of reviews on it.

    @ Clyde Adams III —-

    I can’t change the original text I am quoting but I have bracketed in a clarification. The one thing I definitely did not like about The Mythic Past were apparent signs of something rushed somewhere along the production line. Paragraph breaks were missing when needed and made following the argument a hell of a job at times. Too much is assumed of the reader at the outset. It really needs several readings before a novice can begin to grasp anything. (And I was a novice in the area when I first read it.) But the capital sin was not having any bloody index!!!!! No non-fiction book should ever be allowed to be published without a decent index.

    1. Thank you for your explanation. I see that your perspective and mine would be quite different. I was not interested in argument or debate at that time. I was looking for evidence, so the archaeology was what mattered to me. I was intrigued, I must admit, as it seemed more likely that the University of Tel Aviv would want to confirm its religious assumptions. For this reason I had wanted to have more that the achaeological results from the american Bible-at-all-costs universities to work from.

      Although in my own book, I focus on the corruption of original Christianity and groups that have struggled to keep the truth alive, in the first part, I explore the origins of Judaic monotheism. My premise is that the Exodus records the exile of the Atenist priests some time after the death of Akhenaten and the political use made by King Josiah of the opportunity to write the ‘Jewish history’ down.

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