Ancient Judaism an Overview
The earliest form of Judaism was characterized by explicit monotheism ("there is no god but Yahweh"), devotion to Jerusalem as the "holy city", and a belief in the future advent of a saviour figure or "messiah", descended from King David, who would establish a kingdom of justice and peace on earth. Pilgrimages to the Temple at Jerusalem and male participation in the sacrificial cult, maintained by a hereditary priesthood, were encouraged.
A set of highly distinctive religious practices, including male circumcision, a ban on idol-worship, the sabbath and dietary laws (especially avoidance of pig's meat and the prohibition of eating meat and milk at the same meal), were strictly observed especially by Jews in the diaspora, where intermarriage with non-Jews was also officially resisted.
Our evidence for ancient Judaism, like our sources for ancient Israelite religion, comes almost entirely from the Hebrew Bible. The Torah or "Five Books of Moses", Judaism's most sacred text, reached its final written form by around 400BCE, while most of the other biblical texts had gained quasi-canonical status by about 200BCE.
During this period the Second Temple was built at Jerusalem and the small state of Judaea established there under the protection of the Persian government. There were also thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Babylonia and elsewhere in the diaspora, where alternative beliefs and institutions, including the synagogue, were also developing, and Aramaic and Greek replaced Hebrew as the main languages of the Jews.
The crisis of religious persecution under the Syrian King Antiochus IV (175-163BCE), and the successful nationalist revolt led by Judas Maccabaeus which liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, resulted in the emergence of several varieties of Judaism.
These defined themselves partly in their relationship to the Temple hierarchy and their beliefs about scripture, and partly in their attitude towards some of the hellenistic influences increasingly evident in Judaism, such as Persian eschatology and Alexandrian Greek scholarship.
By the end of the second century BCE three groups can be identified in Judaea, Sadducees, Essenes and Pharisees, while in the diaspora important Jewish communities were emerging in Babylonia and Egypt.
The Temple in Jerusalem provided a powerful source of symbolism even to Jews living in the diaspora. The two pillars by the main door of the Temple, the seven branched candle-stick (menorah), the high-priest's jewelled breastplate and the rams horn (shofar) are among the religious symbols appearing in early Jewish literature and synagogue art. Representations of the Ark of the Covenant, sometimes on a wheeled cart, were also used.
The earliest use of tefillin ("phylacteries"), two small leather boxes attached by straps to the forehead and left upper arm during prayer, can be traced to this period, as can that the mezuzah ("doorpost"), a small decorative cylinder fixed to the right hand doorpost at the entrance to a Jewish home. Both the tefillin and the mezuzah contain a tiny parchment scroll with words from Hebrew scripture written on it. The Tetragrammaton (the four letters of the unpronounceable divine name YHWH), often written in the archaic Hebrew script, was another important symbol from early times.
It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy the number of Jews at this stage of the history of Judaism.
The Jerusalem hierarchy, including a high priest and the Sanhedrin (ruling council), claimed to be the single central authority throughout most of the Second Temple period (515BCE-70CE). There was a brief period in the second century BCE when a rival Jewish temple existed at Leontopolis in Egypt. Expanding communities there and in Babylonia may have had some kind of regional authority by then as well.
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