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What do we know about early history of Judaism? Do we know the timeline when these modern traits of modern Judaism developed:

1 Lifestyle restriction that we now find in Torah, such as the prohibition of pork, etc.

2 Written Torah.

3 The rest of the Old Testament.

4 Fairly common literacy that included the study of Torah.

5 Rejection of polytheism, that is, worshipping only one God.

6 Monotheism, that is, there is only one God.

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What research have you done so far? – Mark C. Wallace Jan 30 '14 at 17:40
I am familiar with religious and accepted historical accounts of some parts of that, as well as speculations by Freud et al. The question was prompted not by a professional research, but by a discussion here regarding at what point in time one could start talking about Judaism as opposed to "proto-Judaism". – Michael Jan 30 '14 at 18:00

3 Answers 3

  1. The Kashrut has a long development under which the laws have changed significantly. The first written down laws are in Leviticus, and date to after the Babylonian exile. The rules may be older, but there's no documentation of that as far as I can find.

  2. The Torah was compiled between 600 BC and 400 BC. Some of the sources from which it was compiled probably date back as far as 950 BC.

  3. The rest of the Tanakh dates probably from 200 BC to 200 AD.

  4. I seem to remember that the tradition that male Jews should study the Torah is something that arose amongst the Ahkenazi during exile, but I can't find any source for that now.

  5. Out of the Polytheistic Canaanite religion three deities seem to have risen to major prominence: Yahweh, El and Asherah. One of the sources to the Torah, the Elohist source, is likely written around 850BC, so at this point these two gods were still seen as separate, but later they were merged into one god, who had a consort, Asherah. The image of Asherah was removed from the temple in the 7th century BC, so the rejection of Polytheism comes there.

  6. Monotheism, ie the claim that only one god exists, arose during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, probably influenced by Zoroastrianism.

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#4 makes sense even unsourced. At the risk of taking a swipe at the current Israeli internal politics, people who work to feed themselves for a living in pre-feudal society don't have the luxury of having a huge proportion of population sitting around all day and studying. But I'm a bit skeptical re: Ashkenazi only roots, since modern Sphardim have the same idea. Perhaps ask on Judaism.SE? – DVK Feb 2 '14 at 13:50
The Wikipedia article doesn't really provide a historical explanation for #1 -- is it reasonable to assume it's a way for the community to differentiate themselves in exile from other peoples? – michel-slm Feb 5 '14 at 2:42
@michel-slm Interesting idea, that could very well be possible. I really don't have a clue though. – Lennart Regebro Feb 5 '14 at 4:55
Point number 3 is way off on the dates. The books of the major prophets were written before the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE. The rest of the books, at latest, would be not later than 500 or 450 BCE. Only NT books (which aren't in the Tanakh) and some apocrypha (like the Book of the Maccabbees) would come in the range you gave, 200 BCE - 200 CE. – Bruce James Jul 2 '14 at 18:35
Your comment #4 makes no sense at all. The scholars who studied the Torah and are cited in the Mishna and the Gemara, as well as the Tosefta, were all Sephardim (Ashkenazim didn't really exist then) who lived in Israel or Babylon from about 100 BCE to 700 CE. Only later do you start seeing Ashkenaz scholars, and most of them (e.g. the "Rishonim") date to the Middle Ages in France and Germany. The main Babylonian yeshiva (where the Babylonian Talmud was edited) continued through the 11th century CE. Sephardic scholars then flourished in Israel, Spain, Turkey and Egypt. – Bruce James Jul 2 '14 at 18:42

A nice timeline appears in Max I. Dimont's survey, Jews, God and History (Simon & Shuster 1962). Rather than using the order that you set out in your questions, I will answer chronologically according to Dimont's timeline. Note that historians disagree as to who and how the ideas of Judaism developed, and there might be some quibbling about the timeline, but I think Dimont's timeline is useful as a starting point. I do note that Orthodox religious sources have constructed timelines somewhat different from Dimont which are based on Biblical sources rather than the historical proofs Dimont relies upon. For interesting timelines based on Biblical narratives, see the Art Scroll Stone Edition Tanakh.


Judaism begins with Abraham, according to Scripture, as he was the purported first believer in a single God and Creator. Dimont places Abraham within the period of the Babylonian Empire (Chaldean) founded by Hammurabi, 2000-1200 BCE (Before Common Era -- Jewish abbreviation in lieu of "BC"). This answers your points #5 and #6.


With Moses comes the giving of the Torah which establishes for the first time a comprehensive life guide and legal code. Dimont places this at 1200-1100 BCE. Dimont notes that while Sumerian and the Code of Hammurabi predated the Torah, they "lacked the passion" of the Torah and lacked its "democratic spirit," permitting favoritism for some rather than equal justice for all segments of the community. Dimont at p 43. With the Mosaic law came its distinct lifestyle requirements. Hence, this answers your point #1.

Completion of the Written Torah (i.e. Genesis thru Deuteronomy)

Citing the works of Biblical critics of the 1950s, which suggested that the Five books of the Torah were actually the blended result of four different narratives, based on certain linguistic changes in the text, such as the Names used for God. (Religious Jeweish scholars have other explanations for these variations, finding them to have significant meaning not expressly stated.) Based on these sources, Dimont dates the completion of the Written Torah at about 450 BCE, answering your point #2. Dimont at p 40.

Completion of Tanakh

The remainder of the Hebrew Scriptures, referred to in Judaism as the Tanakh -- an acronym that stands for the three groupings of its contents -- the Torah, the Navi (books of prophets) and Ketuvim (other writings, such as Ruth and Ecclesastes).

Babylonian Exile, Return and the Men of the Great Assembly

Dimont dates the destruction of the First Temple and the first exile of the Jewish people at between 600-500 BCE and their return to Israel under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe at 458 BCE. Donin at 69. Shortly after the return, the minor prophets who had survived the brief exile, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah, as well as Mordechai -- a key figure from the Book of Esther -- were reported to have taken part in an organization known as the Men of the Great Assembly, or Anshei Knesset Gedollah. According to the Jerusalem Talmudm, Megillah 70d, and the Midrash in Ruth Rabba ii, 4, the Anshei Knesset Gedolah consisted of 85 elders, including 30 prophets. This group of leaders were responsible for the writing and/or preservation of numerous books of the Bible, in particular the books of the prophets and writings including Chronicles, and it appears that the Tanakh's writings end with them. While there are reasons to doubt that rabbis as late as the Third Century CE were open to further expanding Tanakh with books written after the Men of the Great Assembly, such as Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus), no such books entered the Jewish canon. This is your answer to point 3.

The Obligation to Study Torah

The obligation of Jewish males to study Torah was long discussed in Rabbinic sources dating back 200 years before Jesus, and those rabbis found Biblical sources to support their position. In Mishna Avot, chapter 1, the head of the Sanhedrin, Joshua ben Perahya (2nd Century BCE) advised all men to find a teacher from which to learn Torah and to review those teachings with a friend. The famous rabbi, Hillel the Elder (1st Century BCE) is quoted in the second chapter of Mishna Avot as saying that one should set aside a time for daily Torah study and not say that he will study when he has time, because if he does so, he will never have free time. His contemporary, Shammai, is quoted in the first chapter of Avot as saying "make the study of Torah a fixed practice." Whether Torah study should be full-time for young men, or rather mixed with work and study during the same day, has been a matter of debate within Judaism for 2000 years. In the first century CE the Talmud (Brachot 35b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Ishmael took opposite positions. Rabbi Shimon condemned those who worked for a living and also studied Torah, believing that all should have devoted themselves to daily Torah learning as he had. Each cited proof from Biblical sources. A good discussion of this debate is cited here.

It could be aruged, therefore that the obligation for daily Torah study is rooted in Biblical law or, alternatively, it was a requirement of the rabbis. Given the latter, I would place this obligation as having occurred no later than 200 BCE.

A caveat must be made. For centuries there was a tradition of learning the Written Torah, and other Mosaic Laws not written in the Torah but transmitted by Moses to the Elders and passed down over centuries (the "Oral Torah"), that relied on memorization. Part of this was practical -- this was well before the printing press. Also, the decision to memorize Torah (used broadly in this context) was especially important given the possibility that a military defeat could result in complete destruction of written materials. So the question remains whether the average Jewish was taught to read. Scholars disagree. A high rate of literacy is implied in the NT: There, Jesus often rebutted his critics by saying "Have you not read..." implying that he and all of his followers, at least, were literate. See, e.g. Matthew 12:3. Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:6-7) implied literacy in the normal course of business in the Jewish society. This is also borne out in some archeological finds dating to the 12th century BCE where Israelite inscriptions are found on pottery and artifacts showing literacy was not exclusive to the elite. Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi, “An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges,” Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct. 1978, 23-25.

Secular scholars who have tried to determine the levels of literacy in ancient Palestine do not refer to either the Gospels or rabbinic evidence that Jews were, mostly, literate. Israeli historian M. Bar-Ilan asserts that Jewish literacy ratein Roman-occupied Palestine was only 3% overall. Bar-Ilan, M., and lower than that of Romans (who, he says, had a 5% literacy rate). Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE. But in footnote 29 of his study, Bar-Ilan concedes that the Jewish literay rate might have been as high as 20 percent if he had excluded young children, women and farmers in far-off villages. And his number relies on a restrictive definition of "literacy" as meaning the ability to read a Torah scroll. Martin Jaffee, in his book, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism argues in a footnote that a majority of craftsmen would have been literate on a functional level for their work. See also C. Herzner, in her book, Jewish Literacy in Ancient Palestine (takes the position that Jewish males in the Roman occupation had limited literacy -- a knowledge of Hebrew letters and an ability to sign their name, but most lacked the capability to fully read and understand a Torah scroll).

The ability to be literate was dependent upon having money to afford a tutor. Rabbi Akiba began life as a pauper who cut wood for a living. He was illiterate until he was 40. Then, his wife, who had been born of wealth (but was disowned by her father when she married the pauper), could read and sold her hair and took jobs to send her husband to schools to learn to read and to learn Torah. Within 20 years he became one of the most preeminent scholars in Jewish history.

That is my answer to point #4.

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You would not even have to be literate yourself to memorize parts or all of the Torah. Certainly many non-literate Christians knew most or all of the Bible in the Dark and Middle Ages. The single fixed text has avoided Judaism splitting or contending over doctrine as much as Christianity has. – Oldcat Jul 3 '14 at 17:29
Good summary, but don't you want to list "Completion of Tanakh" after "Babylonian Exile, Return and the Men of the Great Assembly"? – Mike Jul 3 '14 at 22:51
@Oldcat -- the memorized more than just the text of the Torah. They memorized every detail taught about how rituals were observed and applications of general laws to specific circumstances. See – Bruce James Jul 24 '14 at 20:28

Regarding questions 5 and 6, an interesting discovery in Sinai, showed that "Jehovah" was at times accompanied by a wife / partner "Asherah", as late as the 8th century B.C. This seemingly sets a lower bound for the rise of monotheism in the peoples which will later create monotheistic Judaism.

The "lifestyle restrictions" have obviously evolved over time, with some fundamentals such as the calendar, sabbath observance, text in the phylacteries etc. still being debated until the first century A.C. That being said, archeological evidence shows that no pork bones were found in certain Canaanite towns at the beginning of the Iron age ~1200. B.C, so some of these traditions are indeed quite ancient.

Although different portions of the Torah were written far earlier, the canonization of the Torah is partially mentioned in the bible, when Josiah finds the book of deuteronomy (Kings 22). Thus the canonical pentateuch could not have existed before ~600 B.C at the very least.

On that note, it is clear from the text that torah learning was confined strictly to a class of scribes, and was not available to the general public. Even in the first centuries A.C, the talmud speaks about "Am Haaretz", seemingly the majority at the time, who were not familiar with the oral laws.

Of course, minor changes to the text were continually being made far far later, where rabbinical scholars in the middle ages still arguing which was of the many Torah scrolls in circulation across Europe and the middle east should be considered accurate.

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