Putting aside the Old Testament, which details a story (perhaps true) of the origins of peoples including Jews, what has anthropology and genetics revealed so far about the origins of Jews?

When did they first become distinct as an ethnic group? What older ethnicities do scientists think they are genetically comprised of?

Of course this may be construed as a broad questions, so I wish to limit it to those Jews who are generally accepted as having roots in the Middle East, so excluding groups such as Oriental and Ethiopian Jews for the sake of simplicity.

The reason I ask is because if the Old Testament/Torah is not correct (which seems to be the case) then when the Torah was written in latest 6th century BC Jews must have already existed as an ethnic group, meaning they surely had a sense of commonality in regards to their origins.

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    Depends on how you define "origin"... genetically and physically distinct from other ethnicities Which ones? Ethnic divisions do not perfectly correspond to genetic differences; there were and are several other Semitic peoples in the Near East who in ancient times probably could not have been distinguished from the Hebrews genetically.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 7, 2018 at 13:28
  • @Semaphore I am referring to their original divergence from whatever population they originally came from. When was this divergence first apparent? The cultural division is of course as old as the first old testament writings at minimum, but I'm referring to them as a people. The modern Jews (Semitic, Ashkenazi, Sephardic) of course look different to the local population.
    – Charlie
    Jan 7, 2018 at 13:43
  • Well, once the Ashkenazi and Sephardi migrated to Europe and acquired genes from their respective host populations, they obviously diverged from their original populations. But that's not "Jews" as a whole group. So again, it's unclear to me what you're defining as "original divergence".
    – Semaphore
    Jan 7, 2018 at 14:42
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    The whole "genetic dissimilarity" path doesn't hold: "Blood Brothers: Palestinians and Jews Share Genetic Roots" and that is of little wonder. Those Palestinians currently in 'the land' have for a large part been converted to islam and all of those groups were always intermarrying. Look into OT passage with things like my father the Philistine etc. Real (tribal, religious, ethnic etc.) boundaries are much less strict than prescriptions in scriptures or politics. Jan 7, 2018 at 16:06
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    Downvote for lack of research and for asking a muddled question about ethnicity, plus downvote for genetics
    – MCW
    Jan 11, 2018 at 12:56

2 Answers 2


Being awfully broad as it is, it is nevertheless an issue that might be addressable.

But the terminology needs to be clearer. "Jews", in our modern sense, sprang into existence only after 70 CE. Some scholars argue that this process took even longer. Before that we have Israelites, Yehudites, Judeans, Juda(h)ites, Hebrews and so on. Those terms are partly interchangeable and partly quite distinct.

"Genetically and physically distinct" are very disputable terms as both concepts here are on the border of (scientific) racism, and unfortunately a bit too far on the wrong side of that border. "Ethiopian and Oriental Jews" are by far not the only groups that thwart such attempts. The modern day Samaritans, Djerbans and Lemba, to name just a few prominent groups, add a very colourful genetic makeup into the statistic. Such a biostatistic seems to make it easy to construct clearly defined stereotypes – while in reality neither the individual nor the spectrum of people, communities and peoples are well depicted. Israelite origins are to be found in cultural distinctions and separations, not in biological or even pseudo-biological categorisations:

Views about a genetic basis for Jewishness have been both triumphalist and cautionary. Goldstein has written, “Our genetic heritage is ours to treasure, to explore and to marvel at.” However, Entine has warned, “But DNA is certainly a problematical way to establish identity. Despite the understandable excitement that comes with exploring our genetic attic, there is a clear danger in granting far too much explanatory power to the genes… Only genes confer the mystique of indelibility.” Sand has taken an even more negative tone, warning:

Like the field of physical anthropology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which released dubious scientific discoveries to a race hungry public, the science of molecular genetics at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twentyfirst century feeds fragmentary discoveries and half-truths to the identity-seeking media.[…]

Jewish genetics is unlikely to replace the hegemony of Jewish law and Jewish culture, nor should it. But as population genetics gains a foothold in the community, with Jews and non-Jews alike wanting to know about their origins, ancestors, and relatives, it will take its place in the formation of group identity alongside shared spirituality, shared social values, and a shared cultural legacy.

(Cited from Harry Ostrer: "Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2012.)

Concentrating on culturally defining aspects we can then say: Those who wrote and re-wrote the Torah were mainly exilic and post-exilic Israelites, or rather their priestly and royal servants – a small elite – compiling some older stuff from often oral traditions and interweaving a lot of new material to form a belief system and legitimacy for their religious and regal power structures.

The beginning of Israelite ethnogenesis is tied to the great bronze age collapse. Canaanite city states and their political and cultic system, largely under Egyptian control, broke down. Fleeing or emigrating Canaanites from those cities started to settle in the central highlands and joined nomads and pastoralists there, seemingly adopting a much simpler lifestyle, all of them still being clearly the offspring of the previous cultures and ethnicities. When this process came to a stage as definitely recognisable in archaeological remains is debatable, but Finkelstein sees the Omride dynasty as the first point in time where biblical narrative and physical evidence start to match in any way.

That means that this process took from the great collapse already mentioned until the early iron age and first manifests itself in the archaeological record with very sparse settlements and later gave rise to the original state of Israel, the so called Northern Kingdom.

The self consciousness and image of that people is hard to define, since most of what we have as historians is the first part of the Bible. That book heavily distorts the picture and mostly paints an idealistic, programmatic picture, resembling more a vision than a fact. Our texts are portraying strict monotheism, but at the same time they are retaining hints of different, polytheistic people (the normal population, the 'sinners'), matching up the condemnation of idols and heights with a huge number of material finds in terms of statues and figurines of gods and holy places and their markers in stone. In reality the borders and cultures, and the borders of culture where much more in flux and weakly defined.

One of the most prominent features to observe is that while the Philistines in what is now the South of the modern day state of Israel ate really a lot of pork, the Israelites in what is now considered Palestinian territory started to avoid pigs. The most sensible guess here is that this was one of the first identity markers that separated early Israelites from their surroundings in the early iron age.

Debates about the origin of Israel further complicate questions about the distinction between Israel and the other Canaanite groups. The earliest identification of Israel is found in the Merneptah Stele or Israel Stele from the thirteenth century BCE where the determinative references Israel as a people and not a city-state (see also John Huddlestun’s essay in this volume). Questions about Israel’s origins are complicated, however, by larger sociological issues concerning ethnicity and identity. Although there is no consensus about the origins of Israel, one hypothesis maintains that Israelites were originally Canaanites who developed a distinct self-consciousness centered on their religious devotion to Yahweh. Indeed, underlying the statement in Ezekiel 16:3 – “your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite” – might be a subtle acknowledgment of Israel’s Canaanite and Amorite origin. The Merneptah reliefs at Karnak might lend further support to this view as they depict Israelites with the same clothing and hairstyle as the Canaanites.
Whether one agrees with this hypothesis or not, the Israelites living in the land of Canaan, surrounded by Canaanite culture, and speaking a similar language, were “frequently, and understandably pictured as absorbing customs and beliefs of Canaan…”. These similarities shed further light on the animosity exhibited toward the Canaanites and the Amorites in the biblical text. The biblical writer emphasizes the differences between this group and Israel not only because its constructed history required justification, but also because such differences were fundamental to the formation and maintenance of Israelite identity. If the society, religion, stories and perhaps even the origins of Israel were acknowledged to be similar or related to those of the Canaanites, then the identity of Israel as a special and separate group chosen by Yahweh, an idea essential to Israel’s self-understanding, would be undermined. No wonder that the biblical narrative so frequently juxtaposes Canaanites with Israelites; an Israelite is that which is not Canaanite or Amorite. Hence, the pleas in the text to not worship their gods, to not inter-marry with them, to not follow their behavior and even to eradicate them convey this fear over the loss or weakening of Israelite identity. It is thus surprising that scholars have seen in Canaan an ever-changing cipher for other entities and groups necessary for the reinforcement of Israel’s identity. (From Song-Mi Suzie Park: "Israel in Its Neighboring Context" in: Susan Niditch (Ed): "The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel", Wiley Blackwell: Chichester, 2016.)

Eric H. Cline: "1177. The Year Civilization Collapsed", Princeton University Press: Princeston, Woodstock, 2014.

William G. Dever: "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?", William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Cambridge, 2003.

Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman: "The Bible Unearthed. Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts", Touchstone: New York, London, 2001.

David B. Goldstein: "Jacob’s Legacy. A Genetic View of Jewish History", Yale University Press: New Haven, London, 2008.

  • 1
    Why mention "scientific racism" no one is being condescending here.
    – Charlie
    Jan 7, 2018 at 14:58
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    @Charlie I hope you didn't read it as accusing you! But those Israelites and later the Jews just are not genetically distinct from their Phoenician, Samaritan, Idumean etc. neighbours. Maybe in relation to Philistines. But that would be only a meaningless biostatistic. This ethnos is culturally defined, not biologically. And ancient DNA samples are just not there in sufficient quantities. Jan 7, 2018 at 15:03
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    @Charlie Scientific racism can be defined as "the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes or genotypes into discrete races". In that sense, it is being used correctly here. Jan 7, 2018 at 17:40
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    @Charlie: You posited as basically given that Jews are "genetically and physically distinct from other ethnicities". As LangLangC pointed out, he meant no offense to you when he criticised that point; I think it's best to let it rest there. Please don't escalate.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 8, 2018 at 7:12
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    @Charlie: That is exactly what LangLangC is pointing out in his answer. Not everyone who's genetically of Ashkenazi descent -- and "purity of descent" would be another subject here -- is of Jewish persuation. To point out just one complication. So waving your hand in the general direction of some people and asking about "the Jews" is oversimplifying things rather significantly (as LangLangC then goes on to explain very well and in detail).
    – DevSolar
    Jan 8, 2018 at 8:31

Jew is harder to trace than Hebrew or Israelite. Hebrew is a distinct language in the Northwest Semitic group. It split off of the Canaanite language in the second half of the 2nd Millennium B.C. There has been a lot of attention dedicated to connecting Hebrews with Amorites. Certain Hyksos kings have been connected with early Hebrews because they practiced monotheism [1]. The theories don't exclude each other because some Hyksos were Amorites.

Hebrew speakers or Israelites were at the fringes of civilizations that gave us historical records. The near east in the Middle Bronze Age (1500-–) was an Egyptian territory. Therefore we have accounts of people in Egyptian records who may have later formed the Israelites. There are some tantalizing bits in the Amarna letters. While the Merneptah Stele is accepted as mentioning Israel, connecting earlier groups with it gets highly controversial. Israelites could have been Hyksos that reentered Canaan.

The Kingdom Of Israel emerged during the Bronze Age Collapse. This was a period of chaos that followed the collapse of the Bronze Age empires in the Near East. Sea Peoples from the Mediterranean hammered Asia and Egypt*. It is during this period that the Hebrews who had been problematic to Egyptian rule formed the kingdom of Israel. They were already well established in Canaan and were able to come to the front during this volatile period.

Israelites distinguished themselves by pyrotechnical and metallurgical skills; they led the iron age and premiered in glass making [2]. This makes them fairly unique if they were nomadic. By the Iron Age, Israelites were a distinct group of people in a distinct, very desirable strategic location. They were set out from their neighbors in technological abilities.

Addressing Jews, we can hardly speak of them before 722 B.C. This is when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Sargon II. Southern Israel, or Judah, would have taken on an increased importance now that the North was occupied. Archaeological evidence shows that Judah had no concentrated settlements before this time [3]. At this point though, it rapidly grew. It was likely populated by Israelites escaping from the north. If there was a powerful tribe call Judah before this, we don't know anything about it**. This is the point when Jewish history begins because the Bible is correlated with Assyrian records. The Israelites did have a very particular tribalism, though, with certain marriage customs.

Response to comment, going even further off track: Israel existed, but that it was united under Judah may be a piece of propaganda. If it is real, then it has been highly embellished in the bible. It's really going against the grain of what we know archaeologically about Judah. It would would be in stark contrast to the contemporary situation in the Near East. Egypt, Assyria and Babylon were all in a near state of Anarchy that didn't end until the 9th century. This is when the united kingdom ended. Could its fortunes have been the exact opposite of the Near East as a whole? It would have experienced some for of prosperity through its groundbreaking Iron trade. That it was involved in the silver trade with Phoenicians is known. There probably was an early iron age kingdom of Israel that is embellished.

Another answer due to changes to question that I didn't see:

I realized that you changed your criteria to anthropology and genetics. Juris Zarins has proposed the most interesting theory of Semitic, or proto-Semitic origins. He says that they were a fusion that occurred in the Negev Desert between Harifian hunter gatherers (microlithic traders) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B settlers. These people invented Pastoral Nomadism and fanned out across the Arabian Peninsula c. 6500 B.C. They developed into Proto-Semites.

Semitic people comprised their own civilization of sorts. It may be more correct to say that they were present from the very beginnings of civilization. They existed in Lower Egypt during the earliest days of Egypt, and lent it many of its advancements [4]. There was also a Semitic component in Sumeria in the earliest days of Sumer (Kramer, 1963). At this point, they are contrasted with the Sumerians with their agglutinative language, who may be related to the Indic people.

There may have been a Hebrew component in the Early Bronze city of Ebla. The tablets unearthed at Ebla showed Semitic civilization that were proto-Hebrews [5]. There are names like Adamu. There is also the "Genesis Tablet". Syria is probably the real cradle of civilization, not because of agriculture but because of commerce. Syrian civilization at this point was definitely Semitic. It may have been influenced by Sumerian colonists of the Uruk period. It could have been influenced by the preeminent multicultural city of Mari. This is apparent by the "Nabi" prophets that travelled from Mari to distant lands. Unlike the common Mesopotamian diviners and fortune tellers, the Nabi'utum were speaking of a great, singular force [6]. There is also the connection of , -iah or yah with the Sumerian god Ea (Enki).

Lord of heaven and earth:
the earth was not, you created it,
the light of day was not, you created it,
the morning light you had not [yet] made exist.

~ Genesis Tablet

There were two influxes of Semitic people that broadly affected history in the Bronze Age. The second ones, Amorites, are the candidates for the Hebrews. The first were the Akkadians, that had been in Northwest Sumer since time immemorial. They were a settled, agricultural people.
The next were Amorites, who first took over Syria in 2300 B.C. before spreading into Mesopotamia c. 1800. Like Syria, the Levant experienced a complete collapse of urban culture and dominance of nomadic raiders around 2200B.C. [7]These nomads could have been another people like Hurrians (Biblical Horites) [7]. Amorites definitely came to the region in the Middle Bronze period when they also spread to Mesopotamia. This migration may be represented by the Patriarchal stories.

By the Iron Age, Amorites were replaced by the related Aramean people in Syria. Arameans spread throughout the Near East, like the Akkadians and Amorites had. This was the larger picture of Semitic civilization, from which Israelites and others in "Canaan" were distinct.

*The view that Philistines are a Greek 'Sea People' is reinforced by the recent discovery of a Philistine Cemetery in Palestine.

**I think that the Tel Dan Stele is fake

[3] I read this at Brittanica.com but now I can't find it. There is a similar claim here at citation 10: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Judah

[7] Hamblin, William J., Ancient Warfare in the Near East to 1600 B.C. Routledge, 2006. I don't have it in front of me but it was the chapter on Bronze Age Canaan. The Egyptians played the primary role in the reduction of Canaan c. 2250.

  • What do you think of the historicity of King Solomon?
    – Charlie
    Jan 9, 2018 at 7:59
  • You had a duplicate paragraph about propaganda that I removed. Interesting answer. How do you support this statement? the iron age started in Israel There are other regions where iron/steel was used in antiquity. (further east) Jan 9, 2018 at 20:14
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    This makes for an interesting opinion, and that is all, unless you are either tenured, or provide sources....
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 9, 2018 at 20:28
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    I like large parts of this answer, but there's some info in it that's novel to me. Can we get some references for the non-trivial statements and assertions?
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 10, 2018 at 3:41
  • 1
    Yes and it needs a pruning.
    – John Dee
    Jan 10, 2018 at 4:05

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