Welcome to another new series for Casual Historian. The History of the Jewish People. In this series I’m going to be recounting the history of the Jewish People from their prehistoric origins to the foundation of the modern state of Israel, and in this episode we are covering the former of those two points.
So, where exactly did the Jews come from? Well, there are several theories and explanations, so let’s start with the one most of you are probably familiar with.
The story begins with the Biblical Patriarch Abraham, who came from the city of Ur. We don’t know exactly where Ur was, but most Archaeologists believe it was somewhere in Mesopotamia, in modern day Iraq. Abraham was spoken to by God, who told him that he had a promised land for him out west in the land of Canaan. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising him that he would be the father of many nations. But Abraham was really old, as was his wife Sarah, so they didn’t seem to trust God’s promise of children, so Sarah tried to fulfill the promise herself by having Abraham sleep with her servant, or slave depending on the translation, Hagar. He did, and with her he had his first son, Ishmael. However, he eventually would have a son with Sarah, who was named Isaac. There was quite a bit of tension between Sarah and Hagar, whose sons would compete for their father’s inheritance. Sarah demanded that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael, to which God consents. Sarah and Hagar go into the wilderness, which many believed was somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, making Ishmael the father of the Arab peoples.
After nearly being sacrificed by Abraham, Isaac would go on to have his own son, Jacob, whom God renamed Israel. Jacob would have 12 sons, whom would become the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One of the sons, Joseph, was Jacob’s favorite and he got a snazzy coat, and all his brothers were jealous. So they stole his coat, sold him into slavery in Egypt, and told their father that Joseph was killed. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph worked his way up to being the second in command by the time his brothers came to Egypt to find food after a famine occurred in Canaan. After some tricks and tough love toward his brothers he revealed that it was him, and that he had been alive the whole time. He invited his family to live with him in Egypt, which is where the story of Exodus picks up, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode.
Yeah, so most historians have a hard time accepting the history given in the Bible on face value. Contrary to popular belief though, what makes the Old Testament difficult to use as a historical source isn’t the presence of supernatural explanations for events. The Jews are far from the only people to mix divine intervention into their historical narratives. The issue with the history depicted in Genesis is the lack of contemporary corroborative sources. Basically, no one from the time period in which Abraham may have lived mentioned him. On the one hand, this critique could be written off by saying that just because we recognize Abraham as being important today, that doesn’t mean his contemporaries thought the same. After all, he was just some guy who left his home in Mesopotamia and resettled somewhere else. Why would anyone from his time pay him any attention? On the other hand we could ask ourselves why if Abraham became so important later that other peoples didn’t include him in later renditions of their historical narratives?
The biggest problem with historical origin stories like this is that they rely on the historicity of individuals from time periods where there isn’t much historical evidence for anyone living at that time. You have similar issues with the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Ultimately, the story of Abraham and the other Patriarchs is a non-falsifiable story. You can’t really prove it, but you can’t disprove it either, so we are kind of stuck on that front.
But what about other explanations for the origins of the Jews? Well, there are a few.
The Linguistic approach is the attempt to find the origins of a people by tracing their language, and finding common roots with other languages. For centuries Christian writers recognized similarities between Hebrew, Arabic, Phoenician, and other languages of the Near East. Surprisingly enough, though, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that European scholars actually created a classification for these languages, for which German scholar Ludwig von Schloze coined the term “Semetic,” which is derived from the name Shem, who is the son of Noah from whom the Bible says Abraham is descended. As the Europeans began to get more involved in the Near East, they uncovered more and more similarities between Hebrew and other regional languages. In the latter half of the 19th century the works of Linguists and Archaeologists discovered and translated a collection of texts referred to as the Amarna letters, which contained a reference to a group of people called the “Habiru.” Now, you don’t have to be a linguist to notice that “Habiru” and “Hebrew” sound very similar, and many scholars from the time believed that they found the origins of the Israelites.
The Amarna letters were a series of diplomatic correspondences between the Egyptians and subordinate Canaanite kings. In these letters they complain about a group of people called the Habiru. The Habiru were described as nomadic outsiders who attack and rob cities. Most of the letters were from Canaanite kings asking the Egyptians for help defending themselves against them. These letters were dated between the 15th and 13th centuries BCE, which many believed corresponded with the period of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. These connections became the basis for the Habiru-Hebrew Theory, but it’s not without its problems.
First of all, when the Habiru are described in the letters they are not an ethnic or religious group. Rather, they are described as more of a social class. They are the ones who don’t subordinate themselves to the authorities of the local rulers. Some have argued that this could mean that the Hebrews originated not as an ethnic group but as a discriminated social class. However this becomes a little more difficult to justify when you see the term Habiru was used in more than just Canaan. There were Habiru all over the near east, which makes it a little harder for a single group of people to have claimed the title for themselves. There is also the assumption being made that Habiru and Hebrew must be related because they are similar. I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about linguistics myself to judge the claim, but others more knowledgeable than myself have claimed that this could very easily be an instance of false cognates, when two words sound similar and have similar meanings, but they have completely different origins.
The history around the Habiru-Hebrew theory is also problematic. Around the same time this theory was being developed, the Aryan Theory was also in force. And in case you’re wondering, this is the Aryan Theory that would become the intellectual basis for Nazi race ideology. Linguists of the 19th century believed that the language of a people reflects the nature of their people. The Ancient Aryan language was seen as powerful and Dynamic, while the Semitic languages were seen as conservative and against change. These 19th century linguists and ethnographers believed that the peoples of Europe are descended from a group of Central Asian Aryans, from whom the Europeans inherited their ability to dominate the world. The description of the Habiru as a nomadic people who stole from people and refused to conform to the norms of local peoples also played into many stereotypes of the Jewish people that Europeans had had for centuries. Jews had been portrayed as a landless people who were destined to be nomads forever. They saw the Habiru affinity for pillaging as being the behavioral ancestor for Jewish money lending, which any historian today could tell you was a profession forced on Jews by European Christians. The scholars from these two theories built their ideas on much of the research from the other. The Aryan Theory was discredited by the Nazis in World War Two, but the Habiru-Hebrew Theory has retained some of its clout because it wasn’t nearly as wide spread. However, it should be mentioned that just because some saw justification for their Anti-Semitism in the Habiru, doesn’t mean that there isn’t some connection. Many Biblical and Jewish studies scholars today hold the Habiru as being one of many potential ancestors of the Jews.
A more commonly accepted origin for the Jews today is that rather than being an outside people who invaded and conquered the land of Canaan, they were themselves Canaanites who either saw themselves as different from the rest of the Canaanites, or who purposely differentiated themselves from the rest of the Canaanites. Some like to refer to these Canaanites as “Proto-Israelites.” These proto-Israelites would eventually go on to conquer the land of Canaan, renaming it Israel. For most proponents of this interpretation the story of Exodus must be rejected from the historical narrative, which leaves many conservatives Christians and Orthodox Jews rejecting it. In contrast to these theories there are some who believe that the Jews ancestry is more recent.
When speaking of the Ancient Jewish peoples we are usually referring to the Israelites from the Old Testament. Well, in case you didn’t notice we don’t call people Israelites anymore. There are people whom we call Israelis, but that only started after the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Some historians argue that we should differentiate the terms Israelite and Jew because they are very different things. Most historians would date the beginning of this change with the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel under King David, and the construction of the Temple of Solomon. Before the Temple was built the Israelite religion was more nomadic, and had a penchant for slipping into polytheism, as described numerous times in the Old Testament. Historians argue that the establishment of a Temple in Jerusalem began to transform the religion, and centralize its theology and doctrine. The ones who argue this point to the Babylonian Exile as the breaking point between when these people transformed from being Israelites to being Jews.
They argue that the Jews were created from the exiled leaders of Israel and Judah who were forced to relocate to Babylon. Before then the Israelite religion was based around living in the land that God promised to Abraham’s descendants. After the exile, the religion became centered on doctrine and social practices differentiating themselves from the Pagans that surrounded them. Now, a lot of theory delves into history that I want to cover in a later episode, so for now suffice it to say that this theory isn’t universally accepted. This theory, however, does connect to another issue of determining the origins and history of the Jews, and that is the reliability of the Biblical Texts as historical documents.
In this debate that are two broad schools of thought, there are the Biblical Minimalists, who believe most of what the Old Testament said about Ancient Israel is myth, and Biblical Maximalists, who believe that the Old Testament, although not strictly historically accurate, were based on the long standing oral tradition of the Israelites between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE. The biggest area of contention is over the period before the exile. Maximalists hold the position that the Biblical Narrative should be believed unless explicitly disproven, while minimalists believe that it should not be believed unless explicitly proven. The problem with much of it goes back to what I mentioned before, that much of the Old Testament is non-falsifiable.
Building on the idea that the Bible is not a reliable historical source leads to a far more extreme theory that even most Biblical Minimalists reject, that modern day Jews have no connection to the Israelites of the Bible. There are numerous proponents of this theory, but the most notable is Shlomo Sand, an Israeli Historian at the University of Tel Aviv. In 2008 he published a book titled The Invention of the Jewish People which argues that Jews from Europe have no ancestral connection to the Israelites from the Bible. The author believes that modern Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe, are descended from a Turkic tribe between the Black and Caspian seas that converted to Judaism in the 8th century CE. He also asserts that the Zionist movement of the late 19th century fabricated its historical connection to the Israelites of the Old Testament in order to gain assert a claim to the land of Palestine. His theory became very popular in the Arab world, being sold side by with Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has lead many people to label it as Anti-Semetic. Just like the Arabs, Sand rejects the concept of a Jewish ethnicity, classifying Jewishness as only a religion. Like with all works of history, there is some historical context for this book.
Israeli society in general, and Israeli academia in particular, are used to hearing scholars, historians, and archaeologists question the traditional narratives of their history all the time. They’ve seen historians rewrite the history of the First Arab-Israeli War that gave the state of Israel its independence, as well as archaeologists claiming that the Davidic Kingdom never existed. Given this context, if an author is to stand out he needs to make some pretty extreme claims. The scholarly climate isn’t the only context we should consider. We also need to look at the man himself.
Shlomo Sand was born in 1946 to survivors of the Holocaust in Poland. His parents were communists, and his father had worked for the local Communist Party in Jaffa after they immigrated to Israel in 1948. After being expelled from high school he was eventually drafted in 1965 and served at a commune in Yad Hanna. He served during the Six Day War, in which he was involved in the capture of East Jerusalem. After his military service he finished his education, and cycled through many different communist groups, abandoning many of them because they weren’t sufficiently communist for him. He would leave Israel for a decade to teach in France, returning in the early 80s to teach at the University of Tel Aviv, where he still teaches as of the writing of this video. His parents had rejected Judaism before he was born, and later in life Shlomo would declare himself to not be a Jew, both ethnically and religiously.
The last bit of context that should be understood is that the theory is not new. The theory that the Jews of Eastern Europe came from the nomadic Kazars who had converted to Judaism was developed in 19th century Germany. If this is sounding similar to the Habiru theory, that’s because it is. The Kazar Theory was developed around the same time, and was based on many of the anti-semetic stereotypes that the Habiru-Theory was built on. Unlike the Habiru Theory, though, the Kazar theory never had serious acceptance within academia because there really isn’t any evidence for it. There’s no historical evidence that any Turkic tribe in Southern Russia had converted to Judaism. On top of that, there’s another more widely accepted explanation for where Eastern European Jews came from, and that’s that they came from western Europe. We’re going to cover this history in a later episode, but the Middle Ages saw a lot of Jews get driven out of Western Europe, many of which relocated to Eastern Europe, especially Poland, which had a history of tolerance for the Jews due to one of the queens having been Jewish.
This is a more widely accepted origin for the Jews of eastern Europe, because there is actual documented evidence for it. Shlomo argues that the Kazar Theory has been suppressed, but in reality the reason its rejected is because it’s a bad theory, and most Israeli Historians, including the Marxist ones, reject it.
Now, this is not an exhaustive look at the origins of the Jews, but I hope it gives you an idea for how diverse and unsettled the question about where the Jews comes from is. And in the next episode we are going to cover another unsettled question of Jewish History, The Exodus. So make sure you click the subscribe button and the bell icon so you don’t miss that video when it comes out.