Birth of Judaism

Judaism developed from the religion of ancient Israel following the Babylonian exile, with the impetus provided by the Persian policy of restoring local cults and codifying local laws.

Summary of Event

The English word “Judaism” is derived from a Greek word, ioudaïsmos, which appears for the first time in the Bible, in 2 Maccabees (see 2:21, 8:1, 14:38). There is no ancient Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent of this Greek word. Despite the origin of the term “Judaism” in the Hellenistic period, the phenomenon of Judaism is a product of events that began with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587/586 b.c.e.
Cyrus the Great
Darius the Great
Artaxerxes I

Since the eighth century b.c.e., the kingdom of Judah had enjoyed only nominal independence. It was a vassal state subject first to Assyria, then to Egypt, and finally to Babylon. After an unsuccessful revolt against Babylon in 587 b.c.e., the kingdom of Judah ceased to exist and its territory was incorporated into the Babylonian provincial system. According to the Bible, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was led off to exile after witnessing the execution of his sons (2 Kings 25:7). The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and its priesthood scattered. The city was sacked and its leading citizens were exiled from the land and taken to Babylon (2 Kings 25:8-12). The institutions that gave the people of Judah their identity were no more.

Although the Judaean exiles were not slaves, they were no longer part of society’s elite as they had been in Judah. Most were sent to work in agriculturally marginal regions in Babylon, and a few were recruited to work as civil servants in the Babylonian bureaucracy. The exile lasted a little more than two generations. In 539 b.c.e., the Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire, and Cyrus encouraged the exiles from Judah to return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).

The anonymous prophet whose words have been preserved in Isaiah 40-55 asserted that God used Cyrus as an instrument to effect the restoration of a righteous remnant, who would return to Jerusalem (Isaiah 45:1). The words of prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel helped the returnees interpret the fall of Jerusalem and the exile in ways that made it possible for them to look to the future with some measure of hope. According to these prophets, the disasters that befell Judah were the just punishment for its infidelity, but judgment was not to be God’s last word to Judah.

The territory of the former kingdom of Judah was reduced to the city of Jerusalem and its immediate environs. This region was a Persian colony known as Yehud. Its residents were the yehudim (Hebrew) or the yehudin (Aramaic). It is from these words that the English term “Jews” derives. Yehudim had more than one meaning, however. From a political perspective, it meant the residents of the Persian colony of Yehud. It also had an ethnic connotation, referring to the descendants of those who had lived in Yehud. For example, the mercenaries who formed the Persian garrison at Elephantine Island in Egypt called themselves yehudin because their ancestors came from Judah. Yehudim also came to have a religious meaning, describing people whose religious beliefs and practices derived from the Mosaic Torah. These beliefs and practices have become known as Judaism.

Judaism was rooted in the beliefs, practices, and institutions of the religion of ancient Israel—that is, the religion practiced in the two nation-states of Israel and Judah. Still, Judaism was not simply synonymous or continuous with Israelite religion. The religion of ancient Israel was concerned with communal salvation, with the welfare and survival of the state and its ruling dynasty. This was achieved through the temple service, which brought the blessing of fertility to the land and protection from external enemies. The political realities faced by Yehud made it clear, however, that neither the Judahite national state nor the Davidic dynasty was going to be restored. Judaism’s focus shifted from the welfare of the state to the salvation of the individual, which would be achieved through the observance of the Torah. Although this transformation began with the events of 587 b.c.e., it would not be complete until the emergence of the rabbinic movement as the dominant force in Judaism following the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 c.e.

There were two pivotal developments in the formative period of Judaism following the return from exile: the building of the second Temple of Jerusalem and the promulgation of the Torah. Ironically, both came at the initiative of the Persian authorities. The inhabitants of Yehud were not consumed with a desire to rebuild the temple destroyed in 587 b.c.e. There is no evidence that the Babylonians forbade the temple’s reconstruction, but the inhabitants of Jerusalem who were not taken into exile made no effort to restore the building. They offered sacrifices on the ruins of the temple, which appeared to be sufficient for them. Cyrus encouraged the returnees to undertake the rebuilding of the temple in 539 b.c.e., but nothing was done for seventeen years. Work began on the second temple only after Darius the Great commanded that the rebuilding project begin, funded it from his treasury, and sent emissaries to check on its progress (Ezra 4:24-6:18).

Darius the Great was also responsible for the promulgation of the Torah of Moses as the code to govern the lives of the yehudim. The Persians did not attempt to create a single law code for their empire. The imperial authorities used local traditions as the basis of what came to be known as the King’s Law (see Ezra 7:26). Darius the Great then provided an administrative structure that allowed Yehud to codify its traditional legal practices, and once codified, these laws had the force of imperial law. About fifty years later, Artaxerxes I sent Ezra, a Jew serving in the Persian bureaucracy, to Yehud to enforce the “the Law of God,” which was the King’s Law for the yehudim (Ezra 7:1-26).

The rebuilding of the temple appeared to make Judaism as temple-centered a religion as was that of ancient Israel. There was one important difference, however: The first Temple of Jerusalem provided theological support for the Judahite nation-state and the Davidic dynasty, but the second temple was a project initiated and supported by the Persians. Although there was some local support for this project (see Haggai and Zechariah 1-8), initially the second temple was seen as a symbol of the Persian domination of Yehud. The temple was the center for the worship of the ancestral deity of the yehudim, so it did serve another symbolic function. Still, Judaism was only loosely focused on the temple because of the other force set in motion by Darius: the codification of ancient Israel’s legal traditions.

The codification of ancient Israel’s legal traditions under the impetus provided by the Persian imperial authorities led to a shift in the central focus of early Judaism from the temple to the Torah. This process led to the collection and transmission of not only legal but also prophetic and wisdom texts that soon began to be recognized as normative in varying degrees. Judaism was in the process of becoming a “religion of the book.” While this shift in focus took place over hundreds of years, it began in the Persian period.


With the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem and the codification of ancient Israel’s legal traditions, Judaism began to emerge out of the disaster of the exile. While centuries of development were yet to take place, the foundation of Judaism’s fundamental character as a religion based on a written, authoritative text was laid in the Persian period.

Judaism’s shift from a religion focused on temple worship to a religion that is centered primarily on a sacred text made it possible for Judaism to survive the loss of the second temple following an unsuccessful revolt against Rome in 70 c.e. and to persist throughout the diaspora. Ultimately, this focus on a written, authoritative text influenced Christianity, which continued to regard the Jewish Scriptures as authoritative while producing its own distinctive texts as well. Still later, Islam too was based on an authoritative text that is clearly indebted to the Scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity. Increasing focus on a text, which can be transported along with the worshiper, rather than a temple, which exists in a single location, laid the foundation for the propagation of global rather than local religions.

Further Reading

  • Berquist, Jon L. Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995. A study of the political and intellectual history of Judaism in the Persian period.
  • Boccaccini, Gabriele. Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History from Ezekiel to Daniel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. Describes three types of Judaism from the Persian period: sapiential, Zadokite, and Enochic.
  • Jaffee, Martin S. Early Judaism. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. Emphasizes the role of ethnic identification as the means of continuity of Judaism with ancient Israelite religion.
  • Nodet, Étienne. A Search for the Origins of Judaism. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Argues that the two major sources of Judaism are Joshua’s laws established at the Shechem assembly and the Mishnah.
  • VanderKam, James. Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2001. Sketches the history, literature, and religious institutions of early Judaism.

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