*** ancient civilizations -- Hebrews

Ancient Hebrews: History and the Old Testament

 Pharaoh Ramesses
Figure 1.--This stone engraving depicts the Pharaoh Ramesses II in what is commonly described as beating a slave. Given the weapon being brandished (not well shown in the poor-quality scan here), he may be killing the slave. The engraving was found at the Abu Simbel temple in southern Egypt. Ramesses of course is widely believed to be the Biblical pharaoh of the Exodus confronted by Moses, although there is some conjecture about this. We have also seen the image described as Ramesses beating an Israelite. We do not know yet just precisely what the hieroglyphics inscription says. Hopefully a reader will be able to help us here. Ramesses and the Exodus dates to the 13th century BC. This thus appears to be the earliest know visual depiction of an ancient Hebrew/Jew. Hopefully we can eventually load a better image of this scene and we welcome reader insights.

The history of the Hebrew people extends more than 4,000 years. One of the fascinating questions about the ancient Hebrews is why this relatively small tribal group has survived over time went countless other tribal people over the same time period have disappeared from history. The Hebrew people coalesced around the Jewish religion. And after the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt becomes extraordinarily complex as Jewish communities were established and to varying degree mixed with populations throughout Europe and eventually European colonies. Very little is know about the early Hebrews, but a good deal is known about Hebrew history by the 1st millennium BC. Hebrew history in large measure was determined by geography, their placement between the two-great river valley civilizations--Mesopotamia and Egypt. Much of the Old Testament deals with the struggle of the Hebrews to maintain their independence from Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylon) to the northeast and Egypt to the west. What is remarkable is that while other small kingdoms in the area are now lost to history, the Jews survived as a people and a people who played a major role on Western civilization. And surely the most important historical question concerning the Hebrews is why these remarkable people invented the modern concept of god--monotheism. This is a construct the ancient Hebrews created and not the much more sophisticated civilizations with surround them (Mesopotamia and Egypt). And it was the Hebrews which served as the kernel for the other two great monotheist religions--Christianity and Islam. For a millennium, monotheism was the preserve of the Hebrew people, although imperfectly practiced. Just how and why such a small group with no other remarkable achievements invented monotheism and clung to it in a polytheistic world is a fascinating historical event. Many historians remark on the Middle East as the cradle of three great religions. Very few connect this with the Hebrew invention of monotheism. With the rise of Rome the Jews became a part of the Empire. The revolt against Rome resulted in the end of the Jewish state and the Diaspora of the Hebrew people throughout the Western world. After the NAZI World war II Holocaust the Zionist movement created a new Jewish state--Israel.


The Canaanites are a kind of ethnic catch-all term covering many indigenous populations, both settled and nomadic-pastoral groups. They are the people who populated the southern Levant or Canaan--the Jewish promised land. Canaanite is by far the most frequently used ethnic term in the Bible. The central message of the Bible is that the Hebrews are an invading people to whom God granted Canaan as the Promised Land. Some scholars see this a Jewish mythology without historical basis except as justification for the conquest of Canaan. The Hebrews were one of the competing Canaanite tribes or perhaps an amalgam of Canaanite groups. The Canaanites are often largely ignored in ancient histories which focus on great civilization, usually monumental builders, like Egypt, the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, and others. Canaan was commonly the battleground where northern people of the Fertile Crescent fought it out with the Egyptians. One of the first battles recorded in detail was fought there--Kaddish (1274 BC). The Canaanites were not great builders . They were not a might warrior people, but rather relatively primitive tribes, many nomadic herders, caught between the mighty empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Yet it is now believed that it was the Canaanites who made the most important invention of humanity--the invention of nothing less than the modern Alphabet. Unlike writing, this appears to have occured once and in only one place. Canaanites who spoke a Semitic language (Proto-Semitic) were working for Egyptian miners. They apparently repurposed Egyptian hieroglyphs to construct a different simpler alphabetic script. [Albright] This script has been found in a small corpus of inscription at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula dating to the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1500 BC). The Egyptians were mining turquoise, a highly prized blue-green mineral and used by their artisans and used in stunning creations. The alphabet was not just a minor change in the history of writing. It was the crucial step in making the written word accessible to mankind. Hieroglyphs was writing, but it was complicated and required years of study to master. An alphabetic script was so simple that it could be mastered by virtually any one including children beginning about the age if 6 years. It was nothing less than the democratization of writing. And it is fascinating that it was the work of the Canaanites not one of the great ancient civilizations. And it was spread by a Canaanite people--the Phoneticians. It is also interesting that one of the Canaanite tribes the Hebrews gave rise to Judaism and the Jews. The modern people more associated with learning and education than any other people.

Client States

Archeological evidence shows that many small kingdoms rose and fell over time in the area between the two great centers of civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. This is the Levant (the modern countries of Lebanon, southern Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan). Aryan people in the 18th century BC introduced horse drawn chariots. This warrior class using horses, armored chariots, composite bows, and javelins formed a class of professional fighters who began to replace conscripted and largely untrained agricultural peasants. It was this warrior class that established petty states in Palestine and Syria. They may have negotiated alliances with the Semetic Hyskos who conquered Lower Egypt. Later in the 16th century BC these client states may have negotiated new alliances with the Thebian princes who expelled the Hyskos and founded the New Kingdom. They may have received land in Egypt for their support, oriented them toward Egypt. [Aldred, p. 24.] These states constantly warred with each other and pleaded with Egypt and other foreign powers for support in their wars with neighboring states. Knowledge of these constantly changing relations comes from the discovery of some of the Pharaohs diplomatic correspondence in the form of cuneiform tablets, the so called Amarna letters. [Aldred, pp. 15-16.]


The Old Testament is clearly a mixture of myth and actual historical figures and events. There is no doubt about the mythology as much of Genesis has adopted from many mythological accounts prevalent throughout the Middle East. Accounts of the creation, first people, Garden of Eden, Cain and Able, Great Flood and much more are shared by many of the people of the Middle East. While these accounts are mythological, this is not to say they were not shaped by real events. Scholars speculate about a great flood in the Middle East resulted from rising water levels at the end of the last Ice Age (about 5,000 BC). This was at a time when the Agricultural Revolution had taken hold in Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Various peoples in the Levant adopted the mythological accounts and shaped them to create their own unique accounts. Some of the major early figures of the Bible such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot, and finally the Patriarchs (Abraham, Issac, and Jacob). Abraham was not a figure unique to the Hebrew people, his conversion to monotheism is, however, unique to the Jews. They are clearly mythological figures who were involved with temptation, disobedience (meaning sin), murder, flood, and dispersal. Abraham's binding of Issac seems to be the first uniquely Jewish mythological account. And it is with Moses and the Commandments from the Mount that Judaism is born,. All this is mythological. Figures in later books such as Saul, David, and Solomon seem to be based on actual historical figures, although there is debate about this, at least about Saul and David.


An interesting aspect of the Old Testament is the importance given to women. This begins in the early mythological sections of the Old Testament. This is virtually unique in the ancient world. Early female figures include Sarah and Hahar, but there are many others in subsequent Jewish texts such as Ruth.


There are a variety of sources of historical information. Westerners are most familiar with the Biblical record. This is certainly a valuable source, but it is difficult to separate the mythology from the history with any certainty. Another importance source of information is archaeology and modern work is providing increasingly important insights. Also important are the richly developed histories of Mesopotamia and Egypt which because of the development of writing provide us for the first time a written record. As a result, events and rulers can be actually dated. History supported by all of these sources can be views as well established. History based on just the Bible is suspect. Biblical accounts that can be supported by archaeology and Mesopotamian and Egyptian records can be accepted as historical fact with some degree of confidence. Some historians have questioned the existence of David. Saul and David appears to be the point that the Bible transitions from mythology to history. In recent years, archaeologists have found a table referring to the "House of David" having been defeated in battle. There is also an Egyptian record to defeating the Israelites 5 years after the death of Solomon. Thus there is good reason to believe that both David and Solomon were historical figures. There is no strong evidence outside of the Bible for the earlier Biblical accounts or the detailed Biblical accounts of David and Solomon. And the Hebrews had not yet committed their oral histories to writing. David was a 10th century BC figure while the earliest written texts are much later. Some estimate about the 8th century BC, but the oral traditions are much earlier. The earliest religious texts that have so far been found are the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are virtually the only surviving Biblical documents written before the 2nd century BC. Carbon dating puts the earliest of them at about 150 BC. There existence is strong evidence that there were much earlier written texts not to mention even earlier oral traditions.


While the different people in the Levant borderlands between Mesopotamia and Egypt are mostly of only minor importance in the great sweep of history. One of these people, the Hebrews have come to play a major role in the development of Western civilization. The origin of the very name is shrouded in the mist of pre-history. The Old Testament dates back thousands of years. It is impossible to tell just how old it is. Written texts can now be be accurately dated by scholars using a variety of methods. Scholars may debate the dating, but in our modern age the differences are not significant. There is, however, a much greater problem affecting virtually all ancient literature. The early Old Testament Ancient stories and even texts were surely created and passed on orally well before they were actually recorded in written form. The written texts which have been found are of much more recent origins that the first actual texts and even more so the oral traditions. And of course the mythology of the Genesis clearly have origins far beyond the Hebrew people. The Genesis accounts have much in common with the Sumerians and other early peoples of the Fertile Crescent. Only in the Exodus do we begin go get accounts of more historical periods about identifiable figures and a history that can be solely attributed to the Hebrew people. Even so, there is still some difference among scholars as to dating. There is evidence of Jewish people living in Palestine beginning before 13000 BC. but perhaps much earlier. Ethnicity at this point is not known with any certainty, but this is when we begin top see evidence of Jewish religious practices. Only for short periods did they manage to establish independent kingdoms. For most of that period, what is now Palestine was a fiefdom of the great empires of the ancient world: Egyptian, Hittite, Babylonian, Assyrians, Persians, Greek and finally the Romans. One of the first recorded battles of history, the Battle of Meggido (1479), was fought over Palestine. The great showdown between Egypt and the Hittites was fought At Qadesh (1274 BC) just a little north of Palestine. Later empires would follow in modern history.

Old Testament: Outsiders

The Bible depicts the Hebrews of outsiders who migrated to the Canaan, called the promised land. The first such outsider was of course Abraham who came from Ur in Mesopotamia. The exact location of the Biblical Ur is disputed by scholars. The one aspect of the Biblical account is that Abraham and thus the Hebrew people were outsiders. (This is a construct repeated in the Exodus story.) There is, however, no evidence to support this idea of the Hebrew people as outsiders other than the Bible. There is no support for this concept in either the archeological record or in the history of Mesopotamia and Egypt, great civilizations with histories extending well before the appearance of the Hebrew people. Thus the Biblical account of Hebrew origins must be treated with some skepticism. One part of the Abrahamic legend was that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Issac on Mount Moriah. Throughout Canaan, heights were typically chosen as holy places. The Bible does not indicated where Mount Moriah was located. Jewish tradition has placed it as what was to become Jerusalem and the First Temple. And Jerusalem is notable as an important city that has absolutely no practical reason for its existence--other than a nearby well. . Most cities were founded for some reason such as the confluence or straddling of rivers, natural harbors, commanding strategic heights, or some other reason. Jerusalem would be central to the history of the Jewish people. Even after the Jewish Revolt and Roman Diaspora, at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service and the Passover Seder, Jews recite the words "Next Year in Jerusalem!"

Canaanite social revolution

An increasing number of modern archaeologists are now coming to the conclusion that the Hebrews were not an outside people, but actually Canaanites themselves. Here there is some support in the archeological record. The archeological evidence such as pottery such great similarities between the Canaanites and Hebrews. The major difference is that the Hebrew villages do not have larges palaces and temples which characterize Canaanite sites. showing a society controlled by an aristocracy and priestly class. The Hebrew villages are more egalitarian with now evidence of a rich ruling class. This has lead to the theory that the Hebrews emerged at a time of cultural collapse when civilization for largely unknown reasons collapsed. This provided an opportunity for the Canaanite lower class and slaves to reestablish a more egalitarian society separate from the main Canaanite civilization. They may have been joined by nomadic people from Jordan and northern Arabia. Their experiences and outlook thus provide considerable reasons for wanting to distinguish themselves from the Canaanites.

Warrior traditions people

Some historians pose a different historical theory as to the origins of the Hebrews--the Haburai. They postulate that these were a client people from the Levant who proved useful auxiliaries to the Egyptian army. Over time they seemed to have actually moved to Egypt and continued to serve as auxiliaries. Over time they seems to caused concern among the Egyptians who attempted to change their status to workers rather than soldiers. The Exodus may have been a refusal of the Haburai to accept this lower status position in Egyptian society. The military traditions may explain why they were able to both break away from Egypt and to eventually conquer much of Canaan.

Old Testament Account and Historicity (10,000 BP-2nd century BC)

The story of the Hebrew people, in fact all of humanity, is depicted in the Old Testament. This of course begins in Genesis and is largely mythological. As the Old Testament unfolds, however, we gradually get into real historical figures and events that can be confirmed even dated by archeologists and historians. DNA work will certainly provide further evidence. There is considerable debate as to who is real and who is mythological. And dating is often disputed. The existence of David, a key Old Testament figure, in particular is contested. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, Old Testament chronology has has been attempted by biblical scholars. At first these scholars primarily used information in the Old Testament such as ages of the patriarchs to create a chronology. The work of Bishop Usher (1581-1656) was widely accepted to be definitive as Europeans entered the modern era. Sir Issac Newton even entered the discussion. Only in the 20th century did scholars begin to use new disciplines and expanding historical knowledge to create a more realistic chronology, including accurate concepts of when earth was formed and life developed. Biblical scholars differ as to how to delineate the main events of the biblical chronology. A reasonable outline is: Creation, the Great Flood and Noah, Abraham, Egypt and the Exodus, Solomon and the First Temple, the Babylonian Captivity and Cyrus the Great, and the Maccabaean period during which the Temple was rededicated. [Thompson, pp.14-15.] This is a gradual procession from mythological cosmology to known and datable historical events.

Rome (2nd century BC-1st century AD)

Little information exists on Jews in Rome during the Republic. Rome armies defeat Antiochus III (190-188 BC). Judas Maccabaeus staged a revolt (167-164 BC). The Hasmonean Kingdom is established (142 BC). Rome gained control over the Hadsmonean Kingdom (63 BC). Herod rules as King of Judaea (40-4 BC). Archeologists have found a bronze column in Ankara which confirms that the Emperor Augustus recognized the Jews of Asia Minor as an acceptable religious community. Rome appoints a proculator of Judaea (6 AD). Despite the suppression of the Jewish Revolt and the exile of the Jews, Roman emperors recognized Judaism as a legal religion. Jewish communities were established throughout the Roman Empire after the failure of the Jewish revolt and the Roman suppression of the Jews. Several of the communities were established in Anatolia (often referred to as Asia Minor). Other Jewish communities were established in the Balkans and Levant. Early Christians often emerged out of these Jewish communities. Recognition of the Jews was a status not conferred on the Christians, at first seen as a Jewish sect. Roman emperors to varying degrees suppressed the Christians. The situation of the Jews changed with the assent of Constantine (4th century AD). Roman general Constantine seized control of the Empire and converted to Christianity. Gradually after his conversion, Christianity changed from a suppressed sect to the state religion of the Empire. Relations between Jews and Christians had varied. Some Jews (like Paul) attempted to suppress the Christians, but eventually more benign relations developed.

Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD)

When Rome seized Egypt, Roman power and influence grew throughout the Levant, including Palestine. At about the same time, a new group of devout Jews appeared--the Zealots. They were opposed to foreign rule, at the time meaning Roman rule. Their central commitment was that the Jews had to achieve political and religious liberty. And they were willing to challenge Rome. The Jews were appalled during the reign of Emperor Caligula, who declared himself to be a god and and ordered his statue to be set up at every religious building throughout the Empire (39 AD). This included Jewish temples. Religious leaders throughout the Empire complied--except the Jews. Caligula was outraged and threatened to destroy the Temple. The Jews sent a delegation to Rome in an effort to pacify him. Their mission was a failure. Caligula in a rage virtually condemned them, "So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity." It is unclear what Caligula planned for the Jewish people, but it is widely believed that the ordered the destruction of both the temple and the Jewish people themselves. Disaster was averted when the palace guard murdered the emperor (41). The experience with Caligula, however, radicalized the Jewish people. Many Jews saw Caligula's policies as what they could expect from the Romans. The Zealots claimed that it was God who had smitten Caligula ad he would assist them if they confronted the Roman Legions. The Romans made no real effort to deal with any sensitivity of the Jews. The Romans occupied Palestine (63 AD). Rome ruled Judea through a procurator. His principal function was to collect taxes and he was assigned a quota. The way the system worked was that any amount he collected over the quota was his to keep. As a result, Roman taxes soon became onerous approaching confiscatory levels. Perhaps even more disturbing to devout Jews was that Rome began appointing the High Priest. This meant that the high priests who were the Jews representatives to God became if not tools of the Roman authorities, individuals prone to collaboration. The Jews experienced a series of what the saw as outrages aimed at their God. Roman soldiers reportedly exposed themselves in the Temple and in another occasion burned a sacred torah scroll. Thus tensions mounted as a result of financial exploitation, religious insensitivity, and favoritism shown to non-Jews. The flash point came with the Roman procurator removed large quantities of silver from the Temple (66). Outraged mobs in Jerusalem attacked and killed the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in nearby Syria possessed a more sizeable force, but Jewish rebels defeated them. The early victories over relatively small Roman forces emboldened the Jews. Large numbers of new recruits joined the Zealots. The Romans dispatched a massive force of 60,000 battle hardened Legionaries. The Jews had no professional army to meet a force of that nature. The initial Roman action came in the north, te Galilee where the Zealots were the strongest (68 AD). The Romans had no trouble in quickly defeating the Zealot forces. Reports suggest the Romans killed or took as slaves 100,000 Jews. Authorities in Jerusalem made no effort to assist the Jewish forces in the Galilee. It is unclear why. One historian believes it was because they knew the Revolt was doomed. [Zeitlin] The Zealots who survived the Roman onslaught in the Galilee fled to Jerusalem. There they attacked leaders not willing to resist the Romans. This result in a Jewish civil war at the same time the Romans were moving to besiege the city. There was a large stock pile of food in Jerusalem, but inexplicably the Zealots burned it, thinking that this would make the population fight the Romans with more intensity. The result was that after the Romans besieged the city there was soon large-scale starvation. Some important leaders had opposed the Revolt, most prominent was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He was targeted by the Zealots, but managed to escape, He surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian who promised that he would permit Jewish communal life to continue. The Romans under Titus, the son of Vespasian who had become emperor, finally breached the walls of Jerusalem (summer 70). He put the city to the sword and destroyed the Second Temple. Among the horrors, 6,000 women and children found hiding in a treasury chamber were burned. There are no precise numbers, but the Romans may have killed as many as 1 million Jews and enslaved many who were not killed. [Josepheus] Numbers quoted by ancient historians, however, have to be viewed with some skepticism. The failure of the Revolt ended the last vestiges of a Jewish state for nearly two millennia. The Jewish Diaspora is generally dated from the failure of the Revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple. Jerusalem was essentially left to the jackals. Zealots held out for some time. The last major engagement was the fall of Masada (73 AD). The Romans did not remove all of the Jewish people, although the numbers who remained are unclear. Another disastrous revolt came 60 years later--the Bar Kokhba revolt (132 AD). This showed that there were still Jews present in Palestine and in considerable numbers.

The Diaspora

The Romans in the 1st century AD suppressed Jewish revolts and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews we slaughtered and enslaved. Survivors spread throughout the Roman world, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. This is today known as the Diaspora. The Diaspora began with th Babylonian Captivity. This spread the Jews east. The Roman suppression of the Jews spread them west. While dispersed, the Jews refused to abandon their faith and assimilate. Jews since the Diaspora have lived in separate, often small religious community living among Gentiles--for the most part, Christian and Islamic majorities. There are two great traditions of European Jews. The Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews with traditions in some cases daring back to Roman times. The Sephardic Jews are Western European Jews with roots to the tolerant Omayyid Caliph of southern Spain. Their intellectual tradition was developed in an atmosphere of toleration of the People of the Book. This was the Sephardic Golden Age and when King Ferdinand after the fall of Granada expelled the Jews, the Sephardi carried this tradition with them to the other areas of Western Europe which accepted them. [Perera]

Byzantine Empire

Emperor Constantine after seizing control of the Roman Empire built a new capital at Byzantium, then a small fishing village. It became the great Byzantine capital of Constantinople (İstanbul). Roman emperors decided that one answer to the difficulties the Empire was experiencing was to split it. When Rome fell to barbarian hordes (476 AD), the Western Empire collapsed. The Eastern Empire was able to resist the barbarians, although with considerable difficulty. It became known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine or Orthodox Church viewed the Jews differently than the western Roman Catholic Church. There were more Jews in the Eastern Empire. Church and state officials treated them more harshly. Jews were afforded legal protection as long as they did not proselytize Christians. The Byzantines placed many limitations on Jews which made it more difficult for them to survive. They barred Jews from holding public office. Thus the Byzantine Jews survived in often severe poverty. The Byzantines also prohibited the construction of new synagogues. Justinian wanted a standard religion to avoid religious conflict. He insisted that Christians develop an agreed upon theology. He also adopted a policy of voluntary conversion for Jews. Subsequent emperors ordered the to be convert and baptized. They granted tax breaks to Jews who voluntarily complied. The Byzantines made, however, little progress in converting the Jews in the Empire. Some Jew made an alliance with the Persians who invaded Palestine (614). They defeated the small Byzantine garrison at Jerusalem. The Jews thus controlled Jerusalem for 3 years. The Persians and Byzantines made peace. Emperor Heraclius was able to retake Jerusalem and exiled those Jews who were not slaughtered (617). [Katz] Arab warriors conquered large areas of the Byzantine and then largely Christian Middle East (7th century). This brought large numbers of Byzantine Jews under Muslim control. Subsequently the Ottoman Turks would seize control of much of Anatolia. Constantinople itself survived for centuries. For most Jews the Islamic conquests brought more enlightened, tolerant rule, although they were still seen as inferior by the population which gradually converted to Islam.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Albright, William F. The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment (1966).

'Book of Pophets,' Old Testament.

Josephus. Flavius. The War of the Jews (c70).

Parfait, Tutor. The Thirteenth Gate. University College in London.

Perera, Victor. The Cross and the Pear Tree.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Continuum, 2002).

Zeitlin, Solomon. The Rise and Fall of the Judean State Vol. III.


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Created: 1:19 AM 7/10/2007
Spell checked: 11:43 PM 8/14/2022
Last updated: 11:43 PM 8/14/2022