by Jodey Bateman
(The story told here is not the one told in the official versions of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but it seems to fit the evidence of such sciences as archeology and genetics.)
Around 2000 BC there was an environmental collapse in the area where the borders of the present-day countries of Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet one another. There had been erosion from deforestation, loss of topsoil from overgrazing and too much land being plowed up and the soil turned too salty to cultivate from too much irrigation. To escape starvation, the people from this region moved into the lands of their neighbors - southern Iraq and the present-day countries of Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Some of them moved as far south as Egypt.
The natives of the lands where they moved where not too happy to welcome the newcomers to share their scarce resources. The locals tried to restrict the movements of the newcomers. In the summers, they were allowed to let their sheep and goats graze on the high, rocky hill pastures that the locals didn’t want, but in the winters they brought their flocks down into the sheltered valleys - to endless complications about grazing permits. Between the great civilizations of what are now Iraq and Egypt there were many small kingdoms and the newcomers had further complications when they tried to move their flocks from the lands of one small local ruler to another which needed still more permits. In the present day southeastern Europe there are people called Vlachs who try to move their sheep and goats around settled areas with the same sort of complications about getting official permits. These ancient Middle Eastern newcomers were called Hebrews by the locals - a word that means Boundary Crossers.
One of the most powerful of the Hebrew Chieftains was a man called Abraham who is said to have had 319 men in his tribe capable of fighting with bow and arrow. But there were many other groups which were called Hebrews. The families of their chiefs intermarried with one another and the members of a tribe saw themselves as all being descendants of a powerful chief of the past. For these reasons, the tribes and clans and sub-clans told the stories of their origins and their relationships to one another and their attitudes to one another in terms of family dramas of the sort you can find in the book of Genesis.
A person was seen less as an individual than as a member of a tribe or an extended family and whatever the group had done in the past, the present individual member of the group was seen as having done. This is a common attitude in the Middle East.
One group of Hebrews who had gotten grazing permits in Egypt near the northeastern boundary of that country was later drafted by the king of Egypt to do forced construction labor. Then there was another period of environmental collapse around the whole eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. There was a wave of famines and epidemics in many places, including Egypt. When the control of the Egyptian government grew weak because of the crisis, the Hebrew forced laborers left Egypt under the leadership of a prophet called Moses.
This particular group of Hebrews were supposedly descended from the powerful Abraham. They were called the children of Israel after the name of one of Abraham’s grandsons. However, Egyptian inscriptions mention that a people called Israel were already living in the north central part of the country now called Israel before Moses led his people out of Egypt. The likelihood is that all of the children of Israel had not been in Egypt.
In the family drama way in which Genesis explained origins, the ancestor Israel was said to have two wives who were sisters. Levi, the tribe Moses belonged to, was descended from a man of that name who was the son of the older sister. The sons and stepsons of the younger sister were said to be the tribes who lived in the area where Egyptian inscriptions placed a people called Israel before Moses led his people from Egypt.
But Aaron, the older brother of Moses, became the founder of a clan of hereditary priests called Kohenim. They alone had the right to perform sacrifices. Moses and other elders of the tribe of Levi were the ancestors of clans of Levites - hereditary temple servants.
The environmental collapse had weakened the power of the small kingdoms. In some places they were so weak that the Hebrews came down from their highland pastures and massacred their former rulers in the valleys and took over their farm lands. The tribes who came with Moses invaded the land now called Israel and tried to take over the land for themselves by the same process of conquest and massacre. But in many places the old local peoples were too strong and could not be killed off or driven away. In the words of the Book of Judges "So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites and they took their daughters as wives for themselves and their own daughters they gave to their sons and they worshipped their gods."
But not completely - the priests and the Levites scattered out among the tribes. They were not allowed to own farm land of their own except for small pieces of pasture land. They depended upon the offerings that worshippers brought to their shrines. They preached a new supreme God - whose name cannot be spoken by present-day orthodox Jews, although it seems to have been used freely in those days.
Sometimes this God was seen as a ruler over the other gods and goddesses like Zeus was over the Greek gods. Other times - and especially later - he was seen as the only God. Always no god was to get greater worship than he did.
The priests and the Levites said that all the people in the land - Israelites who had come from Egypt, Israelites who had never been in Egypt, Hebrews with little or no connection to the Israelites and the old local peoples like the Canaanites - should all see themselves as one people with one history who had all come out of Egypt and who were all bound by a covenant with the supreme God - as much as if they had been personally present when Moses proclaimed it.
Finally the tribes were able to unite into a kingdom - which lasted through four kings before it split into two kingdoms. The northern one was called Israel. The southern one was called Judah - after the name of its largest tribe. They were supposedly descended from a man named Judah.
Judah was supposed to be the son of the older sister who was a wife of the ancestor Israel - just like Levi, the ancestor of the priests and the Levites (who included Moses). The name Judah is the origin of the word Jew.
In 721 BC the northern kingdom, Israel, lost its independence to the Assyrian Empire which was centered in what is now northern Iraq. The king of Assyria took into exile 27,290 people from the kingdom of Israel into what is now northeastern Syria. The tribes of the northern kingdom have been called "The lost tribes of Israel" but it is obvious that the Assyrians left the great majority of them in their own country. Their capital city was called Samaria. Though they never regained their independence, they came to be called Samaritans after their former capital.
The Babylonian Empire, centered further south in Iraq, destroyed the Assyrian Empire. Then in 605 BC the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. They took 10,000 people into exile including the king and set a puppet king up in his place. In 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took 5,000 more people into exile.
The Babylonians ended the independence of the Kingdom of Judah completely. But still, only 15,000 people in all had been taken into exile in what is now Iraq. The great majority of the people remained in Judah - which is the southern part of the present country of Israel, especially Jerusalem and the area around it.
Then in 538 BC, Cyrus, the emperor of Persia (now Iran) conquered Babylonia (now Iraq) and a great deal of the rest of the middle east. To pacify the many nationalities he ruled, he showed great care in restoring destroyed or abandoned temples. He allowed some exiles of Judah to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Apparently they co-operated well with the people who had remained in Judah in rebuilding the temple. Meanwhile, many of the exiles did not go back. They remained in what is now Iraq.
(This is around the time of the birth of Buddha)
Then about 100 years later, around 440 BC, a new group of descendants of the exiles came to Jerusalem from Babylonia (which is now Iraq). They were led by a priest named Ezra, a direct descendant through the high priests from Aaron, older brother of Moses. Ezra brought with him a written collection of all the traditions of the priests which he and his assistants had edited. This collection is now the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
He and his successors tried to strictly enforce their own control of the temple and exclude those they thought were impure. They persuaded or forced men of Judah who had married wives not from Judah to divorce their wives.
Among those they excluded from the temple as impure were the descendants of the northern tribes (who were now called Samaritans). The Samaritans set up their own temple on a mountain near the present town of Nabius.
Ezra was a contemporary of Socrates.
In 333 BC, Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, who had become ruler over all Greece, conquered the Persian Empire. Jerusalem and Judah surrendered to him without a fight. Alexander had no children, so he divided his empire among his generals on his deathbed. The first Judah belonged to the descendants of Ptolemy, the general who had been awarded Egypt. But then Judah was taken over by a descendant of Seleucus, the general who had been given Syria. This descendant was named Antiochus Epiphanes. He decided to promote unity throughout his kingdom by having a new national god who would be worshipped in all temples along with the other gods.
Many important priests in Judah were willing to go along with this and allow the national god’s image to be introduced into the temple in Jerusalem. These priests thought of their own god as simply a chief of all gods, like Zeus was among the Greeks.
But a village priest named Mattathias led an uprising against what he regarded as blasphemy. His sons carried on the uprising after his death. They became known as the Maccabees.
In 165 BC the Maccabees recaptured the temple in Jerusalem and abolished the worship of the national god of Antiochus. The Maccabees spread out beyond the boundaries of Judah and captured the land of the northern tribes, or Samaritans. The extreme northern tribes in the area called Galilee "became Jews" - that is, they were accepted into the temple in Jerusalem as worshippers and rejected the Samaritan temple, which still continued as a place of worship.
The Maccabees conquered the Edomites or Idumeans, a Hebrew people who lived to the south of Judah and were considered closely related to the people of Judah. These people also "became Jews" - that is, they were allowed to worship in the temple in Jerusalem.
In a similar fashion over the centuries many peoples have been incorporated into the Jews - and many others have dropped out.
The Maccabee rulers used the Greek title "ethnarch" - meaning "ruler of the nation". When the Maccabee Alexander Jannaeus tried to declare himself king there was a civil war.
Many of the poorer people felt that the title of king implied a sacred power - and that one who claimed that title might try to take away the power the people had won in the struggle against Antiochus. For instance, the king might try to replace village councils with royal officials or confiscate village lands. Many of the common people believed that only a descendant of King David (who had lived 900 years before) could be king and that somewhere was hidden a true king, a descendant of David, who they called Messiah, meaning the anointed one. The word Messiah in Greek is Christos. They believed that some day the Messiah would appear and set up "The kingdom of Heaven" - the totally just and happy society.
Those who supported the right of the Maccabees to be kings were called Sadducees from the Hebrew word for legitimate - meaning a Macabee could be a legitimate king.
There was another civil war for power between the sons of Alexander Jannaeus. The Romans intervened on the side of one of the sons, named Hyrcanus. After the death of Hyrcanus, the Romans proclaimed his son-in-law Herod to be the king. Judah was now a subject kingdom in the Roman Empire.
Herod was so unpopular that the Romans would not allow his sons to succeed him. But the Roman governors who ruled Judah were even more unpopular. In AD 66 the Roman governor Florus tried to confiscate money from the temple treasury. This money was supposed to buy grain every seventh year when the Jews were forbidden to grown grain and also to buy emergency supplies in famine years. There was a major uprising that lasted for 4 years until the Romans captured Jerusalem in Ad 70 and destroyed the temple. There was great loss of life and many thousands of survivors were sold abroad as slaves (many of these were ransomed by Jewish communities which already existed in many parts of the Roman Empire).
Yet still most of the people of Judah and Galilee remained in their own homeland and continued to consider themselves Jews. In between them, the Samaritans remained (although the Samaritan temple was closed by the Romans).
By this time the people of Galilee and the Samaritans no longer spoke the Hebrew language in daily life. They spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew which was also the main language in the areas now know as Syria and Iraq.
The Hebrew language survived as a spoken language in Jerusalem and the towns around it at least until the destruction of the temple. In the areas south of Jerusalem many Jews spoke Arabic, which is related to Hebrew and Aramaic. In much of the rest of the Roman Empire many people were converted to Judaism. The usual language of most of these Jewish communities was Greek, which was the main language of administration, business records and literature in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Many of these Jewish communities had been in existence long before the destruction of the temple. Jews (often descendants of converts to Judaism) were especially numerous in what is now Egypt, Syria and Turkey. There was even a Jewish community in Rome. Most of the early Christian community in Rome (including the first 30 or so popes) were Jews.
In 130 AD there was another Jewish uprising when the Roman Emperor Hadrian tried to forbid the practice of circumcision. After the uprising was crushed, Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem. They could only enter Jerusalem by paying for permission once a year to weep at the part of the wall which was still standing which had once enclosed the temple. But they were once again allowed to practice circumcision.
The center of Jewish life shifted northward to the city of Tiberias in Galilee where the Jews were ruled by a Patriarch who exercised much of the authority of a king. The authority was limited, of course, by the Roman Emperor and also by the authority of the Talmud - the huge commentary of the Jewish law which the rabbis of Tiberias prepared between AD 200 and AD 400.
This was also the period of the rise of Christianity. Until about AD 200 most Christians were Jews - although many early Christians were non-Jews who had already adopted such Jewish customs as not working on Saturday. Christian churches, unlike Jewish synagogues, allowed the males to join as full members without having to be circumcised (Incidentally, until 368 AD Christians observed Saturday as a day of rest like the Jews.)
After 200 AD the Roman Empire suffered an environmental collapse - epidemics, famines and constant civil wars in which rival candidates from emperor fought for power and for the scarce resources. Many pagans became Christians during these difficult times, believing that the end of the world was near and also wanting the charity which the Christian churches gave out to the poor.
In 312 AD the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. Immediately there was a bitter feud between Christians of Jewish origin, led by Arvus and Christians of pagan origin led by Athanasius. The issue was the nature of Jesus. The followers of Arius believed Jesus was the Messiah or Christ, greater than any other created being, but still created by God and subordinate to God. The followers of Athanasius believed that Jesus was God the Son, sharing the same nature as God the Father.
By the reign of the emperor Theodosius, about 390 AD, the followers of Athanasius had won. But Jewish Christians, who were still the majority in places like Syria, still opposed the idea that Jesus was God.
Shortly after 400 AD, Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople (Now Istanbul, Turkey) came up with a compromise that he thought might be acceptable to Christians of Jewish origin - that Jesus was not born god - he became god when the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism.
But a council of bishops meeting at Ephesus in what is now western Turkey, condemned the idea of Nestorius. They ruled that Jesus was God from the moment he appeared in Mary’s womb.
This made Mary "theotokos" (the God-bearer, sometimes translated "Mother of God"). It made Mary worthy of hyperdulia (supreme devotion) but not of latria (worship). The crowds in front of the bishops’ council chanted "Divine! Divine! Of course she’s divine!"
The Nestorian Christians, who included most of those of Jewish origin could not accept this and were excommunicated.
Then around our year 615 AD Mohammad had his first revelation near what is now Mecca. Saudi Arabia, Jews had lived in Arabia for hundreds of years. Whole Arab tribes had become Jews. Others had become Christians of the orthodox sort, accepting Jesus as God and Mary as the God-bearer. Many Arabs had gone through the stage of being Jews and becoming Nestorian Christians. Muhammad himself was a Hanifi. A Hanifi was a member of a movement which believed in one God which had existed among the Arabs for hundreds of years. Muhammad fought a civil war against his own city, Mecca, which was the center of idol worship among the Arabs. When he won, he agreed to spare the lives of his enemies if they would let him smash all the idols - which he did.
Most of those Arabs who were Jews would not accept Muhammad. Neither would most of those who were Christians who accepted Jesus as God and Mary as God-bearer. But the Nestorians rallied around Muhammad. His successors conquered the Middle East, including most of the eastern Roan Empire within less than 100 years after his death. The Nestorians welcomed them as liberators. Most Nestorinas converted to Islam within about 200 years more - that is by about 900 AD although some have stayed a separate Christian denomination until this day.
Muslim rulers ordered their pagan subjects to renounce their idols and become Muslims. However they did not force Jews or Christians to become Muslims. They did put an extra tax on Jews and Christians which gave them a powerful incentive to become Muslims.
During the period of the Crusades (1100 AD to 1250 AD) many middle eastern Jews and Christians rallied to the side of Muslim rulers against the invading western European Christians. But because of the long bitter war, there was less tolerance and increased pressure on Jews and Christians to become Muslims - as many did. With the growth of Islam came the spread of the Arabic language. In Jerusalem, Jews and Christians still spoke Aramaic, not Arabic until the 1300’s.
In Egypt, Christians still spoke the ancient Egyptian language until the 1500’s. Aramaic was a common language in rural Syria until the 1600’s and even today there is a Christian village in Syria called Malura where the people still speak Aramaic. Older Jews and Christians from Iraq still speak Aramaic.
In much of the Muslim world where Arabic is the official language, many Muslims speak other languages - for example, the Kurds of northern Iraq and eastern Syria speak their own language and there are several languages of the Berber group still spoken by Muslims in Algeria and Morocco although Arabic is the official language of those countries.
From about 1450 on, most of the Arabic speaking world was under the domination of the Turkish Empire. In the late 1800’s came the rise of Arab Nationalism. The Arabic language became an emotional symbol of the unity of subject people in the Turkish Empire against their Turkish overlords. People began to think of themselves as one Arab nation. Along the more westernized this unity included Christian Arabs as well as Muslims.
Up until the late 1800’s most Middle Eastern people used the word "Arab" to mean only a nomad - or maybe they would say "town Arab" for someone from an urban area of what is now Saudi Arabia. But most Middle Eastern people were not nomads. The Arab Nationalist movement taught them to use the word "Arab" for themselves as a symbol of unity against the Turks. Now the word "Arab" seems to mean anyone who speaks the Arabic language.
There is a parallel and a contrast with Latin America. A handful of Spaniards conquered Latin America and people adopted the Spanish language. But it is obvious from looking at people in countries like Mexico, Peru, or the Dominican Republic that the majority of them are not descended from European Spaniards. They would not call themselves Spaniards just because they spoke Spanish.
But this is exactly what Middle Eastern people have done with the word "Arab". And the rise of Arab Nationalism coincided with the rise of Zionism in the 1890’s led by the Austrian Jew Theodore Herzl.
Let it be said of Theodor Herzl that he did not want to be as brutal to the Palestinian population as the US was to the American Indians while he was growing up. But he was a white European who felt that his civilization had a right to push other people around. He hoped to buy the Palestinians all railroad tickets out of Palestine. It probably wouldn’t make any difference to him if he had known that a considerable number of Palestinians were descendants of the Samaritans - the old northern tribes of Israel (In the 1600’s the old Samaritan high priestly line died out. When some Samaritans chose a successor from a lesser priestly clan, the majority of Samaritans would not accept him and converted to Islam. Their descendants are a high proportion of the "West Bank" Palestinians, while only a few hundred still consider themselves Samaritans.)
The early Zionists forbade going into business with Palestinians or admitting them into their labor union federation. Zionists went to wealthy Palestinian landlords and bought land fr