A short course on Jewish history
Religion | The highlights and lowlights of God’s chosen people as they searched through the centuries for a Messiah
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 8/05/17, 11:39 am
Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a series of articles originally published in a special issue of WORLD Magazine on March 2, 2002.
I’m often asked to summarize highlights and lowlights of Jewish history.
Here’s a short course, which begins with God not giving His chosen people some out-of-the-way venue. Instead, He placed them on a strip of West Asian ground that forms the land bridge any Egyptians, Babylonians, or Macedonians out to conquer the ancient world had to march through.
Either God made a mistake equivalent to dropping a person into a shopping mall and commanding him to be a hermit—or He was forcing the Israelites, like it or not, to become a transforming influence on other cultures. Which was it? Forcing people to do what they otherwise would avoid is one of God’s clear patterns of behavior, and the book of Jonah shows this process.
A ditty about Christian anti-Semitism goes, “How odd of God / To choose the Jew, / But not so odd / As those who choose / the Jewish God / And hate the Jew.” A parallel ditty about Israel’s location could go, “How odd of God / to say ‘Be apart’ / Yet place His people / at their start / in the crossroads / of the world trade mart.”
Actually, there’s no mistake, and nothing odd about it. Old Testament commands never to sin cannot be met by sinful man, so they bring us face-to-face with the need for forgiveness through Christ. Old Testament commands to separate also could not be met, so they pushed some Israelites to see that they had no choice but to be a light to the Gentiles.
And so the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, almost always living among other peoples and confronting other cultures, helped to convert some of their neighbors. When they left Egypt, a mixed multitude of non-Israelites went with them. When they settled in Canaan amid many other nations, they intermarried and brought into Israel people like Ruth, the great-grandma of King David.
Israelites tried to hack out of the jungle of faiths that surrounded them a holiness theme park in which everything—laws, customs, food, clothing—would point to God’s holiness. Not helped by their location, they failed. And when the giant grindstones of Assyria and Babylonia came up against Israel’s stone tablets, sparks flew.
THE ISRAELITE CAPTIVES in Assyria after 722 B.C. became appeasers, giving up what faith in God remained among them in order to become an ordinary part of the imperial population. Captives in Babylonia like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego during the sixth century B.C. became transformers, studying Babylonian culture and then influencing kings Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus to believe in God.
Hebrew transformers always had to fight a two-front war. They had to battle appeasers who could give up faith in God in return for easy acceptance by the idol worshippers around them. They also had to struggle with separatists who would hold tightly to the light God had given them, but hide it under a basket for fear that others would see it and snuff it out.
The battle within Israel of those three groups—transformers, appeasers, separatists—raged for centuries. The first major political upheaval of the post–Old Testament era began in 333 B.C. when Alexander the Great swept through West Asia and conquered many nations, including Israel. Some Israelites separated from Greek-influenced society and formed a community near the Dead Sea at Qumran. (Two thousand years later their records were found and called “The Dead Sea Scrolls.”)
Others became Hellenistic appeasers, aping the Greeks. A third group emphasized transformation, sometimes through military means. Roman rule came in 63 B.C., and not peaceably. Roman legions under Pompey killed 12,000 Israelites, including Temple priests right at the altar. And yet, because those who follow Biblical rules tend to honor marriage, work hard, and build big families, by around 4 B.C. Jews made up about 10 percent of the Roman Empire.
That’s about the time when a Jewish baby named Yeshua, born in a stable, became one of approximately 8 million Jews then in the world, with 2.5 million living in Palestine (according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica). Almost all of them had to interact with Roman culture, and many attempted to transform it not by warfare but by proselytizing.
Some thought the two means of transformation could go together, with Jews, under the leadership of a Messiah, becoming the dominant influence in the Roman Empire. Leaders periodically claimed Messianic status, and Palestine became such a hard place to rule that in A.D. 26 Rome gave the Jerusalem command to hard-edged Pontius Pilate.
He tried to quash all opposition by crucifying during the next decade more than 10,000 Jews, including that Yeshua, called Jesus in Greek. Yeshua’s small band of followers soon put out the unnatural claim that their leader was resurrected from the dead. Astoundingly, over the next two decades thousands of Jews believed that.
One former Pharisee who came to believe that, Paul, became a major league transformer as he traveled throughout the empire to explain to non-Jewish audiences that Jesus is the very Son of God. As new Christians learned Biblical patterns of thought, they transformed every aspect of their lives.
But in Palestine itself, most Jews did not believe in Christ. Zealots inspired them to believe that if they battled Rome militarily God would come to their aid. One failed rebellion led to the demolition of the Temple in A.D. 70, and the deaths of 100,000 Jews. Up to another 100,000 went to Rome as slaves, and more fled to other countries.
Three years later, Rome crushed the last Jewish resistance within Palestine: The last Jewish defenders at Masada, a mountain fortress, committed suicide. Both sides competed to explain to Jews and others what needed to be done now that the center of Jewish worship, the Temple, no longer existed.
Those who believed in Jesus did much better at this, for Jesus had predicted the Temple’s destruction, and apostles were already explaining that Christ was the ultimate sacrifice that made all other sacrifices unnecessary. As Donald Akenson noted in Surpassing Wonder (University of Chicago Press, 2001), “the Jesus-faith was much quicker to [develop] a temple-religion-without-a-temple than were the founders of what became known as the Jewish faith. … [T]he Christian construct is older than the Jewish one.”
AFTER CHRISTIANITY AND JUDAISM clearly split between A.D. 80 and 100, the two religions competed for proselytes over the next two centuries. (The word “proselyte” itself initially referred to converts to Judaism.) The competition became increasingly bitter, with both sides at times acting like warring brothers bringing troublemaking tales about the other to the Roman authorities.
Words sometimes turned into sticks and stones, leaving a bitterness that turned back into words about the violence each side purportedly exacted from the other. Judaism initially was on top, but in Palestine and elsewhere Messiah-less Jews went to war under the banner of those who claimed to be God’s anointed leader.
Jewish rebels in A.D. 115 and 116 in Cyrene and Egypt destroyed pagan temples and the tomb of Pompey, the Roman general who had captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C. Counterattacking Roman legions then killed thousands of Jews. Those who survived saw their property confiscated so that the destroyed temples could be restored.
The biggest rebellion, in Palestine from A.D. 132 to 135—more on this later—also ended in disaster. Christians, though, proceeded in a slow, one-by-one conversion process, and they gradually succeeded in transforming the Roman Empire.
Where Christianity gained influence, babies unwanted by their fathers and left outside to die gained a new opportunity to live. Poor people who had settled for bread and circuses went to work and built families. Slaves received better treatment and sometimes liberation. Women also treated as property realized that God knew them by name—and Paul recorded the names of some in his epistles.
AFTER THE DRAMATIC CONVERSION of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312, the Edict of Milan the following year granted toleration to all religions, including Christianity and Judaism, but that didn’t last for long. Only 10 years after the Edict of Milan some Christian leaders began using their new governmental power to give their position the advantage.
In 325 the Council of Nicea, along with formulating the classic Nicene Creed, restricted the political and religious rights of Jews. In 337 legislation in the eastern half of the empire forbad Jews from owning slaves, Christians and Jews from intermarrying, and women from converting to Judaism.
During the following centuries some localities went further. Alexandria, Egypt, expelled Jews in 411, and Minorca, Spain, in 418 gave its Jewish inhabitants a choice of “conversion” or expulsion. (Conversion is in quotation marks because true conversion depends on belief, not any specific actions, and belief cannot be forced. The Roman Catholic Church, though, came to believe that baptism was efficacious regardless of belief.)
In 576 and 582 the Franks who controlled much of what is now France, and in 613 the Visigoths who ruled much of what is now Spain, also ordered Jews within their territories to “convert” or leave. Jews gained a measure of revenge in 712 by helping Muslim invaders conquer Spain.
In other parts of Europe restrictive legislation arose over the next several centuries, with Jewish families pushed from place to place and often leading lives that anticipated the last three of Thomas Hobbes’ famous adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short. But those lives did not fit the first two adjectives, solitary and poor, because communities (including ones newly planted in France) often developed strong bonds.
Jews worked at whatever urban trades were allowed to them, and a few usually became moneylenders, since the Church did not allow Christians to compete with them. Those moneylenders sometimes became rich. Jewish economic success led to jealousy and covetousness among the nominally Christian, who sought opportunities to steal.
The great opportunity arose after Pope Urban II in 1095 called for a crusade to retake Jerusalem. As participants in the First Crusade headed toward Palestine, some killed along the way about 5,000 Jews from communities in northern France and along the Rhine. Other crusades brought similar destruction. Popes sometimes offered an incentive for Crusade participation: all debts of Crusaders to Jews were canceled.
Roman Catholic doctrinal changes also contributed to increased tensions. In 1215 the fourth Lateran Council, a major church conference in Rome, established the doctrine of transubstantiation, within which the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were seen as Christ’s flesh and blood. Over the next several centuries angry priests and mob leaders repeatedly claimed that Jews desecrated wafers (seen literally as Christ’s flesh) so they could persecute Jesus again. The Lateran Council also decreed that Jews should wear a special badge to differentiate them from the general population.
Other new charges and legends spread. The “blood libel” accusation—that Jews needed to kill Christian children in order to use their blood in Passover rituals—first appeared in 1144 in Norwich, England, and resurfaced throughout the 1200s. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II investigated the charge and found it without merit, but it remained popular among those seeking a cause for mob action (as in Germany in 1298).
Around 1220 an Italian wrote of meeting a Jew who had hit and insulted Jesus on the way to the crucifixion and was thus condemned to wander the world for all time and receive insults and beatings. That legend of the Wandering Jew spread throughout Europe and was retold in hundreds of publications, with settings frequently altered.
New charges in the 1300s made life harder for many Jews in Western Europe. In 1321 French Jews supposedly encouraged lepers to poison wells used by Christians. King Philip the Tall acknowledged the Jews’ innocence, but only after about 5,000 Jews were killed—and the following year King Charles IV expelled those who had survived.
That was only a prelude to the Black Death riots of 1348–49, when Germans and others accused Jews of causing the bubonic plague by poisoning wells. Pope Clement VI said the Jews were innocent, but many Jewish communities already hurt by disease were wiped out by assault. Basle residents, for example, burned 600 Jews at the stake and expelled the city’s other Jews, converting the synagogue into a church and destroying the Jewish cemetery.
Jews for a time had a refuge in Spain, but rioters in Seville, Valencia, and other cities murdered thousands of Spanish Jews in 1391 and pressed others to be baptized to save their lives. Over time it became clear that many conversos—those baptized under pressure—and their children were continuing to practice Judaism.
In 1481 Spain’s Queen Isabella agreed with papal authorities on the need for an Inquisition to root out conversos who still practiced Judaism. From 1486 to 1490 about 5,000 conversos went on trial. One hundred fifty “crypto-Jews” were burned at the stake, usually after torture-generated confessions. Some wealthy individuals whose lives were spared had their property confiscated, with proceeds used for financing voyages of exploration.
The end for Spanish Judaism came in 1492, when the Spanish government gave all Jews the old choice of exile or baptism under pressure. Thousands of Jews were hurriedly baptized, and conversos largely manned Christopher Columbus’ ships. At least 100,000 Jews left, many going to Portugal (where they were kicked out five years later) or heading to Muslim-controlled lands, where they generally were treated in degrading ways but allowed to survive, if they paid royally for the privilege.
The Spanish government confiscated all Jewish property, ploughed under Jewish cemeteries, and either destroyed synagogues or turned them into churches or pigsties. One Italian city that did not expel Jews pioneered a new technique to restrict Jewish social interaction with the rest of the populace: Venice officials in 1516 began requiring Jews to live in a special area of the city where a foundry (ghetto in Italian) was located.
Ghettoization also made it easier to slap on extra taxes and expropriate Jewish property, and in 1554 Pope Paul IV advised cities everywhere within Christendom to set up ghettoes. Living in such difficult environments over the centuries, Jews looked for alternatives to despair. One was the search for a Messiah.
THE MESSIAH, THEY SAID, would not be the “suffering servant” Isaiah described and Christians embraced. (Rabbis interpreted the suffering servant as Israel itself.) No, the Messiah would be a political and military leader, and many hoped to fill that spot. They all failed, leaving most of their followers frustrated and disenchanted, and some suspecting that the Messiah already had come, in the person of Jesus.
Here’s a brief run-through, beginning in A.D. 45 when the warrior Theudas claimed to be the Messiah. The Romans seized him, cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. The warrior Menahem in A.D. 66 entered Jerusalem dressed as a king, but the Romans killed him.
Shortly thereafter Gen. Simon bar Giora issued coins bearing the messianic slogan, “Redemption of Zion,” and attracted some 40,000 zealots. He had initial success but the Romans defeated him also, as they did a north African weaver, Jonathan, who in A.D. 73 led Jews into the desert, promising to show them signs and wonders as a Messiah should. The Romans burned him alive.
None of the followers of these failures claimed to see their leaders resurrected. But the greatest disappointment of antiquity came in A.D. 132, after Rome’s Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision and decided to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city. Simeon bar Kochba—certified as the Messiah by the revered Rabbi Akiva—led a revolt that was initially successful.
Then, new Roman troops arrived and killed bar Kochba, Akiva, and several hundred thousand others, with that many again sold as slaves. Rome gave Jerusalem the name Aelia Capitolina and prohibited Jews from living there.
A pretender, in A.D. 458, Moses of Crete, said God would part the Mediterranean Sea so he and his followers could walk from the island to Zion. Several hundred adherents showed their faith by diving off a towering cliff into the water. Almost all of them drowned, and Moses disappeared.
Around A.D. 700 one Abu Isa’ al-Isfahani proclaimed himself the Messiah, but Muslim forces wiped out his army in a mountainous battle. Abu disappeared, with several diehard followers saying he had entered a hole in the side of the mountain and would someday return.
In 1127 some Jews became destitute after incurring large debts to prepare for lavish Passover celebrations in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival that year. On a Passover evening during the mid–12th century some waited on their rooftops in the expectation that angels would pick them up and fly them to Jerusalem.
Near that century’s end a Messiah-candidate arose in Yemen and told his followers to give all their wealth to the poor. When Arabs who captured him demanded that he prove his claim, he told them that if they cut off his head, he would immediately come to life. The captors obliged. He stayed dead.
In 1280 Abraham Abulafia, stating that he was the Son of God, headed to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism, but the pope had him arrested. Abulafia’s followers were chagrined, and the would-be redeemer died in disappointment in 1291.
In 1500 Asher Lämmlin won large support for his Messiahship among both ignorant and learned Germanic Jews, but disillusionment set in two years later. Great excitement ensued in 1524 when Shlomo Molcho claimed to be the Messiah, but he was burned at the stake in 1532. A claimant in Palestine, Hayyim Vital, also left his followers disgruntled.
WITH SUCH A RECORD OF FAILURE, some Jews began to whisper: What if the Messiah had already arrived a long time ago? Some Jews, rebelling against constant Talmudic and occasional messianic excitement, explored an almost unspeakable alternative: crossing over to Christianity.
Ironically, pressure to “convert” from church, government, or mob made true conversion more difficult—for what honest person would make for material reasons a decision about the most important spiritual question?
Nevertheless, some Jews over the years responded to Christ as did early Jews like Peter the apostle: “You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Those who made credible professions of that sort included Epiphanius, who in 368 became the bishop of Constantia in Cyprus. Born of Jewish parents in Palestine, he gained wide respect for his scholarly learning, denounced the use of images in churches, and wrote the Panarion, an encyclopedia of Jewish and Christian sectarian groups.
The writer Petrus Alphonsi converted in 1106. He wrote many tales, one of which appeared in a 1961 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and wrote an evangelistic dialogue between himself before and after conversion. Solomon ha-Levi, known as the learned and pious rabbi of Burgos, Spain, converted in 1391. He studied theology at Paris, was ordained a priest, and eventually, under the name Pablo de Santa Maria, became bishop of Cartagena and then archbishop of Burgos.
Nevertheless, when the going got tough, new Messiah candidates emerged. In 1665 Eastern European Jews, stunned by Cossack attacks on them in 1648 and thereafter, pinned their hopes to Turkey’s Shabbetai Zvi. Born on the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple—one rabbinic tradition held that the Messiah had to be born on that day—the brilliant but manic Zvi, receiving backing from leading rabbis such as Nathan of Gaza, strode into Constantinople in 1666.
Zvi said the Sultan would be impressed enough to give him authority over the land of Israel, but Zvi instead received three options: Prove through miracles that you are the Messiah, convert to Islam, or die. Zvi chose conversion, and a few of his supporters followed him into Islam, forming a Muslim sect that continues to this day.
In the 1750s one honored rabbi, Ya’akov Emden, accused a great Talmudic expert, Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, of “secret Shabbetianism.” Accusations and counter-accusations led to an uproar, and the issue was never settled. Also during that decade, a very strange character, Jacob Frank, won a following for his claim to be the reincarnation of Zvi.
Frank said Zvi could have displayed messianic powers had Jews repented, but they did not because they were sexually unsatisfied. Frank and his followers had orgies and sinned openly in other ways as well, saying that in the messianic time all was legitimate. He also argued that sin carried to the extreme would become repugnant, so people would then turn away from it. Rabbis excommunicated Frank and he faded from view, but not before showing that many who scoff at Christ respond to crackpot messianic claims.
IN WESTERN EUROPE AND AMERICA the 17th through 19th centuries brought new opportunities. Protestant Reformed leaders in Holland welcomed Jews there, as did Oliver Cromwell in England. Jews expelled in 1654 from Portuguese Brazil made it to New Amsterdam (now New York City), and their descendants built a synagogue building there in 1730. New York Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas received an invitation to George Washington’s 1789 inaugural.
In 1778, Europe’s first modern Jewish school—one that taught mathematics, modern language, art, and business subjects—opened in Berlin, and five years later Moses Mendelssohn published his translation of the Torah into German. Mendelssohn argued that Jews could be both Orthodox and part of the modern world, and should speak the language of the countries in which they resided.
Enlightenment leaders like Voltaire hated Jews for their purported “stubbornness, their new superstitions,” and for how they “surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism.” Nevertheless, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent conquests brought to France and other Western European countries Jewish emancipation: total legal equality with non-Jews.
Some Germans and Danes rioted in 1819 to protest rights that they said were allowing Jews to exploit others, but emancipation accelerated after the revolutionary upheavals of 1848–49. From 1867 to 1874 Jews of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy received full emancipation, with ghettoes abolished.
Separatists within Judaism were dominant for centuries because there was no point in asking for admission to a club that would not accept Jews. But once emancipation opened the club in Western Europe and brought forward new options for both appeasers and transformers, separationism fell with surprising speed.
Appeasers now had the opportunity to ignore the Bible and merge into an increasingly secularizing society in one of three ways. They could leave the synagogue entirely and have no religious affiliation. They could embrace a variety of Judaism called “Reform” that promoted worship and practice similar to that of the increasingly liberal churches of Germany or other countries. Or they could become nominal “Christians,” with few questions asked at the liberal churches and few repercussions within the fragmenting Jewish population.
The number of transformers also grew. Some, following in Mendelssohn’s footsteps, attempted to combine Orthodox worship with involvement in broader social and political trends. Others, like Mendelssohn’s grandson Felix, became Christians not to abandon the Bible but to transform their own communities and others by taking hold of all of it.
They read the prophet Isaiah’s promise from God to make Israel “a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” They typically hoped to bring new vitality to Christianity while liberating the minds of some of their own people.
From the 18th to the early 20th centuries, though, an almost–iron curtain running from the Baltic to the Balkans divided Europe. Most Jews west of it embraced modernity. Most east of it becoming even more removed from the cultures that surrounded them.
The Hassidic movement, rife with mysticism, grew in the mid–18th century when new pogroms hit Jews in eastern Poland. The Russian empire in the 1790s completed its acquisition of much of Poland and set up a ghetto area called the Pale of Settlement. Jews could live there and nowhere else. New legislation separating Jews and Russians came in 1804.
Hungarian Rabbi Moses Sofer in 1806 opened a Talmudic school and insisted that Jews have no contact with modernity. His pupils became influential throughout Eastern Europe. The Russian government tried to break Jewish culture by grabbing 12-year-old Jewish boys and assigning them to “community service” in a peasant village for six years and then military service for the following 25.
Over the next three decades Tsarists removed 40,000 to 50,000 boys from the Jewish community in this manner, but that gross attack finally ended. Others followed, with major pogroms in 1881 and 1903 angering the poet Haim Nahman Bialik. He criticized not only the perpetrators but also Jewish men—cowards, he called them—who were unable or unwilling to fight back, often because they were engrossed in Talmud study.
Emancipation in Western Europe did not always go smoothly. In 1893, anti-Semites gained some electoral success in Germany, and in 1894 the French government sent Capt. Alfred Dreyfus to prison for allegedly selling military secrets to Germans. Dreyfus gained acquittal in 1906.
Many Jews in Western Europe became transformers or appeasers, but in Eastern Europe most Jews remained in the separatist tradition, rendered romantically by Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Milkman from 1894 on. Others repudiated tradition by joining the only option that beckoned to them: revolutionary socialist parties.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 shook separatism to its core. Bolsheviks abolished the Pale of Settlement, along with all anti-Jewish laws. Many Jews had high government and Communist Party positions. Soviet Communists embraced Jews initially but condemned Judaism, and it did not take long for them to make illegal all expressions of Jewish culture not considered revolutionary.
In the United States, assimilation without atheism could work. The first movie with sound, The Jazz Singer in 1927, showed the process. But Soviet Jewish leaders such as Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev attacked Jews and Christians, and then each other, until Josef Stalin killed all of them.
The person who finally killed Eastern European separatism was the politician who fulfilled his early campaign promise to kill Jews: Adolf Hitler’s creed arose not out of Christianity but out of racial theories that originated in the 18th-century Enlightenment and gained prominence through social Darwinism’s emphasis on “survival of the fittest.”
After Hitler gained power in 1933, his minions moved from organized rioting and the burning of Jewish books to the closing and destruction of Jewish stores and homes and eventually the murder of 6 million Jews. The last words of many Jews marched into Nazi gas chambers came from a statement of faith penned by the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides: “I believe with a full heart in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry I will still wait for him.”
The post-Holocaust history is largely about what’s happened in Israel and America, but that’s a story for another time. And the question remains for those still waiting for a Messiah: What if He came, died, and was resurrected long ago?