This history helps to explain two seemingly odd aspects of Judaism. The first is the tribal nature of Jewish identity and practice. As noted, all religion was tribal in the ancient world, and “religion” was as much a mark of cultural and tribal identity as it was of spiritual identity. But all the tribal religions of the ancient Near East became extinct, with the exception of the religion of Israel, and that was probably because the Israelite community as a whole eventually succeeded in transitioning to a truly monotheistic worldview. For true monotheist believers, even conquest by a more powerful army (with what that army believed was a more powerful god) did not weaken faith in the One Great God. God was not defeated by the gods of the enemy, as would be expected by polytheists.
On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible teaches that God actually brought the enemy for the purpose of punishing His beloved believers, who had sinned greatly and therefore deserved chastisement. In the biblical Book of Ezra, that famous scribe cited the Israelite elders (calling them “our fathers”) when they began to rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonian armies: “Because our fathers angered the God of Heaven, He handed them over to Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon” (Ezra 5:12). This theology of monotheism sustained Israel even during thousands of years of exile.
In the ancient polytheistic world, the only way individuals could transfer their loyalties to a new god was if they were assimilated into a foreign community with a different deity. After decades or generations of separation from one’s family and family deity, one would eventually adapt to the new tribal religion. This could happen individually when one was captured in war. It happened also with large groups after they were defeated in conquest by imperial powers driven by a super-powerful god, such as Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, or Jupiter, the god of Rome. If one’s tribal god could not protect against a more powerful god of a great empire, it made sense to switch loyalties and make offerings to the god who really could protect. So with
the growth of the great empires, the smaller communities eventually became absorbed and lost their traditional tribal religious identities.
That process occurred for all the ancient Near Eastern peoples except the Israelites: though conquered by the Babylonians and the Romans, they did not give up their religion or abandon their God (remember that the ancient “God of Israel” was perceived by Israel as also the One Great God of all). Unlike the other tribal communities, which worshipped limited tribal deities, the Israelites, who by now believed the One Great God was responsible for all of history, understood their suffering at the hands of the great empires as divine punishment for their sins. It was not the god of Rome who conquered them but rather the God of Israel/God of the universe who used the Romans as a tool of punishment to chastise His beloved people—the only community that remained loyal to monotheism despite their many human errors and transgressions.
The second curious trait of Judaism this history explains is the apparent lack of concern for the religious practices of non-Jews. It is not that ancient Jews were unconcerned about polytheism. They were in fact very concerned: throughout the Hebrew Bible, one finds condemnation of polytheism. But polytheism was everywhere. The community of Israel was the only monotheist community in the world, and it was tiny in comparison with the rest of humanity. (This is quite different from the period of Islamic emergence, during which most of the world was monotheistic, and it seemed that only the local Arabs retained the worship of multiple gods.)
It must have been literally inconceivable to the Israelites that they could or should try to convince others to abandon their gods and follow Jewish practice. Their goal was not conversion of others (still a conceptual impossibility in the ancient world) but rather the creation of a safe haven for monotheism. The fear of outsiders weakening the tiny community’s practice of monotheism was an overwhelming deterrent to reaching out, and the notion of conversion was as yet unthinkable.
Much of this changed when the Greeks colonized the Middle East. They brought their own polytheism, but they brought their schools of philosophy as well. Educated, curious Greeks, who desired to improve their spiritual and philosophical condition, would visit and learn from various schools and then choose which one they felt most accurately explained nature and the human
condition. The early Greeks who came to the Holy Land considered the Jews there to be a nation of philosophers, based on their assessment of Jewish scriptures and beliefs. Some of them wanted to join the “Jewish school” of thought and practice.
Unlike the other tribal communities, which worshipped limited tribal deities, the Israelites, who by now believed the One Great God was responsible for all of history, understood their suffering at the hands of the great empires as divine punishment for their sins.
There was no conversion in those days, so those Greeks (and later Romans as well) who wanted to be like the Jews “Judaized.” That term describes a kind of acculturation via adoption of Jewish practices and beliefs.
With Judaizing, there could be no moment when someone could declare, “Now I am a Jew!” It was a gradual process and less a statement of pure faith than an acculturation of spiritual practice and outlook. Some men went so far as to circumcise themselves and take on all of Jewish ethno-religious practice, eventually losing their foreign identity and becoming part of the Jewish people through integration and assimilation. Many others went part way; they would not circumcise or follow all the religious-ethical practices that marked Jewish identity. The mixing of Greek and Roman with old Semitic Jewish ideas and practices resulted in the emergence of several sectarian Jewish movements that challenged some of the ancient Israelite practices and beliefs.
This trend became significant during the last centuries of the Second Temple Period (about 160 BCE to 70 CE). During this period, formal conversion began to develop, officially marking a sense of belonging to one or another of these Jewish movements. This happened before the birth of Jesus, but his arrival marked the beginning of a final split between Jewish movements that eventually led to the characterization of two different religions—that of Jews on the one hand and those who would soon be known as Christians on the other. Each side argued that it best represented the divine will and the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and each condemned the beliefs and practices of the other, competing against the other to attract the growing number of Judaizers who were expressing an interest in monotheism.
Some Jews actively sought converts at the time, but proselytizing was a new idea and was not a basic or core part of the ancient Jewish tradition. Christians, on the other hand, considered it their mission—and a divine imperative—to teach their faith, and the redemption and salvation they believed it brought, to all the peoples of the world. This aspect was canonized in their scripture, the New Testament, which valorized this mission in the Acts of the Apostles and other New Testament books.
Not surprisingly, given the different emphasis on proselytizing in each tradition (as well as a number of other factors that would take us beyond the margins of this essay), the Christian version of monotheism triumphed over the Jewish version and won the prize of the Roman Empire when Christianity first became legal under Constantine in 313 and then became the official religion under Emperor Theodosius in 380 CE.
The anger, resentment, and sense of competition that remained between Jews and Christians encouraged Christians to argue that the conversion of the empire was a divine miracle with a message: “history proved theology”; that is, God had given a sign of the truth of Christianity (and the falsity of Judaism) by enabling Christians to win over the great and mighty Roman Empire.
The above article first appeared in Renovatio – The Journal of Zaytuna College 3.1 (2019) written by Dr. Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor at the Reform Judaism Rabbinical Seminary The Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.