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Beyond Time and Place


In the year 1741 BCE, Abraham began his long journey from Haran to Canaan - a journey which would change the history of the world and have a profound effect on the development of most major religions.

Throughout the ages there has been a fascination with Jewish history. Countless times, people have questioned the "miracle of the continual existence of the Jewish people" - this despite the almost consistent world delight in their persecution and ridicule. Can we, by reading history, find any clue to this intriguing historical riddle? Evidently, people think so, which explains the wide success of the massive volumes of Salo Baron and the popularity of Johnson, Graezel, Roth, Marx, and others. As a nation we are not only a people of the book. We are also a people that focuses on its past, with or without learning from it.

Our earliest source of Jewish history is no doubt the Bible. Many scholars, including leading Rabbis throughout the centuries, claim that the Bible is selective - emphasizing the message rather than reflecting true history. There are a number of noteworthy ancient Jewish historians ranging from pre-Roman times through the Golden Age of Spain. Included in this group are Jason of Cyrene (2nd century BCE), Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE - 50 CE), Josephus Flavius (c. 38 CE-after 100) and Yose Ben Halafta, a tanna; who wrote his Seder Olam Rabba in the mid-second century. However, true Jewish historiography did not really begin until the 19th century.

Today there is a plethora of books exploring every aspect of Jewish history. Most historians use geographical areas as their guides. Others, like Paul Johnson analyze ideas layered in time. So why do we need another book and more so why a chronological study? And why on the Internet?

As a student I was captivated by the way world history and events had their subtle and not-so-subtle effect on the course of Jewish History. I would sit for hours looking over tables in the back of Margolis and Marx's History of the Jewish People trying to examine the intermeshing of world dates and Jewish historical dates.

The goals of this writer are threefold: First, to create an easy-to-use overview of information which would be readily available for the student and the layman; second, to provide the reader with a general picture of the world at different times and its impact on Jewish history; third, to ignite some interest or fascination with one of the characters you will meet and to encourage further study.

For these reasons, I have decided that after having published my history book once, to allow it to be placed on the Internet for all to use and peruse.

Where does our history begin? Most historians begin with the journey of Abraham as the first Jew. The biblical stories, although vastly important historically, have their place in the birth and development of a Jewish consciousness and as a moral guide, rather than as a day-to-day recorded history.

I have decided to start with the year 69 CE and the establishing of the Academy at Yabnehrather than Biblical history. Why?

It has been claimed that the Diaspora began with the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). While there is a lot of truth in this statement, recent historians have found that the actual dispersion was far more gradual than we realize with most of the population still in place until after the Second Revolt in 135. So why the year 200? In all probability, the most critical act in preserving the Jewish people in a Diaspora setting was the action of Yohanan Ben Zaccai, the last of Hillel's disciples. Around 69 CE, Ben Zaccai appealed to the Romans to allow Jewish scholarship to continue by saving the Sages of the time and transferring them to Jabneh.

It is this transformation of Judaism from a Temple/priest- focused religion to one based on an agreed set of codes which allowed for the perpetuation of Judaism. This democratization and decentralization of Judaism encouraged the various factions to join. No longer did the leadership depend on family lines but rather on individual knowledge and leadership qualities. Anyone could now become a great rabbinical leader. It was therefore the writing and the compending of the Oral Law into a text accepted by all factions, which both united and helped build a foundation for the preservation of Judaism. The sects which did not accept this idea soon faded from the limelight of history.


"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon" - Napoleon

There are and will remain discrepancies between historians regarding the exact dates for many of the events noted. This is mostly due to the lack of many first-hand reliable sources. In addition there are numerous cases where riots were sparked on one day but the actual massacres took a day or two to organize. Even the actual numbers of dead are questionable. Some historians have tried to compare population figures before and after events. Others rely on accounts in letters or even from the local clergy for an idea. I have striven to quote the most reliable sources rather than use numbers for shock value.

This brings me to another important point: It has been said that Jewish history consists of the shortest point between persecutions. It was not my intention to produce another "massacre-of-the-day" account. This being said, I could not ignore or demean both the immensity and frequency of the persecutions. I have endeavored to balance it with other events showing the strength of the Jewish People striving for normalcy and creativity under these harsh conditions.

Following is a short note on anti-Semitism vs anti-Judaism: Because much of our history is crowded by Anti-Semitism there are a few points I would like to share with you: I have made use of both ideas with the distinction that anti-Judaism is an intolerance of the Jewish religion. Hence, if someone converted to Christianity he may have found doors opened to him. The term, anti-Semitism makes no such distinction. A further divergence of opinion developed as to the origins of anti- Judaism / anti- Semitism. It is usually conceded that during the first Commonwealth, (c1020-586 BCE) the Jews were considered as any other nation, whether hostile or friendly.

The earliest beginnings of the Jewish - Gentile conflict and anti - Jewish writings can be traced to Greek writings. Manetho (Third Century BCE) portrays Moses as Osarsiph an ex Priest of Heliopolis, who became a leader of 80,000 "lepers and other polluted persons" forced out of Egypt and who eventually conquered Jerusalem. This theme of the Jews as being expelled from Egypt will be repeated throughout the centuries. Mnaseas of Patara (Second Century BCE) is believed to have invented or at least been the first to report the story of the Jews worshipping the head of an ass. Yet, it isn't until Apion, ( First Century CE) a Greek writer and scholar of Egyptian origin, that influential anti-Jewish writers are introduced. His "History of Egypt" is a compilation of earlier writings, including those of Manetho accusing the Jews of being thrown out of Egypt. Though he promoted the myth of Jewish ritual murder of non-Jews (in his case "only" Greeks), Apion's importance lies in the scope and viciousness of his presentation and the fact that he was a teacher of considerable respect in Rome during the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius. He was considered so serious a threat that Josephus found it necessary to counterattack him in his book Against Apion. Damocritus (First Century CE) is "distinguished" for having created the ritual murder accusation (though according to him it occurred only once in seven years). Unlike Apion he is more universal in his accusation and claims the Jews did not distinguish between Greeks and other non Jews

Soon after, Rome developed its own brand of mainly anti-religious writings beginning with Cicero (106-43 BCE), who in his speeches ( 59 BCE) called the Jewish religion "barbara superstitio". Seneca the Philosopher (first century BCE to 65 CE) attacked the Jewish religion and it practices as superstitious calling Jews "an accursed race" Tacitus (C.55-120) is regarded as probably the principal anti-Jewish author of the period, emphasizing the "sinister _.shameful ... and superstitious" differences of the Jews. In 39 CE, after anti-Jewish riots threatened to destroy the community of Alexandria, two delegations appeared before Emperor Caligula: One led by Philo (pleading the Jewish cause) and the other by Apion (attacking the Jews). This may even may be considered the first Jewish-Gentile disputation.

Tracing anti-Semitism's origins can be a question of emphasis: Stern (Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism) shows its early beginnings. Hay (Europe and the Jews) traces the cause of Christian persecution and even the Holocaust to early and medieval Christian writings. Flannery (Anguish of the Jews) traces its foundation to the Greek and Roman writings mentioned above. Whether apologist for or accuser against the Church, the fact remains that the consequent opinions of St. Justin (author of the anti-Jewish Dialogue with Trypho) and others had a most dramatic effect on the position of Jews in the world.

By no means were all popes or Christian rulers knee-jerking anti-Semites. Many of them published bulls denying the ritual murder accusation or host desecrations, but these words were often ignored by local friars and local populations. Yet even a pope who would condemn the excesses against the Jews one day, might on the next issue an order to burn the Talmud or to levy heavy taxes. Moreover, their policies were clearly affected by the current economic, political and social situations. The official policy of the Church was set by Gregory the Great (590) which consisted of persecuting or "punishing" the Jews for the killing of Jesus. Ultimately, the goal would be to convince them to accept Christianity as the successor to Judaism and not to annihilate them.

The fact of Jewish survival or as Johnson calls it the "extraordinary endurance" is just that - a fact. Many philosophers and historians have tried to offer explanations. Some are currently predicting the slow extinction of the Jewish people through intermarriage and lack of education. I am neither a fatalist nor pessimist. However, if the Jewish People is to have a future, we must encourage our youth to study our history and to learn from it

One final note:

I have decided to put this book over the Internet, rather than republishing it, to be used, enjoyed, and learned from. The name and place indices from the original book will hopefully be put up at a later date. Publishing, reprinting, or any public use of this material except for classroom use is strictly forbidden without the prior consent of the author.

Eli Birnbaum

© 1996 - 2015. This material is copyrighted and cannot be used without the permission of the author.