Israeli History at a Glance

Lance Ponder's picture

Someone recently asked me in an email if Israel existed at the time of Jesus. This is a very interesting question because the answer is, technically... no. Since I wasn't sure why this person was asking it seemed that a brief history and explanation was in order. I thought this might make an interesting post here since my experience is that many people don't really understand the flow of Israel's history very well. It is important in that it helps put scripture in perspective to grasp the bigger picture of history. To that end, here's a simplified account...

After Moses left Egypt with the people collectively called Israel, they migrated to the region that includes modern Israel. That was roughly 1400 years before Jesus. Early politics were tribal. That began to change with Saul and David as they (generally) united the tribes. That old kingdom reached its peak in terms of political power, wealth, and military strength under Solomon (David's son). That was about 1000 years before Jesus.

When Solomon died there was so much internal battle for control that the kingdom divided into two parts. The bigger part, with 10 tribes, kept the name Israel and had its capital in Samaria. They had a series of mostly bad kings and were effectively destroyed for good by Assyria about 700 years before Jesus. A few people remained, but they never again had any political power nor any substantial religious authority. Two of the tribes, Judah and Benjamin, held on to Jerusalem and with it all of the territory to the South. The region was called Judah for the larger tribe (Benjamin was tiny). Of the split kingdoms, Judah had its share of bad kings, but also some not as bad.

Several decades after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, Babylon rose up and conquered the Assyrians then eventually they conquered Judah and took over Jerusalem. Everyone and everything of value was carried back to Babylon and Solomon's temple was destroyed. That took place about 600 years before Jesus.

After 70 more years the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews (by then a term for all of the people exiled from Judah) to go back to their homeland. Although many of the Jews went back to Jerusalem and the surrounding area, the local government was a puppet managed by Persia. Even though the temple was rebuilt about 500 years before Jesus, Judah was never again truly independent for any more than a few years a time (there were a few unsuccessful rebellions for independence) until 1948. The Greeks conquered Persia under Alexander about 300 years before Jesus, then Rome conquered Greece about 70 years before Jesus was born.

The Roman governor had authority over the Jewish King (Herod) much as the President has authority over a Governor, or perhaps more as an admiral has authority over a ship's captain, during the first century. The Roman emperor destroyed the second temple in 70 AD as part of a military effort to put down a Jewish rebellion for independence, but it was in about 132 AD that Jews mounted their final rebellion and Jerusalem was essentially wiped from the map. Rome deported many of the citizens and even changed the name of the city for centuries, though not everyone recognized the Roman name change.

Wars like the Crusades were fought for control of the region, but there has not been any independent government for the people there from about 605 BC until 1948 even though there was always a Jewish presence and in fact population majority in Jerusalem the entire time. Prior to the English control in the late 19th century Jerusalem had a population of less than 20,000 people, however since WWII and independence in 1948 the population of the city has risen to nearly 8 million with about 3/4 being Jews. Note that while in Jesus' time the term Jew applied almost entirely to people from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and some of the remaining Levites (Levites never had land rights and were scattered through both kingdoms). Modern Israeli Jews include anyone who accept the faith of the Jews and have links to any of the original tribes of Israel.

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