The Emergence of Judaism by Cynthia Baker

There is no word for “Judaism” in the Hebrew Bible, nor in the premodern Hebrew language itself. The Greek term Ioudaismos, from which the word “Judaism” derives, was coined at the close of the biblical period (2Macc 6:6, 2Macc 9:17) and was used, prior to the modern era, almost exclusively by Christian writers as a term to describe a counterpart religion to Christianity. In recent centuries, Judaism has become the common designation for the sacred traditions and ritual practices of Jews—and, by association, if somewhat anachronistically, of the Israelite peoples (also called “Hebrews”) with whom the bulk of the Hebrew Bible is concerned.

The biblical word for “Jews” in Hebrew, yehudim (“Judahites”), begins to appear only in later books of the Hebrew Bible, most particularly in Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel, all of which were composed during the Second Temple period. “Jews” appear far more often in the much-shorter New Testament than they do in the entire Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

The “emergence of Judaism,” then, presents complex and contentious issues. Insofar as the word yehudim comes into currency only after the destruction of both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah and the subsequent Babylonian exile, “Jews” as a collective entity embracing distinctive sacred traditions and ritual practices must be regarded as a postexilic phenomenon. Judaism, as the term is commonly used, would then refer to a culture that emerged out of the destruction and displacement of the ancient Israelite kingdoms and their monarchies.

Scholars pinpoint a variety of time periods and sociopolitical forces or events in accounting for the emergence of Judaism. Time periods proposed range from the Babylonian and Persian periods (sixth to fourth centuries B.C.E.) to the Hellenistic period (fourth century B.C.E. forward), to the earliest centuries of Christianity with its gradual formulation of the concept of “religions” by which to categorize different peoples, including Jews. Scholars who locate the emergence of Judaism within the Babylonian and Persian Empires highlight the experience of Diaspora and subjection as fundamental to its shaping, whereas those who assert a Hellenistic context emphasize the encounter with specifically Greek (and, later, Roman) concepts and institutions as key to its formation. In any case, virtually all forms of Judaism that survive in our current era derive from the rabbinic movement, a school of Jewish thought and practice that developed alongside early Christianity under Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian rule.

Perhaps the most salient feature of emergent Judaism is the inherent tension between ancient Jews’ widely shared traditions and their widely divergent understandings and interpretations of these. For example, although “Torah” became a key concept throughout emergent Judaism, not only did Jews ascribe diverse meanings to the words of their Scriptures, but different groups understood Torah itself in various ways: as a closed or an open canon; as an embodied practice or a collection of philosophical allegories, folklore, or even magical formulae; as a living constitution or a dead law, and so on. This tension has led some prominent scholars to speak of ancient Judaisms, in the plural, as a way to signify the relative absence of normative doctrine or creed and a notable diversity of popular, elite, sectarian, and local Jewish practices.

Cynthia Baker, "Emergence of Judaism", n.p. [cited 29 Nov 2022]. Online:


Cynthia Baker

Cynthia Baker
Associate Professor, Bates College

Cynthia Baker is associate professor of religious studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She is the author of numerous publications on ancient and contemporary Jews and Judaism, including Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford University Press, 2002) and a book on the word “Jew,” forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Relating to the Byzantine empire, which ruled the Eastern Mediterranean from the fifth century CE to 1453; its capital was Byzantium (modern Istanbul).

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The Iranian empire succeeding the Parthians in the third century C.E.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

2Macc 6:6

6People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.

2Macc 9:17

17and in addition to all this he also would become a Jew and would visit every inhabited place to proclaim the power of God.

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