The seven major eras of ancient Jewish history have been covered in religious texts, history books, and even literature. With this overview of these key periods of Jewish history, get the facts about the figures who influenced each era and the events that made the eras unique. The periods that shaped Jewish history include the following:
The Patriarchal Era
Period of the Judges
Exile and Diaspora
Patriarchal Era (ca. 1800–1500 BCE)
Map of ancient Palestine with insets showing Jerusalem and the dominions of the David, Solomon, Joshua and the Judges
Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library
The Patriarchal Period marks the time from before the Hebrews went to Egypt. Technically, it is a period of pre-Jewish history, since the people involved were not yet Jewish. This time period is marked by a family line, from father to son.
A Semite from Ur in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern Iraq), Abram (later, Abraham), who was the husband of Sarai (later, Sarah), goes to Canaan and makes a covenant with God. This covenant includes the circumcision of males and the promise that Sarai would conceive. God renames Abram, Abraham and Sarah, Sarai. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son to God.
This story mirrors the one of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to Artemis. In the Hebrew version as in some of the Greek, an animal is substituted at the last minute. In the case of Isaac, a ram. In exchange for Iphigenia, Agamemnon was to obtain favorable winds, so he could sail for Troy at the start of the Trojan War. In exchange for Isaac, nothing was offered initially, but as a reward for the obedience of Abraham, he was promised prosperity and more offspring.
Abraham is patriarch of the Israelites and Arabs. His son by Sarah is Isaac. Earlier, Abraham had a son named Ishmael by Sarai’s maid, Hagar, at Sarai’s urging. It is said that the Muslim line runs through Ishmael.
Later, Abraham bears more sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah, to Keturah, whom he marries when Sarah dies. Abraham’s grandson Jacob is renamed Israel. Jacob’s sons father the 12 Hebrew tribes.
The second Hebrew patriarch was Abraham’s son Isaac, father of Jacob and Esau. He was a well-digger, like his father, and he married an Aramean woman named Rebekah–no concubines or additional wives are listed in the texts for him. Because he was nearly sacrificed by his father, Isaac is the only patriarch to never leave Canaan (objects dedicated to God must never leave Israel), and he became blind in old age.
The third patriarch was Jacob, later known as Israel. He was the patriarch of the tribes of Israel through his sons. Because there was a famine in Canaan, Jacob moved the Hebrews to Egypt but then returned. Jacob’s son Joseph is sold to Egypt, and it is there where Moses is born ca. 1300 BCE.
There is no archaeological evidence to corroborate this. This fact is important in terms of the historicity of the period. There is no reference to the Hebrews in Egypt at this time. The first Egyptian reference to the Hebrews comes from the next period. By then, the Hebrews had left Egypt.
Some think that the Hebrews in Egypt were part of the Hyksos, who ruled in Egypt. The etymology of the names Hebrew and Moses are debated. Moses could be Semitic or Egyptian in origin.
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Period of the Judges (ca. 1399 BCE)
Victory Stone Stele of the Kingdom of Merneptah
DEA / S. VANNINI / Getty Images
The period of the Judges begins (ca. 1399 BCE) after the 40 years in the wilderness described in Exodus. Moses dies before reaching Canaan. Once the 12 tribes of the Hebrews reach the promised land, they find they are in frequent conflict with the neighboring regions. They need leaders to guide them in battle. Their leaders, called judges, also handle more traditional judicial matters as well as warfare. Joshua comes first.
There is archaeological evidence of Israel at this time. It comes from the Merneptah Stele, which is currently dated to 1209 BCE and says the people called Israel were wiped out by the conquering pharaoh (according to Biblical Archaeology Review) Although the Merneptah Stele is called the first extra-biblical reference to Israel, Egyptologists and Biblical scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen, and Christoffer Theis suggest there may be one from two centuries earlier on a statue pedestal at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
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United Monarchy (1025–928 BCE)
Saul attempts to kill David with a spear
Nastatic / Getty Images
The period of the united monarchy begins when the judge Samuel reluctantly anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Samuel thought kings in general were a bad idea. After Saul defeats the Ammonites, the 12 tribes name him king, with his ruling capital at Gibeah. During Saul’s reign, the Philistines attack and a young shepherd named David volunteers to fight the fiercest of the Philistines, a giant named Goliath. With a single stone from his slingshot, David fells the Philistine and wins a reputation that outshines Saul’s.
Samuel, who dies before Saul, anoints David to be king of Israel, but Samuel has his own sons, three of whom are killed in the battle with the Philistines.
When Saul dies, one of his sons is appointed king, but at Hebron, the tribe of Judah declares David king. David replaces Saul’s son, when the son is assassinated, becoming king of the reunited monarchy. David builds a fortified capital at Jerusalem. When David dies, his son by the famous Bathsheba becomes the wise King Solomon, who also expands Israel and starts the building of the First Temple.
This information is short on historical corroboration. It comes from the Bible, with only occasional support from archaeology.
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Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (ca. 922 BCE)
Map of Palestine, showing the territories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel with insets of Jerusalem and the “Journeyings of Christ”
Print Collector / Getty Images
After Solomon, the United Monarchy falls apart. Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, the southern Kingdom, which is led by Rehoboam. Its inhabitants are the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon (and some Levi). Simeon and Judah later merge.
Jeroboam leads a revolt of the northern tribes to form the Kingdom of Israel. The nine tribes that make up Israel are Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Menasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, and Gad (and some Levi). The capital of Israel is Samaria.
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Exile and Diaspora (772–515 BCE)
Map of the Assyrian Empire and the eastern Mediterranean, 750 to 625 B.C.
Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library
Israel falls to the Assyrians in 721 BCE; Judah falls to the Babylonians in 597 BCE.
722 BCE: Assyrians, under Shalmaneser, and then under Sargon, conquer Israel and destroy Samaria. Jews are exiled.
612 BCE: Nabopolassar of Babylonia destroys Assyria.
587 BCE: Nebuchadnezzar II seizes Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed.
586 BCE: Babylonia conquers Judah. Exile to Babylon.
539 BCE: The Babylonian Empire falls to Persia which is ruled by Cyrus.
537 BCE: Cyrus allows Jews from Babylon back into Jerusalem.
550–333 BCE: The Persian Empire rules Israel.
520–515 BCE.: The Second Temple is built.
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Hellenistic Period (305–63 BCE)
Coin bearing an image of King Antiochus III the Great of Syria (241 to 187 B.C.)
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Hellenistic Period runs from the death of Alexander the Great in the final quarter of the fourth century BCE until the coming of the Romans in the late first century BCE.
305 BCE: After Alexander dies, Ptolemy I Soter takes Egypt and becomes king of Palestine.
ca. 250 BCE: The beginning of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
ca. 198 BCE: Seleucid King Antiochus III (Antiochus the Great) ousts Ptolemy V from Judah and Samaria. By 198, the Seleucids controlled Transjordan (an area east of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea).
166–63 BCE: The Maccabees and Hasmoneans. The Hasmoneans conquered areas of Transjordan: the Peraea, Madaba, Heshbon, Gerasa, Pella, Gadara, and Moab to the Zered, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
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Roman Occupation (63 BCE–135 CE)
Asia Minor under Roman Power
Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library
The Roman Period is roughly divided into an early, middle, and late period:
63 BCE: Pompey makes the region of Judah/Israel a client kingdom of Rome.
6 CE: Augustus makes it a Roman province (Judaea).
66–73 CE: Revolt.
70 CE: Romans occupy Jerusalem. Titus destroys the Second Temple.
73 CE: Masada suicide.
131 CE: Emperor Hadrian renames Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” and forbids Jews there, installs new harsh rule against Jews
132–135 CE: Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian. Judaea becomes the province of Syria-Palestine.
138–161: Emperor Antonius Pius repeals many of Hadrian’s repressive laws
212: Emperor Caracalla allows free Jews to become Roman citizens
220: Babylonian Jewish Academy founded at Sura
240: Rise of Manichaean world religion begins
The late period of the Roman occupation lasts from 250 CE until either the Byzantine Era, beginning ca. 330 with the “founding” of Constantinople, or until an earthquake in 363.
Chancey and Porter (“The Archaeology of Roman Palestine”) say Pompey took those territories that were not Jewish from Jerusalem. Peraea in the Transjordan retained a Jewish population. The 10 non-Jewish cities in Transjordan were named the Decapolis.
They commemorated their liberation from the Hasmonean rulers on coins. Under Trajan, in 106, the regions of Transjordan were made into the province of Arabia.
The Byzantine Era followed. It ran from either Emperor Diocletian (ruling from 284 to 305)—who partitioned the Roman Empire into East and West—or Constantine (ruling from 306 to 337)—who transferred the capital to Byzantium in the fourth century—until the Muslim conquest in the early seventh century.