The Poor Man’s Writing System

Credit: Egypt,

After Abram settled in Canaan, the land was struck with famine. In Genesis 12, “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.” Egypt was the breadbasket of the region, and the most logical place for Abram to find food.

The route from Canaan to Egypt would have Abram crossing through the Sinai, the site of one of the key stages in the development of writing.

The invention of writing remains one of the most important developments in human history. Writing allowed humans to record information that exceeded the limits of human memory. One application was in trade, where the ability to record detailed records beyond the constraints of human recollection opened the doors for an increase in trade.

One of the earliest centers for the development of writing was in Egypt. The Egyptian writing system began with hieroglyphs that served as pictograms, where each hieroglyph represented an object or action. Gradually hieroglyphs developed to represent both objects and consonantal sounds. A script version of hieroglyphs emerged in Egypt with a hieratic script in which the letters were more abstract.

In around the 19th century BCE, miners at a turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai wrote inscriptions in an alphabetic text. Each letter was based on a hieroglyphic pictogram, but instead of representing an object, it only represented the first consonant. The image of a house, or bayit in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘B.’ The image of a fish, dag in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘D.’ A man in a praying position, hillul in ancient Canaanite, represented the ‘H’ sound.

The miners would not have been trained to write in hieroglyphs or hieratic. These writing systems were difficult to draw and complex, and were accesible only to the well educated. Miners would have been too poor to learn them.

Limiting the writing to consonants, instead of a mix of pictograms, consonantal sounds and consonants, simplified the writing system from a vast collection of specialized meanings to under 30 letters. The simplified form was easier to learn and transmit. This Proto-Sinaitic script would be adopted in the region stretching from modern day Israel to Lebanon, and would form the basis of the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets.

The image above is of an ancient Egyptian inscription from near Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai.

The evolution of this original consonantal system of writing into the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets can be partially seen in this link:

Noah’s Sons and a Language Family

In Genesis 11, the inhabitants of the earth posed a challenge to God, and God responded by removing an element that unified people: language.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly. They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Many of the major languages spoken today belong to larger language families that descended from original root languages. Languages as diverse as English, the Germanic languages, Latin languages, Persian and Hindi derive from an original Indo-European language of the Asian steppe, a region of grasslands stretching across western Asia. Chinese in its various dialects is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Genesis 10 lists Noah’s progeny. “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood…The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan…The sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.”

The languages of North Africa through the Middle East were originally classified based on this biblical origin stories. They were classified as Hamito-Semitic, with a nod towards Noah’s sons Ham and Shem. These languages today are classified as the Afroasiatic languages, and include Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian and Semitic, that together encompass approximately 300 languages.

Semitic languages have their own sub classifications. The Central Semitic branch includes Arabic, South Semitic includes Ethiopian, and the West Semitic branch contains Aramaic and the Canaanite languages. Today, Hebrew remains the lone surviving Canaanite language, but in Iron Age II, in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, it included languages including Canaanite, Moabite, Ammonite and Hebrew.

The image above is of Ethiopians, speakers of Amharic, the most widely spoken language of Ethiopia and second-most commonly spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic.

For an example of the similarities between these seemingly unrelated languages, the following:

A Writing System Fit for a King

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were punished and expelled from the Garden of Eden. “To Adam he said, Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field.By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Adam and Eve’s expulsion and the curse place upon Adam appear representative of humanity’s shift from being hunter-gatherers to farming societies. Adam will no longer be able to sustain himself by collecting the fruit on trees, but will be forced to work the land.

The shift from hunter-gather to farmer is a pre-condition for kingdoms and empires. They require the sedentarization and division of labor only found in farming societies, where farmers can produce an excess supply of food which can be traded for other goods. Another required step in the development of organized kingdoms is writing and a degree of literacy.

In 2 Samuel 5, David was made king of Israel. “All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler. When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.”

The Egyptian writing system predated the Israelite kingdom’s writing system. Egyptian hieroglyphs could represent an image, syllable or a consonant. The Old Hebrew writing system was a later development, and supported a simplified writing system. The Old Hebrew organization of its letters is often referred to as an alphabet. The more accurate description of it is an “abjad,” as it contained only consonants, and not vowels, and thus did not have letters for every available sound. 

With a written communication system, a king could send exact orders and instructions across his kingdom and establish an accounting systems to manage his affairs. By the 10th century BCE, the Old Hebrew lettering system was robust enough to be used to communicate in writing across a kingdom.

Large Stone Structure, Head of a Kingdom?

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

Deuternomy 28 offers a series of blessings for Israel: The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail.

In the opinion of at least one archaeologist, in the 10th century BCE, King David achieved some of this blessing.

The City of David sits just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. The ancient city was built on a hill. On the eastern side, archaeologists found what they termed the Stepped Stone Structure, which may have been built to stabilize the hill and prevent erosion, in order to build above it.

Above the Stepped Stone Structure, on the summit of the hill, archaeologists discovered what they have called the Large-Stone Structure, shown in the image above. The Large-Stone Structure was built on an open, leveled platform area. It had walls between six and eight feet wide. Within the rubble was a 5-foot-long proto-Aeolic capital, which would have been supported by a column, pointing to the building’s importance. The building contained ashlar masonry, again pointing to the wealth of the builders of the structure.

There is disagreement about the dating of the pottery above the bedrock and below the wall of the Large-Stone Structure, whether it is 11th, 10th or 9th century BCE, which would have implications for interpretation.

In 2 Samuel 5, after King David captured the Jebusite city, “Hiram king of Tyre sent envoys to David, along with cedar logs and carpenters and stonemasons, and they built a palace for David.Then David knew that the Lord had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.”

Eilat Mazar interpreted the Large Stone Structure to have been the remains of King David’s palace. She argued that the location on the top of the hill, adjacent to the northern wall of the City of David was deliberate, and designed to provide refuge for residents in the event of an attack. Her interpretation has been challenged, but the possibility exists that the Large Stone Structure was King David’s royal palace and an early example of God making Israel the head, not the tail.

The Stepped Stone Structure

Deuteronomy 22 gives instruction about building safe construction. “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” For the Bible, safety has to be designed into the construction.

The ancient city of Jerusalem had its own construction safety challenges. The original city was built on the hill at the City of David, just south of the today’s Old City. As the city was built on sloping ground, water runoff could potentially undermine the stability of the earth and a building’s foundations.

On the eastern side of the hill at the City of David, archaeologists discovered what they termed the Stepped Stone Structure. The Stepped Stone Structure, shown in the image above, appears to be a wall reaching nearly 60 feet high. The Stepped Stone Structure was built on top of terraces, or boxes. These terraces were smaller walled sections that were connected by shared walls and then filled with stone and dirt. With the terraces in place, the area was then covered by the visible large wall.

The wall of the Stepped Stone Structure could be climbed, making it unlikely to have been a defensive wall. It is more likely that the structure was built as a support for construction above, and designed to protect the integrity of the ground.

There are questions as to the timing and intent of this construction. Pottery found within the foundations can be dated to either the Iron I or Iron IIA period. The question of whether the Iron IIA is 10th century BCE or the 9th century BCE means that its construction and any interpretation is a matter of debate. There are other questions about whether the wall and foundations were built at the same time or at different periods in history.

These questions play a factor in the determination of structures built above it.

King David’s Tsinor Into the Jebusite City

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

In Deuteronomy 17, Moses continued to give Israel new laws. One grouping of laws related to the establishment of a kingship. “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you “a king the Lord your God chooses.” In Deuteronomy 18, instructions are given for Levites, including a Levite who “moves from one of your towns anywhere in Israel where he is living, and comes in all earnestness to the place the Lord will choose.” Deuteronomy 20 mentions how the Israelites are to treat the nations they are expected to conquer. “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them, the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded you.

These laws come together in 2 Samuel 5. The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, which is the City of David. On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the ‘tsinor’ to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.”

This is the lone use of the word ‘tsinor’ in the Bible, and so its exact meaning is not fully known. The term is generally believed to translate as tunnel or pipe, which is the current accepted meaning of the term.

The area known as the City of David lies to the south of today’s Jerusalem’s Old City walls, and it is believed to have been the site of the original city. The location was chosen because of the presence of a natural spring which emerged along the eastern side of the hill. That spring is known as the Gihon Spring.

The area below the eastern side of the hill is the Kidron Valley. In the Iron Age IIA, the Kidron Valley was deeper and steeper than it is today. Among the debates about the archaeological record is how the city would have defended itself at the time, if the valley was steep enough to provide a natural defense or if it had a defensive wall.

A key consideration for the city’s residents would have been to ensure access to the Gihon Spring during a siege or attack by an enemy. A defensive wall along the eastern edge, with a north and south wall running down to a tower that enclosed the Gihon Spring was discovered. Its date is disputed, with some placing it in the Middle Bronze Age II, and others positing a date in the Iron II, at least 600+ years later.

In the 19th century, the British archaeologist Sir Charles Warren unearthed what is known as Warren’s Shaft. Warren’s Shaft is a vertical shaft that leads directly down the Gihon Spring, From this shaft, city residents would have been able to draw water safely from within the city. As with the water tower along the eastern hill, its dating is a matter of dispute.

While the timing of these water access points is disputed, it offers two possible explanations for the ‘tsinor’ from which King David’s men were said to enter, and ultimately conquer “the place the Lord will choose,” Jerusalem. David’s men could have entered via the tunnel passageway to the spring or via a vertical shaft leading to the spring.

In recognition of the ways King David’s men might have entered the Jebusite city, a song:

Jerusalem’s Gateway to Hell

In Deuteronomy 12, Moses warns the nation against following a particularly egregious form of Canaanite worship. “The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

Despite Moses’ warning, the temptation to burn their children was too great. In 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz, king of Judah, fell into this practice. “He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”

A century later, Jeremiah warned Israel of what was to come as a result of this practice. “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7)

In the original Hebrew version of 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz is said to have sacrificed his children at the site of “Gai ben Hinnom,” which is translated to the “valley of the son of Hinnom.” In later forms, the term appears to be condensed into the Valley of Hinnom, or in the Hebrew, Gai Hinnom.

Ancient place names tend to be “sticky.” Jerusalem appears to be same Jerusalem as the Middle Bronze Age town. Megiddo and Hazor are easily identified at their ancient sites. Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod today are on the sites the ancient cities of that name once stood. The Valley of Hinnom today originates along the western edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. The valley runs south and then turns east, until it joins the Kidron Valley, the valley to the east of the Old City. This is likely the same location as the Valley of Hinnom in the Bible.

Jeremiah warned the nation that “they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” The exact location of the Tophet is unknown, but there have been graves discovered at Ketef Hinnom, on the edge of the Valley of Hinnom.

Because of the areas sordid past of child sacrifice, the Valley of Hinnom became associated with another horror. Gai Hinnom was associated Gehenom, the Hebrew word for Hell. The exact location is undetermined, but this area become known as the entrance to hell in later sources.

For a modern day entrance to hell, this fire has been burning continuously for 40 years:

Jerusalem Abandoned for Monotheism


In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tries to instill confidence into the Israelites before they will cross into Canaan and conquer the land. “You may say to yourselves, These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out? But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.”

While the evidence in Jerusalem about the status of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze Age is sparse, evidence from outside Jerusalem points to the city having been a significant entity during that period.

In the mid-14th century, Egypt’s 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep IV led a monotheistic religious revolution in Egypt. He banned the worship of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, and focused all worship on the Aten, the sun disk. To honor the Aten, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten. Akhenaten moved his capital to a new site in central Egypt, and called it Akhetaten.

As the king of Egypt, Akhenaten appears to have expended his energy on his religious movement, at the expense of other responsibilities. Egypt’s earlier 18th Dynasty kings sent Egypt’s military to seize control of Canaan, to give the Egyptians control of trade routes and to provide a buffer zone to protect Egypt from an invasion from Asia. Akhenaten neglected these Egyptian vassal states in Canaan.

Akhenaten’s capital Akhetaten was discovered at modern day Tel el-Amarna in central Egypt. Letters on clay tablets sent by rulers of Canaanite city-states were unearthed at Akhetaten. These letters show increasingly desperate rulers pleading for assistance from Akhenaten to protect them from attacks.

In a series of letters, Abdi-Heba, the ruler of a city in Canaan called Urusalem, seeks assistance from Egypt to protect him and his city from attacks by the Hapiru. The letters sound increasingly desperate, and seem to be ignored by Akhenaten.

The ultimate outcome of the attacks is unknown. What, if any, connection the Hapiru have to the Hebrews cannot be stated with any certainty. But the series of letters demonstrates that in the 14th century BCE, Jerusalem was a significant city, with literate scribes and the resources and connections to communicate with the ruler of Egypt.

The image above is of an Amarna Letter, with both cuneiform and Egyptian hieratic writing. 

Jerusalem’s Known Unknowns

As Moses began to transition power to Joshua, he had a request from God: “Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.” But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. (Deut. 3)

Towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, the land which Moses looked upon had been in decline under centuries of Egyptian control. Fortified cities of the Middle Bronze Age became unfortified cities in the Late Bronze Age. Jerusalem may be counted amongst those cities left exposed to raiders.

A lack of fortifications or royal architecture in the Late Bronze Age is one of the limiting factors for studying the archaeology of Jerusalem. But this is only one of the factors that complicate efforts to study Jerusalem’s history.

Much of old Jerusalem is built over. Both the City of David and the Temple mount sit under structures and are politically difficult to analyze.

Archaeological research in Israel has benefited from the existence of ‘tells,’ or mounds. These mounds, typically near a water source, were built up over time. Each subsequent layer covered up the previous settlement, locking in the artifacts of the earlier time period. The area of the City of David is believed to have been the original city of Jerusalem. The site sits between two valleys, both of which were once steeper. Much of the construction on the hill was not built over earlier layers. Instead, the ground appears to have been cleared to the bedrock, removing evidence for earlier settlement periods.

In the Bible, Jerusalem became contested ground during invasions by King David, by the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak, by the coalition of Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah, king of Israel, by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, and by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar. However, only the invasion by the Babylonians appears to have left a clear destruction layer. Without evidence of the earlier destruction layers, it is hard to establish a clear timeline.

Because of the paucity of evidence, the status of Jerusalem in the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium BCE cannot be firmly argued from an archaeological perspective. All that can be said is the combination of evidence that debris was removed to the bedrock and lack of destruction layers is that uncertain interpretations are a known unknown. 

This uncertainty means that the Jerusalem of the Iron IIA period remains at the center of the debate around timing as it relates to the biblical stories.

The image above is of the City of David taken from the east.

Beyond the Temple: An Enduring Legacy of Sinat Chinam

Fallen stones from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Credit:, Jerusalem

The 9th day of the month of Av serves as a day of national mourning on the Hebrew calendar. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is central to the day because of its outsized impact on later Jewish history, but arguably its greatest impact on Jewish history continues to go unrecognized.

The Mishna in Taanit 4:6 lists tragedies that occurred on the 9th of Av: the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and 65 years later the city of Beitar was destroyed by the Romans, ending the Bar Kochba rebellion. The assigning of these great tragedies to the identical date has led Tisha B’Av to serve as a singular date to recall other tragedies that have befallen the Jews across history, including the crusades, expulsions in Europe and the Holocaust.

For all the catastrophes that are memorialized on this date, it is the destruction of the Second Temple stands out above all. While the First Temple was rebuilt approximately 70 years after it was destroyed, the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt. In Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 9b, the Talmud pinpoints the reasons for the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the later Second Temple. The First Temple was destroyed for the cardinal sins of idol worship, prohibited sexual relations, and bloodshed. The Second Temple was destroyed for the sin of ‘baseless hatred.’ The Talmud deems the latter to be worse, for the First Temple was restored with the construction of the Second Temple, and the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt.

The destruction of the Second Temple stands out as a nadir in Jewish history. It marked the beginning of the exile, where without political power Jews were vulnerable in their host lands. It was the precursor to the Kitos War, which brought an end to the Jewish communities in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Alexandria, and to the Bar Kochba Revolt, with its catastrophic loss of life. The destruction of the Temple forced a change in the religion, from a Temple-centric religion in a national home to a text-based religion in exile. Yet its most enduring impact for Jews may have been its effect on a nascent Jewish religion.

Nascent Christianity

In the third or fourth decade of 1st century CE Judea, a new Jewish religious movement emerged.

The New Testament covers the life and death of Jesus, the rise of early Christianity and the meaning of Jesus’ teachings as understood by his followers. It contains 27 books that can be divided into four categories: the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Epistles and Revelation. The four books of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles follows the events after Jesus’ death and the rise of early Christianity. The Epistles are letters that were sent to individual Christians, Christian communities or to Christians at large, to provide guidance on practical and theological matters. The last book is Revelation, an apocalypse, with visions of the end times.

Combining the four gospel books produces the following account. Joseph’s virgin wife Mary conceived Jesus by miracle. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. As an adult, Jesus was baptized in water by John the Baptist and began to preach in the Galilee. Gradually Jesus began to accumulate followers. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount laid out his fundamental message, including a system of morality, to not judge others, to love your enemy, and if struck, to turn the other cheek.

Jesus traveled the region as a faith healer, but ran into trouble with Jewish authorities when he began healing the sick on the Jewish Sabbath, in violation of Jewish ritual law. Before the pilgrimage holiday of Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. At the Temple in Jerusalem he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, accusing them of turning the Temple into a den of thieves.

Jesus and his apostles gathered for Jesus’ Last Supper. Judas, a disciple of Jesus, betrayed Jesus to the Romans for money, and after the meal, Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus was tried by the leading Jewish judicial body, the Sanhedrin, and sentenced to death. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt, but to avoid unrest he ordered Jesus to be crucified. On Friday morning, Jesus was crucified and he died on the cross. He was buried on Friday, before the Sabbath started in the evening. On Sunday morning, Jesus’ body was not in his tomb. He had been resurrected and risen to the heavens.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ followers continued Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ close disciple Peter preached Jesus’ message to the Jews and performed acts of healing, attracting Jewish followers. A Jewish inquisitor named Paul, who was persecuting Christians, never met Jesus during Jesus’ own lifetime. While traveling on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, and asked Paul why he was persecuting him. This episode convinced Paul to preach Jesus’ message to both Jews and gentiles.

A Jewish Religion

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ life and mission occur entirely within a Jewish context. Jesus is a descendant of King David, and an itinerant Jewish preacher. His disciples are Jews and he preaches to Jews in the synagogues. His message challenged the establishment Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees. He headed to Jerusalem to the Temple and he celebrated Passover at the Last Supper. But the New Testament does not present a uniform idea of what Jesus represented, taught, or for whom he preached.

In Matthew and Mark, a gentile woman asked Jesus to heal her possessed daughter. Jesus replied “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” gentiles being likened to dogs, the implication being that Jesus’ message is for Jews only. By contrast, Paul in Acts 28 declares “God’s salvation has been sent to the gentiles.”

The New Testament is unclear about whether or not Jewish ritual law, such as eating only kosher food or observing ritual purity, was still applicable after Jesus’ mission. In Mark 7, Jesus says “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?…In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This implies a negation of the Torah’s laws against eating non-kosher food. In Matthew 5, when Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount, he says to his followers that Jewish ritual law remains binding. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In the Epistle to the Galatians 3, Paul declared the laws of the Torah to be a curse, and that Jesus redeemed people from this curse.

Two episodes in the Book of Acts of the Apostles are telling for Christian adherence to Jewish law, authority within the church and the centrality of the church in Jerusalem.

In Acts 15, at the Council at Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas appear before Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James at the church in Jerusalem to discuss whether or not gentile converts to Christianity have to be circumcised. James issued the ruling that gentiles do not require circumcision; gentile Christians only had to abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals and consuming blood. An implication of the ruling was that Jewish Christians still remained bound by Jewish ritual law and required circumcision. Notably, Peter and James in Jerusalem are the authorities, and Paul appears to be subordinate. Additionally, Paul and Barnabas’ traveling to Jerusalem demonstrates that the church in Jerusalem was recognized as the central decision-making body for early Christians.

The same pattern is evident six chapters later. In Acts 21, when Paul returned to Jerusalem, he visited with James. James advised Paul to join others in ritual purification in accordance with biblical rules. Acts records that thousands of people were joining this new Christian movement, and Jewish Christians were keeping the Bible’s ritual laws. James said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.” (Acts 21:20) Again, Jewish ritual law remained binding for Jewish Christians, James is the authority and a decision about Christian practice is made in Jerusalem.

This emerging Jewish movement grew in popularity amongst Jews. In Acts 4, the Christians in Jerusalem count 5,000 followers. In Acts 6, the number of Christians in Jerusalem, which included priests, increased sharply. In Acts 21, thousands of Jews are said to be Christians. Later Christian and Jewish traditions indicate that the Jewish leadership had become aware of the Christians’ success in attracting Jews to their movement. Justin Martyr, in his 2nd century CE ‘Dialogue With Trypho,’ wrote that Jews were cursing the Christians in their synagogues. According to the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 28b, Shmuel HaKatan authored the ‘Birkat HaMinim,’ the blessing against the heretics, at Yavneh, after the destruction of the Second Temple: “And for the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all the heretics be instantly destroyed.” The heretics in the blessing logically refers to Jewish Christians, not gentile Christians, and is likely the curse to which Justin Martyr is referring.

It is not even entirely clear if Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was God. Eusebius, in his 4th century Church History, wrote of a Jewish Christian group known as the Ebionites who believed that Jesus was human and not divine, and who required adherence to Jewish ritual law. The Nazarenes, another Jewish Christian group, accepted the divinity of Jesus as the son of God and his resurrection and ascension, but required Jewish Christians, and not gentile Christians, to follow Jewish ritual law.

Notwithstanding the bread in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Jesus' last supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke would have been a Passover meal.

The Parting of the Ways

If not for the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-70 CE, it is reasonable to suggest that Christianity would have remained primarily a Jewish sect, committed to Jewish law and centered in Jerusalem. With its core adherents in Judea and Jewish nationalist underpinnings, this might have limited Christianity’s appeal to gentiles, and possibly produced a different trajectory for Christianity. Instead, events drove a wedge between Jews and Christians.

Rome had traditionally maintained good relations with Judea. In the midst of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Kingdom, Rome entered into a treaty with the Maccabean leader Judas to counter the Seleucid Greek rulers of Judea. Julius Caesar gave the Jews protected status, which was later reaffirmed by the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Before the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, it would have been in a Christian’s best interests to align with Judaism, if only to obtain the benefit of being recognized as belonging to a religion from antiquity and exempt from worshiping pagan gods. After the revolt, it would be in a Christian’s best interests to disassociate from the Jews. The revolt set in motion a “parting of the ways.” It helped establish the primacy of gentile Christianity, a Christian movement led by non-Jews which did not adhere to Jewish ritual law, to the detriment of Jewish Christianity.

According to Christian legend, just before the revolt erupted, Christians in Jerusalem received a divine warning to leave Jerusalem, which would soon be destroyed. They were directed to escape to the town of Pella in Transjordan. While this may have helped some Jewish Christians survive, when the Jewish revolt was finally suppressed by the Romans, the church in Jerusalem was a diminished church in a diminished city. Many Jewish Christians likely remained in Jerusalem and were killed during the suppression of the revolt. Jerusalem itself suffered large scale destruction and a reduction in its population. With the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem ceased to function as an annual pilgrimage site, reducing the number of travelers and potential converts to Jewish Christianity. The surviving apostles chose Symeon son of Clopas, a cousin of Jesus, to lead the church in Jerusalem. He was followed by a series of nondescript leaders, with brief reigns, without a direct connection to Jesus.

In the year 69 CE, Vespasian became Roman Emperor and founder of the Flavian dynasty. Because Vespasian captured the throne through war, he took steps to legitimize his family’s claim to rule by highlighting the achievement of defeating the First Jewish Revolt. The Romans issued ‘Judea Capta’ coins, ‘Judea has been conquered,’ memorializing the victory. They held a triumphal parade to celebrate the defeat of this Jewish provincial revolt. The spoils of war were earmarked for the construction of Rome’s Colosseum. Vespasian’s son and Titus’ brother Domitian built the Arch of Titus, with its relief of the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah lamp being carried away in Roman triumph. The Flavians imposed a ‘fiscus Judaicus,’ literally meaning ‘Jewish basket,’ a tax on Jews. Prior to the revolt, Jews living outside of Judea would send money to support the Jerusalem Temple. Under the Flavian emperors, that money would be redirected towards the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.

The friction between Rome and the Jews did not abate. The Kitos War from 115-117 CE was launched by Jews in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Egypt and resulted in widespread destruction on both sides of the conflict.

In 132 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt erupted at Modiin and spread across Judea. The spark was likely the Roman Emperor Hadrian banning circumcision and his intention to rebuild Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, with a temple to Jupiter. The leader of the revolt was Simon ben Kosiba. Simon went by the name Bar Kochba, the son of a star. He was seen by many Jews as a messiah figure. Bar Kochba struck his own coins, some of which displayed a representation of the temple building with a star above it, the star in reference to himself. This messianic element put the revolt beyond the pale for Christians, for whom Jesus was the Messiah. As a result, Bar Kochba “ordered that only the Christians should be subjected to dreadful torments, unless they renounced and blasphemed Jesus Christ.” [1]

At its outset, the Bar Kochba Revolt achieved success through the use of guerrilla warfare. Ultimately though, the Romans prevailed, with catastrophic consequences for the Jews. In the final showdown at the fortress of Beitar in 135 CE, the Romans captured the city and perpetrated the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. According to Cassius Dio, in the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, 50 towns and 985 villages were destroyed with a loss of 580,000 men killed and innumerable others lost to disease and starvation. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina. A temple to Jupiter was built near the site of the Jerusalem Temple. The Hebrew Bible and its laws were banned. The land of Judea was renamed Syria Palestina to erase the connection between the Jews and the land. Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem and its environs and were limited to visiting Jerusalem only on the ninth day of the month of Av, when the Jews were allowed in to mourn its destruction. With Jews banned, only gentile Christians could return to Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem would from then on be led by uncircumcised gentile Christians. Henceforth, gentile Christianity would be the dominant form of Christianity, Jewish Christianity relegated to the margins.

A Bar Kochba Revolt coin with a star representing Bar Kochba above the Temple building.

Anti-Jewish Theology

When its books are combined, the New Testament can be woven into a coherent story of the life and times of Jesus. But upon closer inspection, the various books of the New Testament contain contradictions both large and small.

In the Gospel accounts, the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, but the individual Gospels place varying amounts of blame on the Jewish crowd. In Mark, when Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, Jesus was obstinate and refused to speak, forcing Pilates’ hand. In Matthew, Pilate washed his hands to demonstrate his innocence in Jesus’ execution. Pilate announced “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” to which the assembled Jewish crowd responded, “his blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24)

What are presented as intra-Jewish tensions in the earlier New Testament books become criticisms of Jews more broadly in the later New Testament books. In Matthew’s account, Jesus gives an extended warning about the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?…upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth.” (Matthew 23: 25-35) In John, written later, Jesus tells the Jews “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” (John 8:44) In the Book of Revelation, a Jewish house of worship is referred to as a “synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)

In the absence of clear guidance, early Christian Church Fathers tried to determine what they believed occurred in Jesus’ lifetime and to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ message. One issue they addressed was how a Jewish religion, of Jews, by Jews and for Jews, was now a gentile religion for all peoples. In doing so they took an increasingly anti-Jewish stance.

The Apostolic Fathers were early Christian leaders who were believed to have personally known Jesus’ apostles, and so would have been best positioned to understand Jesus’ teachings. The Epistle of Barnabas argued that the Torah’s laws should be understood as allegory, that the meanings were spiritual in nature and not material, or physical. The Hebrew Bible was a Christian document, which foretold Jesus’ mission.

With the passing of those with direct connections to the apostles, the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers worked to define and shape Christian thought and practice. Justin Martyr argued that the Hebrew Bible’s laws were given because of the Jews’ sins and not as a means to righteousness. Christians were now the people of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jesus is God of Israel and Christians are the new Israel. Tertullian saw the destruction of Jerusalem, the desertion of the land and dispersal into exile as the Jews’ punishment for rejecting Jesus. Melito of Sardis accused Israel of killing their God.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there were gentiles who did not convert to Judaism but enjoyed participating in Jewish festivals and religious activities. This tradition continued with gentile Christians either participating in Jewish rituals or following a Jewish form of Christianity. These practices could be referred to as Judaizing.

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century CE, was opposed to Judaizing. His ‘Eight Homilies Against the Jews’ contain some of the most vitriolic anti-Jewish material in all of Christian writing. For Chrysostom, the synagogue is a den of thieves, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil. One should hate and avoid the synagogue. The Jews killed their master Jesus. The Jews themselves are demons. “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6) “Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.” (Homily 1, 2,6)

Temple Rebuilding Thwarted

For all the anti-Judaic sentiment in these early Christian writings, they were in the main attacking Judaism from a theological perspective. Early Christians did not have access to power, and posed little physical threat to Jews.

The turning point for Christianity and Jews came at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In the early 4th century CE, Roman Emperors Constantine and Maxentius squared off across the Tiber River from Rome. According to the church historian Eusebius, before the battle, Constantine looked up towards the sun and saw a vision of a cross of light and the Greek words ‘En touto nika,’ meaning ‘in this sign conquer.’ Inspired by this vision, Constantine’s troops defeated Maxentius’ army. Constantine now had control of Western Roman Empire, and Licinius the Eastern Roman Empire. In 313 CE, Constantine and Licinius combined to issue the Edict of Milan, allowing for the toleration of Christianity within the Roman Empire.

In 324 CE, Constantine went to war against Licinius, and defeated him at the Battle of Chrysopolis. The Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire were now united under Constantine. With power now consolidated in his hands, in 325 CE, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. He gathered Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire, representing the universe of Christianity, to establish a Christian orthodoxy; a universal consensus about what Christians were to believe. Importantly, the results of the gathering at Nicaea had the might of the Roman Empire behind it. Christianity could now enforce an orthodoxy, a ‘right opinion,’ across the entire Roman Empire. To the degree that they had survived until this point, Jewish Christian groups such as the Ebionites and Nazarenes would now be opposed by the Roman Emperor.

With Christianity married to Roman power, Jews began to experience Christian animus. Constantine enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws. A Jew who harassed a convert to Christianity could be executed, as could a non-Jew who chose to convert to Judaism. The next emperor Constantius prohibited Jews from owning Christian slaves, which had an adverse economic impact on Jews, as the Roman economy was dependent upon slave labor.

In 361, the pagan Julian became Roman emperor, and he attempted to rollback Christian advances. For his efforts, he is known to history as Julian the Apostate.

In Julian’s ‘Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate,’ he stated that he took steps to protect the Jews and punished those who were planning them harm. At the end of the letter he wrote “This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war with Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.” [2]

Work on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem began. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople, recounted that the Jews arrived in numbers to begin rebuilding their temple, but were thwarted by miracle. They were pushed back by the wind, the earth shook and the crowd panicked. Unseen forces shut the doors in front of them, flames shot out of the church and consumed some of the people, and a cross appeared in the heavens. The pagan writer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that despite the assistance of the governor, fire burst from the foundations and made the site inaccessible, the elements themselves conspiring to prevent the Temple reconstruction.

These authors describe a seemingly miraculous event. It is possible that the work was halted due to an earthquake. But there remains the distinct possibility that the rebuilding effort was thwarted by interference from gentile Christians. In 363, Julian was killed in battle against the Persian Parthians and was replaced by the Christian emperor Jovian. There would be no further work to restore the Temple under Jovian.

In the 7th century CE, another attempt to restore the Temple in Jerusalem appears to have been foiled by gentile Christians. The Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 was a prolonged conflict between the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Sasanian Empire. In the 610s, the advancing Persian army captured Jerusalem with the support of local Jews.

The Jews were led by a wealthy benefactor, Benjamin of Tiberias, and by Nehemiah ben Hushiel, who led the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews appear to have restarted the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount, and begun to draw up plans to rebuild the Temple.[3] But by 617 CE the Persians reversed their policies favoring the Jews in favor of the local Christians. When in 629 CE the Byzantine emperor Heraclius returned, the Jews were killed in numbers and forced to flee. Again, the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the temple was blocked by gentile Christians.

Isaac of Norwich and other Jews in league with the Devil. Credit: The National Archives, London.

An Enduring Legacy

Christians are likely to have thwarted the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, but even if it had been rebuilt, there is no way to know if that structure would have survived the Muslim conquest, the Crusades, or any other challenge that might have arisen over time. But gentile Christianity produced another enduring legacy.

Xenophobia is the dislike or prejudice against foreigners, or those outside one’s social group. This phenomenon is widely observed throughout history. Pagan writers described Jews as being antisocial for their refusal to participate in pagan rituals, but they were similarly critical of Christians. Ethnic groups that are prominent in trade are particularly vulnerable to attack. Jews have been targeted for their role in commerce, as were the ancient Carthaginians who dominated seaborne trade in the Mediterranean, as are the Lebanese in west Africa and the Chinese diaspora of southeast Asia.

The deleterious effect of the shift from Jewish Christianity to gentile Christianity extended beyond interference in the Temple reconstruction. Gentile Christianity created a negative image of Jews beyond simple xenophobia. Early Christian descriptions of Jews as hypocrites, God killers and the devil became the basis for two millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Gospel of John’s quote of Jesus telling the Jews that “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” and the Book of Revelation description of a Jewish house of worship as a “synagogue of Satan,” fed into John Chrysostom’s description of the synagogue as a “lodging-place for demons” and “a fortress of the devil,” and that “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6)

The idea of Jews as the devil became anchored in history. The earliest image of Jews in Europe, from 13th century England, features Isaac of Norwich and other Jews in the company of devils. This fed into ideas of Jews as a physical and spiritual threat to Christianity, which led to violence, forced conversions and expulsions. In Martin Luther’s ‘On the Jews and Their Lies,’ he wrote that Christians should save their souls “from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote of Jewish supporters of Marxism, “Considering the Satanic skill which these evil counselors displayed, how could their unfortunate victims be blamed?” This imagery contributed to a debasement and demonization of the Jew, ultimately to deadly effect. It is a challenge that persists today, in propaganda imagery that demonizes Israel.

If we accept the Talmud’s statement in Yoma 9b that sinat chinam, or baseless hatred, was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, then through its impact on early Christianity, we continue to live with that result. Twice the Temple was set to be rebuilt, and twice it was likely thwarted by Christians. Early Christian depictions of Jews have haunted Jews for much of the past 2,000 years. Through its continued influence on novel forms of anti-Judaism, this gentile Christian legacy continues to endure.


  1. Justin Martyr. The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 31, Translated by Thomas Falls.
  2. Emperor Julian’s Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate, Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright.
  3. Simon Sebag Montefiore. Jerusalem: The Biography, Chapter 16.