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What was the History of the Jews?

Jews have a long past, and they have particularly influenced Asian history. Consider just one example. Karl Marx, who conceived and promoted communism as an economic and political theory in Europe was Jewish. His ideas spread from Europe to Asia, which witnessed the Mao-led Communist revolution in China. Then communist takeovers of North Korea and Vietnam spread from China. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, also implemented Marxist ideas in Cambodia. This led to mass genocide in that country in the 1970’s. Probably everyone in Asia today has been affected by these communist revolutions and the conflicts resulting from them.

Jews have also had a profound effect on Asia deep into its past. The first Buddhist monks used Pali and Sanskrit to write the earliest Buddhist sutras. Pali and Sanskrit derive from the Brahmi script, which scholars propose came to Asia from Jews almost 2700 years ago. The Jews have thus impacted the formation of all the classical Buddhist writings.

For good or bad, Jews have influenced Asia as no other small minority has. Here we examine Jewish history, particularly as it pertains to Asia. We explore why Jews have had such a long and enduring influence on Asian history. More facts about jewish history are available than that of any other nation. We will use this information to summarize their history with a timeline.

Abraham: The Jewish Family Begins

The timeline starts with Abraham. The Creator God promised that through him God would bless all nations. Then God tested him in the symbolic sacrifice of his son Isaac.  This was a sign pointing to Jesus by marking the future location of his sacrifice.  God then named Isaac’s son Israel.  The timeline continues in green when Israel’s descendants were slaves in Egypt. This period began with Joseph, son of Israel (the genealogy was: Abraham -> Isaac -> Israel (also known as Jacob) -> Joseph). He led the Israelites to Egypt, where later on the Egyptians enslaved them.

Living in Egypt as slaves of Pharoah

Moses: The Israelites become a Nation under God

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt with the Passover Plague. This destroyed Egypt and freed the Israelites from Egypt into the land of Israel.  Before he died, Moses pronounced Blessings and Curses on the Israelites. God would deeply bless them if they obeyed God, but cursed them if they did not.  God bound Israel’s history to these Blessings & Curses ever after. We mark this transition with the timeline going from green to yellow.

For several hundred years the Israelites lived in their land but they did not have a King. Neither did they have the capital city of Jerusalem, it belonged to other people in this time. However, around 1000 BC this changed with King David.

 Kings of David ruling from Jerusalem

David establishes a Royal Dynasty at Jerusalem

David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city. He received the promise of a coming ‘Christ’. From that time on the Jewish people waited for the ‘Christ’ to come.  His son Solomon, rich and famous, succeeded him and built the First Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The descendants of King David continued to rule for about 400 years. This was the period of Israelite glory – they had the promised Blessings.  They were a powerful nation; had an advanced society, rich culture, and a magnificent Temple. The timeline shows this period in aqua-blue (1000 – 600 BCE).

But the Old Testament also describes their growing corruption during this time.  Many prophets in this period warned the Israelites that the Curses of Moses would come if they did not repent. But the Isralite nation ignored their warnings.  During this time the Israelites divided into two separate kingdoms. There was the northern Kingdom of Israel or Ephraim, and the southern Kingdom of Judah. This is like Koreans today, one people split in two countries – North and South Korea.

The First Jewish Exile: Assyria & Babylon

By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:Edmundwoods., Public Domain,
Jews in Kaifeng, China in late 19th or early 20th century.

Finally, in two stages the Curses came upon them. The Assyrians in 722 BCE destroyed the Northern Kingdom and sent those Israelites into mass deportation across their vast empire.  Many migrated to India. To this day they are called the Bnei Menashe in Mizoram and the Bene Ephraim in Andhra Pradesh. Others wandered further across Asia. Israeli scholar Dr. Avigdor Shachan postulates that the the Jews in Kaifeng China first came from these Northern Israelites.

Then in 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, a powerful Babylonian King came. Just like Moses had predicted 900 years before when he wrote in his Curse:

49 The Lord will raise up against you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, that swoops down like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a nation of fierce appearance, that shows neither respect for the aged nor mercy for the young. 51 They will consume the offspring of your livestock and the produce of your soil, until you are destroyed; they will leave you no grain or wine or oil, no issue of herd, no young of flock, until they have brought about your ruin. 52 They will besiege you in each of your communities, until the great, fortified walls, in which you trust, come tumbling down all over your land. They will besiege you in every community throughout the land which the Lord, your God, has given you 

Deuteronomy 28: 49-52

Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, burned it, and destroyed the Temple that Solomon had built. He then exiled the Israelites to Babylon. This fulfilled the predictions of Moses that:

 63 Just as the Lord once took delight in making you prosper and grow, so will the Lord now take delight in ruining and destroying you, and you will be plucked out of the land you are now entering to possess. 64 The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you will serve other gods, of wood and stone, which you and your ancestors have not known.

Deuteronomy 28:63-64
Conquered and exiled to Babylon

The Jews of Cochin in Kerala descend from these exiled Israelites.  For 70 years, the Babylonians exiled these Israelites outside the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. The timeline shows this period in red. Israelites began to be called Jews from this period in reference to their foremost tribe Judah.

Jew’s Contribution to Asian History, Writing and Buddhism

Brahmi script on Ashoka pillar (250 BCE)

We pick up the question of writing script which formed the first Buddhist texts.  Gautama Buddha lived in India in the sixth century BCE. This was just after both of these waves of Jewish exile to Asia. The languages of India, including ancient Sanskrit and Pali, are classified as Brahmic scripts. This is because they all descend from an ancestral script known as Brahmi script.  Brahmi script today survives only in a few ancient monuments from Emperor Ashoka, the first promient Buddhist King in Asia. 

Historians understood how the Brahmi script in India led to Sanskrit and Pali. But what is not clear is how India first adopted the Brahmi script.  Scholars note that the Brahmi script is related to the Hebrew-Phoenician script. The Jews of Israel used this script in the period of their exile and migration to India.  Historian Dr Avigdor Shachan (1) proposes that the exiled Israelites who settled in India brought the Hebrew-Phoenician with them. This then became the Brahmi script.  In other words the scripts used in ancient India followed this chain: Hebrew-Phoencian to Brahmi to Sanskrit and Pali. And early Buddhist monks first used Sanskrit and Pali to pen the first Buddhist Sutras. Thus, the Jewish exile led to the development of the original Buddhist writings in Asia.

(A)Braham’s descendants’ influence on Hinduism and Buddhism

This also solves the mystery of how the Brahmi script got its name.  Is it just coincidence that the Brahmi script appeared in North India at the same time when the Jews were exiled there from their ancestral land, the land of Abraham?  The natives who adopted the script from Abraham’s descendants called it the (A)brahmin script. 

Perhaps this is where the Hindu belief in Brahman also began, from the religion of (A)braham’s people. The high caste of Brahmins probably also derive their name from the (A)braham’s people. Buddha taught that others apart from the Brahmin caste could attain enlightenment. The very idea of a high religious caste (Brahmin) that Buddha contrasted his teachings with probably came from the descendants of (A)braham.

So the Jews brought their script and religion to India. This shaped India’s thought and history more fundamentally than the many invaders who sought to conquer and rule her. From India this spread across Asia. It provided the foundation upon which Buddha gained enlightenment and spread Buddhist thought. And the Hebrew scriptures, originally in the Hebrew-Phoenician script, has its theme of the Coming Messiah. They have this in common with the Buddhist theme of the coming Maitreya.  Thus, the foundation of Buddhist thought and even the very Buddhist texts used today derive from Jewish influence.

But we return to the history of the Jews in the Middle East after their exile from their ancestral land.

Return from Exile under the Persians

After their exile, the Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and Cyrus became the most powerful person in the world. He permitted the Jews to return to their land.

 Living in the Land as a part of Persian Empire

However they were no longer an independent country, they were now a province in the Persian Empire.  This continued for 200 years and is in pink in the timeline. During this time the Jews rebuilt the Jewish Temple (known as the 2nd Temple) and the city of Jerusalem.  Though the Persians permitted the Jews to return to the land of Israel, many remained abroad in exile.

The Period of the Greeks

Living in the Land as part of Greek Empires

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and made Israel a province in the Greek Empire for another 200 years. The timeline shows this period in dark blue.

The Period of the Romans

Then the Romans defeated the Greek Empires and they became the dominant world power. The Jews again became a province in this Empire. The timeline shows this period in light yellow. This is the time when Jesus lived.  This explains why there are Roman soldiers in the gospels. The Romans ruled the Jews in Israel during the life of Jesus.

 Living in the Land as part of Roman Empire

The Second Jewish exile under the Romans

From the time of the Babylonians (586 BCE) the Jews had not been independent. A succession of other empires ruled them.  The Jews resented this and they revolted against Roman rule. The Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem (70 CE), and burned down the 2nd Temple. Then they deported the Jews as slaves across the Roman Empire. This was the second Jewish exile. With the vastness of the Roman Empire the Jews eventually scattered around the whole world.

 Jerusalem and Temple destroyed by Romans in 70 AD. Jews sent into world-wide exile
David Sasson & sons: Baghdadi Jews in India

This is how the Jewish people lived for almost 2000 years, dispersed in foreign lands and never totally accepted there. In these different nations they regularly suffered great persecutions.  This persecution of the Jews was particularly true in Europe.  From Spain, in Western Europe, to Russia the Jews lived often in a dangerous situations in these kingdoms.  Jews continued arriving in India and Kaifeng to escape these persecutions.  Jews from the Middle East arriving in India were known as the Baghdadi Jews.  The Curses of Moses back in 1500 BCE were accurate descriptions of how they lived.

 65 Among these nations you will find no rest, not even a resting place for the sole of your foot, for there the Lord will give you an anguished heart and wearied eyes and a trembling spirit

Deuteronomy 28:65

God gave the Curses against the Israelites to make peoples ask:

All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?

Deuteronomy 29:24

And the answer:

 25 and they went and served other gods and bowed down to them, gods whom they did not know and whom he had not apportioned to them. 26 So the anger of the Lord flared up against this land and brought on it every curse written in this book. 27 The Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them out into another land, as they are today.” 28 The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.

Deuteronomy 29:25-28

The timeline below shows this 1900 year period as a long red bar.

Historical Timeline of the Jews on larger scale – featuring their two periods of exile

Note that the Jewish people went through two periods of exile. But the second exile was much longer than the first exile.

The 20th Century Holocaust

The persecutions against the Jews peaked when Hitler, through Nazi Germany, tried to exterminate all the Jews living in Europe. Six million Jews lost their lives in what today we know as the Holocaust. Hitler almost succeeded but he was defeated and a remnant of Jews survived.

Modern Re-birth of Israel

The fact that there were people who self-identified as ‘Jews’ after thousands of years without a homeland was remarkable. During this period the Jews even lost their native language, Hebrew. But this allowed the final words of Moses, written down 3500 years ago, to come true.  In 1948 the world, through the United Nations, saw the incredible re-birth of the modern state of Israel. This fulfilled what Moses had written centuries before regarding how their exile would end.

 the Lord, your God, will restore your fortunes and will have compassion on you; he will again gather you from all the peoples where the Lord, your God, has scattered you. Though you may have been dispersed to the farthest corner of the heavens, even from there will the Lord, your God, gather you; even from there will he bring you back. 

Deuteronomy 30:3-5

The Jews established their modern state of Israel in spite of great opposition. Most of the surrounding nations waged war against Israel in 1948 … in 1956 … in 1967 and again in 1973. Israel, a very small nation, was sometimes at war with five nations at the same time. Yet not only did Israel survive, but her territory increased. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel regained Jerusalem, her historic capital city David had founded 3000 years ago.  The creation of the state of Israel, and the consequences of these wars, has created one of the most difficult geo-political tensions of our world today.

As Moses predicted (explored further here), the re-birth of Israel created an impetus for Jews to return to Israel.  Per Moses’ blessing they are being ‘gathered’ from the most ‘distant lands’ and being brought ‘back’.  Moses wrote that both Jews and non-Jews should note the implications.

  • Dr. Avigdor Shachan.  In the Footsteps of the Lost Ten Tribes p 261

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