I've recently read this BBC article which makes the claim that Judaism originated some time around 2000 B.C, if not earlier. I've seen a number of sources which make similar claims (1, 2). Perhaps I'm mistaken, but don't all surviving Jewish texts date back to the Hellenistic period (~330 – 100 BCE)?

After my preliminary search, I stumbled on The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, which seems to reduce the credibility of claims that many notable figures of the Old Testament even existed. It claims these figures were products of the Iron Age, which would make these stories around 700-1000 years younger.

Is the only primary source which places the origins of Judaism at around 2000 B.C or earlier the Old Testament? And if so, is the Old Testament a sufficient source for the history of early Judaism? If not, then how old is Judaism?

  • 16
    It depends what we're defining as Judaism: after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, post-exilic Judaism, exilic Judaism, Ancient Hebrew religion, etc. May 4, 2016 at 15:41
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    If you mean the completed Torah, then you are by definition limiting the dating of Judaism to 571–486 BCE. May 4, 2016 at 15:51
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    The earliest written text discovered in or around Jerusalem is 3,000 years old. Is it representative of Judaism? Since no one can read it, who knows? jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/… But the silver scrolls of Ketef Hinnom "preserve the earliest known citations of texts also found in the Hebrew Bible and ... the earliest examples of confessional statements concerning Yahweh." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketef_Hinnom
    – TARKUS
    May 5, 2016 at 1:02
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    "the actual history is fuzzy" - that ends up being true of virtually ALL history once you start digging :)
    – user5341
    May 6, 2016 at 12:57
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    I don't think that this is an answerable question. The term "judaism" is way to vague, the historical data is too scarce, and things in general are complex than the question seem to assume. Read eg goo.gl/HHPNNq and goo.gl/O4dkct
    – leonbloy
    May 16, 2016 at 21:24

2 Answers 2


The comments on this question have correctly pointed out that it is possibly unanswerable because of the variety of meanings attributed to the word "Judaism." The question, as well as the encyclopedia sources it cites, seems to equate Judaism with the monotheistic worship of the Jewish people. When the Jews became monotheistic believers in "Judaism" is up for debate, even if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible. (Remember the golden calf?)

The ancient Jews seem to have worshiped several different gods. They were certainly united in a kingdom at several points, and still considered themselves a nation even after their kingdom was captured by the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Romans; however, the meaning of "nation" differed strongly between Jewish communities, as we learn from non-Biblical sources. Eventually all gods were excluded other than Yahweh, who received the sacrifices at the Second Temple. (source: review article) The history of the Jewish people spans thousands of years, going back to Bible narratives like Exodus that take place centuries before what archaeology can confirm, and the quasi-theological question of when "real" monotheism began can't be answered scientifically.

But to most people, in common parlance, Judaism means Rabbinic Judaism, which arose after the destruction of the Second Temple. Even scholars agree that this is the best way to define the term. Philip R. Davies, in his article "Beyond 'Biblical Archaeology'" (in Hjelm and Thompson, eds., Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity: Changing Perspectives, vol. 7, Routledge, 2016), gives a summary that justifies this definition through significant methodological background:

Reinhard Kratz has recently pointed out [in Historisches und biblisches Israel (Mohr Siebeck, 2013)] that Wellhausen's distinction between the religion of "ancient Israel" and the religion of Judaism remains a fundamentally important insight. . . . the biblical Israels are a product of various Judahite/Judean communities and not the other way around. . . .

The religion of Judaism – which can intelligibly be dated only to the second century CE at the earliest – is much more a product of the scriptures and the "Israels" , depicted in those scriptures, than it is the outcome of any events that occurred in the Iron Age.

Davies does acknowledge that Abraham and Moses lie at the "beginning" of Jewish religion, but the religion itself is much better defined, at least for outsider scholarly purposes, by the image of them in Scripture centuries later than by whatever was going on in Iron Age Israel. There is no such thing as a search for the "historical Abraham" by modern scholars, because it's no longer considered relevant who Abraham might have been outside of Scripture.

This answer may be confusing, but hopefully it can shed a bit of light on why the Dead Sea Scrolls are so important for Biblical scholars. The Jewish people were still in the process of defining their beliefs over the period of 400 BCE-300 CE when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, and they had not yet consolidated around the styles of transmission, interpretation, authority, reading, and practice that developed into modern Judaism. Yet there is plenty in the Scrolls that seems almost monotheistic and quite familiar.

Short answer: The Jewish people have existed for thousands of years, but the term "Judaism" before the rabbinical era (meaning the late Roman Empire) is basically not useful.

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    +1 though arguably Rabbinic Judaism became what it is with the production of the Talmud about 1600 years ago.
    – Henry
    May 26, 2016 at 7:33
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    Current Jewish practice dates to around the destruction of the second Jewish temple, saying Judaism originated then is like saying Christianity dates to the First Council of Nicaea. The facts are all true here, but do not are not relevant to answer the original question.
    – Ofir
    May 26, 2016 at 8:44
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    @Ofir I didn't say that "Jewish practice" dates to then, I said that the "religion of Judaism" dates to then and quoted an up-to-date academic source as evidence. It's a rather nitpicky distinction in terms of basic Jewish identity, but the question being asked is "how old is Judaism," so I've tried to answer in those terms.
    – Avery
    May 26, 2016 at 8:56
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    @Ofir Christ-followers pre-Nicaea are very different from Christians post-Nicaea. The problem with calling anything pre-Nicaea Christianity is similar to the problem of calling anything before 70 CE Judaism. Even if you take the New Testament's account, Acts gives ample evidence that the early church had still not settled what the conditions for membership were. The problem with Judaism is even worse because it is older and less well attested. The early church at least left behind some of their original dialog. Jewish tradition before 7th century BC is all legend. May 26, 2016 at 14:23
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    A couple suggestions: The religious perspective is not that the bible was written 2500 BCE, it's closer to 1500 BCE. Or, by the calendar and perspective of Orthodox Jews, Mt. Sinai and the religion's start is 1313 BCE. Second, I would dispute what you say about Judaism only being from the Roman period. Although Judaism as we know it had a big change there, it is generally considered, and I think especially for the perspective of the question, that the start was more around when they became monotheistic, vaguely around 600 BCE.
    – A L
    Jun 15, 2016 at 4:30

One of the leading biblical scholars in the United States, Michael D. Coogan, dates the archeological evidence for the events described in the Old Testament at ca. 3300-1200 BCE.1

The first five books of the bible contain texts that are dated, at the outer bounds, to 922-722 BCE, this according to Richard Elliott Friedman, another prominent scholar of the old testament.2

Although these dates do not give us a definitive date for the founding of Judaism (and we can argue about what Judaism means), they provide reasonably accurate empirical evidence for ancient worship practices that constitute Judaism in its contemporary sense.3

1. See Chronology in the The Old Testament by Michael Coogan, pp. 550-7.

2. See "Introduction" in Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Bible with Sources Revealed. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005.

3. Answer edited to reflect the suggestions in the discussion.

  • It is a direct quote from his chronology. Your dating is correct though, now that I checked other sources. Removed the mention of Egypt since it was not essential to a concise answer.
    – denten
    Dec 8, 2016 at 21:06
  • Thanks, I don't disagree with that date range for anything of historical value in Genesis or Exodus. Dec 8, 2016 at 21:49

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