The Tanakh, or Old Testament, is not a history book. The greater part of it, in fact, represents only a minority of Israelites and their descendants. The only books of the Tanakh held in common among all the Israelites (Pharisee Jews, Sadducee Jews, Essene Jews, Hellenist Jews, Samaritans, etc.) at the turn of the era, for instance, were the five of the Torah. The Torah is a collection of religious laws and rules of practice collected over hundreds of years combined with a number of myths and legends woven into a single story. In other words, a foundation myth.
The Prophets and the Writings come solely from the point-of-view of the Jews, as opposed to the Samaritans, sometimes specifically opposed to the Samaritans, and are therefore not reliable as a witness to the body of Israelites as a whole.
Adam, Eve, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekkah, Hagar, Esau, Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Ishmael, and the twelve sons of Jacob are purely mythological. So are Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Caleb, and everyone else mentioned by name therein. The central action driving the story in the Torah, the Exodus, never happened. The “children of Israel” never went down into Egypt and became slaves, though the ancestor of the nation of Israel probably was a “wandering Aramean”, as we will find. The following is their true story, in brief, at least to the end of Roman rule over the Levant.
Pre-Israel history of Canaan
People of Canaan, especially craftsmen, artisans, soldiers, and farmers, began migrating to Egypt in great numbers about 1800 BCE. By 1725 BCE, their numbers were large enough to establish the Fourteenth Dynasty, of Canaanite origin, ruling Lower Egypt.
In 1650 BCE, the Fourteenth Dynasty fell to the invading Hyksos, a multi-ethnic horde ruled by its own Canaanite dynasty, which replaced the deposed Canaanite dynasty at Avaris. The Hyksos’ Fifteenth Dynasty was followed by the Sixteenth, then the Seventeenth. The forces of Pharoah Ahmose I of the Eighteenth Dynasty in Upper Egypt expelled the foreigners back to the northeast in 1530, besieging the bulk of them in the city of Shahuren in the Negev, which he destroyed after a three-year siege. In other campaign, he destroyed the city of Jericho, which was not inhabited again until the ninth century BCE.
To protect his line of supply, he established a line of forts known as the Way of Horus from Lower Egypt to Gaza. Gaza became the seat of Egyptian holdings in Retenu, the Egyptian name for the Levant, which in twenty-five years reached into southeastern Anatolia. After the Battle of Megiddo in 1457 BCE, the Egyptians moved their capital to what is now Beth Shean and was Scythopolis under the Roman Empire. Beth Shean is at the conjunction of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys in northern Palestine.
The rise of the Mitanni, then of the Hittites, reduced the northern territory of the Egyptian empire, but only as far south as Kadesh in central Syria, which traded hands more than once.
Egyptian domination and often direct rule of all Palestine and southern Syria continued until the advent of the Sea Peoples and the invasion of Palestine by the Philistines in 1175. Even then, it wasn’t until the Philistines destroyed the city of Megiddo, a stronghold of Egyptian imperial rule, in 1130 that Egyptian control left Palestine entirely. After that date, southern and central Palestine were all but deserted except for the Philistine cities of Gath, Ekron, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza, and northern Palestine was only lightly populated.
Where did everyone go? Well, there is a clue in the autonym of the Phoenicians who ruled most of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea: “Kananayim”.
Israel in Canaan
So, when did the Israelites arrive? Many point to inscriptions on the Merneptah Stele and the Great Karnak Temple depicting a campaign in 1207 BCE against the Canaanite city-states of Gezer, Yanoam, and Ashkelon allied with a nomadic tribe of people called the Isiriar. They identify “Isiriar” with Israel, much the same way some scholars once mistakenly equated the “Habiru” with the Hebrews. This identification because of the similarity of the two names is probably just as flawed. In fact, Isiriar is closer to Assyrians than to Israel.
By the beginning of the ninth century BCE, the hold of the Philistines over northern Palestine had slipped, and a group of Arameans known as Israel (“My father was a wandering Aramean”, Deuteronomy 26:5) had managed to infiltrate from the Aramean kingdom at Damascus founded around 1115 BCE. In 883, Omri, king of Israel, made himself king over the northern and central regions of Palestine. Five years later, Omri founded the city of Samaria as his capital, and began to rebuild Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo.
Among the surrounding kingdoms and empires, the kingdom Omri founded was known as Samerina in the Aramaic which was then the lingua franca of Southwest Asia, and was also called Bit Humria, or House of Omri, and its people called Samaritans. Not long after Omri founded Samerina, another kingdom to the south, at first known as Bit Dawid, or House of David, came into being, probably in the central highlands. In certain inscriptions, it was also called Teman, meaning “the South”.
Hazael, king of Damascus, destroyed the city of Gath in 830 BCE, opening up the south for immigration and settlement.
Independence of the kingdom of Samerina/Bit-Humria lasted until Assyria finally imposed direct rule in 740, making Megiddo their provincial capital. The Samaritans, as Sargon’s records refer to them, rose up against Assyrian rule along with the Arameans and Philistine in 722 BCE, only to have their capital at Samaria destroyed, its citizens, at least the elite, deported.
This left Teman/Bit-Dawid, now more commonly called Yehud, as the only free, though tributary, client kingdom of the Israelites. In fact, Yehud was probably the name of the kingdom’s capital city; Jerusalem, once a major Canaanite city and regional power, was uninhabited in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages.
In 650, refugees from Samaria, and perhaps some of their cousins from Yehud, established a military colony on the island of Elephantine on the border of Egypt with Nubia. It was the chief of a group of military colonies which included settlements in Migdol, Tahpanhes-Daphnae, Pathros, Noph, and the capital at Memphis. The Egyptian papyri refer to the new inhabitants as Arameans, as they undoubtedly spoke that language.
The Chaldean dynasty of Babylonia conquered Assyria in 626 BCE, and did the same with Palestine in 597 BCE. After Yehud rose up in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed the “city of Yehud”, deported its population, and attached it to Samerina as a sub-province.
Koroush Kabir (Cyrus the Great) of the Achmaenid Empire of Iran overthrew the Chaldean Empire in 539 BCE, gaining with that its imperial territories, including those in Palestine. The territories of the Levant became the satrapy of Abar Nahara. Yehud remained a sub-province of its northern cousins. Many of the exiles and dependents began to trickle back to the west.
The Samaritans built a large and elaborate temple to Yahuweh atop Mount Gerizim near Shechem around the year 450 BCE. The Iudeians followed suit in Jerusalem atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in 425 BCE, but it was much smaller.
Sidon rebelled against its Iranian overlords in 343 BCE, and a large portion of the people of Yehud, though not its governing majority, supported it. After the revolt failed, Artaxerses III removed the survivors from the Yehud contingent to the satrapy of Hyrcania, roughly modern Gilan, Mazandaran, and North Khorasan (i.e., Media).
Egypt and the Levant fell to the Macedonian and Greek armies of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. The Jews, residents of Yehud (Iudeia in Greek), assisted in the conquest of Tyre, and were rewarded with two sections out of the five in the new city of Alexandria in Egypt. The Samaritans rebelled the next year, and found Samerina (Samareia in Greek) occupied by Macedonian troops.
After Alexander’s death, both Samareia and Iudeia fell at first under the Antigonid dynasty based in Macedonia, but were under the Ptolemaic dynasty by 301 BCE. Onias I ben Jaddua had been high priest since about 320 BCE, founding the Oniad dynasty. Samareia adopted a cosmopolitan stance, and prospers, while Iudeia remained more conservative.
Samareia passed to the Seleucids out of Damascus in 208 BCE, at the beginning of the Fourth Syrian War. Ten years later, Iudeia followed suit.
The Great Sanhedrin separated the office of Nasi (its head) from the high priesthood in 191 BCE. Prior to that date, the two had been held simultaneously.
In 168 BCE, the Aramaic-speaking Nabateans established a kingdom in Transjordan with their capital at Petra. The displaced Idumeans moved to the Negev. The same year, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV attempted to conquer Egypt but was turned back by the armies of the Roman Republic which had allied with the Ptolemaic Empire.
Here the record gets a little murky about what happened next. According to Hasmonean propaganda (enshrined in the Books of the Maccabees), Antiochus invaded the temple compound, robbed the treasury, and erected an idol of himself in the Holy of Holies. This was the purported “abomination of desolation”.
According to another account, Menelaus the high priest robbed the treasury himself to pay off debts accrued from bribing Antiochus to replace his brother Jason with himself. In this version, Antiochus’ invasion was to put down a revolt.
The actual First Judean Civil War of 159-153 BCE, referred to by some as the Maccabean Revolt, was not a revolt against the Seleucids but a largely internal civil war between factions in Iudeia. The civil war coincided and was intertwined with internal strife among the Seleucid dynasty. It ended with the Hasmoneans in the seat of high priest.
In the midst of the fighting, the would-be Onias IV fled to Egypt in 154 BCE, where he was allowed to build a temple in Leontopolis.
The Seleucid Empire’s power in Palestine collapsed in 116 BCE, and the ruling Hasmonean high priest, John Hyrcanus, took the title of Basileus, or King. He conquered the Idumeans in 110 BCE and forced them to convert to Judaism. Two years later, he conquered Samareia, destroyed the city of Samaria, and burned the temple atop Mt. Gerizim.
His successor, Aristobolus I, conquered the southern part of the kingdom of the Iturean Arabs in 104 BCE and forced its inhabitants to convert. He also began exiling political undesirables there from his own kingdom. The area was called Galil ha-Goyim (District of the Gentiles).
The Second Judean Civil War of 93-87 BCE began with Pharisee-supported rebels taking advantage of a war between Alexander Jannaeus and the Nabateans. After he lost that war, Jannaeus returned to defeat the rebels, then crucified 800 of them and slitting the throats of their families in front of them.
In 81 BCE, Alexander Jannaeus formally annexed Galilee (Galil ha-Goyim). After the Roman conquest and the rise of Herod the Great, Samaritans too began to migrate there.
The Third Judean Civil War of 66-63 BCE ended with the conquest of the Levant by forces of the Roman Republic under Pompey.
Client of the Roman Empire
In 63 BCE, Pompey restored the losing pretender, Hyrcanus II, as high priest, but not as king. Instead, he installed Antipater the Idumean as procurator.
Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, rebuilt the city of Samaria in 57 BCE.
In 47 BCE, Hezekiah ben Garon declared himself King of the Jews and began a revolt in Galilee which was put down by Herod, son of Antipater. Afterwards, Antipater made Hyrcanus ethnarch, while his son Herod became ruler of Galilee and his son Phasael ruler of Jerusalem.
At the end of the Fourth Judean Civil War which lasted 40-37 BCE, Herod son of Antipater became King of the Jews.
Because of his support during Anthony’s Civil War, the victorious Octavius, now Caesar Augustus, grants the city of Samaria to Herod, who renames is Sebaste, in 30 BCE.
In 13 BCE, Herod moved into the newly built capital city of Caesarea Maritimi. In 10 BCE, he rebuilt the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim.
In 4 BCE, the students of two Jewish teachers, Judas ben Sepphoraeus and Matthias ben Margalus, cut down the Roman eagle over the gate into the temple in an act of rebellion intended to provoke a revolt. It only gets their teachers crucified.
Herod died later that year, and revolts broke out in Perea, Iudaea, Galilaea (led by Jacob ben Hezekiah), and Idumaea (led by Herod’s cousin Achiab). In the aftermath, Sepphoris lies in ruins, its populace is sold into slavery, and over two thousand rebels are crucified.
When the dust settles, Archelaus inherits Judaea, Samaraea, and Idumaea as ethnarch, Antipas inherits Galilaea, Peraea, and Decapolis, Philippos inherits Ituraea (Arabs), Trachonitis, Batanaea, Gaulanitis, and Panaeas, and Salome I inherits Paralia (Philistia).
Direct Roman rule
Ten years later, in 6 CE, Octavius Augustus removed Archelaus and made Iudaea into a Roman entity, a sub-province of Syria. Publius Suplicius Quirinius, proconsul of Syria, ordered a registration of citizens for the new territory, and Judas the Galilean, probably related to Hezekiah ben Garon, rose in revolt.
The former province of Assyria called Adiabene, centered on Arbela (Arbil in modern Iraq), exists as an independent kingdom that is officially Jewish in religion from 15 CE to 116 CE, when it is conquered by Rome.
The Samaritan Prophet and his followers occupied the summit of Mt. Gerizim in a bid to form a province of the empire separate from Iudaea in 36 CE. The prefect, Pontius Pilatus, put down the relatively mild revolt so brutally that he was recalled to Rome.
Around 45 CE, Theudas. The minor revolt was easily dispatched.
Theudas the prophet, probably of Judea, led his followers to the wilderness around the Jordan River, claiming to be the Messiah in 45 CE. Cuspius Fadus, procurator of Iudaea, easily put down the minor revolt.
Another revolt, against procurator Tiberius Julius Alexander, a Jew from Alexandria, followed the next year, under Jacob and Simon, sons of Judas the Galilean. It lasted until 48, when both sons were captured and crucified.
Rumors of the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem at Passover in 49 CE led to widespread rioting that ended in the death of thousands under procurator Ventidius Cumanus. Sympathetic riots in the Jewish section of Rome led to the expulsion of the entire community, at the time some ten percent of the city’s populace.
Serious warfare between Galileans and Samaritans broke out in 52 CE, under Cumanus again, when extremists led by Alexander and Eleazar ben Dinaeus invaded Samaria in supposed revenge for an alleged transgression leading to the crucifixion and beheading of several of the leaders on both sides.
A charismatic individual known to history only as the Egyptian Prophet led an uprising in 58 CE that ended in a climactic battle on the Mount of Olives.
The Sikarii rose up against procurator Porcius Festus in 59 CE.
The Great Jewish War began in 66 CE. The violence of the uprising caught the Roman completely by surprise, and the rebels swept them from the region. There were six major factions of rebels, often fighting each other more than the Romans: the Temple Guard and priests, Galilean Zealots, Judean peasants, Judean Zealots, Sikarii, and Idumeans. They had significant help from the kingdom of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia, modern Arbil.
The Samaritans joined the revolt in 67 CE, but their effort was swiftly put down by Syrian legate Sextus Vettulenus Cerealis, who destroyed their temple and the city of Sebaste. Galilee was retaken in 69 CE. Jerusalem fell in 70 CE after a lengthy siege exacerbated by infighting among the various factions. The final holdout, Masada, to which the bulk of the Sikarii had relocated after seeing Jerusalem was to be surrounded, fell in 73 CE.
Jerusalem was utterly destroyed. The only parts left standing were the western wall of the city (NOT the western wall of the temple) and three towers. The temple mound in particular was singled out for complete dismantling as the gold in the temple had melted and some fallen through the cracks when the temple was burned.
Captives not crucified or enslaved were exiled to North Africa, becoming the ancestors to the Maghrebim.
After finishing the campaign at Masada, where he was Titus’ second in command, Tiberius Alexander, now prefect of Egypt, destroyed the Temple of Onias to prevent it becoming a focal point for revolt.
Later centuries under Rome
The Kitos War of 115-117 was a revolt of the Jews in Cyrenaica, Aegyptus, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia, supported by Adiabene, quelled by Lusius Quietus, procurator of Iudaea. Libya was virtually depopulated by slaughter and evacuation, and the Jewish quarter in Alexandria completely destroyed.
In 122, Hadrian established Colonia Aelia Capitolina on the former site of Jerusalem, largely for veterans of the Tenth Fretensis Legion, stationed in Palestine since the Great Jewish Revolt. Ten years later, Simon bar Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva led an uprising that lasted until 135.
After the war, Hadrian merged all the provinces in the area as Syria-Palestina and finished Aelia Capitolina. It included a freshly rebuilt mount with a wall around it and temples to Jupiter and of Juno and Minerva atop it. Nearby was a grotto to Venus, a shrine to Asclepius (later claimed as the pool of Bethesda), and a temple of Mercury.
The refugees from this war became the first Jews of Arabia, later growing into some thirteen tribes in western central Arabia and four groups in the south.
The remaining Jews in Judea were largely evacuated to Galilee.
The province of Syria-Palestina is divided into Syria Coele (essentially Syria as we have it today), Syria Phoenice (Phoenicia), and Syria Palestina (the remainder) in 193.
From 260 to 273, Syria-Palestina was part of the secessionist Palmyrene Empire.
The Jews of Galilaea revolted from 351 to 352, led by a messianic pretender.
Prior to a series of revolts by the Samaritans in Palestine against Rome in the later fifth and early sixth centuries, Samaritans had a rough parity with Jews both inside Palestine and across the Diaspora.
The first of these was the Justa Uprising of 484, which ended with their temple atop Mt. Gerizim destroyed.
Next was the Uprising of 495 in which they destroyed the Christian basilica atop the mountain and slaughtered the monks.
Lastly, there was the Ben Sabar Revolt of 529, which had the goal of creating an independent state and which Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinius put down with the help of Christian Ghassanids, slaughtering and enslaving tens of thousands. Afterwards, Justinian outlawed the practice of Samaritanism.
Yet another revolt, this time of Jews and Samaritans together, lasted 556-572, and began with a wholesale slaughter of Christians in Caesarea.
The Jews in Palestine rose up against the Imperium Romanum as allies of the Sassanids under Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias, Nehemiah being killed by Christians in Jerusalem the same year. The revolt spread to include the Jews of Tyre, Damascus, Cyprus, and Edessa. After the fall of Jerusalem in 614, the area becomes a Commonwealth under the Sassanid Empire.
The Jews of the Levant rose against the empire as allies of the Sassanids of Iran, and became a commonwealth of the Sassanid Empire in 614, led by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias. The revolt spread to include the Jews of Tyre, Damascus, Cyprus, and Edessa. The commonwealth established by the rebels held out until a year after the final defeat of the Sassanids by Rome which ended the seven centuries of wars between the two great powers. Palestine became Roman again in 629.
Eight years later, the region fell to the armies of the Caliphate, and, except for the interregnum of the Crusader states, remained until Islamic rule until 1919.