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Jewish history

The Jews in the ancient world

A map of the Fertile CrescentA map of the Fertile CrescentThe Jews are an ethnic and religious group who originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago. A people called the Israelites, or Hebrews, are known to have lived in Canaan in around 1200 BCE. Canaan was part of the Fertile Crescent, an area of cultivated land that curves around the north of the Syrian Desert, from the head of the Persian Gulf, up the valley of the Euphrates then south through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. In ancient times, possession of this land was much prized, so the Fertile Crescent became a battleground over which a succession of empires, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Greek, fought for control. At the mercy of powerful rulers, Jews were forced to spread out from their homeland, known to them as the Land of Israel, firstly to other parts of the Fertile Crescent, then, after the Roman conquest, across Europe and North Africa.

(BCE = Before the Common Era, equivalent to BC, Before Christ; CE = Common Era, equivalent to AD)

Biblical origins

Abraham and his wife, SarahAbraham and his wife, SarahJews trace their history back to a nomadic people called the Hebrews. According to the Bible, one of them, Abraham, settled in Canaan—broadly the land between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan valley. Jews believe that God made a covenant (promise) to Abraham that he would have as many descendants "as there were stars in the sky", and that these people—the “chosen people”—would inherit the land of Canaan, known to Jews ever since as the Promised Land. Abraham’s son was Isaac, and Isaac’s son was Jacob, whom God named Israel. So Abraham’s descendants, the “Children of Israel”, became known as the Israelites.  

The term "Jews" comes from the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi. It originally referred only to the people of the Tribe (or Kingdom) of Judah, named after the fourth son of Jacob. Later, after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, Yehudi was applied to anyone from the Kingdom of Judah, which included the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi, along with other tribes that migrated there from the Kingdom of Israel. The name “Judaea” or “Judea” is a Greek and Roman adaptation of the name Judah.

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