The Jewish People and Ancient History

I've mentioned Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People before, mostly in a positive light, but the book concerns me a great deal. Originally written in Hebrew, I read the French translation (available before the English one) ... but gave up half way through partly as it was hard going, but mostly because I was tired of the recycled nonsense in it, much of which has long been disproven, hence a rather late review post about it.

What I initially liked about the book is that in articles Sand emphasised the diversity of early Jews, and that they were happy to convert, in fact did so enthusiastically.
It's a point I've made before:
In the early first century AD Judaism was a proselytizing religion, and attracted a large number of followers. The main reason it did not close the deal with more converts was that the rabbis were intransigent about one issue: circumcision. Men were reluctant to give up a piece of themselves.

Early Christianity under Paul was more flexible. At the Council of Jerusalem (ca. AD 50), the followers of Jesus re-stated that most of the laws of Moses were to be kept - such as the requirement to keep kosher. There were two major departures from Jewish law, which would in effect change the course of history.

The first was waving the circumcision requirement, which immediately let to a flood of converts.

King Herod and the Herodian Dynasty inter-married and encouraged conversions - more on that here and here. Helena of Adiabene is a famous convert of the time whose tomb in Jerusalem is extant (for information on her sarcophagus see here).

In fact it's very difficult to tell in many of the early Roman sources whether they are writing about Christians or Jews converting people, but we do know that both were enthusiastic.

Flavia Domitilla is a good example. A member of the Imperial family, she was accused of "αθεοτση ... drifting into the Jewish ways" (Epitome of Cassius Dio, 67.4). But this atheism or monotheism was later interpreted as Christianity so to Christians she's a Christian saint with catacombs named after her. Yet according to the Talmud Rabbi Akiva be Joseph converted her to Judaism ... and she has a nice long entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia! So Eusebius later says Domatilla became a Christian, but Jewish sources make her and her husband the Consul Titus Flavius Clemens Jews ...

I also liked Sand's questioning of the Diaspora. Yes, a lot of Jews were transported to Babylon - many returned to the Holy Land, some stayed there, whilst others moved further east. But we don't know of large scale displacements of entire populations by the Romans during the Imperial period, such as the one they are assigned after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the 130s AD. It's become a key tenet of Jewish history, but would not be normal for Roman history. In earlier periods entire populations were killed or enslaved after wars, but not normally during the Imperial period - I can't cite an ancient source to support this, because sources tend not to write about things that didn't happen (although conversely they do sometimes fail to write about things that did, for example Hunnic head binding and their strange skulls).

Jews had been moving around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, both of their own volition and by force, for centuries. There was an interesting study a few years ago that claimed "Ancient maritime traders of the Mediterranean may have left behind a large genetic footprint in the region, where 1 in 17 men still harbors Phoenician DNA" (quote from a National Geographic summary) The full study, Identifying Genetic Traces of Historical Expansions: Phoenician Footprints in the Mediterranean, can be found here. I'm not going to even pretend to understand genetic studies in anything more than a superficial way, so I can't argue the science. What I can point out is that their 'Phoenecian' original samples come from an area now better known for it's Jewish population, and which in Antiquity had a diverse population. And the modern descendants of these 'Phoenecians' were found by the researchers all around the Med - whilst Punic colonies and towns tended to be in North Africa (Carthage), in Spain, and in Sicily and Southern Italy (Motya). To me it would make more sense if they had said that 1 in 17 men had DNA from the area which is now Israel, and it would also make more sense if they were descended from Jews that settled around the Mediterranean and inter-married, which is well attested throughout history.

So far I have no problem with Sand, and I've even cited a DNA study that can easily be argued to support him.

Where it all goes wrong is with another DNA study and more conversions - the Khazars.

In 1976 Arthur Koestler published The Thirteenth Tribe, which theorised that: the Khazars had converted en masse to Judaism in the middle Byzantine period, that their kingdom had been wiped off the face of the earth a couple of centuries later, and that although they had 'vanished' from history, they had in fact migrated via Russian into Eastern Europe, and that their descendants were the Ashkenazim. As a theory it was interesting, but it was taken up by many anti-Semitic extremists to argue that this meant that Jews did not have a right to Israel, and it became problematic.

It also excluded some facts. A letter from the Cairo Genizah and now in Cambridge - the "Schechter Letter" - was written around AD 930 and discusses the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism. Rather than being some strange unexplained mass conversion of the population, the letter and other surviving documents of the period suggest that it was a 'return' to practising Judaism by the local aristocracy, many of who were descended from Persian Jews that had migrated to the region centuries before. There were also conversions by some descendants of the native population, but the Khazars were extremely tolerant of other religions and the conversions to Judaism do not seem to have been forced or widespread beyond the ruling class. The Jewish Khazars were not wiped out by the Rus invaders, simply removed from power and continued to exist in the regions for many centuries.

Since then Ashkenazim descent solely from the Khazars has been conclusively disproven by a number of studies, which show that they are directly related to the Jews which inhabited Israel (the main study is here: Y chromosome evidence for a founder effect in Ashkenazi Jews). There have been a lot of studies of various Jewish groups' DNA, as there has been of other groups, and they have proven interesting.

But it's with the Khazar / Ashkenazi / Thirteenth Tribe theory that Sand lost me. If he's so out of date in his research, and so wrong when dealing with periods I know a bit about, I worry about his theories and research in areas I don't know about. I worry about people without a solid background in history quoting a book which has sold so many copies, and abusing the theories.

One area that seems to worry people, presumably because they fear that it will be abused to claim Jews have no right to Israel, is Sand's point that many Jews in what is now Israel stayed and converted. They did. First they converted to paganism under the Romans, so as to be able to achieve office and rise in society, then they converted to Christianity after Constantine, and later to Islam after Mohammed. I'm writing a book on woman in the ancient world that led armies, and the last one I'm covering is Aisha, the widow of Mohammed, who fought his son-in-law Ali at the Battle of the Camel. Although I have some background in the period, I've been researching early Islam, and it amazes me how many Jews there were in Arabia, particularly in Medina, many of which converted to Islam. Many Palestinians were probably Jewish if one goes back far enough. I assume that it doesn't make me an anti-Semite to acknowledge this historical fact.

The conversion of the rulers of Himyar in the Yemen to Judaism remains and enigma, but must, I suspect, have something to do with the strong historical ties between the Yeman and Ethiopia, or the Jewish tribes in Arabia. The conversion of their king took place either in the fourth or early fifth century AD. At the time, and right into the lifetime of Mohammed, there were Jewish tribes in Arabia, who had migrated from Israel over the centuries. The Beta Israel ('Falasha') have now migrated from Ethiopia to Israel, but attest to a long tradition of Jews in Israel.

One theory is that they arrived in Ethiopia with trade, another that they descended through Egypt, which had the only two Temples outside Jerusalem (see here and here; the difference is that sacrifices were made in a Temple, but not in a synagogue).

Yes, people converted and inter-married (two such people produced me), and Jewish history is not as simple as some people would like it to sound, but history rarely is. Non-Jews converted to Judaism, Jews converted to other religions, but we're mostly descended from the people that once inhabited the land that is now Israel. I found Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People to be a deeply flawed book. It is however worth reading for those interested in history, even if you have to take a lot of what he writes with a (large) grain of salt, because it is thought-provoking. 

The Invention of the Jewish People - Amazon.co.uk

The Invention of the Jewish People - Amazon.com


  1. Very helpful, Dorothy.

    By the way, someone who beat you to the punch with respect to your main point (people who inhabited the Holy Land and beyond in premodern times converted, sometimes in large numbers, more often perhaps in smaller numbers, from one faith to another, out of conviction or if it gave them a better chance in life, so long as to do so did not ask from them something they perceived as too onerous, more or less according to the principle Cuius regio, eius religio, or, as they would say more colorfully in Naples, o Franza o Spagna, purché se magna - France or Spain, so long as one eats) is

    Author: Barāmkī, Dīmitrī, 1909-1984
    Title: The art and architecture of ancient Palestine; a survey of the archaeology of Palestine from the earliest times to the Ottoman conquest, by Dimitri C. Baramki.
    Publisher: Beirut, Palestine Liberation Organization, Research Center, 1969.

    It's been decades since I read it; I think Baramki makes the point in a special appendix.

  2. Dorothy, thank you for your insightful comments. It seems we have had Sand thrown in our eyes.
    I read about that Phoenician genetic study and your point is fascinating.
    You might be aided in researching your latest book by Sir Martin Gilbert's new book, In the House of Ishmael- Jews in Muslim lands, 2010.

  3. I did not read your earlier review of Sand's book, but - given the many problems you now identify with it - I am somewhat mystified as to why it was "mostly in a positive light".

    I think the definitive review of this dubious work was Professor Martin Goodman's in the Times Literary Supplement. He concludes "Why bother to review such a book ? So far as I know, no scholar who works on Jewish History in the Roman period has deigned to pay it any attention. But such lordly disdain is dangerous...For the general public, what catches the the attention are the headlines... more worryingly, the book has also received praise from historians and others who ought to have known better... they have presumeably been taken in by the impression that his book is scholarly history - an impression created by the large number of footnotes referring to a wide array of scholarship (much of it only in fact half-digested) and an opening chapter which gallops competently enough through standard discussions about the construction of national identities and the notion of ethnicity before the author turns to his highly dubious claims about the Jews."

  4. It's wasn't a review before - I'd commented in passing about one of his articles based on the book, on the Romans.

    I think there is a big break between Jewish history of the Roman period and straight Roman history. The same goes for Christian history of the Roman period - for example the Council of Jerusalem in AD 70 ... where if you study Roman history you know that Titus beseiged the city and sacked the Temple, so it's unlikely a load of Christians gathered there to discuss their new religion ...


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