The Major Eras of Ancient Jewish History

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What Were the Primary Eras of Ancient Jewish History

 The seven major eras of ancient Jewish history have been covered in religious texts, history books, and even literature. With this overview of these key periods of Jewish history, get the facts about the figures who influenced each era and the events that made the eras unique. The periods that shaped Jewish history include the following:

  • The Patriarchal Era
  • Period of the Judges
  • United Monarchy
  • Divided Kingdom
  • Exile and Diaspora
  • Hellenistic Period
  • Roman Occupation 
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Patriarchal Era (c. 1800 B.C. to perhaps 1500 B.C.)

Ancient Palestine. Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library

The Patriarchal Period marks the time from before the Hebrews went to Egypt. Technically, it is a period of pre-Jewish history, since the people involved were not yet Jewish.


A Semite from Ur in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern Iraq), Abram (later, Abraham), who was the husband of Sarai (later, Sarah), goes to Canaan and makes a covenant with God. This covenant includes the circumcision of males and the promise that Sarai would conceive. God renames Abram, Abraham and Sarah, Sarai. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son to God.

This story mirrors the one of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia to Artemis. In the Hebrew version as in some of the Greek, an animal is substituted at the last minute. In the case of Isaac, a ram. In exchange for Iphigenia, Agamemnon was to obtain favorable winds, so he could sail for Troy at the start of the Trojan War. In exchange for Isaac, nothing was offered initially, but as a reward for the obedience of Abraham, he was promised prosperity and more offspring.

Abraham is patriarch of the Israelites and Arabs. His son by Sarah is Isaac. Earlier, Abraham had a son named Ishmael by Sarai's maid, Hagar, at Sarai's urging. The Arab line runs through Ishmael.

Later, Abraham bears more sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah, to Keturah, whom he marries when Sarah dies. Abraham's grandson Jacob is renamed Israel. Jacob's sons father the 12 Hebrew tribes.


The second Hebrew patriarch was Abraham's son Isaac, father of Jacob and Esau.


The third patriarch was Jacob, later known as Israel. He was patriarch of the tribes of Israel through his sons. Because there was a famine in Canaan, Jacob moved the Hebrews to Egypt but then returned. Jacob's son Joseph is sold to Egypt, and it is there where Moses is born c. 1300 B.C.

There is no archaeological evidence to corroborate this. This fact is important in terms of the historicity of the period. There is no reference to the Hebrews in Egypt at this time. The first Egyptian reference to the Hebrews comes from the next period. By then, the Hebrews had left Egypt.

Some think that the Hebrews in Egypt were part of the Hyksos, who ruled in Egypt. The etymology of the names Hebrew and Moses are debated. Moses could be Semitic or Egyptian in origin.

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Period of the Judges (c. 1399 B.C.)

Merneptah Stele
Merneptah Stele.

The period of the Judges begins (c. 1399 B.C.) after the the 40 years in the wilderness described in Exodus. Moses dies before reaching Canaan. Once the 12 tribes of the Hebrews reach the promised land, they find they are in frequent conflict with the neighboring regions. They need leaders to guide them in battle. Their leaders, called judges, also handle more traditional judicial matters as well as warfare. Joshua comes first.

There is archaeological evidence of Israel at this time. It comes from the Merneptah Stele, which is currently dated to 1209 B.C. and says the people called Israel were wiped out by the conquering pharaoh (according to Biblical Archaeology Review) Although the Merneptah Stele is called the first extrabiblical reference to Israel, Egyptologists and Biblical scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis suggest there may be one from two centuries earlier on a statue pedestal at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

For an English translation of the Merneptah Stele, see: "The Poetical Stela of Merneptah (Israel Stela) Cairo Museum 34025 (Verso)," Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II: The New Kingdom by Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press: 1976.

Ancient Eras (Almost Entirely B.C.)

Page 2: Period of the Judges

Page 7: Roman Occupation

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United Monarchy (1025-928 B.C.)

Saul and David
Saul and David.

The period of the united monarchy begins when the judge Samuel reluctantly anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Samuel thought kings in general were a bad idea. After Saul defeats the Ammonites, the 12 tribes name him king, with his ruling capital at Gibeah. During Saul's reign, the Philistines attack and a young shepherd named David volunteers to fight the fiercest of the Philistines, a giant named Goliath. With a single stone from his slingshot, David fells the Philistine and wins a reputation that outshines Saul's.

Samuel, who dies before Saul, anoints David to be king of Israel, but Samuel has his own sons, three of whom are killed in the battle with the Philistines.

When Saul dies, one of his sons is appointed king, but at Hebron, the tribe of Judah declares David king. David replaces Saul's son, when the son is assassinated, becoming king of the reunited monarchy. David builds a fortified capital at Jerusalem. When David dies, his son by the famous Bathsheba becomes the wise King Solomon, who also expands Israel and starts the building of the First Temple.

This information is short on historical corroboration. It comes from the Bible, with only occasional support from archaeology.


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Divided Kingdom - Israel and Judah (c. 922 B.C.)

Map of the Tribes of Israel
Map of the Tribes of Israel. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Solomon, the United Monarchy falls apart. Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, the southern Kingdom, which is led by Rehoboam. Its inhabitants are the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon (and some Levi). Simeon and Judah later merge.

Jeroboam leads a revolt of the northern tribes to form the Kingdom of Israel. The nine tribes that make up Israel are Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Menasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, and Gad (and some Levi). The capital of Israel is Samaria.

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Exile and Diaspora

Assyrian Empire
Assyrian Empire. Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library

Israel falls to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.; Judah falls to the Babylonians in 597 B.C.

In 722 - Assyrians, under Shalmaneser, and then under Sargon, conquer Israel and destroy Samaria. Jews are exiled.
In 612 - Nabopolassar of Babylonia destroys Assyria.
In 587 - Nebuchadnezzar II seizes Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed.
In 586Babylonia conquers Judah. Exile to Babylon.

In 539 - The Babylonian Empire falls to Persia which is ruled by Cyrus.

In 537 - Cyrus allows Jews from Babylon back into Jerusalem.
From 550-333 - The Persian Empire rules Israel.

From 520-515 - Second Temple is built.

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Hellenistic Period


The Hellenistic Period runs from the death of Alexander the Great in the final quarter of the 4th century B.C. until the coming of the Romans in the late 1st century B.C.

After Alexander dies, Ptolemy I Soter takes Egypt and becomes king of Palestine in 305 B.C.

250 - The beginning of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
198 - Seleucid King Antiochus III (Antiochus the Great) ousts Ptolemy V from Judah and Samaria. By 198, the Seleucids controlled Transjordan (an area east of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea).

166-63 - The Maccabees and Hasmoneans. The Hasmoneans conquered areas of Transjordan: the Peraea, Madaba, Heshbon, Gerasa, Pella, Gadara, and Moab to the Zered, according to Transjordan, from Jewish Virtual Library.


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Roman Occupation

Asia Minor Under Rome. Perry Castaneda Historical Map Library

The Roman Period is divided into an early, middle, and late period:


63 B.C. - Pompey makes the region of Judah/Israel a client kingdom of Rome.
6 A.D. - Augustus makes it a Roman province (Judaea).
66 - 73. - Revolt.
70. - Romans occupy Jerusalem. Titus destroys the Second Temple.
73. - Masada suicide.
131. - Emperor Hadrian renames Jerusalem "Aelia Capitolina" and forbids Jews there.
132-135. - Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian. Judaea becomes the province of Syria-Palestine.

II. 125-250
III. 250 until either an earthquake in 363 or the Byzantine Era.

Chancey and Porter ("The Archaeology of Roman Palestine") say Pompey took those territories that were not Jewish out of the hands of Jerusalem. Peraea in the Transjordan retained a Jewish population. The 10 non-Jewish cities in Transjordan were named the Decapolis.

They commemorated their liberation from the Hasmonean rulers on coins. Under Trajan, in A.D. 106, the regions of Transjordan were made into the province of Arabia.

"The Archaeology of Roman Palestine," by Mark Alan Chancey and Adam Lowry Porter; Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 164-203.

The Byzantine Era followed, running from Emperor Diocletian (284-305) or Constantine (306-337), in the fourth century, to the Muslim conquest, in the early 7th century.