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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Major Periods of Biblical History

The Time of the Patriarchs (1850–1250 BC)

The period from Abraham to Joseph is recounted in Genesis 12–50 . Historically, this was a period of vast migrations in the Middle East, with clans of herders moving freely from Mesopotamia down through the Fertile Crescent into present‐day Israel. Egypt had been a dominant power in the Middle East for more than two thousand years prior to that time. Egypt's might was counterbalanced by a succession of powerful dynasties at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent, including the Persians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Israel, located geographically between those two areas, would often be the battleground for those opposing forces. (See map #6.)

Few firm historical traditions exist from this period, but the general picture provided in the biblical traditions about the patriarchs does reflect something of the nomadic lifestyle and familial religion typical of the period.

The Exodus, Wilderness Wandering, and Settlement in the Land (1250–1130 BC)

This period is covered in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Joshua. The story of Israel as a unified people begins in Egypt with the stories about Moses and the miraculous exodus from Egypt. During a period of wandering in the desert, the covenant was formed with Yahweh, the Lord, the God of Israel. Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel finally breaks through into the Promised Land, driving the native Canaanites before them.

There is considerable debate about the historical background to this period. Some scholars, particularly conservative ones, are willing to accept the biblical portrayal at face value: namely that there was a mass migration of Hebrews from Egypt and that they invaded the regions of Israel with military force and thereby gained possession of the land.

The lack of clear archaeological evidence supporting such a vast military conquest, and some ambiguity in the biblical traditions themselves, have led other historians to surmise that both the migration from Egypt and the possession of the land took place over a longer period of time. Some Hebrew tribes may have already settled in Israel prior to the Exodus, and joined with the incoming tribes at a later period. While some Canaanite cities may have been taken by force, some of the land was probably settled in a peaceful fashion.

In any event, the Bible sees this process as a dramatic act of deliverance by God and as the historic beginning of the story of Israel.

The Period of the Judges (1130–1020 BC)

This early period of Israelite history is narrated in the book of Judges. It is clear that the Israelites at first resisted the idea of a strong central government. They preferred a loosely organized federation of clans or tribes ruled by charismatic leaders called judges. Only the Lord could claim the right to be called King. This independent spirit and aversion to the monarchy goes deep into the consciousness of Israel.

The Monarchy (1020–587 BC)

This long, but in fact highly diverse, period of Israel's history is taken up in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and a parallel account in 1 and 2 Chronicles.

The transition from the more informal and charismatic leadership under the judges to the more institutional form of the monarchy begins with Saul (about 1020–1000 BC) but reaches its zenith with David (1000–960 BC) and Solomon (960–930 BC). Threats from surrounding peoples and the need for more complex social organization gradually led Israel to adopt a monarchical form of government. David eventually unified diverse groups of people under a single government system, ruled from his new centrally located capital of Jerusalem. Under David and his son Solomon, Israel's territories greatly expanded.

The united kingdom forged by David did not last very long. Solomon strained it by increasing taxation and by lack of sensitivity to the old tribal loyalties. When Solomon's son Rehoboam ascended to the throne, the seams between north and south split and the separate kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north began. This divided monarchy would last until 724 BC, when the Assyrian empire would crush the Northern Kingdom. Judah would survive until the Babylonian invasion of 587 BC.

The biblical account has little respect for the northern rulers and takes a critical view of most of the kings of Judah as well, considering them unfaithful to the covenant. During this period the great prophetic movement would ignite in Israel. Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea were prophets in the northern kingdom. Isaiah served as court prophet to the kings of Judah.

Exile and Return (587–332 BC)

This crucial period of Israelite history is narrated in 2 Kings 24–25 and in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Babylonian captivity would last almost fifty years. Systematic deportation as a way of subduing conquered peoples had been used first by Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. Only a small remnant of Israelites was left behind under the firm control of Babylonian officials. When the exiled Jews eventually returned, they considered the people who had stayed behind as somehow corrupt and would not allow them to take part in the reconstruction of Israel, a source of bitterness that would lead to the sharp divisions between Jews and Samaritans so obvious in the New Testament period.

Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem and its Temple were rebuilt. But Israel was now only a small and fragile nation, clustered around Jerusalem and very concerned with preserving its identity.

The Greek Conquest and the Rise of the Hasmoneans (332–39 BC)

This is a turbulent part of Israelite history, reflected in 1 and 2 Maccabees and Daniel.

Alexander conquered Palestine in 332 BC, beginning a period in which Greek culture would have a strong impact on the life of Israel. After his death, the Middle Eastern portion of Alexander's empire was divided between the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled from Syria, and the Ptolemies who ruled from Egypt. The Ptolemaic dynasty controlled Israel from approximately 332 to 199 BC. Their generally benign rule gave way to the Seleucids, who attempted to impose Greek culture and taxation in a more rigorous fashion. Seleucid ruthlessness eventually triggered the Maccabean revolt, which by 160 BC had thrown off the yoke of the Seleucids against incredible odds.

The Jewish dynasty of the Hasmonean family now begins a hundred‐year reign. The Hasmonean kings proved to be as corrupt and ruthless as the foreigners who had preceded them. Reactions by pious Jews to the compromises of the Hasmoneans and their Jerusalem aristocracy would give rise to protest groups such as the Essenes and Pharisees. By 60 BC, Roman influence was growing in the Middle East and brought pressure on Israel itself. The Hasmonean period came to an end with the emergence of Herod the Great, a vassal of the Romans, who would unify the country and hold it in his grip.

The Roman Period (39 BC–AD 100)

The New Testament writings emerge during this period of biblical history. With the death of Herod in 4 BC, the Romans divided Israel among his three sons. Eventually the Romans removed the cruel and incompetent Archaelaus, taking over direct rule of Judah and Samaria. Herod Philip and Herod Antipas would continue to govern in the regions of Upper Galilee, Lower Galilee, and the Transjordan (see map #12).

Roman rule and its heavy taxation proved intolerable to the Jewish people. Tensions mounted all during the first half of the first century, exploding into revolution in AD 66. That revolt would be violently suppressed by the Romans, climaxing with the destruction of Jerusalem and its great Temple in AD 70. That event would change the complexion of Judaism forever. Another short‐lived revolt would break out in AD 132. The Romans would continue to occupy Palestine until the time of the Byzantine empire. All of these events have left a profound impression on the writings of the New Testament.

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