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Manual for Faculty
Unit 3: The Shaping of Traditions
(First to Ninth Centuries)
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Program Overview

Jewish communities in the first century C.E. were to be found in Judaea, throughout the Roman Empire, and in Babylonia. The Pharisees, an important group within Judaism, believed that the laws and customs of the Jewish people would help them survive the destruction of the Temple. Over time, some of these traditions were organized in the Mishnah, a work which became the foundation for the continued development of the Jewish religion.

In Judaea, a preacher named Jesus traveled the countryside, and some Jews believed him to be the long-awaited messiah. At first these individuals, later called Christians, formed a sect within Judaism. However, when Paul spread the message of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, many gentiles (non-Jews) flocked to the new religion. Paul didn't require them to follow Jewish laws and traditions, and slowly the Jews and Christians drifted apart.

After years of Roman persecution of the Christians, emperors arose who were favorable to the new religious group, and by the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. When the empire fell in 476 C.E., the Church became the major stabilizing force within that society and kept many of the Roman traditions alive.

In Babylonia and in Palestine, Jews continued to study their traditions, and commentaries were written on the Mishnah which were compiled in the Talmud. This rich amalgam of laws and folklore was destined to be interpreted again and again.

In the seventh century in the Arabian peninsula, the third great monotheistic religion emerged as Muhammad of Mecca preached and set the groundwork for the rise of Islam. At the time of Muhammad's death, most of the peninsula was under his control, and within a hundred years his followers had conquered territories stretching from Persia in the east to Spain in the west. Ninety percent of the Jews lived under Islam and carried their own customs wherever they settled in the new Islamic empire.

In Spain the Jews established their communities under Muslim rule, while farther north in Christian Europe, Jews were invited to help with the economy by encouraging trade. Rulers, such as Louis the Pious, favored this policy, although churchmen like Agobard of Lyons were aghast at the growing influence of the new Jewish communities.

Learning Objectives
  • Analyze the radical change effected by the rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia in shaping Jewish culture and society in the first centuries of the common era.
  • Understand the major aspects of the rabbinic legacy in the formation of medieval and modern Judaism and in the crystallization of Christian doctrine and society.
  • Consider the "sibling" rivalry between Judaism and Christianity and its role in the development of medieval anti-Judaism.
  • Explore the mutual interaction between Judaism and Islam: Muslim indebtedness to rabbinic Judaism and the cultural stimulus provided by Islamic civilization to Jewish culture.
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