Modern Jews Have Implications for Biblical History

on June 5, 2010

ScienceNOW: “Tracing the Roots of JewishnessThe history of the Jews—and, more broadly, the Hebrews—is wrapped up in the history of the Bible. For that reason alone, modern studies of those identifying as Jews often have interesting implications for biblical history.

Jewishness is a tricky concept. Depending on the context, it can refer to a particular ethnic/people group; the history, culture, language, and so forth of those people; or the religion of Judaism practiced by many of those individuals, along with converts. Further complicating the story is the tumultuous history of the Jews both in Bible times and ever since.

“I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest.”

A new genetic study of those who consider themselves Jewish indicates a greater genetic—and, hence, historical—connection than some historians have suggested. For instance, a popular claim is that Ashkenazi Jews—a group of Jews with ancestry in Central Europe and who now represent the largest group of Jews worldwide—are not actually ethnic Jews. Rather, this claim suggests they are the descendants of a group of Central Europeans who converted to Judaism in the eleventh century. Others have suggested that rather than being traced back to Abraham around 4,000 years ago, the Jewish identity—and people group—was not actually formed until around 2,000 years ago.

Seeking to test some of the various historical claims against genetic data, researchers led by Harry Ostrer of the New York University examined genetic data from 237 Jewish individuals. The Jews were from a wide range of locations, including Greece, Israel, Italy, and the United States. Next, the team compared the results against a broader sample of 2,800 individuals (presumably not Jews) worldwide.

The results buttress the traditional view that Jews worldwide (at least, those represented by the 237 tested) do share a genetic link, indicating shared ancestry, and that their shared ancestry dates back beyond 2,000 years. Ostrer noted, “I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest.”

Although other researchers agree that there may still be pockets of modern Jews who descended from converts, the work certainly overturns the view that the Jewish identity is far more recent than Scripture suggests. Besides, there is nothing anti-biblical about the view that some Jewish populations today may be descended from converts, or that (as we said above) the history of the Jews since biblical times is as complex, tumultuous, and mysterious as any part of human history.

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