Let's start by classifying a movement as either political or religious. We know that Judaism and Christianity were mostly religious movements during this period. We also know that Greece and Persia vied for political control of Asia and Europe, so they can viewed as political rivals. However, viewing Judaism vs. Christianity as rival groups, implying that they both carried more or less equal weight and competed within the same domain, is probably incorrect. This is part of the reason why it's so difficult to figure out the true nature of the relationship between those various forces.
So what really is Judaism all about and when was the religion born?
Judaism was largely born in response to the Assyrian attack against Judea in 701 BCE. This particular campaign, in my opinion, holds pivotal significance in the inception of Judaism. There is, in fact, no evidence of any "Judaic practices" before this date. 2Chron 29 recounts how Hezekiah revitalized temple sacrifices. 2Kings 18:5 tells us that no Davidic king before or after him (Hezekiah) was like him in piety and greatness. It seems sensible to connect his great political and military maneuvering with his religious reforms in the temple. The Yahwistic cult that he established was designed to unite the nation politically against Assyria. Hence, when the bible describes how he removed the "high places", it promptly also tells us that "Yahweh was with him; wherever he went out (in war) he was successful, and he rebelled in the king of Assyria (Sennacherib) and he did not serve him". The suggestion is that removing the high places enabled him to be more successful against Assyria. (Of course, for the late Biblical author, Hezekiah's success was seen as a supernatural reward for his piety, but we need not conform to such interpretation. We can explain it through the natural, rational connection between national/religious/political unity and military success in parrying off a foreign invader.)
Historians do not know exactly why and how Jerusalem was spared against the Assyrian onslaught. The bible tells us that an angel smote the Assyrians encamped against Jerusalem whereas Sennacherib wants us to believe that Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute and the Assyrians then left voluntarily having been satisfied. In the "Taylor Prism", Sennacherib states that he had shut up Hezekiah the Judahite within Jerusalem, his own royal city, "like a caged bird".
Regardless, this event is extremely significant both for Assyrian and Jewish History. For Assyrians it's important because it's the only city that was not actually conquered and exiled by the Assyrians (albeit perhaps at a significant monetary cost to the Judahites). For Jews it's even more important because if Jerusalem had been conquered by Assyria at that time (and it was just a split hair away from such a fate), the Judahites (from whence "Jews" is derived) would --in all probability-- have been exiled and assimilated just like their northern brethren two decades earlier. There would have been no Judaism and no Christianity, as we know them.
So why indeed were the Jews spared? Were the Assyrians really incapable of subduing Judea? That's quite unlikely! I think the answer is a combination of the Judaean unique position in the Ancient Near East and some good luck to boot. The good luck element is that Sennacherib was informed of a coup back in his capital at Nineveh and so had to care of more important business first. The rational explanation for Judea's political survival relies on several factors:
Judaea --unlike the northern Israelite territory-- did not contain any natural resources, which would make them a prime target for would-be conquerors. Judaea is pretty much situated in the midst of a desert and is the capital of a land of poor peasants who barely subsist off the land and are forced into pastoral nomadism or migration during rough times. Judea, did not hold any material importance to the Assyrians in the same way as the Philistine (Gaza) or Phoenician (Tyre and Sidon) coastal cities did. Judaea's importance lay solely in its role as a linking station between the two great ancient civilizations: Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Earlier times (late Bronze age), when Egyptians were stronger, the buffer zone between the two powers was situated far to the north, as evidenced by the famous battle of Kadesh in the early 13th century between the Hittites (who were a ruling caste in Mesopotamia at that time) and the Egyptians. Incidentally that battle also likely ended up in stalemate despite both sides claiming victory, which is also precisely what's happening in 701 BCE with respect to the Assyrian vs. Judaean-Egyptian campaign. Thus, the ONLY reason the Assyrians lay siege to Jerusalem was to accomplish the goal that our modern Pres. Bush articulated in the Iraq war of 2003 "let's fight them abroad, so that we don't have to fight them at home". The Assyrians sought to check Egyptian ambitions by pushing the border farther south and thereby consolidating more securely important territories that lay within their empire.
Viewed under this light, the 701 BCE battle over Judaea is both the least and most important of all the Assyrian campaigns through their two centuries in power. It's insignificant because there really wasn't anything material to be reaped from the region. But it's also of critical importance to Assyrians, if they are to establish a secure border with Egypt. From history we know that 701 BCE also roughly marked a military turning point for the Assyrians. Even though they continued to hold power in Asia for most of the seventh century, their power was by then on the decline. A new kid on the block, the Babylonians, were the rising stars. This meant that the Judaeans were safe from a second attempt at conquest on the part of the Assyrians. The Assyrians had reached their peak in 701 BCE by expanding their empire all the way from Nineveh to Samaria, but that was as far as they would go. It was all down hill from there and that fact is what saved Judea from Assyrian conquest, UNLIKE any other city-state situated more closer to Assyrian lands.
What I am proposing here is that Judea up until the times of Hezekiah was just like any other ancient near-eastern state. Their laws, customs, rituals, temples and henotheistic religion were all essentially indistinguishable from other ANE city-states. The thing that set them apart from the rest going forward was their geographic location and the fact that they were saved from Assyrian political conquest due to that.
After 701 BCE there was no doubt great celebration within Judea on occasion of their ability to maintain their independence: no other city-state had been able to do so. As was typical in those ANE cultures, military success was ascribed to the superior ability of the victor's national deity. Thus, I could imagine that Judaeans were then convinced more than ever that their god --whom they now called Yahweh-- was tremendously mighty and worship-worthy. This in turn initiated a very vigorous movement to centralize and standardize their religious practices and temple rituals. At the very same time that this was occurring in Judea, other conquered peoples in Asia were being assimilated into the Assyrian empire.
In 612 BCE, the Babylonians took over the helm of leadership but that had no overall effect on the empire. Then, in 537 BCE the Persians and Medes came to power and as "liberators" they sought to reverse the processes of the Assyrian and Babylonian regimes by respecting and even aiding provincial religions. However, at this point (200 years after the Assyrian campaign across the Levant) there wasn't much left to resurrect of ANE cults since they had been mostly subsumed by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. In other words, once again Judaeans were in a unique position to benefit from Persian religious toleration, since other peoples were already too assimilated within the Assyro-Babylonian melting pot to be helped by Cyrus' Edict of Toleration.
For the next 200 years, until the Hellenic age commenced with the Alexandrian conquests 333-321 BCE, Judea developed in a very special way. Unlike other Persian provinces, the Jews were more "religiously conservative" as a result of their past history (as described previously). Also, during this period Judea's "buffer zone" status had disappeared. It was no longer a battleground state. The Persians ruled Egypt as well and so Judea held absolutely no political or material significance to the Persians. The Persians were perfectly fine with the Judaeans not worshipping Persian gods as long as they behaved themselves and paid the reasonable taxes demanded of them, which they did.
By the time of the Greek conquest of the Levant in 331 BCE, Judea once again was a meaningless province. Judea is NOT EVEN MENTIONED by Greek historians. The Tyrian siege and the Gazan conquest are vividly described by historians but there's no mention of Judea. Why? The Greeks completely overlooked this worthless Persian province. They couldn't care less what went on culturally and religiously within Judea. Judea was a way station to them -- a stopover on their way to Egypt and the great new city of Alexandria that the Greeks founded there. Needless to say Judea wasn't in any position to resist the Greek forces passing through the region; but neither were the Greeks interested in occupying Jerusalem since there was no material wealth to be had from it.
first written on Aug 3 2009
-to be continued-