, the status of whether a person is Jewish or not is considered to be "inherited" through the mother. This Halacha
has been around since the origins of Judaism as a culture, at least as far back as when the Torah
was received by Moses
on Mt. Sinai
. Many claims, however, have attempted to place the inauguration of this "Custom
" significantly more recently than the correct date.
Without discussing Individual claims for when it was that this "Custom" originated, I will explore the documentary evidence that this law was well known at the destruction of the second temple. Since many will contend that direct evidence from the Old Testament was posiibly more recently modified, the oldest documents extant are from just before, during, and after the destruction of the temple.
In any case, The Mishna, which was a compilation of sayings from the Tannaic period (from approximately 50 B.C.E. - 200 C.E.) about the law as they understood it, seems to take the fact that matrilineal descent for granted. According to one opinion listed, a woman who has a baby from a non-jewish man is considered to be a "Mamzer," (Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 23, verse 3) According to the other opinion, which is listed as the one we follow, there is no legal distinction between this child and one born from both Jewish parents, except that he cannot claim membership in a tribe, as this is a status inherited from the father. (This means that the child is non a Levite, but otherwise has no practically different rules than a member of the other 11 tribes. However, it has been contended that the Mishna may not be the same text as that which originally existed, though at the least, it is the same manuscript as was in use in 600 C.E.
If someone were to reject the Mishna as a source, due to the fact that it cannot be verified far enough back, there are sources form the Midrash, a set of collections of Tannaic literature explaining scripture, some of which, it is clear, dates to well before the destruction of the second temple, we see that this understanding of Matrilineal descent is taken for granted as well. The example I remember most clearly is from when Joseph marries an "Egyptian" woman, (Genesis 41, 50) the Midrash explains how the children, Ephraim and Menashe, are jewish. The reason given is that the girl Joseph marries is the daughter of Dina, who was raped by Shechem, (Genesis 34) (And the daughter of this union is assumed to be Jewish.) Contrast this with the casual liason that Yehuda (Judah) had with Tamar, (Genesis 38) when he thought that she was not a jewess (and it is clear from midrashic sources that he is not concerned with any offspring that may have resulted, seeing as the child would clearly not be Jewish.)
There are those who feel, however, that since the Midrash was not widely distributed, and many textual discrepancies exist, therefore, though there is no specific evidence, large sections of it could have been altered in the intervening 2000 years, and a more reputable source, such as the Talmud, is needed, since it is clear from documentary evidence that it was not changed significantly since it was written, 1500 years ago. In Tractate Avodah Zarah, which discusses business and personal relationships between Jews and those non-Jews who practice Idol Worship, it is clear in several places that a relationship between a jewess and a non-jew is Jewish, especially in cases involving capture by a non-jewish army, where we say that a child born to the woman through rape, is a Mamzer, since it is a forbidden relationship since the woman is married. A proof that children of jewish men with non-jewish women is from the discussion in the Talmud of the payment for rape (50 peices of silver, in Deuteronomy 22, verse 28) where it says that a non-jewish woman is not entitled to this specific payment, and is instead entitled to a seperate type of damages claim, which a jewish woman (according to most opions, including the one that is followed) is not.
It is possible, given all of these sources, still to doubt that the rule was given more than 3000 years ago to moses, but to claim that it originated after the holocaust is patently ridiculous, and claiming it originates during the 2000 yeaars of exile since the destruction of the Second Temple is a only somewhat less difficult to support claim.