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The Jewish Religious Background to the New Testament

Julian Spriggs, M.A.

I. Jewish Religious Groups

During the first century, Judaism was not a united religion, but was miserably divided between different groups. Each believed they were right and despised anyone who held a different view. The Pharisees and Sadducees held opposite opinions and hated each other. The Essenes looked down on both of them. Within the Pharisees, the schools of Hillel and Shamai contradicted each other on almost everything. Both groups were united in their contempt of the uneducated country people (or "sinners"), who were unable or unwilling to be involved in keeping the law. Also the people of Judea considered themselves as the purest Jews, and looked down upon what they saw as the provincial Galileans. However all Jews intensely hated foreigners, including the Samaritans, especially the occupying Roman soldiers and tax-collectors.

Pharisees

The Pharisees probably had their origins in the "Hasidim", or holy men, from the third century BC before the Maccabean wars, when the Greeks dominated and there were efforts to Hellenise the Jews. Alexander the Great conquered the whole known world in eleven years and imposed Greek culture on the lands he conquered. Many of the Jews were pressured to and accepted Greek culture and its associated pagan religious customs and idol worship. The Pharisees rose as a reaction and protest against this religious compromise by the Jews. Their aim was to maintain their national integrity and strict obedience to the Mosaic law and to resist the Greek culture. They were supporters of the Maccabean and Hasmonaean rulers. The original hasidim party split into two parts, the majority became known as the Pharisees, the minority withdrew from public life and became the Essenes.

They had great influence and public support under John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC), but he later turned to the Sadducees. They suffered under the rule of the Herods, and supported Roman rule, opposing the Jewish revolt of AD 66-70. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Pharisees were the only group able to maintain and restore the Jewish national and religious identity. By AD 200, the Pharisees became the leaders of the Jews and the focus of Judaism.

During the time of the Herods, there were about six thousand Pharisees, the most numerous and influential of the religious sects. They were mostly middle class tradesmen with no formal education, so were more in touch with the ordinary people. They gained their understanding of the law from the scribes. They had a passion to keep Israel spiritually and ethically clean by observation of the law. This derived from their belief that the Babylonian exile had been caused by Israel's failure to keep the Torah. To avoid breaking the law, they kept themselves as far as possible apart from other men. They could not eat with a non-Pharisee in case the food had not been tithed.

They established communities around the country, each community was led by a scribe. They met on the day before the Sabbath for their own meetings and worship. It was most difficult to become a Pharisee, it involved a period of probation, an agreement to observe all the details of the law and the oral traditions. Other Pharisees would check that the novice was being obedient.

There were two distinct and rival rabbinical schools, who differed in their interpretation of certain parts of the law. The first was the School of Shammai, which was stricter, more legalistic, and originally from an aristocratic family. The second was the School of Hillel which was more liberal, coming from a more humble background.

They believed in the law of Moses, but to avoid breaking it, had added many oral traditions. They saw that both of these were important. They believed that every jot and tittle of the law was inspired and given by God. Their oral laws extended and interpreted the Mosaic law to cover the whole of life. They "made a hedge about the Torah" to prevent them breaking the law by accident. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to be obedient to the law, they missed the spirit of the law (Mt 23:23-24).

They were the ultimate legalists, standing for rigid observance of every letter in the law and the Jewish Traditions, especially issues of ritual purity, food laws, tithing and the Sabbath. Their rules and regulations concerning the Sabbath were contained in twenty-four chapters of the Jewish Mishnah. It was their many detailed extra requirements of the Law were so opposed by Jesus. They were known for their covetousness, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Jesus denounced them for this most severely in Mt 23. He was opposed by the Pharisees throughout his ministry and spoke many parables against them. Paul was brought up as a Pharisee, before his conversion (Phil 3:5), in the school of Hillel, under Gamaliel.

Their basic teaching was separation from the Gentiles and everything non-Jewish. Other beliefs included:
  1. Immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body
  2. A future judgement of rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.
  3. The existence of angels and spirits.
  4. A future physical restoration of Israel by God, to a place of power and prestige.
  5. Merit with God was earned by scrupulous obedience to all details of the law.
  6. They were more fatalistic before an all-powerful God, who overruled the actions of men to achieve his own purpose

Sadducees

They probably started around the same time as the Pharisees, perhaps named after Zadok - the pure priestly line from the time of Solomon. Being more secularly minded, they adopted the Greek customs. They took no part in the Maccabean wars. They were a priestly clique, most priests were Sadducees, especially the powerful priestly families, but not all Sadducees were priests. They were irreligious, rude and disagreeable, having no following from among the people.

Though they were few in number, they were very wealthy and influential, having great power. They were the aristocracy of the Jews, their head being the High Priest. They had control over the Sanhedrin, in spite of their rationalistic and worldly mind-set. When Judah was conquered by the Romans, the Sadducees co-operated with the Romans, in order to preserve their wealth and privileged position. They disappeared after the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

The Pharisees were the principle opponents of the Sadducees, their main point of disagreement being over the resurrection of the body, the day of judgement and the life to come, which the Sadducees denied, a point which Paul takes to his advantage at his trial in Acts 23:6-10. This belief also inspired the question Jesus was asked by a Sadducee about the wife who had been married to seven brothers (Mk 12:18).

They also rejected the oral law, which was respected so much by the Pharisees. The accepted only the five books of Moses as inspired scripture.

They are not mentioned so often in the NT, but were also denounced by Jesus. Jesus aroused the wrath of the Sadducees by clearing the temple and by raising Lazarus from the dead. They are mentioned more in Acts, than in the gospels - the declaration of the resurrection by the apostles completely went contrary to their beliefs, so was vigorously opposed.

They disagreed with much of the teaching of the Pharisees, being far more conservative and materialistic in their outlook. They denied the following:

  1. Bodily resurrection from the dead
  2. Future punishment and rewards on day of judgement
  3. Existence of angels and spirits.
  4. Authority of any writings other than the five books of Moses
  5. They said there was no fate, prosperity came from one's own choice and actions - an emphasis on free-will.

Scribes

Scribes were the recognised experts in the study of the law of Moses (Torah) - this is why they were called lawyers. They had an un-distracted commitment to copy, study and interpret the law. This was originally done by the priests. Ezra was a priest and scribe (Neh 8:9). The scribes rose to prominence after the Babylonian exile. Most were very wealthy, and as they were not paid, supported themselves with their private means. Most Scribes were Pharisees, but were distinct from them. They clashed with the Sadducees concerning the resurrection (Acts 23).

The scribes initiated the synagogue service. Some were members of the Sanhedrin (Mt 16:21). Scribes became more important after AD 70. They preserved written records of the oral law and the Hebrew scriptures (our OT). They were the people who copied scripture - for this we owe them a great debt. The Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) describes the ideal scribe (Sir 39:1-11).

They had three major functions:

  1. To Preserve and to defend the law. To pass on the unwritten legal decisions (oral traditions). The decisions of leading scribes became the "oral law", or "tradition".
  2. To teach others. They had disciples, who were expected to memorise the law word for word. They held lectures in the synagogue and temple.
  3. They were entrusted with the law by the Sanhedrin.

II. Jewish Government

The Sanhedrin

The government and highest tribunal of the Jewish people, the Jewish supreme court. It consisted of seventy members, from Numbers chapter 11, when Moses chose seventy people to work with him in government. It probably started in the 3rd century BC. Its members included priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes and elders (heads of tribes or privileged families) and was presided over by the high priest. It had great power in Jesus' day, having all internal government control, but answerable to the Romans. Even Jews in the Dispersion respected the Sanhedrin. It decided cases of civil and criminal justice. It could order arrest, but the Romans did not allow it to pass the death sentence , therefore Jesus had to be taken before Pilate, the Roman procurator, before he could be crucified. The one exception was if a Gentile crossed the division in the temple. On the whole, there was a good system of justice with a bias towards innocence, although all the rules were broken for Jesus' trial. The Sanhedrin was abolished after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The chief priest or high priest

These are two names for the same person, who was the president of the Sanhedrin. In the OT, there was one high priest, a descendent of Aaron, who stayed in office until he died. In NT times, the high priest was a political figure, appointed by Herod, who could replace him at will.

The Herodians

As their name suggests, they were the party which supported the family of the tyrant Herod the Great. The Herodians (supporters of Herod Antipas) plotted, together with the Pharisees, to kill Jesus, even though normally these two groups would have been opposed to each other (Mk 3:6, 12:13-17).

Levites

From the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. They took care of the practical running of the temple, including being the temple guards and music. They were the lowest line of priestly hierarchy.

III. Aspects of the Jewish Religion

The Temple

After the return from the exile in Babylon, a simple temple was built by Zerubbabel, with encouragements from Haggai and Zechariah the prophets. This was replaced by a magnificent structure built by command of Herod the Great. Building had started in 19 BC and was still in progress during the time of the ministry of Jesus (Jn 2:20). It was only completed in AD 64, six years before it was destroyed by the Romans. Herod's temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, built with huge stones (Mk 13:1), with gold and marble.

The temple was the only place where sacrifices were allowed to take place. Herod's temple was overlooked by the Roman garrison in the fortress of Antonia, so the soldiers could keep watch over it. The Court of the Gentiles had degenerated into a market for sacrificial animals and money changers (Jn 2:13). In the porticos, any teacher could set up and gather men to listen to him. The Christians initially continued to meet in Solomon's Portico (Acts 5:12).

There is a detailed guide to Herod's Temple available on this website.

The Synagogue

There was only one temple, in Jerusalem, but each community which had at least ten adult male Jews had its own synagogue. It was the local centre for worship and study of the law, but no sacrificial ritual took place there. The Jewish community met on the Sabbath day to listen to the reading and exposition of the law and prophets (Lk 4:16) and for set prayers. The synagogue was also the local school, community centre and centre of local government, with the elders acting as the local magistrates. Any adult male Jew, especially any visitor, could be asked to bring a word following the reading of the Scriptures, as Paul was (Acts 13:15).

The ruler of the synagogue

This person took care of the physical arrangements of the synagogue service. He was the head of the council of ten Jewish men from the neighbourhood, who was in control of the synagogue. He took no part in the teaching.

The Dispersion

The name for the Jewish people who did not live in Judah. These were descendants of the Jews who had not returned with Ezra after the exile. They chose to stay in the lands of the Captivity, probably for economic reasons. There were more Jews in the Dispersion than in the land of Israel. All the provinces and major cities of the Roman empire had large Jewish populations. There were probably one million Jews in Egypt alone, and were especially numerous in Alexandria. They visited Jerusalem for the major feasts. Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). They were sometimes referred to as Hellenistic Jews. The dispersed Jews were less conservative than the Jews in Israel and had adapted to the Greek way of life after the conquests by Alexander the Great. Many were willing to learn from Greek ideas, but maintained their distinctive Jewishness. Many later writings, like the Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of Philo, were deeply influenced by Geek philosophy. Apollos, from Alexandria (Acts 18:24) most certainly can be grouped with these people.

Proselytes

The Jews among the Dispersion were far more aware of their mission to the Gentiles and made great effort to win converts. For a Gentile to accept the Jewish religion, he had to take the drastic step of renouncing his own nationality and becoming a Jew and obeying all the law of Moses. He had to be circumcised and baptised, and keep all the ritual and food laws. In spite of these great demands, many people became proselytes.

God-fearers

Many people were attracted to the purity and monotheism of Judaism in contrast to the decadent polytheism of the Roman Empire. They were happy to identify themselves with the ideals and faith of the Jews, but were reluctant to go the whole way and become Jews. Many of these God-Fearers responded to the gospel and joined the church, including Cornelius (Acts 10:2), and many in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4).

IV. Jewish Scriptures and Writings

The Torah

The five books of Moses, the law. Often "Torah" was used to refer to the whole of the scriptures (our OT).

The Targum

These are translations of portions of the Hebrew OT into Aramaic, with added oral traditions, paraphrases and interpretations, made mostly after the Babylonian exile.

The Talmud

The collection of various Jewish traditions and oral explanations of the written Torah, finally written down in the 2nd century AD. The written Torah was studied and the number of commandments counted. These were protected with new laws, which, if kept, would guarantee the keeping of the basic commandments. This was known as "making a hedge about the Torah". These were then applied to every possible area and possibility of life.

It has 4 sections:

  1. The Mishnah

    The oral law which was in existence by the end of the 2nd century BC, and was collected by Rabbi Judah the Prince. The Mishnah is divided into 6 orders or divisions (Sedarim):

    1. Seeds Agricultural laws & associated religious duties to priests, Levites and the poor.
    2. Feasts Religious feasts, sabbath observance & associated sacrifices.
    3. Women Laws of marriage, divorce, adultery, levirate marriage, the Nazarite vow.
    4. Fines Civil, commercial & legal procedures, ethical maxims by Rabbis.
    5. Sacred things Sacrifices, first-born, clean/unclean animals, description of Herod's temple.
    6. Purifications Levitical cleanness & uncleanness, purifications.
  2. Gemara

    Commentary on the Mishnah made by Rabbis from AD 200 to 500.

  3. Halakhah

    Legal enactments and precepts, including the discussions which led to the conclusions

  4. Haggadah

    Non legal interpretations

  5. The Midrash (Midrashim)

    These are older commentaries on certain parts of the scriptures (The Pentateuch, five rolls, Lamentations, Psalms and Proverbs), used for exposition of the scriptures for more devotional teaching or preaching. They probably pre-date the Talmud.

V. Other Religious Groups

The Essenes

This group is normally associated with the Qumran Community and the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, which formed part of their library. Essenes were a monastic sect living in an isolated communities in the desert, the Qumran Community being one near the Dead Sea. Mystery still surrounds this group, it is not certain whether the Qumran Community were Essenes or not. The Essenes were formed by someone known as "The Teacher of Righteousness" in 165 BC, and were destroyed by the Jewish revolt in AD 68.

They considered themselves as the only true people of God, all others, including the Jewish leaders were their enemies, seeing the high priests as illegitimate. They were "The Sons of Light" and eagerly awaited their final victory against "The Sons of Darkness". In contrast to the Pharisees, they had no hope of changing the political situation themselves, but dreamed of a mighty intervention of God to deliver them from Roman oppression.

In their monastic communities they studied the scriptures and wrote commentaries applying the O.T. passages to their own situation and expectations. These gave an ascetic apocalyptic strain to Judaism, very different from the establishment in Jerusalem. They expected two Messiahs, one priestly of Aaron, and one royal of Israel.

The Zealots

The Zealots were revolutionaries and freedom-fighters who attempted to throw off Roman government by force. They believed that to be subject to Rome was and act of treason to their true King, God. One of their great heros were Judas Maccabeus, who led the revolt which freed Judea from Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC. Another was Phineas, grandson of Aaron, who, when the Israelites had yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor, killed an Israelite who was sleeping with a Midianite woman (Num 25:1-18).

It was the Zealots, who finally sparked off the great rebellion, which led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. There had been attempted revolts by Zealots before the time of Jesus (Acts 5:36). One of the twelve apostles was a former Zealot (Lk 6:15). A well known Zealot was Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37), who rebelled during the census for taxation in AD 6. He had a passion to overthrow the Romans.

The Samaritans

The Samaritans were the descendants of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom who remained in the land after the fall of Samaria and intermarried with the population imported from Assyria (2 Kg 17). They were despised and hated by the Jews because they had intermarried with foreigners and were seen as a heretical sect.

They built a temple on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem (Jn 4:20), but this was destroyed by Hyrcanus in 128 BC. Their religion was very similar to the Jewish religion. They only used the five books of Moses as their scriptures and awaited a prophet like Moses. A small community of Samaritans still survives today.

Recommended Reading:

F.F. Bruce. New Testament History. Pickering, Basingstoke 1969.
A. Edersheim. Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Hendrickson, Peabody 1994.
A. Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson 1994.
All books by Alfred Edersheim are in public domain on-line on: www.ccel.org

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