Judaism in the Time of Jesus

Judaism was a Diverse Phenomenon

In Christian circles the Judaism of the time of Jesus has often been thought of as an outward legalistic religion to which the message of Jesus and the early Christians was a complete antithesis. Such a picture has, however, proved to be a blatant caricature. Today the ministry of Jesus is seen rather as a movement within Judaism rather than as something opposed to it. At the same time people have begun to understand how complex and still developing a phenomenon first-century Judaism was.

At the beginning of the Christian era Judaism was divided into several different groups, each of which had its own views concerning the true Jewish way of life. On the other hand, certain basic beliefs were common to them all.

The Basic Beliefs of Judaism

Although at the beginning of the Christian era Judaism comprised several different groups, certain basic beliefs were common to them all: belief in one God, belief in the covenant which God had made with his people Israel, and belief in the foundational book of this covenant, the Law of God or the Torah.

The covenant between God and Israel comprised duties and commitments which pertained to both parties. God committed himself to treat Israel in accordance with its special position as his own people, and to teach the Israelites the principles of a good and blessed life. Israel made the commitment to be obedient to God and to live a life befitting the people of God. These principles are found in the Torah or Law of Moses, its teaching and practical applications. The Torah also included directions concerning atonement for offences committed so that the covenant might nevertheless remain in effect.

It is important to note that in Judaism the Law is not a way of salvation. Salvation - the election of God - is based exclusively on the grace of God.

Jewish Groups

At the beginning of the Christian era Judaism was divided into many different groups. These were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots - and the Jesus Movement. In spite of differences between them the groups were united by certain basic beliefs.

The Pharisees

In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as the influential arch-enemies of Jesus. They tirelessly watch how the Jewish people observe the purity and holiness code. From this the word 'Pharisee' has come commonly to be a synonym of 'hypocrite'. Such a picture of the Pharisees is, however, one-sided. In fact the Pharisees were one Jewish group among many - a lay movement which placed emphasis on the Torah (the Law of Moses and its interpretation) and in particular on the importance of the purity code for everyday holiness.

There were also many different types of Pharisee. Some of them seem to have been fairly close to Jesus in their thinking. Sayings resembling the teaching of Jesus occur among the sayings of Rabbi Hillel, for instance, and Hillel was active in Pharisaic circles. The Apostle Paul also came from among the Pharisees.

In the opinion of the Pharisees holiness was not only for the priests and the Temple. By observing the purity code every member of the people of God might participate in the holiness of God. In the interpretation of the written Law the Pharisees had the help of the so-called 'Oral Law', i.e. oral tradition consisting of explanations of the Law which was thought to go back to Moses himself.

Conflicts between the Pharisees and the disciples of Jesus came to a head after the death of Jesus, when the Jesus movement began to accept Gentiles into membership without demanding that they be circumcised or that they observe the purity code. These controversies are reflected in the way the Pharisees are portrayed in the New Testament.

Another group often mentioned in the New Testament in connection with the Pharisees are the Teachers of the Law. Here we are dealing with a very different group of people. While the Pharisees were a kind of revival movement, 'Teacher of the Law' is a professional term. The Teachers of the Law were authoritative professional interpreters of the Torah.

The Sadducees

Only sparse information has been preserved concerning the Sadducees, and none of it is impartial; most of the information comes from their opponents. In the traditional view the Sadducees were from the Hellenized Jewish upper class, which supported stable conditions and the prevailing social order, and whose religion was reasonable and worldly. The Sadducees did not, for example, believe in life after death.

The name of the Sadducees is believed to derive from the family of Zadok, the high priest who served as high priest in the days of King David. Not all the Sadducees were priests, however, and their number included other aristocrats. On the other hand, evidently only a small minority of the upper class were Sadducees.

The Essenes

The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament; the information concerning them is derived from other sources. Since 1947 manuscript and archaeological discoveries have been made at Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea, and they are thought to derive from the Essenes who dwelt there.

The Essenes were a protest movement which withdrew from the world. They believed that the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple was elected on false pretences, which invalidated the whole Temple cult. In addition, the calendar used by the Essenes and their way of interpreting and observing the Law of Moses differed from the rest of Judaism.

The Essene community of Qumran saw itself as the only true Israel, "children of light" as distinct from the "children of darkness" and their corrupt religious practices. The members of the community lived a disciplined life dictated by the regulations and a strict system of values. At the same time they - like many of their contemporaries - expected that God would soon intervene in the course of history in a decisive manner.

The Qumran Discoveries
Summary; original Sarianna Metso/Helsinki University Press 1997.

The Qumran discoveries were made at the north-western end of the Dead Sea in the years 1947-56. In eleven caves in the desert there were found manuscripts of the Old Testament, other religious texts and the writings of the religious group who lived at Qumran: rules of the community, liturgical texts and doctrinal material. The texts written on leather and papyrus scrolls were in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages. Some of the manuscripts were carefully packed in clay jars; most, however, were lying on the floors of the caves, at the mercy of damp and worms.

In the vicinity of the caves were excavated ruins of a group of buildings covering an area of 100 x 80 metres. The first of these was built in about 150 B.C. The main building contained assembly and work rooms and had a two-storey stone tower. Water collected from high up in the mountains was stored in large rainwater storage containers and tanks. Some tanks were used for ritual bathing. In the area was also found a large cemetery containing over a thousand graves. The manuscripts were evidently concealed in the caves for fear of discovery by Roman soldiers. The Roman army destroyed the settlement in 68 A.D.

The oldest manuscripts found at Qumran were fragments of Old Testament manuscript copies from the third century B.C. The majority of the manuscripts, however, date from the two centuries preceding the turn of the era and the first century following it, that is, the time when the group that wrote and copied the scrolls lived at Qumran.

The number of texts found is over two hundred. Many of the scrolls are, however, so badly damaged that only odd fragments are left.

For further information about this subject see http://metalab.unc.edu/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibit/intro.html

The Zealots

The Zealots (Greek zelotes, 'zealot') was a general term for a person who was zealous for a cause, in particular for the religious group he belonged to. One of Jesus' twelve disciples was a Simon who bore this nickname.

Later the name Zealots came to refer to a rebel organization which supported armed resistance to Rome. This group only became a united, recognizable party just before the Jewish War.

The Jewish Diaspora

Diaspora means 'dispersion'. The term was used of Jewish communities living outside Palestine.

At the beginning of the Christian era there were Jews living all over the Roman Empire and in the East beyond the frontiers of the Empire. They lived in the country and in the towns, and they came from all social classes and professions. Their customs were known everywhere, even if they were not always regarded favourably. On the other hand, their strict monotheism and high moral standards attracted many, and they often had influential patrons.

Sometimes non-Jews joined the Jewish community. Those who converted and became full members were called proselytes. Becoming a member was preceded by ritual purification (baptism) and in the case of male proselytes by circumcision. At the same time the newcomers committed themselves to observing the commands of the Torah. This was a great deal to ask, and the number of proselytes remained fairly small.

"God-fearers" was the name for non-Jews who instead of becoming proselytes were satisfied with observing the Jewish way of life and taking part in the life of the Jewish community as far as it was possible. This group later become fertile ground for early Christian missionary work.

Diaspora Jews also met in synagogues, the size and manner of construction of which depended on the resources of the community. In large towns there might be several. The head of the synagogue was the spiritual leader and senior teacher of the community. Temporal matters were looked after by the council of elders, the secretary acting as bookkeeper and correspondent. The synagogue servant was responsible for maintaining the property and for keeping order and if necessary he led the prayers.

Besides being a place of worship the synagogue had a Torah school. The synagogue also functioned as a communal meeting-place and as somewhere where people from various professions could meet together.

Graeco-Roman society set its members certain obligations, not all of which could be fulfilled by Torah-observant Jews. Thus they were granted exemptions, for instance in relation to the cult of the emperor and service in the army.

The Purity and Holiness Code

Regulations concerning purity and holiness are found in many cultures in different parts of the world. The terms 'clean' and 'unclean' did not then refer to cleanliness and getting dirty in the present sense of the words. Rather it was a question of the kind of actions, substances, matters, objects and places which it was desired to place out of bounds for the community.

In early Judaism attitudes towards the purity and holiness code contained in the Torah or Law of Moses varied: in the Diaspora, Jews were more liberal-minded than in Palestine, among the Pharisees and Essenes stricter than outside these groups. In any case the purity code seems to have grown in importance as the beginning of the Christian era approached.

According to the Torah, a person became unclean if he or she touched something unclean. As long as he or she was unclean he or she was not allowed to come in contact with clean people or objects. In some cases uncleanness disappeared by itself after a determined period of time had elapsed; sometimes to become clean one was required to offer a sacrifice and/or perform ritual washing. Typical sources of uncleanness were bodily secretions, corpses, unclean animals and wrongly prepared food.

Holiness, too, was based on being untouched. If the holy and unclean came into contact, one or other ceased to exist: the holy became unholy or it destroyed the unclean thing. Therefore the holy had to be separated from the areas of everyday life that were susceptible to uncleanness so as to form an area of its own. This might happen in several different ways.

The way of protecting holiness might be a time-limit: feast-days such as the Sabbath and the annual festivals were sanctified by excluding everyday activities such as work. This made it possible to observe rites that demanded holiness at these times.

The boundary might be one of space. The holiest was in the heart of numerous concentric boundaries: Israel is a holy land, the holiest place of which is Jerusalem, the holiest place of which is Mount Zion, the holiest place of which is the Temple, the holiest place of which is the Holy of Holies.

Further, the boundary might be between people. Israel was a holy people, which was distinguished from the Gentiles by the fact that Israel observed the Law of God. The concrete manifestations of this obedience were male circumcision, the dietary rules and the observance of the Sabbath. The holiness of the priests was to be greater than that of the ordinary people. One of the characteristic features of the Pharisees was that they endeavoured to observe the purity code of the priests.

In general purity and holiness codes have a tendency to be reinforced when the identity of the community is threatened. Boundaries remind the members of the community who they are. For the same reason the purity and holiness code played an important part when Christianity diverged from Judaism. When the principal external identifying features of Judaism were no longer required for membership in the community, Judaism was left behind. Christianity had become an independent movement.

The Temple

The Temple was the most important symbol of the Jewish people, the centre of life, where the national, the cultural, the religious and the political were fused.

The first Jerusalem Temple was built by King Solomon. The Babylonians destroyed it in 587 B.C. At the same time the upper classes of the kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon.

After conquering the Babylonian Empire, Cyrus, the king of Persia, granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland and build a new temple. Five hundred years later King Herod initiated a massive rebuilding project, the aim of which was to restore the splendour of Solomon's Temple. The Temple was dedicated in 18 B.C., but the project was only completed in the 60s A.D. Its size and beauty were widely known, but it was destroyed in the turmoil of the Jewish War in 70 A.D.

A new temple could no longer be built because the Jews were expelled from Palestine half a century later. Today the site is occupied by mosques, so both archaeological excavations and the construction of a new temple are impossible. All that remains is a section of the Temple wall, the so-called 'Wailing Wall'.

The outer court of Herod's Temple was called the 'Court of the Gentiles'. Inside it was the Temple area, divided off by a wall, to which all but Jews were forbidden entry on pain of death.

The outer part of the Temple area proper was the 'Court of the Women', then the 'Court of the Men'. Only priests were permitted to proceed further, to the altar. On this altar were performed the daily animal sacrifices.

The inner vestibule of the Temple was called 'holy'. Here were the seven-branched candlestick, the table of the shewbread and the altar. The 'holy' was divided from the 'holy of holies' by a curtain, inside which the high priest was allowed to go once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the whole people.

In the outmost court of the Temple were traders, from whom pilgrims who had travelled from afar might purchase sacrificial animals. The money-changers exchanged foreign currency for silver shekels, with which the Temple tax and the price of the sacrificial animal were paid.

In the Temple area was also the Antonia Fortress, one of Herod's palaces, which was located in the north-west corner of the area. From the fortress it was possible to maintain order in the Temple, especially during Passover. It may have been in the Antonia Fortress that Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified.

In the Temple there served both priests and Levites. The latter did not participate in the sacrificial cult but took care of the music, guarding and cleaning of the Temple.

The Temple Sacrifices
Summary; original © Tuomas Rasimus 1998.

The priests offered numerous sacrifices in the Temple every day, since the Law of Moses obliged Jews to purify themselves and atone for their sins by offering a sacrifice. In addition, thanksgiving offerings were sacrificed. The victim might be a sheep or a dove; flour and wine might also be offered as a sacrifice. In addition to the sacrifices brought by individuals, communal sacrifices were offered every day in the Temple.

- An example of the sacrifice of a sheep

The animal's throat was slit and the blood was collected in a bowl for throwing on the altar. The animal was skinned and the fat was burnt in the fire on the altar. The hide and part of the meat was put to one side, for the priests gained their living from the sacrifices during their term of service in the Temple. The rest of the meat was given to the person who brought the offering. He left the Temple to eat it with his friends and family.

A burnt offering was an offering which was burnt whole in the fire on the altar (the blood and hide were removed before the offering was burnt). Because the sacrificial animal had to be flawless, it was most convenient to buy it in the Temple. The pilgrim who came from afar took a substantial risk in bringing the sacrificial victim with him, for it might injure itself on the journey and no longer be fit to be sacrificed.

The Synagogue

Both in villages and in towns the Jews gathered for worship in the synagogue, where other community matters were also dealt with. The synagogue was the place for trials, teaching, care of the poor and accommodation of Jews from elsewhere. In the synagogue the first Christians, too, preached their message, and the activities of the synagogue offered a model for the first Christian communities.

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