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Chapter Summary

Judaism was one of the religions of the Greco-Roman world, and it is perhaps most important for our study because Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews. They read Jewish scriptures, worshipped the Jewish God, and kept Jewish customs. To understand Jesus, then, we must first understand first-century Judaism.

Like pagans, Jews believed in the existence of a higher realm and a powerful deity, that this deity provided benefits for those who worship him or her properly, and that proper worship included prayer and sacrifice. In addition, there were temple priests who oversaw the sacred space and ritual acts.

Monotheism: The Belief in the One True God

Like pagans, most Jews believed in a hierarchy of supernatural beings, but unlike pagans, Jews advocated the exclusive worship of the one supreme creator God. About six hundred years before Jesus, most Jews were exiled from their homeland when the Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom of Judah. This exile is known as the diaspora, literally, the dispersion of the Jews from Palestine. By the time of Jesus, more Jews lived in the diaspora than in Palestine. Most Jews in the diaspora, moreover, knew Greek, not Hebrew, so the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX).

The Covenant: Israel’s Pact with Its God

Most Jews believed that the one supreme God had established a special relationship with them. This pact, or covenant, entailed God’s protection of his chosen people and their proper response to this protection, the observance of his laws.

The Law: Israel’s Covenantal Obligations

God’s laws are contained in the Torah, a term that can mean the laws Moses received on Mt. Sinai or the first five books of the Bible (also called the Pentateuch). These books tell the stories of creation and primeval history, Jewish patriarchs and matriarch, and the entry into the Promised Land. The Jewish Law covered aspects of both communal and cultic life. Jews did not believe they had to keep every law to earn God’s favor. On the contrary, they followed the Law because they had already received God’s favor through the covenant. The Law, then, was not considered a burden but a gift resulting from God’s favor.

Temple and Synagogue: Israel’s Places of Worship

In addition to being monotheistic (or henotheistic), diaspora Jews were unique in the ancient world because they worshipped a god of a distant land, not a local god. Although Jewish ritual worship was similar to the worship of pagan gods, the sacrificial worship of the Jewish God took place exclusively in Jerusalem, at the only Temple for the Jewish God. He received sacrifices only in Jerusalem (in contrast to the many temples of other deities throughout the Empire) because the inner sanctum of the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy of Holies, was regarded as the specific place of his presence. Because most Jews could not worship in the Jerusalem Temple (because they lived in the diaspora), synagogues, houses of prayer and study, arose.

Forms of Early Judaism

Although there was general agreement among Jews in one true God, who made a covenant with them and provided them with laws, significant diversity also existed within early Judaism. Many of the different forms of Judaism emerged during a series of political crises.

Political Crises in Palestine and Their Ramifications

For about eight hundred years, the Jews and their land had been ruled by foreign powers. In 721 BCE, the northern kingdom, Israel, was conquered by Assyria, scattering the Israelites and resettling the northern kingdom with other peoples. In 587–586 BCE, the southern kingdom, Judah, was conquered by Babylonia. Many Jews (descendents of those from the southern kingdom of Judah) were forced to leave the land—the beginning of the diaspora. About fifty years later, after the Persians defeated Babylonia, exiled Jews were allowed to return to the land. Eventually, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire and introduced Greek culture, or Hellenism, into the Mediterranean world. After Alexander the Great died, his general Ptolemy ruled Palestine, followed by his heirs. During this time, the Jewish high priest was the local ruler, a state of affairs that did not change when Syria gained control of the region. Under the Syrian rulers, Hellenization was pushed more aggressively onto the Jews. One ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, made circumcision illegal, turned the Jewish Temple into a pagan sanctuary, and required the Jews to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. In response to this, a revolt broke out in 167 BCE, led by Judas Maccabeus. The Jewish Revolt was successful, and the Jews ruled themselves for almost a century until the Romans conquered Palestine in 63 BCE. The prominent Jewish historian, Josephus, described four philosophies (or groups) of Judaism that arose around the time of the Maccabean revolt: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Fourth Philosophy.

The Formation of Jewish Groups

The Pharisees were a group of devout Jews who were, above all else, intent on keeping the entire will of God. Because the laws given to Moses were often vague, the Pharisees debated what was and was not allowed if one was to keep the laws (these decisions are known as the “oral law”; many of these oral traditions were later written down in the Rabbinic period in a document known as the Mishnah, which later became the heart of the Talmud). The Pharisees held very little political power until after the Jewish revolt against Rome that culminated in the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

The Sadducees were the primary political power-holders in Jesus’ lifetime. They were the priestly and aristocratic Jews whose main affiliation was with the Jerusalem Temple. They also made up the majority of the Sanhedrin, the local Jewish council. They did not agree with the Pharisaic oral laws or believe in an afterlife (as opposed to the Pharisees). They deemed authoritative only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch).

The Essenes were a separatist group that believed that the Pharisees were too lax in their religious observances, while the Sadducees were corrupt and had defiled the Temple (largely because a non-Zadokite high priest had been appointed by the Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees who had taken power after the Jewish Revolt). In 1947, a collection of texts was discovered, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which most scholars now ascribe to a group of Essenes who had left Jerusalem and settled at Qumran in the desert near the Dead Sea. In addition to community rules and several other kinds of texts, these scrolls contain portions of all the books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. The Essenes are the only one of the four philosophies not mentioned in the New Testament.

The Fourth Philosophy referred to a number of individual groups whose common goal was to overthrow the foreign powers that ruled the land of Israel. These groups favored armed rebellion against foreign authorities. Among the groups were the Sicarii (the “daggermen”) and the Zealots.

The Jewish Context for the Traditions about Jesus

Like their pagan counterparts, the Jews believed divine beings sometimes appeared in human form. Jews who stood in a special relationship to God were known as sons of God. These men performed miracles such as healing the sick and calming the storm. Thus, stories about Jesus’ miracles were intelligible to both Jews and pagans in the ancient world.

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