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Chapter 03

Chapter summary

Chapter 03

The Environment of Early Christian Traditions:

The World of Ancient Judaism

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/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
As opposed to pagans, however, Jews were monotheistic. Although they believed in a hierarchy of supernatural beings, they advocated the worship of the one supreme, creator God. About 550 years before Jesus, most Jews were exiled from the Promised Land 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 the Jews. 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 laws were not considered burdensome to the Jews. Jews did not believe they had to keep every law in order to earn God's favor. On the contrary, they followed the law because they had already received God's favor. The law, then, was considered a gift not a burden.

Temple and Synagogue: Israel's Places of Worship
In addition to being monotheistic, the 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 only in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Temple was the only Temple for the Jewish God. He received sacrifices only in Jerusalem (not like the temples of other deities throughout the Empire) because he dwelled in the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Since most Jews could not worship in the Jerusalem Temple (because they lived in the diaspora), synagogues, houses of prayer and study, arose.

Political Crises in Palestine and Their Ramifications
The prominent Jewish historian, Josephus, described four philosophies (or groups) of Judaism that arose around the time of the Maccabean revolt (ca. 167 B.C.E.): Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Fourth Philosophy. The Maccabean revolt and the sects of Judaism were largely the result of the political history of the Jews in Palestine. For about 800 years, the Jews and their land had been ruled by foreign powers. In 721 BCE, the northern kingdom, Israel, was conquered by Assyria. In 587-86 BCE, the southern kingdom, Judah, was conquered by Babylonia. It was at this time that many Jews were forced to leave the land-the beginning of the diaspora. About fifty years later, the Persians defeated Babylonia and the Jews were allowed to return to the land. Eventually, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian empire and began the movement of Greek culture into the Mediterranean world-a process known as Hellenism. After Alexander the Great died, Ptolemy ruled Palestine. 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 violently 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 led by Judas Maccabeus. The Jewish revolt was successful and the Jews ruled themselves for almost a century until the Romans conquered Palestine. The four sects of Judaism, then, arose out of this political climate.

The Formation of Jewish Sects
The Pharisees were a group of devout Jews who were, above all else, intent on keeping the law in its entirety. Since 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;" the written form of these oral traditions is known as the Mishnah, the heart of the Talmud). The Pharisees held very little political power until after the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

The Sadducees were the political players in Jesus' lifetime. They were the priestly and aristocratic Jews whose main affiliation was with the Jerusalem Temple. They did not subscribe to the Pharisaic oral laws, they did not believe in an afterlife (as opposed to the Pharisees), and 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, and the Sadducees were corrupt and had defiled the Temple (largely because a non-Zadokite high priest was appointed by the Hasmoneans). Some Essenes left Jerusalem and settled in the desert near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a collection of their texts was discovered, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 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. This is 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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