History of Christianity: Lecture Three—Ancient Judaism


This is a summary of the third part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

1. Judaism and other Ancient Religions.

In order to understand early Christianity in its historical context, we need to understand the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world, which were covered in Lecture Two, and ancient Judaism, which is covered in this lecture.

Judaism is often portrayed by modern scholars as having been unlike any other ancient religious tradition, but this is not the case. If it were totally unlike any other ancient religion, it wouldn’t have even recognized as a religion. Judaism was like other religions of the ancient world in many respects, although it was also different in many ways. It had some similarities.

2. Similarities between Ancient Judaism and Ancient Paganism

Similarity #1: Hierarchical Divine Realm

Ancient Judaism was like paganism in that ancient Jews believed in a divine realm that was inhabited by one supreme God, but which contained other divine beings of lesser orders like archangels, cherubim, seraphim, angels and demons. Judaism and Paganism both conceived of a Divine Realm which could be structured hierarchically like a pyramid with the one supreme God at the top.

Similarity #2: Sacred Places of Worship

Jews, like Pagans, had special sacred places where worship of the Divine took place in the form of sacrifices to be done and prayers to be recited.

Similarity #3: Cultic Acts

Jews, like Pagans, saw worship as principally involving cultic acts such as animal sacrifices and prayers in accordance with their ancient tradition. These cultic acts were meant to propitiate God and were meant to demonstrate their religious devotion.

Similarity #4: Present Life

Jews, like Pagans, were principally interested in life in the present rather than life after death. God was particularly interested in this world and how people lived within it.

3. Differences between Ancient Judaism and Ancient Paganism

There were, however, significant differences between Ancient Judaism and other religions, although it also true that there was significant diversity even with Ancient Judaism itself.

Difference #1: Monotheistic vs. Polytheistic

Possibly the most important difference between ancient Judaism and ancient Paganism was that Judaism was monotheistic. Some pagans thought there was one supreme god over all others, but Jews took this one step further: there was only one God who was to be worshipped, the God that created the universe. This God was more powerful than all the other gods. Most Jews at an early period in their religious history did believe in the existence of other gods. Evidence of this can be found in the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible, where it says, “thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This presupposes that other gods existed; they just weren’t supposed to be worshipped ahead of the God of Israel. By the time of the 1st century AD, however, many Jews had come to believe that there was really was only real ultimate God.

This God was not the God of a particular locality, as many pagan deities were. Originally, the Jewish God may have been conceived of a local deity, namely, the deity of the land of Judah. The name “Judaism” comes from the fact that Jews came from Judah. When Jews became dispersed outside of their home land of Judah, they continued to worship the God of Judah and were known by others as “Jews”. By the 1st century AD, this God was not thought to be a local deity, but a universal God. This God was far beyond the conception of what humans could imagine, and was so holy, and so distinct from everyone else, that not even name could be pronounced. Jews therefore spelled God’s name therefore in a way that couldn’t be pronounced. This is the famous Tetragrammaton or “four letters” ( יהוה in Hebrew) which consist of God’s personal name that can never be pronounced.

Difference #2: Covenantal vs. Non-covenantal relation with deity

Ancient Jews believed that God entered a covenant of pact with humanity that he would agree to protect mankind if they agreed to worship him in the ways he instructed them. This covenant that was described in the Hebrew Bible was made between God and the father of the Jews, Abraham, but confirmed under Moses, the great savior of Israel, whom God had raised up to deliver his people out of their slavery in Egypt.

Difference #3: Laws vs. Rituals

After Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, God gave him his laws on Mount Sinai. This was the law that was to direct the worship and communal life of the people of Israel. The law comprises the third major distinction between Judaism and Paganism. The law of Moses represented the covenantal obligation of the Jews to God.

This law came to be embedded in writings, particularly the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which are simply called the Torah as a group. The word Torah means “guidance” or “direction” or “Law”. Sometimes the books of the Torah are referred to by their Greek name, the Pentateuch, meaning “five scrolls” in Greek.

Many Christians in the modern world do not understand the importance of the Law within Judaism. Many Christians have been raised to think of the Law as some sort of undoable list of dos and don’ts which had to be followed for salvation, but which couldn’t be followed for salvation, so Jews were stuck with a law they couldn’t keep which therefore led them into damnation.

In fact, Jews themselves never saw the Law as undoable list of dos and don’ts . Instead, the Law was seen by most Jews as the greatest gift God had ever given to humans. This was God’s direction on how to worship Him and on how Jews could live together in their communities. Jews saw the law as the greatest joy, because following the Law meant yielding oneself to the all powerful and loving God who ruled the universe and called his people out of their slavery. Following the Law was not a requirement for salvation for ancient Jews; following the Law was the response to the salvation that God had already given his people. Included in the Law, of course, were not just the Ten Commandments, but also laws that were designed to make the Jews distinct from other peoples. Jews, for example, circumcised their baby boys. They were not to work one day in the week on the Sabbath. They were to observe special food laws referred as “keeping kosher”, such as not eating pork or shrimp.

Difference #4: Distinctive Temple vs. Multiple Temples

Jews had distinctive places of worship; Jews in the first century AD especially worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem. Pagan religions had many temples where sacrifices could be made and prayers said to the gods; Jews had only one temple where sacrifices could be performed, a temple that was located, in accordance with the Law itself, in the city of Jerusalem. This temple was a particularly large and glorious place in the days of Jesus. The ten-story high walls that surrounded the temple encompassed an area that was large enough to place 25 American football fields. The inner parts of the Temple were magnificently done; in the days of Jesus, parts of it were overlaid with gold. It was an extremely expensive and glorious site that Jews would come from all over the world to visit and worship in. This was the only place in Judaism where animal sacrifices could be offered to God. Moreover, since animal sacrifices were so much a part of the religion, the Temple was the central place for all Jewish worship.

Jews would come from all over the world especially at times of annual festivals like the Passover Feast, which commemorated the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under Moses. Most Jews in the first century AD, of course, didn’t live anywhere near Jerusalem, but had scattered throughout the Mediterranean during different periods of foreign conquest. Since the temple was so remote for most Jews that they could never go there, there developed by the time of the New Testament a practice of having local places of worship called synagogues. The word synagogue is a Greek term meaning “a gathering together,” so the synagogue was a place where Jews could gather together for prayer and the study of Torah. At this time, a synagogue could be formed wherever there was a quorum of 10 adult men. There were no sacrifices performed in the synagogue; instead, the synagogue was a place of prayer and the reading and interpretation of Torah undertaken on the Jewish day of rest, the Sabbath.

This describes some of the basic features of Judaism, how it is both similar to and different from Paganism. Here is a summary of these features.

Fig. 1 Similarities and Differences between Ancient Judaism and Ancient Paganism

Ancient Judaism Ancient Paganism
1. Similarities Hierarchical divine realm Hierarchical divine realm
2. Sacred places of worship Sacred places of worship
3. Cultic acts Cultic acts
4. Present life Present life
5. Differences Monotheistic Polytheistic
6. Covenant Non-covenant
Laws Rituals
Distinctive temple Multiple temples

4. The Diversity of Judaism: Four Major Groups

Many people make the mistake of thinking that Judaism at this time was some sort of monolith, that there was one thing called Judaism. In fact, Judaism in the first century AD was no more monolithic than modern Christianity is today. People are more widely aware of the diversity of modern Christianity. There are similarities between Greek Orthodox priests and Appalachian snake-handlers, but in fact there a lot of differences too that are often a lot more striking. Ancient Judaism in many ways was even more diverse than modern Christianity. Prof. Ehrman does not have time in this lecture to elucidate all the diversity in ancient Judaism, but is going to illustrate it by talking about some of the major aspects of Judaism that we know about that represent its diversity.

One way to talk about the diversity of Judaism is to talk about the four major groups that we know about from the time of Jesus. It is not the case that every Jew belonged to one of these four groups. There were Jews that believed in all sort of strange things that don’t sound much like what we would think of as Judaism. These four groups, on the other hand, believed in the same basic tenets of Judaism, although there were striking differences among them. The four groups are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and what is called the “fourth philosophy.”

a. The Pharisees

The best-known group were the Pharisees. The word “Pharisees” probably comes from a Persian word meaning “separated ones.” This group were referred to as Pharisees because they were separated off from other people because of their holiness. Pharisees have been widely misunderstood in modern Christian circles. Many people associate the word “Pharisee” with “hypocrite”; in fact, in some modern dictionaries, one of the tertiary definitions of “Pharisee” is a “hypocrite.” It’s an interesting designation that is comparable to having a dictionary in 2,000 years refer to Episcopalians as “drunkards” or Baptists as “adulterers.” Of course, there probably are drunkards among Episcopalians and adulterers among Baptists, but defining them in those terms is a little bit odd. The same holds true with Pharisees. They were not professional hypocrites; they didn’t have to take a “Hypocritic Oath” to become a Pharisee. The Pharisees were in fact a highly committed group of Jews who believed in following the Torah or God’s Law absolutely as far as possible. They believed that the Law had been given by God to directly the people of Israel; therefore, this Law had to be followed. It was the blueprint, in a sense, for how people ought to live their lives. The problem with the Law of Moses for many Jews in the first century was that this Law is not explicit in how it ought to be followed, and in many places it is completely ambiguous.

For example, the Law says that a person is honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Well, what does that mean and how does one do it? Most Jews thought that you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath. Fine, but what does it mean “to work”? If you’re a farmer, working would probably involve harvesting your crops, so you shouldn’t harvest crops on the Sabbath. What if you’re not really harvesting your crops, but you just want something to eat and you go into your fields and pick some grain. Is that “work” or not? Some people think that would comparable to harvesting, and some wouldn’t. Well, a decision has to be made: if you’re to keep the Sabbath holy, are you allowed to go into the field on the Sabbath and eat grain? Some people would say “yes”, and some people would say “no.” What if you go through the field on the Sabbath and you don’t actually eat the grain, but you knock some of the grain off? Is that permitted? Well, on the one hand, that’s kind of like harvesting, because you’re taking the grain from the stalk. On the other hand, it’s obviously not “work”, so is it permitted or not? Pharisees were concerned to make the right decisions, and so they developed a set of laws that are sometimes called the “oral laws” that would help them interpret the written law from the Torah of Moses. These oral laws and the debates about these laws were eventually written down nearly 200 years after Jesus in a book that is now called the Mishnah, which is the heart of the Jewish collection of lore and learning called the Talmud. The Pharisees were behind the collection of these oral laws that were intended to help Jews follow the written laws of Moses. There was nothing necessarily hypocritical about this particular activity; they simply wanted to do what God had told them to do. In short, in their religious outlook, Pharisees stressed the Law.

b. The Sadducees

The Pharisees were sometimes opposed by the second group referred to as the Sadducees who did not subscribe to the oral law. We are not well informed about the Sadducees because none of them left us any writings. It does appear, though, that the Sadducees were made up of the upper-class aristocracy of the Jews. Many of them appeared to be priests in the Jewish temple, and since they comprised the aristocracy, many of them served as a kind of liaison with the ruling power, the Romans. In their religious outlook, since the Sadducees were connected with the Temple, Sadducees appeared to have stressed temple sacrifice and the need to perform sacrifices as God had prescribed within the law. So you have Pharisees stressing the oral law, and the Sadducees who don’t accept the Pharisees’ oral law, but who instead stress sacrifice in the temple.

c. The Essenes

The third group is simply called the Essenes. Ironically, the Essenes are the one group of the four that are not mentioned in the New Testament, but are nevertheless the group about which we are most informed about because of recent archaeological discoveries. The Essenes were a group of highly religious Jews who believed that the rest of the people of Israel had fallen away from God and had become impure. Essenes worked to improve their own ritual purity apart from the impurity of those around them. Occasionally they founded their own monastic communities where they could live together and worship God. One such monastic community was located in a place called Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a library of an Essene community located to the northwest of the Dead Sea. This library has been significant for a number of reasons; for one thing, it included some very ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are a thousand years earlier than other surviving manuscripts that we have from the Hebrew Bible, so they are extremely important in reconstructing what the original Hebrew Bible might have said.

Even more important for our context, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain documents produced for and by this Essene community itself, so that by reading these documents, we can discover what rules this community followed in its communal life together. The books also contain hymnals, books of psalms, commentaries on scripture, and prophetic descriptions of future events. In their religious outlook, the Essenes stressed the need to maintain their own purity in view of the fact that the world as they knew it was soon to come to a crashing halt. They believed that God was going to intervene in history, overthrow the forces of evil, including forces that had inspired many Jews, the Jewish leaders, especially their enemies the Sadducees.

d. The Fourth Philosophy
The fourth group of Jews is sometimes simply called the “fourth philosophy.” This fourth philosophy comprised a number of groups of Jews who believed that God had given them the land of Israel, who also believed that since a foreign power dominated the land, that God had given them the authorization and the power to overthrow the domineering force. In other words, the fourth philosophy proposed to engage in violent resistance to foreign powers dominating the land.

Eventually, the fourth philosophy had its way. In the year 66 AD, just a generation after Jesus’ death, there was a revolt that broke out against the Romans leading to a three and a half year war that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem. The religious outlook of the fourth philosophy centered on the Jewish homeland as given to the Jewish people that should not be ruled by any foreign power.

5. Jewish Apocalypticism

Prof. Ehrman is going to conclude this lecture with one particular kind of Jewish perspective that has proved particularly important for understanding the historical Jesus and the New Testament. This is a perspective that scholars called ancient Jewish Apocalypticism. We know about Jewish Apocalypticism from a number of ancient sources, including some books of the Hebrew Bible like the book of Daniel and some non-Biblical books including those of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This appears to be a widespread form of belief among ancient Jews, held by some Pharisees, some Essenes, and by others.

The major tenets of this form of Judaism are as follows:

a. Dualism

Apocalyptics held to a dualistic view of the world; they believed there were two fundamental components of reality, the forces of good and the forces of evil, and that everybody aligns himself with one or the other of these forces. Moreover, history itself was seen dualistically. They believed that there were living in an evil age, ruled by the forces of evil, including the devil and demons, sin, disease and death—these were all powers that were opposed to them in this world. But they believed there was an age that was coming that was going to be filled with good, an age in which God will overthrow the forces of evil and establish his good kingdom here on Earth. So to sum up, apocalyptics were dualists, believing in two cosmic forces of good and evil, and in two ages, the current evil age and the age of good to come.

b. Pessimism

Apocalyptics were pessimists; they didn’t believe there was much possibility of improving life in this world through human effort. The forces of evil were in control of this age and they were going to make life worse and worse.

c. Day of Judgment

God was going to vindicate his name at the end of this age. There was a day of Judgment coming in which God would judge this world and overthrow the forces of evil. All people would be judged; not just those who were alive but also those who had died. People shouldn’t think that they can side with the forces of evil and prosper, rise to the top of the heap, and then die and get away with it; God isn’t going to allow it. At the end of this age, there is going to be a resurrection of the dead when God would force all people to face judgment, either for reward or for punishment. He would then bring in his good kingdom.

d. Imminence

When would this happen? This coming Judgment of God was imminent; it would happen very soon, and was in fact right around the corner. In the words of one famous Jewish Apocalypticist of the first century, “truly I tell you some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” These, in fact, are the words of Jesus, one of the best-known Jewish Apocalypticists from the first century. “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” Apocalypticism is going to be a very important aspect of Judaism for us to consider in the context of the New Testament.

6. Conclusion
If we’re to understand Jesus and the New Testament, we have to situate it within its own historical context of first century Judaism. Jews were like Pagans in many respects, but they were also distinct, especially in their emphasis on monotheism with its one God, the Law that He gave, the covenant that He gave. In addition, they had a distinctive place of worship. The diversity of Judaism is represented in the four major parties: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Fourth Philosophy, but we have especially seen one of the distinctive emphases of Judaism, that of Jewish Apocalypticism, a view that dominated the teachings not only of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other works of the time, but the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

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