The Religious World

The majority of the Jews in Christ’s time were intensely religious, even to the point of being fanatics.
There was the dark and bright side of Judaism. The dark side manifested itself in its deism, self-
righteousness and licentiousness. The bright side was represented by characters like Joseph and Mary,
Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Nathanael, Nicodemus. Judaism had the inner strength to produce
martyrs, such as the Zealots.

Since the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews were extremely monotheistic. Wherever a Roman, a Greek, or
an Asiatic might wander, he could take his gods with him, or find rites kindred to his own. It was far
different for the Jews. They had only one Temple, that in Jerusalem; only one God—Yahweh who had
once been enthroned there between the Cherubim, and who was still King over Zion. That Temple was
the only place where a God-appointed, pure priesthood could offer acceptable sacrifices, whether for
forgiveness of sin, or for fellowship with God.

The all-prevailing spirit of the Jewish religion was the expectation of the Messiah. This hope was
inspired and strengthened by the “Messianic prophecies,” which were at first vague, but became more
definite as they narrowed to a single family and to one person. Outside of the Scriptures, the apocalypses
did not picture a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of his people, but one who would serve as
a political deliverer. The Jews expected a mere political deliverer who would take revenge on their
oppressors and erect a great Jewish world empire. They also believed that his appearance would be
preceded by a series of struggles and that these would be announced by omens in the heavens and Elijah
was to precede him. Therefore, they rejected Jesus, who emphasized the spiritual meaning of the
Messianic prophecies.

Synagogue. The Jews of Diaspora developed the synagogue during the intertestamental period as a
Jewish community center and a place for Sabbath worship, study and prayer. They became the
educational centers for dispersed Judaism, usually under the guidance of the Pharisaic party. By Jesus’
time, the synagogue was a well-established institution, not to be confused with the one Temple in
Jerusalem.

Jewish Religious Sects. There were three sects among the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes,
which may be generally characterized as the conservative formalists, the advanced free thinkers, and the
mystical pietists.

PHARISEE is a word meaning “separated,” that is, people who by their superior holiness distinguished
themselves from the others. There were about 6,000 in the time of Christ. They were the popular party
because they were orthodox, anti-foreign and had the majority in the Sanhedrin. Beside the written
Law, they held to an “oral Law” which was a digest of Jewish traditions. Some of it was later written
down and was called the Mishnah or Second Law, contained now in the first part of the Talmud. At
Christ’s time, it was esteemed higher than the written law, but was condemned by Him as a source of
great error. They believed in a future state, the resurrection of the dead, divine providence acting side
by side with the free will of man. They were divided doctrinally into several schools, among which
those of Hillel (liberal) and Shammai (conservative) are the most noted. As a class, they represented
the best morality; many were ascetics.
SADDUCEES constituted a kind of priestly aristocracy, counting among their adherents the families of
the governing class under Herod. Their political outlook was conservative and they enjoyed both
wealth and power. They were quite content with services and security of the traditional temple
worship. They denied the leading beliefs of the Pharisees, especially the authority of the oral law, the
resurrection, angels, future punishment and reward. Christ seldom came in contact with the Sadducees.

ESSENES were ascetic sect, which aspired to ideal purity and divine communion. They were
communists living in isolated settlements, the best known of which was on the northwest shore of the
Dead Sea at Qumran. They stressed severe moderation and simplicity in all things. They looked for
two Messiahs, one who would be a political leader and another who would be a teacher. They differed
radically from the Pharisees in the interpretations of the Law. They are not mentioned in the NT and
probably Christ never encountered any of them.

Jewish Professions and Factions.

THE TEACHERS OF THE LAW (Scribes) were identical with the “lawyers.” From the time of
Jeremiah, they were copyists, custodians and interpreters of the OT Scriptures. As formalists,
worshiping the mere letter of the law, they called forth some of the sharpest rebukes of Jesus. They
belonged to Pharisaic party.

THE ZEALOTS shared the sentiments of the Pharisees, but were a party of action who insisted on war
against Rome. In addition, they were hostile against the aristocratic segments of Jewish society. This
political-religious party originated in A.D. 6 when Judas of Galilee led a movement against paying
tribute to a heathen emperor. Their agitation at last brought on the great Jewish War (A.D. 66-70), with
its terrible result.

THE HERODIANS were a Jewish political party, which supported the Herodian dynasty, especially
Herod Antipas. They were pro-Hellenistic and promoted Graeco-Roman culture in Palestine. Like the
Pharisees and Sadducees, they stood to lose their position if the status quo were destroyed by the
institution of Jesus’ kingdom.

THE PROSELYTES were Gentile worshipers of Yahweh. Large numbers were attracted by the purer
faith and higher morality of the Jews. Their number is estimated as high as 700,000 in the time of
Christ. They were known as “God-fearers.”

Samaritans. This people was a mixed race which sprang up in Northern Israel after the fall of the
Kingdom of Israel, in 722 B.C., as a result of intermarriage of the heathen Assyrian colonists (2 Kings
17:24-41). Under the teaching of a Jewish priest, sent by the King of Assyria, they gradually adopted a
sort of Yahweh worship (2 Kings 17:25). Of the Jewish canon, they accepted only the Pentateuch.
Samaritans observed the Passover and they still do. The Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the Temple
after the Captivity. They expected the Messiah to come not as a king, but as a teacher of all things
(Deuteronomy 18:15; John 4:25). Samaritans hated Jews and they were hated by Jews, who would not
pass through their territory.

Pagan Religions. Religion with the Romans was more a matter of form and ritualism than of feeling. In
religion men sought for satisfying, personal religious experience. The old gods were dead everywhere but
in Palestine. The Augurs were the official soothsayers, who by observing the flight of birds, determined
the mind of the gods. Disbelief in the current religion had become almost universal among the educated
classes at the time of Christ. Augustus strove in vain to restore religion to its former position, and even
assumed personally the office of Pontifex Maximus. The practice of deifying and worshiping the
emperors exerted a most degrading influence on the religious life. Many Romans, to satisfy their
religious cravings, embraced Judaism; others were imposed upon by Oriental priests, sorcerers,
soothsayers and astrologers.

 

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