EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
When reading Scripture in modern times, it is easy to read Malachi 4 (the last chapter in the Old Testament), turn the page, and begin reading Matthew 1 (the first in the New Testament), expecting it to pick up with what happened next. Readers often assume that a mere page-turn represents an equally fleeting increment of passing time. The continuity fosters this assumed cohesion between the two divisions of the Bible as well: While the Old Testament centers on mankind’s interaction with God the Father and foretells of a coming Messiah, the New Testament completes the story by announcing the Messiah’s arrival upon the earth, covering the events of His salvation work, describing the dawn of the Holy Spirit amidst mankind on the Day of Pentecost, and showing Christians what is expected of them.
Yet, the amount of time that passed between these two printed pages was vast—nearly four hundred years. Moreover, it was a time in which many cultural elements were cemented into place, which impacted the way the world received the Messiah when He did come. The truth is, God was silent for nearly four centuries (to His people, Israel, as a whole, though perhaps not to the sincerely seeking individual during that time). The prophets had stopped speaking. The promised Messiah had not arrived. Those who saw their desolate position as the rendering of judgment waited for God’s mercy to fall upon them.
Any realistic attempt to deeply comprehend the New Testament requires a close look at a few main concepts of what God’s people were facing at the time Christ entered the picture. This period began when the voice of God to His prophets ceased, and ended with the birth of Jesus. For four hundred years, many events happened on earth, but Scripture does not cover any of them. Therefore, we will, but briefly. (We will also explain a few more paramount factors related to what was going on in this area of the world as we draw closer to the narrative of Jesus’ death.)
Let’s rewind to the oft-overlooked Intertestamental Period—the powder keg upon which the events of Christ’s life combusted. Some of these details were mentioned in volume 1 of this series where they were relevant. But here, we’ll crunch together a short review, as it assists us in showing the formation of different sects of Judaism.
The Formation of Jewish Sects
During the exiles, Babylon rose to power and overtook the Southern Kingdom. It invaded Jerusalem, sacked the Temple, looted its treasures, and returned its land with the plundered goods and many captive/enslaved Jews, who were then exiled in Babylon for the next seventy years. Within the century following Babylon’s rise, Persia had invaded and overtaken the region, displacing Babylon’s rule. The Persian king then allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. Most of these Jews embraced the Law and adhered to it steadfastly all of their days. Their release from Babylon flooded Jerusalem with a new type of Jew: the extremely legalistic follower of God.
Greece rose to dominance within this political realm between, approximately, 800 BC and 150 BC, with its apex around 330 BC. The multiregional conquests of Alexander the Great around this time had hundreds of years to culminate into a culture heavily dominated by Grecian influence by the time of Jesus’ birth, from the eastern Mediterranean borders and Egypt, further east through territories known in the modern world as western India. The basics of human expression and exploration—art, science, religion, philosophy, language, etc.—then formed a near one-world government and civilization that directed the ancient world.
Then, in 168 BC, Hellenist Antiochus Epiphanes (or Antiochus IV) gained political control over the Seleucid throne, and his oppression of the Jews went to the extreme. God’s people were forced by royal decree to worship Greek pagan gods and eat meats that did not align with the food designated as acceptable within the Mosaic Law. Antiochus’ struggles with Egypt led to provoking anger, to the point that the Jews became his primary target, and Jerusalem fell under persecution and destruction. Most of the city was plundered and looted by Antiochus’ army, and a pig was sacrificed on the altar of the Temple as an act of supreme desecration and rebellion against the Jewish God. The Jews’ corporate shock only fed the wicked hunger of this dictator further; soon, the people of God were forced to personally raise pagan temples to Greek deities and sacrifice unclean animals upon them in their scattered villages. Many Jewish men, women, children, and babies lost their lives resisting these various attacks against their religion when the persecution increased, leading to the abolishment of circumcision and the burning of precious scrolls containing Hebrew Scripture. Puritans of the Jewish ways of life had more reasons to loathe their Samaritan neighbors—the partly Jewish offspring of the exiled generations—who cooperated fully with Antiochus’ rulings.
Between 146–131 BC, Rome incrementally overtook the Greek Empire, but the remaining Greek influence was so potent that Grecian cultural elements were largely absorbed into the Roman culture (explaining why the term “Greco-Roman” is a common descriptor in New Testament studies). Despite ruling with an iron fist, Rome was able to establish peace between many regions that had previously been held in political friction with one another. This created a setting where, for the first time ever in this region, multi-ethnic and culturally diverse peoples lived alongside one another. This fostered a distinct set of circumstances in which Jesus walked during His time upon the earth—much different than that of the Old Testament. The populace surrounding Jesus would not be an isolated collective of traditional Jews, but rather a mingling of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, and their response to Him would likewise be different than that of an Old Testament Jewish village trained to watch for the Messiah.
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All of this shifting and turmoil led to the Maccabean (or “Hasmonean”) Revolt, when a prominent Jewish family resisted the armies of Antiochus and won many battles, leading to a major clean-up job in Jerusalem and the Temple. Afterward, there was much feasting and rejoicing, leading to the historic Festival of Lights, which became Hanukkah (or the Feast of Dedication). The leaders of the Maccabean revolt and the Seleucids, after much plotting and plans for revenge on both sides that were eventually abandoned, agreed instead to a peace treaty: The Jews would be allowed to worship as they wished, while the Seleucids retained political control of Palestine.
As time passed, religious safety through intensifying legalism became the preferred way for the Jewish watchmen, who vividly recalled the persecution of exile and vowed to guard against allowing society to fall into the same trap. And since, to them, God was remaining silent (through His cessation of speaking through prophets), these individuals made a lifestyle of chasing heightened piety—protecting the Old Testament Law—and cracking down increasingly on anything that might seem to drift between man and God. Gradually, the more pious men elevated themselves to the station of self-appointed guardians of virtue, identifiers of sin, and public correction committees within their communities. Hellenistic Jews butted heads with conservative Jews, who saw them as compromising with the secular world system, while civil wars broke out throughout Judea and surrounding regions. These conflicts (as well as other numerous political factors) contributed to the eventual rise of the Roman Empire under the exasperated Roman general, Pompey.
However, the history of the clash between Jewish sects led to the fragmentation of a people who were once united in Yahwism. Because Hellenistic Jews had introduced new forms of Jewish worship, there was no longer “one way to God” through a central, Mosaic form of worship as there had once been. Now, Yahwism took on many varying forms. (One way to consider it is to think of the difference between Catholics and Protestants, or “non-Catholic Christians.” Though both groups are “Christian denominations,” they are as different as black and white in many of their divergent systems of worship, culture, and lifestyle.)
Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots
The Hasidim movement was led by strictly pious Jewish priests who maintained devout lives under the Mosaic Law and the study of the Torah. Because of their firm adherence to holiness concepts, this group gained the reputation of being painfully legalistic, turning their noses up to any group that didn’t adhere completely to their religious ideas. Their views and reverent practices went even beyond the ritual and ethical requirements of the Hebrew Scriptures, bringing new (and unnecessary) customs into their daily habits. But however “holy roller-ish” they appear to historians today, the Hasidim movement sprang from a good motive (even if it was a bit of an overreaction): resisting the secularization of Judaism.
From within the Hasidim movement came the Pharisees…
Probably no teaching on the planet is powerful enough to get this concept through the heads of today’s Christians, who largely see the Pharisees as the New Testament’s villains, but we will state it anyway in hopes that at least our readers will get it: They were not evil men! At least, that was true of them in the beginning. The word “Pharisees” translates to “the separated ones,” and that’s precisely what they tried to be: separated from the world. In fact, their resistance to worldly culture is a stance we can all learn from, so long as the West continues to treat God’s Word as “hate speech” and shove it further and further into obscurity. The mistake the Pharisees made was not one of wicked intent, but one of being human and attempting to please God in ways that humanity naturally limits. Their obsession centered on following every detail and letter of God’s Law, and over time, they lost sight of who the Law was supposed to benefit. They became so intense about upholding the rules that their standards of holiness became an outward show instead of an inward work, thereby causing them to abandon the very lost souls God had always intended His people to reach. The Pharisees set out to be separated from the sin in the world. They ended up being separated from anyone they deemed sinful, which was everyone who didn’t think the way they did…and this was true despite the fact that their first goal was to seek and make converts. (Kinda like us, in modern times, engaging in interdenominational squabbles within the Body of Christ, believing we have the answers when we don’t always, and refusing to be open-minded to others whose theology doesn’t align with ours. Though many Christians have risen above this—thank God!—there are still occasions when putting a Pentecostal in the same room as a Baptist can be more threatening to our welfare than pummeling a beehive with a bat at a church potluck. Ahem…back to history.)
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Though the Pharisees were primarily made up of middle-class laymen, not priests (which is kind of surprising, considering their influence amid a community that, until this point in history, had championed the priests’ authority), the Jewish Midrash (a sort of “study guide” or “commentary” for the books of the Law) was their brainchild. The scribes often originated from this sect as well. Their job description changed over time. Old Testament scribes, like Ezra, were similar to what we would today call a “secretary”: someone who keeps excellent records and organizes important documents and legal papers. By the time of the New Testament, this had shifted to involve copying, studying, and interpreting the books of the Law. In addition, societies during the New Testament days considered scribes to be more like lawyers than priests (like Ezra). Due to the endless hours of dedication of these men to interpreting the Hebrew Bible, their word became the law of the Jews who were trained under them. This also partly explains why, while Jesus walked among the people, the “Oral Law of the Jews” (or the “oral tradition” we sometimes hear about in sermons) became so pronounced in Jewish teaching of the day. Because the world was changing rapidly with the spread of Hellenism, some of the then-modern issues of sin were not directly addressed in the Hebrew Bible, so they began to extend the Law into the Oral Law to address these progressive problems using updated language. (Example: Scripture does not address Internet porn addiction, but it does address sexual immorality. A preacher today might “extend” biblical teachings to apply to pornography, and rightfully so.) But quickly, the Pharisaic interpretations of the Law in their contemporary times became so important to them that the knowledge of it became a prerequisite for any rabbi in training. Eventually, the Oral Law or oral tradition came to replace the Law, itself, even if no first-century Pharisee or scribe would ever be willing to view it in those terms. (Note that not every scribe was a Pharisee, but every scribe’s word was final on any matter of Law, and the Pharisees prized the Law above all else. This is why the Pharisees and scribes are so often grouped together in Bible studies.)
The Essenes, who also stemmed from the Hasidim movement, didn’t believe in reforming culture and society to fit Jewish convictions like the Pharisees did. Instead, the Essenes left society altogether and dispersed into small, monastic communities in unpopulated or wilderness areas. They did believe there would be political and public reform, but they allowed such change as God’s responsibility, directly, not men’s. Their focus was every bit as much, if not a great deal more, upon holiness standards in living, but the Essenes’ reclusive ways of life did not earn them the same reputation as legalists like it did for the Pharisees. John the Baptist is believed to have been an Essene, as his wild, and some would say “crazy,” appearances and uncompromising preaching style resembled what we know of the Essenes. Likewise, since the Essenes’ fundamental purpose in ejecting themselves from society was to prepare themselves for the Messiah, it stands to reason this would have been John the Baptist’s personal resolution. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the ’40s and ’50s around the caves of Qumran are also likely of Essene origin.
The zealots materialized at the same time as the Pharisees, and their theological and religious roots are comparable. For the most part, they lived in the middle of nowhere, much like the Essenes. What made them different was their willingness to pursue societal revolution by means of bloodshed. Their fanatical nationalism led also to their refusal to pay taxes and resistance to earthly governments (which may have had something to do with why they avoided public life). This faction radically opposed Rome, and their main goal was to see it overthrown. Idolatry was the worst of evils and, like their early ancestor/brother Phinehas (Numbers 25:7–13), they believed God should be defended zealously, even if it meant death. Righteous vengeance was not a problem. (Note that Simon, one of Christ’s main disciples, was a Zealot [Luke 6:15].)
The Pharisees were the most powerful Jewish sect in the smaller villages around Jerusalem, while the Sadducees were most influential in the heart of Jerusalem.
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The Sadducees were wealthy, upper-class, aristocratic Jews trickling down from the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt who were bold enough to resist secular politicians who endangered their Jewish culture. Ironically, this positioned the Sadducees to become supremely authoritative in both political and spiritual matters of Jerusalem when the earlier battles became later negotiations with Rome. In other words, they were the Jewish spokesmen in the Hebrews’ spiritual capital; they mediated between the Romans and the Jews. Not everyone in Jewish circles was happy with this arrangement. They didn’t always make decisions that flattered everyone’s personal needs, and they tended to mix religion and politics in most of their verdicts. Nevertheless, their position gave them tremendous power, which is why the Sadducees were frequently heads of the Jewish court systems (high priests and chief priests) in Jesus’ day. The maintenance of Rome was a righteous duty, they believed, so—paradoxically—these “priests” were found lacking in their dedication to Jewish concepts of purity and tradition, nor were they in agreement with the Oral Law of the Pharisees.
Theologically speaking, the Sadducees differed greatly from the Pharisees, disbelieving in such concepts as resurrection or angels. For them, life after death was just a grave named Sheol. They rejected the Wisdom literature and the prophetic records of Israel’s history, considering the books of the Law to be the only legitimate scriptural literature worth reading. They were not usually concerned with seeking converts, and with a “chosen ones” approach, almost all who were accepted into their circles had done so by “inheritance” (they were born into their roles).
The Hellenistic Jews
Although the “liberal” Hellenistic Jews drew a gasp from the more pious groups of their day, their ways of life were not always a deliberate statement against the holiness standards of their forefathers. Often, the Hellenistic Jews were a product of hundreds of years of cultural shifting since the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their ancestors were almost always linked to the exiles, so their origins traced to some of the intermarriage that occurred when some Israelites who had established lives of their own chose not to come back when they were freed. In choosing to remain in distant, foreign lands, they eventually dropped certain religious rites (such as circumcision) from their practices, and many of them did not speak Hebrew.
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One settlement just outside of Judea is said to have formed as a direct result of this intermarriage practice, though it’s not certain whether Samaritan ancestry traces to the time of the Assyrian Exile or the Babylonian Exile. (Most literature states Assyrian. Note that some early Samaritan historical documents deny this, but a deep study of Israelite history in 2 Kings 17:24–41 shows that intermarriage is probably the true origin of the mixed race in the Gospels.) Some scholarly sources go into great detail about the hybridization of the Samaritans’ religion, stating that, because their ancestry traced to Assyrian gods, their worship was both Jewish and pagan in nature. Since Yahwism is monotheistic, they could not be considered Orthodox Jews, and since Yahweh abhors the gods of the pagans, they could not be authentically pagan. If these sources are true, they would have been somewhat of a scandalous people to those on either side. Either way, they practiced Yahwism in many ways similar to the Jews’ worship practices. One major difference was the Samaritans’ belief that Mt. Gerizim was truly the holy mountain upon which to conduct their worship (a subject that came up between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), but this fact alone is not enough to explain why they were so hated by the Jews, with whom they shared so much in common.
The beginning of the hostility between the Jews and Samaritans has never been nailed down. However, one popular theory is that they held differing political alliances with the dynastic authorities prior to Jesus’ birth, pitting the two groups against each other. Other theories include their embrace of Hellenism and their resulting willingness to go along with Antiochus VII. Josephus also wrote:
Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following:—It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans; and at this time there lay, in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea, which was situated in the limits of Samaria and the great plain, where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.[i]
But whatever the cause, by Christ’s birth, the Jew and the Samaritan were natural-born enemies (a detail that becomes important in New Testament reflection).
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The Sanhedrin was a Jewish civil governing institution, not a “people.” When reading most biblical translations today, the words “council” and “court” refer to them. This institution is hard to trace to its root, though it is believed that it could be as old as Moses’ “seventy elders” (Numbers 11:16–24).
At the dawn of the New Testament era, a Sanhedrin court could be any group of seven or more that met in synagogues throughout Palestine. The Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, however, was comprised of seventy-one men made up of scribes and elders, and both Pharisees and Sadducees were welcomed (though many were Sadducees, including the high priest).
The Sanhedrin did not have the sole authority to condemn a criminal to death. Rome reserved that right. However, readers of the New Testament quickly learn, Rome didn’t care to get involved in most Jewish disputes, allowing a vast level of political and criminal-justice autonomy in their court systems. When it came to the death penalty for an offending Jew (such as Jesus), the Sanhedrin had the power to recommend a sentence of death to the local Roman governor, who would make the final decision (an important detail in the Gospel accounts).
UP NEXT: Jesus and the Jewish Expectations
[i] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W., The Works of Josephus, 532.