Thursday, February 21, 2019

Jewish Context AD 1

When Jesus was born, Jews in and around Jerusalem had divided themselves into three major groups.

The Sadducees were the Jewish high-priestly families controlling the Temple in Jerusalem. They accepted only the Law of Moses, the first five books of our Old Testament, as normative. For them, to be a Jew, to be a meaningful participant in Yahweh’s Chosen People, was to offer right sacrifices to Yahweh in the temple dedicated to Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Daily running the Temple complex was no simple task. In grew exceedingly complex during holy days, especially Passover, when tens of thousands of Jews would travel to the Temple to offer their sacrifice to Yahweh.

Roman authorities maintained the domestic tranquility that allowed the Sadducees to keep the Temple operating smoothly. They even supported the vast reconstruction of the Temple complex, initiated by Herod the Great, during the 46 years it took to complete (John 2:20). The Sadducees, in turn, accepted Roman rule.

Mary and Joseph respected the Sadducees and their interpretation of the Law of Moses. After Mary gave birth to Jesus, she and Joseph brought the baby to the Temple and there made the sacrifice required by the Law of Moses (Luke 2:21-40). From Nazareth, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Jerusalem, they faithfully made the annual trip to Jerusalem at Passover to obey the Law.

Most Jews in and around Jerusalem were Pharisees. While leading Pharisees theologically supported the Temple and sacrifices maintained by the Sadducees, their understanding of being meaningfully Jewish was far broader.

While Sadducees acknowledged the Law of Moses to be normative, Pharisees added to this the Prophets and Writings; in other words, the rest of what we understand to be the Old Testament.

This broader Written Law, however, was understood to be subordinate to the Oral Law: the history of understanding and interpretation of the Written Law believed to have begun with Moses himself at Mount Sinai and to have been adapted to changing circumstances by divinely inspired scribes (Pharisaic theologians) since then.

An analogy of this Pharisaic subordination of Written to Oral Law may be found among Christians in congregations and denominations which subordinate the right understanding and application of the Bible to a teaching tradition considered authoritative.

Through the Oral Law, leading Pharisees sought to apply the Written Law to every aspect of life large and small. Jesus acknowledged the Pharisaic application of Oral Law to the minutiae of everyday life when he observed that the Pharisees tithed even their mint and dill and cumin (Matthew 23:23, NASB here and following).

For Pharisees, faithful Jews were those who kept the whole Law: Written as rightly interpreted by Oral. It was their rigorous conformity to the high standard of behavior set by the Oral Law that made Pharisaic leaders much more popular than the Sadducees. This forced the Sadducees to include leading Pharisees as members of the ruling Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin) despite their distaste for sharing power with them.

If, for Sadducees, the Temple in Jerusalem remained the center of Jewish identity, for Pharisees that center gradually became the local synagogue. It was there that Jews affirmed their shared identity together as the Chosen People by praying to the only true god, by reading and studying the Written Law, and by discussing its meaning and application to individuals and the community as guided by the Oral Law when possible.

Jesus was well acquainted with this Pharisaic institution. Following his temptations in the desert, he returned to Nazareth and, as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read (Luke 4:16). He then applied the passage from Isaiah, which he had just read, to the gathered Jewish community by saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Zealots were Jews committed to violent rebellion against the Roman government as a means of reasserting Jewish religious and political autonomy. They believed that Jews could only be faithful to Yahweh by ridding themselves of control by the idolatrous Romans by any means necessary. They saw Jews complying with Roman authority as faithless traitors deserving death.

Judas the Galilean was one Zealot who led others in a rebellion against both Roman officials implementing a census and local Jews submitting to being counted. Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee, mentions his execution (Acts 5:37) which occurred near Nazareth. In suppressing his rebellion, the Romans crucified two thousand of his followers. The ten-year-old Jesus no doubt had a crystal-clear understanding of the meaning of crucifixion from witnessing this.

Continuing Zealot agitation would lead to the Jewish Rebellion of AD 66 and the resulting destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70.