One gets the feeling that a huge segment of the story has been left out – the part between the last Jewish prophet and the birth of Christ – and indeed this is the case.
On further investigation the reader will discover a wealth of important transitional elements from the ancient Israelite religion into the Judaism of the New Testament period; transitions which are of extraordinary importance for understanding the cultural context of the New Testament.
A Brief Look at Judaism in the New Testament Period
In the New Testament the reader is introduced to two sects that are wholly missing from the Old Testament, that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as the introduction of synagogues which seem to fill in the gaps of a diminished presence of the temple. One must ask what necessitated the presence of new Jewish sects and places of worship. The short answer is: the return of the Jew from the Babylonian exile (beginning in approximately, B.C. 586). Upon their return to their ancestral homeland, the Jews had become accustomed to an adaptive system of worship forged by necessity without the luxury of the temple.
Home again in the land of Israel the priestly families resumed their authority and operated as the native aristocracy. Those within its higher ranks were often marked more by political interest than with religious fervor and eventually the development of a body of advisers and legal interpreters, known as the Sanhedrim, who came to be associated with those in priestly rank. With the pecuniary and political influence supplied through the office of priesthood, the newly built temple and the priesthood came to represent a more-or-less formal aspect of Hebrew religious life.
Due to the cessation of prophesy and the diminished focus on temple worship, Judaism became more and more associated with a mass of interpretive material concerning the law and an ever-increasing presence of the local synagogue. The synagogues were governed by a group of “elders” and the services could be led by nearly any Hebrew worshipper (albeit, through the arrangement of the local “ruler of the synagogue”). A typical service included prayer, Scripture reading, a homily, and benediction. In the New Testament, this system of organization was reflected in the newly formed churches where the Apostles appointed “presbyters,” or “elders,” and the services following a similar pattern.
The sects of Pharisees and Sadducees grew out of the period of Maccabean rule. The Maccabees led the Hebrews in a great rebellion in B.C. 167 against their Seleucid rulers resulting in a brief period of Jewish independence (until the Roman conquest in B.C. 63). Initially the rebellion gained strong support from the people because of its religious zeal against the infiltration of Hellenism. However, shortly after their newfound freedom there was a gradual drift back to Hellenism and was typified during the reign of the Maccabean ruler, John Hyrcanus (B.C. 135 to 105). During this period the leading priestly families allied themselves with Hyrcanus and came to be known as the Sadducees, who held to an older interpretation of Judaism, thereby rejecting the growing body of traditional interpretation of the law. This movement was unpopular with the mass of the people who were generally opposed to Hellenistic influences and supported the traditional interpretation of the law. The Pharisees represented the other side of the coin from that of the Sadducees and appeared shortly before the reign of Hyrcanus, but it was with his reign that the historic struggle between the two camps began.
The Pharisees represented the religious views that a majority of the people embraced, which included (but not limited to) the exact keeping of the law as interpreted by the traditions, the existence of spirits (both good and evil), a doctrine of angles, Satan, bodily resurrection, future rewards and punishments, and belief in a coming Messiah. The Messianic hope embraced by the Pharisees and the common people, notes Williston Walker, “was the outgrowth of strong national consciousness and faith in God…most vigorous in times of national oppression” (Walker, 14). At the time of Christ’s birth this hope had achieved fever pitch in Israel after many generations of foreign oppression. When Jesus finally appears preaching and teaching in Israel, the people were already anticipating the coming Messiah who would deliver them from Roman occupation and reveal the earthly kingdom of heaven.
Just prior to the advent of Christ there also seemed to be an increase in apocalyptic literature and the rise of additional offshoot sects of Judaism, among whom were the Qumran community and the Essenes. These new works and sects were proof of the growing concern over the Hellenizing Romans, the zealous expectation of the coming Messiah who would lift them out of Roman captivity, and a growing earnestness of religious devotion. Jesus’ message matched the ethos of the people; his teaching oozed apocalyptic warning and encouraged faith in the “kingdom of heaven” which was “at hand.” This kingdom was to be discovered within each individual, and each individual was called to become a living sacrifice to both God and his neighbor. He presented an either/or option: the narrow road leading to eternal life, or the broad road leading to destruction. His ethic was of the highest standard: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). For a people filled with desire for the coming reign of God, the throwing off of foreign rule, and absolute devotion to God, Jesus’ audience was ripe for harvesting.
All of these themes and more influenced the teachings captured within the New Testament. The early Jerusalem Church had faithful adherence to the temple and the Jewish law, but also carried on private services among themselves in the teaching of the Apostles, the Eucharist, prayers, and mutual exhortation. So strong was the influence of Judaism upon the new Christian faith that had it not been for a series of event Christianity today may have come to be regarded as another Jewish sect.
The first event in this series was the immediate reaction of the Jewish leaders against the fledgling Church, which, with the martyrdom of Stephen, resulted in the planting of Christianity far and wide throughout the known world. Shortly thereafter Rome quelled the ongoing Jewish rebellion with the devastating destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) and later, and perhaps more importantly, the Hadrian war of 132 to 135, which left Palestinian Christianity almost completely obliterated. It was during these events that the Church at Jerusalem, headed by James, was forced to come to terms with the growing Gentile presence in the Church. Acts chapter 15 records the ruling of James and the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem exempting the Gentiles from carrying the burden of the Jewish law. Themes of solidarity, of anti-sectarianism, of equality between Jews and Gentiles, abound in the New Testament; an abundance due likely to the early Church’s experience with Judaism—its persecution of the Church and its own demise.
As Christianity moved further and further from its native land in Israel its relation with Judaism continued to weaken. For some Christians today this weakened link with Judaism amounts to a corruption of the faith; they read into the historic Church endless points of compromise with Hellenism and outright aggression towards its Jewish roots. One cannot deny that Hellenistic influences appear in some aspects of the early Church and that aggression towards early Jewish influence abound, but what these contemporary critics often overlook is the presence of all this and more in the very pages of the New Testament. For example, Jesus and the Apostles quote at length from the Greek Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures composed in Alexandria between B.C. 285-246), which many consider to be deeply influenced by Hellenism. The Apostle John uses the Greek philosophical concept of “logos” to identify Christ as the “Word of God.” Paul used the writings of popular Greek philosophers and poets to argue for the faith among the Greeks. And some of the most vehement polemics against the Jews were penned by the New Testament writers themselves. In short, it is a mistake to categorically reject all non-Judaic influences on the early Church and its Scripture, every bit as much as it is a mistake to categorically accept all Judaic influences.