By the time Jesus came on the scene, Judaism had become a sectarian religion–broken into various factions. These groups spent time arguing over the meanings of Old Testament scriptures. Some of these conflicts even grew to a point of violence.
A little Old Testament background
There were differences among the twelve tribes of Israel. The nation grew out of twelve brothers (Genesis 49) so it’s not surprising to see divisions emerge just as siblings often rival one another. People in the Lord’s day were interested in knowing their family lineage, often to identify themselves with well-known priests or even the Messiah himself.
Family heritage became a matter of pride for them (Philippians 3:5-6). Nation, tribe, place of birth–these were standard measurements of a person’s place or worth in society.
The Jews were scattered and exiled. In 734 B.C. the Assyrians were the first to force the Jews to leave parts of Israel. In 597 B.C. the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of former Israel–later known as Judea. By 581 B.C. the Babylonians alone had sent more than 70,000 Jews into exile. It had a profound and lasting effect on Israel.
Jews were tempted to eat forbidden foods (Daniel 1:5, Daniel 1:8) and break other ceremonial laws. They were forced to worship idols (Daniel 3:4-7). A tension grew between Jews who had remained faithful and others who had adopted the pagan lifestyle from their captors. Some were vocal against the paganism (Ezra 9-10) while others felt some of God’s law should be retired.
The temple had been destroyed. The law of God was not readily available. The Hebrew language was dying.
Orthodox Jews responded to the pagan influence. First, they established synagogues. It was a local place where Jews could meet weekly to worship and study. They may have gotten the idea from Moses and the movable tabernacle that was used during their journey through the wilderness (Exodus 25-31). Maybe Ezra inaugurated synagogue worship (Nehemiah 8).
Second, rabbis were chosen to teach in the synagogues. Each synagogue had its own standards for choosing these men, so the quality of teaching was unpredictable. Not to mention, the availability of God’s law in written form was not abundant. This meant the organization and recording of God’s law also varied from group to group.
Thirdly, the notion of “true” Jews became more and more prominent. During their exile, many of the Jews found it undeniably important to follow God’s commandments to the very best of their ability. However, various groups already had minor and sometimes significant differences. Of course, each group believed themselves to be right and other groups in error.
The cultural influence of Greece
Alexander the Great promoted Greek culture–otherwise known as Hellenism–in every land he conquered. In 332 B.C. his armies took Palestine from the Persians and required the Jews adopt their language and customs. Jewish scholars began reading Greek philosophy which promoted abstract concepts and logical answers to life’s many questions. They even adopted the Septuagint–a Greek translation of the Old Testament in place of traditional Hebrew manuscripts.
Even after the death of Alexander, when his kingdom was divided among his generals, Hellenism remained the world’s most influential culture. When the Romans took power over the regions inhabited by Jews, the Greek way of life remained.
Antiochus IV, a Greek ruler under Roman control, raised money by selling the office of the Jewish high priest to the highest bidder. The second man to buy the office, Menelaus, ignored many of the Jewish laws. In fact, he hosted several sporting events where athletes performed naked. He required the Jewish athletes hide their circumcision through surgical methods in order to look more like Greeks. Antiochus went on to ransack the temple’s treasury and outlaw many Jewish customs.
The Maccabean Jews revolted against Antiochus. In 166 B.C. a group of Jews rallying around Mattathias and his five sons began a series of attacks on Antiochus and his successors. These Jewish rebels fought their Hellenistic rulers for 23 years.
As the wars dragged on, the rebels were able to regain more and more of former Israel. Eventually, a treaty with Rome was signed that would ensure Rome’s defense of the Jews if an all-out assault against them would ever be executed.
The Jewish people had taken back their land and a new dynasty emerged. Unfortunately, the Law of Moses was not exactly the standard for the new Jewish state. Instead, oral traditions passed down from generation to generation during their exiles and wars became the rule of practice. A span of six-hundred years and a multitude of rabbis and various groups caused conflicting ideas about God’s law. This set the stage for Judaism during the time of Christ.
To be continued…