III. Jewish Cultural Context


From the time of exile in Babylon to the first century CE, Judaism stood in sharp contrast to their pagan overlords, no matter Persian, Greek or Roman. The fidelity of Jews to their one God, their written Law, their traditions and peculiar religious practices gave them a unique place in the ancient world. In the first century, they lived in nearly every major city of Roman Empire and Persia, so their fame was wide spread.

Christianity grew out of this environment. So, we need to investigate the background and condition of Judaism in the time of the church.

A. History from the Babylonian Exile to the Common Era.

1. Babylonian Exile

2. The Return

3. Alexander the Great and the Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms

4. The Maccabees and the Hasmonean Kingdom

5. Roman Conquest and Herod the Great

6. Summary

B. Changes in Jewish Faith from the Exile to the Common Era.

1. Monotheism vs. Polytheism

2. Torah

3. Temple

4. Synagogue

5. Circumcision

6. Sabbath observance

7. The Notion of Holiness in Jewish Practices

8. The Impact of Hellenism

9. Apocalypticism and its Beliefs

C. Groups within Judaism

1. Herodians

2. Pharisees

3. Sadducees

D. Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

1. Dead Sea Scrolls

2. 2. Essenes vs. the Baptist's Disciples and Early Christians

E. Section Summary

A. History from the Babylonian Exile
to the Common Era.

1. Babylonian Exile


Nebuchadnezzar II

In Matthew's gospel, the evangelist divided his genealogy of Jesus with three symbols: the patriarch Abraham (Mt. 1:2), King David (Mt. 1:6) and the Babylonian exile (Mt. 1:11-12). Abraham was the father of the nation through his covenant with YHWH and his progeny. David marked the point between rule by charismatic Judges and an inherited regency. This figures defined their place in the genealogical flow with covenants given by God. The Babylonian exile had neither covenant nor inspiring leader; in fact, it suffered from cowardice and divine condemnation. It was a unique event in the history of ancient Judea that brought shame on the nation.

By end of the seventh century BCE, Judea shrunk to a minor kingdom facing major powers: Egypt to the south and Assyrians to the east. At the battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar II pushed westward and engaged the combined armies of Egypt and Assyria, delivering a fatal blow, absorbing Assyria and relegating Egypt to a lesser status. Afterward, in 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege on Jerusalem to demand tribute. For four years, the King Jehoiakim of Judea complied, but, then refused after changing allegiance to Egypt. In 587-586, Nebuchadnezzar again laid siege. After three months, he brought the city to heel and took Jeconiah, the son of the recently deceased Jehoiakim into exile;. Then, he appointed the dead monarch's younger brother, Zedekiah, as a vassal regent. However, the new king of Judea soon renewed ties with Egypt. In 582-582 BCE, The Babylonians returned, destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon, then took the balance of the elite and craftsmen into exile.

While many scholars could not pinpoint the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora, they do hold many Jews fled their homeland in the face of the three consecutive defeats at the hands of the Babylonians. For example, archaeological evidence pointed to a growing population of Jews in Egypt right after the exile, including a possible temple ("House of YHWH") on the Elephantine Island in the Nile river that serviced Judean mercenaries. By the first century CE, far more Jews lived outside of Palestine than in the Holy Land.

Implicitly, Nebuchadnezzar intended the exile to act as ethnic cleansing, not unlike the Assyrians move against the northern kingdom of Israel about 740 BCE. By removing the elites and craftsmen from Jerusalem and destroying the city, the Babylonian monarch wanted to wipe away Judea from the face of the earth, forcing the refugees to assimilate into a new culture and a new people. Instead, the Jews intensified their desire for identity through distinctive practices (circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and striving for religious literacy). Jewish literature flowered due to the exile. Jeremiah 39-43, 2 Kings 23-24,2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1-2 described the exile. Many scholars hold scribes edited the Pentateuch into its final form during the exilic and post exilic periods.

2. The Return


Cyrus the Great

In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great entered Babylon as its conqueror and called upon Jews to return their homeland. The Persian king sought to gain favor with his subjects by reversing the ethnic cleansing of many minorities (see the "Cyrus Cylinder"). In case of the Jews, he implicitly wanted to strengthen his western flank against Egypt to the south and any naval intrusions on the Mediterranean to the west. So, he released those who wished to return and financed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple (Ezra 1:2-4). Note, only volunteers made the journey home. A majority of the Jewish population remained in Babylon and created a vibrant community that lasted for 2500 years until a mass emigration (over 130,000) to the state of Israel in 1949.

Returning exiles found life challenging. Rebuilding the city and its Temple ran into more obstacles than expected. The poor who remained in the area had different (possibly polytheist) pieties than those who came back; returnees considered these locals unclean and rejected any help offered by the indigenous population. The area faced a harsh drought. Rebuilding the city walls took far longer than expected, so, for a while, the city had no adequate defense. Local power shifted from the descendant of the Judean monarch toward the Temple. For the next 200 years, Judah remained a semi-autonomous Persian province with the high priest as the governor. (See the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.)

3. Alexander the Great
and the Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms


Alexander the Great

In 333 BCE, Alexander the Great defeated a vastly greater army from Persia. The Persian monarch fled, thus opening Mesopotamia and Persia up for the Macedonian conqueror. Alexander granted gracious terms to those peoples who did not oppose him, including semi-autonomy and many rights found in the Greek polis. In 329 BCE, he arrived at Jerusalem; according to the Talmud (400-650 CE), the high priest and other city fathers opened the gates to him; in turn, he granted the Jews the same status they enjoyed under the Persians.

The early death of Alexander and the division of his empire into the Seleucid (Syria) and Ptolemaic (Egypt) kingdoms place Judea on the border between two competing powers. For the next 130 years, Jerusalem shifted between Egyptian and Syrian influence until the rise of Rome from the west. This triangulation of power created the vacuum necessary for the rise of an independent Jewish nation in early second century BCE.

4. The Maccabees and the Hasmonean Kingdom

Antiochus IV

Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Coin Image

In 200 BCE, Judea fell to the Syrians; twenty five years later, the high priest and the power elites in Jerusalem promoted a Hellenization program to curry favor with the Syrian monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes; this policy created strife between orthodox and leadership in the city. Antiochus intervened by persecuting the orthodox and with a repressive policy to impose Hellenism. In 166 BCE, Judas Maccabees (a nick name meaning "the hammer") from the Hasmonean tribe gathered a rebel army and conducted a campaign of asymmetric warfare. In time, Maccabbean forces retook Jerusalem, cleansed and rededicated the Temple; Judas appointed himself as the high priest. The death of Antiochus led to temporary peace with a Syrian policy of religious toleration. However, the success of the revolt encouraged the Maccabees to expand their holdings. For the next 130 years, palace intrigue and foreign entanglements dominated politics of the Hasmonean kingdom, coming to a head in the mid-first century BCE when the Parthian (Persian) empire from the east gained influence in the area. Torn between Rome and the Parthians, the Hasmoneans experienced both internal and external strife.

In an effort to secure their eastern flank, Rome sent it general, Pompey, to topple the Syrian kingdom in 63 BCE. After the kingdom fell, he turned southward towards Palestine where competing forces attempted to placate the general and secure a leadership role as a Roman vassal. The Hasmonean Hyrcanus II became high priest (63-40 BCE) while his enemy, the Idumean Antipater, became the procurator of Judea.

5. Roman Conquest and Herod the Great


Herod the Great

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated, throwing the Roman world into civil war. The Parthians took advantage of the chaos and invaded Syria. Antipater died and his son, Herod (73-4 BCE), fled to Rome, convincing the Senate to declare him "King of the Jews." After Roman forces expelled the Parthians, Herod consolidated his control over Palestine and had the remaining members of the Hasmonean dynasty murdered, including Hyrcanus (30 BCE).

Herod ruled as a client king of Rome, showing deference to his overlords in the area of taxation and foreign relationships. In return, he was granted a free hand in internal affairs. He ruled with an "iron fist," brutally suppressing political dissent and social unrest. He heavily taxed the populace. With an outlook we might call "paranoid," he surrounded himself with a body guard of 2000 soldiers, mostly mercenaries.

Herod spent tax revenues on lavish gifts to foreign elites and infrastructure projects. His two greatest building ventures were the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the port of Caesarea Maritima (between modern day Tel Aviv and Haifa). He rebuilt the Temple and expanding the gathering area, turning it into an agora, a marketplace that included government and social institutions; in the end, the Temple Mount rivaled the city center of any major city in the eastern Mediterranean. In 30 BCE, he began construction on the first major port to service Palestine and dedicated it as a Roman city to the emperor; by 6 BCE, the city flourished into a commercial center and became the administrative capital of the province. Both Jerusalem and Caesarea enjoyed many amenities common to a Greek polis, including outdoor theaters and aqueducts. He also spent to increase his power, including his massive tomb and the major reinforcements at Masada, a fort-palace complex to the south facing the Negev desert. Many scholars consider him the greatest of all builders in ancient Judea.

At Herod's death, his sons ruled over portions of his domain. Herod Antipas (20 BCE–39 CE) took control over the tetrachy of Galilee. Herod Philip I ruled over Iturea and Trachoitis (east of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee). Herod Archelaus (23 BCE–18 CE) was ethnarch over Judea; because of his overbearing rule and subsequent complaints by leading men in Jerusalem, he was deposed in 6 CE and sent into exile. From that point onward, Roman procurators governed Judea, except for the brief reign of Agrippa I (11 BCE– 44 CE).

6. Summary

Because Judea's geographic location on the Fertile Crescent and along the Mediterranean Sea, it suffered as a buffer between powers northeast and south, then from the west and east. Placating these foreign governments and cultural changes from Persian, then Hellenistic influences created internal pressures. No wonder the 600 years from the exile to the Common Era shaped and reshaped the identity of ancient Judaism.

B. Changes in Jewish Faith
from the Exile to the Common Era.

1. Monotheism vs. Polytheism


Babylonian Soldier
on the tomb of
Xerxes I

The Babylonian exile marked a shift in the Jewish faith, from a struggle between polytheism (belief in many gods) and henotheism (allegiance to one god while recognizing many others) towards monotheism (belief in only one God). Long before the exile, Judea existed amidst local kingdoms with their own deities to whom their citizens pledged fealty; worship of the sponsoring god was equivalent to an act of patriotism. Some pre-exilic practices pointed towards a strict allegiance to YHWH, especially recitation of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 ("Hear, Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is one"). Kings Hezekiah in 2 Kings 5:3-6 (715-686 BCE) and Josiah in 2 Kings 23:1-7 (649-609 BCE) renewed the Mosaic covenant and purged the influences of idolatry. Many scholars hold that, in this environment, Jews were henotheists; there might be other gods but Jews pledged their allegiance to YHWH.

As the exile approached, Judea increasingly felt squeezed between the regional powers Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east, reducing the nation's status to that of a near vassal state. The kings in Jerusalem were pressured to acknowledge the gods of whatever power with whom they aligned themselves. Judean kings like Manasseh in 2 Kings 21:1-6 (687-642 BCE) and possibly Jehoakim in 2 Chronicles 36:5, 8 (635-598 BCE) worshiped local and foreign deities.

The fall of the kingdom to Babylon and subsequent exile marked a shift in Judean thinking. In a foreign city surrounded by the images of foreign deities, Jews sharped their allegiance to the point that exalted YHWH to the ultimate power and reduced other god to nonexistence. As the exilic prophet Second Isaiah wrote:

This is what YHWH, the King of Israel,
and his Redeemer, YHWH of Armies, says:
"I am the first, and I am the last;
and besides me there is no God.

Isaiah 44:6

In Isaiah 44:7-20, the prophet further insist upon the futility of those who fashioned the images of idols and those who worshiped such images. Monotheism had risen among the Jews.

But, how did Judaism see the forces of nature? Until modern times, most people saw unexplained events in the cosmos as the result of spiritual powers; benevolent spiritual beings caused good events and malevolent forces caused evil events. Polytheism and monotheism envisioned the place of these forces differently.

In a polytheistic world view, equal forces battled for supremacy, causing some chaos on the "field" of humanity. People responded to this battle by appeasing various non-material powers through prayer, vows and offerings. Piety, then, was a negotiation between the worshiper and the god or demigod; the faithful gave these spiritual beings honor and possession in exchange for safe, comfortable passage through life. Allegiance to gods and demigod depended upon the context of the worshiper; piety could shift over time.

In a monotheistic vision such as Judaism and, later, Christianity, a single deity ruled over the other powers, creating a hierarchical order to the cosmos. While various battles between good and evil, angels and devils, raged, even on a large scale, the single god guided his chosen forces towards his purpose. Notice such a world view retained quasi- henotheistic traits, recognizing these other forces had some, limited abilities. Second Isaiah may have denied the existence of other gods, but, 1 Corinthians 10:20, St. Paul reduced competing deities to the level of demonic powers who revolted against the only god. In the later scenario, the worshiper gave homage and singular allegiance to this only god over all others in prayers, vows and offerings; piety remained unchanging.

The exile brought a shift in the allegiance towards YHWH. Before the event, such adherence towards Judea's God was an act of the nation, represented and directed by the king, where the citizenry followed suit. During the exile, religious allegiance focused more upon the act of the individual; the person chose to identify with YHWH and his people, especially in the home and in assemblies that, in time, would grow into the institution of the synagogue. The monotheism of Judaism, then, took root on the popular level, despite the building of the Second Temple after the return of the exiles.

2. Torah

Torah Case

Silver Torah Case

As mentioned above, the Babylonian exile marked a sharp increase in literary output among the Jewish population, including the codification of the Torah or "Law." Yet, the term "Torah" meant far more than a list of rules that regulated life in the nation; it meant "divine revelation." YHWH revealed his divine will for the lives of the people through a legal code, "halakhah" (literally, "a path that one follows"). By observing the halakhic code, the faithful become sensitized to the works of God even in the most mundane and routine aspects of life. So, the first five books of the Bible contained the 613 mitzvot (duties) required of an faithful Jew within the system of halakhah But, it also narrated the seminal theophanies of YHWH to the patriarchs and to Moses. The "Law," then, was not a list of regulations with stories about the beginning of Israel added as commentary; it was the way God revealed himself to the Chosen People.

Yet, there was a certain plasticity of the Torah even in the Common Era. At the time of Jesus and the early Church, rabbis argued not only about interpretations of the Law, but what rules existed in the Law. There were differences in source material (Septuagint vs. Samaritan manuscript vs. Torah fragments found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), traditions of rewriting portions of the the Law in inter-Testamental sources (the Book of Jubilees and the Temple Scroll at Qumran) and even legal traditions that weighed non-Torah rules as equal in importance to that of the Law's mitzvot. In other words, while Jews agreed on the general outlines of the Torah, they argued over which specific laws could be found there; they also contended over which interpretations and extra-scriptural rules had the force of Torah.

These insights presented Jews in the Common Era two challenges. First, how could they live according to the will of God found in the Torah? After all, in these five books, YHWH revealed himself through his covenants and their corresponding duties. But what exactly were those mitzvot and how important were some compared to others? This question led to the second challenge, one of authority. With all the competing voices and traditions, who had the definitive interpretation? Who was, in the language of the Essenes at Qumran, the "Teacher of Righteousness?"

These controversies could not exist without an emphasis upon literacy. The exile shifted the focus of Jews away from loyalty to the king and the Temple towards the writings that defined the identity of the nation. To be a Jew, then, meant to know one's history and what that history expected of him. And the weight of that expectation lay specifically upon the individual. So, scribes codified the Torah rules (the halakhah) that defined the lifestyle of a Jew. And the institution of the synagogue grew as a center of learning to aid the individual in his knowledge of the Torah. Hence, literacy did not remain the luxury of the elites but, to some extent, the life experience of the average Jewish man.

3. Temple

a. Worship Cult

In the first century CE, Jews shared worship attitudes and practices with their pagan neighbors. As mentioned above, both Jewish and non-Jewish peoples lived in a spirit driven world; both held they could influence their lives through ritual. In a worship setting, their leaders saw their role as that of servants who 1) made themselves presentable (i.e., "clean") and 2) served the deity with offerings of food and drink. By placating the deity, they sought to gain its favor.

The faithful performed such ritual in a temple, a building dedicated as the "house of the god." Unlike church, synagogue or mosque buildings erected to contain communal activities ("house of the congregation"), the temple held the image or sacred paraphernalia of the deity; the people gathered outside the building as witnesses to worship.

Religious practices could thus be separated into two areas: 1) avoidance of the "unclean" or any activity that might upset the god ("sin") and 2) the food and drink presented to the deity. The ritual and moral miztvot found in the Torah could also be divided along these lines. Numbers 19 detailed act of a priest cleansing himself before offering sacrifice; Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 pinpointed sources and acts of ritual impurity. Yet, over 100 of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah involved what types of sacrifices pleased YHWH.

The major types of sacrifice were:

Burnt offering. In this sacrifice, the entire animal was burn whole; no part could be eaten or used. This represented total submission to God.

Peace offering. This sacrifice gave thanks to YHWH. The offering could be in response to an answered prayer. or fulfilled vow. It could represent a free-will offering or an act of thanksgiving for surviving a near-death experience. The offering party ate a portion of the sacrifice, thus partaking in a "communion" meal.

Sin or Guilt Offering. These sacrifices represented reconciliation with God. The sin offering atoned for transgressions, whether deliberate or accidental. The guilt offering made peace with YHWH where the ritual form or execution was in doubt. The difference between the two lie in the admission of guilt, whether individual or communal; sin sacrifice admitted fault, while the guilt offering did not. In both cases, the priests took part in a portion of the offering.

Food and Drink Offerings. These sacrifices represented the piety of the worshiper who produced the bread or wine offered. The priests took part in a portion of the offering.

Like the priest, the average worshiper would provided an offering for sacrifice also made themselves "kosher" through preparatory rituals. The notion of cleanliness became so popular that prophets used it as an analogy for moral living. Isaiah 1:16-17 urged the pursuit of right living as acceptable before YHWH; Micah 6:8 famously reduced the Law to three requirements: "what does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly,to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (WEB). While the ritual duties and moral imperatives did not necessarily oppose each other, a tension did exist between the two; the prophets condemned the mere exercise of external ritual as hollow, even hypocritical. Ethical living trumped worship in Hosea 6:6, "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (WEB)

So, the notion of worship (becoming clean and presenting offerings to God) slowly grew from the confines of the Aaronic priesthood to the level of the average person. The destruction of the First (Solomon's) Temple only accelerated this shift from formal ritual to the popular morality.

b. The Building


Ark of the Covenant

In pre-monarchical Israel, the twelve tribes of Israel divided Palestine into select regions, then into subregions for tribal clans. The exception to this rule affected the descendants of Aaron who acted as priests for the clans. These men did not inherit land but attached themselves to extended families and acted as mediators between the clan and YHWH. Clans would gather to offer worship in the "high places," a hilltop in the rough terrain of the area; the local people would erect an altar for sacrifices conducted by the priests (Joshua 4:20, 1 Samuel 4:16). Since no formal hierarchy existed, either politically or religiously, however, local devotions to indigenous gods mixed with the worship of YHWH in these various religious shrines.

The rise of monarchy in Israel shifted piety of the people. King David conquered Jerusalem, made the city his capital, then brought the sacred sign of YHWH's presence, the Ark of the Covenant, into the city (2 Samuel 6). His son, Solomon, built the Temple next to the palace (1 Kings 6; 2Chronicles 3), thus cementing the idea of one Temple, one king and one nation for one God. Three hundred years later, Josiah completed the consolidation with the destruction of competing "high places" and the suppression of cult to other gods (2 Kings 22-23).

The Temple Solomon built in 957 BCE was sacked several time, then destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, the exiles who returned from Babylon began to rebuild the Temple; after twenty year of toil, they dedicated it for use. While it did not have the glory of the former structure, it did dominate the city's skyline.

About 20 BCE, Herod began a massive renovation of the Temple and surrounding area. The First Temple of Solomon had an outer court for the people (Jeremiah 19:14, 26:2) and an inner court for the priest (2 Chronicles 4:9). This inner court contained the altar and the Temple building itself (1 Kings 6:17); the Temple housed the "Holy of Holies" where the Ark of the Covenant remained. Herod made a series of improvements to the Temple:

The Temple Mount: Herod expanded the precinct that surrounded the Second Temple with the thick walls, back-filled and leveled the area around Mount Zion then erected buildings that created an agora or central marketplace.

The Temple compound:

1) The Outer Court: Herod walled off parts of the outer court to segregate faithful Jewish men (Court of the Israelites) from Jewish women (Court of the Women) and from non-Jews (Court of the Gentiles).

2) The Inner Court: Herod also expanded the inner court with a place for the multitude of priests who gathered (Court of the Priest), a Temple court that contained the Brazen Laver (a washing bowl that the priests used for ritual cleansing), a place of Slaughtering and two altars, the Altar of Burnt Offerings and the Outer Altar (used for other types of sacrifice).

3) The Temple building: Finally, Herod rebuilt Temple itself with three features, an entrance or vestibule, the greater Sanctuary room (which contained great Menorah, the show bread and the altar of incense) and the inner Holy of Holies.

c. The High Priest

Under the Persians, power in Jerusalem changed from a local governor to the Temple high priest. This remained the norm under the rise of the Greek states of the Seleucids (Syria) and the Ptolemys (Egypt), even into the Hasmonean state. But, with the Roman conquest, power shifted back to the state, first under Herod, then under the Roman governor who had the power to appoint the high priest.

From the beginnings of the Hasmoneans (165 BCE) onward, the office of the high priest was highly controversial for two reasons: heredity and political corruption.

1) Sons of Zadok ("Zadokites"). Many Jews held that, not only the Messiah descended directly from King David, the true high priest had to descend from Zadok, the first high priest in the Temple who anointed Solomon as David's heir (1 Kings 1:39). According to tradition, Zadok traced his place to Phinehas, the son of Eleazar who bore the vestments of the High Priest at the death of Moses (Numbers 20:25-28). As the grandson of Aaron, Phinehas gained favor before YHWH (Numbers 25:13). When the Maccabean forces liberated Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 BCE, they replaced the Zadokite but heterodox high priest, then installed Jonathan Maccabee into the office; he was not a direct descendant of Zadok, nor claimed Davidic ancestry. Thus, many saw the Hasmonean dynasty as illegitimate. Indeed, the Essenes who opposed the Temple leaders clothed themselves as "sons of Zadok."

2) Political Corruption. Herod tilted the power of the high priest when he murdered Alexander and Aristobulus IV, his sons by Mariamne I, a Hasmonean princess and the last female descendant in the line. By eliminating the former aristocracy, Herod reached out to the Diaspora to replace leadership in the priesthood. Thus, he made the Temple staff and Sanhedrin beholden to himself; Roman officials in first century CE simply inherited this arrangement.

The position of high priest became highly political in this time frame. To ease strife, the Romans depended upon a singular, well connected family for leadership. Annas (or Ananus, 23 BCE–40 CE?) filled that void. He controlled the office, either by himself or through his five sons and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, thus dominating the religious landscape between the removal of Herod Archelaus (6 CE) to the rise of Agrippa I (41 BCE).

The populace honored the Temple because of it history, traditions and place in the Torah, but distrusted the leadership. They consider the priests as power hungry stooges of the Emperor and money grubbing elites. Since a large part of Jerusalem's economy depended upon religious tourism, especially during the three great pilgrimage holy days of Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Feast of Booths), the leadership made business arrangements to insure their cut of the profits. In the "Court of the Gentiles," they franchised spaces for money changers and merchants who sold animals for sacrifice, thus turning a sacred area into a marketplace. According the gospels, when Jesus cleansed this area of the Temple grounds, he had wide enough popular support that the Temple leadership could not move against him (Mark 11:15-19, Matthew 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16).

d. Summary

For nearly a millennium, Jews focused worship cult in the Temple at Jerusalem. Such ritual mimicked the meal service of a lesser (the priest who represented the populace) to a greater (YHWH). The meal offering represented the best of the community, rarely eaten meat along with the finest grains, vegetables and fruits. Sacrifice, then, was a ritualized meal given to the divine, either totally (burnt offering) or shared (peace or free-will offering), especially to placate God (sin or guilt offering).

Originally, David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in order to solidify the nation's worship as his own. Solomon built the first Temple to cement the identity of YHWH with the regent. Later kings suppressed renegade and idolatrous sites, leaving one Temple for God with one king.

The Temple shared an architecture with that of pagan temples as the "house of God." The inner building was the dwelling place of the divinity; before the temple was an altar for sacrifice; a wall separated the people (outer court) from the sacred area (inner court of temple and altar) where only the chosen priests could enter. Herod renovated the Temple by segregating various parts of the outer court (men from women, Jews from Gentiles) and expanding the inner court with areas for different functions of sacrifice and its preparation. Finally, he walled in Mount Zion and expanded the "Temple Mount," thus creating an agora, a cultural and economic center for the region.

While faithful Jews throughout the Empire made pilgrimage to worship at Jerusalem's holy site and paid a yearly Temple tax, much of the populace considered the high priest and his minions as illegitimate or corrupt. Many yearned not only for liberation from foreign oppressors, they wanted to cleanse the Temple of sin and restore a pure worship.

4. Synagogue


Torah Scroll
in a Synagogue

The word "synagogue" was Greek for "assembly." The synagogue functioned as a gathering center for the Jewish community, especially those in the Diaspora. It arose out of the social need. Jews traditionally prayed together in small groups, some prayers required a quorum of ten adult men. Jewish clans and neighbors would dine together to insure the kosher status of the food; in time, social welfare functions developed to feed and clothe the poor. Jewish males would study the Torah together and debate various interpretations of the Law. No doubt, the effort to live in self-contained communities throughout the known world ("ghettos") encouraged the development of the synagogue. Scholars cannot pinpoint the origins of the institution; the earliest ruins of a synagogue date to the third century BCE (in Egypt).

Much of our knowledge about ancient synagogues comes from the Acts of the Apostles and various passages in the gospels. These writings described a ritual for a public reading from Scripture ("the Law and the prophets;" Acts 13:15), then a commentary on that passage (Luke 4:16-30, Acts 13:14-41). A synagogue attendant would oversee the choice of the reading, ensure its correct pronunciation and either comment on the passage chosen or pick someone who would comment, especially well-known visitors (Luke 4:16, Acts 17:1-4, Acts 17:10-12, Acts 18:4-8, Acts 18:18-22).

Philo also described a synagogue service during the first century CE. In Alexandria, a priest or elder read from the Torah scroll and gave commentary; the leader would expound on the passage line by line until early afternoon. He also noted that, in Rome, Jews gathered on the Sabbath to study their "ancestral philosophy."

From the references above, we can infer the synagogue building contained a room large enough for a small stage with a table to hold the scroll and a teaching seat for the commentator (Luke 4:20); it also included a seating area below the stage for the congregation (Acts 13:13:15). Like the synagogues built from the post Second Temple period to present day, the few existing ruins from the inter-Testamental period, both in Palestine and the Diaspora, were oriented towards Jerusalem; the orientation wall could have contained a shrine box for the Torah scroll (the "ark"). Clearly, the synagogue, both in building and ritual, focused upon the public study of Scripture; from the extant sources, few passages pointed to prayer as a reason for assembling the faithful. While scholars argue over the extent of literacy among Jews in the first century CE, we can assume faithful males were exposed to some level of literacy.

The institution of the synagogue broadened the scope and appeal of Judaism by the time of early Church. Unlike the Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues did not rely on sacred geography; it was located based upon the needs of the community. Unlike the Temple, synagogues did not have any leadership based upon heredity; any literate male could partake in the study and proclamation of the Torah. Study of the Law competed with cult at the Temple and eventually replaced it. Any competent male could fill a leadership role in the synagogue. Prayer did become a part of the community's service; the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE accelerated that development.

5. Circumcision

Before the Babylonian exile, Jews shared the practice of circumcision with their Semitic neighbors; historical evidence indicated it was common throughout the Fertile Crescent at one time or another, from Egypt in the south to Mesopotamia in the east. The speculative reasons for the practice vary among historians, from hygiene to a rite of passage. Jews developed it as a marker of cultural, national and, ultimately, religious identity.

The rise of Hellenism sharpened that distinct identity. Greeks idealized the male body in the arts and in its cultural institutions. For example, the one of the most prominent fixtures in the polis was the gymnasium, originally a training facility for competitors in public games, but expanded as a social gathering for exercise, communal bathing and philosophical discussion. The word "gymnasium" stemming from the Greek "gymnos" meaning "naked." Young males over the age of eighteen trained and competed publicly in the nude. Greek city-states would hold these competitions during religious festivals, thus identifying the virility and strength of the nude male form with divine attributes. In other words, competing in the nude was a spiritual exercise, an act of worship.

With the rise of Hellenism, gymnasiums spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin, including Jerusalem. According to 1 Maccabees 1:14, Jewish men who joined the gymnasium in the city tried to hide their circumcision, possibly through herbal treatments or surgery (called "epispasm"), so they could train in the nude or partake in communal bathing. They attempted to hide their circumcision not to hide their religious affiliation but because Greek (and later Roman) culture considered the barred tip of the penis abhorrent, even obscene.

Hence, circumcision became a definitive line of separation between Jew and Greek in the inter-Testamental period. Jewish males could not partake in the social institutions of their Greek counterparts without some accommodation and the threat of ridicule. Those who did try to interact on this level faced rejection by their more zealous Jewish neighbors and derision by their pagan colleagues.

6. Sabbath observance.


Shabbat Candles
marking the observance
of the Sabbath

Besides the Biblical verses commanding Sabbath observance (Exodus 20:8-11), other passages from the creation story (Genesis 2:1-3) to the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, and Nehemiah) highlight the importance of the practice. However, its social roots lie in obscurity; scholars have proposed various theories but none seem convincing. Nonetheless, the command to "keep the Sabbath holy" involved prayer and rest.

Sabbath observance stood in start contrast to religious festivals held in the Roman Empire during the first century CE. While both Sabbath and pagan holy days were communal, differences of belief and practice drove a wedge between the groups. On the one hand, Jews celebrated the Sabbath every seven days; on that day, they prayed to one God and studied their holy texts (the Torah and the prophets) at their designated meeting hall (the synagogue). On the other hand, pagans celebrated festivals that included communal processions, sacrificed animals at the temple of the deity (usually the patron god of the city) and a city-wide meal that represented communion with the god. The repetitive nature of these festivals depended upon the location; Rome celebrated nearly one third of the days during the year, while other cities held feasts on a much lesser basis. Since Jews did not recognize pagan gods, they did not partake in their festivities. Pagans considered such behavior anti-social.

As I mentioned before, many scholars estimate the population of Jews at eight to nine percent of the populace in the Empire, so most Romans and Greeks had personal knowledge of Jewish neighbors and their practices. Hence, a tacit but uneasy social agreement existed between the groups. They worshiped different gods in different ways in segregated audiences.

7. The Notion of Holiness in Jewish Practices

Lev 11:44-45, Lev 19:2, Lev 20:7, Lev 20:26 and Lev 21:8 directly or indirectly called upon the Israelites to "be holy." In this sense, "holy" meant separateness, a unique identity. This exclusivity impacted the daily lives of believers in the first century CE.

a. Kosher

The notion of "kosher" or cleanliness came primarily from the Torah. The mitzvot (duties) that commanded kosher fell primarily into dietary restrictions: prohibitions on 1) the meat of animals that did not have divided hooves or did not chew its cud, 2) water life that did not have fins or scales, 3) certain birds, 4) most insects and reptiles (Lev 11:3-20, Lev 11:27, Lev 11:29-30; Deuteronomy 14:4-20). Like Sabbath observance, its social roots lie obscure in history; most explanations based upon medical evidence have been abandoned. Other sources caused uncleanliness: physical contact with anything unclean (Leviticus 5:2-3), especially corpses (Numbers 19:11), infectious skin diseases (Leviticus 13:1-46) and certain bodily functions (Leviticus 12:2, 15:1-33). A state of uncleanliness meant exclusion from worship (Leviticus 22:3-5), even excommunication (Numbers 5:2).

The influence of the word allowed for allegorical use, possibly from the Hellenistic preference for this type of interpretation. Job 33:9 and Psalm 51:7 spoke to a spiritual cleansing. The New Testament used the koine Greek equivalent for kosher, "katharos" twenty two times, in physical, levitical and moral senses.

b. Ritual Washings

The Torah addressed various types of ritual washing as preparation for worship (see Psalm 26:6) or, in the case of those quarantined for medical reasons, to rejoin the community. These included bathing (Leviticus 14:8-9), washing of clothes (Numbers 31:24), sprinkling of water (Numbers 19:17-19 and the washing of hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-21). Since these washings made one kosher, they expanded beyond cult and restoration to the community into daily living and spirituality. Philo of Alexanderia, a contemporary of Jesus, addressed physical and spiritual washings. The Dead Sea scrolls referenced various washings and their reasoning (4QMMT, for example) . The ruins at Qumran (along with other first century sites in Palestine and the Diaspora) contained ritual baths or "mikveh," where the believer would walk down stairs into a pool of (preferably) running water, immerse himself, then emerge up another set of steps. Such washings even extended to preparation for meals after business in the marketplace and to cooking containers (Mark 7:3-4). Ritual washings became an integral part of the daily life for the Jew both inside and outside Palestine.

We must note Greek and Roman cultures prized washing in the institutions of the public bath and the gymnasium. However, this use was secular and did not prepare one to enter the sacred, like Jews employed it.

c. Shared Meals

The discussion on washings dovetailed with that of shared meals, for Jews ritually washed their hands before partaking (see John 1:6, Mark 7:2-3, Luke 11:38, Matthew 15:2). Jews ate twice a day (while Romans ate three times daily). Kosher regulations dictated the daily diet of the faithful for a thousand years, from the presence of Isrealites in Cana well into the first century CE. The cuisine consisted of bread, wine, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat or fish, depending upon the solemnity of the event and the availability of the protein source; this diet was similar to those of other Mediterranean cultures. Some meals, like the Passover, had symbolic significance, combining certain foods and roles of family members with Biblical narratives. While we lack particular details on the daily meal customs of the Jewish clan, we can see the overall outline of ritual washing, diet regulation and ceremonial meals emphasized the role of faith in the ebb and flow of life.

On a social level, who shared in the meal defined not only one's place in the clan, but one's status in the community. Eating in closed circles marked social boundaries; Jews ate with fellow countrymen; those who kept kosher ate only with those who did likewise (see Galatians 2:12). One's seat also indicated one's importance in the group (see James 2:1-4, Luke 14:7-11). Hence, the shared meal demarcated one's group and identity within the group.

d. Spiritual Practices beyond Torah Duties.

The rise of popular movements and practices in the first century CE indicated a certain dissatisfaction with spiritual minimalism. Merely obeying the Law did not satisfy the yearning of many Jews; they wanted something more to come closer to YHWH. John the Baptist rose up to preach a baptism of personal repentance as a means to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:4-9, Luke 3:3-18, Josephus in his Antiquities 18:5.2 116-119). The Essenes grew in popularity as exemplars of moral living that one should emulate (Josephus in his Jewish Wars 2.8.2-3).

The two most popular means of spiritual growth were almsgiving and fasting. Almsgiving extended one's wealth to the poor, since, in the Mosaic tradition, riches were a loan from God to which the poor have certain rights (see Deuteronomy 15:11). And, because the benefactor gave alms freely, it possessed the power to forgive sins (Proverbs 9:4, Sirach 29:12). The proceeds of giving primarily served the needs of the widow and the orphan. For example, the "Temple Treasury" in the story of the widow's offering (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4) was actually a misnomer. She contributed to one of many collections boxes (possibly in the shape of a trumpet) within the Court of the Women; at least one of these boxes served the needs of the poor.

Fasting denied the self the comfort of food, drink and entertaining experiences. In the first century CE, Jews fasted from any food or drink, usually for 24 hour at a time, primarily for the purpose of expressing sincere regret for sin, either deliberate or unintentional (Isaiah 58:1-13). The Torah proscribes fasting on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:27, 29:32, Numbers 29:7) as a means to express both individual and communal contrition, a prerequisite to atonement with YHWH (Joel 2:12-18). In the inter-Testamental period, believer extended the practice to include asceticism (Judith 8:6, Luke 2:37, Luke 18:12, Mark 2:18) and in anticipation of an apocalyptic revelation (Daniel 10:3, 12; Ezra 5:13–20; 6:35). Many Jews fasted twice a week (Lk 18:12), usually Mondays and Thursdays.

Almsgiving and fasting dovetailed together in two ways: 1) focus on the needs of others, especially the poor and 2) the forgiveness of sins. By denying the self and giving of the self, the believer strove to promote social justice and, in the process, come closer to God. These resonated with a third theme, anticipation of the end times. John the Baptist lived as an ascetic who practiced a minimal diet as an example to others and urged almsgiving, all while preaching the coming of the eschatological figure, the Messiah (Mark 1:6-8, Luke 3:3, 7-14, Matthew 3:2, 4, 11, Josephus in his Antiquities 18.118).

e. Summary

The call to be "holy" impacted the Jewish psyche in many areas. The faithful strove to separate themselves from the dominate culture through diet and meal rituals (including washings), prayer and spiritual practices (fasting and almsgiving). While the notion of kosher began with food restrictions and disease quarantine, it grew to include spiritual concerns and contact with outsiders. "Clean" became a metaphor that divided saint from sinner, insider from outsider.

8. The Impact of Hellenism

As the dominate culture in the eastern Mediterranean basin during the inter-Testamental period, Hellenism permeated Judaism, even the backwater regions of Palestine. The question remained: how much influence could a Jew allow and still maintain his faithfulness to YHWH? Jews compromised in three areas: 1) language, 2) economics and political life, 3) the arts and philosophy.

a. Language


A Section of
the Septuagint
from the
Codex Vaticanus

In the Diaspora, Jews spoke Greek as their primary language, even to the extent that they studied Scripture through a Greek translation, the Septuagint (meaning "seventy" in Greek; also abbreviated as LXX). This work began as early as the third century BCE with the Torah first, then the Prophets and finally the Wisdom literature. It was one of the most ambitious literary projects of the time, translating a major literary work from one language into "lingua franca" of the time, koine Greek. It strove to chart a middle course between the literal translation of business and the freer translations allowed for literary works. However, different scribes translated it various ways, without consistency in terms and in word meanings, both literally and culturally; they even changed anthropomorphic descriptions of God. However, by the first century CE, it stood as the standard Greek text of the Bible. Early Christian used it as a source of teaching; the New Testament cites verses from the Septuagint over 340 times.

Within Palestine, Greek had fragmentary effects. Greek communities dotted the Palestinian landscape (Askelon, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus), even in Galilee (Tiberias and the Decapolis) . Jews in the area gave their children with Greek names (Jesus, Philip and Andrew in the Gospels). The Theodotus Inscription was a dedication stone from a pre-70 CE synagogue in Jerusalem written in Greek; the facility most likely served Jews from the Diaspora. From this smattering of evidence, we can speculate about the influence of the Greek language in first century Palestine. The region, even in the hinterlands, had a mixed cultural characteristics; a majority Jewish population did interact with Greek speakers. While Jews did speak Aramaic, they most likely included Greek terms and even Greek grammatical construction into their speech; we can assume many were functionally bilingual. First century CE Palestine was not an Aramaic bubble in a Hellenistic world; that local region did adapt to the reality of a dominate language.

b. Economics and Political Life

One the one hand, it's not possible to exactly measure the impact that the Roman economy had upon the Jews, especially those in the Diaspora. The structure of the Empire dictated its business life; it was a dictatorship that created infrastructure (roads, cities and ports) to quickly project military might. Trade "piggy-backed" onto that systems of cities, roads and sea lanes. The relative safety of that infrastructure and the consistent value of Roman currency allowed for free flow of goods and services across the Empire, thus increasing wealth. As a significant portion of the population, however, we can speculate that they did enjoy some of that prosperity.

On the other hand, with wealth came political influence. In his Antiquities 18.8, Josephus addressed the figure of Philo (25BCE – 50 CE), a leader in the Diaspora community in Alexandria. Strife broke out between the majority Greeks and the minority Jews in the city. Greeks partook in emperor worship and accused Jews of treasonous behavior since they did not share in imperial cult, nor did they erect statues, temples or altars to him. The tension became so great that the city fathers decided to send a delegation of each community to Caligula so he could adjudicate the case. Philo led the Jewish delegation. While he was unsuccessful, he held the respect of others through his wealth, learning and rhetorical skills.

c. The Arts and Philosophy

The Jewish intelligentsia of the inter-Testamental period employed Greek literary genres to defend their faith. In the arts, Philo the Poet (about 300-200 BCE) wrote a poem in Greek hexameter, outlining history of Jerusalem . Ezekiel the Tragedian (about 200 BCE) penned the Exagoge, a five part play in iambic trimeter that mixed the Exodus narrative (from the Septuagint) with Hellenistic tragic drama. In apologetics, Artapanus of Alexandria (about 300 to 300 BCE) composed a competitive history that claimed many of the cultural advances in the Middle East stemmed from Abraham, Joseph and Moses; because the author mixed Jewish and Hellenistic motifs, many scholars hold he was a hedontheist. The most popular and widely read Jewish historian of the first century was Josephus (born Joseph ben Matiryahu, then renamed by his adopting patron, Titus Flavius Josephus, 37-100 BCE). He composed two major works: Antiquities and the Jewish War. Much of our knowledge about Judaism in first century CE (outside of the New Testament) came from those works. He also wrote an apologetic work Against Apion (who was leading intellectual in Alexandria at the time), refuting pagan charges against Judaism one by one.


Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria stood as by far the most impressive Jewish mind of the age. Mentioned above, he partook in imperial politics to an extent. Well educated, he adapted neo-Platonic philosophy to Jewish faith, equating YHWH with Plato's concept of the "One" and positing an intermediary "logos" between God and humanity. He also adopted the Greek method of allegory as the chief means to interpret Scripture. Both his philosophy and biblical exegesis had such a great influence on Christians that the Church preserved over 2000 pages of his writing; they also set the stage for St. Augustine's conversion and thinking. While Philo did try to reconcile Judaism and Hellenism, he remained an observant Jew throughout his life.

d. Summary

While Judaism chafed under Hellenism, Jew adopted different ways to reacting to the dominate culture. Two narratives from the Apocrypha summed up their varied responses. On the one hand, they rejected assimilation. 1 Maccabees described the sorry state of Jerusalem under the Syrian Greeks, the attempt to suppress Judaism by the Greek monarch, then the successful uprising of the Maccabees who were determined to maintain a clearly Jewish identity. They revolted against idols in the Temple, cult worship of the king and the institution of the gymnasium (1 Maccabees 1:11-15).

On the other hand, many Jews, especially those in the Diaspora, accepted some sense of accommodation with pagan neighbors. The book of Tobit was a fable about a righteous Israelite dragged off to Nineveh by the Assyrians, but who found favor in the court of the enemy monarch. While he interacted with Gentiles, even within their power structure, he adapted to his new surrounding by maintaining a kosher diet, yet performed acts of charity, such as burying the dead (which made him unclean) and caring for the poor (Tobit 1:16-17). In this charming story, Jews, especially in the Diaspora, found a model for faithful living, despite working on a turf nor their own.

9. Apocalypticism and its Beliefs

The problem of accommodation produced some unintended consequences. When Jews rubbed shoulders with pagans even in Palestine, they must have felt a loss of control. Foreign powers ruled over them, imposed strange cultural norms and demanded tribute in taxes (1 Maccabees 1). This loss led to a greater crisis, what modern people call the problem of evil. Why did these calamities fall upon the faithful? Close adherence to the Law did not seem to change the calculus of tragic events. The good Jew no longer enjoyed the immediate blessings promised by YHWH; fidelity to the covenant seemed to lead to a cursed life.

This condition left the faithful with two options: apostasy or radicalization. The later developed in two ways: increased piety and apocalypticism. We noted many spiritual practices in the sections above. First century Jews practiced ritual bathing, fasting and almsgiving; these complimented Torah duties, but they also begged the questions, "Was adherence to the Law good enough? Was there something more one could do to get closer to God?" One could argue these questions fueled the rise of the Baptist movement and the ministry of Jesus.

But the efficacy of spiritual practices had limited effect. There was only so much one could do. The rest depended upon God. This insight led to the apocalyptic world view, a firmly held belief in the end of the world. In this view, YHWH would intervene into history with a Final Judgment when he would address all wrongs, punish the wicked and reward the righteous. He addressed such justice not only on a national basis, but on a scale as large as the cosmos and as small as the individual.

The seeds of apocalypticism were planted as early as the Assyrian threat to Judah (ca 701 BCE). The prophet Isaiah (proto-Isaiah in chapters 1-39; ca 742-687 BCE) addressed the threat in a series of condemnations and promises of blessings (chapters 24-27, also known as the "Little Apocalypse"); God would destroy the earth, but save the faithful remnant, implicitly in Jerusalem (Isa 25:3-9, Isa 26:1-4). At the center of the city lay the Temple, the dwelling place for YHWH, where Isaiah received a vision of his call (Isa 6:1-8); he saw angels singing praises in the midst of thick, rising incense. We must note proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39) incurred many revisions over the generations; scribes could have rewritten these verses to match their own apocalyptic inclinations. Nonetheless, we can traces of its origins in the threat Judah faced from Assyria, a regional power two centuries before rise of Babylon.

Apocalypticism gained strength during the Babylonian exile. The prophet Ezekiel (ca 622-570 BCE) divided his prophecy over a defeated Jerusalem with his vision of God (1:1-3:27), the destruction of the city and its enemies (4:1-24:27) and the blessing of the rebuild capital and its new Temple (33:1-48:35). His vision of God (1:4-28) was noteworthy, for its almost psychedelic portrayal of the divine would act as a template for future apocalyptic word images. His description of the new Temple (40:1-43:17), the glory of God within (43:5-7a, 44:4) and the renewed Law (43:18-45:20) painted a bright future for the defeated Judah. Along with the themes of divine wrath and salvation, the prophet added one of national renewal; prophecy would revive the people (dry bones in a death valley; 37:1-14) and piety would give life to the faithful (a river flowing from the base of the Temple; 47:1-12).

Other prophets wrote passages with apocalyptic themes. Joel (mid fifth century BCE; 3:9-21) and second Zechariah (late sixth century BCE; 12-14) addressed destruction and salvation on the day of the Lord.

Ultimately, apocalypticism found its full voice in Daniel 7-12. Even though the book described events during the Exile (587-538 BCE), many scholars hold it was written in early in the second century BCE when Judea lay in the power struggle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms. Chapters 7-12 consisted of a series of visions: the rise and fall of empires (Dan 7:2-8:25, Dan 11:1-45), the time frame of punishment for Jerusalem (Dan 9:24-27) and the promise of redemption (Dan 12:1-4). Daniel combined the word-image style of Ezekiel with a view to salvation history to produce a new genre of religious writings that differed from its prophetic predecessors. It had themes unique to its world view, including a divinely anointed leader (Messiah), angelic forces to battles the armies of darkness and the promise of an afterlife for the righteous.

a. Messiah

Daniel's visions reached a zenith when the "son of man" appeared in the midst of the other empires.

I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. Dominion was given him, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away, and his kingdom that which will not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (World English Bible)

Daniel's "son of man" image was the first of four paradigms for the "Anointed One" (Messiah). It had the most persuasive power of all the figures simply because it focused upon its origin: heaven. This Messiah would come down from God with divine power to fulfill his will. He would establish a never ending reign.

While the author of Daniel might not have connected his "son of man" figure with the Messiah, a few apocalyptic writings did. 1 Enoch 37-71 expanded Daniel's vision as the agent of divine justice from heaven and named him the Messiah (48:2-10). 2 Esdras 13 painted the vision of Messiah figure who would punish the wicked but save the remnant on the Judgment Day. Such book expanded and popularized Daniel's image, thus cementing it with the title "Messiah."

Jeremiah 33:14-26 described the second Messiah figure, a son of David:

In those days and at that time,
I will cause a Branch of righteousness to grow up to David.
He will execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved,
and Jerusalem will dwell safely.

Jeremiah 33:15-16a (World English Bible)

2 Samuel 7:12-14 and 1 Chronicles 17:13 added to Jeremiah's prophecy; they promised a continuing Davidic line would rule over Israel. For some, this "son of David" image soon took on the appearance of a warrior-king, a regent who would rise up from among men, lead his army into battle and overthrow the forces of darkness, those who oppressed Jews. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, most scholars agree that fragment 4Q285 referred to a "root of Jesse...branch of David" who would "pierce" his enemies, the Romans. Scholars still debate if the Essenes connected this figure with the "Prince of the Congregation" who would lead the community ("sons of light") to an eschatological victory over the "Kittim" (the Romans). Nonetheless, few would hold that the Romans did not allege revolutionary aspirations on the part of Jesus; after all, they crucified him as the "King of the Jews."

The third image for the Messiah found its focus in the apocrypha and the Dead Seas Scrolls: the high priest. We have already discussed this office as a locus of political power among Jews, but we have not connected it with the term "anointed." Zechariah 4:14 described, "the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth." One was Zerubbabel, governor for the Persians in the first wave of returning refugees from Babylon and heir in the Davidic line; Haggai 2:23 implicitly reinforced the governor's roots as a king figure. The other in Zechariah's prophecy was high priest Joshua. Both had the responsibility to rebuild the Temple.

From then onward, both king and high priest received praise. Sirach 45:6-22 "exalted Aaron" at greater length than 47:2-11 praised David. In Daniel 9:25-26, YHWH promised to restore the cut off, not a king, but "Anointed One, the prince," possibly an honorific title for the high priest. In the Damascus Document (CD), the Essenes looked forward to two Messiahs, one of Aaron as high priest, the other of Israel as king (CD 12:23-13:1, 14:18-19, 19:9-11). However, in the Rule of the Community (1Q28a 2:11-21), the high priest Messiah and his entourage preceded the king Messiah into the sacred messianic meal, then blessed the food before the king did. In the Qumran community, the Messiah of Aaron overshadowed the Messiah of Israel.

The last Messianic image came to light specifically in the Dead Sea Scrolls: "Teacher of Righteousness." At various places in the Damascus Document, the Essenes referred to this figure as the founder of their movement whose insight laid the groundwork for their interpretation of Scripture and, hence, their lifestyle. He gained in stature as a descendant of Zadok, the first high priest in Solomon's Temple. So, his place took on Messianic overtones that have led to speculation as to his identity among scholars.

We will return to this image in the sections on the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, in the Christian Context section, we will employ the title in a symbolic sense, one who came to give the true interpretation of God's Law to his people.

The four paradigms of the Messiah had a plasticity. One could mix and match the images based upon his beliefs about the end times and how the Christ fit into the final events. For many apocalytic Jews, he was a minor character in the broad sweep of God's plans, unlike Christians who placed him front and center in unfolding end times.

b. Dualism and Angels


Michael the Archangel

An apocalyptic world view divided peoples: insiders vs. outsiders. Its language was binary, the blessed vs. the cursed, the "sons of light" vs. the "sons of darkness." This dualism extended not only on an individual level and national level, it engulfed spiritual entities.

Many Jews believed in angels, spirits who they held controlled the ebb and flow of life. The term "angel" meant messenger or ambassador. In Scripture, angels communicate God's message to morals, heal and instruct the faithful. They also worshiped YHWH in his heavenly throne room and acted as warriors against his enemies. Jews in the first century CE saw them forming a court council for the heavenly king YHWH; they acted as advisors and intermediaries, entreating the divine with prayers and petitions. In Zechariah 1:12, an angel pleaded on behalf of the nation: "O YHWH of Armies, how long will you not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which you have had indignation these seventy years?" (WEB) Some scholars debate whether Jews in the Common Era believed these angels were demigods or creatures with incredible powers; nonetheless, they implicitly held onto the notion of an angelic hierarchy.

Many Jews in the first century held that, like military court officials, some of these angels functioned as warriors. Michael ("Who is like God?" in Hebrew) the archangel had such a role. In Daniel 10:13, and angelic voice told the seer: "...behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me because I remained there with the kings of Persia" (WEB).  Daniel 12:1 noted: ""At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince who stands for the children of your people; and there will be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time. At that time your people will be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book." (WEB) Daniel, along with the rest of the Hebrew canon, did not give the rank of "archangel" to Michael (or any other angel), he did address him as "prince," thus giving him a royal status; he would lead the forces of light against those of the dark.

In the War Scroll (1QM), the Essenes pictured themselves in a great cosmic battle aligned with the angelic forces against the Kittim, the army of darkness led by Belial, leader of demons. These malevolent spirits caused afflictions, chaos and natural disasters, according to the views of the ancients; hence, the apocalyptic world view saw them as aligned against YHWH, even in a great battle for final supremacy. The Qumran community envisioned their struggle against the oppressive Romans as a war between the forces of good and evil on a cosmic dimension.

c. Belief in the Resurrection

The notion of the resurrection gained currency in ancient cultures of the Middle East, yet its meaning depended upon its context. Resurrection appeared in the religion of Egypt with the myth of Osiris, whose dying and rising were linked to the change of agricultural seasons in the Nile river basin. In Greece mythology, Dionysus, son of Zeus, was ripped asunder by the Titans, but was resurrected when Rhea, his grandmother, reassembled parts of his heart; this represented the renewal of relationships. In the early part of the twentieth century, scholars hailed these parallels, thus giving the notion of resurrection a universal appeal, even a part in Jungian psychology. However, most scholars in the twenty first century have shied away from such sweeping statements; instead, they saw resurrection as an idea within a particular world view.

In first century CE Judaism, resurrection meant resuscitation of a corpse at a certain point in time or at the end of the world when God would raise the righteous to life again. Three biblical passages pointed towards the first meaning: Elijah raised a young boy from death (1 Kings 17:17-24), Elisha raised the son of a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-37) and a dead man who touched bones of Elisha and returned to life (2 Kings 13:21). The tale of the mother and her seven sons who preferred death over breaking kosher commands (2 Maccabees) clearly referred to resurrection as an event of the end times. Other inter-testamental books with an apocalyptic outlook (1 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch and 2 Esdras) also referred to resurrection in this context. Outside of this world view, the idea of a physical resurrection made little sense (see the section on the Sadducees).

Still, the notion of resurrection had some pliability, based upon two questions. First, what sort of body existed in the resurrection? Early Gentile Christians with philosophic leanings, debated this matter; Paul argued against such musings as useless (1 Corinthians 15:35-50), but he never explained what he meant by the phrase "spiritual body," thus leaving the door open to speculation.

Second, what did the notion mean to the believer? In other words, resurrection somehow connected the faithful in the present to a future event. For some, belief in God's justice drove them to that conclusion. For others, especially in the Christian community, a life changing experience, a catharsis, bridged the gap; they held a metanoia, a change of life, outlook and morals, allowed them to taste a life in the forever. Resurrection, then, had a spiritual meaning. A minority in the community reduced it strictly to the spiritual, arguing it really began with the rising of Christ; thus, it only made sense as a metaphor for an ecstatic experience. The author of 2 Timothy criticized those who held this view (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Yet, the further away the believer drifted from an apocalyptic view to a neo-Platonic one shared by the general culture, the more appeal the metaphorical interpretation had for the idea of rising from the dead.

d. Summary

The apocalyptic world view grew out of a climate of helplessness. As a nation and as a people, Jews felt oppressed by powers outside of their control. Following the Law gave them little benefit. So, the belief in a final divine reckoning, a day of YHWH, developed between the return from exile in Babylon (538 BCE) and the time of Jesus (first century CE). A review of writings both within and without the Hebrew canon showed that apocalyptic literature grew out of the prophetic tradition.

The apocalyptic view had three distinctive beliefs: Messiah, angels, resurrection from the dead. In the final battle between good an evil, the Messiah to some extent had a leadership role, the faithful joined spiritual forces in the grand struggle for supremacy and, in the end, the righteous would be raised to their eternal reward. In the end, divine justice would prevail.

C. Groups within Judaism

Let's return to the question of Judaism in a multicultural society. How could one be a Jew in a pagan culture of the first century CE? A few groups arose to answer that question, some argued for assimilation, some for accommodation, some for exclusion. The answers not only relied upon ideology and inclination, they also depended upon the geographic of their power source. We must recognize that most Jews did not hold strictly to any of these world views. Let's begin with assimilation and more towards exclusivity.

1. The Herodians

The remnants of Herod's descendants and aristocracy were Jews in name only. Very few rigorously practiced the religion; instead, they found themselves struggling to maintain influence in imperial politics. While they might fight for power on a provincial level, their power base lie in Rome. They played the part as Jews, but were fully Hellenized.

2. The Pharisees

The Pharisees professed a philosophy with the farthest reach, simply because their power base was the local synagogue. While they honored the commands for Temple worship, they knowledge (hence study) of the Torah above cult. They also extended the notion of Scripture to include the prophets and wisdom literature, even developing a world view of interpretation and extra-biblical rules that they would call the "Oral Torah." While they did accept a place for fate in the daily affairs of humanity, they held to a system of justice both in this world and in the afterlife; thus, they professed a resurrection of the just at a "Final Judgment." (Josephus Antiquities XXVII 3)

The Pharisees concerned themselves with the notion of cultural purity. As experts in the Law, they created a series of rules that controlled the daily affairs of the populace, both within Palestine and in the Diaspora, so that the average Jew could not willfully violate the Torah. While such a lifestyle could not stop the faithful from interacting with Gentiles on an everyday basis, it did provide means to minimize and purify one's self from such "pollution."

3. The Sadducees

Many scholars speculate that the name "Sadducee" was a variation on the term "Zadokite." As mentioned above, the power in Jerusalem shifted from the king to the high priest after the return from the Babylonian exile. The ruling council or "Sanhedrin" gathered around the high priest, thus solidifying his power. For centuries, political control and cultural influence flowed from the Temple.

The Sadducees consisted of the priestly clans and leading citizens of Jerusalem. They focused strictly upon the Temple and, by extension, the city as their power base. They restricted the Scriptures, hence the practice of religion, to the Torah and, in particular, to its cult. So they rejected any belief outside the revelation found in the Law. According to Josephus (Jewish War 2.162-166; Antiquities XXVII 4), they held there was no fate, so God did not commit evil and humans had free will; in addition, they believed that, since the soul was merely mortal, no afterlife rewards or resurrection existed (Matthew 22:23-46; Acts 23:6-10).

Since the office of the high priest depended upon the whims of the Roman prefect, we can entertain two assumptions. First, the Sadducees did cooperate with the Romans, thus, opening themselves up to the charge of hypocracy. And, second, they used the system to enrich themselves (Josephus' Antiquities 13) because a large part of the local economy depended upon religious tourism from the three great feasts of pilgrimage: Pesach (Passover), Shavout (Weeks or Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tents or Booths; see Exodus 23:14–17, Deu 16).

D. The Essenes and the Dead Seas Scrolls


Cave Four
at Qumran

The Essenes were a small but esteemed gathering of about 4,000 (Josephus and Philo), divided into a desert commune at Qumran and support communities in surrounding towns. The compound at Qumran lay on the western shores of the Dead Sea; it contained pottery making facilities, a defensive lookout tower, a "scriptorium" with tables and ink wells so scribes could copy manuscripts and a sophisticated systems of water channels from a wadi to feed cisterns and ten ritual baths (mikvah). Based upon its size and the adjoining cemetery, experts conclude the compound could support 150-200 men at a time. Its location in vicinity to the eleven caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found (along with connecting paths) led most scholars to identify the Essene community at Qumran with the writings found in the scrolls.

According to Josephus (Jewish War 8:2-13; Antiquities XXVII 5) and Philo (Hypothetica 11:4, 14), those at Qumran lived a celibate life in poverty, sharing everything in a communal setting. Their life was regimented with certain times for meals, study and work. Initiation into the compound required three years of testing; novitiates took oaths to observe piety towards God and justice towards neighbor. Above all, the members there lived a life of ritual purity, Those who lived outside the compound could marry and raise families; those who entered did not marry, but could adopt children and act as guardians.

Based upon the above comments, the Essenes formed a hybrid community. The commune had some synagogue functions, as a place to house visitors and encourage the study of the Torah, like the Pharisees. Unike their counterparts, however, they stressed both ritual and moral purity but pushed those practices to the extreme. Yet, as we will see in the next section, they focused upon the Temple, even preparing their number to replace the Sadducees in Jerusalem whom they considered corrupt. Their power base, however, captured the imagination of the people. Neither Rome nor Jerusalem nor the local gathering, the Essenes found their power in the desert, the locale of the Exodus; by enduring the harsh conditions of the Dead Sea shore, they proved their fortitude and faithfulness along the spiritual path.

1. The Dead Sea Scrolls:

When a Bedouin shepherd boy found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, scholars and the public at large soon found their notions of Judaism in the first century CE turned upside down. These documents and those discovered afterwards filled out the belief system of the Essenes; in turn, they gave scholars a real grasp on the culture of Palestine at the time. So, we must look into some of the more important documents to learn, not only what the Essenes believed, but what was popular at the time of Jesus.


Habakkuk Pesher

a. "Pesher" Documents. These "peshers" were commentaries on various books of the Bible. The document had a passage, followed by its interpretation. Unlike allegorical or literal readings of Scripture that were popular at the time, pesher ignored the historical context in which the passage was written; instead, it applied the verse to the present conditions of the interpreter who, many times, believed he lived in the end times. Among the Dead Sea scrolls, archaeologists found peshers on Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and the Psalms.

The pesher on Habakkuk (1QpHab) referred to "Teacher of Righteousness," its unidentified leader. This website mentioned the holder of this title as a Messianic figure. This pesher reinterpreted verses within Habakkuk to hold the Essenes accountable to the Teacher. Most notably, consider Habakkuk 2:4b: "... the righteous will live by his faith." In the immediate context, the pronoun "his" referred to the righteous man. In the pesher, the pronoun shifted the identity to that of the Teacher. In other words, righteousness depended upon allegiance to the Teacher and his teachings. Paul (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11) and the author of Hebrews (Heb 10:37-38) used Habakkuk 2:4b in the same way; the pronoun "his" referred to Jesus.

The New Testament employed the pesher method many times, especially in framing Jesus as the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 53 (for example, Isa 53:4 in Matthew 8:16, Isa 53:1 in John 12:37-41, Isa 53:12 in Luke 4:28-31, Isa 53:9 in 1 Peter 2:19-25, Isa 53:7-8 in Acts 8:32-35).

b. The "Halakhic" Letter (1Q4 MMT). Published in 1994, scholars reconstructed this document from the texts of six different scroll fragments. The author of the letter (representing the "we", the Essenes) wrote to another group ("you" or the Sadducees) and referred to a third group ("them" or Pharisees) about legal points of ritual practice (hence the title "halakhic" referring to the legal norms that guided the lifestyle of the Jew). Because scholars found so many different texts of the same document in cave four at Qumran, they placed greater weight to its importance.

The publication of this document rocked the world of biblical scholarship. Until it appeared, most Christian scholars took the lead of Josephus and defined the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes through a philosophic and theological lens. In reality, questions of ritual kosher divided groups, not necessarily their belief systems. In hindsight, this made sense. In the Torah, YHWH revealed himself through 613 mitzvot ; since these commands themselves had a divine origin, how they were interpreted and applied was of prime importance to these groups.

The letter covered twenty areas of disagreement. In many ways, the Essenes and the Sadducees held far more stringent positions than the Pharisees. For example, if a wine or oil was poured from a kosher vessel into an unclean one, did the act pollute the kosher vessel? In other words, did pollution flow backwards? The Essenes and the Sadducees answered "Yes" but the Pharisees answered "No." While this and other opinions seemed minute, they loomed much larger in the question of presenting ones self and his offering to God. YHWH was holy and he demanded holiness from his people. By arguing for extreme purity, the author sided on safety. And, he implicitly argued for exclusivity; purity demanded the people live apart from the "unclean."

Another area of dispute was the question of liturgical calendars. Most Jews, from the Babylonian Exile until the present employed a hybrid lunar-solar calendar to determine religious festivals. The Essenes, however, favored a purely solar calendar found in the apocryphal books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees (see below). Like the historical battles between western Christians (Protestants-Catholics) and eastern Christians (Orthodox) over the dates of Christmas and Easter, the Essenes fought with other groups over the dates of Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), Sukkot (fall festival known as the "Feast of Booths") and Yom Kippur (Date of Atonement). This isolated the Essenes further from other Jews.

As we will see below, the Essenes went even further, holding only they, not the Sadducees, could offer true worship to God.

Temple Scroll

Portion of
the Temple Scroll

c. The Temple Scroll (11Q19). As the second longest scroll discovered near Qumran, the Temple Scroll attempted to harmonize the three legal traditions found in the Torah. Using Deuteronomy as a base, the author of the scroll weaved in the mitzvot of Exodus and Leviticus to create a single presentation and interpretation of the Law. While other attempts to harmonize the commands existed (parts of the Book of Jubilees, for example), the Temple Scroll uniquely shifted the speaker from the mouth of Moses (third person singular "he") to the voice of God (first person "I"). In other words, in this scroll, Torah took on its literal meaning as divine revelation.

The document addressed eight different areas (divided by columns in the scroll):

1) The covenant binding YHWH and Israelite (column 2; column 1 was too corrupted).

2) The Temple, including descriptions of the chambers of the building (columns 3-11).

3) Types of sacrifices, both daily and festival offerings, including a list of holy days (columns 11-29).

4) The Outer Courtyard, items within it, along with gates and subdivisions (columns 30-35).

5) Purity ordinances for the Temple, Jerusalem and other cities (columns 36-51).

6) Various mitzvot on idolatry, vows, oaths, apostasy, etc. that related to worship (columns 51-55).

7) Laws concerning the king (columns 56-59).

8) Final sections addressing miscellaneous subjects (columns 60-66).

Three subjects require attention: the purity demanded by the scroll, the idealized description of the Temple and the commands placed upon the king. First, the author of the scroll interpreted commands concerning cult in the strictest sense possible. For example, only the skins of animals sacrificed at the Temple itself could be used to create carafes to carry wine offerings back to the Temple; the accidental sacrifice of a pregnant animal had to be rejected based upon the command not to offer a mother and its offspring on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). While such strict interpretations would have stretched the wallets of the worshiping populace, they did infer that a looser interpretation (like that practiced by the leadership at the Temple) indicated a false piety, even corruption.

Second, the author described the Temple in almost impossible terms, blowing up the size of the Temple complex to a size not possible for the technology at the time. The First and Second Temples were 27.4 meters long, 9.1 wide and 18.2 high. Considered one of the great projects of its day, Herod's Temple Mount was 280 meters (south wall), 460 meters (east wall), 315 meters (north wall) and 485 meters (west wall); the height of the walls stood at 50 meters, 20 below and 30 above street level. The scroll described its Temple as three concentric squares, each of its out most walls measured 731 meters (one half mile!). This complex would cover over 160 acres, the size of today's Old Jerusalem. Such an idealized structure towered over any other in the ancient world, thus boosting the importance of the sacred space, its leadership and the faith of Judaism itself.

Third, the author outlined restrictions on and duties of the king (based on Deuteronomy 17:14-20). As the leader of the nation, the king would have only one queen, without any mistresses, and would never divorce. He would not aggrandize his riches. His inner court would consist of Temple officials, twelve priests, twelve Levites and twelve leaders from the people at large. Such ordinances placed the regent within the confines of the Temple leadership; the priesthood trumped royalty. They required to act as a moral exemplar for the people.

The Temple Scroll attempted to systematize the sometimes conflicting mitzvot of the Torah into a coherent whole; it also asserted the role of Temple leadership over any other institution in Judaism. At the same time, it inferred the present leadership was corrupt; the Temple required cleansing. The scroll itself, then, reinforced the community's belief that, through their rigorous lifestyle, they prepared to ascend into the role of true priests at the Temple after the terrible Day of YHWH. Once there, the scroll would act as a "road map" to conduct acceptable worship to God.

Damascus Document

Damascus Document
found in Cave 4

d. The Damascus Document (Cda and CDb) and the Community Rule (1QS). At the end of the nineteenth century, British archaeologists investigated a storeroom ("genizah") for older texts in the Ben Ezra Synagogue at Old Cairo, Egypt. Among the 200,000 medieval writings found there, two sparked particular interest, a tenth century CE work (soon named the "Cairo Damascus Document" or Cda because of its repeated reference to the Syrian capital based on Amos 5:27) and its twin, a twelfth century CE version (Cdb). They gained interest because of their novelty. Scholars had never seen or knew it existed to that point some surmised its ancient roots. The discovery of seven document fragments in Cave 4 and several more in Cave 6 at Qumran confirmed that hypothesis, thus tying it to the Essene community.

Scholars divided the document into two parts: the Admonition and the Laws. The Admonition described the foundation of the community about 390 years after the Babylonian Exile (within a generation of the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE) and the appearance of the group's leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. It also mentioned the rise of his mimesis, the "preacher of falsehood" who, advocating a looser interpretation for the Law, led a competing group (the Pharisees).

The Laws laid out a severe lifestyle for the community, always opting for a stricter interpretation possible for the Torah. Besides delineating the discipline within the community, it also ruled on the lives of supporters who dwelt in the surrounding communities.

The Community Rule was one of the original scrolls found in the jars placed at Cave 1 in Qumran. Because of its length, scholars believe it guided the community's lifestyle and self understanding. According to the document, the members lived separately as the "sons of light" against the "sons of darkness" (Pharisees and Sadducees) and pooled their wealth together in communal living. Like the Laws of the Damascus Document, the Community Rule had guidelines for a disciplined life at Qumran. But it also stressed inner conversion, yearly re-commitment to the Rule, and the need for ritual purity bathing (in the ten mikvoat at the site). The first of these immersions occurred during the initiation process and, "by the Holy Spirit of the community," it "cleansed (the neophyte) of all his sins." (1QS V:8). This practice paralleled the baptism preached by John in the desert (Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:6, Luke 3:3).

Scholars have argued over the relationship between the Damascus Document and the Community Rule, especially because one fragment (4Q265) revealed an attempt to weave the two together. Nonetheless, both stressed a lifestyle defined by halakhah that found its source in the "Teacher of Righteousness." And, in one Community Rule verse, an initiation immersion foreshadowed the practice and theology of baptism.

War Scroll

Portion of
the War Scholl

e. The War Scroll (1QM). As one of the seven scrolls originally found in the first Qumran cave, this long document contained 19 columns, describing the call for the "sons of light," their battle plans (patterned after Roman tactics) and struggle itself against the "sons of darkness." The text possessed a deep apocalyptic vein; Michael the Archangel led the sons of light against Belial (code word for Satan), the Kittim (Rome) and the sons of darkness on the "day of (divine) vengeance" (1QM 7:5).

Notice the dualistic world view, dividing the good from the evil. This meshed at some points with the beliefs held by early Christians. The gospel of John separated world into those living in the light and those living in darkness (Jn 11:9-10, Jn 12:35-36); indeed, it saw Jesus as the source of light (Jn 8:12). The New Testament mentioned the faithful as the "sons of light" (John 12:38 and 1 Thessalonian 5:5). Revelation envisioned Michael the Archangel battling the forces of evil (Rev 12:7-9; also see Jude 1:9).

Another document, the Rule of the Congregation (1QSa) also described the eschatological battle between the faithful of the community (the "Yahad") and the Gentiles. Unlike the War Scroll, this text ended with a passage on heavenly meal with the "Messiah of Aaron and David" in attendance. However, unlike Christian beliefs, the priest entered the banquet first and led the meal.

The War Scroll and others like it cast the Essenes in an apocalyptic light. They expected a cataclysmic battle on the Day of YHWH, when the forces of good (the Essenes) would decisively defeat the army of darkness (the pagans represented by Rome). Their dualistic world view and their expectations for the final age paralleled those of the early Church. However, their exclusivity and their allegiance to the priest marked them apart from the Christians who placed their trust in the Messiah and welcomed all those, Jew and Gentile alike, who shared that faith.

f. Biblical and Apocryphal Books. About 25% of the documents (230 in number) found in the Qumran caves consisted of books from the Bible. The most popular were:

Psalms, 34 copies

Deuteronomy, 27 copies

Isaiah, 24 copies

Genesis, 20 copies

Exodus, 13 copies

Leviticus, 9 copies

Minor Prophets (as one book), 8 copies

Daniel, 8 copies

Scholars speculated that the number of copies corresponded with the importance the community placed upon the books. The Torah books were written in Hebrew, nine copies in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script that existed before the Exile, others in the newer (modern day) script but with YHWH written in the older script. The use of former way of writing stressed the prominence and antiquity of the Torah. When we compare the number of copies for Deuteronomy with its prominence in the Temple Scroll, we can understand its importance over the other books of the Torah.

Since the community used the Psalms for prayer, we can see its status as the most copied. One copy (11QPs) listed the psalms out of order, added five additional psalms and contained an epilogue that declared the prayer book was divine revelation given directly to David.

Isaiah, then the Minor Prophets and Daniel formed the basis of the community's self understanding; the words of these books pointed to Qumran as the prophetic fulfillment realized in the end times.

While many manuscripts used variations from the Septuagint and even had unique wordings, most followed the Masoretic ("traditional") text. From this point forward, archaeologists could only date examples of the Masoretic text, from Masada (mid-first century CE) and Ein Gedi from the Bar Kokhba period (mid-second century CE). The Masoretic text has remained consistent from the late first century CE through the Middle Ages up to present time, as the Hebrew Scriptures and the Protestant Old Testament.

Two apocryphal books also had prominence: Enoch and Jubilees. In Genesis 5:24, ""Enoch walked with God, and he was not found (dead), for God took him." Using this verse as a starting point, the author placed the history of Israel into the lips of the heavenly Enoch. Archaeologists found eleven Aramaic copies of this third century BCE work in Qumran cave 4, with fragments in caves 1, 2 and 6.

Jubilees retold the events of Genesis and Exodus 1-14 in a series of fifty year cycles (jubilees), based upon the system found in Leviticus 25. Archaeologists uncovered eighteen Hebrew copies of this second century BCE work spread throughout caves 1, 2, 3, 4, and 11.

A few books from the Septuagint were found in the caves, most notably, Greek copies of Tobit and Sirach.

As one of the first scrolls found in Cave 1 at Qumran, the Genesis Apocryphon (1QGenAP) embellished the patriarch narratives in four subsections: Lamech, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. Written in Aramaic, its author borrowed freely from 1 Enoch, Jubilees and Genesis and even introduced previously unknown stories. Because of its dependence on other materials, many scholars date this work between late third century to early first century BCE.

An Aramaic translation of Job (11QtgJob), along with the book of Jubilees and the Genesis in that language indicated a clear shift to translating and composing religious literature in the tongue of the people.

If we consider the number of copies and the type of literature found at the Qumran caves, we can surmise the Essenes gathered as a religious community (in praying the Psalms) that honored their traditions (in the books of Enoch, Jubilees and the Genesis Apocryphon; they copied the Torah or honored the name of God in the older script). They possessed a particular alignment and interpretation of the Torah (a halakhah that stressed Deuteronomy over Exodus and Leviticus). Yet, they were engrossed in an apocalyptic fervor (Isaiah, Minor Prophets, Daniel). While they copied mostly Hebrew texts, they extended themselves to the language of the people (Aramaic and Greek).

g. Spiritual Practices. Archaeologists found prayer scrolls and accouterments at Qumran. Most prayer and hymn documents were fragmentary, but two stand out as near complete, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (nine copies, 4Q400-407, 11Q17) and the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QH). The former contained hymns sung by the angels for the first thirteen Sabbaths of the year.

The Thanksgiving Hymns had about 25 songs that begin with the phrase, "I give thanks to you, O Lord." Hymns 1, 2 and 7-11 referred to the leader (possibly the "Teacher of Righteousness"), while the rest focused on the community. Many of the themes found in the scroll were common with general Judaism: the glory of God, reward for the righteous, damnation for the wicked and the existence of angels. They also contained references to predestination with an afterlife and a strict dualism that separated the Essenes from other Jews. Most notably, the hymns focused solely on the community, without a reference to the Temple or the prophets from Scripture. We do not know if these hymns had any liturgical use for the Essenes, but this scroll, like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, did guide the spirituality of the community.

Among the fragments at Qumran, archaeologists found twenty scraps with Scriptural passages written on them; they also discovered several small leather cases. The latter were teffilin ("phylacteries," Greek for "amulets" found in Matthew 23:5) which contained some of the former scrolls. This confirmed the use of tefillin in the first century CE which took the command to "tie (these commands) as a sign on your hand, they shall be frontals between your eyes" (Exodus 13:16 and Deu 6:8, Deu 11:18) literally.

Other scraps contained Deu 6:4-9, Deu 11:13-21 which observant Jews would place in a wood box above the entryway for Passover. This practice (known as "mezuza") found its command in Deu 6:9, Deu 11:20.

The small scroll fragments and tefillin cases demonstrated that some Jewish spiritual practices dated earlier than expected. The discovery of the hymn scrolls indicated a spirituality focused on heaven (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice) and the exclusivity of the community (Thanksgiving Hymns).

2. Essenes vs. the Baptist's Disciples
and Early Christians.

Various groups formed with Judaism, some inclusive to the pagan population, some exclusive. Josephus and Philo divided them along the philosophical lines of fate, predestination, the afterlife and angels. They defined themselves by the standards they used to interpret the 613 mitzot of the Torah. To these groups, we must add two more: followers of the Baptist and early Christians.

Chronologically, the Baptist movement predated the Church, but most of what we know about John and his followers came through the lens of the New Testament (Josephus in Antiquities 18:116-119 had limited information). Luke addressed his birth vis-a-viz the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:5-23, Lk 1:39-45, Lk 1:57-80); he would act as the Elijah figure to Jesus as the Christ (Matt 11:14, Matt 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13, Malachi 4:5-6). As a survivalist with his power base in the desert, he preached repentance, a baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a Messiah (Mark 1:4-8, Matt 3:2-6, Luke 3:3,16-17). In this way, he raised immersion from mere ritual to sin forgiving, like the Essenes (Community Rule, 1QS V:8) and he looked forward to the coming of the Christ, like the Essenes (the Damascus Document, Cda and Cdb; the Community Rule, 1QS; the Rule of the Congregation, 1Q28a). And, like the Essenes (the Halakhic Letter, 4QMMT), he railed against Sadducees and Pharisees (Matthew 3:7-10), while handing out advice on matters of moral living (Luke 3:10-14), but this halakhah was limited. John's fervor for his message and ministry overshadowed any attempt to systematize the study of the Torah. He was executed as a perceived threat to Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14-29, Matthew 14:1-12, Luke 9:9).

Early Christianity shared much with other Jewish groups. Consider the Essenes:

Preference for certain Biblical books and the pesher method of interpretation. Essenes had more copies of the Psalms (34 scrolls), Deuteronomy (27 scrolls) and Isaiah (24 scrolls) than any other book; these texts were the most cited in the New Testament. The pesher method of interpretation dominated the analysis that the Essenes employed; it also had prominence in the New Testament when an author quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures.

a. Moral Dualism. The Essenes divided the world into the Yahad (their community) as the "sons of light" vs the other Jews as "sons of darkness,' thus marking themselves as the true remnant. Some of that terminology made its way into Christian thinking (John 12:38 and 1 Thessalonians 5:5).

b. Continuing Revelation. Unlike the Pharisees that saw revelation closed with the death of the final prophet, the Essenes held the reception of God's message continued (the Temple Scroll, 11Q19); Christians held the same position with the writings of the New Testament.

c. Communal Life. Both the Essenes (the Community Rule, 1QS) and the early Christians (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:32-37) lived in commune like conditions, sharing quarters and meals together.

d. Leadership. Both groups developed an office of overseer, "mevaqqer" (Hebrew) for the Essenes, "episkopos" (Greek) for the churches in the late first century CE. Notice the Greek term became our English term "bishop."

In addition, Essenes and Christians also held to an apocalyptic world view (War Scroll, 1QM; Mark 13, Matthew 24, Revelation) and a hope for the Messiah. Christians and Pharisees shared a belief in the resurrection of the dead, against the position of the Sadducees (Mark 12:18, Matthew 3:7, Luke 20:27, Acts 23:6, 8).

Yet, the early Jesus movement differed so much from the Essenes, the later just could not have been some sort of "proto-Christian" community as some have claimed. First, Christianity defined itself by its devotion to the Messiah, while the Essenes concerned themselves with the more traditional study of halakhah. Next, the Church actively evangelized anyone who would hear their message, while the Qumran community isolated itself; Christians were inclusive, but Essenes were exclusive. Third, in the question of halakhah, disciples of Jesus relaxed duty to the Law as much as possible to serve their outreach efforts; Essenes gathered to study and apply the strictest interpretations of the Law for reasons of purity. Christians focused upon its Messiah and his mission to gather together the saved before the immanent day of YHWH; the Qumran community set its sights on the small remnant of the faithful, studied the Torah and applied it to their lives in ascetic ways so they would be ready to take their place in the Temple after the Final Battle. The raison etre of the groups lie at polar opposites.

How did the beliefs of Christians compare with that of the Sadducees? The disciples of Jesus had very little in common with the Temple elite and their minions. Theologically, they did not share views on the resurrection, the prophets as Scripture or the existence of angels (Acts 23:8). On the question of halakhah, the Sadducees held to a stricter application of the Law (4QMMT) while Christians had the loosest possible interpretation.

How did the Jesus movement stack up against the Pharisees? Of all the groups, these two shared much in common, the theological views on the afterlife, heavenly beings and the contents of Scripture, the attitude of accommodation in the question of halakhah. But, like squabbles between siblings, their fights produced the greatest flare-ups. In the Christian Contest of the Law, we will investigate the halakhah of the early Christian movement and compare it to that of the Pharisees.

E. Conclusion

Despite the pressures of foreign domination and scattered populations, Jews in the first century CE held on to a stable set of beliefs. They were monotheists who obeyed, even scrupulously, a set of divinely ordained commands (mitzvot in the Torah). These laws and the traditions of the people found their way into literature, the Hebrew Scriptures. Groups within the religion differed in the importance, interpretation and application of that literature to daily life (halakhah).

Institutions and spiritual practices reinforced those beliefs. Unlike pagan religions with multiple worship sites to the same deity, Jews had only one Temple in their holy city, Jerusalem, to offer sacrifice to their God; a hereditary priest led worship in the Temple. In Jewish neighborhoods throughout the world, the faithful created synagogues, community centers dedicated to the needs of the people, the public study of the Torah and prayer; a non-hereditary, hence more democratic leadership guided the synagogue. Jews also maintained their identity with the practice of male circumcision, a specialized ("kosher") diet and lifestyle restrictions, ritual washings, shared meals, Sabbath observance and such personal disciplines as almsgiving and fasting. Despite the efforts to "be holy as (YHWH) is holy" (Leviticus 11:44), the dominate Hellenistic culture intruded upon first century Judaism in terms of language, economic and political life, arts and philosophy.

While Jews tried to maintain some sense of exclusivity, they lived in a multi-lingual, multicultural environment. They faced the dilemma: how can one remain true to his religion in such a world? While different groups provided varying answers, one belief grew as a radical response to the situation: apocalypticism. This was the belief that, at the end of time, YHWH would intervene in a final battle against evil and divine justice would prevail on a personal, international and even cosmic scale. It included the notions of the Messiah, angels and the resurrection of the dead. The two most prominent apocalyptic movements of the first century CE were the Essenes at Qumran (the Dead Seas Scrolls) and Christianity. The former would disappear with the brutal Roman response to revolt in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. The latter would flourish due to its inclusive, flexible outreach (especially to non-Jews) and to the urgency of their mission in the face of the immanent "Second Coming."


Chapman, Cynthia R.. The World of Biblical Israel. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, 2013. Print.

Gafni, Isaiah M. The Beginnings of Judaism. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, 2008. Print.

Meier, John P.. A Marginal Jew: Law and Love. 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 99. 29-32. Print.

Rendsburg, Gary A. Dead Sea Scrolls. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, 2010. Print.

Photo Attributions

Nebachadnezzar II. User Hedning on sv.wikipedia [Public domain]

Cyrus. Ernst Wallis et al [Public domain]

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Coin. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Herod the Great. Public domain

Babylonian Soldier Relief. dynamosquito from France [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Silver Torah Case. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Ark of the Covenant Replica. No machine-readable author provided. SchuminWeb assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (]

Scroll in the Colonge Glockengasse Synagogue. HOWI - Horsch, Willy [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Shabbat Candles. Olaf.herfurth [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Philo of Alexandria. André Thévet [Public domain]

Michael the Archangel. Guido Reni [Public domain]

Cave Four at Qumran. Effi Schweizer [Public domain]

Habakkuk Pesher. Public domain.

Portion of the Temple Scroll. Israel Museum [Public domain]

Damascus Document Scroll found in Cave Four at Qumran. [CC0]

Portion of the War Scroll. Matson Photo Service - American Colony Jerusalem [CC0]