Orthodox History - Elements and Influence of Judaism Prior to the New Testament Period


Elements and Influence of Judaism Prior to the New Testament Period

By Dcn. George Zgourides

The complex history of Judaism is typically divided into several periods, although the roots of Christianity are most directly traced to the period of Hellenistic Judaism (4th century BC to the 2nd century). This period was introduced with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Palestine in 332. Hellenistic influences on Jewish culture and religion were evident by the early 2nd century BC, when Hellenizing Jews took control of the high priesthood. While the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ edicts against the practice of the Jewish religion led to revolt by the Maccabees, Hellenistic Judaism continued and reached its climax during the reign of Herod I of Judaea (37 BC–AD 4). Meanwhile, during this period two major groups of Jewish religious leaders appeared on the scene. The conservative and aristocratic Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) while at the same time denying the existence of angels, spirits, and the resurrection of the body. The strict Pharisees accepted texts outside the Pentateuch and embraced doctrines of angels and resurrection. Other Jewish religious groups arose as well. These included the Sanhedrin (the central council at Jerusalem), which consisted of both Sadducees and Pharisees; the Herodians, who supported the Herods (a dynasty supporting Rome); the Zealots, who were revolutionaries seeking freedom from Rome; and the Essenes, who were a semi-monastic sect that allegedly preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes followed a separate religious calendar, avoided Temple worship in Jerusalem, and awaited divine intervention in human affairs.

During this Hellenistic period, the major centers of Judaism were in Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, and most especially in Alexandria, Egypt. The Pentateuch was translated into the Greek Septuagint, and a large body of historical, philosophical, poetic, and dramatic literature was penned.

The influence that above-mentioned Jewish religious groups might have had on the early Christians is uncertain. The authors of the Gospels bring their readers’ attention to Jesus’ criticisms directed at the Scribes and Pharisees with their legalistic views of Judaism. Whereas the Essenes are not mentioned, the Herodians and Sadducees are likewise treated from a negative point of view. And one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Simon, appears to have been a Zealot.

The Hebrew Scriptures viewed history as a drama that would eventually end with God triumphing over all sources of oppression, including the foreign domination of Isræl by Rome. God’s kingdom would be established by the Messiah of the line of David (10th century BC king of Isræl). The appropriate course of events that would lead to the climax of this drama, however, was hotly debated. From 63 BC to AD 135, Roman rule was challenged by Jewish efforts to establish an independent state, which was hoped would eventually pave the way for the Messiah. A separate Jewish nation was the goal of the Zealots and several quasi-monastic groups, each known for its own conservative and rigid observance of the Law.

Although attracting little attention among pagans and Jews in the early years, the rise of Christianity became the most important sectarian movement of the Roman period. The Romans first viewed Christians as nothing more than a particular brand of Jew. After all, even Jesus Himself did not advocate abolishing the Torah; in fact, He claimed to have come into the world to fulfill the Law. Still, Roman attempts to exert control over the Jews and the various apocalyptic sects associated with them led to increasingly belligerent edicts from Rome. These, in turn, led to a series of unsuccessful revolts, the first of which (66–73) witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple.

With no future possible for either the Sadducees or the Zealots (whose attempts to bring about their apocalyptic dreams effectively led to the destruction of Judæa following the Jewish revolts of 66–70 and 132–135 against the Romans) the Jews had to choose between Pharisaism and Christianity. On the one hand, the Pharisees reaffirmed the Mishna (Oral Law) and the Talmud (commentary on the Mishna) as normative Judaism. On the other hand, Christianity embraced the ideal of a world religion that welcomed even Gentiles at the price of sacrificing Jewish exclusiveness. When Paul argued against observing the Torah as a means of salvation, many Jewish followers of Jesus became Jewish Christians and continued to follow the Torah. Their two primary groups included the Nazarenes, who accepted Jesus as both God and Messiah, but saw the Torah as still binding on Jews; and the Ebionites, who accepted Jesus as the Messiah while denying His divinity. In the final analysis, however, Christianity gained only a small minority of Jews as converts.

Thus, Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a time when the Jews had long been under foreign rule and had found in their religion the cornerstone of the social and cultural community. From Amos (8th century BC) forward, Judaism was marked by a dynamic tension between the notion of God’s special favor toward Isræl and the notion of monotheism (with its ideal of universal salvation). In Palestinian Judaism the predominant mood was one of exclusion and separation, with an emphasis on the distinctive Jewish customs of sabbaths, kosher food, circumcision, and Temple worship, to name a few. Ultimately, then, the relationship of Judaism to early Christianity would eventually rest on two major issues: (1) the messianic function of Jesus, and (2) the validity desirability of the Mosaic Law for everyone.

As already noted, the first Christians were Jews, so they worshipped along with other Jews in the synagogue. The earliest Gentile converts also attended the same religious services. Even when Christians gathered outside the synagogue, they still read its Scriptures, used its liturgy, and preserved the same basic flavor of synagogue worship. Every historic Christian liturgy since has followed this same formula of Jewish worship: (1) a Christian revision of Sabbath synagogue services, and (2) a celebration of Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples in fulfillment of the Passover and new covenant with the redeemed people of God. Hence, the Church, even from the earliest of times, followed a traditional liturgical form of worship.

Because Christianity was so deeply rooted in Judaism, Christians revered sacred writings in the same manner as their Jewish counterparts. In a rather rare move, Christians adopted the entire Scriptural canon of another religion—Judaism—while adding to it their own New Testament of uniquely Christian writings. In doing this, the early Christians built upon the monotheism of Judaism as part of the essence of their truth and way of salvation in Christ Jesus. Early Christians inherited from the Jews a relatively intimate picture of a God, and the Greek influences on their religion added the concept of a God who was greater than any human words and ideas, but who at the same time had to be described in human words and ideas. It was during this time that such words as substance, essence, and being were added to the Biblical witness in the Creeds.

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