Even at this preliminary level, these are tough questions. There are problems involving definition and scope that have to be faced. A whole book could be devoted to this subject alone.1 One huge problem is the fact that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. pretty much ensured that very little remained of the contemporary historical record of the once-thriving socio-religious phenomenon that we can for the moment label simply as “Second Temple Judaism.” It wasn’t until after rabbinic exiles began to affirm their status as the rightful heirs and continuers of the Pharisaic tradition (they would eventually inform the Talmud) that any near-contemporary indication of what the pre-fall setting might have looked like could be recorded. Meanwhile, there’s a huge lacuna in the record right exactly where our eyes want to look.
Another major problem is that the Christian scriptures are in essence polemics against, and therefore not the best source of information about, the Judaism of Jesus’ (and Cepha’s and Paul’s) day. When the gospels mention the Jews, it’s the Pharisees that they single out more often than not, and even then it’s the hyper-legalistic caricature of the Pharisees that is depicted. Once a very dignified tradition, now become the favorite whipping boy of the evangelists, Pharisaism is categorically equated with hypocrisy, getting the brunt of much scorn and derision. But I think that taking the theologically motivated, myopic mischaracterization of the Pharisees that is found in these scriptural discourses at face value would not only be intellectually naïve, it would also do a huge disservice to the memory of a once highly influential religious order that was beloved in its day for its emphasis on scholarship-in-service-of-compassion. One could say that these Pharisees were the stoics of the far-East, in a way. Their moral resolve was admired by their Pagan neighbors.2
Josephus and Philo show three major forms: this Parisaism, Sadduceeism, and Esseneism. If there are ways to distinguish between different kinds within this general umbrella heading of Judaism, What was it exactly that marked these people as Jewish in their own eyes, whatever their partisan inclination might have been? What was the common denominator? The textual silence disallows for certitude, but while it is true that we must be cautious in assessing the Sitz im Leben in question (lest we place too much value on our conjectures), to the limits that our sources and our abilities permit, we must try to delineate some basic commonalities if we are to understand the curious origins of Christianity in any meaningful way.
The closest thing to a creedal statement in Jewish tradition is what is known as the Shema,3 a kind of Jewish pledge of allegiance directed at the people of Israel to acknowledge and to affirm that the God of Israel is One and one only. Recited daily, it is a promise to implement this faith of the ancient fathers in their daily living. This insistence on the essential unity of God is one of the most defining aspects of being Jewish in the first century (and even now). Granted, the Jews have not always been so fiercely monotheistic. It has been shown that the road to the strict monotheism that we are so used to ascribing to the Jews was in fact a fairly long hard-fought one. They got there incrementally. Not until later prophets like Jeremiah did this rigorous monotheism finally stick, but stick it did. Obviously, the history of Jewish monotheism is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that an inviolable monotheism had long been in place in the socio-religious self-identity of the Judean people by the time of the Roman occupation. Indeed, the Romans were so perplexed by the obstinacy of Jewish monotheism, apparently so respectful of their devotion to it, that they sometimes made exceptions and allowances for the religious sovereignty of the Jews in their imperial mandates. Once the Jews finally had attained a full-force universal monotheism, they became famous for it among the nations.
They are reducible to the following:
- First, Yahveh is the sole creator of the universe and of this world and of everything therein.
- Second, that he (this god is male) is the Lord and ruler of said creation and that, to this end, he exercises a protean relationship with it in which he interacts with, oversees, and affects it. Mankind in general has dominion over creation, but Yahveh’s people, specifically, are a kind of ‘fortunate son’ that was endowed with the Word (Torah) with which to navigate Yahveh’s plan for human history.
- Third, that he has a right to exclusive worship from his people. This third attribute of the Jewish god is crucial to the collective understanding of the gentile nations concerning the Jewish people. So well known did this fastidious refusal to entertain any other gods become that the Jews were able (in time) to command exemption from participation in certain compulsory empire-cultic rituals. It became clear to the Romans that most Jews would sooner die en masse than to succumb to any demands that they either abandon their god or succumb to the rule of another. The Romans—experienced pragmatic statesmen that they were— knew that killing every fanatic in a an unruly hyper-zealous conquered province was no way to run an empire or to raise revenue or tribute, and so the conquerors soon learned to allow the Jews some semblance of religious sovereignty in the interest of imperial efficacy and smooth sailing.
That fact that their god is One and sovereign was the most vital component of their self-identity at the turn of the era. It was the definitive determinant of Jewish identity. It’s safe to say that the Jews were deeply committed to this idea of the unity and exclusivity of their god during that time. We have no reason to doubt this strict monotheism, despite its disappearance from the textual radar for a moment.
The Dead Sea Scrolls in fact reinforce this extreme monotheistic tendency and fervor. The Targum of Job (from Cave 4), for example, makes numerous changes to the traditional story for theological reasons. In chapter 38, where a whirlwind asks a number of rhetorical questions intended to portray God as sovereign over all:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? 4
The scene is dependent on a depiction of a kind of heavenly court (a common enough motif in Near-Eastern and biblical mythology), with the stars personified as singing and sons of god rejoicing. The Qumran targumist however is troubled by the personification. To avoid the anthropomorphism, he renders the phrase as "they shone all at once." The mention of "sons of god" in verse 7 is further problematic as it may lead to a mistaken polytheism. The targumist substitutes the word "angels" instead, making them unambiguosuly subordinate to God.
The Jews were fiercely radical in their monotheism at the turn of the era. The evidence is strong. Boyd is therefore absolutely correct in asserting that the Jews of Palestine would never have accepted the worship of a crucified god-man in their midst. I agree. This would have been a blasphemy of the highest order, probably even punishable by death.
But, can Boyd show that Jews in fact did accept this new form of Christ worship anywhere? It would be fantastically wonderful if we had the writings of any other famous Chrtistians of the day: Cephas, Barnabas, Apollos, Yacob, Thecla, anyone. They’d give us some perspective on what each of these factions theologically espoused about Jesus. But we don’t have these writings. Only the Pauline viewpoint survived. And in that perspective Jesus is already referred to as κυριος (kyrios=Lord=Yahveh). To equate a human being with the god of Israel is definitely not a very Jewish thing to do. On this we can all hopefully agree. It's important to keep in mind that when the details within the Torah were being parsed and exposited in the usual Jewish ways (midrash, allegory, pesher), there would be majority and minority opinions and conclusions that rabbis would come to, but there were limits to how far they could stretch the scriptures. One could not conclude after a given midrash, for example, that the seventh commandment of the Decalogue reads "Thou shalt commit adultery." All interpretations must fit within a consistent domain of meaning. Likewise, a Judaism that espouses the adoration and exaltation of a god-man as the ultimate superseding of Judaism looks awful suspect to me as a tenable form of "Judaism." Furthermore, as I have been stressing all along, we have no reason to think that this holy bi-nity that Paul had taken to preaching to the gentiles was subscribed to by the Jerusalem Jesusist conclave. We do, on the other hand, have many reasons to think that the Jews actually rejected the Paulinists at every turn (e.g. the author[s] of Paul's epistles' own words, the surviving textual evidence of opposition from Marcion, Epiphanius, etc . . . the Ebionites, etc—Paul wasn't considered the apostle of the heretics for nothing). For now, though, let us simply mark fierce monotheism as one of the characteristic marks a Jew in the 1st century.
People of the Book
The Jews not only were the first monotheists of influence in the world; they were also the first people to vouchsafe their religious identity by means of this “book” on which they kept a record of their god’s interactions with them into the distant past and on which they staked their faith into the distant future. Sent down to God’s esteemed messengers, the prophets (seers), Torah was the portal through which God’s will was revealed to the people and, as such, it was held in a correspondingly revered position.
The Hebrew Bible lends a certain ‘concreteness’ to Judean history. It lends a physicality, a permanence to its divine mandate. Then as now, people were enthralled with the written word. Important things have always been written down. Then as now, few things sound as authoritative as:
'It is written.'
Everything that has had any kind of legal worth is written down. Oaths, for example are still commemorated in this manner. The written word is powerful because it doesn‘t allow us to forget or to overlook. The Jews could boldly back up their cultural inheritance by appealing to these ancient records. This impressed their pagan neighbors immensely, who for the most part took them seriously, even when occasionally critical of them. The Torah was the medium on which the covenant (treaty, deal) between the Hebrew god and the people was signed and sealed. The chosen people had a written receipt to back up their legitimacy. It became a very important feature of Jewish life. Methods were devised to explore its depths, mostly borrowed from the stoic philosophers, but these methods took on a brilliance of their own in the new lyrical Jewish context. Torah’s perennial mysteries were available to all those who sought to understand them. The more conservative priestly aristocracy (the counterpart Sadducees) reportedly preferred to stick to the five ‘lawful’ books of the Pentateuch, but the Pharisee school of thought, who accepted the prophets and writings, appear to have prospered. They eventually became the most influential Judaic sect both in Jerusalem and in the hinterland. The Pharisees were the people’s party at the time in question (so Josephus).
While the Sadducees still took care of maintaining the esoteric ritual aspects of the Judaic tradition, a duty bestowed to them through heredity, it was the Pharisees that took care of introducing the people into the endless cultural repository which is Torah. They did this in an open way. So open, in fact that they even tolerated the presence of gentiles in their midst. The god-fearers, these peripheral gentile hangers-on, seemed to greatly admire the ‘solidity’ of the Hebrew scriptures, the strictures of its highly refined moral codes. Gentiles, they sought to emulate the Jewish faith. They are the key to understanding the early proliferation of the Christian movement.
A crucial distinction must be made here which will become more relevant later. Unlike their proto-Christian brethren, the motives of Judeans don’t seem to have been missionary in nature. The Jews didn’t recruit people. They never had before, they had no need to as long as Judaism was a nationality, a tribal recognition, a bloodline inheritance. They saw no harm in tolerating gentiles, and in fact by the time leading up to the Revolt god-fearers were a common sight around the synagogues, but that’s different than setting off on a mission to convert the nations to a Jewish god. The orbiting god-fearer came to Yahveh of his own accord. Jews are not missionaries.
Why would gentile god-fearers feel entitled to appeal to Jewish scriptures to defend their universalist religious innovations against the stability of traditional Judaism? I think that having a book was realized to be necessary early on in this new movement. I'll have some opinions on these questions as they appear again in our discussion, Let's continue our essentials-of-Judaism-laundry-list.
The attributes of the Jewish god, that he is Lord over his creation, and that he requires exclusive tribute from it, are the basis of the idea of a divine covenant which distinguishes the Jews as their god’s unique chosen people. The idea of an exclusive covenant between a god and a people was a peculiarity that had enormous significance for the self-understanding of the people of Judea (and of surrounding areas of Samaria and the Galilee and into the Diaspora) in the first century. The concept of “covenant” has a long history parallel to that of monotheism which has also evolved over time into its present day form.
The nature of this covenant can best be seen in some of the metaphors and analogies that are used to describe it in the Bible. Israel is Yahweh’s ‘bride.’ (Jeremiah 2:2) Yahveh is lord of the manor. Yahveh is a mother-bear (Hosea 13:8). Israel is a “holy thing belonging to Yahveh, the first of his produce.” (Jer 2:3) These and many other verses indicate that God is joined to Israel by some kind of exclusive pact.5
Though Yahveh had definitely taken the initiative in these dealings, he had not forced himself on an unwilling people. There is a symbiosis at work here. People were not shanghaied into the deal. They entered willingly, sacrificing, observing the appointed feasts, living lives of religious contemplation. Their cultural inheritance was a badge of honor and distinction to them.
This covenant was expressed outwardly in various ways: in the observance of feasts and of fasts, in the undertaking of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in strict dietary discipline, and in the observance of the weekly Sabbath day. One very important way that this unique covenant was expressed was in the ritual act of circumcision (at least for boys). In the Diaspora, circumcision, kosher diets, and all of these other expressions were ways in which the community of Jews could remain tethered to the divine covenant outwardly, even zealously so, while allowing for the malleability of moral tolerance which their daily interactions with gentiles necessitated in their lives.
Of course, the downside of all of this is that all of this explicit exclusivity would necessarily breed a sense of “election” and a sense of “purity” in the people, and that would inevitably give them an air of haughtiness and superstitious rigidity in a world otherwise dominated by a pervasive Hellenistic liberalism. As a result Jews were stereotyped as aloof, bookish, pompous, cavalier, prudish.
The mere suggestion that there was a new covenant needed in order to reconcile god to man would have seemed preposterous to a Judean. The soteriological constructs contained in the Christian scriptures would have caused (and did!) much controversy. Boyd is, again, right in asserting that the Jews would never have gone for these weird teachings. But, again, he must first demonstrate that the first Christians in Jerusalem in fact accepted these teachings if his reasoning is to have any relevance.
During the post-exilic years leading up the First Jewish Revolt, the Temple at Jerusalem, rebuilt during Herod the Great’s industrious building streak,# was both the liturgical mother-ship and the prestigious and ornate jeweled crown of the once mighty kingdom of Judea. For Jews of that time, all formal worship, all tribute, was directed toward this cultural centerpoint. Yearly pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple on appointed holy days of the Jewish calendar were prescribed by the prophets, whose adherence to Torah was the binding guideline for Jewish thought and conduct. Arriving in Jerusalem, pilgrims would set about ritually purifying themselves in preparation for the sacrifices they came to offer at the altar of Yahveh (sometimes from hundreds and hundreds of miles away). The sacrifices were the purview of an elite aristocratic priestly class who saw to the proper administration of this gargantuan religio-cultural-economic mechanism.
The Temple was such a central part of the religious practice and self-identity of the people of Judea in the years leading up to the First Jewish Revolt, in fact, that once the Romans razed it in the year 70 C.E. and the sacrificial aspect of this ancient tradition came to a screeching halt, the grim possibility that Judaism might be extinguished along with it became a very serious concern for Jews, both at home and abroad. What was once the single most defining outward symbol of a proud people’s cultic relationship to their god, the Temple, was now gone forever. A deep feeling of desolation must have pervaded the lives and prayers of not only the survivors of the long siege (there weren‘t many), but also of the large population of Jews that were dispersed throughout the empire. (‘If God is supposed to reside in the “Holy of Holies” in the inner recesses of the Temple—and the Temple is no more—then where the hell is God now?!’ )
This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls come in very handy. The community that compiled this impressive library in the middle of nowhere explicitly detests the contemporaneous temple authority (presumably the Hasmonean dynasty) and have established a more ascetic ("pure") theology and liturgy that bypassed the temple expression we know as normative for the period. Among all the invective thrown at the Jerusalem temple authority that is evident on most of the sectarian documents found at the Khirbet Qumran site, there is the peaceful, sedate Temple Scroll, which lays out detailed plans for the construction and running of an ideal temple, with corresponding rules of behavior … and suchlike. Without going into too much detail, the point to bear in mind is that it wasn't the insitution the Qumran sectarians objected to, obviously, but what they saw as an usurpation of the institution. This is what apparently made them pack up and split from Jerusalem's liberalisms to live in the salt of the desert.
This is supported also by what is known as the MMT Document,6 a letter from a group of people addressed to the high-priestly establishment at Jerusalem (circa 152 BCE). The authors of this letter assert that this Jerusalem core are following a bunch of wrong rulings on Jewish law, and they say that they have left the temple because of this, and that they will only come back if a number of these things are reversed. Again, leaving the details aside, what's important to my focus is that, even though these acetic sectarians abhorred Jerusalem's influence, they still saw value and a cultural ideal in the concept of a temple, albeit from a reformist point of view.
Of course, this had not been the only time that Jerusalem had fallen under siege and that sacrificial practice had ceased. The exile in Babylon showed the Jews that it was possible to ‘sing one’s song of Zion in a strange land’, so to speak, without a Temple in sight. A man deprived of his eyes learns to sharpen the senses he’s got left to compensate for the loss. With the temple gone, the unity of God, the importance of Torah, and strict adherence to traditional forms of expression became that much more valued as identifiers of the faith. This is where Pharisaim was forged before the temple was rebuilt by Herod. This is why I placed the temple last on this short list of essentials, because some forms of Judaism were obviously possible in contrast to this concept. It is safe to say, however, that the concept of temple was a monolithic and normative aspect of being Jewish at the time. One could oppose the temple, but it remained the focal point.
Anyway … To sum up:
We know that there was a wide variety of ways to be Jewish before the destruction of Jerusalem. There were the educated types: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes. There were also undoubtedly more folksy provincial varieties and popular, more political ones such as the Zealots. This presents us with a wide range of possible ways that people expressed their Judaism. But the threads that bind all Jews as kin seem to be:
- The first commandment. Or, to borrow a phrase from another of Judaism’s offshoots, the insistence that “There is no God but god.”
- He’s made a covenant with his people.
- This covenant entails following the Torah.
- The temple is central, at least symbolically. (Its destruction threw everything into a tailspin.)
Those are the common denominators within this diverse variety of Judeans in the first century up until the razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Sure, they may have argued with each other, sometimes vehemently, Sadducees about the function of Torah, Pharisees about the possibility and nature of a resurrection, but these commonalities remained.
for now . . . .
for now . . . .
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1 - The Beginnings of Judaism: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, by Shaye Cohen is a good one.
2 - There were exceptions to this near-universal admiration. Tacitus, for example, was less than friendly toward the Jews.
3 - Deuteronomy 6:7
4 - Job 38:4–8 (KJV)
5 - An excellent survey of the idea of covenant in the Hebrew Bible is found in Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea by Delbert Hillers
6 - Elisha Qimron gave a lecture on this document at the Biblical Archeology Society's conference in 1984 which sparked the academic surge that would eventually allow for the publication of the scrolls in their entirety. Lawsuits and everything. People are funny.