Research Paper: Israel's Religious System at the Time of Christ

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Israel at the Time of Christ

In order to understand the life of Jesus, it is important to understand the circumstances in which he grew up. So many times the focus is on Jesus, the God, but his humanity was as critical as his divinity, perhaps even more so because it was his humanity that made his self-sacrifice such a significant factor. Divine, Jesus is universal and can be accessed by anyone, which is a wonderful feature for a deity. "A universalized Jesus, on the other hand, is always in danger of losing the limitations and concreteness of his actual existence; he loses his identification with our lives in the world today. Jesus lived, but he often seemed to live only as a theory in theories about him, rather than in the actual world" (Vogel 1992, p.). However, understanding the life of Jesus, not simply the theory that he was human, but the life that he would have lived, is critical to understanding him.

Many people think of Jesus as a Christian, despite knowing that he was Jewish. They mistakenly believe that he underwent some type of conversion during his lifetime, establishing his church as something different than and separate from Judaism. This is simply not true. "Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. Mary, his mother, was Jewish, and Judaism was the religion he practiced throughout his life. Jesus' teachings focused on the important Jewish issues of the day -- how to interpret the law correctly, when the Kingdom of God would appear, and how to behave righteously. He was executed as the 'King of the Jews,' a political claim that the Roman authorities could not have tolerated. His earliest followers in Jerusalem were Jewish, and they, too, observed Jewish law" (Wilson 2008, p.1). Therefore, in order to understand Jesus and Christianity, one must first understand Judaism, and not simply Judaism, but Judaism as it was practiced in Israel/Palestine during Jesus' lifetime.

Many Christians then turn to the Bible to find out about Judaism during this time. They look to the New Testament (NT) to provide them with historical information about Jerusalem in Jesus's lifetime. The problem with that is that the NT was not an objective historic account; it was written by people who were critical of the Jewish establishment. "The symbols of the NT are fundamentally those of Judaism, to the extent that the first Christian writings can fairly be considered part of first-century Jewish culture. As the literature of a separatist Jewish group, however, the NT's use of these symbols is complex: it appropriates the riches of Judaism wholesale, but in its need to demonstrate its exclusive claim to these symbols, it shows hostility to those Jews who remain unenthusiastic about the sect" (Johnson 2010, p.39). That does not mean that the NT is dishonest about Judaism during that time period, but it certainly suggests that it may omit certain critical details about Judaism during that time period. As a result, the "NT cannot be trusted to provide a fair and accurate picture either of Jews or pagans. It was written by converts seeking to demonstrate the superiority of their new life by contrast to both groups" (Johnson 2010, p.24).

Before explaining Jewish religious behavior during the time of Christ, this paper will explain some of the other facets of life in Palestine during that time period. This background information is very important because the historic practice of Judaism was very different from the practice of most modern religions. "If you lived in first-century Palestine, you lived what today we would almost certainly call a religious life. For a first-century Jew, though, it was just life" (Korb 2011, p.146). Therefore, it is safe to surmise that any factor that impacted a Jew's life interacted with religious life. One cannot understand the Jewish religion without understanding the surrounding context of life during that time period.

Likewise, this explanation will largely focus on Galilee. "Jesus chose Galilee in which to live and to proclaim his message. The fact of this choice makes Galilee unique. In choosing Galilee for his life and ministry, the Incarnate Word entered into the human dialogue with place; he made himself dependent on and limited to the natural elements and cultural values of a specific region" (Hennessey 1994, p.20). However, it is critical to realize that all of Palestine was under foreign rule during that time period; Rome controlled Palestine. Therefore, it may be important to understand the historical, political, and religious events that were impacting Rome during that time in order to truly understand religious life in Palestine during the time of Christ. If this seems like a complex socio-cultural situation to a modern observer, one can only imagine the complexity it added to the lives of Jews who were experiencing it.

The Jews in Palestine were a conquered people. In fact, much of the Old Testament reveals a long history of suffering by the Jewish people, with only intermittent periods of self-rule. Their foreign rules included, but were not limited to Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome (Jesus Central 2009). During the time of Christ, the Roman Empire extended over the Middle East, including Palestine. However, there was always an undercurrent of the drive to be self-determining in combat with external influences attempting to strip Jews of their self-determination. This had a cultural impact on the Jews, which was highlighted during Jesus's time period. "Roman control of Jewish institutions and office like the monarchy and the high priesthood together with the economic and cultural dominance of Greek cities and education no doubt suggested to Jews themselves the inferiority of their own social, political, and cultural institutions" (Riches 1990, p.50).

While Rome ruled the area, the Romans established their political dominance by establishing cooperative governments with their conquered areas. As a result, "in the hierarchy of power, the Jewish self-government reported to the authority of the local Roman Government (King Herod), which reported to Rome (Emperor Caesar)" (Jesus Central 2009). As a result, Jews had greater freedom under Rome than they may have had under other governments, even if they did not have full self-determination. The Emperor Augustus had established a pattern of tolerance towards Jews in Rome. "Augustus' personal benevolence towards Jews in Rome was paralleled by Rome's institutional tolerance. Synagogues were viewed as collegia by Roman authorities in the first century B.C.E., yet their position was not altogether like that of other collegia" (Richardson 1998, p.17 ) Even when the other collegia were outlawed as threats to the state, synagogues were exempt, and they retained a special status up through Caesar's reign. (Richardson 1998, p.18).

This was in-line with Roman tradition in any conquered area. "The Roman government practiced syncretism, accepting that all religious beliefs, philosophical teachings, and government systems are ultimately compatible, or a reflection of, a larger system- the Roman system" (Jesus Central 2009). Therefore, Rome could be considered an early proponent of religious freedom, at least insofar as religious beliefs did not threaten the power of Rome. Of course, this meant that Judaism was not the only religion practiced in Israel at the time of Christ. Pagans existed in Jerusalem during the time of Christ, and they were actively worshipping in Rome. King Herod was a pagan and famously had pagan idols installed in the Temple, something which enraged many of the Jews. Unlike the Roman religious tradition, the Jewish religious tradition absolutely prohibited the worshipping of any other god.

However, it would be erroneous to assume that because Rome was somewhat benevolent, Jews were happy to be under foreign control. On the contrary, Jews were very hostile towards Rome, and the hostility flowed both ways. Although Jews were not forbidden to practice their religions, King Herod had called for the massacre of all male Jewish babies to ensure that Rome retained political power in the area (Jesus Central 2009). Although Rome was somewhat lenient towards the Jews, and actually had a practice of engulfing the gods of foreign lands within its own religious traditions, it would be erroneous to assume that foreign control did not impact the religious practice of Judaism. "Prolonged exposure to foreign rule and influence made it difficult for Jews to maintain their traditional way of life, undermined their sovereignty and national identity, made them long for some resolution to their problems, and on occasion brought them into direct and costly conflict with their foreign overlords" (Riches 1990, p.49). This led to some within group fighting among Jews, so that there were arguments about what it meant to be a Jew in that time period.

This infighting was very important to the practice of the religion because of the Jewish world-view. Jews believed themselves to be the chosen people of God. Therefore, it was important to them that Jews and Gentiles be treated as two distinct groups. This remained the scenario throughout Jesus' life. However, there were two main branches of Jews who viewed Judaism very differently: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees could be… [END OF PREVIEW]

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