by Ernest L. Martin
People assume that Judaism is the religion of Moses — that Yeshua brought a message opposed to the Old Testament — that he came to nullify the teaching of Moses. It is taken for granted that the New Testament presents a Gentile religion and that the Old Testament teaches Judaism!
Yet all these assumptions ARE ABSOLUTELY FALSE! Shocking though it may seem, history proves that Judaism is NOT the religion of the Old Testament Scriptures. Judaism is plainly and simply the religion of the Jews — a religion manufactured by their own ingenuity. The Jews of Roman times had appropriated the name of Moses as the author of their religion — but in actuality, they had rejected Moses. Yeshua said: “Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me … but ye believe not his writings” (John 5:46, 47). The Jews used the name of Moses, but they didn’t practice what he commanded.
Just as today, there are hundreds of denominations and sects in what is commonly called Christianity, all appropriating the name of the Messiah — saying they are Christian — but contradicting each other and failing to practice what he taught! And history proves that the Jews had misappropriated the name of Moses.
In effect, Judaism was a man-made religion! Yeshua said that they were “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
It is time we looked into the records of history. It is time we learned how the Jews departed from the religion of Moses. We will be dumbfounded to discover that Yeshua, in reality, re-emphasized the message that Moses brought — in its true spiritual INTENTION. And, instead of nullifying Moses’ teaching, he magnified it, having in view the true spiritual purpose originally intended.
The time has come to get our eyes open to the facts! Judaism was not, and is not, the religion of Moses!
IT IS obvious to the most superficial reader of the New Testament that a fundamental difference existed between the teaching of Yeshua and the Judaism of his day.
The answer is surprising!
History shows — and the Jews themselves admit — that their religion had drifted far away from the simple doctrines of Scripture — commonly called the “Old Testament.” The Jews had modified YEHOVAH God’s law and even instituted laws and commandments of their own which were, in many instances, diametrically opposite to the precepts of Moses.
It is time we realize that the Messiah came to a people who had, through their human laws and traditions, rejected the religion of the Old Testament which YEHOVAH God had given to their forefathers.
These are the plain facts of history. It is important that we understand this if we are to comprehend the significance of events in the New Testament period. The Messiah, in effect, came to retrieve the Jews from their apostasy — from their rejection of the laws of YEHOVAH God. And, he came to reveal to them the Gospel — the New Testament revelation — to COMPLETE the promises that YEHOVAH gave to Moses, not to do away with them!
The Divisions of Judaism
Many people have erroneously assumed that the Judaism in the time of the Messiah was a religion united in a common bond — every Jew believing about the same thing — all united into one major Jewish denomination.
This is the first illusion that history reveals.
Judaism was divided into MANY SECTS in Yeshua’s day. Each had its peculiar beliefs. One of the most authoritative Jewish writers on Judaism, Dr. Herford, tells us: “If it were possible to analyze the Judaism of the New Testament period into all its component elements, the results of the process would be to show HOW COMPLEX A VARIETY is summed up under that name, and HOW FAR FROM THE TRUTH it is to speak of the Jews collectively as if they were all alike, in respect to their Judaism” (Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 41, 42).
Judaism was not one unified organization. Actually, there were many religious sects comprising it. And, even within some of these major sects there were many “splinter” groups which had their own ideas and beliefs. In many respects, the Judaism of the Messiah’s time was not unlike our own world. We have many competitive sects representing “Christianity.” So likewise, the Jews had their divisions, differing sects representing “Judaism.”
Some of these sects will be familiar to readers of the New Testament. There were the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Zealots and Herodians. However, there were many more divisions of which we have a good deal of history. Some of these were the Essenes, the Qumran sects (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls of which so much has been written lately), and others who are called, by contemporary religious historians, Apocalyptics.
There were other divisions among the Jews who lived in the surrounding areas, such as Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Greece, etc. There certainly was not just one single Jewish sect — Judaism was split into many fragments.
But history reveals another shocking and little-understood fact. It will eradicate the fiction from many people’s minds that the Jews, as a whole, were deeply interested in religion at this time in history.
A Surprising Fact Comes to Light
The records show that FAR LESS THAN 5% OF THE TOTAL JEWISH POPULATION OF PALESTINE BELONGED DIRECTLY TO ANY OF THE RELIGIOUS GROUPS MENTIONED ABOVE!
Unbelievable as it sounds it is true! Over 95% of the total Palestine population were neither Pharisee, Scribe, Zealot, Herodian, Essene, Qumran, or Apolcalyptic. These people — the overwhelming majority in Palestine — had no direct membership in these religious denominations of Judaism and in most cases were not particularly religious at all.
The Pharisees referred to the mass of the people as the “Am ha-aretz.” This word is Hebrew and signifies “The People of the Land,” or simply, “The Common People.”
These people were the multitudes who lived in the cities, towns, and country. They were, in many respects, like many non-church members today — some went to the synagogues frequently, many only occasionally, and many never attended at all.
The scholar Herford has this to say about these people: “It is clear that the “Am ha-aretz” (the Common People) were not all of one type, either in respect of their religion or socially and economically. Just as they included rich and poor, capitalist and labourer, the merchant, the farmer, the artisan, the tax-gatherer (publican) and the tradesman, so, on the religious side, they included those who were just not Pharisees, and those who paid little or no heed to religion at all, with every shade of piety and indifference in between” (ibid. p. 72).
The Population Analyzed
We can demonstrate quite easily that far less than 5% of the population in Palestine belonged to the Jewish religious sects in New Testament times. By comparing the number of members within the Jewish religious sects with the sum of the total Palestine population, we will arrive at some surprising answers. The figures should be interesting.
The Encyclopedia Biblica records that the population of Palestine must have been somewhere between 2 1/2 and 3 million inhabitants at this time (Column 3550). This is the figure that most scholars represent as the total population of Palestine.
There is a full discussion on the Palestine population question in Salo Baron’s, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. i. pp. 370-372. This Jewish historian has summed up the opinions of the experts in this matter. He quotes as his conclusion to the whole question, the findings of Dr. J. Klausner, a contemporary Jewish scholar:
“J. Klausner, finally, has studied in particular, the records pertaining to the wars between 63 and 37 B.C. and has reached the conclusion that at the end of the Maccabean reign there lived in all of Palestine approximately 3 million Jews, not including half of a million Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Arabs and Greeks”‘ (ibid., vol. i., p. 372).
This figure should not be far from right. There were nearly 3,000,000 Jews living in Palestine in the days of the Messiah.
How Many Jews Belonged to the Religious Sects?
The most prominent sect in Judaism at this time was the Pharisees. This was the group the Messiah had more to say against than any other. One of the reasons for this is because the Pharisees were the most influential group and had more members than any of the other sects. They also had direct control over the majority of synagogues and schools, and in this respect, were the most popular with the people. But yet, even though the Pharisees were the most influential and the most prominent religious group among the Jews in the time of the Messiah, it is astounding and dumbfounding to realize that out of 3,000,000 Jews in Palestine ONLY A MERE 6,000 WERE PHARISEES. The Jewish historian, Josephus, who was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, and a Pharisee himself, informs us of this fact in his history Antiquities of the Jews, xvii, 2, 4.
But just imagine what this means! Here were the Pharisees, the MAJOR RELIGIOUS SECT AMONG THE JEWS, representing nothing more than an insignificant .2% of all the Jews in Palestine. These facts will have to change the convictions of many people who have had the erroneous idea that most of the Jews in the Messiah’s time were Pharisees.
Most readers of the New Testament have never thought it necessary to ascertain the religious condition of the Jews in Roman times. And because of this, most people have been making erroneous assumptions based on our own contemporary conditions.
The Other Jewish Sects
All other sects within Judaism WERE OF LESS SIGNIFICANCE than the Pharisees. The Sadducees, for example, were a sect that the Messiah came into contact with frequently, but they were less prominent than the Pharisees. There is no question about the fact that they had fewer members (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 4 and Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 322). If we number the Sadducees at less than 3,000 members we will not be far from the truth.
Another sect among the Jews at this time, but not mentioned in the Bible, were the Essenes. Josephus informs us that there were ONLY ABOUT 4,000 OF THEM (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 5). A group known as the Qumran, associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls just recently found, were a part of this Essene sect and represented part of the 4,000 members.
The rest of the sects in Palestine were of minor importance and definitely had fewer members than the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes (e.g., Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 127, 128).
These figures represent the startling truth that the overwhelming majority of Jews DID NOT belong to the religious sects.
With the facts staring us directly in the face, it should not be difficult to understand why it can be stated with absolute assurance that FAR LESS than 5% of the 3,000,000 Jews of Palestine belonged to these religious sects.
Some Common People Were Religious
The majority of people, known as the “Am ha-aretz,” the Common People, who were not members of the religious sects, represented all classes and varying degrees of feeling in regard to religion. It is definitely known that some of these Common People were not totally irreligious. Some of them did hold to a form of religion, even though they did not belong to the accepted religious sects.
Since there were synagogues scattered throughout Palestine, it is altogether obvious that those Jews who did attend had some form of religious conviction. Because the “ministers” in charge of most of the synagogues were Pharisees, it is likely that much of the Pharisaical teaching influenced them. However, these Common People WERE NOT PHARISEES! Most of the people had no desire to practice the strict and disciplinary rules of the Pharisees. Nevertheless, some of the people did attend the Pharisaic synagogues to hear the Scriptures expounded on the Sabbath or on other occasions.
The Common People who did attend the synagogue services, however, were not required to hold to the teachings of the Pharisees. The Pharisees exercised little real authority over the religious life of the people. If a person desired to attend the synagogue, he could; if he obliged himself to stay away, that was his prerogative. There was no coercion to attend Sabbath services, for THERE WAS LITTLE EXERCISE OF ANY CENTRAL RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY WITHIN JUDAISM AT THIS TIME. “PHARISAISM HAD NO MEANS OF COMPELLING THOSE WHO WERE NOT IN THEIR FELLOWSHIP TO CONFORM TO THEIR REQUIREMENTS” (ibid., p. 137).
It is perfectly clear that the people at large did not share in the punctilious religious life of the Pharisees, however much they might admire it. In Palestine, as in modern lands, the proportion of those actively engaged in religious service WAS UNDOUBTEDLY SMALL” (Mathews, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 160).
It was only over the lives of the “pious” that the Pharisees saddled a harsh religion of “do’s” and don’ts.”
Were Synagogues Frequented by the Jews?
Even though the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees were open to all the Jews and they could attend them on the Sabbaths, this does not mean that all the Jews attended. In fact, from the available evidence, it appears quite strongly that only very few Jews, relatively speaking, attended the synagogues regularly. At least, if the size and number of synagogues, of which records exist, are any guide, and they obviously do represent a guide, then we can safely say that very few of the Common People attended the synagogues with regularity.
Take as an example the Capernaum Synagogue.
It is a matter of history, recorded in the New Testament, that there was only ONE synagogue in the city of Capernaum in Galilee and even that was built by a Gentile (Luke 7:1-5). That ONLY ONE synagogue existed in such a large city SURPRISES even Edersheim (one of the foremost Jewish writers on early Judaism), because Capernaum was very significant in New Testament times and had a considerable Jewish population. See Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, pp. 365, 432, 433.
The ruins of this synagogue shows that it would have probably seated around 500 people at the very most. This was certainly not large for the city of Capernaum.
Josephus tells us that there was no city or village (township) in all of Galilee that had less than 15,000 inhabitants (Wars of the Jews, iii, 3, 3). There is no reason to doubt Josephus’ statement regarding this, for he should have known. He was governor of the province of Galilee under the Romans and was well aware of the number of his constituents, especially since he was responsible for collecting taxes from them. So, from Josephus, we can be certain that Capernaum had at least 15,000 inhabitants, but from other evidence which shows its political importance in Galilee, there must have been considerable more inhabitants.
Most of the people in Galilee were Jews (Mathews, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 149). And of this Galilean population it is said that “no region was more punctual in observance of the Sabbaths and feasts” (ibid., p. 150). And yet there was only one synagogue in Capernaum — one of the chief cities of Galilee.
The importance of Capernaum in New Testament times has been recognized by our contemporary historians (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. i, p. 566). It is known that the city was the residence of a high officer of the king (John 4:46) and significant enough to have a customs station (Matt. 9:9 and 17:24).
Nonetheless, even being one of the chief cities of Galilee and having a considerable Jewish population it had ONLY ONE synagogue. (In the New Testament the definite Greek article is used, which indicates only one synagogue). It would have been virtually impossible to get even 10% of the Jewish population into this synagogue for Sabbath services. This serves to indicate that only a small minority of the Jews attended.
The Nazareth Synagogue
It is known that the great bulk of the synagogues of Galilee were quite small in size even though there were a considerable number of Jews living in every city. (Mathews, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 149). In Nazareth, where Yeshua was brought up, there was ONE synagogue. This, in itself, is not surprising, for Nazareth was not of the same prominence as Capernaum. Yet, Nazareth, with its immediate environs, to again cite Josephus, had at least 15,000 inhabitants. It was certainly no mean city, even though it was smaller than Capernaum.
Edersheim informs us that Nazareth was a religious center for certain of the priests who ministered in the temple (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 147). Also, Nazareth was one of the major cities located on the great caravan route from the Mediterranean Sea to Damascus (ibid.). This location gave it a particular importance.
But even with these advantages, the ruins of the synagogue at Nazareth show that it was so small that it could hardly seat more than 75 souls. This size shows how insignificant was the synagogue compared to the population of the township of Nazareth, which numbered over 15,000 inhabitants. This again serves to indicate that the synagogues were not attended regularly except by the most pious of the Common People. The rest of them were not particularly interested in religion. Undoubtedly many of them did attend the annual festivals which were held in the synagogues and at the Temple in Jerusalem. To the Jews the annual festivals were like national holidays. But the evidence is clearly against the masses attending the synagogues REGULARLY every Sabbath.
It has been conjectured by some that the Nazareth synagogue may have been built later than the time of the Messiah because it was not situated in the highest part of the city, as they supposedly think it should have been. However, Edersheim shows that this is not a proper criterion and rejects the supposition. (ibid., vol. i, p. 433). There is every reason to believe that this small synagogue was the one Yeshua attended.
This religious condition in Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago should not surprise us much. Today it is common for many of the people who profess Christianity to attend church only on the two pagan holidays that almost all churches celebrate today — Easter and Christmas. The rest of the year finds the majority not attending church with any regularity. The Jews, in the’s day, can be compared in like manner with the common tendency today.
How Many Synagogues in Palestine?
It is not known exactly how many synagogues there were throughout Palestine in the Messiah’s time. However, there are some hints as to the number. Herford tells us that almost every area which had a considerable Jewish population had at least one synagogue in each of its cities. (Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 27, 133). It must be remembered that Capernaum, as large as it was, had one synagogue. There can be little question about the fact that there was at least one synagogue in almost every town of any size. This seems to be a foregone conclusion of all the writers on the subject.
We happen to know, again from Josephus, that there were 240 cities and villages in all of Galilee (Life of Josephus, p. 45). Galilee was much more prosperous than Judea in the south, and in fact, Galilee was far and above the province of Judea in material blessings. Edersheim says the cost of living in Judea, for example, was five times that of Galilee because of Judea’s relative scarcity of good soil and crops (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, pp. 224, 225). However, if we allow Judea to also have had about 240 cities and villages as did Galilee (although there were probably less), then we arrive at about 500 cities and villages in all of Palestine that could have had a synagogue. This would represent about 500 synagogues. But, if we allow some of the cities to have had two or more synagogues, the number could be raised to about 1,000 synagogues. That is, if every city and village did have a synagogue.
If there were, being extremely liberal, about 1,000 synagogues scattered throughout Palestine out of a population of 3,000,000 people, this would mean one synagogue for every 3,000 people. The sizes of the synagogues were from the very small, held in the home (ibid., vol. i, p. 433), to the size of the Capernaum synagogue with as many as 500. There were certainly none which could hold 3,000, nor even a third of that amount. And the majority were small synagogues not much bigger than the one in Nazareth.
That there could hardly be more than 2,000 synagogues throughout Palestine is obvious in another respect, too, when we consider that there were only 6,000 Pharisees to minister in these synagogues. THE PHARISEES WERE THE SYNAGOGUE RULERS (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 134). However, not all Pharisees were religious leaders in the synagogues. For example, Josephus, the Jewish historian, was a Pharisee but was not a ruler or synagogue official. In fact, a good percentage of Pharisees were not a part of the synagogue government.
And besides this, there were several offices to be filled in each synagogue (ISBE, vol. v, pp. 2878, 2879). The limited number of Pharisees available could hardly have filled the necessary posts for more than 1,000 separate synagogues.
With about 3,000 Jews for each synagogue in Palestine, and the synagogues ranging in size from around 75 members (even 10 if held in a home, as was sometimes allowed) to around 500 people, it can easily be seen that a good number of the Common People DID NOT ATTEND.
Popular Judaism Like Popular Churchianity
The religious condition of the Jews during the days of the Messiah can be compared with our own society. Today, there are about 750 million people who claim to be Christians, but how many of these are fervent in their beliefs? How many are consistent church goers? How many are zealously interested in their church? How many put their church above anything else in their lives? How many really know YEHOVAH God?
Even the major Protestant and Catholic leaders are appalled at the seeming lack of real interest expressed by so many of their members. It is a known fact that the majority of people today just aren’t interested in real, heart-felt religion at all — even though most claim to be Christians.
Should we then be amazed that over 95% of the Jews of the Messiah’s time were no more religious than our own people? Of course not! People were the same then as they are today.
The false notion that the Jews of the Messiah’s day were intensely interested in religion — the religion of Moses — must be eradicated from our minds. Such deception must be replaced by the cold facts! The Jews were no more fervent about the religion of Moses than the majority of Christians are today about the religion of the Messiah!
Yet when they heard the Messiah’s message it began to awaken them to their senses.
A Sect for Every Whim!
There are “pentecostal” sects that cater to those of certain emotional tendencies. Others appeal to the educated and the intellectual. There are puritan and fundamentalist denominations and at the other extreme, cold, formal and modernistic ones. On the other hand, we find certain denominations having a strong central government and in others the congregations rule. There are those with pomp and ritual, and those having no religious adornment. And yet, the irony of the whole thing is the fact that all these opposing and irreconcilable denominations claim to be the Church that the Messiah founded while they preach conflicting and contradictory “gospels.” It certainly is obvious that they are not preaching the ONE Gospel of the Messiah (I Cor. 1:10-13).
Our people — claiming to be Christians — have gotten themselves into a chaotic state of confusion in regard to religion. They have abandoned the Gospel of the Messiah — which is clearly and plainly revealed in the Word of YEHOVAH God — and substituted for it their various opinions and beliefs resulting in our modern denominationalism.
It should therefore not be surprising to us today, who are so used to the splits and schisms based on the opinions of men, to find that the Jews in the New Testament times were ALSO SPLIT UP INTO MANY DIFFERING AND OPPOSING SECTS.
The Denominations of Judaism
It is a common law of human nature that when mankind uses human reasoning to arrive at the truth of a religious subject, there are going to be many differences of opinion. The Jews in the New Testament period were not one unified denomination preaching one message. They were far from common agreement with one another in many basic points of religion.
Judaism had its sectarian divisions as we have ours. How did they originate — and why? Let the Jews themselves answer.
Here are the candid admissions of Hereford:
“If it were possible to analyze the Judaism of the New Testament Period into all its component elements, the result of the process would be to show HOW COMPLEX A VARIETY is summed up under that name, and HOW FAR FROM THE TRUTH it is to speak of ‘the Jews’ collectively as if they were all alike, in respect to their Judaism” (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 41, 42).
“When looked at from a distance, as is usually the case with non-Jewish students, Judaism appears to be a well-defined and fairly simple system, with a few strongly marked lines of thought and practice capable of easy description, and supposed to be not less easily understood. But, when studied from near at hand, and still more when studied from within, Judaism is seen to be by no means simple. THERE WERE MANY MORE TYPES THAN USUALLY APPEAR, MANY MORE SHADES OF BELIEF AND PRACTICE THAN THOSE WHICH ARE COMMONLY DESCRIBED. In this sense it is true to say, in the words of Montifiore, that THERE WERE ‘MANY JUDAISMS’ …” (ibid., p. 14).
The fact that there were all types of conflicting and opposing sects in Judaism is important to recognize if an adequate understanding of the New Testament Period, and especially Paul’s writings, is to be gained. These various sects, TO WHICH ONLY A VERY SMALL PART OF THE POPULATION BELONGED, disagreed among themselves on many religious doctrines. Even within the sects, many individuals or groupings were at variance with one another.
This condition of religious discord among the various sects, with the independent and differing views of many even within the sects, undoubtedly was a prime factor in causing the Common People of the land to dissuade themselves from joining the sects of Judaism. When there is not unanimity of belief in religious teaching, there is a natural repulsion on the part of most people to religion itself — or at least in taking a serious interest in it. This is the condition existing in our contemporary world, and it was the very condition that existed among the Jews of Palestine during the days of the Messiah. The overwhelming majority of the Jews did not directly belong to the religious sects, and the sects, themselves, were in a state of confusion as to religious belief.
Let us look at some of these divided sects of Judaism in order to help us better understand the New Testament period.
The major sect among the divisions of Judaism was that or the Pharisees. This was the most influential group at the time and can be called the leading division.
Even though their membership was only 6,000 out of a population near 3,000,000, they had greater religious influence over the people than any other group. The main reason for this is because the individuals in charge of the majority of synagogues were Pharisees. Being in charge of the synagogues gave them a certain amount of sway over the Common People who attended the synagogue services. We must remember, however, that the evidence shows that only a minority of the Common People attended the synagogues with regularity. The Pharisees had no direct control over the bulk of the people at all.
Who Were the Pharisees?
The Pharisees were not exactly like a church as we know it. They were, instead, a group of men, and even some women, representing many different walks of life — teachers, ministers, businessmen, politicians, etc. These men had voluntarily bound themselves together in a covenant to live a particular manner of life. Instead of calling them a church, they can best be described as a RELIGIOUS FRATERNITY or ASSOCIATION (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 311). These were Jews who bound themselves together into an exclusive fraternity to perform certain religious customs and traditions that the Common People did not wish to keep, or did not wish to keep with the strictness of the Pharisees.
“The object of the association was twofold: to observe in the strictest manner, and according to traditional law, all the ordinances concerning Levitical purity, and to be extremely punctilious in all connected with religious dues (tithes and all other dues)” (ibid., vol. i, p. 311).
“The Pharisees WERE NEVER a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrine” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xxi, p. 347).
AT NO TIME WAS IT REQUIRED OF ALL PHARISEES TO BELIEVE ALIKE. This fact is very important! By understanding this, we can come to a clear comprehension of the true activity of the Pharisees during the time of the Messiah.
It can be plainly shown that the Pharisees exercised little central authority among themselves at all. In fact, other than their uniformity in their desire to keep the laws of purity and the other religious dues, the Pharisees represented a group of men WITH UNLIMITED DIFFERENCES OF OPINION. They were not one unified group in the matter of religious doctrines. One Pharisee would teach his opinion on a religious question and another would teach another opinion, in many instances, often totally different or diametrically opposite. Each Pharisee could teach whatever he pleased concerning the Scripture and STILL BE A PHARISEE so long as he kept bound to the Pharisaical rule of life.
You can imagine what confusion this would bring among the Pharisees!
The Pharisaical Schools
JUST A FEW YEARS BEFORE THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, and also during his lifetime, we have record of many divisions within the Pharisaical group. These divisions resulted from differences of opinion among the Pharisees. Some Pharisees, who might believe one particular set of doctrines, would tend to associate themselves together into their own societies. Some of the prominent of these societies would also form themselves into schools where any differences of opinion on religious questions among themselves could be discussed and then accepted or rejected by the whole of the school.
Two of the most distinguished schools at this time, representing the two major divisions of the Pharisees, were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. These two schools were the rivals of one another. The points over which they disagreed were practically innumerable (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, by McClintock and Strong, vol. ix, p. 472). There was hardly a point of religious doctrine that these two schools completely agreed on. Edersheim says that at one time there was such violent disagreement between these two schools that blood was shed between them (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 13).
These two schools were NOT THE ONLY DIVISIONS of the Pharisees, however. There were many more! Dr. George H. Box, of the University of London, informs us: “The Pharisees at this time WERE SHARPLY DIVIDED INTO VARIOUS SECTIONS which were NOT exhausted by the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai” (Abbington Bible Commentary, p. 841). There were many other splinter groups existing even among the Pharisees, almost all teaching different doctrines.
The Pharisee Synagogues
It is readily understandable why the rulers of the synagogues were adherents to the code of the Pharisees. It was a mark of religious piety to keep the Levitical laws of purity and to be scrupulous in keeping the laws of tithing, etc. So, the majority of the rulers or the synagogues (ministers) were Pharisees.
This does not mean that these synagogue rulers taught a unified creed. The ruler of the synagogue, in most cases, would teach what he, himself, thought was proper. Some of these Pharisees would conform as near as possible to the Hillel School of interpretation. Others would lean towards the Shammai School. Many would teach a combination of the two schools’ doctrines infused with their own peculiar beliefs. No creed existed in the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees. This is the reason why almost every opinion was tolerated in the synagogues. THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES NEVER TAUGHT WITH AUTHORITY as did Yeshua! (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 170).
Now we can understand why it was not difficult for the Messiah and the Apostles to speak in most of the synagogues without molestation. Each ruler of the synagogue could teach what he pleased and he allowed those of the congregation to express their opinion if they wished. There was little government of YEHOVAH God — and there was little truth.
The Apostle Paul spoke many times in the Jews’ synagogues about the TRUTH of Christianity (Acts 13:15; 14:1; 17:1-2). Sometimes Paul met with approval and other times with opposition. Yeshua also preached the true gospel in many of the synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee without being prohibited (John 18:20).
Because the majority of the synagogues were under the control of individuals who were Pharisees, it is safe to conclude that the Common People who attended endeavored to keep some form of the Pharisaical teaching. In this sense, it would be proper to say that those who attended the synagogues were following a type of NOMINAL Pharisaism — even though they were not Pharisees themselves.
“The popular religion therefore, SO FAR AS IT WAS ENTITLED TO BE CALLED JUDAISM, might be described as more or less DILUTED PHARISAISM” (ibid., p. 136).
And because the Pharisees did control the synagogues, and had greater influence over the Common People who attended, they assumed the position of being the major sect of Judaism. They by no means represent the only religious group, however. There were many more!
Along with the Pharisees it is necessary to mention the Scribes. They adhered to the Pharisaical rules of piety and, in fact, represented a particular group within the Pharisees. They were the SCHOLARLY PHARISEES — sometimes called “doctors of the law” (Lake 5:17).
In other words, they were the ones most learned in the Law. Both Hillel and Shammai, who founded the two prominent Pharisaic Schools, were Scribes, or Doctors of the Law. Not all Pharisees were Scribes, but ALL SCRIBES WERE PHARISEES (ibid., p. 158). To them was committed the copying of the Hebrew Bible.
Another major group within Judaism at this time were the Sadducees. Even though the members in this sect were fewer than the Pharisees, they could command attention because they were in influential political positions in Jerusalem. Actually, MANY OF THE SADDUCEES WERE PRIESTS who ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Performing these functions was about the ONLY religious service that the priests were doing at this time.
In the distant past, it had been the job of the priests, along with the Levites, to be the religious leaders in Israel. But, by the time of the Messiah, the Pharisees, who were not priests, had been allowed by Queen Alexandra (79 B.C.) to take this leadership to themselves, while the priests were relegated to the place of performing only the rituals at the Temple. Yeshua recognized the Pharisees’ authority, however (Mat. 23:2-3).
Because the Pharisees had deprived the priests of their rightful position as teachers of the people, we can see one reason why the priests did not favor the Pharisees nor what they taught. This is why the majority of priests were Sadducees! They had a spite for the Pharisees, so they joined themselves to the sect which disapproved of the Pharisees the most.
The Sadducees had no set religious creed EXCEPT that they ALL DISBELIEVED in the resurrection from the dead, in angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8). They claimed to believe explicitly in the Scriptures, but even in their fundamental doctrines just quoted, it is clearly obvious that they rejected much of the Scripture, for the Word of YEHOVAH God plainly teaches the resurrection, the existence of angels and spirits (Job 14:14; Eze. 37:1-14; Dan. 12:1-3; Ex. 14:19; Dan. 6:22; I Sam. 18:10). Probably they rejected such essential and basic doctrines because the Pharisees held all of these as indispensable doctrines of the Scriptures. Perhaps it was out of spite that the Sadducees rejected them. They certainly had no Scripture proof for doing so. It is known that the Sadducees detested the Pharisees so much that they would counter almost every belief the Pharisees would teach.
These doctrines of the Sadducees were not popular with the people. Very few of the Common People ever joined with them. And, the Sadducees made no attempt to proselyte. They also had no synagogues in which to worship (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 122). Nor did they have any real centralized authority among themselves. The individual members of this group could believe whatever he pleased, and there was “A CONSIDERABLE VARIETY OF TYPE AMONG THE SADDUCEES,” declares Herford.
Their real prominence was mainly POLITICAL. During the time of the Messiah, the Sadducees were in control of the civil Supreme Court of the Jews (the Sanhedrin). Because of their being majority leaders in this powerful judicial organization, they had recognizable respect from the people. The Sanhedrin was the high civil court, allowed under the Romans to try legal disputes which would arise between Jews. It even had power, in some instances, to give capital punishment. And, by the Sadducees having the majority vote in this court (called “the council” in the New Testament — Luke 22:66), they could command certain political esteem from the people — even at times from the Pharisees. Religiously speaking, however, very few of the Jews were Sadducees. Their materialistic concept of Scripture and the fact that they were mainly priests plus some rich and influential men, caused this sect not to be in any way popular. “The priestly and aristocratic Sadducees were rigidly exclusive, and insignificant in numbers” (The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, p. 134).
The last MAJOR group of Judaisers to be considered as representing Judaism, and having about 4,000 members, were the Essenes. This sect is not mentioned in the New Testament, although they were in existence at the time.
Because Yeshua never directly by name condemned this group, as he did the Pharisees and Sadducees, some modern scholars have been led to assume that perhaps Yeshua was a member of this sect! Nothing could be further from the truth!
Members of this group were ascetics who lived in the desert near the Dead Sea. They were anti-social in the extreme, withdrawing from society altogether, having no social intercourse with any except members of their own sect. They practiced celibacy (repudiating marriage entirely), drank no wine, did not attend Temple services, nor did they sacrifice (Cyclo. Bib., Thes. & Ecc. Lit., vol. iii, p. 302). Their order was similar to the practices in monasteries and nunneries of the Catholic Church with which we are familiar (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 63). They even had their own synagogues in which to practice their ascetic customs.
The Messiah practiced none of their basic tenets! Simple reference to the New Testament shows us that he was certainly not an ascetic. HE CAME EATING AND DRINKING WINE (Matt. 11:19). He went out into the highways (Matt. 22:9) and even ate with the Common People of the land, called SINNERS by the Pharisees (Matt. 9:11). He attended the annual Holy Days ordained of YEHOVAH God (John 2:23; 5:1; 7:14). ALL these things the Essenes WOULD NOT DO!
The Apostle Paul CONDEMNS asceticism as a way of life (Col. 2:21-23), while the Essenes believed in it as a fundamental doctrine. Neither Paul nor the Messiah was in any way connected with this sect of the Jews nor did they propound any of this sect’s peculiar doctrines. Even the most skeptical of scholars must admit this fact (Abington Bib. Com., p. 842). Most of the doctrines adhered to by the Essenes actually came from heathen influences, not from the Bible.
Another sect — or perhaps sects — connected directly with the Essenes, were the Qumran group. Before 1947, no one knew that this sect existed in Palestine. In that year, however, some scrolls were found by an Arab in a cave near the Dead Sea. It was found that these scrolls were hidden by this sect now known as the Qumran.
Subsequent archeological discoveries revealed that this group were like the Essenes in many ways. They preferred a life of asceticism and lived in monastery-like institutions (Thompson, Archaeology and the Pre-Christian Centuries, p. 107). However, a study of their writings indicated that they may have been a splinter group of the Essenes. Their own writings tell us that there were differences of opinions among themselves and that there were different sections within the group (ibid., p. 115).
That Yeshua had nothing to do with them is apparent! Professor Thompson says that the teaching of these Qumran sects differed from that of the Messiah in a thousand ways (ibid., p. 118).
The Zealots were a religious group (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 66), who had as their basic philosophy — the defense of the Law of Moses. At least, this was their supposition. In their religious beliefs they sided with the Sadducees IN ONE RESPECT: they rejected the authority of the Pharisaic teachings (ibid., p. 68). But they were not Sadducees! They held that the Law of Moses was sufficient to guide the religious life, and that it did not need the extra teachings of the Pharisees or any other group to make it clear. It is not known just how fervent they really were in adhering to this religious conception.
Their main point of doctrine, and the one which gave them their name, was their ZEALOUSNESS for the Law. They were supposedly willing to fight or even to die for the Law if necessary. However, we find that this seemingly good quality was actually a tool by which they could get the Common People to come to their aid in order to accomplish their own nationalistic desires of driving all foreigners from the land of Palestine. It was the overthrow of the Roman yoke more than anything else that gave them impetus for zealousness.
We often meet with this sect in the New Testament only because one of the Apostles WAS ONCE a member of it before becoming a Christian (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Their importance was not overly great during the time of the Messiah, but their influence grew, after the crucifixion, to the extent that much of the blame for the rebellion against Rome, that caused the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., is to be accorded directly to them. Their fundamental doctrine of rebellion against all foreign domination (using the pretext of fighting for the Law of YEHOVAH God) brought much of the misery the Jews suffered during the destruction of Jerusalem nearly 40 years after the crucifixion. This sect was extinguished from Judaism after that destruction.
During the time of the Messiah there was another minor group represented in Judaism called the Herodians. They are mentioned twice in the New Testament (Matt. 22:16, Mark 12:13), and are in both cases aligned with the Pharisees against the Messiah. Little is known of them except that they had independent doctrines of their own. It has been CONJECTURED by some that they were endeavoring to proclaim Herod the Great as the King and Messiah. The Jews were well aware that the Messiah was to come at about this time because of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27. It is possible — say some scholars — that the Herodians were proclaiming Herod as their coming King. However, this is entirely conjecture.
It is not known how many members were in this MINOR group, nor is it really known what they taught.
Other Sects in Judaism
Other than the sects and divisions already mentioned, THERE WERE MANY OTHER MINOR RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN JUDAISM. That these sects existed is readily recognized because they wrote many erroneous and fantastic apocryphal books which show that they were people who believed doctrines totally different from the common sects. These books express different opinions among themselves as well, and in every case endeavor to teach what the Bible clearly does not teach.
The name that has been applied to many of these small and independent groups, or perhaps they represent nothing more than a few individuals, is Apocalyptists. The word means “the revealing-ones” or those who purport to give SECRET doctrines or prophecies never heard before.
Many of the writers of these books claimed the names of famous Old Testament personalities, such as Enoch and Moses, as the supposed authors of their books. However, it is well known that these books were written about one to two hundred years before the Messiah. See R. H. Charles’, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, page 123, for the evidence of this.
Instead of revealing many hidden truths, these books reveal only the errors that some of the Jews had foolishly come to believe. The important point to realize is the fact that these false books are at variance with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. THEY DO NOT BELONG IN THE BIBLE! They were all rejected by the Jews of Palestine. In a future chapter we will see just what books really belong in the Old Testament and who had the authority to decide it. It is important to know!
Points to Remember
Let us summarize the religious condition of the Jews during the time of the Messiah.
Out of a total population of about 3,000,000 Jews in Palestine, there were only about 6,000 Pharisees, about 3,000 Sadducees, 4,000 Essenes, and a few thousand representing the other sects of Judaism. Those belonging to the religious sects represented only a mere fragment of the population — less than 5% of the total population.
The evidence shows that, relatively speaking, very few of the Jews attended the synagogues each Sabbath. The synagogues were just too small or there were not enough of them to allow all to attend.
Of the sects themselves, the Pharisees, the major group, WERE DIVIDED into many opposing divisions. Nor were the Sadducees a unified group, for there WERE MANY VARIETIES OF BELIEFS AMONG THEM. The Essenes and Qumran, by their own writings, were not a uniform group, BUT WERE DIVIDED INTO VARIOUS ELEMENTS OF BELIEF. The rest of the sects were minor in importance. Even the writings of the Apocalyptics show a variety of opinions. They certainly did not agree with one another — and especially they did not agree with the Bible.
Among all these differing sects we find some keeping the traditions of the elders. Some believed in asceticism; others repudiated it. There was disagreement over the rituals, marriage, the Sacred Calendar, the correct observance of the Holy Days, etc. In fact, the points of disagreement were virtually INNUMERABLE.
About the only things held in common by them all were some kind of observance of the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, the calling of Israel “a chosen people” and the expectancy of the Messiah. However, even in these fundamental doctrines there were countless shades of interpretations.
The condition of the Jews in New Testament times can best be described by the statement in the Bible: “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
There is no question but that the religion of the Jews, as taught by the differing sects, was not the religion that YEHOVAH God gave Moses. In truth, the message that the Messiah brought re-emphasized the religion of Moses IN ITS TRUE SPIRITUAL INTENT, and to give it to a people who had forgotten the true spiritual application of the Law!
THE religious condition of the Jews during the time of the Messiah had not evolved in just a few years. It took over 200 years for Judaism to firmly implant itself in Palestine.
If we are to adequately understand the full development of Judaism, we will have to go back in history over 500 years before the Messiah. In these centuries history shows why and how “Judaism” replaced the Law of Moses as the religion of the Jews!
The Babylonian Captivity
The proper place to begin a study of the development of Judaism is with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
Between the years of 604 B.C. and 585 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, made war with the Kingdom of Judah. The Jews were not successful in any or the skirmishes with the Babylonians. In the first years of this war, Nebuchadnezzar carried away the majority of the Jews from Judah to Babylon. At the end of the war, in 585 B.C., ALL THE JEWS, except those under Gedaliah, were finally carried to Babylon. And even those under Gedaliah finally fled Palestine. This was a complete captivity.
The Babylonian captivity came to an end with the downfall of the Babylonian Empire in October 539 B.C. Isaiah had prophesied, about 200 years before, that Cyrus, the king of Persia, would be responsible for the overthrow of Babylon and for making it possible for the Jews to return to Palestine (Isa. 45:1-4). Thus, Cyrus and his armies captured the capital of the Empire and Babylon was absorbed into the Persian Empire.
Cyrus was so betook over the exact prophecy by Isaiah concerning himself, that he determined to honor the God who had granted him victory over the Babylonians. He issued an edict that the Jews who had been carried captive by the Babylonians could return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple of YEHOVAH God (II Chron. 36:22, 23; Ezra 1:1,2).
The issuance of this decree resulted in about 50,000 Jews later returning to Palestine. These Jews were under the leadership of two men. Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, and Joshua, the High Priest. The reason for the Jews’ return was to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and to again establish the true worship of YEHOVAH God. The books of Haggai and Zechariah were written during the period when these Jews were returning to Palestine and during the building of the Temple. These books describe the condition of the Jews at this time.
Majority did NOT Return
It must be remembered, however, that the majority of the Jews did NOT return to Palestine. Most of them elected to remain in the Babylonian area. Under the benevolent rulership of Cyrus, many of the Jews had their own homes, substantial properties and not a few were wealthy and influential. They did not want to give all of this up in order to go back to the wasted land of their forefathers. Even Cyrus did not want all of them to leave the Babylonian area since the bulk of the population in some provinces was principally Jewish. Depopulation would have been a serious setback to the ECONOMY of the area (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 8).
The majority of the Jews were content with the situation in Babylon. They had no desire to return, and in consequence, they built permanent schools, colleges, and synagogues. They were settling down to stay. And, even though there were several migrations from Babylon back to Palestine, the bulk of the Jews remained in the Mesopotamian area. Even as late as the New Testament times, there were still more Jews in Babylon than there were in Palestine (ibid., vol. i, pp. 7-9). THIS EXPLAINS WHY THE APOSTLE PETER WAS IN BABYLON IN THE LATER YEARS OF HIS LIFE. He wrote his two epistles from near Babylon on the Euphrates (I Pet. 5:13). Since the Apostle Peter was the apostle to the Circumcision scattered abroad — the Jews in the Diaspora (Gal. 2:7), it is not difficult to see why he went to Babylon, where many of the Jews lived.
Ezra Goes to Jerusalem
After the deaths of Zerubbabel and Joshua, who led the first wave of returning Jews to Palestine, the people began to take a lackadaisical attitude concerning the services in the Temple and religion in general. Even though the Temple had been completed in the early months of 515 B.C., the people of Palestine took no interest in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. It still remained in ruins! The people had also begun to intermarry freely with the idolatrous Gentile people round about. The religious life of the people in general was becoming corrupt. This condition was prompted because the people in general did not have any real spiritual leaders after the death of Zerubbabel and Joshua. As the years rolled by, the condition became worse and worse.
Finally, Ezra came to Palestine to rectify the situation that was beginning to get out of hand (Ezra 7:7-8).
Ezra was a priest of no mean standing. He was a direct descendant of Aaron and some of his forefathers had been former High Priests in Israel. His grandfather was the High Priest who returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua to Jerusalem in the first migration back to Palestine (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. iii, p. 435). Ezra, himself, was a “scribe,” a “ready scribe of the law of Moses,” “a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord and of His statutes to Israel,” “a scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:11, 12). He was considered by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the apostles’ days, to have been, in a sense, the “High Priest” of the Jews who were still living in Babylon (Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 5,1).
The Scriptures say that Ezra “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). From these Scripture references alone, we can say confidently that Ezra was determined to live by the laws of YEHOVAH God and to teach them to the people. So profound an influence had Ezra over the Jews, and so righteous was his character, that a later Jewish writer said he would have been the lawgiver to Israel had not Moses preceded him (The Talmud, Sanhedrin, c.ii).
Ezra knew the laws of YEHOVAH God — he was well trained in them. And YEHOVAH directed that he go to Jerusalem to beautify the Temple, establish its services in proper order, to teach the people the laws of YEHOVAH God, and to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.
He went to Palestine with authority from the Persian government to carry out these reforms. About 2,000 people went with Ezra to Palestine. These were notably priests, Levites and servants of the Temple. The object of Ezra and these other important dignitaries in going to Jerusalem, was to restore the worship of YEHOVAH God that was fast becoming defiled.
When Ezra and his retinue went to Jerusalem from Babylon, they went with a royal decree from the king of Persia — Ezra had the power he needed to carry out the reform. The decree gave him authority not only to establish the true religion in its purity, but also he had governmental orders to “appoint magistrates and judges which may judge all the people that are beyond the river (in Palestine), all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye him that knoweth them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God and the LAW OF THE KING, let judgment be executed upon him with all diligence, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment” (Ezra 7:25, 26). In other words Ezra was going to Jerusalem not only as a priest of YEHOVAH God to reestablish the religious worship, but also to establish law and order by rebuilding Jerusalem as a Jewish capital city.
Why was the king of Persia so interested in the Jews’ religion and why did he want Jerusalem to be rebuilt and inhabited? The answer is plain.
The Bible records how Esther, a Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin, became Queen of Persia, and Mordecai, her uncle, became Prime Minister of the kingdom (Esther 2:17; 10:3). Esther was married to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) who ruled according to Persian reckoning, from 485 to 465 B.C. The king under whom Ezra was appointed to rebuild Jerusalem was also Xerxes. Esther was still, undoubtedly, the Queen, when Ezra left for Jerusalem in 457 B.C. Thus we see that there was considerable Jewish influence in the king’s palace at this time. No wonder Ezra was given such responsibility by the Persian king. He had power from the king to perform the needed restoration. Ezra’s personality and authority had a tremendous effect on the people.
The real intent of Ezra was to establish the Law of Moses as the constitutional law throughout Judea (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 33) — to make Judea a model state within the Persian Empire — one adhering to the law of Moses. The laws of the king were to be few, dealing mainly with taxation. Herford, the Jewish scholar, continues, “The Persian rulers, living far from Judea, seldom interfered with the internal affairs of their Jewish subjects, and were content to leave their public business in the hands of the governor of the province. If the royal taxes were paid, and order maintained, the Jews might organize their own life as a community in the way that seemed best to them” (ibid. p. 45). This was the policy of the Persian rulers for the two centuries they governed Palestine. This gave the Jews ample opportunity to settle down firmly in Palestine and to practice their religion without undue molestation.
Jews Had Married Foreign Wives
The first thing Ezra found upon his arrival in Palestine was that most of the people possessed only a nominal religion. The Temple services were not being conducted properly and a great number of the people had intermarried with foreign women. Ezra, in no uncertain terms, warned the people that these very acts were violations of the Law that caused their forefathers to be carried into captivity (Ezra 9:5-7). Upon hearing this, many of the people covenanted before YEHOVAH God to disentangle themselves from their foreign wives (Ezra 10:2-5). However, we find that not all of the people were so willing to do this. Some became quite obstinate. It took about 13 years to get all the people to forsake their own ways and be obedient to the Laws of YEHOVAH God.
The reason that the Law had commanded the Jews not to marry with the heathen is that the natural tendency of a person is to lean towards the religion of the wife or husband. Solomon even set up heathen idols in Jerusalem and throughout Israel to please his pagan wives (I Kings 11:4). And because the Law specifically commanded the Israelites not to marry heathen women or men (Exodus 34:15, 16), Ezra commanded the Jews to repent of their erroneous ways and to begin keeping the Law. (See also Deut. 7:3.)
A paramount issue in the mind of Ezra was the establishment in Palestine of the civil Law as given by Moses. In other words, he was determined to see that the Jews obeyed the commandments of YEHOVAH God as revealed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Within these four books are found the basic spiritual commandments of YEHOVAH, plus many basic laws and statutes of a civil nature for the governing of the physical nation of Israel. Also within these books are the ritualistic and ceremonial laws of purity and the sacrificial ordinances that formed such a distinctive part of the Law of Moses that by New Testament times the term “Law of Moses” often became a special and exclusive term for the sacrificial ceremonies and physical rituals (Acts 13:39; 15:5). Ezra was commissioned by YEHOVAH God to teach the people ALL these laws — from obedience to the spiritual laws to the observance of physical rituals.
Ezra was fully qualified in education, political power and divine favor to accomplish the job of establishing the Law of Moses as the law of the land.
“To place the Torah (the Scriptures) in the position of supreme authority in Judaism, and to win the people to that recognition and acceptance of that supreme authority was what Ezra set out to do” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 37). And, we find that Ezra succeeded in transforming the Jews from a nominal Mosaic religion to the real thing. It took, however, the help of Nehemiah to finally and fully implant the Law of Moses as the law of the land.
Nehemiah Comes to Jerusalem
Nehemiah was a Jew who was a high government official in the Persian kingdom (Neh. 2:1-8). After learning of the plight of the Jews in Palestine and the difficult time Ezra was having getting the Jews to obey the laws of Moses, he resolved to do something about the situation. Being in close communication with the king of Persia and in good favor with him, he petitioned for the right to become governor of the province of Judea, directly under the king himself. The petition was granted!
Ezra, who had also gone to Palestine in an official capacity, was not the governor of the province. He acted more as a civil servant of the king. But Nehemiah came with much more power. He went to Jerusalem as governor of the whole province of Judea.
Upon the arrival of Nehemiah in Xerxes’ twentieth year, Ezra’s position was greatly strengthened. Nehemiah was as much inclined toward getting the people back to YEHOVAH God as was Ezra. Nehemiah and Ezra both worked together in harmony towards accomplishing their goal. And accomplish it they did! They established the Law of Moses as the law of the land, they set up the Temple service in proper order and they made the people put away their foreign wives. They established meeting places where the law was preached and expounded. The ordained priests were judges, teachers, and administers of the government. This was a phenomenal task to accomplish among thousands of Jews who were not always in favor of the law. But it was done.
Jews Sign a Covenant With YEHOVAH God
Ezra and Nehemiah brought all of the leaders of the people, the priests, Levites, and all the principal men, and had them sign a covenant that they would henceforth obey the laws of YEHOVAH God. In the covenant they signed, they all agreed to perform seven things. These articles of the covenant were mandatory: 1) They were to keep all the laws, statutes, judgments and commandments of YEHOVAH God; 2) not to intermarry with the heathen; 3) to keep the Sabbath holy; 4) to observe the Sabbatical year; 5) to pay the annual third of a shekel for the upkeep of the Temple; 6) to supply wood for the altar in the Temple; 7) to pay all the tithes that were commanded in the Law (Nehemiah 10:28-39).
The leaders signed the covenant on behalf of all the people. Consequently, all the Jews who lived in Palestine, solemnly entered into this covenant. They all pledged to carry out its requirements.
Before this time, the people were content with a nominal form of religion, but after the surge of spiritual zeal and determination of Ezra and Nehemiah, with the Persian monarch backing them up, the people took on a new outlook towards the truth of YEHOVAH God. There arose a new kind of constitutional government — a government which had as its laws the Law of Moses. It was a kind of Church and State government, under the authority of the Persian kingdom, but with its own schools, colleges, synagogues, court houses and Supreme Court. With this kind of central government established in Judea, the result was a religious unity not known since the days of Joshua. No wonder that Ezra, the principal figure of the time, was called the “second Moses.” This was a new beginning in the history of the Jews.
The Great Assembly
The convening of these Jewish elders was of great importance. This assemblage was actually a religious and political body of priests which was, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, empowered by YEHOVAH God to maintain the obedience of the people to the Law of Moses for that and future generations.
This organization was known as “The Great Assembly.” It was an assembly comprised of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of YEHOVAH’s chosen ministers, along with all the principal priests of the Jews. This assembly was the ruling institution to guide the religious life of the Jews. It was the religious supreme court. It was the center of authority in regard to education and regulating the priests and Levites in teaching the people the Law of Moses. In effect, the Great Assembly was the governing body of the Jewish people in Palestine.
This assembly initiated by Ezra and Nehemiah has often been called by the Greek name “The Great Synagogue.” The word “synagogue” in Greek means ASSEMBLY. This is the name most modern writers use when referring to this authoritative body of priests. But whether the name Great Synagogue or Great Assembly is used, it represents the same institution.
“According to the most ancient tradition, this assembly or synagogue was styled GREAT because of the great work it effected in restoring the divine law to its former greatness, and because of the GREAT AUTHORITY AND REPUTATION WHICH IT ENJOYED” (Cycle. of Bib., Thee., and Ecc. Lit., vol. x, p. 82).
This assembly actually represented the executive, judicial and legislative congress of the Jews. It was convened to insure the observance of the Law of Moses. From history we know that it accomplished its task. It brought the people back to the Law of Moses, and established that Law as the constitutional law of the land.
Some of the decisions of this Great Assembly have had far-reaching effects — even unto our present age. It is necessary that we learn about this organization established by YEHOVAH God under the supervision of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Members of the Great Assembly
The Jewish historians are united in telling us that there were 120 members in the original Great Assembly (Berakoth, ii, 4; “Megillah,” 17b). All of these members WERE PRIESTS (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 59). There were no laymen in this authoritative assembly.
The president or ruler was the High Priest. According to rank, this should always be the case. However, when the Great Assembly was organized by Ezra and Nehemiah, the High Priest, Eliashib, did not meet with the Assembly. He did not entirely agree with the covenant that the Great Assembly made binding. See Nehemiah 13:4-7.
He did not agree with the specific part of the covenant which commanded all Jews to give up their Gentile wives. His grandson, Manasseh, was married to a very important Gentile woman, of which more will be said later, and Eliashib did not necessarily want this particular union to be broken. Because of this attitude, he was rejected from having a part in the Great Assembly. Later on, however, the High Priests did assume their proper place as head of the Assembly.
The rest of the Great Assembly were priests of varying rank occupying different positions within the institution. Their jobs were to carry out the actual work of the Assembly while the High Priest would supervise and oversee.
These priests were the leaders of the Jewish nation at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, about 440 years before the Messiah. They and their immediate successors were responsible for many weighty and authoritative decisions that affected the whole mode of Jewish life, and, in reality, settled a very important question, the effects of which reach unto our own day.
What the Great Assembly Did
The firm reestablishment of the religious and political government in Palestine was accomplished by Ezra and Nehemiah. They convened the Jewish elders for the purpose of signing and officially sealing a covenant to keep YEHOVAH’s commandments. It brought about the inauguration of a constitutional government in Palestine. THE CONSTITUTION WAS THE LAW OF MOSES!
Both Ezra and Nehemiah were at this covenant — signing, with the leaders of the Jews, to acknowledge THE WRITTEN LAW OF MOSES as the law of the land — as their constitution. All the Jewish leaders, except a very small minority, happily covenanted to perform the requirements of the Law. In consequence of this, the people put away their foreign wives, started tithing, established proper Temple services and began to keep YEHOVAH’s Sabbath!
This is the real beginning of the religion of Moses after the Babylonian captivity. And it was the true religion of Moses, no additions or subtractions!
New Controversy Arises
Eliashib, the High Priest at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, did not countenance the decision of the Great Assembly in regard to the putting away of foreign wives. One of his older grandsons was involved in such an illegal marriage. This grandson, Manasseh, was married to one of the daughters of Sanballat the Horonite — a Gentile.
Had Manasseh been married to an ordinary woman of no repute, it probably would not have made a great deal of difference. But he was married to the daughter of Sanballat who was governor of the northern province of Samaria. Sanballat was an influential government official of the Kingdom of Persia.
The grandson of the High Priest of the Jews being married to the daughter of the governor of Samaria offered a type of alliance between the two peoples. This presented a delicate political situation. If Manasseh repudiated his wife, in order to keep the Law, this friendly relationship would undoubtedly have ceased.
There were a few other Jews along with Eliashib and Manasseh who felt that this marriage should not be terminated even if the Law of Moses and the decision of the Great Assembly commanded it. So, Manasseh openly rebelled against YEHOVAH’s Government — the constitutional law — defying Ezra and Nehemiah and the Great Assembly.
When Manasseh refused to adhere to the Law, Nehemiah, who was governor of Judea, excommunicated him from the Jewish society and banished him from the country (Neh. 13:23-31).
Manasseh was exceedingly indignant over the excommunication. He especially was angered because he would have become High Priest of the Jews upon his father’s death, had he remained faithful to the Law and had not been excommunicated. In lieu of this, he, and some of his Jewish sympathizers, even some of the priests, left Judaea and went northward to Samaria.
Samaritans Enter the Picture
The Samaritans, who nominally adhered to some points of the Law of Moses, only as it suited their fancy, readily accepted these renegade Jews. The Samaritans had no scruples over marrying Gentile wives, for they themselves were Gentiles who had been placed in central Palestine about 250 years before by the Assyrians.
With the arrival of Manasseh in Samaria, Sanballat, his father-in-law, sympathized with him because he had been deprived of the opportunity to be High Priest among the Jews. But Sanballat had cunningly devised plans to honor his son-in-law for his rebellion against Nehemiah and the Great Assembly.
Since the Samaritans had no temple in which to worship, SANBALLAT PETITIONED THE PERSIAN GOVERNMENT DO GRANT HIM PERMISSION TO BUILD A TEMPLE FOR THE SAMARITAN PEOPLE. Because it was the general policy of the Persians to allow their captive nations to worship their own gods, this permission was granted.
It was the design of Sanballat to build this temple and install Manasseh, the son of the Jewish High Priest, as the High Priest of the Samaritans. This plan was carried out.
The Samaritan temple was built on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and Manasseh received his schismatic priesthood. This is the beginning of the Samaritan religion.
Manasseh’s Further Rebellion
The first act of Manasseh after being installed as the Samaritan High Priest was to repudiate the true Temple of YEHOVAH God located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He did this by maintaining that the Temple should be located on Mount Gerizim and not in Jerusalem. Manasseh’s rebellious motive was to strengthen his own position among the Samaritans and perhaps to gain some of the Jews in Judaea to his side.
In maintaining that the Temple should be situated on Mount Gerizim, he encountered, however, an embarrassing situation. Throughout the writings of the Old Testament prophets were the clear prophecies that the Temple of YEHOVAH God should be located only on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2 and Micah 4). The prophecies concerning this fact were so conclusive, so decisive, that it was impossible for Manasseh to reconcile his temple being located on Mount Gerizim with the statements of the prophets.
Realizing that the writings of the prophets and many of the Psalms specifically taught just the opposite from what he was endeavoring to maintain, he seized upon the only alternative to seemingly justify his temple being on Mount Gerizim. His way out of the dilemma was to formally REJECT THE WRITINGS OF THE PROPHETS. To do this, he had to represent them as the uninspired opinions of men.
As a result of this, Manasseh acknowledged that the only books which were really the inspired words of YEHOVAH God were the books of Moses — the first five books of the Old Testament. The reason he accepted this portion of the Old Testament was that in this section there was no direct mention of the necessity of having the Temple of YEHOVAH God on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. By accepting only the first five books of the Bible and none other, he put his own authority ahead of the Word of YEHOVAH God.
With Manasseh ruling as the Samaritan High Priest and finally claiming that only the books of Moses were the inspired word of YEHOVAH God, the situation called for drastic action by Ezra, Nehemiah and the Great Assembly. Here was a new temple built in Samaria, and Manasseh loudly proclaiming that all the Jews in Judaea were in error.
Something had to be done about this situation.
Ezra and Nehemiah knew it was possible that there might be an internal disruption of the Jewish society that they were developing in Judaea, unless a determinate and authoritative counter-action could be launched against the falsehoods of Manasseh and his heretical followers, especially since many of his ideas were being subversively planted in the minds of many Jews in Judaea. The people had to know who was right, Manasseh — or Ezra and Nehemiah!
The Great Assembly Settles the Question
Under the divine inspiration of Almighty God, Ezra and Nehemiah with the Great Assembly convened to settle the matter. These two authoritative servants of YEHOVAH God, along with the ordained priests of YEHOVAH God, were given the responsibility of assembling the inspired books of the prophets and holy men of YEHOVAH God. Their task was not to write the books, for they were already written. They had to assemble the already acknowledged inspired books into one book in a final order.
Thus, we read: “To erect a wall of partition between the Jews and these apostates (Manasseh and his followers), and to show the people which of the ancient prophetical books were sacred … the men of the Great Synagogue (Assembly) compiled the canon of the prophets” (Cycle. of Bib., Thee. And Ecc. Lit., vol. x, p. 83).
The Canon of the Old Testament
That Ezra, Nehemiah and the Great Assembly, under the divine inspiration of the Spirit of YEHOVAH God, compiled the books of the Old Testament is the universal acknowledgment of all early Jews and Christians (ibid., vol. ii, p. 75).
All of the Old Testament books, remember, WERE ALREADY WRITTEN. The task of the Great Assembly was merely to put them together into one book in proper order! And this they did!
It has been thought by some modern critics that Ezra and the Great Assembly may have sanctioned only the Law of Moses, the first five books. This is decidedly not the case! The very reason the canon of the Old Testament had to be defined at this time was that the renegade Jew, Manasseh, erroneously maintained that the first five books of Moses were the only inspired books. He, out of his own vanity, rejected the inspired books of the Prophets and Psalms. These books were already as much a part of YEHOVAH’s Word as the Law of Moses.
It was not necessary to OFFICIALLY proclaim the Law of Moses AS BEING INSPIRED FOR IT HAD ALREADY LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED AS YEHOVAH’S WORD. See II Kings 22:8.
It was, of course, YEHOVAH’s purpose that all the writings of the Prophets be transmitted to those of future eras in final and unchangeable form. The books of the Prophets, the Psalms and the other books were now officially established, properly placed in the canon and PROCLAIMED as the authoritative Word of YEHOVAH God.
Proofs that Canon was Compiled Under Ezra and Nehemiah
We have the testimony of Josephus, the Jewish historian, that the complete Old Testament was finally settled and established in the days of Artaxerxes, king of Persia (Against Apion, I, 8). By this, Josephus meant that the Old Testament canon was completed in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, for these two men of YEHOVAH God lived in Artaxerxes’ time.
Josephus also mentions that there had not been any prophet who had left any writings from the time of Artaxerxes until the New Testament Period (ibid.). Even the writer of Maccabees recognized that up to his time the inspired prophets had ceased with Malachi. “And there was great stress in Israel [in 168 B.C.], such as there had not been SINCE THE TIME WHEN THE PROPHETS CEASED TO APPEAR TO THEM” (I Macc. 9:27). Without men of YEHOVAH God in a prophetical office, it was impossible to have inspired writings. It is therefore plain that Josephus, who was one of the leading Pharisees of his day, and other prominent Jews, believed the canon of the Old Testament was completed under Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Three Divisions of the Old Testament
When Ezra and Nehemiah compiled the Old Testament books they placed them in three general divisions. These are known as the Triparte Divisions. The first division was called THE LAW, and consisted of the first five books. The second was called THE PROPHETS. The third division was called, in the Messiah’s day, THE PSALMS, because this division commenced with the book of Psalms.
Thus, the inspired Old Testament, from Genesis to II Chronicles (the Hebrew order), was divided into three divisions — THE LAW, THE PROPHETS, and THE PSALMS. This arrangement of the books has always been reckoned by the Jews as having had its origin in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ryle, Canon of the Old Testament, p. 252; Angus, Bible Handbook, p. 568). There is no question about this fact.
Historical References to the Triparte Divisions
There are several early references which show that the Old Testament was divided into the Triparte Divisions. One notable mention is that of Sirach’s grandson — a Jewish religious leader who lived in the second century BEFORE the Messiah. He says in his prologue to the apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, that the recognized Scriptures of official Judaism were those books found in “The Law,” “The Prophecies,” and “The Rest of the Books.” This is a clear reference to the authoritative Triparte Divisions established by Ezra and Nehemiah.
You will perhaps notice that the grandson of Sirach did not use the name “The Psalms” for the third division. This is easily explained. This third section did not have a proper name in the time of Sirach. It became popularly called “The Psalms” by the Jews of the Messiah’s time because that particular book introduced the division. This is clearly indicated by Philo, a Jew who lived a few years before the Messiah. He said that the Triparte Divisions were then being called “The Law,” “The Prophets,” and “The Psalms” (On the Contemplative Life, 3). Later, in the third century A.D., however, the Jews began to refer to the third division as “The Writings.” This designation has been used by the Jews up to our own times.
The Messiah Sanctions the Triparte Divisions
It is important to realize that the Jews accepted only the books within the Triparte Divisions as inspired. No other books were ever recognized as being canonical. The Apocrypha were never accepted. But regardless of the beliefs of official Judaism, we have the testimony of much greater authority, telling us of what books the inspired Old Testament consisted. That witness is the Messiah himself.
After the resurrection of the Messiah, we are told in the Gospels, he began to teach his disciples many important truths from the Scriptures. On one occasion, mentioned in Luke 24:45, Christ referred to “THE SCRIPTURES” of the Old Testament and about the prophecies concerning him. What books did the Messiah mean by the expression, “the Scriptures”? What was the Old Testament to him? Notice what the Messiah himself related:
“And He said unto them, these are the words I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in THE LAW OF MOSES, and IN THE PROPHETS, and IN THE PSALMS, concerning me.
“Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand THE SCRIPTURES” (Luke 24:44, 45).
Yes, the inspired Old Testament Scriptures for the Messiah comprised those books found in “The Law, The Prophets, and The Psalms” — the Triparte Divisions. These were the very books compiled by Ezra and Nehemiah, and the very books which have come down to us today in the King James Version. We can assuredly know that OUR OLD TESTAMENT is the complete Old Testament of YEHOVAH God. The Messiah has told us this in the plainest of words.
The Arrangement of the Old Testament Books
You will notice that the Old Testament in the King James Bible begins with the book of Genesis and ends with the book of Malachi. However, in the original authoritative arrangement of the Old Testament books by Ezra and Nehemiah, this was not so. The Jews have never approved the King James arrangement because ITS ORIGIN WAS IN EGYPT. About 250 years before the Messiah there was a Greek translation made of the Hebrew Old Testament. This has become known as the Septuagint Version. The translators of this version decided to CHANGE THE ORDER of the books. Our King James Version follows the Latin which had this erroneous Egyptian arrangement of the books in it. The Latin translations followed the Septuagint Greek translation made in Egypt. The Septuagint does not follow the original Hebrew order established by Ezra and Nehemiah.
When the Jews of official Judaism recognized the corruptions in the Septuagint Version, they completely repudiated it. Notice how the early Jews looked on this translation: “The day on which the translation of the Bible into Greek was made was regarded as a great calamity, equal to that of the golden calf” (Sopherim, i, 7). “The day on which it was accomplished … was commemorated as a day of fasting and humiliation (ibid.).
The Septuagint Version translators did not take away or add to the books of the Old Testament, but they did disrupt the Divine order of the books and faultily translated much of the original Hebrew into Greek (Prologue to Sirach).
It will be profitable for you to know what the authoritative order of the Old Testament books really is. And notice that originally, before printing, the number of scrolls were 22 — now subdivided in the King James Version into 39.
Notice that the first seven books are the same as in our King James version, but afterward there are considerable changes. You will notice that the so-called “Minor Prophets” — from Hosea to Malachi — are not really the last books of the Old Testament. These Minor Prophets really belong in the center. The last books are actually I and II Chronicles.
This authoritative arrangement of the Old Testament books is the one which the official Jewish community has always recognized as authoritative.
Other Books Rejected
Let us clearly understand that the books of the Apocrypha and all other spurious books NEVER found a place in the official Triparte Divisions of the Jewish Old Testament. All these “outside” books were totally rejected by the Jews. You will recall that Josephus, the Jewish priest and historian, who represented the beliefs of official Judaism in the days of the Apostle Paul, said that the Jews NEVER accepted any other books as inspired other than those compiled in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
“It is true,” says Josephus, “our history has been written since the time of Artaxerxes [the time of Ezra and Nehemiah] very particularly, BUT HAS NOT BEEN ESTEEMED OF THE LIKE AUTHORITY WITH THE FORMER [writings] OF OUR FOREFATHERS, since that time” (Against Apion, I, 8).
Yes, the last prophet to write an inspired book was Malachi — a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Messiah Used Only the Inspired Old Testament
Another proof that the Messiah used only the Scriptures recognized by official Judaism is the fact that he never once quoted from or alluded to any of the Apocrypha or other spurious books. Had he made even the slightest indication that the sources of his doctrines were from these unrecognized books, the Jews would have vehemently countered him with all their intellectual might. They would have loudly and persistently pointed out to the people that Yeshua could not possibly be the Messiah, for he was making use of uninspired books. But the Jews NEVER had an opportunity of accusing the Messiah of such things. They railed him for going contrary to the doctrines of the Jewish denominations of his day, but they never criticized him for using uncanonical books. The silence of any Jewish censure on this point IS DEFINITE PROOF that the Messiah utilized only the inspired books in the official Jewish Old Testament as the Scriptures.
Further Witness From the New Testament
We have further evidence throughout the New Testament that the Messiah and the Apostles recognized only the books of the Jewish Version as the complete Old Testament. Notice how it is taken for granted, in so many parts of the New Testament, that the Jews had the “Scripture” (John 10:35; 19:36; II Pet. 1:20), “the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29; Acts 18:24), “Holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2, II Tim. 3:15), “the Law” (John 10:34), “the Law and Prophets” (Matt. 5:17; 22:40), and the Law, Prophets and Psalms (Luke 24:44). All the New Testament writers recognized the Jews to have had the complete Old Testament.
Paul was also careful to let the Romans know that unto the Jews, “WERE COMMITTED THE ORACLES OF GOD” — the Old Testament (Rom. 3:3; 9:4). Paul was fully aware that the oracles of the Jews were the inspired books of the Jewish canon — the same books that are in our King James Version today.
It is very clear, from secular history, and especially from the Word of YEHOVAH God, that we have the complete Old Testament. ALL OTHER BOOKS NOT FOUND WITHIN THE BIBLE as we have it are entirely worthless for teaching true doctrines, and are to be completely rejected in this respect. The Apocrypha, and all other books, are the writings of men, not of YEHOVAH God.
With the canonization of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jews of this time entered into a period of prosperity and happiness. They were keeping the Law and being taught by the Great Assembly. This period from about 430 B.C. to 331 B.C., until the overthrow of the Persian Empire by the Greeks, can be called a time when the Law of Moses was adhered to by the people.
We are now compelled to look to a period later than the time of Persian control for the origin of the confused and mixed-up condition of Judaism.
THE canonization of the Old Testament by the members of the Great Assembly was the real stabilizing factor in the religious life of the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah bound upon the people the Law of Moses as the constitutional law of the land. And the Great Assembly, after the deaths of Ezra and Nehemiah, enforced THIS SAME LAW in every respect.
Life Under the Persians
Even though Judea was properly a province of the Persian Empire, the Jews maintained a semi-independent community. Since the days of Ezra, the Persians had shown extraordinary consideration to the Jews. “God … hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia” (Ezra 9:9).
“The Persian rulers,” says Herford, “living far from Judea, seldom interfered with the internal affairs of their Jewish subjects, and were content to leave their public business in the hands of the governor of the province. If the royal taxes were paid, the order maintained, the Jews might organize their life as a community in the way that seemed best to them” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 45).
The Persians had rule over Palestine until 331 B.C. — for about one hundred years after Ezra and Nehemiah. During this entire period, the Jews were allowed full freedom to practice their own customs and traditions. This Persian period was especially propitious to them because they were allowed to observe the Scriptures as ordained of YEHOVAH God (Kent, History of the Jewish People, p. 224). And during this period the Law of Moses was kept!
At this time, the Jews were under the direction of the High Priest, the president of the Great Assembly, and the other authoritative priests who comprised its membership. No religious splits or schisms were tolerated and all the people were kept in obedience to the laws of the Old Covenant. This peaceful condition in Palestine led to many advances in the social and religious life of the Jews.
The Priests Teach the Truth of YEHOVAH God
The canonization of the Old Testament, and the establishment of the Law of Moses as the constitutional law brought about the necessity of teaching the law to the people on a grand scale.
Ezra had brought back with him from Babylon a good number of priests to add to the 4,000 who had come back from the Babylonian captivity at an earlier time (Ezra 8:17-20). These priests were brought back to Palestine in order to assume their position as religious teachers of the people, for the Bible had ordained that priests were to teach the people the laws of YEHOVAH God (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 24:8; 27:14, etc.). The book of Malachi, written immediately after the return of Ezra and Nehemiah, records what these priests were ordained to do. “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).
Because the Law of Moses had become the law of the land, it became the priests’ job to teach the law. These commands required meetings every Sabbath in all the villages and towns around Judea. It was these Sabbath services that finally merged into regular synagogue services.
In time, all the areas within Judea began to build their own synagogues. In some of the larger areas, a body of priests would take up residence and have charge of the synagogue. Before the Babylonian captivity, synagogues had existed throughout Israel and Judah (Psa. 74:8), but because all these previous synagogues had been completely destroyed by the invading armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Jews had to start afresh after their return from Babylon to build completely new synagogues. This fact has led some commentators to erroneously assume that synagogues had their first development ONLY AFTER the Babylonian captivity, and that they were not in existence before. This, however, is not true! These new synagogues which were built in Palestine, were certainly built from scratch. But there had been synagogues before.
Buildings for religious assemblies are essential in every age and dispensation. It was impossible for all the Jews throughout Judea to journey each Sabbath to Jerusalem and to the Temple in order to learn of the law and to worship YEHOVAH God in holy convocation. The people had to have instruction by the priests every Sabbath in their own communities. The proper instruction of the Law of Moses could only be accomplished by the establishment of synagogues throughout the land. And, under the benevolent rule of the Persians, with peace and safety everywhere, there is no reason to doubt that synagogues dotted the land from one end to the other (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 58).
Not only did the synagogues offer opportunity for worship of YEHOVAH God on the Sabbaths, but we are informed in a Talmudical reference that Ezra ordained the priests to hold periods of religious instruction on the regular market days of the week — the second day of the week and the fourth day of the week (B. Kamma, 82a, b). From this evolved the custom of having instruction in the Law on those two days of the week. This custom was even carried down until the time of the Messiah.
Priests and Levites in Authority
It is plain that the people during this one hundred year period under the Persians had adequate instruction in the Laws of YEHOVAH God — not only on the Sabbaths and Holy Days, but even on two market days during the week. The priests were kept busy in the occupation of teaching the people the Law. For their helpers the priests had the regular Levites who gave them proper assistance in teaching the people. These Levites really did much of the actual teaching, and the priests were the supervisors. It was impossible for the limited number of priests to do all the necessary duties. For that reason, a good deal of the help in teaching, judging, being dieticians and, in a limited way, being policemen, fell to the Levites.
In effect, the Levites represented the professional class among the people. They were under the authority of the priests, however, who were the responsible organization for the over-all well-being of the nation (ibid., p. 59). The real leader of the whole nation was the High Priest, who was actually the head of state being the leader of the Great Assembly.
The Great Assembly was the one organization that was the governing authority. This religious assembly, as previously pointed out, was composed of the chief priests of the land with the High Priest as official president and over-all ruler. All members of this authoritative assembly in the Persian period were priests AND PRIESTS ALONE (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 28).
“For the priests were the actual leaders of the community, since they alone were recognized by the Law (Deut. 17) as its official teachers and competent interpreters” (ibid., p. 28). These priests were not elected by the people to hold a high office in the Great Assembly. They assumed this position by heredity, as ordained by YEHOVAH God (Deut. 17). Actually, no one but the priests, according to the Law of YEHOVAH God, could teach or direct the people in their religious life. This is the reason why the Great Assembly was composed exclusively of the priests, with the High Priest being the recognized leader.
With the canonization of the Scripture and the establishment of synagogues throughout the land, a problem confronted the Great Assembly. In order to teach the Law of YEHOVAH God, it was necessary that the priests and Levites have copies of the Scriptures. Up to the time of the canonization, books were not made with ALL twenty-two scrolls of the Old Testament combined together.
Many Scrolls of Scripture Made
Now that the Scripture had been authoritatively assembled, it became necessary to distribute the complete word of YEHOVAH God. The synagogues needed the Holy Scriptures as did many individual priests. So, it fell the lot of the Great Assembly to remedy this situation. They had the responsibility of seeing that many scrolls of Scripture were made and distributed to those who were in authority to teach the Word of YEHOVAH God. And, too, they had to be extremely careful and make sure that only individuals who were thoroughly qualified would undertake such a sacred task of copying the Scriptures. Such a job could not be entrusted to just anyone, lest from inexperience or carelessness the transcription was not an exact reproduction.
It became obvious that the only body or men who were qualified to do such a work were the members of the Great Assembly THEMSELVES. It was necessary that the new scrolls be perfect and that each scroll be sanctioned by these authoritative priests. This led the Great Assembly to assume the task of copying the Scriptures. They assumed this occupation sometime not long after the deaths of Ezra and Nehemiah.
From this time forward, the members of the Great Assembly became known as “Sopherim.” The word “Sopherim” in Hebrew signifies “counters.” “They were called ‘Sopherim’ because they COUNTED all the letters in the Torah [the Scriptures] and interpreted it” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 44).
In order to have an accurate transcription of the Scriptures, the Sopherim, the members of the Great Assembly, counted each letter on each section of a scroll. They made sure that when they copied the letters onto a new scroll, that there would be EXACTLY the same number of letters on the new section as had existed on the old. To do this, they had to COUNT each of the letters on the new scroll several times to make certain that the exact number was transcribed.
This method of copying the Scriptures was followed by later Jews until the invention of the printing press. In fact, about eight hundred years AFTER the Messiah, this method was so highly developed among the Jews that they knew the middle letter of each book in the Bible, and, even the middle letter of the whole Bible. There were many nonessential features developed from this method of counting the letters of the Scriptures. For those who may be interested in some of these features, see Ginsburg’s Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (this book is now out of print and would be found only in some of the larger libraries).
Sopherim Taught the Law
Once the members of the Great Assembly became the copiers of the Law (the Sopherim), we find the two names synonymously referring to the ONE group of priests. To speak of the Sopherim was to speak of the Great Assembly, and vice versa (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, pp. 44, 45). For convenience’s sake, we will refer to these men by the name most used in history — we will call them the Sopherim. The term “Sopherim” denotes that the one major job of the Great Assembly was to copy faithfully the Scriptures, and teach these Scriptures to the priests of lower rank who in turn would teach the people. Their lives were centered in the study of the Scriptures and in teaching the Law of YEHOVAH God. This was, after all, the occupation that YEHOVAH had ordained for the priests. They were also to regulate the religious life of the people. And, history shows that the members of the Great Assembly, the Sopherim of Persian times, following the examples of Ezra and Nehemiah, carried out their commission with fidelity.
Sopherim Interpreted Scriptures Correctly
We read in the Scripture that Ezra “read in the book in the law of God DISTINCTLY, and GAVE THE SENSE, and caused them [the lay people] to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). When Ezra taught the people, he would read from the Law of YEHOVAH God and then GIVE THE SENSE OF IT, that is, he would give the true explanation of it so the common people could understand what YEHOVAH meant from the Law.
This is what any true minister of YEHOVAH God will do. All that is necessary to understand YEHOVAH’s Word is to have it properly explained by dedicated teachers who know the Scriptures thoroughly. A true minister of YEHOVAH God will allow the Scripture to interpret Scripture. This is the only way of arriving at the truth of YEHOVAH’s Word. This is exactly what Ezra and his successors, the Sopherim, did! They simply expounded the Law of YEHOVAH God, the Scriptures. They did not make up their own ideas about Scripture teaching. They taught the Word of YEHOVAH God, AND IT ONLY!
This manner of teaching the Scriptures, and which is the only proper way, is known among the Jews as the MIDRASH-FORM! The word Midrash means “to comment.” And the term “Midrash-form” designates that manner of teaching which depends ONLY on the written Word of YEHOVAH God for doctrines — letting the Bible explain itself.
The reason this type of teaching has a special designation among the Jews is because they later had DIFFERENT METHODS OF TEACHING which did not rely upon the Word of YEHOVAH God. And, it became a later custom to refer to the true type of teaching, which expounded or commented on the Scriptures, AND THE SCRIPTURES ONLY, as teaching in the MIDRASH-FORM.
This Midrash-form is the type of teaching that the Sopherim used, for they were following Ezra’s example of reading in the Scriptures and then giving the sense or the meaning so the common people could understand. This is the method of teaching that began with Moses and was exclusively used from his day and throughout the period of the Sopherim. For it was, and still is, the only proper way to teach the Word of YEHOVAH God (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 47).
“The Midrash-form was supposed to be that in which Moses had originally taught the Torah, and to use that form was called ‘TEACHING AFTER THE MANNER OF MOSES'” (Ibid., p. 47).
The later Jews, as previously mentioned, came to the place of teaching religion in an entirely different method than “after the manner of Moses” and the Sopherim. We will see that they did not utilize the Midrash-form as the ONLY METHOD OF TEACHING. However, Ezra and the Sopherim, following the example of Moses, taught exclusively in this correct form. They never departed from teaching directly from the Word of YEHOVAH God. No other form of interpretation was used or allowed!
Sopherim Complete Final Additions to the Old Testament
The Sopherim, being the successors of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as being the custodians of the Scriptures, were responsible for adding the final portions to the Old Testament. While they were in authority among the Jews, they added a few names to certain genealogical tables in order to bring them up to date. In I Chronicles 3:17-24 and Nehemiah 12:10,11, there are recorded lists of certain men. The last mentioned of these men lived just before the coming of Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.
Notice I Chronicles 3:17-24. There is mentioned a sixth generation after Zerubbabel. This last generation would have lived about the time of Alexander the Great. Nehemiah 12:10,11 refers to Jaddua the High Priest who was alive when Alexander the Great came to Palestine (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 8, 4). Thus, the names were added to the genealogical tables by the Sopherim just before the coming of the Greeks in 331 B.C.
This shows plainly that the Sopherim, who were established about 440 B.C., were in authority for a period just over one hundred years — until 331 B.C. And also that the Old Testament, as we have it today, was made into its final form by the Sopherim with the addition of a few names to the genealogical tables, about 330 years BEFORE the birth of the Messiah!
The Sopherim had complete authority for doing this. They were the proper custodians of the Law and ordained of YEHOVAH God for this purpose.
What All This Means for Today
It must be emphasized that the Sopherim were all priests — there were no laymen among them.
“In the days of the Sopherim, when the High Priest was the head of the community, and when the teachers under his leadership formed an official body vested with authority to arrange all religious matters in accordance with the Law as they understood it, the knowledge of the Law was limited to the priests who were the ONLY OFFICIAL TEACHERS. On the one hand, the priests who were in possession of the Law and tradition of the fathers considered the teaching and interpreting of the religious law as their priestly prerogative” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 197).
This priestly authority was in accord with the Word of YEHOVAH God. The priests had been ordained to be the teachers of the people in religious matters. No layman was permitted to assume this authority. As long as the Sopherim remained as the official body among the Jews, this direction of YEHOVAH God was adhered to. And during the entire period of the Sopherim — from the days of Ezra until the coming of Alexander the Great — the Jews were keeping the Law of Moses. However, in 331 B.C., when Alexander came to Palestine and defeated the Persians, the whole complexion of Palestine government changed.
The Greeks, unlike the Persians, did not allow the Sopherim to hold their authoritative position among the Jews. In fact, after 331 B.C. the Sopherim disappear from history as a body of priests directing the religious life of the people. The whole organization was dismantled by the Greek conquerors.
The coming of the Greeks brought a complete change in practically every mode of life in Palestine. With the Sopherim taken away from their position of authority, the Scripture teachings ceased being enforced. A whole new way of life was forced upon the Jews.
THE ONE hundred years following Ezra and Nehemiah can properly be described as a time of peace and prosperity for the Jews (Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. i, pp. 406, 407). The Jews had established themselves firmly in Palestine — in every section of the province of Judaea. They were observing the Law of Moses in its entirety. It was the constitutional law of the land.
The Great Assembly, established by Ezra and Nehemiah, was the head of Jewish state under the Persian governor. This great religious assembly of priests directed the people in observing the Laws of Scripture. The priests saw that the people had proper religious instruction every Sabbath in the local synagogues scattered throughout the land. The children were educated in the elementary schools that were attached to the synagogues.
As long as the Jews were under the authority of the Persian Empire, they were allowed to carry on their own religious customs without interference. The Persians seemed to care little how the Jews worshipped YEHOVAH God as long as the tax was being paid and a respectable amount of loyalty was being shown to the governor and king. The Jews were disposed to keep the good graces of the Persians by submitting to their benevolent rulership.
The extraordinary goodwill that the Persians had for the Jews came to a sudden end in 332 B.C. At that time, Palestine — a part of the Persian Empire — was conquered by a rising young Empire in the West — the Empire of the Greeks!
Alexander the Great
Beyond the western frontier of the Persian Empire, while the Jews were enjoying their peaceful existence in Palestine, a young general was preparing an army for the conquest of Persia and the East. In 334 B.C., after amassing an army of considerable strength, Alexander the Great swept over the Hellespont and into Persian territory.
Moving with such rapidity, and with such remarkable successes, Alexander the Great in 10 short years conquered the Persian Empire and all of civilized Asia to the Indus River, as well as Egypt on the south. The Jews, because of this, came under the domination of the Greeks.
A New Way of Life — Hellenism
With the coming of the Greeks, a whole new manner of life was brought into Palestine and among the Jews. Under the Persians, the Jews had been allowed to observe the Law of Moses with the Great Assembly (the Sopherim) as their religious leaders. But this was all changed with the advent of the Greeks.
Alexander the Great was steeped in the belief that the Greek way of life was the only suitable one for mankind to follow. He was imbued with the enthusiasm of infusing the culture and society of the Greeks among all the nations he had conquered. And Palestine was no exception.
“Hellenism” is the term to describe the belief in practicing the manner of life of the Greeks — to imitate every phase of Greek society, its politics, domestic life, philosophies, religions, etc.
The basic philosophy behind Hellenism was this: EVERY MAN HAD THE RIGHT TO THINK FOR HIMSELF ON ANY MATTER AS LONG AS THERE WAS NOT A REAL DEPARTURE FROM THE CUSTOMS THAT WERE ESSENTIALLY GREEK.
This philosophy — freedom of thought or individualism — which is seemingly altruistic in principle, resulted in myriads of confusing and contradictory beliefs among the Greeks in every phase of life. Every man was allowed his own ideas about the sciences, the arts, laws AND ABOUT RELIGION. So varied were the opinions among the Greek scholars in the various fields of study that individuals took pride in contending with one another over who could present the greatest “wisdom” and “knowledge” on any particular subject.
The Greeks sought wisdom in order to understand the world they lived in and the reasons for life. And their confusion of beliefs resulted from the fact that their ideas came from their own rationalizing — their philosophies represented almost EVERY HUMAN IDEA.
Here was the beginning of the philosophy of individualism — a product of Hellenism. When the Greeks came to Palestine they brought all their conflicting secular teachings as well as their many religious doctrines, all of which were prompted by the individual philosophies of men.
It would be unfeasible to even attempt an adequate description of the manifold religious cults among the Greeks, or of their heathenistic doctrines. Their various religions and religious beliefs were the man-made products of the philosophy of individualism. Practically every religious belief capable of being devised by the human mind was found in pagan Greece. In their religious beliefs “we find ghosts and spirits and nature gods, tribal religions, anthropomorphisms [gods in human form], the formation of a pantheon [a temple for the worship of many pagan gods], individual religion, magical rites, purifications, prayers, sacrifices [animal, vegetable and human] — ALL ARISING FROM THE COMMON STOCK AND THE SUCCESSIVE PHASES OF RELIGIOUS HUMANITY” (Harrison, Religion of Ancient Greece, pp. 12, 13). Many of their doctrines and customs will be relevantly discussed in future pages of this thesis.
Hellenism Spread Throughout Alexander’s Empire
Wherever Alexander or his successors went, they carried with them an intense desire to Hellenize all nations. They took with them Greek society and imposed it upon all their captive peoples. They spread Hellenism from one end of the new Empire to the other. Palestine was as much infused with the New Greek culture as any other nation.
The Greeks considered it their right to govern in the way they deemed most suitable. In consequence of this, the Greeks disbanded the official Sopherim, the religious guardians of the Law of Moses. They would not tolerate the Jews being taught a different way of life from their own. Hellenism was established throughout the whole of Palestine.
Sopherim No Longer in Authority
It is not known how the Greeks dismissed the Sopherim from their official capacity as teachers of the Law. But within a score of years after the coming of the Greeks, the Sopherim disappear from history as an organized body having religious control over the Jews. It is obvious that the Greeks took away the authority of the Sopherim and forbade them to teach. Whether this was done forcibly or by peaceful methods remains a mystery. But it is definitely known that their authority was very soon taken away.
Without the religious guidance of the Sopherim, many of the Jews began to imbibe the customs and ideas of the Greeks which were inundating the land. The Greeks were establishing their whole society firmly in Palestine and all the Empire.
“With the change from Persian to Greek rule, Hellenism made its influence felt, AND CAME POURING LIKE A FLOOD into a country which had known nothing of it. THERE WAS NO ESCAPE FROM ITS INFLUENCE. IT WAS PRESENT EVERYWHERE, in the street and the market, in the everyday life and ALL THE PHASES OF SOCIAL INTERCOURSE” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
When the Sopherim were removed from the scene, along with the teaching of the Law of Moses, and this new culture substituted for the Law, we can comprehend why the Jews began to absorb many elements of Hellenism. The Jews had no one to guide them in understanding the Law of Moses, except a few isolated teachers here and there who had no authority as the Sopherim.
It will soon be shown that after a few years of this influence, the people literally came to a state of religious confusion. Some were endeavoring to keep a form of the Scripture teachings, but with Hellenism everywhere, it became almost impossible to keep the true form of the Law of Moses. The Greek way of life was entirely different from that promulgated by the Scriptures, and the two were not compatible.
The human opinions of the Greek poets and philosophers, as well as the doctrines of the various heathen sects of the Greeks, were propagated among the Jews. Almost everything the Greeks brought to the Jews was antagonistic to the Laws of YEHOVAH God and, without the religious guidance of the Sopherim, many of them began to tolerate these innovations and even, as time progressed, to take up many of the Greek ideas and customs themselves.
Alexander Recalls a Vision
Josephus, the Jewish historian, records an interesting incident concerning Alexander the Great when he had conquered the Palestine area and was about to enter the city of Jerusalem. He was met on the outskirts of the city by Jaddua, the High Priest, with many inhabitants of Jerusalem. The High Priest was bedecked in his priestly robes and leading the procession of people who met Alexander.
Upon seeing the High Priest and the procession following him, Josephus says that Alexander recalled a dream he had had previously in which such a procession was seen with a person dressed in exactly the same attire of the High Priest leading it. Alexander reckoned that his dream was a sign to leave the inhabitants of Jerusalem alone. He entered the city peaceably with the High Priest and offered a sacrifice to YEHOVAH God. Afterward, he was shown the prophecy of Daniel 11:2-3, which revealed that a mighty king from Greece would conquer the Persian Empire. Josephus says that Alexander recognized that Daniel was writing of him. After reading this prophecy, Alexander became very glad and gave favors and gifts to many of the Jews. See Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 8, 5 & 6.
The prophecy of Daniel had more to say of Alexander and his Empire. In Daniel 11:4 we read: “And when he [Alexander] shall stand up [be in his power], his kingdom SHALL BE BROKEN, AND SHALL BE DIVIDED TOWARDS THE FOUR WIND of heaven …” This is exactly what happened! Upon the death of Alexander, his Empire was divided into FOUR SECTIONS. Each section was headed by one of Alexander’s former generals: Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Ptolemy.
The Palestine area fell to the Grecian Ptolemy of Egypt. However, the Seleucid kingdom on the north also laid claim to Palestine and had loyal troops stationed within the area. Neither kingdom was willing to concede that the other was the sole ruler of this territory.
In order to firmly secure Palestine to himself, Ptolemy of Egypt in 320 B.C. attacked the Seleucid garrisons stationed in it and conquered the country. However, the Seleucids took it back in 315 B.C. But again, the Battle of Gaza in 312 B.C. gave Palestine back to Ptolemy. There were many more skirmishes between these two kingdoms until the year 301 B.C. At that time, the Greek government of Egypt took final control of Palestine and maintained that control for a little over one hundred years — until 198 B.C.
Life Under Greek-Egyptian Control
This one hundred year period of Greek-Egyptian domination is very important as a period in the religious history of the Jews. This is the period that great and significant changes took place in the religious life of the Jews.
While in this period of Egyptian control, the effects of Hellenism upon the Jews were extremely great. What had been started by Alexander the Great was brought to its greatest degree of perfection among the Jews during this one-hundred-year period. The customs and traditions that had been handed down by the Sopherim were completely overshadowed by the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks as promulgated by the Egyptians. In plain language, the Jews during this period of Egyptian control, by the sheer force of environment and circumstance, surrendered themselves to Hellenistic ideas and ways of life.
“During the comparatively quiet rule of the Ptolemies [the Egyptians], Greek ideas, customs, and morality HAD BEEN MAKING PEACEFUL CONQUESTS IN PALESTINE. Their own inherent attractiveness, and the fact that they were supported by the authority of the dominant race, cast a glamour about them [the Jews] which made the severe religion of Jehovah [to Hellenistic minds], the simple customs and the strict morality of the Jews, seem barren and provincial. All the other peoples of Palestine Hellenistic Greek was the language of commerce and polite society. Greek literature was widely studied. Greek manners were the standard throughout southeastern Palestine” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 320, 321).
Everyone in Palestine was affected by the new Hellenistic culture. The Ptolemies of Egypt were anxious, following the example of Alexander the Great, to see that manners of the Greeks were implanted throughout their Empire. All phases of life connected with Hellenism were being practiced in Palestine during this period.
“It is safe to say that NO ONE, HIGH OR LOW, who was living in Judea in the period which includes the whole of the third and the beginning of the second century B.C., WHOLLY ESCAPED THE INFLUENCE OF HELLENISM …” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
Egyptian Rule Comes to an End
In 198 B.C., the Seleucid Kingdom on the north again came into Palestine and drove out the Egyptians.
The rulers of THIS kingdom were equally Hellenistic in their beliefs as were the Egyptians. However, the new ruler expected the Jews to follow their ways — and only their ways — of interpreting Hellenism. Only the Hellenism that supported the aims and customs of the Seleucids was allowed to exist.
Many of the Jews, after a century of Hellenistic influence, accepted this new enforcement of Seleucid Hellenism. About the only difference between the Egyptian Hellenism and that of the Seleucids was in the national aspect. The Seleucids demanded loyalty to THEIR rule and THEIR customs. The whole Hellenistic system was as much in effect among the Seleucids as with the Egyptians. In fact, if anything, the Seleucids were stronger in their Hellenistic convictions.
“A passion for Greek costumes, Greek customs, and Greek names SEIZED THE PEOPLE. Large numbers were enrolled as citizens of Antioch [the capital of the Seleucid Kingdom]. Many even endeavored to conceal the fact that they had been circumcised. To the horror of the faithful, HELLENISM SEEMED TO BE CARRYING ALL BEFORE IT … To demonstrate that he had LEFT ALL THE TRADITIONS OF HIS RACE BEHIND, Jason [the High Priest himself] sent a rich present for sacrifices in connection with the great festival at Tyre IN HONOR OF THE GOD HERCULES” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 324-325).
It is remarkable the extent of the paganism that the Jews were observing at this time. So strong did Hellenistic beliefs become, that the High Priest himself was offering sacrifices to pagan gods. Because of this a reaction began to take place among some of the Jews. Some of them could not bring themselves to go as far as the High priest. However, the vast majority had fallen under the sway of the Hellenism of the Seleucids as they had under the Egyptians.
The Prophecy of Daniel
The eleventh chapter of Daniel is the longest single prophecy in the whole Bible. It deals with events from the time of Daniel right up to the end of this age. The prophet Daniel in this long prophecy foretold that the Persian Empire was to fall. It was to be conquered by a mighty king from Greece (v. 3). That king was Alexander the Great. In the height of his glory he was to die (which Alexander did in the thirty-third year of his life) and his kingdom was to be divided into FOUR divisions (verse 4).
This happened exactly as foretold.
The prophecy continues the foretelling of Palestinian history by revealing in verse 5 that two of these four kingdoms would be fighting over Palestine for many years. Daniel calls the respective kingdoms, “the king of the south” and “the king of the north.” These two kingdoms were specifically the Egyptian kingdom (Ptolemies) on the south, and the Seleucid kingdom, on the north. This prophecy shows, over 300 years in advance, the exact political conditions in Palestine during our period of discussion. History proves that this prophecy gave the precise state of affairs that did exist.
Daniel did not stop in verse 20, however, concerning the political situations in Palestine. In verse 21 Daniel speaks about a “vile person” who was to arise in the kingdom of the north — the Seleucid kingdom. This person was to be most wicked and was to cause many terrible indignities to the Jews. Verses 21 through 39 describe the activities of this man. And, the prophecies concerning him were fulfilled to the letter. This king of the north — the vile person — was Antiochus Epiphanes.
Antiochus Epiphanes Appoints Jewish High Priest
In the year 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes obtained the throne of the Seleucid kingdom, and thereby assumed control of Palestine.
When Antiochus took over the Seleucid kingdom there was a reaction between several of the priests in Jerusalem who were contending for the position of High Priest among the Jews. Jason, the brother of the reigning High Priest, persuaded Antiochus Epiphanes to permit him to be High Priest in his brother’s stead. Because of the large sum of money he offered for the honor, Antiochus transferred the priesthood to Jason. The position of High Priest had dwindled to more of an aristocratic political honor. There was little regard paid to the Law of YEHOVAH God by these High Priests. Most of them were outright Hellenists. See Cyc. Bib. Theo. and Ecc. hit. vol. i, p. 271.
About three years later, however, a Jew, Menelaus, of the tribe of Benjamin (not from Aaron), offered Antiochus Epiphanes a larger bribe than Jason, and he was named High Priest instead. Because of this, Jason fled beyond Jordan to the Ammonites for refuge.
Many of the Jews thought that Jason had been unjustly deprived of his priesthood. A good number of the Jews in Palestine began to take sides — between these two men — some were for Jason and others for Menelaus. So hot did tempers become between these factions that a good deal of violence broke out between them. Actually, those on the side of Jason were fighting in rebellion against the recognized authority that Antiochus Epiphanes had set up. The High Priest, Menelaus, had been given his position by the Seleucid government — even though Menelaus had bribed Antiochus into giving it to him — and fighting against this authority constituted fighting against the dictates of the Seleucid Kingdom. See Antiquities of the Jews, xii, 5, 1-5.
The Jewish War for Independence
The Jewish war for independence from the Seleucid Kingdom has often been called the Maccabean Revolt. Some people have hastily assumed that this revolt was begun because the religious Jews wanted to rid Palestine of the pagan influences that had been in the land for one hundred fifty years or more. However, such was not the case. The Jews, on the whole, had accepted Hellenism to a major degree, as had all the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region. It was not the desire to eradicate Hellenism from Palestine that prompted the Maccabean Revolt, surprising as that may seem.
“The one rebellion which had been recorded in history as directed against Hellenism, that of the Maccabees in Judea WAS NOT, in its origin, A REACTION AGAINST HELLENISM. From the contemporary or almost contemporary accounts in I and II Maccabees it is clear that HELLENISM HAD PROCEEDED FAR INDEED, AND APPARENTLY WITHOUT PROTEST, before the insurrection began. VIOLENCE STARTED in consequence of rivalry between equally hellenized contenders for the high priesthood, AND RELIGION WAS NOT AN ISSUE” (Hadas, Hellenistic Culture, p. 43).
The revolt began when fighting broke out between the Jews on the side of Jason, the deposed High Priest, and those on the side of Menelaus, the High Priest appointed by Antiochus Epiphanes. It infuriated Antiochus that many of the Jews began to take sides against his appointed official — in fact, against the government! When a good number of the Jews gathered to the side of Jason, the real reason for the revolt, the desire for independence from the Seleucid yoke, began to be voiced. Religion did not enter in the controversy at first, for Jason was as Hellenistic in his beliefs as Menelaus. The insurrection began as a POLITICAL REVOLT for independence from the Seleucid Kingdom.
“The Maccabean uprising, at least in its initial stages, WAS NOT AGAINST HELLENISM BUT FOR NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE” (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, p. xiv).
Religion Becomes A Factor
However, religion was later brought into the matter. In order to get the whole of the Jews in a revolt against the Seleucids, the dissenters began to point to the heathenistic beliefs of the Seleucids and of Menelaus the High Priest, claiming that such things were anti-Jewish. Thus, the rebels brought religion into the issue, which they reasoned would serve as a mark of distinction between the Jews and the Seleucids. So, in various quarters the cries went up that the government was proclaiming policies that were fundamentally anti-Jewish — especially to the religious customs of their forefathers.
In 168 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes, while endeavoring by war to take over the Egyptian government, was forced by the Romans, after a humiliating experience, to withdraw from Egypt and to forget his plans of conquering that country. On his way back to Antioch, his capital to the north of Palestine, he determined to put an end to the rebellion that was beginning in Judaea.
Because the issue of religion had been brought up in the insurrection, and because many of the rebels were proclaiming that their struggle was for religious freedom, Antiochus Epiphanes in a maddened frenzy, determined to obliterate any vestiges of the religious customs of the Jews! He boldly repudiated YEHOVAH God and entered the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to the pagan god Jupiter. He set up an idol which he called the “lord of heaven” but which is referred to in the Bible as the “abomination of desolation” (Dan 11:31). He also offered swine’s flesh on the Holy Altar and polluted the Temple with all the indecencies he could perpetrate. He even turned the Temple into a center of prostitution.
Notice some of the things commanded by Antiochus Epiphanes in his desire to exterminate any semblance of the commands of YEHOVAH God. We find that many innocent Jews who had no thoughts of rebellion suffered many indignities as well as the guilty.
“By royal decree, the observance of the SABBATH or of the SACRED FEASTS, and practicing the rite of circumcision, WERE ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH. ALL COPIES OF THE LAW WERE DESTROYED. Heathen altars and temples were erected throughout Judaea, and every Jew was compelled in public to sacrifice to idols, swine’s flesh or that of some other unclean beast, AND TO PRESENT CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE THAT HE HAD CEASED TO OBSERVE THE LAWS OF HIS FATHERS” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 328, 329).
All women who had their sons circumcised were publicly marched around the city of Jerusalem and then thrown from the high walls to their death. One group of people who fled to a cave near Jerusalem in order to keep the Sabbath service were surprised and committed to the flames. Such things were everyday occurrences against the Jews who failed to abide by the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes. (Margolis, History of the Jewish People, pp. 137, 138).
Because of the outrages of Antiochus Epiphanes, many of the Jews became more than ever desirous of independence from the rule of the tyrant. Among them was Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers. They abhorred the actions of this crated ruler from the north, and not desiring to put up with the abuses that were being done to the Jews, they fled for refuge to the mountains of Judaea. While there, they gathered together many more of the dissenting Jews and formed an army. Their vow was to exterminate the foreigners from Judaea.
After a series of successful skirmishes, these men gathered more and more Jews to their cause. Surprisingly, in three short years (by 165 B.C.) they had defeated the Seleucids to such an extent that, for all practical purposes, their desire for an independent autonomous Jewish state was realized. The Maccabees became the leaders of this new state.
Why the Maccabean Revolt?
It should be remembered that this revolt of the Jews was not at first a matter of religion. The main reason for the insurrection was to establish an independent Jewish state.
“The Maccabean uprising, at least in its initial stages, was not against Hellenism BUT RATHER FOR NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE. And when independence, real or nominal, was secured, the object of the Maccabean principality was to hold its head up among other principalities that had arisen out of the ruins of the Seleucid Empire; there was NOTHING LIKE AN ANTI-GREEK PROGRAM” (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, pp, xiv, xv).
The majority of Jews had not been anxious to depart from their Hellenism. What they wanted primarily was their freedom from the foreign yoke. The matter of religion was really invoked to get the people united in one common cause — to drive the foreigner from Judaea. There was no real desire among the multitudes to get back to the Law of YEHOVAH God. And religion only became a major issue when Antiochus Epiphanes voiced his anti-religious decrees.
The Jewish historian, Moses Hadas, adequately describes the situation during the Maccabean Revolt.
“The standard of religion was raised in the countryside, and then served to rally the people to the cause. It was only after religion had become the battle cry of the rebels that Antiochus IV [Epiphanes] issued his decrees against the observance of central religious rites, and it is highly significant that as soon as the anti-religious decrees were rescinded the pietest group [the religious people] withdrew from the fighting. The object of the Hasmonaean [Maccabean] rulers WAS NOT TO PROTECT RELIGION … but to maintain a sovereignty … among others which were being carved out of the weakened Seleucid empire” (Hellenistic Culture, p. 43).
After independence was realized, the Hellenistic element still remained among the Jews. They had been so wedded to its influence for so long that it was an impossibility to remove that influence from them.
The authoritative Sopherim, the rightful teachers of the Law of Moses, were divested of all prerogatives. So thorough was the dissolution of the Sopherim as a corporate body that we hear nothing more of any of its members outside of Simon the Just, the High Priest who died in 270 B.C. (Aboth i, 2). Simon is described as the last remnant of the group. What happened to the remainder of these teachers is not known. It is obvious from the silence of history that the Sopherim, as the religious authority among the Jews, became extinct within about a score of years after the invasion of Alexander the Great (331 B.C.).
Wars Cause Political and Religious Disruptions
The series of wars over the control of Palestine between the Egyptians on the south and the Syrians on the north — both under Greek domination — created great political and religious disorder within Palestine. The land was attacked by invading armies no less than four times between 330 B.C. and 301 B.C. In the latter year, the land finally succumbed to the rulership of Ptolemy of Egypt (M. Margolis, History of the Jewish People, p. 128). Palestine remained under the direct control of the Egyptian government until 198 B.C. — just over one hundred years.
Notice that it was during the early part of this period of Egyptian domination that Simon the Just, the last survivor of the Sopherim, died (270 B.C.). WITH HIS DEATH A DARK CLOUD PASSES OVER ALL THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF THE JEWS. We are informed by Lauterbach, the learned Jewish scholar, that Jewish tradition knows of no religious teacher who taught any form of religion from the death of Simon the Just until about the year 190 B.C. (Rabbinic Essays, p. 196).
“This [silence] would have been impossible,” says Lauterbach, “if there had been any official activity of the teachers in those years” (ibid., p. 196).
Think of what this means! For a period of nearly one hundred years, approximating the time of Egyptian rule, there is no record of any religious activity among the Jews! This is the only period in the history of the Jews in Palestine of which NOTHING is recorded!
What all the factors were that caused the Jews to be in such a condition, cannot now be known. What we do know is that one of the major reasons was the influence of Hellenism — the culture of the Greeks — as propagated by the Egyptians.
This philosophy of life — Hellenism — was exerted upon all peoples subject to the Egyptians. It was taken for granted that all persons within Egyptian territory would follow the dictates of the government in this matter. If, however, any individual or group of people felt inclined to resist this Hellenistic culture, the government took matters into its own hands and compelled the people to do their bidding.
The Gift of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great had left, as a gift to his successors, the conception of Hellenizing the whole of his empire. His reason for this was strictly political. He fancied that all his subjects, being Hellenists, would represent a unified empire, not one of diverse ideas and philosophies constantly causing troubles with inevitable bickerings and strifes.
This same belief was existent in the subsequent divisions of Alexander’s Empire. Alexander’s successors saw that the continued dissemination of Hellenism would work to their advantage. This was certainly true in Egypt. Ptolemy — Alexander’s successor in Egypt — carried on the campaign of preaching this Greek culture to his subjects — and the Jews did not escape its influence.
It was impossible to avoid its influence. The Greek language was the language of commerce and social intercourse generally, and it became a matter of necessity to acquire fluency in Greek (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
By the constant hearing and speaking of Greek it was a natural consequence that the ideas which lay behind the language would become known, and in many cases, begin to be practiced. “There was no escape from that influence [Hellenism]. It was present everywhere, in the street and the market, in the everyday life and all phases of social intercourse” (ibid., p. 77).
The Jews, of all people conquered by Alexander the Great and his various successors, were seemingly the least likely to adopt the Greek culture. BUT THE VERY NOVELTY OF IT, THE VARIETY OF ITS NEW INTERESTS AND PLEASURES MADE IT EXCEEDINGLY ATTRACTIVE TO THE MAJORITY OF THE JEWS!
It is, of course, not to be supposed that every individual was naturally attracted to Hellenism. This was not the case. But, everyone was affected by it, some to a limited degree, while others became outright Hellenists.
“It is safe to say that NO ONE, high or low, who was living in Judea in the period which includes the whole of the third and the beginning of the second century B.C., WHOLLY ESCAPED the influence of Hellenism” (ibid., p. 77).
The ones especially affected by this new culture were, rather ironically, the leaders of the Jews — the chief priests themselves. Most of the other influential Jews, because of their positions, also fell under the sway of Hellenism. In effect, all the intellectually able individuals, who should have been leading the common people towards the observance of the Law of YEHOVAH God, were following after this culture as preached by the Egyptians. This is the reason no religious teacher of the Law is mentioned by the Jewish histories as having existed during this period of Egyptian domination. There simply was none — except perhaps an insignificant individual here and there who had no real effect on the people.
You can imagine what such a condition did to the religious life of the people as a whole! They were completely surrounded by the influence of Hellenism, having to incorporate it into their lives in order to carry on normal daily living, having no real teaching in the Law of YEHOVAH God and having their leaders completely devoted to Hellenism.
What was the natural result?
Lauterbach gives us the answer:
“There prevailed a state of RELIGIOUS ANARCHY, wherein the practical life of the people was not controlled by the law of the fathers as interpreted by the religious authorities, nor were the activities of the teachers carried on in an official way by an authoritative body. This chaotic state of affairs lasted for a period of about eighty years …” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 200).
See also Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, page 57. But this is not all.
The Key to the Understanding of Judaism
The recognition of this religious anarchy among the Jews during the Egyptian domination is the veritable KEY that explains the reason why the Judaism of the Messiah’s day arose. Had this religious anarchy not occurred there would have been no JUDAISM for the Messiah to contend with. If conditions remained as they were under the Sopherim, then the Messiah would have come to a people who were fully obeying the Law of Moses! But instead, we find a people who were practicing Judaism — the religion of the Jews — not the religion of Moses!
The knowledge of this religious anarchy gives us a KEY to unlock the doctrines and teachings of Judaism. History proves that Judaism evolved out of, and was directly guided by, the inherited principles of pagan life acquired during that religious anarchy! The very foundations of Judaism, its underlying principles, though later covered with a veneer of the Law of Moses, have their origin within this period of religious chaos!
New Laws and Customs Inherited
Now let’s consider how this period of religious confusion under the influence of the Egyptians brought about these significant changes in the Jews’ manner of living.
Being under the persuasion of an all-encompassing Hellenistic culture, and with no real teaching of the Law of Moses, even the most nationalistic Jew found himself of necessity practicing many of the customs and habits of the Hellenistic Egyptians. There was little the people could do about it under such environmental conditions. Hellenism was in all of Palestine, even in all the known world. There was no way of escaping it. Instead of openly protesting against the new culture, the majority of Jews had to accept it, in one way or another.
It is valuable now to quote two scholars who are recognized among Jews and others alike as pre-eminent historians, particularly for the period under discussion. Both of these men, Lauterbach and Herford, were fully aware of the chaotic conditions which existed in the Egyptian period.
Lauterbach mentions: “During the seventy or eighty years of RELIGIOUS ANARCHY, MANY NEW PRACTICES had been gradually adopted by the people” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 206).
Herford adds this: “In the absence of authoritative guidance, the people had gone their own way; new customs had found a place amongst old religious usages … new ideas had been formed under the influence of Hellenism which had permeated the land for more than a century, and there had been no one to point out the danger which thereby threatened the religious life of the people” (Talmud and Apocrypha, pp. 64, 65).
There must have been a few Jews endeavoring, in a limited way, to observe the Sabbath and perhaps the Sacred Festivals. But many of the Jews rejected the use of the Scripture and its teachings. It is even certain that the unknown few who attempted to keep some semblance of YEHOVAH’s Word on their own, imbibed new customs “amongst old religious usages.”
“The people who had now been in contact with Greek culture … ACQUIRED NEW IDEAS AND BECAME FAMILIAR WITH NEW VIEWS OF LIFE, other than those which they had been taught by their teachers in the name of the law of their fathers. The rich and influential classes accepted Greek ideas and followed Greek customs. The leaders of the people were no longer guided by the laws of the fathers, nor was the life of the people controlled solely by the laws and customs of the fathers as contained in the Torah” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 194).
Even Scattered Jews Affected
This condition of general religious anarchy among the Jews was not limited to Palestine. The Hellenic culture had been spread WHEREVER THE JEWS LIVED — throughout all of civilized Asia and in many parts of Europe. It was especially thoroughly implanted in Egypt. Wherever Jews were, they encountered Hellenism, its philosophies, ways of life and its religious customs and beliefs. There was no way of escaping it!
New ideas and customs everywhere supplanted the ones they had been used to under the Sopherim. The new luxuries and the extravagant habits of the Hellenists were attractive to the rich and influential Jews and the acquiring of Hellenism’s new manners for everyday living and public communication became an economic necessity for the common Jews.
Many Jews enjoyed the new culture, the new types of learning and philosophies of thought that came with it. The Greek philosopher, the Greek artist and the Greek man of letters became figures of great respect and admiration to the majority of Jews — especially of the learned classes. Almost everything that was Hellenistic became the object of imitation. The older customs were looked on as relics of antiquity that, if they were to be observed at all, had to be greatly modified according to the new methods of interpretation promoted by Hellenism.
“Greek culture, Greek literature, were thrown open to the peoples of Nearer Asia, and they pressed into its pale. They had native literatures [including the Scriptures], BUT THESE IN THE NEW DAYLIGHT LOOKED POOR AND UNFORMED: NOW THOSE WHO WROTE MUST WRITE GREEK, THOSE WHO THOUGHT MUST THINK ON THE LINES OF GREEK SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY” (Bevan, Jerusalem Under the High Priests, p. 37).
Virtually everything was changed to conform to this new way of life. EVEN THE SCRIPTURE, WHEN READ, WAS INTERPRETED IN THE NEW LIGHT OF HELLENISM (Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, pp. 62-64). The people abandoned the simple teachings of Scripture and modified or disregarded them, and in its place substituted the new customs and practices of Hellenism.
It is not at all amazing that within the space of a short hundred years that such a change could take place. The same thing has happened in the Christian world in the century following 1850 with the introduction of evolution and higher criticism.
The Jews in Egypt
At the beginning of Egyptian rule in Palestine, many thousands of Jews were carried captive to Egypt by Ptolemy I. These Jews were taken there as slaves to do menial tasks for the Egyptians or for garrison duty in Ptolemy’s army. But under Ptolemy II these Jews gained their freedom. Ptolemy II was inclined to favor the Jews as a whole AND HIS KIND TREATMENT PROMPTED MANY JEWS TO ACCEPT HELLENISM EVEN THAT MUCH MORE. As a result of Ptolemy’s clemency toward the Jews, many thousands of others voluntarily left Palestine for Egypt. The majority of these settled in Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt. In a very short time there were so many Jews in Alexandria that a full quarter of the city was Jewish!
Those Jews who went to Egypt abandoned the Hebrew language and completely adopted Greek. Alexandria became one of the centers of Hellenistic influence in the world at that time, and the Jews who resided in the city assimilated the Greek culture with even less inhibitions than their brethren in Palestine. In Alexandria there was virtual adherence to Hellenism’s doctrines by all the populace.
The Septuagint Translation
It was during this time of religious anarchy in Palestine and Egypt, that the Old Testament was corrupted and then translated into Greek. This first Greek translation is called the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament.
Tradition has it that Ptolemy II wanted to have a translation of the Jewish Scriptures made for his library. In the course of time, certain Jewish scholars were invited by Ptolemy II to accomplish the task. Thus, the Septuagint Version was born.
Needless to say, this translation abounds in Hellenistic interpretations. This Version was rejected by later Jews as totally unacceptable because of its variations from the original, inspired and authoritative Palestinian Hebrew Text and because of its inclination to improve” the text in order to please or displease as the case may be, its Gentile reading audience.
The translators of this Version thought nothing of adding to the text or of taking away from it whole verses and even whole chapters! No wonder the later Jews renounced this product of Egypt which was translated during the time of the religious anarchy.
Yeshua and Apostles Did NOT Use Septuagint
It has often been assumed that the Septuagint Version, instead of the original Hebrew Text, was the Old Testament of the early Christian Church. This is decidedly not the case.
It can be shown quite plainly that the Messiah did not set the example of using the Septuagint Version. It was his custom to quote from the original Hebrew scrolls (Luke 4:16, 17). Also, the Messiah referred to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible as THE SCRIPTURE (Luke 24:44, 45) — the Septuagint Version DID NOT contain these three divisional designations (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. I, p. 555). The Messiah NEVER referred to the Septuagint Version as the official Scripture to follow.
Some scholars have endeavored to maintain that the apostles used the Septuagint Version AS THEIR Old Testament, and that their Old Testament quotations in the New Testament were from the Septuagint. However, we are informed by Collett (The Scripture of Truth, pp. 142, 143), that of 263 direct quotations from the Old Testament, only 88 are verbal quotations that agree with the Septuagint. Does this prove the apostles used this Version? The answer should be obvious — it does NOT! And, out of 263 quotations, it is only rational to believe that 88 could have coincidentally agreed with the Septuagint Version. Both the translators of the Septuagint and the apostles used the Hebrew original from which they translated these quotations into Greek, and it is conceivable that once in a while the translations would agree. Instead of proving the apostles used the Septuagint as their Old Testament, this evidence proves just the opposite.
And, it is important to note that the Jews of Palestine, because of the variations in the Septuagint from the original Hebrew text, regarded the day the Septuagint was translated as a great calamity equal to the worship of the golden calf (“Sopherim,” i, 7).
For an extensive discussion on these variations, see Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. IX, pp. 533-554.
The Religious Anarchy Ends
When the Syrians assumed control of Palestine, the Jews were fully conscious that something new was taking place. It was this contrast between the Egyptian Hellenism they had been used to and the Syrian Hellenism which they were now obliged to follow, that shocked a few Jews into becoming cognizant that another way of life was possible — their old way of life — living by the Holy Scriptures! The Jews knew the Scriptures plainly did not recognize either form of Hellenism. New interest in YEHOVAH God and the religion of Moses began to revive.
Beginning of Sanhedrin
This new interest in the religion of their forefathers caused some of the Jews to reflect on the past in order to ascertain how their forefathers had been governed in their religious life. They recognized that from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to Alexander the Great, the Sopherim had been the religious leaders and teachers of the people. The Sopherim, remember, had disappeared from the scene — Simon the Just was the last of them.
Understanding that some organization like the Sopherim must exist if there was to be religious unity and the people properly taught the Law, the leaders of this new revival decided to meet in council with one another. Its avowed purpose was to direct those who were desiring to live according to the Law of their forefathers. This council became known by the Greek name, THE SANHEDRIN.
It is not clear when the Sanhedrin first began meeting. It must have been just a short time after the Syrians came into Palestine, perhaps about 196 B.C. or immediately thereafter (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 207).
The influence of the Sanhedrin was not great at first. Not many of the Jews recognized its authority or adhered to its injunctions. Yet, with its establishment, we can say that outright religious anarchy came to an end, even though the majority of the Jews were still greatly affected by Hellenism.
Fanatical Zeal of Syrian Hellenists
When the Syrians subdued the Egyptians in Palestine in 198 B.C., they brought to the Jews their own ideas concerning Hellenism. To the Syrians there must be nothing that rivaled their way of thinking.
Egyptian Hellenists had allowed the Old Testament to be used. The interpretation of it, however, must be by Greek methods — it had to be Grecianized. Thus, we have the Septuagint Version. BUT THE SYRIAN HELLENISTS WOULD NOT ALLOW THE OLD TESTAMENT EVEN TO BE IN EXISTENCE. Only Greek ways were allowed. No form of individual or nationalistic religion was allowed to exist that conflicted in any way with the doctrines of the Syrians.
The outstanding advocate of this philosophy was the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 B.C.
Antiochus Epiphanes was a Hellenist enthusiast, proud of his Athenian citizenship and bent on spreading Hellenic civilization throughout his domains. He built various temples to Apollo and Jupiter. He observed, and commanded his subjects to observe, all the pagan Greek festivities to the heathen gods. So fanatical was he in his zeal to implant his beliefs on all others that some of his contemporaries called him HALF-CRAZED (Margolis, History of the Jewish People, p. 135). He let nothing hinder him from realizing his desires.
A large number of the Jews readily accepted the newly established Syrian doctrine of complete surrender to the philosophies of Hellenism. Most of the Jews were thoroughly accustomed to much of the Greek culture anyway, and it was no hard thing to transfer allegiance from the Egyptians to the Syrians.
Yet, by the time of Antiochus Epiphanes other Jews had also begun to take a new interest in religion — the religion of their forefathers. This new concern for religion was beginning to spread among the Jews of Palestine.
When Antiochus Epiphanes heard that some of the Jews were rejecting his doctrines of total adherence to Hellenism, he began to persecute many of them. The persecution inevitably caused more Jews to side with the cause of religion. This stubbornness of the Jews infuriated Antiochus. He then began — in a fit of demoniac insanity — widespread persecution, committing heinous indignities against all those who would not conform to his ways.
Not all the Jews were in disfavor with Antiochus. Many of the wealthy and influential families, and specially many of the chief priests, wickedly supported Antiochus in his wild schemes. As the persecution grew more intense, a great many of the common people went against Antiochus. The result of this unparalleled persecution by this madman inevitably brought a further quickening interest in the Scriptures. Many began to take up arms against the Syrians. The cry went throughout the land that, in reality, this was a RELIGIOUS WAR and that the Jews were fighting for their Law and their God. This belief boosted renewed interest in fighting against Antiochus.
The Jews, in order to band themselves together against the Syrians, came to the side of Judas Maccabee and his four brothers. An army was formed for two purposes: 1) defeating Antiochus Epiphanes and 2) driving out the Syrians from Palestine. This army was quickly put into action. After many successful battles, in succeeding decades, this Jewish army managed to accomplish both things! Antiochus’ armies were defeated in 165 B.C. and by 142 B.C. the Syrians were completely driven from the land. Practical independence for the Jews resulted.
Religious Authority Re-established Among Jews
With the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 B.C., the religious history of the Jews enters a new phase. The Sanhedrin, which had been feebly established some thirty years before, was now OFFICIALLY DECLARED THE RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY AMONG THE JEWS OF PALESTINE. Being in virtual control of the land, the Jews were in position to re-establish the religion that had been in a state of decay for so long.
Now, for the first time since the period of the Sopherim, they had independent religious authority. The Sanhedrin took the place of the Sopherim in directing the religious life of the people. But, this governing body of men was to be greatly different from the priestly Sopherim.
During the period of religious anarchy before Antiochus Epiphanes, a fundamental change took place in the attitudes of the priests. Many of the priests were outright Hellenists and steeped in the pagan philosophies of that culture. Not only that, many of them had sided with Antiochus Epiphanes against the common people during the Maccabean Revolt. Such activities caused the common people to be wary of the priests and their teaching. There was a general distrust for anything priestly at this time.
A few priests had not allied themselves with Hellenism and Antiochus Epiphanes. But the large majority, in one way or another, were not faithful to the religion of their forefathers.
This general lack of trust for the priests led most of the common people to disapprove of their re-assuming their full former role of being religious authorities. Only those priests who had not been openly in favor of Hellenism were sought and allowed to take their former positions. The common people could not bring themselves to entrust the other priests with the right to help regulate the religious life of the Jews. Only to these faithful priests were committed chairs in the new Sanhedrin (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 209).
Non-Priestly Teachers Assume Authoritative Positions
Under Egyptian control, within the period of the religious anarchy, Palestine had no official teachers of the Law. A few individuals here and there endeavoured to study the Scriptures in a personal way. Without official teachers, the study obviously had to be personal and in private. The fact that a few independent students of the Law existed is proved by the few learned men who came to the fore with the establishment of a Sanhedrin. We are further assured of this when we realize that this new Sanhedrin, organized about 196 B.C., was composed of LAY TEACHERS as well as some priests.
“The study of the Law NOW BECAME a matter of private piety, and as such WAS NOT LIMITED TO THE PRIESTS” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 198).
This private study, without proper guidance from recognized authority such as the Sopherim were, brought about some surprising results.
(This is the same condition that happened in the Protestant Reformation. Many lay teachers arose, because the Bible was made available by the printing press, and many confusing and contradictory divisions arose amongst those who were coming out of the Catholic Church.)
Many of these Jewish teachers, likewise, because of their independent private study in the Scripture, were not in unity on many of their teachings. And, too, many of these teachers were variously affected by Hellenism.
“We shall therefore be not far from the truth if we represent the Sanhedrin, in the years from its foundation down to the outbreak of the Maccabean Revolt, as an Assembly of priests and LAYMEN, some of whom inclined to Hellenism while others opposed it out of loyalty to the Torah” (Herford, The Pharisees, p. 27).
The differing degrees of Hellenic absorption among the teachers, mixed with independent study of the Scripture, brought about a new variety of opinions. And, in the discussions that followed to determine which opinions to use, the LAY TEACHERS claimed as much right to voice their views as the priests. The lay teachers were assured of the common people being behind them.
“At the beginning of the second century these non-priestly teachers already exerted a great influence in the community and began persistently TO CLAIM FOR THEMSELVES, as teachers of the Law, THE SAME AUTHORITY WHICH, TILL THEN, THE PRIESTS EXCLUSIVELY HAD ENJOYED” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 28).
Such privileges that the lay teachers were usurping to themselves would never have been permitted while the Sopherim, the successors of Ezra and Nehemiah, were in authority. The Law of Moses, which YEHOVAH God had directly commanded him, clearly enjoined that the priests, with their helpers the Levites, were to perform the functions of teachers, not just any layman who would presume to do so.
Some of these priests were in the Sanhedrin and were willing to re-establish the religious life of the people, in accordance with the directions in the Law. But the new laymen, who had now also become teachers of the Law because of their independent study, were not willing to give up this new power they had acquired. Human reason insisted that they were as competent to teach the people as the priests.
Lay Teachers Reject Sole Authority of Priests to Teach!
When the Sanhedrin was re-organized after Antiochus Epiphanes, the lay teachers exhibited more power than ever before. The priests, who were under a ban of discredit before the Maccabean Revolt, were even more so afterwards. The lay teachers repudiated the claim that the priests had an exclusive right to be in authority.
Lauterbach says that these lay teachers “refused to recognize the authority of the priests as a class, and, inasmuch as many of the priests had proven unfaithful guardians of the Law, they would not entrust to them the religious life of the people” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 209).
This privilege, of assuming the role of the priests, was not a complete usurpation of every prerogative of the priests. They still were the only ones allowed to perform the ritualistic Temple services, etc. No lay teacher ever thought of taking over this exclusive position of the priests.
But from the time of the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin, after the Maccabean Revolt, the lay teachers became the important RELIGIOUS LEADERS.
Sanhedrin Faces Many New Problems
The establishment of the Sanhedrin was recognized as a necessity in order that there could be a resumption of some form of the religion of Moses.
“The members of this Sanhedrin took up the interrupted activity of the former teachers, the Sopherim, and, like them, sought to teach and interpret the Law and to regulate the life of the people in accordance with the laws and traditions of the fathers. But in their attempt to harmonize the laws of the fathers with the life of their own times, THEY ENCOUNTERED SOME GREAT DIFFICULTIES” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 105).
The people were keeping so many new customs, not observed by their forefathers, that the members of the Sanhedrin became perplexed over what to do.
It was not easy to find support from the Scriptures which might condone some of the practices of the Jews at this time. The members of the Sanhedrin began to look for ways of JUSTIFYING the people, rather than following the Scripture commands to correct them (Deut. 32:1-47).
“Many new customs and practices for which there were no precedents in the traditions of the fathers, and NOT THE SLIGHTEST INDICATION IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, were observed by the people and CONSIDERED BY THEM AS A PART OF THEIR RELIGIOUS LAWS AND PRACTICES” (ibid., p. 195).
The majority of the teachers in the Sanhedrin came to the conclusion that the proper thing to do was to find some way to authoritatively justify these new customs. They were well aware that they could not go to the Scripture for their support. This presented a troublesome situation to the Jewish teachers.
“The DIFFICULTY was to find a sanction in the Torah for the new customs and practices which had established themselves in the community …” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 66).
The only commands the Jews had from YEHOVAH God in this matter were clearly negative. “Learn not the way of the heathen” (Jer. 10:2).
“Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them [the heathen] … and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations [the heathen] serve their gods? EVEN SO WILL I DO LIKEWISE” (Deut. 12:30).
How to avoid these plain Scripture commands, and get these new customs sanctioned as proper religious observances? The teachers thought it would have been misadventurous to tell the people who wanted to retain these customs the simple commands of the Scriptures. The people were not about to give up these new customs. The teachers were assured of this.
What, then, did the teachers do to finally get these new religious customs and practices authorized and as having the sanction of YEHOVAH God? They came out with a most ingenious fiction which shows an amazing and clever display of human reasoning.
Teachers Pronounce Heathen Customs Jewish in Origin
The conclusion of the Jewish teachers may surprise you. They merely taught that all the customs and practices which the Jews were now observing were actually Jewish in origin!
“They reasoned this: It is hardly possible that FOREIGN CUSTOMS AND NON-JEWISH LAWS SHOULD HAVE MET WITH SUCH UNIVERSAL ACCEPTANCE. THE TOTAL ABSENCE OF OBJECTION ON THE PART OF THE PEOPLE TO SUCH CUSTOMS VOUCHED FOR THEIR JEWISH ORIGIN, IN THE OPINION of the teachers” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 211).
The Jewish teachers told the people that it was simply not possible for them, being Jews, to have inherited any heathen custom or practice!
Since the Jewish teachers accepted these customs as actually being Jewish in origin, it became necessary to carry the theory just a little further. The theory went like this: Since the customs were supposedly Jewish, then they must have been taught by the prophets and the teachers of Israel, even by Moses himself! That is how the customs and practices of the Jews, which in reality they had inherited from the heathen within the period of religious anarchy, were falsely termed the “traditions of the fathers” — handed down from Moses, the prophets and teachers of old!
These traditions Yeshua condemned.
There was, however, one difficulty for the Jewish teachers to overcome in this interpretation. There were no such customs and practices as these mentioned in all of Moses’ Law nor in any other part of the Scripture.
This did not dampen the spirit of the Jewish teachers! They also had an answer for this. They maintained that these customs were not put down in written form, and because of this, were not found in the text of Scripture. “These customs were handed down ORALLY from Moses,” was their assertion! “They were passed by word of mouth from Moses through every generation.”
By assuming that there was an Oral Law, called the “traditions of the fathers,” this freed the Jewish teachers from having to appeal to the Written Scripture for evidence to back up their statements.
“Accordingly, the teachers themselves CAME TO BELIEVE that such generally recognized laws and practices MUST HAVE BEEN old traditional laws and practices accepted by the fathers and transmitted to following generations IN ADDITION to the Written Law. Such a belief would naturally free the teachers from the necessity of finding SCRIPTURAL PROOF FOR ALL THE NEW PRACTICES” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 211).
These traditional laws — the Oral Laws — were not from Moses nor any of the prophets. There is not a single reference in the Scripture that Moses gave the Israelites any Oral or Traditional Laws that were to be handed down along with the Written Word. The Bible states just the opposite. It plainly says that Moses WROTE THE WHOLE LAW IN A BOOK. There was no such thing as an Oral Law of Moses.
“And it came to pass, when Moses had MADE AN END OF WRITING THE WORDS OF THIS LAW IN A BOOK, UNTIL THEY WERE FINISHED, that Moses commanded the Levites … saying, TAKE THIS BOOK OF THE LAW, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there FOR A WITNESS AGAINST THEE” (Deut. 31:24-26).
Moses wrote the Law in a book. And it was this written Word of YEHOVAH God that was to be a witness against the Israelites for future generations, not any so-called Oral Law.
Notice this confession of Dr. Lauterbach:
“These traditional laws naturally had no indication in the Written Law and no basis in the teachings of the Sopherim, BECAUSE THEY DEVELOPED AFTER THE PERIOD OF THE SOPHERIM” (ibid., p. 206).
In other words tradition originated in the period of the religious anarchy, when the Egyptians were in control of Palestine.
“The reorganized Sanhedrin had to reckon with these NEW LAWS AND CUSTOMS, NOW CONSIDERED AS TRADITIONAL because observed and practiced by the people FOR A GENERATION OR MORE” (ibid., p. 206).
We should not suppose that this theory of the origin of the Traditional laws was wholeheartedly accepted by all the teachers and members of the Sanhedrin.
Some Teachers Disapprove of New Interpretation
“The theory of an authoritative traditional law (which might be taught independently of the Scripture) WAS ALTOGETHER TOO NEW to be unhesitatingly accepted … THE THEORY WAS TOO STARTLING AND NOVEL to be unconditionally accepted” (ibid., p. 211).
The Jewish teachers who were the most prone to accept the new fictional interpretation were the lay teachers. Some of the priests were not quite sure this was the way of handling the situation. They maintained that the Sopherim of old had always relied upon the Scripture, and that they would never have countenanced such interpretations which completely side-tracked the Word of YEHOVAH God.
“In their [the priests’] opinion, the main thing was to observe the laws of the fathers as contained in the Book of the Law, because the people had pledged themselves, by oath, in the time of Ezra, to do so. If changed conditions required additional laws and new regulations, the PRIESTS and RULERS were competent to decree them according to the authority given to them in Deut. 17:8-13” (ibid., p. 209).
The priests, as a whole, declared that the Scripture was the only necessary code of laws to obey.
“This apparently simple solution offered by the priestly group in the Sanhedrin DID NOT FIND FAVOR WITH THE LAY MEMBERS OF THAT BODY” (ibid., p. 209).
The lay teachers, who outnumbered the priestly group, claimed the only way of reconciling these new customs with the Scripture was to recognize them as Oral laws handed down from Moses.
They began to formulate methods of explaining how these laws were ordained by Moses and transmitted to the Jews then living. Their explanations were not true, but they deliberately taught them anyway.
Lauterbach says that these lay teachers of the Sanhedrin devised the “methods for connecting with the Law all those new decisions and customs which were now universally observed by the people, THUS MAKING THEM APPEAR as part of the laws of the fathers” (ibid., p. 210). Notice, THEY MADE THEM APPEAR as if they were actual traditions of Moses!
Clever Answers to Opponents
The lay teachers had an answer for almost every question that an opponent might ask them concerning the validity of these Traditional laws.
If one would mention that Deuteronomy 4:2 forbade the addition to the Law, the lay teachers would readily admit that fact but staunchly affirm that the recognition of the Traditional laws was not adding to the Law of Moses. They claimed these laws originated with Moses and represented the complete revelation that YEHOVAH God gave him (ibid., p. 44).
If some opponent would voice the truth about the recent origin of these laws, the lay teachers merely declared that the laws were actually Mosaic but had been long forgotten and had just been recalled and reintroduced (ibid., p. 45).
And when someone would prove beyond question that these laws were nothing more than pagan practices, Lieberman paints out that in such cases the JEWS COULD MAINTAIN THAT THE HEATHEN WERE FOLLOWING JEWISH PRACTICES AND NOT VICE VERSA” (Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 129).
Such interpretations were absurdly extreme, completely unjustified and utterly false! How they managed to palm off such fallacious interpretations as actual truth can be understood only if we recognize that THE PEOPLE WANTED TO RECEIVE THIS ERROR. With the people behind them, the lay teachers could teach about what they wished.
“Certain religious practices, considered by the later teachers as part of the traditional law, or as handed down by Moses, ORIGINATED IN REALITY FROM OTHER, PERHAPS NON-JEWISH SOURCES, AND HAD NO AUTHORITY OTHER THAN THE AUTHORITY OF THE PEOPLE WHO ADOPTED THEM” (ibid., p. 241).
With the acceptance of these new customs and practices we can date the true beginning of Judaism as a religion! The opportunity of returning to the Law of Moses was rejected. From that time forward, about 150 years before the Messiah, we become familiar in history with the real Judaism — a religion which the apostle Paul calls the “Jews’ religion.”
Innovation of Precedents Which Helped Form Judaism
The acceptance of the “traditional laws,” supposedly handed down from Moses, placed the lay leaders in a position of power and authority among the people. It was the people themselves who had inherited the many new customs, and when the lay leaders condoned the customs, claiming them to be Jewish in origin, the people looked upon the lay leaders with honor and respect.
The lay leaders were quite aware that there was no truth in their assertions that these new customs came from Moses. But in order to please the people they deliberately propagated this falsehood. In consequence of their newly found authority, the lay leaders set themselves up as ultimate teachers in matters pertaining to every phase of religious activity. In the matter of accepting the customs inherited from Hellenism, they maintained their prerogatives, as religious authorities, to decide which of the customs to accept and which ones to reject.
“No one except the recognized teachers could say what the tradition contained” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 68). Of course, the customs to which the People were most wedded were necessarily accepted.
Many of the priests in the Sanhedrin objected to the lay leaders’ assumption of power and especially of their raising to divine law the new customs from Hellenism. The priests were also obstinate in their belief that the authority to rule should be accorded to them alone, for they properly maintained that they were the descendants of Aaron and the only ones recognized by Scripture to be in authority to rule over the people. But the lay leaders would not concede to the priests’ demands, and they had the majority of the people behind them. Too many of the priests had deserted to outright Hellenism in the anarchial period and the people were still wary of their tactics.
The Pharisees and Sadducees
The differences of opinion between the lay leaders and the priests caused a permanent breach between these two groups. The lay leaders, with the religious Jews on their side and believing in the traditional laws, gathered themselves together into one major group. The priests, on the other hand, who tended to agree with one another, gravitated into another group.
This breach between the two leading religious factions among the Jews was the beginning of two prominent New Testament Jewish sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The lay leaders comprised the Pharisaic group. Most of the priests represented the Sadducees. Members from both groups remained in the Sanhedrin, but they were almost always divided on policy.
It is not to be supposed that the whole Jewish population was anxious to get back to some form of religious observances after the period of religious anarchy. The great majority of people were not overly interested in religion. As stated before, 95% of the Jews in the Messiah’s time were not members of the Jewish sects. This lack of real interest in religion among the Jews in New Testament times had its origin within the period of religious anarchy.
THE JEWISH PEOPLE AS A WHOLE NEVER RECOVERED FROM THE CONDITION THAT EXISTED WITHIN THAT ANARCHIAL PERIOD. There was, of course, a limited amount of religious compunction, but not enough for the whole nation to become members in the sects of Judaism.
The Pharisees, however, did have on their side those Jews who were religiously inclined, but the majority showed varying degrees of indifference to the religious squabbles among the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, has this to say about these Pharisees and Sadducees:
“The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, AND ARE NOT WRITTEN IN THE LAWS OF MOSES; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our fathers. And concerning these things it is that GREAT DISPUTES AND DIFFERENCES have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side” (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, 10, 6).
Pharisees Repudiate Sole Authority of Priests to Teach Law
A major decision of the Pharisees was that of rejecting the sole authority of the priests to be the religious authorities. The Pharisees admitted that the priests were the only ones with the right to perform the ritualistic services in the Temple. But other than this minor role in directing the religious life of the people, the priests henceforth had little to do, religiously speaking. The Pharisees came to RECOGNIZE THEMSELVES as the only real religious leaders.
In assuming the religious leadership, the Pharisees reasoned that they were taking the place of the priests whom they considered unfit to govern the people on account of their rejection of the traditional laws.
Pharisees Reckoned Themselves as Prophets
Upon appropriating to themselves the religious authority among the Jews, the Pharisees thought themselves also competent to be the ultimate judges concerning all religious questions. This gave them, so they reasoned, the right to speak in the name of the Eternal even as the prophets of old had done.
“IT IS CERTAIN that they [the Pharisees] regarded themselves as the SUCCESSORS OF THE PROPHETS, and that not merely in fact BUT BY RIGHT” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 71).
The Pharisees contended, by their own statements, that they had been given the spirit of prophecy as had the prophets of old.
They had already accepted the new customs as divine law — and they reckoned that only individuals under the influence of the Spirit of YEHOVAH God could do such things! In the Jewish Talmud, a compilation of Jewish writings from the days after Alexander the Great to about 400 years after the Messiah, there are several statements of these early Pharisees in regard to their belief that they had the same authority as the prophets. In the talmudical tractate called Baba Bathra, in section 12a, we read this: “PROPHECY WAS TAKEN FROM THE PROPHETS AND WAS GIVEN TO THE WISE [the Pharisees].” To this remark is added: “AND IT HAS NOT BEEN TAKEN FROM THESE.”
Herford deduces from this particular reference, among many others in the Talmud: “The relevance of this passage … is that the Rabbis [the Pharisees] felt that they had, NO LESS BUT EVEN MORE THAN THE PROPHETS, DIVINE AUTHORITY FOR WHAT THEY TAUGHT, and that this was given to them after the time when the prophets ceased to function. It was the way of expressing the belief that the REVELATION DID NOT CEASE with the extinction of prophecy” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 72).
The audacious Pharisees considered their laws and commandments as having more weight than those of the Prophets! That divine revelation did not cease with the prophets, but was now in action in the Pharisees as well! They were confident that what they were teaching — even though in so many cases it did not agree with the plain and simple commandments of YEHOVAH God as revealed in Scripture — was divine teaching as prompted by the Spirit of YEHOVAH God.
The Pharisees felt that YEHOVAH was “revealing Himself now as He had revealed Himself to the prophets, AND SPEAKING NOT ALONE IN THE WORDS OF AN ANCIENT TEXT, but in words which came FROM THE HEART AND CONSCIENCE OF MEN who felt His hand laid upon them to ‘guide them into all truth'” (ibid., p. 69).
Notice this! The Pharisees came to the place of believing that YEHOVAH God did not reveal Himself in the Scriptures alone — “speaking not alone in the words of an ancient text” — but that He was actively revealing His present truth to the Pharisees through influencing their hearts and consciences! You can imagine what unlimited authority this gave the Pharisees among those who accepted their beliefs.
By appropriating the role of modern prophets, they maintained the right of free prophetic utterance. That is, they claimed the prerogative to speak the current will of YEHOVAH God without the necessity of appealing to the Scriptures. They did not believe they had to be shackled to the teaching of the Scriptures!
This opinion gave the Pharisees extreme latitude. They believed, as Herford puts it, “IN THE CONTINUOUS PROGRESSIVE REVELATION OF GOD, AND THAT HIS AUTHORITY WAS MADE KNOWN IN THE REASON AND CONSCIENCE OF THOSE WHO SOUGHT TO KNOW HIS WILL, AND NOT ONLY IN THE WRITTEN TEXT OF THE TORAH [the law of YEHOVAH God]” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 73).
The ideas and beliefs of the Pharisees originated in their own minds!
The Pharisees claimed that the Holy Scriptures alone were NOT SUFFICIENT to give the complete truth of YEHOVAH God — especially since environmental conditions change. To the Scriptures, they claimed, had to be added the so-called traditional law (which they determined to be the Word of YEHOVAH God).
There are Churches today who claim the same prerogative. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not derive its authority from the Bible. It rejects, in many cases, the plain teaching of Scripture to proclaim its own church doctrines.
“THEY [THE PHARISEES] UPHELD THE AUTHORITY OF TRADITION AS SUPERIOR TO INDIVIDUAL INTELLIGENCE, and taught that no Scripture should be of unauthorized, or private, interpretation” (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 203).
It is indeed amazing to what extent the Catholic Church parallels the actions of the Pharisees in this matter.
New Doctrines Taught Independent From Scripture
With the “feeling” that they had the spirit of YEHOVAH God guiding them, the Pharisees began to make more laws and commandments of their own, without appealing to the Scriptures.
The first Pharisee we have record of who began to teach new commandments of his own, without any Scripture basis, was Joseph ben Joezer. This Pharisee lived at the time the majority of the Pharisees erroneously accepted the traditional laws as the “Oral Law of Moses.”
Joseph ben Joezer made three new laws completely independent of Scripture. In fact, what he commanded was not only independent of Scripture but WAS NOT EVEN PERMITTED BY THE LAW OF YEHOVAH GOD. His commandments in themselves were not earth-shaking violations, but they were only the beginning of a new trend.
His first law permitted the Jews to eat an insect related to the locust family which all Jews previously had considered unclean! Also, he permitted the Jews to eat of the liquids of the slaughtering place (apparently blood, etc.). This, of course, was contrary to many Scriptures (Lev. 3:17, etc.). His last commandment concerned the touching of a dead body. He permitted persons to be ritualistically clean even if they were in constant contact with individuals who had become unclean by touching a dead body (Lev. 11:27, 31, etc.). For making all these new laws, which permitted people to do what had been previously forbidden in the Law of YEHOVAH God, he was named by his contemporaries “Joseph the Permitter.”
“Joseph is called ‘the Permitter,’ evidently because in all three decisions he permits things that were formerly considered forbidden” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 219).
These three new commandments were not the only ones to be enacted by the Pharisees. The action of Joseph the Permitter was the setting of a precedent! His commandments were a little reluctantly received at first, but the reluctance did not last long. From that time forward a FLOOD OF NEW COMMANDMENTS began to come forth from the Pharisees.
These new laws, which Yeshua called the commandments of men (Mark 7:7), the Pharisees called by the Hebrew name “Halachah.” This Hebrew word in English means “rule” or “decision.” It denoted a new rule of decision of the Pharisees. The term “Halachah” (or sometimes the plural “Halakot”) will be used in succeeding parts of this thesis series to denote the human commandments of the Pharisees.]
Now notice what Herford says concerning these three new commandments (“Halachah”) of Joseph the Permitter. “The Mishnah [a part of the Talmud] records three halachahs which were declared by him … but which evidently met with some objection and gave occasion to his colleagues to call him ‘Joseph the Permitter.’ This was because … he was able to declare THAT to be allowable WHICH TILL THEN HAD NOT BEEN ALLOWABLE, SINCE NO INTERPRETATION OF THE WRITTEN TEXT [the word of YEHOVAH God] HAD BEEN FOUND WHICH WOULD JUSTIFY HIS CONCLUSION” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 67).
These new Halachah of Joseph the Permitter were not customs or habits that had been inherited from the days of the religious anarchy. Or, to put it another way, these were not laws which the Pharisees claimed to be part of the traditional laws from Moses. These NEW LAWS were nothing more than commandments originating in the mind of Joseph himself. Notice what Lauterbach says:
“It is therefore evident that these Halakot … were not older traditional laws transmitted by Joseph as a mere witness, BUT JOSEPH’S OWN TEACHINGS. HE WAS THE ONE WHO ‘PERMITTED’ AND HE DESERVED THE NAME [the Permitter]” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 218).
Pharisees Adopt Precedent of Joseph the Permitter
Because Joseph the Permitter was one of the chief leaders among the Pharisees immediately following the Maccabean Revolt (168-165 B.C.), other Pharisees immediately followed his authoritative example and made new commandments or Halachah on their own. This method of teaching was not whole-heartedly accepted by all Pharisees immediately. It took about a generation to establish the new method of teaching firmly among the Pharisees.
If the majority of Pharisees agreed with the new commandments, they would then be accepted as the Word of YEHOVAH God — even if the commandments taught just the opposite from the teaching of the Scriptures. IT ALL DEPENDED UPON WHETHER THE PHARISEES, AS A WHOLE, THOUGHT THE NEW COMMANDMENTS WERE NECESSARY FOR THE PEOPLE TO OBSERVE.
This practice gave rise to the theory that new rules — though contrary to Scripture — had to be established to meet the needs of the changing times! Notice Herford’s summary of this whole situation:
“The lead which Joseph ben Joezer had given WAS FOLLOWED, but only gradually; and though the theory of the Unwritten Torah [the traditional laws] was finally accepted and worked out to its furthest consequences, as seen in the Talmud, yet those who most firmly maintained it WERE QUITE AWARE OF THE WEAKNESS OF ITS FOUNDATION. They knew that it cut the connection between the halachah [the rules of the Pharisees] and the written Torah [the Scriptures], and THEY KNEW THAT IN APPEARANCE, AT ALL EVENTS, IT GAVE THE TEACHERS FREE SCOPE TO TEACH WHAT THEY THOUGHT FIT” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 68).
Pharisees Viewed Scriptures as Out of Date!
Because the Pharisees considered themselves Prophets and able to give the CURRENT will of YEHOVAH God, they reasoned that in many cases the CURRENT will of YEHOVAH God may be completely different from His will as expressed in past times. They maintained that many of their new teachings, which were clearly contrary to the written Word of YEHOVAH God, were actually the PRESENT will of YEHOVAH. This is one of the reasons the Pharisees taught new commandments without Scripture proof!
The Pharisees were confident that as times changed and when the people would be under new environmental conditions that certain of the Laws of YEHOVAH God, as revealed in the Scripture would, of necessity, become obsolete and have to be changed. And, feeling that they had the power of prophets, they felt no compunction about teaching new commandments to meet the needs of the time, regardless of whether those teachings contradicted the Word of YEHOVAH God or not.
Herford shows us that this was the very attitude of the Pharisees:
“The written Torah was good for the age in which it was given, or in which it was first read; BUT THE WRITTEN TORAH ALONE COULD NOT SUFFICE FOR LATER AGES” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113).
With this attitude concerning the Scripture the Pharisees could always maintain that YEHOVAH’s will had changed in the matter — that He had revealed His present will to the Pharisees.
This is the very same philosophy that is pervading our modern Christianity! How many times do we meet with statements from the learned theologians of the various Christians’ sects saying the same thing today? Almost everyone feels that the Bible IS OUT OF DATE — IS OLD FASHIONED. Millions assume it is impossible to keep YEHOVAH’s laws and commandments in this “modern” age. Let us clearly understand that the Bible IS NOT OUT OF DATE. It can be obeyed, and in fact, it had better be obeyed! Let us not be like the Pharisees who rejected the Scripture. They received the stern rebuke of the Messiah. Let us, on the other hand, OBEY — live by — every word of YEHOVAH God (Matt. 4:4).
From this time forward, we see the development of the Pharisaical Judaism of New Testament times. All the many arduous and burdensome laws concerning the Sabbath — the laws of washing the hands, pots, pans, etc. — laws regarding fasting — and myriads of others had their development in the minds of the Pharisees between the year 165 B.C. and the coming of the Messiah.
Once we understand the basis upon which popular Judaism in the days of the Messiah was founded, we will understand why the Messiah so severely condemned the practices of the Pharisees and of the other sects!
Sects of Judaism
“Because the Jews represent the major non-Greek element in the eventual fusion it is important to observe that their reaction to Hellenism was INITIALLY NO DIFFERENT from that of other non-Greek peoples” (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, p. xiv).
The Jews, after the peaceful introduction of Hellenism by the Egyptians, accepted it almost totally. And not the least affected by this acceptance of Hellenism were former religious beliefs of the Jews. Changes were made in the Jewish religious services. The foreign influence was so strong and the religious inclination so weak that the period had been called, as we have before mentioned, a time of religious anarchy.
The very basis of Hellenism was the philosophy of “free-thinking”; the right of the individual to think and reason for himself. This philosophy of individualism was accepted by the Jews. The Jews, like their Egyptian rulers, began to think on their own in regard to the arts, sciences, religion, etc.
As with Hellenism in Greece, Syria and Egypt, so in Palestine, the INDIVIDUAL and HIS OPINION became important to the educated. The study of Scripture, when indulged, became more of a private matter and of individual interpretation, as it is commonly done today, rather than of collective interpretation from an authoritative body, like the Sopherim were. In most cases the Scripture became interpreted according to the prevailing custom of viewing everything in the light of Hellenistic “enlightenment.”
We find that during the period of religious anarchy there arose a number of individuals endeavoring to teach the Scriptures. These men were almost wholly laymen — the priests, on the whole, thought it not necessary to bother themselves with teaching or studying the Scriptures of their forefathers. At the end of the anarchy, we find these individual laymen establishing themselves, with a few of the faithful priests, into a body of religious authority among the Jews. However, when these men came together they brought with them many varying opinions of the Scriptures they had learned in independent study. Some of the laymen and priests had accepted much of the Hellenistic ways of teaching as well as many Hellenistic customs and practices. There were some teachers, however, who were less inclined towards Hellenism. Yet all these teachers in one way or another were influenced with Hellenism. There is no doubt of this (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
The differences of opinion among these various teachers finally evolved into the real beginning of the sects of Judaism. All of the sects can be shown to have had their origins within or immediately after the period of religious anarchy. And it is also important to indicate that ALL the sects which came out of that anarchy had some form of Hellenism attached to their beliefs. In fact, the various sects of Judaism can be categorized according to the amount of apparent Hellenization that each sect absorbed. There were some sects which embodied much of the Hellenistic spirit; others a moderate amount; but hardly one which absorbed little.
It will be profitable to briefly survey the sects of Judaism which existed in the days of the Messiah. It will be obvious that none of them were keeping the true and unblemished Law of Moses.
The Truth About the Essenes
The first sect to be dealt with will be the Essenes. This group is placed first because they represent the sect which consumed the greatest amount of foreign doctrine.
“Greek culture must have had a POWERFUL INFLUENCE upon Palestine since the time of Alexander the Great — it was not repressed until the Maccabean rising — it is only natural, if we find ACTUAL PROOF OF THIS INFLUENCE OF HELLENISM IN THE CIRCLE OF THE ESSENES” (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 218).
There were certain religious customs and beliefs of the Jewish sect of the Essenes which were totally Hellenistic in origin. For one, Josephus tells us they accepted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 5). He mentions this foreign belief of the Essenes in several places. Notice:
“For their doctrine is this: That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but THAT THE SOULS ARE IMMORTAL, AND CONTINUE FOR EVER … And IS LIKE THE OPINIONS OF THE GREEKS, that good souls have their souls beyond the oceans, etc.” (Wars of the Jews, II, p. 11).
Josephus goes on to say, speaking of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul: “And indeed the Greeks seem to me TO HAVE FOLLOWED THE SAME NOTION” (ibid.).
Notice that Josephus says that these Essenes taught their doctrine as did the Greeks. This doctrine is certainly of foreign origin, for no such doctrine is found in the Scriptures.
“According to him [Josephus], the Essenes had always professed the PUREST DOCTRINES OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY concerning THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL” (Renan, History of the People of Israel, vol. v, p. 56).
This particular teaching IS OF ITSELF PROOF OF THE INFLUENCE OF FOREIGN PHILOSOPHIES (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 214). And further, he says:
“If then only one sentence which he (Josephus) says concerning the anthropology of the Essenes is true, IT IS CERTAIN THAT THEIR DOCTRINE OF MAN IS DUALISTIC, i.e NON-JEWISH” (ibid.).
There is absolutely no doubt that the Essenes had accepted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul directly from Hellenism. This doctrine is completely foreign to Scripture.
Other Heathen Doctrines
The Essenes also adhered to the doctrine of asceticism — the doctrine of perennial self-denial of even the good things of life. This belief as a continuing custom is entirely alien to the teachings of the Scriptures. However, such practices were common among certain Greek sects and Egyptian philosophies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. ii, pp. 717, 720).
Because of this peculiar belief (which was condemned by the Apostle Paul in Colossians 2:23), the Essenes developed themselves into monastic orders and repudiated marriage (Wars of the Jews, II, 8, 2). In no place does the Scripture command an individual to withdraw into a monastery or nunnery and live a life of celibatic asceticism. In fact, the New Testament commands a person NOT to deliberately withdraw himself from society (I Cor. 5:9-10) and it teaches that marriage is entirely honorable and holy (Heb. 13:4).
Essenes Worshipped Toward Sun
While the Temple was on earth, the worshippers of YEHOVAH God prayed facing the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:28, 29). Daniel prayed three times a day in this manner (Dan. 6:10). The Temple in Jerusalem was designed symbolically, from its origin, to be the residence of YEHOVAH God, and the people were to sacrifice at the Temple and pray toward it.
The Essenes, however, omitted two requirements of YEHOVAH God which were obvious violations of Scripture. They refused to sacrifice at the Temple, or anywhere for that matter; and they did not face the Temple when they prayed. They worshipped and prayed TOWARDS THE SUN! (Wars of the Jews, ii, 8, 9.) This act was strictly forbidden in the Scriptures (Ezekiel 8:15, 16), but nevertheless, the Essenes turned their backs on the Temple and prayed towards the sun.
Relative to this esteem of the sun by the Essenes, Schurer writes that this clearly “leads to the conclusion, that they were in real earnest IN THEIR RELIGIOUS ESTIMATION OF THE SUN. However this may be, the very turning to the sun in prayer WAS CONTRARY to Jewish customs and notions, which REQUIRED THE TURNING TO THE TEMPLE and expressly repudiated THE DIRECTION TOWARDS THE SUN AS HEATHENISH” (The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec ii, vol. ii, p. 213).
To this, Schurer adds:
“Thus are we more and more driven to the view, THAT FOREIGN INFLUENCE COOPERATED IN THE FORMATION OF ESSENISM” (ibid., p. 214).
Essenism Was Extreme Pharisaicism
It must not be supposed that Essenism, or any of the sects of Judaism, were completely heathen in doctrines in all respects. This was not the case! What existed was a combining or a blending of pagan doctrines with certain teachings of the Scripture. The Essenes kept the Sabbath, circumcision, and many of the other customs common to the Jews. They also kept many of the traditional laws of the Pharisees. We are told expressly by Schurer (ibid., p. 209) that the rigid religious legalism of the Essenes and their punctilious care for ceremonial cleanness, were genuinely Pharisaic in origin.
The Essenes were, however, not a part of the popular Pharisee sect. They were entirely separate and on their own. They may, however, have represented a group that began as a division of the Pharisaic sect and broke away early after the religious anarchy ended. For even though there were many doctrinal differences between the two sects, there were certain similarities. Schurer again tells us: “Essenism then is in the first place MERELY PHARISAICISM IN THE SUPERLATIVE DEGREE” (ibid.).
The sect of the Essenes were actually more rigorous and exacting (if that were possible) than the Pharisees as a whole. They even went beyond the Pharisaic commandments in regard to being ritualistically clean.
“The Essene completely separated himself from the multitude and formed exclusive societies, in which similarity of disposition and endeavour afforded the possibility of realizing the ideal of a life of absolute ceremonial cleanness” (ibid., pp. 210, 211).
Thus, this extreme Pharisaicism led to asceticism and their other peculiar customs that most Jews completely disavowed. The Essenes went quite a bit farther than the Pharisees in accepting, outright, many of the customs of the heathen they learned while under Hellenistic influences.
“The doctrines of the Essenes were, however, tinged by FOREIGN INFLUENCE. In their neglect of the Temple sacrifices, and in their condemnation of wedlock, THEY DEPARTED from the full observance of the Law … THEY ALSO APPROACHED THE EGYPTIAN SCHOOL in their allegorical interpretation of many parts of Scripture” (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 210).
There is no question that the Essenes were recipients of many pagan doctrines — and many of them came from Egyptian Hellenism. Schurer again tells us that Essenism represents “a Judaism of quite peculiarly blended ultra-Pharisaic and Alexandrian views [and] appears in alliance with Pythagoreanism [a pagan philosophy] AND WITH MANY RITES OF EGYPTIAN PRIESTS” (ibid., p. 208).
It is clear that Egyptian Hellenism, the Greek philosophies inherited by Egypt, was the primary influence upon the Essene doctrines. Their teachings were certainly far from those of Moses.
“So Essenism can be understood ONLY WHEN REGARDED AS A BLENDING OF JEWISH AND GREEK IDEAS” (Ency. Biblica, col. 2011).
The Truth About the Pharisees
Like the Essenes, many of the Pharisees had adopted the pagan belief in the immortality of the soul (Wars of the Jews, II, 8, 14). This doctrine is plainly recognized by scholars, as has been shown above, to have come from heathenism, not from Scripture.
However, it seems as if the Pharisees were not willing to go as far as the Essenes in its complete pagan interpretation. Some of the Pharisees seem to have had certain reservations concerning the new doctrine. Josephus, himself a Pharisee and thoroughly acquainted with their doctrines, makes a vague distinction between the Pharisee belief and that of the Essenes. He says the Pharisees believed in an “immortal vigour” to be in the body; while the Essenes believed outright in the “immortality of the soul” (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 3 & 4).
There seems to have been doubts in the minds of some Pharisees in regard to this doctrine. However, it appears certain that most of them believed in it, but with varying degrees of interpretation.
Of course, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not taught in the Scripture. In fact, the Scripture teaches just the opposite. For example, we read in Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” See also verse 21. Clearly, a soul can die! And also, the New Testament teaches that only the Messiah has now immortality — no other man has (I Tim. 6:15, 16).
Who Were the Apocalyptists
The name denotes those who supposedly reveal “hidden truths” or “secret doctrines.”
There are extant several books written by these minor sects, or perhaps only by individuals, which show their peculiar beliefs or their prophetical expectations. These sects certainly differed from the major groups of Judaism. And they assuredly do not represent any large religious movements among the Jews.
“The Apocalyptic literature certainly represents an element in the Judaism of its time, BUT IT WAS AN ELEMENT OF VERY MINOR IMPORTANCE compared with those [the Pharisees, etc.] in which lay the real vitality and strength of Judaism. It is a fundamental mistake to suppose that the Apocalyptic literature can explain what Judaism really stood for, in that or any other age” (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 11).
The writings of these few individuals or religious sects were completely rejected by the Jews. Some of the reasons for their rejection by the other sects is because they were obviously contradictory with one another in many ways; they were at variance with the popular teaching of the Scriptures.
All of the writings of these Apocalyptists were written DURING or sometime after the period of the religious anarchy. Some were written even as late as the First Century A.D.
Their teachings on the whole, while having a Jewish basis, reflect men’s opinions and ideas which were absorbed from Hellenism. The teachings of the various books are extremely diverse. Strong elements of Hellenism are found in some, and in others to a lesser degree (Ency. Biblica, col. 2010, 2011).
There is no question that some of their teachings, even the manner in which some of them wrote, were directly influenced by Egyptian and Syrian Hellenism. Their teachings represent those of some individual teachers who, after the religious anarchy, began to teach their own religious beliefs independent of the Pharisees, but nonetheless, equally as erroneous.
“Traces of Syrian Hellenism, which had been implanted among the less educated masses, endured, and the victorious Judean people [after the successful Maccabean Revolt] harbored a growing semi-Hellenized crowd who had NEITHER GRASPED THE PURE HEBRAIC FAITH nor received the pure Hellenic spirit. This populace [certain leaders among them] FOSTERED THE APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE WITH ITS FANTASTIC AND YET SOMEWHAT MATERIALISTIC SPIRITUALITY, which, while it was largely an expression of the Hebraic mind and a development of the prophetic vision, SHOWS A MARKED IMPRESS OF FOREIGN DOCTRINE” (Bentwich, Hellenism, p. 335).
The principles behind the apocalyptic literature are an infusion of certain Jewish beliefs with Hellenism. All of the writings of these minor sects, or perhaps only individual writers, were quite varied and contradictory.
“The aspect that that literature presents is of so diversified a character that it is difficult to combine all the DIFFERENT ELEMENTS into one connected whole” (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. iii, p. 1).
Were These Groups Akin to the Essenes?
Because so many of the doctrines of the writers of these various books seem to show a near kinship to certain Essenistic beliefs, some scholars have endeavored to show that the authors were undoubtedly part of that group (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. i, p. 164). This may well be the case. Josephus mentions that the Essenes were fond of keeping “secret” books that related doctrines only the initiated could know (Wars of the Jews, ii, 8, 7). At least we are assured that these sects who wrote the various apocalyptic books were closer in doctrine to the Essenes than any other religious group among the Jews. They were not Pharisees; this much is certain!
“Those who really do know the Pharisaic literature, INCLUDING ALL THE GREAT JEWISH SCHOLARS, agree in the view that the Apocryphal and Apocalyptic writings represent a type (or types) of Judaism DIFFERENT from the Pharisaic type” (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 123).
The Truth About the Sadducees
The Sadducees completely rejected the traditions of the elders. They maintained that the Scripture alone was sufficient for religious truth (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 209). In this connection, the Sadducees were certainly right.
The actions of the Sadducees against the erroneous opinions of the Pharisees seemingly puts them in a good light — as though they were zealously upholding the Law of YEHOVAH God and His divine truth. However, the Sadducean position was not as roseate as it may appear on the surface. There were real reasons behind the Sadducees’ apparent stand for the acceptance of only the Scripture, and those reasons were not always out of honor for the Scripture or even YEHOVAH God.
Can we say the Sadducees respected the Scripture when many of the plain teachings of the Word of YEHOVAH God they openly renounced? They clearly rejected the Scripture teaching of the resurrection; they did not believe in angels nor spirits. Yet the Scriptures taught these truths! (See Job 14:4; Eze. 37:1-14; Dan. 12:1-3; Exo. 14:19; Dan. 6:22; I Sam. 18:10, etc.) To reject such fundamental doctrines as the resurrection and the existence of the spirit world, shows that the Sadducees did not hold the Scripture teaching in very high esteem.
Why Sadducees Rejected Traditions of Elders
It will come as a surprise to many people to realize that the reason the majority of Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic traditions of the elders, so-called, was NOT because of a reverence for the Scripture and an abhorrence for heathen customs. Their motive for rejecting these new religious laws, in reality, was on account OF THEIR LACK OF INTEREST IN RELIGION. They did not care for ANY MORE religious laws than were necessary.
It is clearly known that the majority of Sadducees were not zealous for religion. Their main interest lay in securing for themselves political positions of power among the influential people in Palestine — they reverenced the gaining of wealth and power more than anything else. They did not want to subject themselves to any of the religious laws of the Pharisees, nor [even] of the Scripture, as we will soon see. The Sadducees represented the “worldly-minded” sect of the Jews — not especially interested in religion. (Almost every society has had or presently has such religious sects, and the Jews were no exception.)
“They [the Sadducees] saw in the traditions of the elders an excess of legal strictness which they refused to have imposed upon them, while the advanced religious views [of the Pharisees] were, on the one hand SUPERFLUOUS TO THEIR WORLDLY-MINDEDNESS, and on the other, inadmissible by their higher culture and enlightenment” (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 41).
The Sadducees simply did not want to be burdened with more religious laws. They thought the Laws of Scripture were certainly enough, without adding more! And, in fact, sometimes, if the Scripture did not teach what they wanted, they would even disallow it.
“The Sadducees, with the easy indifference of men of the world, finding that THERE WAS QUITE ENOUGH IN THE LAW FOR THEM TO OBEY, denied that there was anything obligatory outside the Books of Moses (Renan, History of the People of Israel, vol. 5, pp. 41, 42).
With their rejection of the traditions of the elders and their acceptance of only the Scripture, it is not to be supposed that they were interested in getting the people back to the religion of Moses or in bringing the people to a proper reverence for the Scripture. They were willing to accept just what they had to, in order to retain THEIR political positions among the rich and wealthy of Jerusalem (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 10, 6).
“Their whole doctrinal position GAVE THEM LIBERTY TO FOLLOW THEIR DESIRES FOR POLITICAL POWER AND WORLDLY SATISFACTION. Hence they had a DEEPER INTEREST IN SUSTAINING THE POWER OF THE REIGNING PRINCE [whether Jewish or Roman] THAN IN MAINTAINING THE OBSERVANCES OF MOSES” (Riggs, A History of the Jewish People, p. 111).
While on the surface it may have seemed like the Sadducees were a little closer to the truth, because they maintained that the Scripture was sufficient Law to have, yet the fact is, they were just as far away from the truth — even farther! While the Sadducees blamed the Pharisees for not adhering to Scripture for their doctrines, they themselves were rejecting doctrine after doctrine of plain Scripture. They were no more following the complete directions of the Scriptures than were the Pharisees.
Sadducees Reject Other Scripture Teaching!
Throughout the Scriptures we are distinctly shown by prophecies and by examples that YEHOVAH God at certain times intervenes in the affairs of individuals and of nations. There are multitudes of prophecies which show that YEHOVAH is very soon going to personally intervene in the affairs of mankind. See, for example, the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
But the Sadducees believed not a word of this! They believed that YEHOVAH did not direct the mind of man in any form or manner — all things that happened were he result of man’s own doing, YEHOVAH never intervened!
“And for the Sadducees, they take away fate [the determination of God], and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its [God’s] disposal; but they suppose that ALL our actions are in our power, so that we are ourselves the cause of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly” (Antiquities of the Jews, xiii, 5, 9; Wars of the Jews, ii, 14).
The Sadducees were wrong in this! In the Scripture it shows that YEHOVAH God at times directs individuals and nations to do certain duties (Isa. 10:13-15, etc.). Of course, not every single action an individual does is being determined by YEHOVAH (Eccl. 9:11). The Pharisees, in this case, understood correctly that YEHOVAH God intervenes in the affairs of mankind when He considers it necessary for the carrying out of His plan, but on the whole, mankind’s actions are his own (Antiquities of the Jews, xiii, 5, 9).
The Sadducees certainly did not have belief in many truths of the Scripture. By disbelieving in the resurrection, disbelieving in the spirit world and also rejecting the fact that YEHOVAH God ever intervenes in the affairs of man, they show clearly that they had little regard for the Word of YEHOVAH God.
“They [the Sadducees] were very nearly free-thinkers, and in all cases were men of little religion, mere worldlings. Their wisdom was all worldly. The doctrines attributed to them by Josephus, concerning liberty and divine Providence [that is, the lack of divine Providence], are interpretations or compromises after the Greek fashion. For them all [the Sadducees] this was only an attempt to reduce the supernatural to its minimum, a process for eliminating God” (Renan, History of the People of Israel, vol. v, p. 40).
As pointed out by Schurer: ‘”THEIR INTERESTS WERE ENTIRELY IN THIS WORLD, AND THEY HAD NO SUCH INTENSIVELY RELIGIOUS INTEREST AS THE PHARISEES” (The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 39).
Brief History of the Sadducees!
When religious authority was again established among the Jews after the period of religious anarchy, the Pharisees were anxious for the people to start living a religious life, even though they brought into their religion many of the new customs from Hellenism. However, the majority of Sadducees made no real attempt to return to religion. They certainly saw no reason for accepting the many new customs as extra religious duties to perform.
The majority of Sadducees were priests (Cycl. of Bib. Thee. and Ecc. Lit., vol. ix, p. 238) who had been ordained of YEHOVAH God to teach the people the Scriptures. The forefathers of the priests, the Sopherim, were entirely faithful in their appointed task. But the majority of priests after the period of religious anarchy MADE NO ATTEMPT to teach the people the Scriptures. One of the main reasons for their attitude was because most of them had been out-and-out Hellenists! (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, pp. 77, 78). Among all the Jews in Palestine, the priests had become the most Hellenistic.
After the religious anarchy, when the lay leaders, the Pharisees, began to exert an influence over the people, they “refused to recognize the authority of the priests as a class, and inasmuch as many of THE PRIESTS HAD PROVEN UNFAITHFUL GUARDIANS OF THE LAW, they would not entrust to them the religious life of the people” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 209).
Thus, many of the priests joined with, or rather comprised the sect of the Sadducees, which, in all principles, rivaled the Pharisees. The origin of the priestly sect of the Sadducees was actually prompted as a reaction to the Pharisees’ taking over much of the religious control of the Jewish people. The Sadducean sect was not formed because of any endeavor on the part of the priests to return to the original Law of Moses; nor did the priests attempt to gain the people to accept only the Scriptures as Law. This sect evolved as merely a reaction to the assumption of power by the lay Pharisees.
Many Priests Continue in Hellenism
After assimilating much of the “higher culture and enlightenment” of Hellenism, the priests were not altogether ready to disengage themselves from it. Even after the religious anarchy, many of the priests retained their love for the culture.
The Sadducees actually represented the division of the Jews which continued a reverence for the ETHICAL VIEWS of Hellenism. It is true that they did NOT hold to the many RELIGIOUS DOCTRINES of the pagan cults of Hellenism, but they did retain many of the social aspects of the culture. It was almost imperative that they did, so the Sadducees thought, for they were in constant contact with the political powers in Jerusalem who found it necessary to adhere to much of the Hellenistic beliefs in order to carry on matters of state with the other countries around. Thus, many of the priests did not completely repent of their secular Hellenism, even though on the religious side they acknowledged the Scriptures as the only Law.
“They [the Sadducees] made, however, THE OPEN DOOR THROUGH WHICH GREEK INFLUENCES CAME BACK INTO THE LAND, and, as another has tersely said, ‘the antagonism between them and the Pharisees was really A SECONDARY VERSION of the old feud BETWEEN THE HELLENISTS AND THE HASIDEANS'” (Riggs, A History of the Jewish People, p. 111). The Hasideans were those Jews of the Maccabean Revolt who maintained a zeal for religion, and, of course, the Hellenists were the Jews, many of them priests, who had no interest in religion.
It is clear that this comparison is correct. The Sadducees were simply the remnants of the Hellenists who cared nothing for religion, while the Pharisees were descendants of the religionists — the Hasideans.
“Politically, the Sadducees were, as a party, OPEN TO FOREIGN INFLUENCES, and it was through them THAT HELLENIC CULTURE SPREAD IN ISRAEL” (The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, p. 134).
In other words, the Sadducees were really secular Hellenists. Their acceptance of the Scripture as the only code of Law, even though they rejected much of its teachings, was really out of spite to the Pharisees who accepted the so-called traditions of the elders. The Sadducees saw no need of being overly religious by the acceptance of burdensome customs and rites.
“THEIR INTERESTS WERE ENTIRELY IN THIS WORLD, AND THEY HAD NO SUCH INTENSIVELY RELIGIOUS INTEREST AS THE PHARISEES” (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 39).
They had no desire to practice real religion, neither did they think it necessary to teach the people the Laws of YEHOVAH God. Even though the majority of Sadducees were priests, and were ordained of YEHOVAH God to instruct the people in righteousness, they totally renounced their responsibility.
“Such as they were, the Sadducees had little or no direct influence upon the mass of the people, nor did they seek to have. They made no effort to teach the people, presumably because THE THOUGHT OF DOING SO NEVER ENTERED THEIR MINDS” (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 122).
“We shall perhaps be not far wrong if we represent the Sadducees as holding the ancestral religion MAINLY AS AN INHERITANCE and NOT AS A LIVING REALITY … It is in accordance with this view that THEY DID NOTHING TO ENLARGE THE MEANING OR INCREASE THE INFLUENCE OF THE TORAH as the Pharisees did” (ibid., p. 121).
The Sadducees made no attempt whatever, that we have record of, to make the Scriptures known to the people or to carry out their God-given function of instructing the people in the Law. They did not see the importance of it! In fact, they were even willing to sacrifice the Laws of Scripture if they could gain politically from it.
“They were the LESS RESTRAINED BY ANY RELIGIOUS SCRUPLES from engaging in public affairs WHICH INVOLVED SOME AMOUNT OF COMPROMISE WITH GENTILES” (ibid., p. 122).
Thus, Schurer adequately describes the Sadducees as pre-eminently having “A RECESSION OF THE RELIGIOUS MOTIVE” rather than a zealousness for the Scriptures (The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 39).
What You Should Remember About the Sects
It becomes quite obvious, when the truth is known, that the sects of Judaism were not really teaching the Law of Moses. What all of them had done, in one degree or another, was to blend many pagan customs and beliefs, along with various man-made opinions, with the Law of Moses and then endeavored to teach their contradictory doctrines as the truth of YEHOVAH God.
The Pharisees had accepted many customs of the heathen as so-called traditional laws from Moses. They had also enacted many of their own commandments which by-passed the commands of the Scripture and in fact, the Pharisaic commands even annulled, in many cases, the plain commandments of YEHOVAH God.
The Sadducees were disinterested in religion! The only reason, in reality, that they had any connection with religion at all was because most of them were priests who had the hereditary right to minister in the Temple and to have an association with the religious life of the people. They maintained their hereditary religious right mainly for political purposes in order for them to more easily pursue their worldly-minded aspirations, not out of any desire to teach the people the truth of YEHOVAH God.
The Essenes had accepted many heathen customs and beliefs without reservation. Almost all their doctrines were antagonistic to the Law of Moses.
The writers of the Apocalyptic books also show, in varying degrees, an impress of foreign doctrines and philosophies. All of the books are different from one another and represent the contradicting opinions of certain individuals or minor sects. The writers of the Apocalyptic books were probably, in one way or another, connected with the Essenes.
Thus, all the religious sects of the Jews can be adequately shown to be schismatic deviations from the pure and simple Law of Moses. They were all affected by the beliefs that were encountered by the Jews during the period of religious anarchy when Egyptian and Syrian Hellenism were rampant throughout Palestine.
The combined numbers of the Jews who belonged to the religious sects of Judaism, however, numbered less than 5% of the total Jewish population of Palestine in the days of the Messiah. The great majority, the Common People, were not overly interested in religion. From the time of the religious anarchy, there was never any real collective religious authority among the Jews like the Sopherim. All the people went their own ways. The majority never got back to religion as during the days of the Sopherim. Outside of a nominal adherence to some basic forms of religion, the masses were not zealously concerned. And, there can be no doubt that the confusing and contradictory examples of the various sects were discouraging to the populace. Truly, the Messiah came to a people who had no shepherd to guide them into the truth of YEHOVAH God (Matt. 9:36).
The Pharisees represented by far the major part of Judaism and its beliefs in Yeshua’s day. The other sects were of much less prominence during the time of the Messiah, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the other sects virtually disappear from Judaism. The most important denomination to study is Pharisaicism — the heart and core of Judaism.
The Jews originally used Scripture to interpret Scripture. This was and is the only method to use for a proper understanding of YEHOVAH’s Word. We today are told to use this very method if we are to understand the true doctrines of YEHOVAH God. See Isaiah 28:9, 10.
With the introduction of the so-called traditional laws of the elders by the Pharisees, a NEW method of teaching had to be used in order to teach these new laws. The Scripture could no longer be used to teach the new traditional laws for there was no indication of them in the Word of YEHOVAH God. The Jews therefore adopted what has become known as the “Mishnah-form.”
The Mishnah-Form of Teaching
The word “Mishnah,” in Hebrew, means literally “second!” The Mishnah-form of interpretation means “the second-form.” The true Scriptural form was to the Jews the “first-form” or the one used by Moses and the prophets. But all of the traditional laws of the Pharisees were accepted by appealing to the new Mishnah-form. When the Mishnah-form was used, it was not necessary to appeal to Scripture for proof; the authority of the teacher or teachers who issued new commandments independent of Scripture was assumed sufficient to consider them to be the Word of YEHOVAH God.
Mishnah-Form of Interpretation Used Sparingly — At First!
The first use of the Mishnah-form by the Pharisees was in their acceptance of the so-called traditional laws the customs inherited from Hellenism. The Pharisaic leaders were forced to recognize these new customs as proper religious practices, for they knew the people would not give them up.
The Pharisees did not first invent the Mishnah-form and then use it to teach the traditional laws. Just the opposite occurred. The acceptance of the new customs from Hellenism, without any Scripture proof, brought the Pharisees to realize they were teaching IN A NEW FORM NOT PREVIOUSLY USED. The Pharisees recognized that they had begun to use a new method of teaching by accepting the traditional laws without Scripture proof.
“FINDING NO CONVINCING PROOFS FOR SUCH LAWS IN THE BIBLE, THEY TAUGHT THEM INDEPENDENTLY OF SCRIPTURAL PROOF i.e. IN THE MISHNAH-FORM” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 229).
Though all the Pharisees agreed that the traditional laws had to be accepted, many of them were reluctant about perpetuating the new form of teaching. Many of the early Pharisees thought that the use of the Mishnah-form was proper in admitting the traditional laws into the religious requirements of the Jews, but they did not want to see its indiscriminate use in the future. It was obvious that the use of this new form could bring about multitudes of new traditions — all of them without Scripture proof.
The inevitable happened!
Instead of the Mishnah-form being discarded after the traditional laws had been brought to the place of divine law, its use was increased. You will remember that Joseph ben Joezer, called “the Permitter,” issued three new laws which were completely devoid of Scripture proof. These three laws were enacted by using the Mishnah-form! His laws were the first ones to be enacted after the traditional law became a part of Pharisaic belief.
Lauterbach tells us that many of the Pharisees did not appear overly enthusiastic when Joseph ben Joezer introduced his teaching in the new Mishnah-form.
“When he [Joseph ben Joezer] used new methods of interpretation for the first time, his colleagues hesitated to follow him …” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 228).
The Pharisees knew full well that it was wrong to use the so-called Mishnah-form for making laws. Even though they had all accepted the customs of the heathen, by using this form, some of them balked at making further laws without any Scripture backing at all. However, this reluctance did not last long! The very fact that the Pharisees considered themselves as having the spirit of prophecy — having the power to teach the current will of YEHOVAH God, gave them incentive to further utilize this new teaching occasionally, especially since they had the precedent of Joseph ben Joezer. Thus, after the time of Joseph ben Joezer, we find the Mishnah-form being used more and more as time progressed.
These subsequent teachings of the Pharisees were termed “traditions of the elders.”
By the time of the Messiah, the Pharisees had developed the Mishnah-form so extensively that they were teaching for doctrines hundreds of commandments of men without the slightest backing of Scripture (Mark 7:7).
“THEY INSISTED THAT THEIR DECISIONS MUST BE ACCEPTED AS AUTHORITATIVE …” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 235).
If anyone would oppose them, such as the Sadducees or other groups, when the Pharisees taught their laws independently of Scripture proof, the Pharisees would haughtily maintain that they did not need the Scripture to back them up. They felt they could teach in the Mishnah-form any time they pleased and needed no Scripture proofs for their teachings.
It is difficult to believe that men who claimed to be the servants of YEHOVAH God would resort to such deductions. But the Pharisees did!
AND TODAY THERE ARE MANY CHURCH DENOMINATIONS CLAIMING TO BE CHRISTIAN WHICH DO THE VERY SAME THING. There are millions of people, calling themselves Christian, who feel they do not have to keep the Words of the Bible, but rather must obey the words of their religious leaders who teach many doctrines completely contrary to the Bible.
There are millions of people in the world today who are no better than the Pharisees. Many church denominations today use the same Mishnah-form of interpretation (not using the Scripture for their doctrines), just like the Pharisees did before and during the days of the Messiah. The Messiah condemned the Pharisees for teaching as true doctrines the commandments of men (Mark 7:7). The Jews THEN — as many NOW — knowingly taught their new laws and commandments “ON THE AUTHORITY OF THEIR OWN REASON AND CONSCIENCE, AND NOT BY SEEKING THEIR AUTHORITY IN THE WRITTEN TEXT [the Bible]” (ibid., p. 70).
If we are the children of YEHOVAH God, we had better be obeying EVERY word of YEHOVAH as the Messiah commanded (Matt. 4:4).
The Pharisees had their chance to follow the Scriptures before they accepted the customs of the people that had been inherited from Hellenism. But to please the populace as a whole, they adopted the new customs and rejected the Word of YEHOVAH God which commanded them not to do such things (Jer. 10:1-4). The Word of YEHOVAH God was rejected, and in its place was instituted the religion of Judaism.
Lauterbach tells us why the Pharisees had to practically abandon the older method of teaching that was used by Ezra, Nehemiah and the Sopherim — termed the Midrash-form. Notice what he says:
“The exclusive use of the Midrash-form threatened to endanger the authority and teachings of the Pharisees. These apprehensions caused the Pharisaic teachers to make more extensive use of the Mishnah-form and in some cases even to prefer the same to the Midrash-form. For to give all the halakic teachings [new laws] of the Pharisees in the Midrash-form as based on Scripture WOULD HAVE EXPOSED THESE TEACHINGS to the attack of the Sadducees” (ibid., p. 231).
In other words, the Sadducees, who were mainly priests and maintained that all teaching should be dependent upon Scripture, could easily counter the Pharisees as long as they taught in the Midrash-form of trying to appeal to Scripture. So, the Pharisees taught in the Mishnah-form which did not have to rely upon the Scripture for support.
Pharisees Used Scripture at Times
The Pharisees would, at times, it is true, make reference to certain scriptures that might seemingly give support to their independent teachings. In doing so, the Pharisees became notorious for their methods of forcing the Scripture to teach what they wanted it to teach.
When they endeavored to use the Scripture, the Pharisees would, in almost every case, have to stretch the plain meaning in order to make it mean something entirely different from the actual meaning. Using this forced method of appealing to Scripture opened them up to further attacks by their opponents, and it is not surprising that appealing to the Scripture became unpopular with the Pharisees.
“If the Pharisees arrived at a certain decision by means of a new interpretation, the Sadducees COULD ALWAYS dispute that decision by refuting the scriptural proof offered for it. IT WAS POSSIBLE for them to argue that the Pharisaic interpretation was unwarranted and that the scriptural passage DID NOT MEAN WHAT THE PHARISEES TRIED TO READ INTO IT … THE PHARISEES WERE WELL AWARE THAT SOME OF THEIR INTERPRETATIONS WERE RATHER FORCED, AND THAT THEIR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENTS AGAINST THESE INTERPRETATIONS WERE SOUND” (ibid., p. 232).
This method of reading into the Scripture what it clearly did not teach was a method of interpretation inherited from Hellenism during the period of the religious anarchy.
In a book published by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, entitled Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, by Dr. Saul Lieberman, new, startling information confirms this. Dr. Lieberman states that the Greek Law Colleges taught their students the art of twisting the law according to the required aim and purpose (ibid., p. 63). During the religious anarchy, many Jews attended these schools. The Greeks took great pride in being able to make a law teach what in reality it did not teach. The Pharisees used this same method!
“THEY [the Jews] WOULD CERTAINLY NOT HESITATE TO BORROW FROM THEM [the Greeks] METHODS AND SYSTEMS WHICH THEY COULD CONVERT INTO A MECHANISM FOR THE CLARIFICATION AND DEFINITION OF THEIR OWN TEACHINGS” (ibid., p. 64). Lieberman informs us that “RABBINIC LITERATURE ABOUNDS IN SUCH ARTIFICIAL AND FORCED INTERPRETATIONS” (ibid., p. 63).
He cites an example from the Talmud that illustrates how forced interpretations of the Scriptures were used. An example is recorded in Sanhedrin 17a. It states that one prominent Rabbi insisted that no individual could be admitted to the Sanhedrin UNLESS HE WAS ABLE TO PROVE FROM THE SCRIPTURE THAT REPTILES WERE CLEAN. Of course, the Scripture plainly states that all reptiles are unclean (Lev. 11:41-42).
The reason that such fallacious interpretations were required of the Rabbis was to see if members of the Sanhedrin were skilled enough in the Law, so they could, if necessary, twist the plain meaning of the Law to meet any requirement of a particular case.
Another Rabbi, using the same illustration, thought that a man was not qualified to sit in the Sanhedrin unless he could give a hundred arguments for declaring a reptile clean or unclean. The Rabbis reasoned that a person who could accomplish such a task was qualified to sit in judgment over others, because, if necessary, adequate grounds for acquittal could be given in any case (ibid., p. 63).
This deceptive skill enabled them also to EFFECTIVELY give false grounds for CONDEMNING THE INNOCENT, as they did in the case of Yeshua the Messiah!
Pharisees Admit They Left the Teaching of Moses
The Pharisees were well aware that they were leaving the religious teachings delivered by Moses and the Prophets. Records are found in the Jewish Talmud which register many statements of the early pre-Christian Pharisees. Notice that their own words are a witness to the fact that they were well aware that they were leaving the ways of Moses.
In a book of the Talmud called Temurah, in section 15b, we have the statement of one eminent Pharisee. It reads as follows: “All the teachers who arose in Israel from the days of Moses until the death of [last days of] Joseph ben Joezer STUDIED THE TORAH AS MOSES DID, BUT AFTERWARDS THEY DID NOT STUDY THE TORAH AS MOSES DID.”
The statement could hardly be plainer. This is a clear admission that the Pharisees, beginning with the days of Joseph ben Joezer DID NOT STUDY AND TEACH AFTER THE MANNER OF MOSES. The Pharisees, from this time (160 B.C.) stopped teaching the Word of YEHOVAH God as had Moses!
The Pharisees KNEW they were departing from the truth. They KNEW that they were enacting new commandments which had not the slightest hint of authority in the Law of Moses! Pharisaic Judaism, with its innumerable man-made commandments, was never the religion of Moses! Judaism represents a departure from the religion of Moses, and the Pharisees themselves candidly admit it.
Let us notice another example from the Talmud.
Another statement, in Yebamoth 72b, concerns one Eleazar, the son of Pedat, who happened to use a Scripture text to refute the personal opinion of his opponent, another Pharisee, on a particular question. The opponent, endeavoring to repudiate the son of Pedat in front of the other Pharisees, answered with these words: “I see that the son of Pedat STUDIES IN THE MANNER OF MOSES.”
Notice the plain implication here! If a person used the Scripture to prove or to disprove a particular point of doctrine, he was contemptuously accused of teaching IN THE MANNER OF MOSES — as Moses did!
The Pharisees were fully conscious of the seriousness of the actions they were taking. They actually knew better! But they went ahead with their designs to teach without any Scriptural support.
“The teachers who introduced the conception of the Unwritten Torah [the traditional laws] … WERE QUITE AWARE OF THE EXTREME GRAVITY OF THE STEP THEY WERE TAKING” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113).
No wonder the Messiah rebuked the Pharisees so strongly. “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” (Matt. 23:13)
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” (Matt. 23:15)
Pharisees Enact Multitudes of Commandments Without Scripture Support
By the time of the Messiah, the Pharisees had made new commandments numbering into the thousands. They dealt with every phase of religious life among the Jews. The Messiah said that these COMMANDMENTS OF MEN were so burdensome that they were extremely difficult to bear, and in fact, many of them were impossible of fulfillment (Matt. 23:4).
To show you how multitudinous they were, we need only turn to the Jewish Talmud. The English translation of the Talmud, which contains the major part of the independent teachings of the Pharisees, is a huge work numbering 34 volumes.
Some of the laws recorded in the Talmud were enacted after the time of the Messiah, but the majority were in existence during New Testament times. Even the Judaism of modern times is based upon these Pharisaic laws. The modern orthodox section of Judaism adheres almost completely to these laws recorded in the Talmud.
The Rabbis, one- to four-hundred years after the Messiah, did not dare discuss the origin of the traditional laws nor how the Pharisees came to teach without using the Scripture. These later Rabbis knew quite well where the traditional laws had come from, but they did not want the lay people to know that these laws, which had been falsely taught to the lay people as coming from Moses, were not originally from Moses at all. It would have been disastrous to Judaism to teach that the traditional laws were really not from Moses and that the commandments of the Pharisees were nothing more than the commandments of men, because THE WHOLE FOUNDATION OF JUDAISM rested on these fallacious laws.
Thus, among the 34 volumes of the English translation of the Talmud wherein are recorded these traditional laws, there is no mention whatever of how these traditional laws came to be accepted.
“The history of the development of the Mishnah-form REFLECTS UNFAVORABLY upon the TRADITIONAL CHARACTER of the Pharisaic teachings. THIS IS THE REASON FOR THE TALMUDIC SILENCE ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE MISHNAH-FORM” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 248).
From this, we should have no difficulty in understanding why thousands of Jews were brought to the truth of Christianity in the First Century. They were told the truth about the laws of the Pharisees by the true ministers of Yeshua the Messiah. Once the Jews came to a knowledge of the truth in this matter, many of them abandoned the commandments of men for the truth of YEHOVAH God. This is one of the main reasons the Pharisees, and the later Jews, had such an abhorrence for Christianity. The acceptance of Christianity meant the rejection of the teachings of the Pharisees in Judaism, and a return to YEHOVAH God and His commandments.
We will now see how the Pharisees thought to ANNUL some of the laws of YEHOVAH, when it suited their purpose.
The majority of the commandments of the Pharisees were enacted on the pretext that they had special divine revelatory powers from YEHOVAH God to reveal to the Jews His PRESENT will. The Scriptures, to their reasoning, could not suffice alone for teaching the people.
“The written Torah [the old Testament] was good for the age in which it was given, or in which it was first read; but the written Torah alone COULD NOT SUFFICE FOR LATER AGES” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113).
This prevailing opinion of the Pharisaic teachers is manifest today also in modernism among Protestants.
Pharisees Make Void YEHOVAH’s Law
The Pharisees were confronted time and time again with many Mosaic commandments which they considered impractical in the society in which they were living. This led them to a dangerous conclusion. Since they were living in a later age than Moses and because times had changed considerably, they felt that many of the Laws of the Scripture had to be drastically altered or, in some cases, completely annulled. The Pharisees saw no reason why such alteration or rescission should not be done, especially since they convinced themselves they were in authority to reveal the CURRENT will of YEHOVAH God.
Herford says that these Pharisaic teachers came to the place many times of “ACTUALLY ANNULLING AN EXPRESS COMMAND IN THE WRITTEN TORAH [the Scripture] AND REPLACING IT BY A HALACHAH [their own law] IN ACCORDANCE WITH A [supposed] HIGHER MORAL STANDARD” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 73).
Yeshua refers to one Law of YEHOVAH God, among many, that they completely set aside or annulled. Notice Mark 7:10-13:
“For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, “given to God”) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, THUS MAKING VOID THE WORD OF GOD through your tradition which you hand on. AND MANY SUCH THINGS YOU DO” (RSV).
In this case, they had actually annulled a specific one of the Ten Commandments of YEHOVAH God that had been given through Moses. They claimed to have given to YEHOVAH offerings that should have been used to help Father and Mother.
We are left in no doubt about the attitude of the Pharisees in regard to Moses and his teaching. If they did not approve of what Moses taught, they rejected him! It was just that simple! Yeshua said: “Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me … BUT YE BELIEVE NOT HIS WRITINGS” (John 5:46, 47).
Actually, the Pharisees had come to the place of believing it impossible to keep the civil Law of Moses. The only thing they could do, they reasoned, was either to alter, or disregard, many of its “impractical” instructions. They had no hesitation in carrying out their intentions.
“The teachers … were quite aware of the extreme gravity of the step they were taking. THEY INTENDED TO MODIFY THE WRITTEN COMMANDMENT IN VARIOUS WAYS, and in the course of time ACTUALLY DID SO IN NUMBERLESS CASES. YET THEY HAD BEFORE THEM THE PLAIN INJUNCTION (Deut. 4:2): ‘Ye shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it; that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you'” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113).
It is almost impossible to believe that religious leaders claiming to serve YEHOVAH God would be so bold as to do such things, but the Pharisees intentionally did so.
“This conclusion that the written word of the Torah MIGHT BE MODIFIED OR SET ASIDE, OR EVEN ANNULLED (AS WAS SOMETIMES DONE), WAS DELIBERATELY DRAWN AND CONSISTENTLY ACTED UPON by the teachers who developed the ‘halachah’ [the new Pharisaic laws]” (ibid., p. 112).
Why the Messiah Condemns Teaching of Pharisees
Is it any wonder that the Messiah was so indignant at the doctrines of the Pharisees? Should we be amazed that He so sharply rebuked them?
“Well has Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING FOR DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF MEN. FOR LAYING ASIDE THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD YE HOLD THE TRADITION OF MEN … FULL WELL YE REJECT THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD, THAT YE MAY KEEP YOUR OWN TRADITION” (Mark 7:6-9).
Now that we have the background to the beliefs of the Pharisees and their attitudes regarding the Word of YEHOVAH God — as has been presented thus far in this series — this Scripture should take on much more meaning. Yeshua was rebuking the Pharisees as they had never been rebuked before. And they needed every bit of it!
Notice what the Messiah said elsewhere!
“THUS HAVE YE MADE THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD OF NONE EFFECT BY YOUR TRADITION” (Matt. 15:6).
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matt. 23:13).
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matt. 23:27,28).
Today’s Churches Follow Pharisees
In contemporary secular Christianity we find millions of individuals like the Pharisees of New Testament times. Numerous professing Christian denominations have MODIFIED the commandments of the Messiah; many have SET ASIDE or DISREGARDED his commandments; and many of them have intentionally ANNULLED the commandments of the Messiah! Yes, our modern Christian civilization of this Western World is in the same or worse spiritual condition as were the Pharisees.
The past and present leaders of Christian churches have certainly resorted to the same tactics as did the Pharisaic leaders. It is time we realize that modern Christianity has paralleled the Jewish leaders of New Testament times in assuming the prerogative of altering, overlooking and rescinding the plain commandments of the Scripture. The Messiah, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8), condemns it! “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God ye hold the tradition of men … Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:7-9).
Why Churches Modify Commandments of the Messiah!
There are millions of individuals today who, like the Pharisees, claim to follow the Messiah, and yet have modified the plain and simple commandments of the Messiah. Here is one example among many, to illustrate this fact.
In Matthew 5:38,39, we read: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, THAT YE RESIST NOT EVIL: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
This is a classic statement of the Messiah which has been modified by different groups in numerous ways. Most of the Messiah-professing ministers today assume the Messiah meant just the opposite from what he said in the above passage. Most reason that the Messiah surely could not mean that you are not to resist evil people and kill them if need be! Is this what the Messiah said? No! Yeshua said just the opposite — “love your enemies” — A PLAIN AND SIMPLE STATEMENT that any ten-year-old can read and understand. But today, this command of the Messiah in particular is MODIFIED by interpretations so that it says just the opposite from what Yeshua taught. The Pharisees were doing the same thing with the Law of Moses!
Let us notice another commandment of the Messiah that has been completely disregarded by the overwhelming majority of modern denominations. It is Yeshua’s command found in John 13:14,15.
“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. FOR I HAVE GIVEN YOU AN EXAMPLE, that ye should do as I have done to you.”
How many Messiah-professing churches do you know which follow this command — an example that the Messiah gave to his disciples? Very few! Most people have completely disregarded this command and example as though it were not even in the Scriptures. Some ministers, endeavoring to explain away the illustration, say that this was an example for the original twelve disciples and not for us today. But notice Matthew 28:19, 20: “Go YE [the original twelve disciples] therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them [all nations] to observe ALL THINGS WHATSOEVER I HAVE COMMANDED YOU …” The example of foot washing was commanded to the disciples, and the Messiah ordered them to teach all NATIONS the very things he had taught them. But again, the majority of ministers today are using the same reasons for disregarding the Scriptures (i.e., times have changed) as did the Pharisees in the Messiah’s day.
Take another example. All readers of the Bible, scholars and laymen alike, are quite aware that the Sabbath is the day set aside by YEHOVAH God for divine worship (Gen. 2:1-4; Lev. 23:1-3; Isa. 58:13, 14). All true followers of YEHOVAH God have kept this day as the day of rest and worship. The Jews of the Messiah’s day as well were observing this day. The Messiah, himself, kept the true Sabbath, YEHOVAH God the Father having ordained it at re-creation as a day for the benefit of all mankind (Mark 2:27, 28). The early New Testament Church observed the Sabbath, and that day only, as the weekly day of rest AND worship. This was the only day which the early Church observed: this all competent Church Histories affirm.
There is no indication, or even the slightest hint, in the Scripture that the Sabbath was to be abrogated and another day substituted for it. In fact, you might ask yourself the questions: Just why should the Sabbath have to be changed? Wasn’t it good enough? Was there something inherently WRONG with that particular day — so that a BETTER had to be found as a substitute? Just WHAT could make one day BETTER than another? And if one day is not inherently better than another, why should it be set apart — sanctified — by any other authority than YEHOVAH’s express commands?
But there are millions of people today who claim to be following the Messiah and the Bible who repudiate the plain command of YEHOVAH God in regard to His holy day, the Sabbath, by observing another day. These people are not following the Bible command but are rather following the command of the Roman Catholic Church which admits that it, not the Bible, is the author of Sunday keeping. (See Who Changed the Sabbath? pp. 1-5, Published by Knights of Columbus, St. Louis, Mo.)
The majority of professing Christians today assume the Sabbath command has been ANNULLED. But it certainly has not been done away with IN THE BIBLE. It has only been supposedly annulled by the Roman Catholic Church and all the Protestant denominations which follow her decision in this matter.
Our Western World is doing today exactly the same thing the Pharisees did in New Testament times. It is about time we wake up and get back to the true faith which was ONCE delivered to the saints of YEHOVAH God (Jude 3).
YEHOVAH’s Church today does not add to His words, neither does it subtract from them. It is in obedience to His commandments.
“And hereby we do know that we know Him, IF WE KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS. He that saith, I know Him, AND KEEPETH NOT HIS COMMANDMENTS, IS A LIAR, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:3,4).
Pharisees’ Commandments Considered More Binding Than Scripture
The Pharisees did not stop with merely modifying, disregarding or even annulling Scripture. They maintained that the commandments they enacted in the place of Scripture were of MORE IMPORTANCE than the Scripture itself!
“The law of custom was quite as binding as the written Torah; nay IT WAS EVEN DECIDED THAT OPPOSITION TO THE DECREES OF THE SCRIBES WAS A HEAVIER TRANSGRESSION THAN OPPOSITION TO THE DECREES OF THE TORAH” (The Jewish People in the Time of Christ, sec. ii, vol. i, pp. 333, 334).
Now let us go to the Talmud itself and notice some of the statements of some of the early Pharisees themselves. Their situation in regard to their own teachings will be obvious.
From the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth i, 7, we read: “The sayings of the elders HAVE MORE WEIGHT THAN THOSE OF THE PROPHETS.” The elders, in this case, are the Pharisees.
In Sanhedrin xi, 3, it says: “An offense against the sayings of the Scribes IS WORSE THAN ONE AGAINST THOSE OF SCRIPTURE.” They demanded the people refer to them as spiritual “Father,” “Rabbi,” or “Master” (Makkoth 24a and Matthew 23:7-10). The Pharisee teachers even required the people to reverence them almost as YEHOVAH God Himself. “Let thine esteem for thy friend border upon thy respect for thy teacher, and respect for thy teacher ON REVERENCE FOR GOD” (Aboth, iv, 12).
“Each Scribe [learned Pharisee] out-weighted all the common people, who must accordingly pay him every honour. Nay, THEY WERE HONOURED OF GOD HIMSELF, and THEIR PRAISES PROCLAIMED BY THE ANGELS; and in heaven also, each of them would hold the same rank and distinction as on earth. Such was to be the respect paid TO THEIR SAYINGS, THAT THEY WERE TO BE ABSOLUTELY BELIEVED, even if they were to declare that to be at the right hand which was at the left, or vice versa (i.e. even if they proclaimed doctrines contradictory to Scripture)” (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 90).
Because of the religious authority that the Pharisees claimed they had, they in general demanded the first rank in all circumstances. “They loved the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matt. 23:6,7). The term “Rabbi” means, literally, “MY MASTER.” It denotes the personal ruler or leader of the people.
Edersheim records an incident of two great Rabbis who were complaining because they had been greeted in the market place by the common greeting “May your peace be great” without the added “My Masters” (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 409). “So weighty was the duty of respectful salutation by [use of] the title Rabbi, that to neglect it would involve the heaviest punishment” (ibid., vol. ii, p. 409).
The unusual esteem accorded to the Pharisaic teachers is purely a product of Hellenistic influence. The Greeks maintained a high reverence for the scholars, teachers and men of wisdom. Titles of respect and reverential honor were used in the Greek schools for their teachers. The use of “Rabbi,” “Master,” “Father” and various other exalted titles of the Pharisees was certainly borrowed from the examples of the Greeks. A learned Jewish historian, Moses Hadas, admits that these various customs of the Rabbis “were parallel to Greek usages, and shall suggest that since they were introduced after the spread of Hellenism they might have been inspired by Greek practice. The extraordinary reverence paid to learning may be part and parcel of this same influence” (Hellenistic Culture, p. 71).
True Christian disciples are warned not to assume these exalted titles of “Rabbi,” “Father” or “Master.” Such high, eminent titles of respect are deserved only by YEHOVAH God. He is MASTER AND LORD. He is the spiritual Father of the faithful. The Pharisees had no right to arrogate to themselves such titles, and neither does any minister. Today, however, the majority of Christian ministers are appropriating as a designation the very names that YEHOVAH says not to use. How many priests today are called “Father”? How many ministers use the title of “Reverend” which, in the Scripture, is used only as a designation of YEHOVAH God? (Psa. 111:9.)
Pharisees Contradict Each Other
Just before the birth of the Messiah, many of the Pharisees had formed themselves into institutions, or what became known as Schools, for the purpose of study and for counsel concerning the legislation of new laws. Those who felt one particular way in regard to new legislation would assemble with other Pharisees who believed in a similar vein.
The two major Schools of the Pharisees were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. The two founders of these Schools, Hillel and Shammai, gathered together other Pharisees who believed in many ways similar to themselves. Both these Schools issued new commandments in regard to religious worship.
These two major Schools of the Pharisees were the rivals of one another. The points in which they disagreed were virtually INNUMERABLE (Cyc. of Bib., Thee. and Ecc. Lit., vol. ix, p. 472).
It has been supposed that the tendency of the Hillel School was to make the new commandments they enacted less burdensome, and that the Shammai School made commandments which were heavier and more burdensome. However, both Schools legislated many strict and burdensome commandments, over and above the requirements of Scripture, and Edersheim shows that the Hillel School was even more strict than the Shammai in some cases (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 407).
The commandments of these two Schools covered practically every religious practice of the Jews. They made many ridiculous and overly burdensome commandments concerning the observance of the Sabbath. They enacted strict ritualistic laws regarding the washing of the hands, pots, pans, jars, etc. They also made numerous ritualistic regulations regarding the preparing and eating of foods. Their teachings extended to all phases of physical worship.
It is rather ironic that these two Schools were both composed of Pharisees and yet their teachings, in so many cases, were totally at variance with one another. One School would bring out a new commandment regarding a particular religious rite or custom, and proclaim that the new commandment was mandatory for all pious Jews to perform. In consequence of this, the other School would issue a similar commandment, usually as a rebuttal and in most cases diametrically opposite from the other.
“Controversy between these two groups extended over many topics and excited considerable warmth of feeling” (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 160).
As mentioned before: “THE POINTS ON WHICH THEY DIFFERED WERE ALMOST INNUMERABLE” (Cyc. of Bib., Thee. and Ecc. Lit., vol. ix, p. 472).
Both Schools Vied for Absolute Authority!
The controversies between these two major Pharisaic Schools were undoubtedly sparked by the desire of both of them to be the ultimate authority among the Pharisees.
Edersheim says: “IN TRUTH, their differences seem too often PROMPTED BY A SPIRIT OF OPPOSITION, so that the serious business of religion became in their hands one of RIVAL AUTHORITY and mere wrangling” (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 407).
This was the condition of the Pharisees just before and during the days of the Messiah! Like professing Christianity today, the Pharisees were in confusion over their own doctrines. Their continual arguing among themselves placed them in embarrassing positions among the People and the other religious sects. Yet, they continued their squabbles and controversies! Little wonder many sought to hear the Messiah.
“MANY, VERY MANY OF THEM [their controversies] are so utterly trivial and absurd that only the hairsplitting ingenuity of theologians can account for them: OTHERS SO PROFANE that it is difficult to understand how any religion could co-exist with them. Conceive, for example, two schools in controversy whether it was lawful to kill a louse on the Sabbath” (ibid., vol. ii, p. 407, note 4).
The controversies between these two Schools were so numerous and some so vulgar — that it is impractical to list them all. For any who may be interested in them, a list has been prepared by Schurer. See his The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. i; p. 361.
You can imagine what the controversies between these two prominent Pharisaical Schools did to the faith of the people who were endeavoring to observe the teachings of the Schools. Who were the people to believe? Both schools claimed to be speaking the words of YEHOVAH God, and yet they violently disagreed with one another in almost every point.
These two Pharisaic Schools were not the only dissentious bodies among the Pharisees.
“The Pharisees at this time were SHARPLY DIVIDED INTO VARIOUS SECTIONS which were NOT exhausted by the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai” (ABC., p. 841).
“THE PHARISEES WERE DIVIDED INTO MANY SECTS, and the doctrines of individual teachers were often contradictory …” (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 205).
It is important we realize that no real creed existed among the Pharisees. “The Pharisees WERE NEVER a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrines” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xxi, p. 347).
The differences of opinion among all the Pharisees, remember, arose with the making of new commandments, in the Second Century B. C., by Joseph ben Joezer, called “The Permitter.”
This reminds a person of modern Christianity with all its differing doctrines and conflicting beliefs. And yet, each church, today, claims that it is preaching the truth of the Messiah.
Contradictory Commandments Called Those of YEHOVAH God!
We have the records of some Pharisees who attempted to conciliate the differences between the two main antagonistic divisions of the Pharisaic group. But, in their undertaking to reconcile the groups, they still had to maintain that both divisions were truly teaching the Word of YEHOVAH God.
Lauterbach records an attempt to reconcile the teachings of the Hillel and Shammai Schools and still show that both their teachings were the Words of YEHOVAH God. He refers to a statement in the Talmud found in Erubin 13b. Lauterbach records:
“A heavenly voice was heard declaring that BOTH the words of the School of Hillel and the words of the School of Shammai [despite their disagreements] ARE THE WORDS OF THE LIVING GOD, but the practical decision should be according to the words of the School of Hillel” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 243, note 78). (The bracketed portion of the above quote is Lauterbach’s.)
The majority of Pharisees favored the Hillel School more than any other, and this led to the conciliating parties leaning toward that particular School’s teachings.
In the Talmud, Gittin 6b, there is another reference, this time to a Jew named Elijah [not the prophet] who endeavored to reconcile the differences between two Pharisaic teachers. Elijah is reported “to have said that GOD DECLARED BOTH THE OPPOSING VIEWS of Rabbi Abiathar and Rabbi Jonathan TO BE THE WORDS OF THE LIVING GOD” (ibid., p. 243, note 78).
“All these utterances were intended to serve as a refutation of the attacks made against the teachings of the Rabbis [Pharisees] ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR DISAGREEMENTS” (ibid., p. 243, note 78).
It was impossible for the Pharisees to directly admit that one or the other School was wrong (or as actually was the case, that both were wrong). They were forced to concede that both Schools’ conflicting teachings WERE FROM YEHOVAH GOD.
Hillel School Becomes Most Important
The proneness of the majority of Pharisees to follow the decisions of the Hillel School (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 239), finally led to the complete ascendancy of that School. It was not until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the subsequent dispersal of the Jews from Palestine, that the Hillel School became the paramount teaching body. During the lifetime of the Messiah and the Apostle Paul, the Pharisees were still divided into the various Schools. But with the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews tended to solidify their schismatic groups. Even many of the Jewish sects became extinct after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and most of the Jews gravitated towards adhering to the Hillel School of interpretation. Orthodox Judaism today has for its basis the teachings of Pharisees who maintained the commandments and principles of the Hillel School.
However, in the days just before and during the life of the Messiah, the Pharisees were still having their rivalries among themselves. They were teaching their manifold contradictory commandments from the various Schools.
It should not be difficult to understand why the Messiah condemned the Pharisees for rejecting the commandments of YEHOVAH God and for “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” They had left the simple and plain Law which YEHOVAH had given them through Moses and had replaced it with their own set of commandments