Essays

This page is dedicated to personal essays of mine based on a variety of subjects and topics.

 

A Hebraic Revision in the Understanding of Luke 5:33-39

By: Rev. Peter J. Fast, BA.BS, BA.IS

December 3rd 2014

 

The biblical passage of Luke 5:33-39 has prompted many Christian theologians to interpret Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and the disciples of John, that He was instituting a new and better way to God that superseded the ‘old’, that is Judaism. Many Christian commentaries state that the true meaning behind Jesus’ parables is to show the stubborn Pharisees, who cling to the legalistic ways of the Law represented by the ‘old garment’ or ‘old wine’, that Jesus came to change everything and reveal His ‘new gospel’. The new wine!

Through this interpretation, Jesus is transformed into the ‘Christ of Supersessionism’. He is stripped of His Jewish roots while the full meaning and context of what He said is neglected. Thus, through this lens, Jesus is set up to become the founder of a new religion, Christianity, rather than taken for what He is, the Jewish Messiah. “Jesus is no longer an insider seeking reform, but the leader of a new, separate religion.”[1]

As a few examples will demonstrate in regards to Christian commentaries on the passage of Luke 5:33-39, most are in agreement that Jesus spoke of a radically new message, meanwhile scoffing at the ‘old ways’, thereby directing His audience to His gospel, contained in the ‘new wine’. “In the first parable, the old garment speaks of the legal system…while the new garment pictures the era of grace.”[2] In regards to the new wine and old wineskins: “The outmoded forms, ordinances, traditions, and rituals of Judaism were too rigid to hold the joy, the exuberance, and the energy of the new dispensation.”[3] Finally concerning Jesus’ words about the one who drinks old wine: “This pictures the natural reluctance of men to abandon the old for the new, Judaism for Christianity, law for grace, shadows for substance!”[4] The ‘new wine’ takes centre stage in the Christian interpretation, and the ‘old wine’ is written off, representing dead religion. “Jesus’ point is that his gospel cannot be combined with the legalism of Judaism; it is new, fresh, and spontaneous (v.38). However, Jesus recognizes (v.39) that most people find it difficult to embrace something that is new; they prefer their old comfortable ways.”[5]

However, when we approach the text from a Jewish perspective, researching the elements within the text and the significance behind Jesus’ answers and parables, we begin to construct a different image than the one traditionally accepted in most Christian commentaries. Jesus cannot mean that He is reinstating something new and cancelling out the old when placed against the backdrop of His words in Matthew 5:17.[6] Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and Prophets is not cancelling out, removing, or replacing them. “In the Gospels, we see how Jesus’ attitude to the law has sometimes become unrecognizable as the result of “clarification” by the Evangelists and touching up by later revisers. Nevertheless, the Synoptic Gospels, if read through the eyes of their own time, still portray a picture of Jesus as a faithful, law-observant Jew.”[7]

Prior to Jesus’ parables about the old garment and the wineskins, Jesus is at the house of a tax collector named Levi (v.29) who lived in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee (Mark 2:13-22). Since tax collectors were viewed as agents to Rome, they were avoided by most Jews, labeled as sinners, and mainly seen as traitors working for the occupying Roman regime. This naturally prompted the Scribes and Pharisees who were present to ask Jesus, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”[8]

Historically, the Pharisees were popular among the people and seen as men who both safeguarded and taught the Torah as well as the traditions of the Sages. “As far as the teachings of the Pharisees were concerned, a number of things characterized them. These primarily consisted of the immortality of the soul, reward and punishment after death, existence of angels, as well as the idea of divine providence.”[9]  The Pharisees had committed their lives to fostering spiritual revival among the populace, so it should come as no surprise that the Pharisees were concerned, upset, or bewildered by the company Jesus was feasting with. Jesus counters their concern with an image of healthy people who do not require medical assistance as opposed to the sick who do. Through His answer, Jesus reveals the purpose of His messianic calling. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Jesus’ answer is along the lines of great spiritual significance, revealing His true purpose: to renew, repair, and heal blemished hearts as a physician would heal a physical ailment.

The Scribes and Pharisees posed a second question to Jesus, challenging Jesus as to where He stands on matters of fasting and prayer. They are not accusing Jesus of never fasting or praying, but their question opened up a unique attempt at spiritual renewal within their ranks. This passage reveals that both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist have instituted special forms of prayer and fasting, however, they are surprised that Jesus is feasting with His disciples. The background of Jewish prayer and fasting must be examined in order to grasp the nature of Jesus’ reply as well as His parables.

The Greek word used in Luke 5:33, νηστεύω (nesteuo), points to a voluntary fast where one abstains from food. It is evident, by the passage in Luke 5, that some teachers were instructing their disciples to observe special fast days. In the Hebrew text, the concept of fasting צוּם)) takes on a richer meaning of restraining oneself from food for a spiritual matter as fasting was viewed as an act of worship, a petition, and an appeal to God. Fasting was associated as a type of affliction while demonstrating one’s love for the Almighty. It was also a part of the prescribed Jewish life of faithfulness towards God, yet was evidenced by the allowance of extra fast days according to the times, “when there is peace, these days shall be days of joy, and when there is no peace, they shall be fast-days.”[10] These additional fast days were never meant to replace or supersede the regular instituted fasts[11] but to revitalize the nation and direct them to God.

The Mishnah outlines the types of fasting according to former rains, latter rains, appealing to God through drought, after and prior to feasts, for Jews in the diaspora, and so on. In the Second Division of Appointed Times, the question is asked about the method and approach to proper fasting. “The eldest among them makes a speech of admonition: “Our brothers, concerning the people of Ninevah it is not said, ‘And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but, And God saw their deeds, for they repented from their evil way (Jonah 3:10).”[12] God acts only when He sees the heart, for out of the heart one’s deeds are displayed. Therefore, the spiritual act of fasting, when done with a contrite heart and from a Jewish worldview, brings about renewal, repentance, reform, and restoration. This is what the Pharisees and the disciples of John were concerned about in Jesus’ day.

In regards to prayer, this was a crucial part of the Judaism of Jesus’ day and continues to be. “Prayer is central to the spiritual life of the Jewish people. The breath of life for worship in the Temple during the time of Jesus were the prayers to God. More than mere words, they were expressions of the ‘service of the heart,’ deep heart yearnings for vital communication with God.”[13] Prayer is the heartbeat of the people and reflects their most intimate religious devotion to God. “After the fall of the Temple, the Rabbis viewed prayer as a “service of the heart” (TA’AN2a), which partly served as a substitute for sacrifices.”[14] Prike Avot 2:18 states: “Be mindful in the reciting of the Shema and of the Tefillah. And when you pray, make your prayer not a set task, but a plea for compassion and grace before the Blessed Presence. And do not be wicked in your own eyes.”[15] Prayer should not be perfunctory but instead, pure and a matter of the heart. Even with the recitation of liturgical prayers established by the Rabbis, Avot 2:18 is a reminder for spiritual transformation through prayer.

So what concerned the Pharisees and the disciples of John was they believed the people needed spiritual revival and they questioned Jesus, confused as to why He seemed to be apathetic towards these special fast days and prayers.

The question of fasting is related more to these additional fast days, which were called by John the Baptist and the Pharisees, and certainly not to the recognized fasts of the Jewish holy days, which would be observed by everyone. New fast days were used sometimes for encouraging members of a particular religious order to express their identification with their movement. These new fasts were being called in addition to the accepted practices.[16]

Jesus first responds with an obvious messianic image, as He describes Himself as the bridegroom at a wedding feast with His guests. Jesus reminds the Pharisees and John’s disciples that it would be folly to fast while the bridegroom is among them. Jesus does not condemn their new fast days and prayers, but the way in which He responds is as if he is saying, “Right now is not perhaps the best time to fast. For the bridegroom is here.” Jesus states that the bridegroom will be taken away and then in those days his disciples will fast. It is significant that Jesus uses the words ‘is taken away’. “The word ‘is taken away’ (in Hebrew lukach, in Greek aparthe) was another way of saying, ‘when he dies’ or ‘when he is killed.’”[17] So, where Jesus paints a picture of Himself as the bridegroom at a wedding feast, a time for joy, at the same time He uses a brushstroke to evoke the death He will suffer.

Jesus quite possibly alludes to Isaiah 53:8,[18] where the same Hebrew word refers to the death of the suffering servant. Joy is associated with the coming of the Messiah. But when the messianic idea is connected to the suffering servant in the words of the prophet Isaiah as Jesus taught in his prophecies concerning his death, a reference to the death of the bridegroom is not out of place.[19]

Jesus’ answer may not be so cryptic in His response to the question about fasting and prayer. Jesus, as an insider, knows exactly what these men are referring to, as well as what their desires are for spiritual growth and spreading the knowledge of Torah to the people. However, His response illuminates the fact that He is the best recipe for spiritual revival for He is the Messiah. He is the bridegroom, and he uses this tactfully on this matter of fasting and prayer. Jesus as Messiah will one day redeem and restore the outcasts of Israel and set up His kingdom, then true spiritual revival will flourish. It will once again be a time for joy, yet in the meantime, He must be taken away and then there will be a greater need for fasting. To further press His point, Jesus tells two unique parables.

The Greek word which is used for parable is παραβολή (parabole) and contains a strong Hebraic concept common in rabbinic Judaism.

The rabbis utilized parables to illustrate more vividly certain truths that they were eager to convey to their people. Scattered throughout rabbinic literature, these illustrations deal with a multitude of diverse themes. They clothe abstract ideas with concreteness, bringing them within greater comprehension by the human mind.[20]

Jesus, as well, uses a parable to illustrate how He sees issues of true faith, spiritual renewal, restoration, and messianic fulfillment. “Jesus was spearheading a renewal movement with the Judaism of his day.”[21] The first parable Jesus mentions is about an old garment that someone tries to mend using a new cloth. “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old.” On another note, Jesus continues to share a second analogy with wine as the subject. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.” The similar point between the two concerns something old in which someone applies “newness” to it and it is incompatible and will lead to ruin.

Although the Christian traditional emphasis has been placed on the ‘new wine’, the true message of what Jesus is getting across here is found in His clever highlighting of the ‘old wine’. That is the key.

The saying “The old wine is better” (Luke 5:39) cannot be attributed to the later church. In fact, it seems that the heretic Marcion was quick to delete it from his Bible because it spoke about Judaism in a positive way. Jesus was telling the people something about his purpose. He came to bring renewal and redemption through the power of the kingdom of heaven. His purpose was not to destroy the significance of Torah but to fulfill it. The old wine of Torah is best.[22]

The old garment still has purpose and the old wine is better, as Jesus boldly declares in verse 39. For anyone who knows anything about wine, the old, fermented wine is always better than the new, not the other way around. “The emphasis on the old wine indicates that all the talk about fasting may not be the answer for the true spiritual renewal.”[23] Jesus is comparing the sense of ‘new’ to ‘new fast days’ and ‘old’ to the originally intended, Biblically-based Judaism that contained God’s covenantal purpose for Israel, the truth about Messiah, righteous living, atonement, prayer, and likewise. In Judaism, wine is a motif connected with rejoicing, prosperity, and richness, but it has also been used as a reference to describe the long-lasting effect the study of Torah has on an individual.

The rabbis related wine to the study of Torah. The more one studies the Scriptures, the more proficient one will become. Knowledge of Scripture will change an individual’s life. Concerning old wine and the study of Torah, the rabbis taught: One does not feel the taste of the wine at the beginning, but the longer it grows in the pitcher, the better it becomes; thus also the words of the Torah: the longer they grow old in the body, the better they become (Soferim 15:6).[24]

Jesus had come not to abolish the Torah and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Therefore, He is not attacking the Pharisaic desire for new fast days, but trying to illuminate their minds to the fact that the Bridegroom is here and that the best format for spiritual renewal is found within the old wine of God’s Torah.

Jesus wanted people to revitalize their faith in God. New fast days may not be the best way to pursue the path leading back to the old wine. He wanted to see fresh wineskins for old wine. The truth and grace of the ancient faith must be renewed for all people. Men and women must embrace the ancient faith with their whole hearts and receive God’s salvation.[25]

This is only reinforced when we see that one day God will inscribe the Torah upon their hearts[26] and that the Bridegroom has come, thereby fulfilling the word of the prophets. Salvation is before them. “For genuine spiritual renewal, according to Jesus, the people must return to the best of the old wine.”[27]

 

List of Sources Cited

 

Berkson, William. Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life. Transl. and Ed. Menachem Fisch. USA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

Bokser, Rabbi Ben Zion. The Wisdom of the Talmud: A Thousand Years of Jewish Thought. New York, USA: Citadel Press, 2001.

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Baker Commentary on the Bible: Based on the NIV. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.

Flusser, David. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008.

Jastrow, Marcus. Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990.

Neusner, Jacob. The Mishnah: A New Translation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

 

[1] Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. Print. Pg. 34.

[2] MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990. Print. Pg. 202

[3] Ibid. Pg. 202

[4] Ibid. Pg. 202

[5] Elwell, Walter A. ed. Baker Commentary on the Bible: Based on the NIV. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000. Print. Pg. 813.

[6] “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17 (NKJV)

[7] Flusser, David. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids MI/Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. Print. Pg. 35.

[8] Luke 5:30

[9] Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma, Washington USA: Torah Resource, 2008. Print. Pg. 53.

[10] Jastrow, Marcus. Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006. Print. Pg. 1267.

[11] Yom Kippur for example.

[12] Neusner, Jacob. The Mishnah: A New Translation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988. Print. Pg. 309.

[13] Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis. Pg. 147.

[14] Berkson, William. Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life. Transl. and Ed. Menachem Fisch. USA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010. Print. Pg. 16.

[15] Ibid. Pg. 94

[16] Young, Brad H. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. Print. Pg. 156.

[17] Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Pg. 159.

[18] “He was taken away from rule and from judgment…For he was cut off from the land of the living.” Isaiah 53:8

[19] Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Pg. 159.

[20] Bokser, Rabbi Ben Zion. The Wisdom of the Talmud: A Thousand Years of Jewish Thought. New York, USA: Citadel Press, 2001. Print. Pg. 164.

[21] Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Pg. 156.

[22] Ibid. Pg. 158.

[23] Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Pg. 156.

[24] Ibid. Pg. 158.

[25] Ibid. Pg. 157.

[26] Jeremiah 31:31-37

[27] Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Pg. 156-157.

 

 

Healing the Gape Between Gentile Christians and Jewish Believers

By: Rev. Peter J. Fast, BA.BS, BA.IS

December 3rd 2014

 

Any discussion on Christianity’s relationship with Judaism will always present a complex picture of the two communities. Theological differences, historical happenings, Church persecution, and Christian de-Judaizing must all be accounted for and examined to understand where Christianity and Judaism now stand today.  Within that framework of discussion, the modern church has had its own internal struggle on how it balances its overwhelmingly Gentile Christian number with that of a minority of Jewish believers who find themselves within the fold. For many Gentile Christians, the Jewishness of the New Testament and their own Hebraic roots as believers is far from their mind and inconsequential. Many pastors and seminary professors teach/assume that the Old Testament, although it contains many good applications for the modern Christian, is dead religion and legalistic, having been superseded by the Church. However, for Jewish believers this could not be further from the truth. Making up a small demographic within the body of Christ, most messianic Jews observe the feasts, keep Sabbath, maintain kosher dietary laws, and view themselves as part of the community of Israel, yet at the same time not viewing themselves as severed from Christianity. Naturally, these two expressions can stir up a host of emotions between Jewish believers and Gentile Christian believers. Surrounding ongoing doubt and contention, the challenge of the modern church is that it largely remains ignorant pertaining to issues of Judaism, Jewish life, and believers who are both Jewish and wish to continue to identify themselves as Jewish. This paper will examine the gap between Jewish believers and Christian believers and what must be done, on behalf of Christians, to heal that gap through practical steps and theological insight.

When shedding light on how the historical Church has viewed Judaism and its influence, Christianity has sought to distance itself. Sprouting from a Jewish root, the early believers in Jesus were predominantly Jewish, proud defenders of Torah, keepers of Jewish traditions, ceremonial customs, dietary laws, ritual observances, and upholders of circumcision. These Jews had come to believe that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, yet they continued in the practices of their forefathers, as testified by Paul himself.[1] “While he followed his Savior in doing away with traditions that stood contrary to the written Torah, we do see in Paul’s letters recognition of the value of tradition and even the necessity of it within the community of faith.”[2]

Other Jewish believers came from more of a Hellenized way of life and were more liberal and open to change. However, both groupings of Jews were united in the belief that Jesus was the Anointed One and thus, the head of the ekklesia.[3] This testimony came from the lips of Jesus himself, then was passed down by the disciples and other believers, including Paul.  Yet, this Jewish foundation was an essential part of the ekklesia makeup. It gave credence to Jesus’ own declaration that He had not come to abolish the law and the prophets[4] but to fulfill them. For the Jewish believers of the first century, Jesus as the Jewish Messiah only reinforced that they were a part of the faithful remnant of Israel, pictured as an olive tree in Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome,[5] and for Gentile believers that meant they were grafted in as part of the commonwealth of Israel.[6]

Yet as history commenced, Gentile believers began to view the Jews and Israel as having been replaced, by what they later called the Church.

In our day the word “church” is a technical term denoting a religion which has either replaced or is opposed to the Synagogue. When we read our English translations and find in them the word “church,” our natural inclination is to presume that the Apostles, and particularly Paul, were instrumental in beginning something that stands outside of the “congregation of Israel,” something with its own institutions, practices, beliefs, and rewards.[7]

This stands contrary to the evidence in Paul’s own Epistles on how he saw the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers. Evidence of this relationship is shown particularly in the outcome of the Jerusalem Council of Acts regarding the four stipulations placed upon Gentile believers, Paul’s use of the word ‘ekklesia’ which holds Hebraic associations not part of our modern understanding or use of the word ‘church’, and Paul’s stern reminders of Israel’s place[8] all point towards an attempt by the apostle to keep the messianic fold a part of the Jewish community, without compromising on his defense regarding Gentile acceptance within the body of believers and issues of soteriology.

Paul did not want Gentiles to think they needed to become Jews nor that they even could become Jews. Neither did he want Jews to think that they needed to cease being Jews nor that they could. Paul expects both Jew and Gentile to keep the commandments. It seems very possible, then, that Paul would have had no problem with a Gentile remaining a Gentile, yet being circumcised. What he would never allow was a Gentile undergoing the Rabbinic ritual of a proselyte with the notion that such a ceremony would gain him the status of “righteous.” This was surely “another gospel” and to Paul anathema.[9]

Yet all of this gradually changed over time where most of the ‘church’ allegorically interpreted Scripture to cleanse itself of Jewish and Hebraic affiliations and identity within its own practices. One example of this was the question of Christians celebrating Passover as opposed to establishing the date of Easter, all of this being addressed during the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 where Emperor Constantine concluded,

We would have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews; for we have received from the Redeemer another way of honoring God, and harmoniously adopting this method, we would withdraw ourselves from the evil fellowship of the Jews. For what they pompously assert, is really utterly absurd: that we cannot keep this feast at all without their instruction…It is our duty to have nothing in common with the murderers of our Lord.[10]

This downward spiral which continued from Nicea, also affected the standing of believers who identified themselves as Jewish. In the minds of the church fathers, Jewishness equalled legalism and the enemy of the church. Therefore, for a Jew to believe in Jesus, they had to be cleansed of their ‘Jewishness’ in order to become ‘Christian.’ This is echoed in St. Jerome’s correspondence with St. Augustine of Hippo.

In our own day there exists a sect among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the East, which is called the sect of the Minei, and is even now condemned by the Pharisees. The adherents to this sect are known commonly as Nazarenes; they believe in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary; and they say that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, is the same as the one in whom we believe. But while they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other.[11]

In the paradigm of the church fathers, it was an impossibility to be both a Jew and a Christian. For to them, one represented the shackles of legalism and the other the liberty and freedom of grace. This is so obviously clear in the medieval statues depicting the Synagogue and Church. The woman representing Synagogue is blindfolded, looking downward in defeat, with her staff, a symbol of authority, broken. On the other hand, the woman representing Church holds a chalice, stares defiantly at Synagogue, is clothed in royalty, and is adorned with a crown.

In the case of Jewish believers, “Jerome denied them their claim of being Christian, because they claimed to be Jews; he denied them their claim to be Jews, because they claimed to be Christians. And he certainly denied them the possibility of being both, because that was an impossibility in Jerome’s worldview.”[12] In other words, the response was clear and to the point: “If, thunders Jerome, you believe in the Nicene Creed, get out of the synagogue, and you will be a Christian. If you stay in the synagogue and drop your belief in Christian doctrine, then the Pharisees[13] will agree to call you a Jew.”[14] This would be the continual standard in which the church would approach believers who either identified themselves as Jews or wished to observe what the church labeled as ‘Jewish practices.’ These people were summarily isolated, deemed heretics, and banned from the church which believed itself to be protecting its orthodoxy and purity by keeping out ‘Judaizers’.[15] For many people today and throughout history, the term ‘Judaizing’ was wrongfully understood to mean anyone who desired to maintain or return to the Hebraic roots of their faith. However, in a Biblical sense, this is just not the case. “Some Christians protest when any call is made for non-Jewish believers to return to the Jewish roots of early Christianity, for such a return seems like Judaizing, which Paul battled. In Bible times, Judaizers were gentile converts who followed the religious practices and customs of Judaism.”[16] These very same people went beyond Torah observance into pressuring others to follow these practices and customs for the justification of their salvation, which Paul no doubt opposed.

Ever since Nicea, the relationship between Jewish believers and Gentile Christian believers has been one of suspicion, hurt, division, and misunderstanding. To heal this wound and overcome this stigma, Christian believers must confront history and the Biblical understanding of the New Testament world as well as return to the Jewish ideology and identity of Paul, the disciples, and Jesus himself. This calls for revision within the church. For centuries the church has framed the debate between Judaism and Christianity, by approaching it from the angle that Jesus as a Christian pastor confronting the synagogue. For many Christians, Paul was a man who broke from Judaism, thus creating the new religion of Christianity whereas Jesus was its founder. Speaking of Paul’s Damascus road experience, in his exhaustive record of Church History, Philip Schaff states, “This revelation was enough for an orthodox Jew waiting for the hope of Israel to make him a Christian, and enough for a Jew of such force of character to make him an earnest and determined Christian.”[17] Schaff also goes on to call Jesus the founder of Christianity and stereotypes the Pharisees by stating,

They represented the traditional orthodoxy and stiff formalism, the legal self-righteousness and the fanatical bigotry of Judaism…They confounded piety with theoretical orthodoxy. They overloaded the holy Scriptures with the traditions of the elders so as to make the Scriptures “of none effect.” They analyzed the Mosaic law to death, and substituted a labyrinth of casuistry for a living code.[18]

This brings no justice and little understanding to the reality of the world Jesus was a part of, yet the opinions of which are held by a vast majority of professing Christians. In the same way as the Pharisees, for much of history, Jewish believers have been looked at as a legalistic, fringe-group of Christianity. However, since the rebirth of the modern State of Israel, many Christians have been willing to re-examine their Hebraic roots and thus confront their relationship with Jewish believers, even seeing them as ‘fulfilled Jews’ who have believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Through this experience, Jewish believers have reminded Christian believers of the importance of cherishing and loving Torah, as James himself professes in his letter, using the terms, ‘royal Torah’[19] or ‘perfect Torah of liberty’.[20]

The church must make practical steps in renewing this strained relationship with Jewish believers. To do this, the church must be willing to re-examine Judaism and be open to re-education. The church must also reconnect with its Hebraic Roots, understand the place of Torah, develop a love for Torah, and see Jesus, the disciples, and especially Paul in this new light. The church must also confront its history of abuse. This includes not only its persecution of the Jewish people, but its neglect and compromise of the Torah and how it has used this to judge, isolate, condemn, and malign Jewish believers throughout history and today. Additionally, the church must scrub herself clean of the deeply planted seeds of Replacement Theology which naturally affect its relationship with Jewish believers. The modern church must realize that it is not at war with Judaism, and that if Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets without abolishing them, then it is perfectly normal and possible for people to believe and follow Him as messiah, all the while retaining their Jewish roots and identity.

The church must also be ready to shift on theological justifications it has leaned upon in the past. This goes to say, that the church has preached a Paul who rejected the Law (Torah) and left his Jewish ways, often misinterpreting Paul’s statements concerning the Law as him abrogating and dismissing the Law altogether.[21] The church must also develop a new love for the Torah. This recognizes the fact that the authority which is quoted over six hundred times in the New Testament is that of the TaNaK, or Old Testament,[22] so its relevance should not be seen as diminished in any sort of way.  Through this process of church revision, the church also must come to a fuller understanding of God’s covenant with Israel. This will bring a revived appreciation for the Lord’s feasts and other things which are dear to the hearts of Jewish believers. For the church to reinforce her faith through a resurgence of love for Torah, this will work towards mending the relationship between Jewish believers and Christian believers alike, thus developing a stronger sense of unity which is the very fabric of the body of Christ.

 

List of Sources Cited

 

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. USA: The New Press, 2012.

Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 1 Apostolic Christianity A.D. 1-100. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Fourth Printing 2009.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 3 Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-590. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Fourth Printing 2009.

Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1989.

 

[1] 1st Corinthians 11:2, 2nd Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6

[2] Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. USA: Torah Resource, Second Edition 2008. Print. Pg. 61-62.

[3] “We must understand that the English word “church” is not a good translation of the Greek word ekklesia. While there exists an ongoing debate about the derivation of the English word “church,” the scholarly consensus is that it derives from the Greek κυριακός (kuriakos) meaning “of the Lord.” Its early use referred to things belonging to the Lord (the “Day of the Lord” or the “Table of the Lord”). Eventually by the 3rd or 4th Centuries CE, the word was applied to a “church” building as “belonging to the Lord” and thus a sacred place.” Ibid. Pg. 109-110.

[4] Matthew 5:17-18

[5] Romans 11:13-36

[6] Ephesians 2

[7] Hegg, Tim. Pg. 113.

[8] Romans 11:28-29 for example. “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

[9] Hegg, Tim. Pg. 108

[10] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 3 Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-590. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Fourth Printing 2009. Print. Pg. 405.

[11] Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York USA: The New Press. 2012. Print. Pg. 16.

[12] Ibid. Pg. 17.

[13] Jerome’s use of the word ‘Pharisee’ is to label the rabbis.

[14] Boyarin, Daniel. Pg. 20.

[15] Such as the Ebionite sect, for example.

[16] Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1989. Print. Pg. 24-25.

[17] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 1 Apostolic Christianity A.D. 1-100. USA: Hendrickson Publishers. Fourth Printing. 2009. Print. Pg. 301.

[18] Ibid. Pg. 64-65.

[19] James 2:8

[20] James 1:25

[21] Example: Galatians 3:13 which most people interpret him as saying, “The Law is a curse which Christ has freed us from.” A quick study in the word’s Paul uses for ‘Law’ (Strongs 3551: νόμος)and ‘curse’ (Strongs 2671: κατάρα) shows that in the Koine Greek, he is stating that for the person who justifies himself by the Law, intending to earn salvation through its merits, is under a curse, for the Law was never given as a means of salvation. Therefore, Christ has redeemed us through justification of faith.

[22] Example: 2nd Timothy 3:16-17; 2nd Peter 1:19-21.

 

Identifying Historical Differences between Rabbinic and Christian Apologetics

By: Rev. Peter J. Fast, BA.BS, BA.IS

October 14th 2014

 

The history of apologetic debate between Christianity and Judaism originates before and after the Council of Nicea when Christians began to define themselves and what they believed. This naturally drew them into the theological arena where Church leaders sparred against rabbis, making their defense for the case of Christianity which they saw as having replaced Israel and being superior to Judaism. For the overwhelmingly Gentile Church, it approached apologetics and theological doctrine mainly through philosophically driven explanations of reason, borrowed much from Greek thinking[1]. For Judaism’s apologetic view, it focused on how they saw God and man’s place on earth through God’s giving of Torah at Sinai. Judaism’s expression is grounded on God’s revelation and how man is to live wholly for God and with his fellow man. This paper will explore differences between each faith’s apologetics, how this affected the understanding of biblical truth in each community, and how this led to a chasm between Christianity and Judaism today. This knowledge will then be reviewed as to how the relations between the Jewish and Christian community can be advanced in our modern world.

Christian apologetics is simply understood as being, in its basic form, a defense of Christianity. The approach which the Christian apologist takes, is one grounded in reason and proof that points towards showing the validity of Christianity, meanwhile providing answers to biblical and life questions. Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity defines apologetics as the, “Systematic and logical defense of Christianity against its detractors and unbelievers backed up by evidence of its credibility.”[2] Christian apologetics, therefore, examines weighty issues typically concerning three fundamental departments: soteriology, anthropology, and theology.

This approach extrapolates key truths from the Bible and organizes them in such a way to provide a clear defense. It is a defense based on theoretical, philosophical reason in which the evidence is categorically precise. In Christian thinking, this systemic reasoning is necessary to strengthen the Church and prove its credibility.

Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself…They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going?[3]

As for Judaism’s approach to apologetics, it was and is less about philosophical reason and more about the authority of revelation and righteous living. The fundamental belief is that God established a covenant through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then gave the Torah at Sinai through Moses, thus singling out the children of Israel as God’s chosen nation. Wrapped up in the Torah were specific ways for the Hebrews to worship God, but also instructions on how they were to live with one’s neighbour. “Torah constitutes more than the physical, written revelation given at Mount Sinai through Moses to Israel…Moreover, Torah encompasses a whole, unique, pious approach to life that centers around faith in God, study of his Word, and obedience to his will.”[4]

Judaism’s apologetics are less concerned with things such as proving the existence of God and more interested in intimately knowing Him, pleasing Him, and spreading that light to the world in which the Jew lives in. It is all about fulfilling the essence of the Shema[5] as well as, “…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[6] Reinforcing this basic truth, the Talmud gives an account of a Gentile convert who approaches the Sage Hillel and asks him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. “Hillel said to him, ‘That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.’ (Shabbat 31a).”[7]

Judaism has never spurned the pursuit of theological doctrinal beliefs, as Maimonides’ 13 Principles of the Jewish Faith or the Shemonei Esrei[8] attests to, yet Judaism’s main focus has always been how to live life pleasing to God and remain in proper standing with people. The focus is on practically fulfilling the words of Torah in this life, honouring God, and growing in tzedeka[9] so that one’s reward is heaven.

The religion of Israel preaches the one righteous of God. His iconoclastic exclusiveness is linked with his inflexible moral will. The righteousness of the Old Testament sought concrete expression in a new and just social order. God’s righteousness is also his compassion. He espouses especially the cause of the poor and oppressed, for he does not desire men’s physical power and strength, but rather their fear of him. Judaism is an ethical religion in which the principle of justice is indispensable; that is why the division of mankind into the righteous and the sinners is so important. For the Jew, the concept that God rewards the just and punishes the wicked is confirmation of God’s steadfast truth.[10]

However, as Christians became concerned throughout history as to what they believed, Christian apologetics took center stage in its defense against the perceived threat of Judaism. “At some point, it had to be asked which god Christians were talking about, and how this god related to the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ who figures so prominently in the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity appears to have been, in part, a response to the pressure to identify the god that Christian theologians were speaking about.”[11] This caused a widening of the gap between the two communities. During the centuries following Nicea, Christian theologians would often force rabbis into public debates with the desire to embarrass their Jewish opponents, wishing to expose falsehood and prove that Judaism had been replaced. This often resulted in rabbis developing counterarguments, accusing Christians of wrongly interpreting the text and twisting it to suit their needs.

“Although Jewish and Christian communities share common views concerning the inspiration and authority of the Hebrew Bible, they approach the interpretation of the sacred text from very different perspectives.”[12] Two major differences in demonstrating how the understanding of biblical truths has been affected, were in Trinitarian theology and the issue of Messiah.

The Church’s approach and definition of the Trinity took centuries to develop and agree upon. It stands as one of the fundamental doctrines of the Church, which explains the nature and characteristics of God according to Christian Theology. Charles Hodge, in his volumes of Systematic Theology, approaches the Trinity by writing,

There is one divine Being. The Father, Son, and Spirit are divine. The Father, Son, and Spirit are, in the sense just stated, distinct persons. Attributes being inseparable from substance, the Scriptures, in saying that the Father, Son, and Spirit possess the same attributes, say they are the same in substance; and, if the same in substance, they are equal in power and glory.[13]

However, Rabbinic Judaism ultimately rejects a Trinitarian notion. Judaism firmly declares that God is one, and although God’s Spirit has a special role, Judaism’s doctrine rejects a plurality of God, as shown in Maimonides’ 13 Principles, which declare God’s oneness as well as His unity in that oneness. Although we find evidence of certain Jewish beliefs in a plurality of God[14] existing before and during the time of Jesus, these were rejected by mainstream Pharisaic thought as Judaism changed and developed into a rabbinic stream following Yavneh.

“The claim that God has a divine son appearing on earth seemed to the Rabbis to be giving God the nature and behavior of the Greek gods—much as claiming that God has a brother or wife would—and so violating the Shema.”[15]

Likewise, Christianity’s interpretation of the role and identity of ‘Messiah’ was also one that would be highly debated by rabbinic scholars. Christianity saw Jesus as the Christ, or ‘Anointed One’, who had been prophesied about in the Old Testament and who fulfilled the role of Messiah, being fully man and fully God. Christianity’s interpretation of Messiah grew out of Jewish thought as it was expanded by the Apostle Paul in his epistles, and further developed by the Church Fathers. “What we find in Paul’s writings is the result of what he learned as a student of the Torah combined with the new understanding gained through the illumination of the Spirit. He now was able to read the Tanach in light of his encounter with Yeshua, and as pointing directly to Him as the promised Savior.”[16]

It is clear that the disciples, Paul, and future Church leaders saw Messianic passages in the Bible as having two fulfillments, first coming and second coming as well as pointing towards the cause and reason for Messiah to come in the first place. The Church came to understand that prophecy had always pointed to a Messiah who would come to earth born of a virgin, suffer, die, and rise from the dead. This was interpreted as being fulfilled in the course of His first coming. Passages referring to Messiah’s reign as king and His dealing with the nations were interpreted as His second coming where He would establish His Kingdom. Although these beliefs about Messiah took time to develop in Christian history, they remain staple truths in Christianity’s defense of the role and identity of Messiah and were used in apologetic arguments against the rabbis.

Judaism’s apologetic stance on the issue of Messiah took on a different shape. Arguing from age old interpretations of the role and identity of Messiah in Jewish thought, rabbis pointed out errors in Christian interpretation, raised questions to the literacy in Hebrew of Christian leaders, as well as defended Judaism’s fundamental belief in Messiah, which to them was unfulfilled by Jesus. In Judaism’s defense, Jesus had rejected the Oral Torah, failed to bring back the exiles, failed to establish the messianic kingdom, failed to liberate Israel, and failed to rule as a king, only to be executed as a criminal. According to Maimonides,

Messiah will indeed be a king from the house of David who will gather the scattered of Israel together, but the order of the world will not be radically changed by his coming. There will be a world of peace and justice, a world perfected to the level of Jewish teaching imagined for humanity that is truly obedient to the teachings of the Torah.[17]

David Kinghoffer in his book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, takes a very opinionated, sometimes contrived, stance, blending history with first century Jewish thought as he makes his case to explain the rejection of Jesus. Although Klinghoffer often has holes, or speculates, in his arguments, he does take a firm stand as a Jew in his narrative and thoughts. He paints Jesus as someone on a mission, sometimes not fully understanding what his mission was, as if he was confused. Klinghoffer rejects the notion that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah and is of the opinion that this was a later editorial addition on behalf of the early church. “…It is interesting to note that the rabbis, in passing along their own traditions about Jesus, critique him on other grounds, but not on this one. Nowhere in the Talmud or other classical rabbinic literature is there any reference to Jesus’ saying he was the Messiah. Maybe that’s because he didn’t.”[18] Klinghoffer continues, “If the early church was going to shape or edit these scenes for the purpose of educating Christians, then most likely it would do so in the direction of attributing to Jesus more, not less, clarity on the question of his messiahship.”[19]

Klinghoffer seems to reduce Jesus to that of a modern-day cult leader who twists the truth, omits things that appear as a barrier, and only states what will push his agenda forward, bringing his message to mostly uneducated, anxious people who will exalt him.

When Jesus started his ministry, exorcising and healing and telling people they could dispense with the requirements of oral tradition, and when he gathered a modest-size following of modestly educated Galileans, it’s unsurprising that Peter and other disciples should have got the idea into their heads that this was the Messiah.[20]

Yet, for the most part, Klinghoffer returns to Judaism’s most fundamental argument concerning the Messiah, pointing out that Jesus did not fulfill what the Messiah was supposed to accomplish. “The Gospel writers thus faced the challenge that Jesus never raised an army, fought the Romans, returned any Jewish exiles, ruled over any population, or did anything else a king messiah would do.”[21]

How these differences, and others, contributed to the chasm that exists between Judaism and Christianity was that Christianity came to see Judaism as its enemy.[22] From here, Christianity was determined to shed everything Jewish from its doctrine and appearance. Christians stereotyped Jews as followers of legalism and a dead religion, and branded them as murderers of Christ, in which their role model was Judas Iscariot the betrayer. Christianity had come to a place where it believed rebellious Israel had been replaced by the Church and that Paul had broken off the shackles of the Law, thus instituting a new religion.

Judaism saw Paul as a traitor who promoted a new faith that was anti-Jewish, seeking to erase the commandments, misconstrue the Torah,[23] and convert Jews to the religion of Christianity. The Church painted Paul as a “Christian” who had uprooted his Jewishness and this is how Judaism saw him. “To abandon those commandments was to abandon the whole meaning of Jewish existence. Accepting Christ, as his message was preached by Paul, means abrogating the commandments.”[24] For the Jew, this was unacceptable, as it would mean denying one’s self as a Jew. This was to be Judaism’s position for its apologetic stance towards Christianity, building a hedge around Torah and safeguarding Jewish life. It protected itself against Christian doctrine which sought to erase it.

This fear is still seen today through Ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations such as Yad La’Chim, whose motto is, ‘We never give up on a single Jew,’ and where their official website has an ‘anti-missionary’ department. Repeatedly Yad La’Chim and others, like ‘Jews for Judaism,’ describe Christian attempts at evangelism as ‘soul-snatching’ and seek to equip and educate Jews in order to repel Christian missionary attempts with apologetic precise answers to defend Judaism.

In our modern age Christians and Jews have been willing to explore new avenues, even uncomfortable ones. There has been resurgence among the Church in the importance of Hebraic Roots and recognizing the error of Replacement Theology, which has smothered the Church for nearly seventeen centuries. Christians are slowly returning to the Jewish voice of the Scriptures which has been robbed and suppressed by the most of the Church. As a result Christians are seeking Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, exploring Paul’s love for Torah, celebrating the Feasts of Israel, and studying the Bible through a Jewish lens.

This change of how Christians approach the Scriptures must be willing to re-examine one of the most misinterpreted biblical heroes of the Church, the Apostle Paul. Christian theologians and pastors for centuries have been ripping away the ‘Jewish heritage of Saul’ and substituting it for the ‘Christian heritage of Paul.’

Reading Paul outside of the clear and obvious context of his Jewishness and Jewish affiliations is at the heart of why he has been so wrongly interpreted. Granted, it is a difficult task to unwrap the layers of Christian tradition that have understood Paul to have started a new way—a way that left Torah and Judaism behind. But if we are willing to let the biblical text speak on its own, we will be in a position to receive Paul as Paul, not the theologian he became at the hands of later ecclesiastical authorities. And we will then be able to read his words and find in them the coherent message of Torah within the context of God’s grace.[25]

This image of the ‘Christian Paul’ has been shaped and influenced mainly from traditional Church teachings, which has in turn, affected the modern Church with a ‘Replacement Theology’ residue. “The church has at times read the Gospels as if Jesus were a Christian pastor attacking the leaders of the synagogue.”[26] The same misreading can also be applied to Paul’s life and his epistles.

What teachers and leaders of the Church need to understand, is that Judaism is not the enemy of the Church; in fact without it the Church has no identity[27]. Once this is embraced, Christian scholars will discover that Paul possesses a rabbinic authority through his life and writings. This in turn can only enhance and enrich our understanding of what he had to say and how this can impact our lives. This naturally will bring the Church to a place where it must re-consider its role God has for her in this world, not as ‘Israel’ but as the ‘Church’.

Among the Jewish community, more scholars are willing to study the New Testament, examine the historical Jesus, and even bridge the gap to look at Paul’s controversial life in a Jewish/Pharisaical light.[28] This has also brought about dialogue with Christians which strengthen the two communities. In our modern day, elements of the Church and Synagogue are willing to approach this unique relationship from a new angle. They are celebrating what the two communities have in common, rather than starting from a place of disagreement. For Christianity, it has been an enriching experience and a return to its Hebraic foundation. Christians who are willing to explore this will not be sorry, but instead will be able to experience the wealth of their faith and learn to practically live it out, understanding the fulfillment and purpose of the Jewish nature of the Scriptures.

 

 List of Sources Cited

 

Berkson, William. Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life. Transl. and Ed. Menachem Fisch. USA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

 

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. USA: The New Press, 2012.

 

Erickson, Millard J. Introducing Christian Doctrine: Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

 

Flusser, David. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

 

Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008.

 

Hertzberg, Arthur. Ed. Judaism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962.

 

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology In Three Volumes: Volume One, Theology. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

 

Klinghoffer, David. Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. New York: Three Leaves Press, Doubleday, 2006.

 

Kurian, George Thomas, ed. Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005.

 

McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

 

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 3 Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Fourth Printing 2009.

 

Telushkin, Joseph. Hillel: If Not Now, When?. New York: Schocken Books, 2010.

 

Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

[1] Greek Thinking: many of the Church Fathers were heavily influenced by philosophical Donatist and Platonist thinking (i.e. St. Augustine) and Hellenism which impacted their theology, what they taught, and how they interpreted the Scriptures.

[2] Kurian, George Thomas, ed. Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005. Print. Pg. 38.

[3] Erickson, Millard J. Introducing Christian Doctrine: Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001. Print Pg. 16.

[4] Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. Print. Pg. 82.

[5] Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (NKJV)

[6] Mark 12:31 (NKJV)

[7] Telushkin, Joseph. Hillel: If Not Now, When?. New York: Schocken Books, 2010. Print. Pg. 18.

[8] Eighteen Benedictions: a compilation of doctrinal/theological statements of the Jewish faith (for example: the statement of belief in the resurrection of the dead).

[9] Righteousness

[10] Flusser, David. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. Print. Pg. 55-56.

[11] McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print. Pg. 2.

[12] Young. Pg. 165.

[13] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology In Three Volumes: Volume One, Theology. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. Print. Pg. 444.

[14] Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. USA: The New Press, 2012. Print.

“At a certain point these traditions became merged in Jewish minds with the expectation of a return of a Davidic king, and the idea of a divine-human Messiah was born. This figure was then named “one like a Son of Man/a human being” in Daniel. In other words, a simile, a God who looks like a human being (literally Son of Man) has become the name for that God, who is now called “Son of Man,” a reference to his human-appearing divinity.” Pg. 33.

“This dual background explains much of the complexity of the traditions about Jesus. It is no wonder, then, that when a man came who claimed and appeared in various ways to fit these characteristics, many Jews believed he was precisely the one whom they expected. (It’s also no wonder that many were more skeptical.)” Pg. 34.

[15] Berkson, William. Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life. Transl. and Ed. Menachem Fisch. USA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010. Print. Pg. 95.

[16] Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008. Print. Pg. 89.

[17] Hertzberg, Arthur. Ed. Judaism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962. Print. Pg. 218.

[18] Kinghoffer, David. Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. New York: Three Leaves Press, Doubleday, 2006. Print. Pg. 60.

[19] Klinghoffer. Pg. 61.

[20] Ibid. Pg. 62.

[21] Ibid. Pg. 63.

[22] “We would have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews; for we have received from the Redeemer another way of honouring God [the order of the days of the week], and harmoniously adopting this method, we would withdraw ourselves from the evil fellowship of the Jews. For what they pompously assert, is really utterly absurd: that we cannot keep this feast at all without their instruction….It is our duty to have nothing in common with the murderers of our Lord.” Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Volume 3 Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Fourth Printing 2009. Print. Pg. 405. (Council of Nicea 327 C.E. on the issue of Esther)

[23] Both the written Torah and Oral Torah

[24] Klinghoffer. Pg. 214-215.

[25] Hegg. Pg. 65.

[26] Young. Pg. 35.

[27] Romans 9-11

[28] An example is Pamela Eisenbaum’s book, Paul was not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

Jews and Hellenism

333 B.C. – 135 A.D.

By: Peter J. Fast

June 7th 2011

                Upon its inception, Hellenism infected the world with rapid speed and infiltrated every form of life. Championed and spread vigorously by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, the influences of Greek culture found throughout the ancient world, has survived even to this day. It has persevered through time and has continued to shape the minds of governing bodies, social decisions, fashion, art, and many more diverse and integrated facets. In its most basic foundation, Hellenism can simply be described as being “the principals, ideals, and pursuits associated with Classical Greek civilization.” (www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/Hellenism) Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University, would define Hellenism as “the spread of ‘Hellas’ meaning culture, politics, and what made something ‘Hellenic’.” (Cartledge, Paul. Pg. 37) Embraced with either love or suspicion, there is perhaps no other people group in the early stages of Hellenism that both resisted it and embraced it more then the Jewish people in their ancient homeland of Israel[1]. The subject on the origins of Hellenism which were brought from the west to the land of the east, in particular Israel (333 – 323 B.C.), will be examined mainly through the lenses of the Jewish people who dwelt there. Apart from a historical perspective on Hellenistic origins in this part of the world, the direct implications of its effect to cause division among the Jewish people will also be thoroughly explored and its outcome in the year 135 A.D.

After the conquering exploits of Alexander the Great, and to see his “one world kingdom” come to be, the young king died suddenly in the year 323 B.C. in the great city of the east, Babylon. His conquests would take him from Greece, across the vast straits of Persia to the Indus River of India where Hellenism would first successfully implant itself into the native cultures it mulched up in its wake. After the death of Alexander the Great, his vast kingdom would be carved up into four pieces to become four kingdoms to be reigned by his most trusted generals, the two largest being the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Kingdoms. These kingdoms would stretch from the rich fertile lands of the Nile delta in Egypt, into the heart of the land which had once been Israel and beyond into modern day Syria and Iraq. Of those directly influenced by Hellenism, would be the large Jewish population in the newly conquered lands that had once been the kingdom of Solomon. “Hellenism in the Ancient Near East was the product of the encounter between Greek culture and the semitic east which changed both entities.” (Dearman, Andrew. Pg. 114) Thus, the Jewish people and particularly their nearly fourteen hundred year old faith, Judaism, would find itself immersed directly in the center of this new pattern of thinking and way of life.

A trait of Hellenism sought to interweave itself with whatever culture it encountered. This was promoted heavily by the Greeks who viewed their paganism, art, fashion, and everything else as the only proper way to live. To Alexander the Great, it was literally bringing light to the darkness of the barbaric east. For most people groups, this was not entirely a huge problem, as they could approach it with a syncretistic point of merging Greek thinking and worship into their own cultures. However, for the Jews, many felt this was a direct threat against everything that was the very spirit of Jewish life.

In the Torah, which are the first five books penned by Moses[2] it is clear the Israelites were to be a people set apart from the other nations surrounding them and belief in one God, monotheism, which was to be tantamount to everything else. They viewed the Torah as a light in a dark world, and as a revelation and law to follow in order to be a pure and clean people. The establishment of such radical thinking which was opposed to the common belief in polytheism, can be seen wrapped up in the Ten Commandments and other Biblical commands of separation and holy living, such as not making graven images, eating differently, and observing a strict and careful observance of the one God YHVH (Leviticus 19:4, Deuteronomy 5:7-8).  The basic fundamental reality would be that Hellenism, in culture and religious expression, would challenge the vital tenants of Judaism creating a natural will to resist. The Jewish people were chosen by God to be a light to the nations and be a people on earth who served the true God, however, they were to remain separate, and that would stir up strife immediately as Judaism encountered Hellenism. Yet, despite all efforts to resist, history clearly shows the effects that Greek thinking and culture had on Judaism and the Jews. “It is sufficient to say that elements of Greek culture thoroughly permeated Palestine in the decades that followed Alexander’s conquest, and thus segments of Judaism had assimilated the Greek language and aspects of the Hellenistic worldview. Other segments of Judaism remained less influenced and hostile, but they could not avoid its impact.” (Dearman, Andrew. Pg 114.)

However the Jewish people resisted, there still remained pockets of Jews who willingly gave in and actively took part in Greek lifestyle to such an extent that they would have had no choice but to forsake their roots. Evidence of Jews involving themselves in Greek games is prevalent in history. Jews who wanted to participate in activities such as wrestling or attending the Greek gymnasium would thus have to practice such things in the nude, as this was the custom. Since Greek males were uncircumcised and adored the body, they would have seen a practice such as circumcision as barbaric and uncouth and being a shameful act that “mutilated the body” in their thinking. Thus, to fit in and be viewed as “a modern Greek man who was in touch with the Hellenist culture,” many Jews attempted to reverse their circumcisions in order to fit the required, physical attributes and blend in. Along with a violation of modesty in the aspect of the Greek concept of nudity in public, for observant Jews their Hellenist brethren would be viewed as going too far as the male Greek culture also praised the sexual expression and freedom to participate in homosexual experiences, whether by promoting the invitation or openly taking part. The mere symbol of male nudity in Greek culture did indeed sway to these inclinations as this element was a strictly forbidden practice in Judaism (punishable by death in the Hebrew Scriptures) and thus considered an unnatural violation against what God commanded in the Torah.

During the period of the Seleucids, particularly under the dictatorship rule of King Antiochus Epiphanies IV[3] (215-164 B.C), Hellenism was actively spread and heavily influenced by the Greeks living in the occupied land that had once been Israel. With trade opening up in a unique way than ever before, the Greek-Syrian kingdom was open fully to adopting a Hellenist point of living. In culture, Hellenism changed the face of nearly two millenniums. “The victorious penetration of Hellenistic culture is most plainly and comprehensively shown by the religious worship. The native religions, especially in the Philistine and Phenician[4] cities, did indeed in many respects maintain themselves in their essential character; but still in such wise, that they were transformed by and blended with Greek elements. But besides these the purely Greek worship also gained an entrance, and in many places entirely supplanted the former.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 11-12) Coins, pottery, architecture, and images attest to the greatest of this evidence of the spread of Hellenism. It is in the adoration of the body, the beautifying of art, philosophy (philo sophia: love of wisdom), and pagan heathenism that Greek hedonism spread its roots deep. “Hence, long before the commencement of the Roman period, the educated world, especially in the great cities in the west and east of Palestine, was, we may well say, completely Hellenized. It is only with the lower strata of the populations and the dwellers in rural districts, that this must not be equally assumed.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 11)

As Hellenism spread it took over cities and people throughout the land. An example of this can be seen in the setup of the Decapolis after the time of the Maccabees’ revolt against the Seleucid kingdom. “The Decapolis(Matt. 4:25; Mark 5:20; 7:31), was almost entirely Grecian in constitution, language, and worship. It was, in fact, a federation of ten heathen cities within the territory of Israel, possessing a government of their own.” (Edersheim, Alfred. Pg. 23) First and Second Maccabees, two Apocryphal books, paint a picture of the Jewish struggle under the Hellenist ruling of the Seleucids. When Antiochus Epiphanies VI demanded the unthinkable, that is to outlaw Judaism, sacrifice pigs in the temple to Zeus, and order the Jewish people to do so, he had no doubt gone too far. Confronted with outright hostile threats and provocations against their faith in the form of idolatry, the Jewish population dove into a nine year rebellion (175-164 B.C.) against the Greek-Syrians in an effort to throw off their bonds, reclaim the land, cleanse Jerusalem, and rededicate it back to their God. Starting in the village of Modi’in, the Maccabees eventually overthrew the stronger Syrian ruling. The uprising clearly was a byproduct result against the prejudicial and absurd decrees and rulings of Antiochus Epiphanies IV as Jewish frustrations and lamentations reached its boiling point.  “The Seleucid reforms attempted to represent Yahwism in the form of Hellenistic and Syro-Phoenician cult practices. Even earlier in the diaspora[5], the habit of referring to Yahweh as the God of heaven had gained wide currency among Jews; but the attribution of the name Zeus or that of Ba’al Shamem for Yahweh was too syncretistic for many Jews.” (Dearman, Andrew. Pg. 120) Thus, the Jews felt as though there was no other way but to resist in open rebellion by conducting a precise, and successful style of guerrilla warfare against the Greek-Syrian hoplite[6] armies.

The Seleucids had failed in the aspect to conquer the Jewish people through their aggressive push of Hellenism, although it had definitely left its mark and had not been stamped out. The Maccabees’ revolt had mainly been directed at the heathenism aspect of Hellenisitc life and not all of Hellenism itself, thus it survived. The power of Hellenism to survive was in its very nature “a civilising power, which extended itself to every department of life. It fashioned in a peculiar manner the organization of the state, legislation, the administration of justice, public arrangements, art and science, trade and industry, and the customs of daily life down to fashion and ornaments.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 30)

Hellenism also had other methods of impacting life as the Roman Empire added the land of ancient Israel into its fold under Pompey Magnus in the year 63 B.C. by crushing a civil war which ended the independent reign of the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom. With the arrival of Rome and its love for all things Greek,[7] blatantly seen in its classical, archaic, nature within its major cities, a subtle flare of Hellenism was implanted in many of the populace as nations flourish around the world under the imperial rule of Italy. For the Jews, they even felt the benefits from Roman rule as many even settled into a comfortable life under their new masters. A part segments of Jewish society that continued to resist Rome, many of the aristocracy took Roman citizenship, became active in Roman service, and were appointed by client kings loyal to Rome to even serve in administration in the temple, where they even began a sacrifice in honor of the Emperor for God to bless him with wisdom and understanding. As Rome encountered people groups that they drew into their empire, they sought to establish law that protected religions which had long histories as they were granted freedom of religious practice. Although Judaism fell under this protective umbrella, the tension that it caused as a result of rejecting Roman deities and later Roman Emperor worship, would never quite disappear. However, elements of Greco-Roman subculture crept in, influenced thinking, family life, and social life, from the trivial aspects, to a much greater realm as it pressed against issues of faith.

“The employment also of Greek and Latin proper names is pretty frequent even among the lower classes and the Pharisaic scribes. Not only were the aristocratic[8] high priests[9], who were on friendly terms with the Greeks, called Jason and Alexander (in the Maccabean period), Boethus and Theophilus (in the Herodian period), not only did the Asmonean and Herodian princes bear the names of Alexander, Aristobulus, Antigonus, Herod, Archelaus, Philip, Antipas, Agrippa, but among men of the common people also, as the apostles of Christ, names such as Andrew and Philip appear.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 47)

Roman Hellenism could even be clearly seen throughout the cities of the land as public baths, theaters, gymnasiums, temples, hippodromes, and other buildings were erected in dedication to Greco-Roman values. Evidence of this can be seen at places such as: Masada, Caesarea Maritima, Beit Shean, Jerusalem, and Jericho. One of the best examples was in the Roman theater as these attest directly to the Hellenism and how far it had truly gone. “The great importance of public games in imperial times is well known; not a provincial town of any consequence was without them. This was especially the case with those in connection with the cult of the Imperator, the games in honour of the emperor, which were everywhere in vogue, even in the time of Augustus.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 24) Although many Hellenized Jews and non-Jews would have regularly attended such games and theater, a strong opposition always rang loud amidst a vast swath of the Jewish population which saw such things as contrary to Torah, despicable in practice, and a violation of the given law on Mount Sinai. “Pharisaic Judaism has always repudiated the heathen kind of games. Philo[10] indeed says in his work that he was once present…at the performance of a tragedy of Euripides. But what the cultured Alexandrian allowed himself was no standard for the strict legal Palestinians[11].” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 32)

Other sights found in the land directly confronted the pagan aspect of Hellenism with welcomed and outstretched arms. To most Jews with a religious sensitivity and an ounce of knowledge in the Scriptures, these places would most definitely have been viewed as an abomination and direct violation of everything they stood for, chiefly their stubborn belief in a monotheistic God. “In Panias, the subsequent Caesarea Philippi, the Greek Pan must have been worshipped since the commencement of Hellenic times in the grotto there; for the locality is in the days of Antiochus the Great…Herod the Great built here as well as in Caesarea Stratonis and Samaria a temple of Augustus.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 21)

Religiously in Judaism, Greek thinking and influence also made inroads as “…many Jews, who had received a Greek education abroad, took up their permanent abode at Jerusalem, and even formed there a synagogue of their own. Hence we find at Jerusalem in the times of the apostles a synagogue of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asiatics.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 49) The far reaching hand of the Roman Empire, which included the vast tracts of road, trade, and shipping lanes that engulfed the Mediterranean Sea, and brought with it an easier way for people to travel and get around.Thus, with the eastern provinces of Rome open to the rest of the world in a way never seen before, the rise of Greek influence could penetrate deeply.

In the north, cities such as Tiberias and Sepphoris turned more to Hellenism as their Greek populations grew. As long as substantial Jewish populations maintained a presence, the paganism was quelled. But by the time we see prior to and during Vespasian’s invasion of the land in 66 AD we see substantial rise in Hellenism and Greek/Jewish hostility[12]. This is evidenced by Flavius Josephus’ own problems with these cities when he was the commanding Jewish general in charge of defensive preparations for the expected arrival of Vespasian. As well, the Greek ties to Rome from these cities is evidenced in the fact that these cities surrendered to Vespasian rather than fight against him, which showed where their allegiance lay. Another example of the influence of Hellenism at the time of the Romans was cities such as Caesarea Maritima, where the entire Jewish community ended up leaving because of the cruelty of the Greeks and the refusal, by either Emperor Nero or Procurator Gessius Florus, to solve the problem.

The accessibility that the Pax Romana[13] had set up allowed the steady flow of Jewish pilgrims throughout the year to arrive in the province of Judea with ease and make the short trek across land to the holy temple in Jerusalem. However, with the constant flow of pilgrims during the time of the feasts, this also provided a heavy influence of Greek-thinking Jews who had arrived from countries in the diaspora, to worship at the temple. “The thousands of Jews, who came on these occasions from all parts of the world to Jerusalem, were for the most part both in language and education Hellenists. And not only Greek Jews, but actual Greeks, i.e. proselytes, came at the Jewish feasts to Jerusalem to sacrifice and worship in the temple.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 49) With this, the influence of Hellenism continued to permeate even in the religious realms, although for local rabbis and religious leaders, their resistance against Greek ideals was always evident. “The history of this fight of the Rabbis against the Gentile manner of life and popular superstitions is recorded in almost every branch of Rabbinic literature.” (Lieberman, Saul. Pg. 92)

Nevertheless, certain aspects of Greek Hellenism could not be kept away as major applications of the culture were used directly by religious means in Judaism. “The influence on Jewish intertestamental literature, however, is profound, with one of the greatest achievements coming in the form of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. In much of the diaspora, Jewish documents were compiled in Greek, and even in PalestineGreek was increasingly used (e.g. 1-2 Maccabees).” (Dearman, Andrew. Pg. 115) The Greek translation from the Hebrew gave the world the Septuagint which became a widespread Bible translation used throughout Jewish synagogue congregations living abroad. Although religious Jews never strayed away from reading and studying the Bible and other literature, such as the Mishnah, in Hebrew, the Septuagint became a major resource for Hellenized Jews, some of whom may not have been able to read Hebrew at all.

“The Mishnah itself contains a very large number of Greek and Latin words with Hebraic terminations, showing how deeply Gentile life and customs around had affected even those who hated them most, and, by inference, how thoroughly they must have penetrated Jewish society in general. But besides, it had been long the policy of their rulers systematically to promote all that was Grecian in thought and feeling. It needed the obstinate determinateness, if not the bigotry, of Pharisaism to prevent their success, and this may perhaps partly explain the extreme of their antagonism against all that was Gentile.” (Edersheim, Alfred. Pg. 21-22)

However, with the pull upon the Jews to lean towards Greek thinking, the rabbis and Pharisaic sect were perhaps those who fought the most to remind the people of their roots and where they were grounded in, being Judaism. Saul Lieberman says it best,

              “The people could not help admiring the beautiful and the useful; they could not fail to be attracted by the external brilliance and superficial beauty of Gentile life. The learned and pious Rabbis did their utmost to prevent the people from becoming thoroughly Hellenized; they persisted in stressing to the people the superiority of the spiritual over the physical and the final victory of the soul over the body.” (Lieberman, Saul. Pg. 91)

               Yet, such a battle as this was doomed to fail in its entirety as it would be impossible to impress the minds of all the masses of Jewry to capitulate and heed their stern warnings. Thus, “The Rabbis were compelled to tolerate the practice, but they succeeded in endowing it with Jewish character. They had to adapt a Gentile custom adopted by the ignorant masses so as to suit Jewish requirements.” (Lieberman, Saul. Pg. 92)

The Jewish battle to resist Hellenism would see its darkest days after the grueling defeats the Jews would sustain in the bloody conflicts of the First[14] and Second[15] Jewish Revolts under Emperors Vespasian and Hadrian. Both wars of rebellion against the forces of Rome ended in the complete opposite compared to the success of the Maccabees uprising. The Jewish failure in the first rebellion would leave Judaism on the verge of decimation with the destruction of the temple and the city, Jerusalem, along with the majority of Jews enslaved and scattered throughout the empire. It would only be in a small coastal town of Jamnia where the incredible undertaking of surviving Pharisaic rabbis who had to reform a Judaism without a temple, would usher in Rabbinic Judaism that would rise from the ashes promising the survival of the Jewish faith. However, the sufferings at the heavy iron hand of the Hellenists would all but be over. Again the Jewish people would face dire times, as just over sixty years later an appointed Jewish Messiah, Simon bar Kochba, would be killed and his armies destroyed in the Second Jewish Revolt. Yet it was in this second war that a devastating blow would be given to the Jews as Jerusalem would be renamed Aelia Capitolina[16], the land robbed of its Jewish identity by being named, Syria-Palestina,[17] and the Jews expelled from their holy city[18]. The effects of this would be so catastrophic for the Jewish people that relief would not seem to come until after nearly eighteen hundred years had passed and the Jews once again would finally see the creation of an independent Jewish national home under the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948.

The gradual rise of Hellenism and its eventual domineering grip was resisted by Jews throughout the world as they sought to protect their faith and safe guard their families against Greek pagan living. However, history has shown that although such an element of heathenism could be repulsed in many ways, Hellenism achieved victory by implanting itself in other areas of life; this was seen as both a curse and a blessing as Jews living in the ancient world and they would remain divided amongst themselves. “Into the stream of this Hellenistic culture the Jewish people [were] also drawn; slowly indeed and with reluctance, but yet irresistibly, for though religious zeal was able to banish heathen worship and all connected therewith from Israel, it could not for any length of time restrain the tide of Hellenistic culture in other departments of life.” (Schurer, Emil. Pg. 30) However, unlike the Seleucid Kingdom and the Roman Empire, the Jewish people would strive onward, safe guarding the key tenants of their faith and identity as a distinct people group, despite the cloud of Hellenism that has always, and continues to, hang over them.

Bibliography


Cartledge, Paul. Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities. Oxford University Press Inc, New York, 2009.

Dearman, Andrew J. Religion & Culture in Ancient Israel. Hendrickson Publishers Inc. Peabody Massachusetts, 1992.

Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Peabody, Massachusetts, 2001. Sixth printing.

“Hellenism.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 08 May. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Hellenism>.

“Hellenistic Civilization.” Hellenistic Civilization Information (Greek, Greeks) @ Karr.net. 08

May. 2011 <www.karr.net/Hellenistic_civilization/encyclopedia.htm>.

Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine/ Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. United States of America, 1994.

Schurer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ: Second Division Volume I.    Hendrickson Publishers Inc. United States of America, orig. printing 1890, fifth edition 2008.

Endnotes:


[1] Although this land has underwent different occupational powers, I will be referring to this land as Israel (or by the land divisions of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea) based on the pretense that this is the land of the Jewish people proven through history. In other quotes throughout this essay, the term, Palestine, may be used but only in quotes taken from sources where the original author has used this term “Palestine”. I take this liberty as the name Palestine does not fit this time period historically until Emperor Hadrian renamed the land “Syria-Palestina” in 135 A.D after the Second Jewish Revolt, and therefore, cannot be used as a historical, contextual, legitimate name.

[2] Torah is a compilation of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Torah also would later follow the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (TaNaK) which compiles a total of 39 books which are divided into “The Writings” and “The Prophets.”

[3] Antiochus Epiphanies means “manifestation of Zeus”, clearly an unfavorable name to Jews who believed in one God and not a god of the flesh.

[4] Original author’s spelling of Phoenician.

[5] Diaspora is a reference to designate Jews living outside the boundaries of Israel.

[6] Hoplite is a term referring to a heavily armored Grecian soldier who usually was armed with a bronze breastplate and leg greaves, an enclosed helmet with eye slits, a large three foot in diameter, round shield, and a long eight foot spear.

[7] The leading Roman lyric poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) said in reference to Rome’s love of Greek culture, “Graecia capta ferum victorim cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio” or “Conquered Greece has conquered the brute victor and brought her arts into rustic Latium.” (http://www.karr.net/Hellenistic_civilization/encyclopedia.htm)

[8] One of the most famous of the Jewish aristocracy was Yosef ben Mattiyahu (who was also a priest and Roman patrician), otherwise known as, Flavius Josephus, whose name was changed after the failure of the First Jewish Revolt. Flavius Josephus adopted the Greek name to show his identity towards the new Flavian Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus who spared his life and later allowed him to accompany his son (under the same name), during the siege of Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus, therefore, compiled one of the most detailed accounts of the Jewish war, but one which also holds bias as Josephus’ historical accounts were commissioned and published by the Flavian rulers and therefore would never condemn them.

[9] During the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans the Chief Priest, who was deposed by the zealots once they had taken Jerusalem, was Matthias ben Theophilus, which shows another example of Greek influence on Jewish family names among someone of the higher echelon.

[10] Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 50 A.D) was a Hellenized Jew who worked at a compilation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek and preached that one of the chief ways of translation was through allegory. He also was heavily influenced by stoic Greek philosophers Plato, and Socrates.

[11] Inaccurate reference to native Jewish population.

[12] We especially see Greek hostility to Jews throughout the Roman world as pogrom-like attacks from Greeks rippled across the Jewish communities in the world, both from fear of Jews because of the Jewish Revolt, but also in revenge and hatred due to oppositional values.

[13] Pax Romana refers to the, “Peace of Rome”, which was set up by the first official Roman Emperor Augustus after the end of the Roman civil war which had preceded the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

[14] First Jewish War, 66-73 A.D.

[15] Second Jewish War, 132-135 A.D.

[16] Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina after his family name “Aelius,” and the chief Roman deity Jupiter Capitolinus.

[17] Syria-Palestina means in its natural form, “Land of the Philistines”, which was Israel’s ancient enemy.

[18] The Jews would only be allowed back into Jerusalem on the 9th of Av, the Jewish month, in remembrance of the destruction of the First and Second Temple.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The Relevance of Faith in the Bible and Today

By: Peter J. Fast

June 22nd 2012

The study of the biblical world has the ability to shape our faith today in the twenty-first century. The Bible not only tells us where our faith is rooted in, but explores the world in which monotheism first penetrated. This discourse summarizes aspects of how geography, peoples, and cultures of the biblical world played a part in the development of faith and how they continue to impact our faith today.

In approaching faith in the biblical world, a natural first step is the geographical settings. Examining the localities where people settled, the climate, terrain, sources of survival, such as water, and the ability for agrarian living, can lend itself to why and how faith developed among the ancients. Foremost, geography helps the biblical scholar understand that the world of the Bible was real and that its rivers, mountains, plains, crops, materials, and much more, consist of truth and reveal a rich historicity.

Laying out geographical places also assists in understanding the development of faith and religion, bringing one closer to understanding why people worshiped the way they did. For example, people living in the region of Mesopotamia[1] depended on agriculture to farm the chief crop of barley. In the southern plain the rainfall was generally limited to ten inches a season. Due to the levels of salinity along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates which affected the soil, irrigation became instrumental to grow crops. Whereas, along the northeastern foothills, the climate was temperate and rainfall was substantial so that irrigation was not needed, however the terrain was much more difficult to farm.

Both regions have major differences and so the communities that inhabited them would have had to depend on diverse aspects to survive. Therefore, this would impact what gods or goddesses they sought in relation to their natural surroundings. Thus, we see a pantheon of deities develop such as: Ashnan[2], Shumuqan[3], or Enlil[4] known as “King of the earth.”

When we examine deities connected to other natural elements, such as the moon we see Sin/Nanna[5], and the sun, Marduk[6], Shamash[7], or Amun-Re[8]. The sun was the solar power which would make the crops flourish and the moon held an element of mystery and divination people depended upon.

Also, in the biblical world water was an essential source of life and so deities were believed to exist as keepers of rivers and bodies of water. When examining geographical locations of rivers, such as the Tigris, Euphrates, Jordan, or Nile, and the communities that lived by them, we can find deities such as: Ea[9] of Mesopotamia, Hapi[10] of Egypt, or Ba’al[11] of Canaan.

The next approach to faith in the biblical world is to examine its people. When taking an in depth look at the people, it is obvious to see how the natural things they relied upon developed into a system of pagan religion. These can be things like childbirth, eating, living, expanding and defending. When these tenants are aligned with the polytheistic system of belief we see in the ancient world, it should not be a surprise when we discover deities such as Ishtar goddess of war and sexuality, Gula goddess of childbirth, Asherah goddess of fertility, or Hathor god of cattle.

Studying people in the biblical world shows us how they interacted with their neighbors, interpreted law and politics, why they went to war, and what religions they depended upon and why. For people, their faith in the gods mirrored the life they experienced. The belief naturally lent itself to the concept of appeasing the gods so that life would remain abundant and fulfilling. Thus, the expression of faith in the ancient world could be seen in everything they did and everything they made, almost as prevalent as fashion labels are today.

The creation of pantheons continued to take shape and dominate societies. During the era of 3000 B.C., there were over four thousand deities in Mesopotamia alone. With each nation, whether Egyptian, Philistine, Canaanite, or Amorite, all would depend upon their gods and goddesses for protection, fertility, power, and longevity. Amulets were created to be placed in homes or worn for protection, priesthoods were created to serve as mediators to the gods, and kings would preside over religious rituals, sometimes believing themselves to be gods[12].

The increase of faith in the biblical world also had a direct impact on Abram, the first patriarch of the Bible. He moved with his father, Terah, and all their belongings to Haran, and once Terah had died, God directed Abram to the land of Canaan. God called Abram and those that would follow to become a monotheistic people. It became a transformation of discovering truth in a world made up of: pharaohs who believed themselves to be sons of the sun-god, people who believed in the creation account of Gilgamesh, nations who worshiped El as “father bull”, or those who sacrificed their children to gods of fertility[13]. Abram grew in faith and learned to obey the one true God and dictate this to his entire household. This paved the way for others, such as Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and King David.

Thirdly, understanding culture in the area of faith in the biblical world, helps shed light on what people experienced, what they believed and why, taboos and cultural norms that existed, and the development of law. The fundamental basis of law is for a society to function morally, and when it fails, to have a set of punishments set in place as a form of correction. A close look at the Mosaic Law demonstrates similarities to the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty[14] or the Code of Hammurapi[15]. However, despite similarities in other laws in existence at the time, the biblical law is seen as fairer and farsighted as God teaches His people to worship Him and not His creation.

The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) also demonstrate uniqueness in cultural laws of that age. The first four have to do directly with the relationship with God, and the remaining six deal with community issues. Despite God setting His people apart (Lev. 18:3), the Hebrews were to be a unique people given a day of rest during the week (Sabbath) to reflect on the good things God had done for them, something not seen in the many pagan cultures throughout the lands surrounding them.

Other forms of cultural development in faith can be compared between biblical stories and the customary aspects found through discoveries such as the Nuzi tablets or the Tale of Sinuhe. In the ancient city of Nuzi[16], cuneiform tablets were discovered dating back to the period of the patriarchs and beyond. They reveal many cultural customs and laws that help explain circumstances found in the biblical accounts, for instance, why Abraham[17] was so concerned with producing a male heir, the question of adopting Eleazar of Damascus[18], or family rights for Hagar and Ishmael[19]. These cultural aspects, as well as many others are supported as authentic cultural norms seen in the Nuzi tablets.

The Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe also provides a glimpse into places, events, and what life was like living in the land of Egypt and Canaan. It helps comprehend the life of a sojourner, how he would be received by hosts, and the hospitality that would be shown to him. Sinuhe, therefore, clearly shows what it would have been like for Abraham’s traveling in Canaan, or Moses’ life in Midian, and what both men would have had to overcome living in a new land.

The elements we read about in the biblical world continue to be relevant to our faith today for a number of reasons. Firstly, they help us see the Bible not as a book of myths but as a book that deals with real people, places, cultures, and events. Secondly, they help us relate to the people of the Bible, see what they had to overcome, and how they sought God. Thus, it helps us see in a definitive way by understanding the nature of sin and blessing. Thirdly, knowing about the biblical world connects us to the nature of God, how He interacts with man, and what He calls us to do. This can teach us valuable lessons in avoiding sin by showing us the outcome and how to live righteously. Fourthly, one of the most important aspects of how faith in the biblical world shapes our beliefs today is our Hebraic roots. As believers in the Bible and inheritors grafted into the olive shoot of Israel[20], the roots of our faith culturally, historically, geographically, and spiritually help bring us back to our foundation. It connects us with what God intended for us and demonstrates how the Scriptures are to be lived. In essence, it enriches our understanding and strengthens our faith, not only so we can defend what we believe, but so we can know more about who God is.


[1] Mesopotamia is a Greek word for, “land between two rivers.”

[2] Ashnan was the Mesopotamian god of barley.

[3] Shumuqan was the Mesopotamian god of cattle.

[4] Enlil was also known as, “Lord of the earth.”

[5] Sin/Nanna was Mesopotamian god of the moon.

[6] Marduk was Babylonian chief god of the sun.

[7] Shamash was Mesopotamian god of the sun.

[8] Amun-Re was Egyptian god of the sun.

[9] Ea was the Mesopotamia god of the waters.

[10] Hapi was an Egyptian goddess of the Nile.

[11] Ba’al was a Canaanite fertility god of crops and storms.

[12] The belief in kings being gods was common during the time of Guti and Ur III (2112-2004 B.C.).

[13] The pagan deity Moloch was known to involve child sacrifice into fires as seen in Lev. 18:21 or 2nd Kings 23:10.

[14] Suzerain-Vassal Treaty was a law code of the 2nd millennium.

[15] The Code of Hammurapi was a Babylonian stele bearing approximately 300 laws upon it that dates back to 1752 B.C. and has major similarities to certain biblical laws such as the relationship between Jacob and Laban found in Gen. 31.

[16] Nuzi is placed near the Tigris River and the city of Nineveh and was next to a major trading route.

[17] In Gen. 17:5 God changes the name of Abram to Abraham, which means, “father of many nations.”

[18] Gen. 15:2

[19] When Abraham drives Hagar and Ishmael away this was not the norm in ancient Mesopotamia and thus, must be seen as a unique circumstance and demonstrates the severity of how Abraham felt.

[20] Romans 9-11

One response to “Essays

  1. Outstanding post. Thanks for ones effort, and thanks to your great blog. I know how lengthy it takes to write and come up with beneficial articles so I extremely enjoy it.

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