Judaism as a Diverse Phenomenon

Judaism in the Time of Jesus


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Judaism was a Diverse Phenomenon


In Christian circles the Judaism of the time of Jesus has often been thought of as an outward legalistic religion to which the message of Jesus and the early Christians was a complete antithesis. Such a picture has, however, proved to be a blatant caricature. Today the ministry of Jesus is seen rather as a movement within Judaism rather than as something opposed to it. At the same time people have begun to understand how complex and still developing a phenomenon first-century Judaism was.


At the beginning of the Christian era Judaism was divided into several different groups, each of which had its own views concerning the true Jewish way of life. On the other hand, certain basic beliefs were common to them all.


The Basic Beliefs of Judaism


Although at the beginning of the Christian era Judaism comprised several different groups, certain basic beliefs were common to them all: belief in one God, belief in the covenant which God had made with his people Israel, and belief in the foundational book of this covenant, the Law of God or the Torah.


The covenant between God and Israel comprised duties and commitments which pertained to both parties. God committed himself to treat Israel in accordance with its special position as his own people, and to teach the Israelites the principles of a good and blessed life. Israel made the commitment to be obedient to God and to live a life befitting the people of God. These principles are found in the Torah or Law of Moses, its teaching and practical applications. The Torah also included directions concerning atonement for offences committed so that the covenant might nevertheless remain in effect.


It is important to note that in Judaism the Law is not a way of salvation. Salvation – the election of God – is based exclusively on the grace of God.


Jewish Groups


At the beginning of the Christian era Judaism was divided into many different groups. These were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots – and the Jesus Movement. In spite of differences between them the groups were united by certain basic beliefs.


The Pharisees


In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as the influential arch-enemies of Jesus. They tirelessly watch how the Jewish people observe the purity and holiness code. From this the word ‘Pharisee’ has come commonly to be a synonym of ‘hypocrite’. Such a picture of the Pharisees is, however, one-sided. In fact the Pharisees were one Jewish group among many – a lay movement which placed emphasis on the Torah (the Law of Moses and its interpretation) and in particular on the importance of the purity code for everyday holiness.


There were also many different types of Pharisee. Some of them seem to have been fairly close to Jesus in their thinking. Sayings resembling the teaching of Jesus occur among the sayings of Rabbi Hillel, for instance, and Hillel was active in Pharisaic circles. The Apostle Paul also came from among the Pharisees.


In the opinion of the Pharisees holiness was not only for the priests and the Temple. By observing the purity code every member of the people of God might participate in the holiness of God. In the interpretation of the written Law the Pharisees had the help of the so-called ‘Oral Law’, i.e. oral tradition consisting of explanations of the Law which was thought to go back to Moses himself.


Conflicts between the Pharisee

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