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The Model for the Messianic Community
Judaism in the Late
Second Temple Period
Most Christians are used to thinking about “the Church” in terms of denominations: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Independents, etc., meeting together in little groups (congregations) of people with similar styles of worship and doctrinal understanding. But only on the very rarest of occasions would these diverse-thinking groups of people all meet together in the same place at the same time for communal worship, a Billy Graham crusade or a Bill Gather concert, for example.
This was not the case with the Synagogues of the Late Second Temple Period, and certainly not during the first half of the first century of the Common Era. At that time there were essentially three major or divisions of Judaism, with at lease five additional overlapping subgroups.
Prior to the Maccabean revolt (ca. 185-160 BCE), Judaism was rather well united. However, under both Greek and Roman rule many Jews tended to adopt the Greek, or Hellenized, life-style. These Hellenistic Jews were opposed by a more traditionalist group known as the Chasideans (not to be confused with modern Chasidic Judaism). As the Seleucid Greeks began to oppress the Jewish people, they united and revolted against the Greeks. For the duration of the 25-year Maccabean war Judaism remained fairly united, but after the war the Jewish people divided into three main groups: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Each of these major groups contained many variations, or sub-groups, much the same way as there are sub-groups within American political parties. For example, within both the Republican and Democratic parties there are those who consider themselves as conservative, moderate, and liberal. For the sake of our discussion we will only touch upon the major divisions of Judaism that existed at that time.
The P’rushim [Pharisees] were the theological conservatives of their time, holding to a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. They believed, as do most modern Jews, that God gave Moshe [Moses] two Torahs, a written Torah and an oral Torah both of which they considered to be authoritative, but open to interpretation by specially-trained teachers, called Rabbis. Most Pharisees would have considered themselves “Scribes,” or experts in Torah, though not all Scribes were Pharisees.
The Tzedukim [Sadducees] grew out of the Hellenized aristocratic elements of Judaism. While they probably would have considered themselves theological conservatives who held to a strict interpretation of the written Torah, their theology more closely resembled that of modern liberal “Christianity.” They rejected all things supernatural, particularly rejecting miracles, spirit beings, and the resurrection of the dead. They embraced the Hellenistic lifestyle of the Romans and probably viewed themselves as “good citizens” of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the Sadducees were also the political appointees to the Temple priesthood and held a majority of the seats on the Sanhedrin (Israel’s equivalent of America’s Supreme Court). By the time of Yeshua there were likely very few of the kohenim [priests] who were actually scripturally qualified to serve in the Temple.
The Essenes felt that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were far too liberal and that the Temple priesthood was totally corrupt, so they gathered in monastic communities and developed their own sacrificial system independent of that of the Temple. Perhaps the best-known Essene community was the one at Qumran which (according to most scholars) left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After Israel came under the control of the Roman Empire, a group of political activists known as Zealots arose, who both advocated and attempted to bring about the overthrow of Rome. A particularly violent subgroup of the Zealots was a band of assassins known as the Sicarii (also spelled Sacarii), or assassins, after the Latin word for the short ice-pick-like daggers with which they dispatched (usually via a quick thrust to the base of the brain) anyone they felt to be a Roman sympathizer. Among Yeshua’s talmidim were at least two members of the party of the Zealots: Simeon Zealotes (Simon the Zealot) and Yehudah Sicarius (or Judah the Assassin), usually translated into English as “Judas Iscariot” . Bar Abba (Barabbas, or Son of a Father), who was released by Governor Pilate in exchange for Yeshua’s execution (Matthew 27:11-25), is thought to have been a notorious Sicarius.
The Pharisaic tradition was the only one to survive the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by more than a very few years, and is even now not very far removed from modern Rabbinical Judaism. The Sadducees quickly dissolved after the destruction of the Temple because without the priesthood and temple service they no longer had a reason to exist. The Essenes were quickly wiped out by the Roman armies because their monastic communities provided such easy targets. And the Zealots were quickly rounded up and executed for treason against Rome.
However, during the period of time between the initial conquest of Israel by the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots all met together for study, prayer, and worship in the Temple and in the same synagogues. It was into this milieu that Yeshua and His talmidim were born, studied Torah, walked halakah , taught the Gospel message, and eventually died — as fully Torah-observant Jews.
There was also a fourth identifiable group in the synagogue, the former-Gentile proselytes, or ger. The famous Jewish historian Josephus describes the ger, or convert, as one who adopts the Jewish customs, following the laws of the Jews and worshiping God as they do — or one who has become a Jew (Antiquities, xx. 2, §§ 1, 4; cp. xviii. 3, 5.)
Ezra’s policy, founded on the belief that the new commonwealth should be of the holy seed, naturally led to the exclusion of those of foreign origin. Still, the non-Israelite could gain admittance through circumcision (see Exodus 12).
These were people who were not Jewish-born, but who, like King David’s grandmother Ruth, left their pagan ways behind them to fully embrace the God, the People, the Land, and the Torah of Israel.
According to tradition, every Pharisee was expected to win at least one proselyte to Judaism every year. It is my contention that Dr. Luke, who penned the most scholarly of the Gospel accounts and the Book of the Acts, if indeed he was not a natural-born Jew, was one of these proselytes, and may very well have been converted to Judaism by Rav Sha’ul himself.
The process of this conversion would have included the foreswearing of all pagan beliefs and practices, the taking of a Jewish name [shem kodesh], self-immersion in a mikvah [a special pool of “living water”], circumcision for men, and the offering of a sacrifice in the Temple. Those who had gone through this conversion process were considered as much Jewish as those who were born as Jews, and in the Jewish community of the Late Second Temple Period the process would have been referred to as being “born again” as a Jew. If this were not true, then their children would not be considered Jewish, nor would their grandchildren. If Ruth did not become fully a Jew through her “conversion process,” whatever form it may have taken, then her grandson, King David, could not have been considered fully a Jew either!
There was a fifth group of people who were also part of the synagogue, called variously Sojourners, Strangers, Semi-Converts, or simply God-Fearers. The God-Fearers were Goyim who would have demonstrated a great love for the God, the Land, the People, and the Torah of Israel, but yet stopped short of formal conversion and circumcision.
But of the stranger it was expected that he would forego the worship of idols (Leviticus xx. 2; Ezekiel xiv. 7) and the practise [sic.] of sorcery, incest, or other abominations (Leviticus xviii. 26), and that he would refrain from eating blood (Leviticus xvii. 10), from working on Sabbath (Ex. xx. 10, xxiii. 12), from eating leavened bread on Pesach (Ex. xii. 19), and from violating Yom ha-Kippurim [Yom Kippur] (Leviticus xvi. 29). [Compare Acts 15:28-29]
Having agreed to observe the conditions described above, the God-Fearer was free to participate as fully as he (or she) desired in the religious observances of his synagogue community, but was not under obligation to observe the entire oral Torah, nor was he obligated to undergo the rite of circumcision. For all practical purposes, he lived as a Jew among Jews but was not expected to “bear the full burden of Torah.” Cornelius of Caesarea (Acts 10:1) was such a man, as perhaps was the Roman centurion (Luke 7:5) who built the synagogue which Kefa’s [Peter’s] family attended in Capernaum. Other God-Fearers are mentioned in Acts 13:43, Acts 17:4, and Act 17:17. It is my firm conviction that (except for the issue of having embraced the Messiah, obviously) the God-Fearer would have been virtually indistinguishable from most of the non-Jewish members of any modern Messianic Jewish congregation.
34. Resentment among the Jews to Greek rule in Judea grew steadily, culminating in 167 BCE with the outbreak of a revolt against the Greeks in response to the sacrifice of a pig on the Temple altar by Antiochus Epiphanes. Judah Maccabee defeated Antiochus’ army and liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE. He purified the Temple and reinstituted the sacrifices. On the 25th of Kislev the Jews inaugurated the Temple and offered up the first sacrifice to the Almighty on the new altar. The inauguration festival for the Temple lasted eight days, and is commemorated as the Festival of Lights, or Chanukah. For more information see Christian Action for Israel, “The Festivals of Hanukkah and Christmas” on the Internet at www.christianactionforisrael.org/ judeochr/hannxmas/macca.html, and read the apocryphal Books of the Maccabees plus Josephus’ Wars of the Jews. [RETURN]
35. We can be sure that ADONAI did not give Moshe an additional Oral Torah that he failed to write down, because the Scriptures say that Moshe wrote down all that ADONAI commanded, and that ADONAI commanded that nothing else be added.
“Moshe came and told the people all the words of ADONAI, and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which ADONAI has spoken will we do.’ Moshe wrote all the words of ADONAI, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mountain, and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Yisra'el.” (Exod. 24:3-5)
“You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the mitzvot [commandments] of ADONAI your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
“Moshe wrote this law [Torah], and delivered it to the Kohanim [Priests] the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of ADONAI, and to all the Zakenim [Elders] of Yisra'el. Moshe commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of [every] seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of booths, when all Yisra'el is come to appear before ADONAI your God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this law [Torah] before all Yisra'el in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your sojourner who is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear ADONAI your God, and observe to do all the words of this law [Torah]; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear ADONAI your God, as long as you live in the land where you go over the Yarden [Jordan] to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 31:9-13)
It would not be possible for the Kohanim and Zakenim of Yisra'el to read all the words of the Torah unless all the words of the Torah were written down to be read. [RETURN]
36. I find it quite incomprehensible how anyone who rejects the concept of spirit beings can at the same time claim to serve a God who is revealed as a being of pure spirit. [RETURN]
37. “Iscariot” was not his last name as many suppose, but rather a description of both his political affiliation and his character. How appropriate a title for the one who was to betray Yeshua to be murdered. [RETURN]
38. “The walk,” i.e. proper observance of the requirements of Torah. [RETURN]
40. “Gentile,” ibid. [RETURN]
43. Whenever speaking of people in general I prefer to use masculine pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” to indicate both men and women. Although not generally considered “politically correct” by our “enlightened society” I find that this use is much less cumbersome than the use of the inclusive “he or she,” “he/she,” “his/hers, “him/her” (etc.) or the grammatically incorrect “they.” Unfortunately, the only gender-neutral pronoun in English is the word “it” and I just cannot bring myself to refer to a person as “it.” [RETURN]