Discover the New Testament’s Forgotten Jewish Origins
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The Reluctant PartingHow the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book
By Julie Galambush
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Julie Galambush
All right reserved.
The Jewish World in the First Century c.e.
Judaism as we know it today did not exist in Jesus' lifetime. In the first century c.e. the Jews were not the one people and one religion portrayed by the Hebrew Bible and later, by the rabbis, but a socially and geographically diverse group with a broad range of norms and beliefs. Certainly, first-century Jews understood themselves as the continuation of biblical Israel, but exactly how that continuity should be expressed was a question with many answers. The fact that Jesus and his followers who wrote the New Testament were first-century Jews, then, produces as many questions as it does answers concerning their experiences, beliefs, and practices.
Two interrelated factors are essential to understanding the Jewish experience in the Roman period: diaspora and empire. Diaspora--the phenomenon of Jews permanently settled outside the land called Israel (or, as the Romans called it, Palestine)--had been a fact of Jewish life at least since the relocation of northern Israelites (the so-called lost tribes) throughout the Assyrian empire in 722 b.c.e. While almost nothing is known of these earliest diaspora communities,with the Babylonian exile of 586 we begin to have documentation of Jewish life in Babylonia and in Egypt. Over the centuries these diaspora communities were to became major centers of Jewish life, with temples in (at least) Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt, and the great study center in Mesopotamia that would eventually produce the Babylonian Talmud. The members of these far-flung communities, while fully engaged in the cultures of which they now formed a part, nonetheless remained "Judeans" or, as the word has evolved in English, "Jews." By the first century c.e., many "Judeans" would never have set foot in Judah; in fact, the majority of Jews resided in the diaspora.
Living as minorities across the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, diaspora Jews developed various strategies for maintaining their cultural and religious identity. Most still revered Israel as the land promised to Abraham, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) as the word of God, and the Jerusalem temple as God's chosen sanctuary. Many held at least the ideal of making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. All faced daily decisions about how to "act Jewish" (and how "Jewish" to act) in a non-Jewish world. No authoritative Talmud or Mishnah existed to provide the rules. Who was to say how a "good Jew" decided what groceries to buy or how much to socialize with Gentiles (non-Jews)? The pressures and opportunities facing diaspora Jewish communities made for a wide range of Jewish practice and belief, from the Neoplatonist thinker Philo to the rabbinic sage Hillel. In the first century, one Jew's version of piety might be another's definition of apostasy.
The experience of diaspora cannot be separated from the phenomenon that had, to a large extent, created the diaspora: empire. Following Israel's early subjugation to Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, in more recent centuries the Macedonian (Greek) and Roman empires had brought about profound transformations in the ancient world. When Alexander of Macedon set out to conquer the world, he took with him a remarkable ideal: to bring the blessings of Greek civilization to all peoples, creating a universal community. To facilitate this goal Alexander took with him architects, engineers, and philosophers, established cities throughout his realm, and encouraged intermarriage between his troops and local women. What Alexander created, of course, was a culture unlike either those he encountered or the one he had hoped to reproduce. The Hellenistic or "Greekified" world was a new cultural system in its own right. The Greek language became the common tongue for public discourse and commerce, and would remain so for most of the centuries of first Greek and then Roman rule. Greek institutions such as the gymnasium--an educational as well as athletic center--were established in every region.
In addition to such intentional changes, the new empire brought new taxes, more contact with foreign merchants and mercenaries, and often, a division between an elite who were eager to cooperate with the overlords in hopes of gaining status in the new world order, and a less-privileged majority who were less eager to part with traditional ways. For Judea (roughly the southeastern Mediterranean seaboard, including the ancient territories of Judah and Samaria), the ambiguous legacy of Alexander was further complicated by his early death and the subsequent competition between two of his generals, Ptolemy in Egypt and Seleucus in Syria, for control of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. From 326 to 200 b.c.e. Palestine was controlled by Ptolemy and his descendants, who took little interest in the Jews' internal affairs. Between 200 and 196, however, the political landscape of Judea changed dramatically. First, in 200 b.c.e. the Macedonian (Seleucid) rulers of Syria gained control of Palestine from the Ptolemies. Then in 196 Rome, whose forces had been steadily expanding eastward, issued a proclamation to the effect that it was now the "protector" of the Greek-speaking peoples of Europe and Asia. The combined claims of the Syrians and the Romans meant that the Judeans were now the vassals of Syria but under the vaguely defined "protection" of Rome. The period of Syrian, Jewish, and Roman competition for control of the Jewish homeland, roughly the second century b.c.e., would produce wide-ranging changes in the Jewish community. Many of these changes, from popular disaffection with the Jerusalem priesthood to an expectation of God's immanent and decisive intervention in history, paved the way for the sect that was to become Christianity.
In 200 b.c.e. many Jews, especially in the upper classes, had greeted Syrian (Seleucid) overlordship enthusiastically. Not all the population was pro-Seleucid, however, even in the early years, and factions soon grew among families seeking control of the temple and its financial assets. In 175 b.c.e. Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" took the Syrian throne in Antioch. He sold the office of Jewish high priest to a priest named Jason, who promptly transformed Jerusalem into a Greek-Syrian city, complete with gymnasium, and with Antiochene (Syrian-Greek) citizenship for its prominent residents. Jason's actions "put Jerusalem on the map" as part of the Hellenistic world, but they also marginalized traditional YHWH-worshipers of all social classes. Jason, however, was soon outbid for the priesthood by a rival, Menalaus, with no priestly credentials beyond his pocketbook. Chaos ensued, and a prolonged period of fighting among various Jerusalemite factions. Eventually, in 168 Antiochus sent troops to end the civil unrest. According to 2 Maccabees 5, he slaughtered or enslaved thousands in Jerusalem and departed with wealth looted from the temple treasury. According to 1 and 2 Maccabees, Antiochus outlawed all Jewish religious observance, rededicated the temple to Zeus, and erected a new altar in the temple for pagan sacrifices. The claim is probably exaggerated; Antiochus did, after all, continue to sponsor Menelaus as high priest. Clearly, however, Jewish observance was sufficiently suppressed that in 167 rebellion broke out in the name of traditional Judaism. The rural family of Mattathias, also known as the Hasmoneans, led a popular revolt against those--both Jews and Seleucids--in control of Jerusalem. In 164 Antiochus agreed to restore the Judeans' right to "enjoy their own food and laws" (2 Macc. 11:31), that is, he ended religious persecution. By 142 b.c.e. the Jews had been granted limited independence from Syria under a Hasmonean high priest and ruler.
Excerpted from The Reluctant Parting by Julie Galambush Copyright © 2006 by Julie Galambush. Excerpted by permission.
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