Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bible in a Year: New Testament Background in Second Temple Judaism

Artist's imagining of the Second Temple,
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

What a joy to focus Bible study upon the Old Testament! Studying those Bible books during these past several months, I've made so many wonderful discoveries. I particularly enjoyed using Jewish study materials for the Tanakh (the proper word for the Jewish Bible: "Old Testament" is of course a Christian term). I cherish my friendships and collegial relationships with Jews and love to understand the Scriptures through Jewish as well as Christian scholarship.

A Jewish friend points out that the New Testament is, to a Jew, quite unlike the Tanakh. We Christians are taught that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, but different aspects of those scriptures resonated differently among Jews and early Christians. As one of my professors puts it, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant).” Meanwhile, though, “other notes grew in intensity on which rabbinic Judaism sought to construct its faith (temple, cult, priesthood, law).”(1) Judaism had to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE, and so the leadership of the Pharisees, segueing into the leadership of the Rabbis and Sages, preserved the scriptures and traditions of Judaism.

The New Testament also contains numerous negative depictions of Jews and Judaism. In subsequent posts, I'll be using a favorite book, The Reluctant Parting by Dr. Julie Galambush (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). A divinity school classmate, Julie takes each New Testament writing and explains its context within the first century Judaism, when the Jesus believers and other Jews became into conflict. Julie discusses how the anger focused toward Jews in the New Testament is often an expression of hurt and discouragement among Jews toward fellow Jews—and not Gentiles expressing hostility toward Jews. But the New Testament “taught” centuries of Gentiles exactly that: hostility toward Jews and Jewish faith.

And yet almost everything in Christian doctrine originates from the Jewish scriptures and traditions, refigured though those ideas may be. Major exceptions include the afterlife and last judgment (ideas that began to be debated within Judaism after the biblical period; the Eucharistic consumption of blood, very contrary to Torah kashrut teachings; and the Cross, a Gentile way of killing people. Early Christians (who were Jews) managed to make Old Testament connections even to these.

Here is an earlier blog post where I list several Old Testament passages that became important for New Testament writers. Christians' teachings about Jesus took them deeply into the Jewish scriptures, though in ways difficult to accept by other Jews.


The Old Testament ends with Malachi, probably written in the 400s BCE, although Esther is from that time or later, and Daniel and also the apocrypha books of the Maccabees are from the 100s BCE. Thus, the Old Testament ends with the community establishing Jewish faith and identity both in the land and in the diaspora. See my earlier post on the Talmud for the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

During this time of crisis and development for Judaism, Christianity emerged. Jesus, a Galilean Jew from Nazareth, was born about 4 BCE and died around 29 or 30 CE. Among the most famous Mishnah sages whose lives overlapped with Jesus, Hillel lived in about 100 BCE-10 CE. The sage Rabbi Akiva was born after Jesus died, living in about 50-135 CE. Some scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians, from about 50 CE, may be the earliest New Testament book.

This past week I heard a presentation by Lawrence Schiffman, Professor Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Subsequently I ordered his book From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991). He has a good summary of the background of Christianity (pp. 149ff). After Herod's death in 4 BCE, Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, the first few of whom were wise, but Pontius Pilate--who of course ordered Jesus' execution--was an unwise ruler insensitive to Jewish customs, resulting in years of conflict and economic decline. Early Christianity began in this climate, "firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism" (p. 149). This was a time of several other messianic movements. Jesus himself likely learned from among the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders of the time, although of course he and Pharisees had disagreements and discussions.

Eventually, as Schiffman writes, "Jesus' teachings apparently raised the ire of some of the Hellenized Jews in the leadership of the high priesthood, as well as of the Romans, who decreed his crucifixion. It is impossible from the incomplete accounts [apart from the Gospels] we have to determine exactly what led to the execution of Jesus, yet we know the tragic results of the widespread Christian assumption that the Jews were responsible for it" (p. 152).

The separation of Judaism and Christianity took about a hundred years, Schiffman writes. On the Christian side, we can see in New Testament traditions that the believers in Jesus' resurrection began to see Jews as "the other", with whom Jesus (though himself a Jew) disputed (p. 153). The New Testament writings reflected bitterness of Jesus-believing Jews toward other Jews.

In the very early days, Schiffman writes, Christians and Jews might still discuss the Hebrew Bible, but tensions arose and grew. On the Jewish side, tannaitic Judaism became the dominant kind of Judaism after the unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Romans during the last third of the first century CE. (See my earlier post about the Talmud.) The Pharisees were the only survivors of the several groups that had existed during and right after Jesus' lifetime. As the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah period) standardized Jewish beliefs, Jews who believed in the messiahship of Jesus were perceived as minim, or Jews with wrong beliefs. The Tannaim also developed laws to separate other Jews from commerce and interaction with the Christian minim (p. 153). By the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE), which effectively prevented Jews from returning to the Land, the Tannaim forbade  Christian writings.

The situation became complicated because, in the Apostle Paul's churches, Gentiles---that is, persons outside the purview of Talmudic halacha, or Jewish law---were becoming the dominant kind of Christian, and the minim, Jews who combined Jesus-belief with Torah-observance--faded away (p. 154-155)

When religion and politics combine, someone gets very hurt; in this case, in the 300s, the Roman empire became increasingly Christianized, eventually resulting in attacks on Jews and synagogues and other expressions of anti-Semitism (pp. 155-156). Legislation of the Christianized empire "set the stage for the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval and modern times" (p. 156). James Carroll's book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (New York: Mariner Books, 2001) is a long and thorough account of this history.

I keep coming back to this eternal promise to the Jewish people:

  Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
   and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
   the Lord of hosts is his name:
  If this fixed order were ever to cease
   from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
   to be a nation before me for ever (Jeremiah 31:35-36).


1. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 176.

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