The New Testament in Its Historical Setting

Travis Rogers, Jr.

The New Testament in Its Historical Setting

7 mins
September 15, 2020

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 completely 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 the people Israel, and belief in the foundational book of this covenant, the Law of Moses or the Torah.

The covenant between God and Israel comprised duties and commitments which pertained to both parties. God committed Godself to treat Israel in accordance with its special position as God’s 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.

One important note, as I have stated so often before, is that Torah really should not be translated as the Law. A far better understanding of the word renders a translation of teaching or tradition. Law makes it prescriptive (how it must be), teaching is descriptive (how it should be).

It is important to note that in Judaism the Law is not a way of salvation. Salvation comes from the election of God and is based exclusively on the grace of God. The Torah, therefore, describes the lifestyle of those who have been chosen.

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 the above-mentioned 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 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. In truth, the Pharisees and their teachings were very close to the teachings of Jesus and were told as much in Jesus’ own words. “You are so close to the Kingdom of God.

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.

Hillel (110 BC-10 AD) 

Hillel and Shammai represented two schools of thought. Shammai was a bit of a hard case and Hillel was a kindly and generous teacher of Torah. A non-Jew once asked Shammai if he could recite the Torah on one leg. Shammai went away in a huff. The young man went to Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel raised one foot off the ground and said:“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and study.” Jesus said in Matthew 7:12: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the aw and the prophets.” 

Hillel's Sandwich 

During the Passover Seder, the Jewish family re-enacts ancient customs in the Haggadah. In the section called Korech, participants are instructed to place the maror (bitter herbs) between two pieces of matzo (unleavened bread) and eat them after saying in Hebrew: “This is a remembrance of Hillel in Temple times—This is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: He enwrapped the Paschal lamb, the matzo and the bitter herbs to eat them as one, in fulfillment of the verse, "with matzot and maror they shall eat it."(Numbers 9:11).

In other words, long before the Earl of Sandwich made his first lunch with two pieces of bread, Hillel had already done it for the Seder.

Another group often mentioned in the New Testament in connection with the Pharisees are the Teachers of the Law. Here we are dealing with a very different group of people. While the Pharisees were a kind of revival movement, 'Teacher of the Law' is a professional term. The Teachers of the Law were authoritative professional interpreters of the Torah.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were the party of high priests, aristocratic families, and merchants—the wealthier elements of the population. They came under the influence of Hellenism, tended to have good relations with the Roman rulers of Palestine, and generally represented the conservative view within Judaism. While their rivals, the Pharisees, claimed the authority of piety and learning, the Sadducees claimed that of birth and social and economic position. During the long period of the two parties’ struggle—which lasted until the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD—the Sadducees dominated the Temple and its priesthood.

The Sadducees did not, believe in life after death nor did they believe in a resurrection.

The name of the Sadducees is believed to derive from the family of Zadok, the high priest who served as high priest in the days of King David. Not all the Sadducees were priests, however, and their number included other aristocrats. 

The Essenes

The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament. The information concerning them is derived from other sources. Since 1947, manuscript and archaeological discoveries have been made at Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea and they are thought to derive from the Essenes who dwelt there.

The Essenes were a protest movement which withdrew from the world. They believed that the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple was elected on false pretenses, which invalidated the whole Temple cult. In addition, the calendar used by the Essenes and their way of interpreting and observing the Law of Moses differed from the rest of Judaism.

The Essene community of Qumran saw itself as the only true Israel, "children of light" as distinct from the "children of darkness" and their corrupt religious practices. The members of the community lived a disciplined life dictated by the regulations and a strict system of values. At the same time, they - like many of their contemporaries - expected that God would soon intervene in the course of history in a decisive manner.

The Qumran Discoveries

The Qumran discoveries were made at the north-western end of the Dead Sea in the years 1947-56. In eleven caves in the desert, there were found manuscripts of the Old Testament, other religious texts, and the writings of the religious group who lived at Qumran: rules of the community, liturgical texts and doctrinal material. The texts written on leather and papyrus scrolls were in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages. Some of the manuscripts were carefully packed in clay jars. Most, however, were lying on the floors of the caves, at the mercy of damp and worms.

The Qumran Caves

In the vicinity of the caves were excavated ruins of a group of buildings covering an area of 100 x 80 meters. The first of these was built in about 150 B.C. The main building contained assembly and work rooms and had a two-story stone tower. Water collected from high up in the mountains was stored in large rainwater storage containers and tanks. Some tanks were used for ritual bathing.

In the area was also found a large cemetery containing over a thousand graves. The manuscripts were evidently concealed in the caves for fear of discovery by Roman soldiers. The Roman army destroyed the settlement in 68 A.D.

The oldest manuscripts found at Qumran were fragments of Old Testament manuscript copies from the third century B.C. The majority of the manuscripts, however, date from the two centuries preceding the birth of Jesus and the first century following it, that is, the time when the group that wrote and copied those scrolls lived at Qumran.

The number of texts found is over two hundred. Many of the scrolls are, however, so badly damaged that only odd fragments are left.

The Zealots

The Zealots (Greek zelotes, 'zealot') was a general term for a person who was zealous for a cause, in particular for the religious group he belonged to. One of Jesus' twelve disciples was a Simon who bore this nickname.

Later the name Zealots came to refer to a rebel organization which supported armed resistance to Rome. This group only became a united, recognizable party just before the Jewish War.

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.