Last time, we discussed the basic beliefs of 1st Century Judaism and the Jewish groups of Jesus’ time. This week, we will look at the Jewish situation in Jesus’ time.
Diaspora means 'dispersion'. The term was used of Jewish communities living outside Palestine.
At the beginning of the Christian era there were Jews living all over the Roman Empire and in the East beyond the frontiers of the Empire. They lived in the country and in the towns, and they came from all social classes and professions. Their customs were known everywhere, even if they were not always regarded favorably. On the other hand, their strict monotheism and high moral standards attracted many, and they often had influential patrons.
Sometimes non-Jews joined the Jewish community. Those who converted and became full members were called proselytes. Becoming a member was preceded by ritual purification (baptism) and in the case of male proselytes by circumcision. At the same time the newcomers committed themselves to observing the commands of the Torah. This was a great deal to ask, and the number of proselytes remained fairly small.
"God-fearers" was the name for non-Jews who instead of becoming proselytes were satisfied with observing the Jewish way of life and taking part in the life of the Jewish community as far as it was possible. This group later become fertile ground for early Christian missionary work.
Diaspora Jews also met in synagogues, the size and manner of construction of which depended on the resources of the community. In large towns there might be several. The head of the synagogue was the spiritual leader and senior teacher of the community. Temporal matters were looked after by the council of elders, the secretary acting as bookkeeper and correspondent. The synagogue servant was responsible for maintaining the property and for keeping order and, if necessary, he led the prayers.
Graeco-Roman society set its members certain obligations, not all of which could be fulfilled by Torah-observant Jews. Thus, they were granted exemptions, for instance, in relation to the cult of the emperor and service in the army.
The Temple was the most important symbol of the Jewish people, the center of life, where the national, the cultural, the religious and the political were fused.
The first Jerusalem Temple was built by King Solomon. The Babylonians destroyed it in 587 B.C. At the same time the upper classes of the kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon.
After conquering the Babylonian Empire, Cyrus, the king of Persia, granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland and build a new temple.
Five hundred years later, King Herod initiated a massive rebuilding project, the aim of which was to restore the splendor of Solomon's Temple. The Temple was dedicated in 18 B.C., but the project was only completed in the 60s A.D. Its size and beauty were widely known, but it was destroyed in the turmoil of the Jewish War in 70 A.D.
A new temple could no longer be built because the Jews were expelled from Palestine half a century later. Today the site is occupied by mosques, so both archaeological excavations and the construction of a new temple are impossible. All that remains is a section of the Temple wall, the so-called 'Wailing Wall'.
The outer court of Herod's Temple was called the 'Court of the Gentiles'. Inside it was the Temple area, divided off by a wall, to which all but Jews were forbidden entry on pain of death.
The outer part of the Temple area proper was the 'Court of the Women', then the 'Court of the Men'. Only priests were permitted to proceed further, to the altar. On this altar were performed the daily animal sacrifices.
The inner vestibule of the Temple was called the 'holy place'. Here were the seven-branched candlestick (the menorah), the table of the shewbread and the altar. The 'holy place' was divided from the 'holy of holies' by a curtain, inside which the high priest was allowed to go once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the whole people.
In the outmost court of the Temple were traders, from whom pilgrims who had travelled from afar might purchase sacrificial animals. The moneychangers exchanged foreign currency for silver shekels, with which the Temple tax and the price of the sacrificial animal were paid. These moneychangers traded coins for Temple currency at exorbitant rates and sold sacrificial animals at inflated prices. These were the guys who upset Jesus enough for him to overturn their tables and drive them and their animals from the Temple. And if you don’t think that was an act of political rebellion, you are mistaken.
In the Temple area was also the Antonia Fortress, one of Herod's palaces, which was located in the north-west corner of the area. From the fortress it was possible to maintain order in the Temple, especially during Passover. It may have been in the Antonia Fortress that Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
In the Temple there served both priests and Levites. The latter did not participate in the sacrificial cult but took care of the music, guarding and cleaning of the Temple.
The priests offered numerous sacrifices in the Temple every day, since the Law of Moses obliged Jews to purify themselves and atone for their sins by offering a sacrifice. In addition, thanksgiving offerings were sacrificed. The victim might be a sheep or a dove; flour and wine might also be offered as a sacrifice. In addition to the sacrifices brought by individuals, communal sacrifices were offered every day in the Temple.
An example of the sacrifice of a sheep
The animal's throat was slit and the blood was collected in a bowl for throwing on the altar. The animal was skinned and the fat was burnt in the fire on the altar. The hide and part of the meat was put to one side, for the priests gained their living from the sacrifices during their term of service in the Temple. The rest of the meat was given to the person who brought the offering. He left the Temple to eat it with his friends and family.
A burnt offering was an offering which was burnt whole in the fire on the altar (the blood and hide were removed before the offering was burnt). Because the sacrificial animal had to be flawless, it was most convenient to buy it in the Temple. The pilgrim who came from afar took a substantial risk in bringing the sacrificial victim with him, for it might injure itself on the journey and no longer be fit to be sacrificed.
Both in villages and in towns the Jews gathered for worship in the synagogue, where other community matters were also dealt with. The synagogue was the place for trials, teaching, care of the poor and accommodation of Jews from elsewhere. In the synagogue the first Christians, too, preached their message, and the activities of the synagogue offered a model for the first Christian communities.
Besides being a place of worship, the synagogue had a Torah school. The synagogue also functioned as a communal meeting-place and as somewhere where people from various professions could meet together.
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