The Pharisaic Schools of Shammai and Hillel had many issues that they did not agree on. One of these issues can be seen in John 5.9-12 when Yeshua tells the paralytic that was healed to carry his pallet on the Sabbath day. The School of Shammai said that it was not permissible, but the School of Hillel said it was, which was the majority view. Therefore, the “Jews” in v 10 that take issue with him are from the School of Shammai (“Jesus the Pharisee”, Harvey Falk). There were at least 30 issues of halacha that they disagreed on.
These two groups established academies to train students in their way of doing things. If you know what each believed, you can tell by the discussion Yeshua is having with “the Jews” which school they were from. These two groups came to violence on several occasions (“Jesus the Messiah”, Alfred Edersheim, p 166).
A man named Eleazar ben Hyrcanus was from the School of Shammai and was one of the most knowledgeable people of his day (Mishnah, Avot 2.6). He is mentioned in the Passover Hagadah in “Maggid” and is mentioned in other Jewish sources. He was ex-communicated for being a believer in Yeshua. Now, these two schools will differ in their opinion about proselytes. Shammai believed that conversion was an issue while Hillel did not. Paul was from Hillel and so he would not have had a problem, and this attitude factors into his writings.
The Encyclopedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia has information on these two schools and it talks about how the School of Shammai had the upper hand in passing what is called the 18 Edicts, or measures. The School of Shammai believed that a non-Jew needed to be circumcised to be saved, so wherever you see this brought up in the Gospels and Epistles, you know they were from Shammai (Acts 15.1; Book of Galatians). When this debate took place in Acts 15, the decision was that the non-Jews did not need to be circumcised (to become Jewish) to be saved, but they needed to obey the 10 Commandments, the 7 Noahide laws and any commandment concerning the “Gerim” as long as there was a Temple, priesthood, lived in the land and other prerequisites. They were to go to their local synagogue where Moses (Torah) was taught to learn other things (Acts 15.21).
The essentials named in Acts 15.29 said that the non-Jew must abstain from things sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, from blood (such as eating it, Niddah, childbirth, pagan rituals with it, murder) and from things strangled. This last one means that one could not eat anything that had been killed by action on the windpipe (killed by big cats, pack hunters), or in other words, “road kill” or carrion (“James, the Lord’s Brother” by Robert Eisenman, P 295-296). These essentials were not just four things because there are whole chapters in the Torah on sexual sins and idolatry.
In Deut 4.2 it says that we are not to add to or detract from the 613 commandments. There are conditions on how they apply, like if the Temple and priesthood are functioning, if you live in the land or not, whether you are a male or female, a priest, king or Levite. When we contrast the two schools, you will see how different they really were. Let’s look at a few of these contrasts to get a picture of these differences and just how they affected what was going on in the Gospels and Epistles.
The School of Shammai had a member that was vice president, called the Av Beit Din, of the Great Sanhedrin, while the Hillel had a member who was the president, or Nasi. Shammai had a more powerful influence while Hillel was less. Around 10 AD the 18 Edicts of the School of Shammai were passed and Hillel was alive when they were passed. These Edicts were a major point of contention between the two groups. With Shammai, circumcision of a non-Jew was a major issue.
Shammai was opposed to proselytes while Hillel was not. Shammai was radical and strict and went with the letter of the Torah while Hillel was more conservative and looked for the spirit, or essence, of the Torah. Yeshua agreed with Shammai on at least one issue (divorce) while he agreed with Hillel on many other issues. Shammai died the same year as Yeshua, so they certainly knew of each other. Hillel died in 10 AD.
Halacha was according to Shammai until the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, then the halacha was set by Hillel when Rabbinic Judaism was structured. Shammai did not allow proselytes to obtain leadership while Hillel accepted them in leadership. Shammai taught that non-Jews could not come into the Kingdom of God unless they were circumcised and became Jews, while Hillel believed they did enter into the Kingdom without ritual circumcision. The Lord himself settled this issue in Acts 10 with Cornelius.
The Zealots liked the stand of the School of Shammai because the School of Hillel was seen as too liberal. Paul did not totally agree with either group, but was interested in the halacha of the Lord and we get that from the Epistles. In Acts 15.10 Peter talks about the “yoke” and this yoke was not the Torah, but the system of legalism and works righteousness that had developed. Deut 27.1-26 talks about the Torah and that you were cursed if you didn’t follow all of the Torah. As you read the Torah, sooner or later one or more of the commands are going to get you. However, Torah was never given for righteousness or salvation, but the School of Shammai said that the non-Jew had to become a Jew through circumcision and this was never a part of the Lord’s plan for them as seen in Acts 10, Acts 15 and the Book of Galatians.
So, in this study of the keys to understanding the Gospels and Epistles, there are many things you can research for yourself so that you can get a proper picture of what was really going on. Once you understand what these groups believed you will see that there was issues going on as the faith in Yeshua grew. Once you know what these groups believed, you will be able to see who Yeshua and the Apostles were talking to and why. When it says “the Jews” it doesn’t mean all the Jews, but it means the leadership of some of these groups who questioned why Yeshua or the Apostles were doing what they were doing (John 7.13,25-26, 48-49 for example).
Most teachers of the Gospels and Epistles are unaware of the real story going on and try to interpret these verses without the proper understanding, which leads to many misinterpretations. Anybody can tell you what God said, but not everyone can tell you what he means. Hopefully, the keys in these articles will help you as you try to understand the Gospels and Epistles from a first century viewpoint, which is the viewpoint from which they were written.