Acts 15 is about the non-Jews and that they did not have to be circumcised (become Jews) to be saved. But Acts 15.21 says they are to go to the synagogues to learn Moses (Torah). Why do that if there was a “new”faith called Christianity? That certainly would not have been taught in the synagogues. Also, why would they need to do that if the four things mentioned in the chapter were the only things they had to do like idolatry, sexual immorality, abstaining from things strangled and blood? It was because these four things had whole chapters in the Torah about them. They needed to understand these Torah commands, support them and obey what applied to them.
Now we are going to begin to learn about what we call “First Century Judaisms” (plural). There was no such thing as “Judaism” in the First Century, but many groups with their own halakah (way to walk). This will be essential in order to understand the Gospels and Epistles. For instance, the book of Galatians is one of the worst interpreted books of the New Testament. The goal of this study is to rectify that. So, let’s look at some regions in the New Testament. You would have Judea, Perea, Decapolis (10 cities), Galilee and Samaria. You can go to a map of First Century Israel to see where these areas were.
The largest Jewish population in the world was in Babylon, called “the east.” The second largest Jewish population was in Alexandria, Egypt. The third largest was in Judea and Galilee, and as long as the Temple stood the most influential. Then you had Asia Minor and Europe. These communities had differences in dress, customs, language and their approach to the Scriptures varied. The Jews of Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe were under a strong, Hellenistic influence. The Jews in Babylon spoke Aramaic. There were “tensions” between the Traditional Jews in Judea, Galilee and Babylon, and the more Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Jews were in Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe.
We know that a persecution broke out against the believers in Yeshua and they were dispersed throughout Judea, Samaria and the world (Acts 8.1). But, according to the Scriptures, who were dispersed? It was the Hellenistic Jewish believers. It was not a persecution against just any believer. Peter, James and John were Traditional Jews (orthodox) and they remained strong in Jerusalem and had great favor (Acts 8.1). Remember, the believers were almost all Jewish or non-Jews who were converted to become Jews. That was the halakah at the time. It wasn’t until Acts 10 that non-Jews became believers without becoming Jews through ritual circumcision. Among the Hellenists there were divisions. You had those who believed in the God of Israel and you had pagans. Most of the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe were orthodox in their walk. There are several books that will have a lot of information on this. The first is called “Judaism in the First Century of the Common Era” by George Foot Moore. Another is “Palestinian Judaism in the time of Christ” by Joseph Bowservin. Third, there is “Galatians” by Steve Salter and lastly “Jesus the Pharisee” by Rabbi Harvey Falk. There is a cast of characters we will need to know.
The “Am Ha Eretz” are the “people of the land.” They were the common guy, not a sage or a scholar, the blue-collar types. The Talmidim (disciples of Yeshua) were a part of this group. They were called “unlearned” in Acts 4.13. That didn’t mean they didn’t know Torah, they just were not trained in any schools. For the most part, they followed the halakah of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees themselves were made up of many groups, but there were two main groups that we will be dealing with. They started during the Hasmonean period because the priesthood was corrupt in their view. The two main groups of Pharisees that we will be dealing with are Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Hillel died in 10 AD and he was president of the Sanhedrin, or Nasi. Rabbi Shammai died in 30 AD and knew Yeshua. He was Nasi of the Sanhedrin after Hillel died. Their followers were known as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Jewish groups today follow the halakah of Beit Hillel, but Beit Shammai was the dominant factor in the first century. They controlled the Sanhedrin and decided halakah. There was “bad blood” between these two groups. We will get into this in detail in later teachings. Some of this bad blood resulted in murder, and Yeshua had some strong things to say about the Pharisees from Beit Shammai.
The Sadducee’s also began during the Hasmonean period and were descendants of the Maccabees (Hasmonean family). The Sadducee’s contended with the Pharisees and backed the Hasmonean monarchy. This continued into the first century. These groups approached the Torah differently. The Pharisees were open for interpretation and had an “oral” Torah. The Sadducee’s were not open for interpretation and were very literal and strict. They did not accept the other books of Scripture and did not have an “oral” Torah. This brought the Pharisees and the Sadducee’s into contention. Now, and we will get into this in detail later, the Sadducee’s did not want non-Jews coming in to the faith without becoming a Jew first by ritual circumcision, if at all. This point of view was just fine with Beit Shammai, who did not want any intercourse with non-Jews either. The Zealots were also of this frame of mind, so these three groups will form an unholy alliance on certain thing concerning the non-Jews that put them in direct conflict with Beit Hillel. These groups will conspire to kill Yeshua.
The ruling class of priests were mainly Sadducee’s, but not all. However, the Sadducee’s controlled the Temple, with two main “houses” having control for the most part of the first century. These two houses were the House of Boethus and the House of Chanan (Annas). Up until 55 AD, the Sadducee’s were dominant in the Sanhedrin even thought the Nasi and the Av Beit Din (vice-president) were Pharisees.
The next groups will be in contention with all the other groups. The Essene’s were orthodox, closer to Hillel that Shammai and were against the Sadducee’s and the House of Chanan (Annas) and the House of Boethus. Many of the Essene’s were priests who were fed up with the Sadducee’s, Chanan and Boethus. They were very eschatological. The Herodians were a political party rather than religious, supported by Herod and the family. They Idumeans (Edomites) like Herod. The Zealots were made up of several groups, but by 70 AD there were three main groups. The Sicarii (cutthroats) were zealous for God, as were all the Zealots. They believed in political assassinations and they reasoned that the Tanak prophesied the Messiah was coming after the fourth beast (Rome) was defeated. So, they tried to provoke Rome into a fight, thus bringing the Messiah. One of Yeshua’s talmidim was Yehudah Ha Sicarii, or you may know him as Judas Iscariot.
The Yiray Ha Shamayim (Fearer of Heaven/God) were the “Godfearers” who were non-Jews. In Greek they were called “Phoubemenoi” and when you see the English “feared God” that is referring to this group. They are seen in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles. Cornelius in Acts 10 was a Yirah Ha Shamyim, Godfearer or Phoubemenoi. Paul addressed several of his letters to them. There were other groups like the Babylonian Jews, Asia Minor Jews and the Alexandrian Jews that lived outside of the land.
Now, back to the Pharisees of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The 18 Edicts of Beit Shammai need to be understood. Understanding the conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai will change the way you look at the Gospels and Epistles. During the time of the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans the Pharisees and the Sadducee’s formed. The rulership and the High Priesthood passes down from 167 to the first century. Antipater (Herods father) comes in and two Hasmonean brothers fight for power and rule. Their names were Aristobulus and Hyrcan us. Herod calls in the Romans for help due to this “civil war” and the Romans are done dealing with the Hasmonean dynasty, and they place Herod in power. The Nasi of the Sanhedrin at the time was Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee. The majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducee’s. They would set Halackah and they were over the priestly class. Hillel dies in 10 AD when Yeshua was about 14 and Shammai becomes Nasi. When Shammai dies in 30 AD, Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel becomes Nasi of the Sanhedrin and he was Paul’s teacher. This tells us that Paul was a Pharisee from Beit Hillel, and remained one after he became a believer in Yeshua (Acts 23.6). From this point to 70 AD, the halakah was set by Beit Hillel.
In Part 4 we will pick up here and talk about how these two groups related to the non-Jews, the meeting to vote on the 18 Edicts in 20 BC and just how these 18 Edicts related to many verses in the Gospels and Epistles and the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews.