How to Understand the New Testament-Part 3

One of the great misconceptions when reading the gospels and epistles is that everyone believed the same thing, but there was no such thing as “Judaism” in the first century, but more like “Judaism’s.” This is an essential point to understand when studying the gospels and epistles. The book of Galatians is one of the worst interpreted books in the Bible, and we are going to attempt to rectify that. First, we are going to look at the cast of characters. There were several regions like Judea, the Idumeans, Perea, the Decapolis, Galilee and Samaria. The largest Jewish community was not in Israel, but Babylon, called “the east” (Matt 2.1). The second largest was in Alexandria, Egypt, a major city. The third largest was in Judea and Galilee. As long as the temple stood, Judea and Galilee were the most influential. Then there was Asia Minor and then Europe. These communities had differences in dress, customs, language and their approach to the Scriptures. Now, the Jews of Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe were under strong, Hellenistic (Greek) influence. The Jews in Babylon spoke Aramaic while Jews in Judea spoke Hebrew with Aramaic. There were tensions between the “Traditional” Jews of Judea, Galilee and Babylon and “Hellenistic” Jews from Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe. We see this contention in Acts 6.1. We know that a persecution broke out against the believers in Yeshua and they were “dispersed” throughout Judea, Samaria and the world (Acts 8.2). But who was actually dispersed? It was the Hellenistic Jewish believer, not the Traditional. The Apostles, who were traditional Jews, remained in Jerusalem and had great favor. Remember, the believers were all Jewish or non-Jews who had converted to become Jews. It wasn’t till Acts 10 that Gentiles became believers without becoming Jewish through circumcision (which means become Jewish). Among the Hellenists there were divisions. There were two types of Hellenists. The “orthodox” believed in the Lord, and the “pagan” who departed from belief and adopted Greek ways and thought. Most of the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe were “orthodox.” So, let’s briefly look at the “cast” of the first century and the ones you will need to know about as you study the gospels and epistles. First, we have the “Am ha Eretz” or “the people of the land.” These people were the common people and they were not scholars. The Apostles were a part of this group, called the “unlearned” in Acts 4.13, and followed the “halakah” of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had many groups, but there were two main ones. They started during the Hasmonean period. By the first century, the School of Hillel (founded by Hillel the Elder, who died in 10 A.D.) provided the Nasi, or “president” of the Sanhedrin. Shammai, who died the same year as Yeshua and knew him, was the Av Beit Din, or vice-president, of the Sanhedrin. Most Jewish groups today get their halakah from the School of Hillel, but, in the first century, the dominant group to set halakah was the School of Shammai. So, when Yeshua is talking to the “Pharisees” it doesn’t mean they all thought like the group being addressed. You can tell what group of Pharisees Yeshua is talking to by what they are discussing. There was “bad blood” between these two groups and a lot of tension. The Am ha Eretz will follow one of these two schools. The next group we will look at is the Sadducees. This group also began during the Hasmonean period and are descendants of the Maccabees (the Hasmonean family name). The Sadducees contended with the Pharisees and they backed the Maccabean monarchy that ruled in Israel during the last 150 years or so before Yeshua. These two groups approached the Torah differently. The Pharisees believed that the Torah was open to interpretation and they had an “oral” Torah. The Sadducees were not open to interpretation, were very literal and strict. They did not accept other books of the Bible and scriptural and rejected the oral Torah of the Pharisees. This brought them into contention with the Pharisees, no matter what group they were with. The ruling class of priests were mainly Sadducees, but not all. This group controlled the temple. There were two main “houses” of Sadducees that you will need to know. The first one is the “house of Boethus.” The second will be the “house of Chanan” or as you may know him, Annas. Up until 55 A.D., the Sadducees were dominant in the Sanhedrin, even though the president, or “nasi”, and the “Av Beit Din”, or vice-president, were Pharisees. The next group we are going to look at will be in contention with every other group. We have the Essenes, who were very orthodox and closer to the School of Hillel than Shammai. They were against the Sadducees and the House of Chanan and Boethus, and the Hasmoneans. Many of the Essenes were priests who were fed up with the Sadducees, and they were very eschatological, which the Sadducees were not. The Herodians were more political than religious. They were supported by the family of Herod. They were Idumeans (Edomites) like Herod and are mentioned in Matt 22.16. Another group was called the Zealots, and there were many groups, but by 70 A.D. there were three main ones, but the worst were called the Sicarii (“cutthroats”). They were zealous for God but they believed in political assassinations. They reasoned that the Tanak prophesied that the Messiah was coming, so they tried to provoke Rome to “hurry his coming along.” One of Yeshua’s talmidim was named Yehudah ha Sicarii, or Judas Iscariot. The Sicarii had ties to the School of Shammai. Next we have the Yiray ha Shammyim, or the Godfearers, or “phoubemenoi” in Greek. You will see them throughout the gospels and epistles. Cornelius in Acts 10 is called a “phoubemenoi” or Godfearer (Acts 10.2). Another name for this group was “sebemenoi” which means a “worshipper” in Greek (Acts 16.16, 17.4-17). These were not just “fearers of God” and “worshippers” but a designated class of people in the synagogues who were learning the Torah from among the Gentiles. Paul addressed some of his letters to them. Now, let’s go back and look at the Pharisees, especially from the School of Hillel and Shammai. The works of Josephus, the Jewish Encyclopedia and the Talmud give us much information about these two groups. One of the little known concepts in the gospels and epistles, but absolutely necessary to know, is the 18 Edicts, or “measures” adopted by the School of Shammai. The conflict between Shammai and Hillel will change the way you look at the gospels and epistles. During the time of the Maccabees and Hasmoneans, the Pharisees and Sadducees formed. The rulership and high priesthood passes down from 167 to the first century. A man named Antipater comes in and rules, with Roman help. He has a son named Herod. Hasmonean rulers Aristobulus and Hyrcanus fight for power after Antipater is murdered, and Herod gets Roman help. As a result, the Romans put him in power after a long fight. The Sanhedrin Nasi was Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee. The majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, however. They would set halakah because they were the ruling class of priests. Hillel dies in 10 A.D. when Yeshua was a teenager. Hillel’s grandson is mentioned in the Scriptures. His name is Gamaliel. He becomes Nasi of the Sanhedrin and the teacher of Paul. From this point to 70 A.D. the halakah of the Jewish people will be set by the School of Shammai, however. Bad blood will exist between these two groups. Another thing to understand that will be critical to your understanding of the gospels and epistles is how these two groups relate to the non-Jew. The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai will argue about everything. The Jewish Encyclopedia has a lot of information about this contention. Yeshua would take issue with the Pharisees, but it doesn’t tell you which school these Pharisees were from. The gospels just lump them together. We have different writers refer to the Pharisees, but when Yeshua takes issue with the Pharisees, they are usually from the School of Shammai. His answers to them are in many way the exact same thing the School of Hillel says to them. Now, the status of the non-Jews (the “Yiray Shamayim” or “phoubemenoi”=fearers of God, also known as “devout ones, worshippers= “sebemenoi”) is that they are not pagans. There are seven commands given to all men called the “Seven Noahide Laws.” The School of Hillel were more receptive to non-Jews, especially if they followed the Noahide laws at least. They taught that these non-Jews were “righteous Gentiles” and had a place in the resurrection of the just and the Olam Haba, the “world to come.” The School of Shammai said, “No!” They believed they had to become Jewish (through ritual circumcision, not “Abrahamic”) to be saved (Acts 15.1 will tell you that the brethren who brought this point up to the elders in Jerusalem were believers from the School of Shammai). These two schools of thought differed on this point. Several events will occur around 20 A.D. that will affect the way we understand the gospels and epistles. The first event concerned a meeting set up to discuss the 18 Edicts of the School of Shammai. These “edicts” or “measures” were guidelines for Jews and how they were to relate to the non-Jews. The second event was where this meeting took place. It was in the home of a zealot leader named Chananiah Ben Hezekiah, the son of Hezekiah Ben Gurion, the founder of the Zealots. These men supported the School of Shammai. The Av Beit Din of the Sanhedrin was Menachem the Essene, and he was at the meeting. There was a vote taken and the School of Shammai outnumbered the School of Hillel at the meeting, and the 18 Edicts were passed. Menachem the Essene departs Jerusalem with his followers and goes out to the Essenes in the wilderness. As a result, Shammai becomes Av Beit Din (Baby Talmud, Shabbat 13b and 17a). After the meeting, some from the School of Shammai killed some from the School of Hillel. In Part 4, we will pick up here and discuss the 18 Edicts in more detail and how they affected our understanding of the gospels and epistles.

Posted in All Teachings, Articles, Idioms, Phrases and Concepts, Understanding the New Testament

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