This subject will be critical to understanding the New Testament. Most people who read the Gospels and Epistles do not even know that there was a great controversy over the non-Jews and their approach to the Gospel (basar). So, we will give a brief overview of what was going on and this will help in understanding any of the Gospels or Epistles. There are further teachings on this subject in more detail on this site for those who want more information.
First and foremost, there was no such thing as “Judaism” in the first century. There were “Judaisms” but not one, united Jewish faith that was followed by all. There were many regions where Jews lived, but the largest community was in Babylon. The second was in Alexandria, Egypt, and it was a major city where an estimated 150,000 Jews lived. One of the greatest libraries in ancient times was located there. The third largest population was in Judea and Galilee and as long as the Temple stood it was the most influential. There were also Jews in Asia Minor and as far as Europe. These communities had differences in dress, customs, language and how they interpreted the Scriptures.
The Jews of Alexandria, Asia Minor and Europe were very Hellenistic. Jews in Babylon spoke Aramaic and Jews in Judea and Galilee spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Jews were usually divided into two basic categories called “Traditional” and “Hellenistic” and we see this in Acts 6.1. A persecution broke out against Jewish believers in Acts 8.2 and they were dispersed throughout Judea, Samaria and the world. But, when you look at who was dispersed, it was the Hellenistic believers, not the Traditional.
We see that Traditional Jews like Peter, James and John remained in Jerusalem and had great favor. The believers at that time were all Jewish or non-Jews who had converted to become Jews. It wasn’t till Acts 10 that Gentiles became believers without having to become Jews by conversion. Among Hellenists there were two groups. One group remained pagan and the other believed in the Lord.
There were many other groups in the first century that we need to be familiar with. The Am Ha Eretz (people of the land) were the common people, not scholars and the Talmidim (disciples) were a part of this group. They were the “unlearned” in Acts 4.13 and they followed the halakah (how to walk) of the Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees were divided into two main groups. This started during the Hasmonean period (160 years before Yeshua) and the groups were called the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. Hillel died around 10 A.D. and he was president of the Sanhedrin, and Shammai died around 30 A.D. Shammai was the vice president or Nasi of the Sanhedrin for all of Yeshua’s life and certainly knew who he was.
Today, Jewish groups follow the School of Hillel and we will show why later, but in the first century the School of Shammai was dominant. There was “tension” between the two groups and even violence at times. The Sadducees also began during the Hasmonean era and were descendants of the Maccabees (Hasmonean family). The Sadducees had conflict with the Pharisees and backed the Maccabean/Hasmonean kings. They had different approaches to the Torah. The Pharisees taught that the Torah was open to interpretation and had an “oral” Torah, while the Sadducees were not open to interpretation and were very literal and strict. They did not accept the other books of the Bible and rejected the oral Torah of the Pharisees. This brought much contention.
The ruling class of priests were mainly Sadducees, but not all. Other groups vying for control of the Temple were the family of Boethus (Boethucians) and the family of Chanan (Annas). The Sadducees were dominant in the Sanhedrin, even though the Nasi (president) and Av Beit Din (vice president) were Pharisees. The following groups will be in contention with all the other groups.
The Essenes are known by many now due to the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were orthodox and closer to Hillel than Shammai. They were against the Sadducees in the Temple and the House of Chanan (Annas) and Boethus. They were also against the Hasmoneans and many were priests fed up with the corruption. They were very eschatological.
The Herodians were more political than religious, supported by the family of Herod, but were Sadducees basically. The Zealots were made up of many groups, but by the fall of Jerusalem there were three main groups. The Sicari (cut-throats) were zealous for God, like many biblical people were, but they believed in political assassinations. They believed that the Tanak (“old testament”) prophesied that the Messiah was coming so they tried to provoke the Romans. Judas Iscariot, one of Yeshua’s disciples, was possibly called Yehudah ha Sicari (the Sicari had ties with the school of Shammai and means assassin). Others believe “iscariot” means “ish Kerioth” meaning man from Kerioth.
The Yiray ha Shamayim (Godfearers) were Gentiles who believed in the Lord. In Greek, they were called the “phoubemenoi” and they are seen all over the Gospels and Epistles. Cornelius (Acts 10) was one. Paul addressed some of his letters to them. This group will play a key role in what we are discussing here. The Talmud and the writings of Josephus have much information on these groups. The 18 Edicts, or some say the 18 Measures, are going to come out of the conflict between the School of Hillel and Shammai. They will change the way you look at the Gospels and Epistles.
These groups, as said before, go all the way back to the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans 167 years before Yeshua. The Sadducees would set halakah till 70 A.D. because they were the religious ruling class. Hillel’s grandson is Gamaliel, and we see his influence in the teachings of Paul (Acts 22.3; 23.6; Phil 3.5). Bad blood develops between these two schools on how they relate to non-Jews. This is very important in understanding the New Testament. The School of Hillel and Shammai will argue about everything. Paul uses this dissension in his defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23.1-9. There were 316 separate controversies between the two groups. Yeshua would argue with the Pharisees but it doesn’t tell you which school. Sometimes you know which group because of the argument raised, but for the most part you don’t know. Usually, though, when Yeshua takes issue with a Pharisee they will be from the School of Shammai. His replies are very similar to what the School of Hillel has been saying.
The status of the non-Jew will be a central issue. They are not “pagans” but Yiray ha Shamayim, Godfearers or “devout ones.” The School of Hillel was more receptive to non-Jews, especially if they followed the Noahide Laws. They taught that a non-Jew would have a place in the resurrection and the Olam Haba. The School of Shammai said “no” and believed that they had to become a Jew to be saved, and that involved circumcision (Acts 15.1).
Several events would happen around 20 BC that would shape this issue. A meeting was called and the 18 Edicts of the School of Shammai would be discussed, which were guidelines for Jews and how they would treat the non-Jews. The second event concerned where this meeting would take place. It would take place at the “upper chamber” of a scholar named Hananiah ben Hezekiah. This man is the son of the man who formed the Zealots. The Zealots were supporters of the School of Shammai.
The School of Hillel was trying to “reach out” so they met in the “upper chamber” of Hananiah Ben Hezekiah, which many scholars believe was a chamber in Beit Avtinas of the Temple. Because the School of Shammai outnumbered the School of Hillel, the 18 Edicts were passed because some of the members of Beit Hillel were killed by members of Beit Shammai, in conjunction with the Zealots (read “Jesus the Pharisee” by Harvey Falk). Now, how does this apply to the Gospels and Epistles?
Many think Yeshua was against the Pharisees because he constantly argued with them. But, they were the classic arguments you can find in the Talmud, Tosefta and many books have been written on the subject. Yeshua agreed with the School of Hillel most of the time based on his answers. The 18 Edicts will influence how we see and understand many scriptures like Acts 10-11, Acts 15, Acts 21 and the Book of Galatians. There is a list of the 18 Edicts in the article called, “Houses of Hillel and Shammai” on Wkipedia, and the content is discussed in the Talmud.
The School of Hillel believed that they were to go out into the world and teach the Gentiles the Word of God and encourage them to accept the Noahide Laws. If they did, they were called Godfearers. You will see them referred to in the Gospels and Epistles as those that “feared God”; “devout ones” or “worshippers.” The School of Shammai was also very zealous and thought the Godfearers were on the right path but needed to become a Jew through circumcision to be saved. This was the reason for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and the underlying problem in the Book of Galatians.
The 18 Edicts of Shammai did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem because most of the Pharisees that survived were from the School of Hillel and they didn’t want them because they did not think they were biblical. Some of the edicts said that a Jew could not enter the house of a Godfearer(Acts 10.28), eat food from them or eat with them (Acts 11.1-3; Gal 2.12). As far as the Jewish believers were concerned, all this changes in Acts 10 and 11 with Cornelius and his family.
They were Godfearers and the Holy Spirit falls on them just like in Acts 2, and Peter knows they are saved without having to become a Jew and be circumcised (Acts 11.15-17). Peter explains what happened to the other apostles and brethren and they changed their doctrine on this issue (Acts 11.18). It comes up again in Acts 15 and in Galatia because it was a hot issue. It took awhile for them to understand what the Lord was doing. This was the “dividing wall” that the Lord was breaking down in Eph 2.14-15, not the commandments in the Torah.
The 18 Edicts were the commandments of men. The Book of Galatians is not about obeying the Torah, or Law versus Grace, as some teach. It was about whether a non-Jewish believer had to be circumcised to be saved according to a perverted, man-made doctrine called the 18 Edicts from the School of Shammai. Understanding this will really help you in your understanding as you read the Gospels and Epistles.