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First Century Jewish Culture and Christianity
This is a paper that I wrote for an independent study this past semester. It's essentially a summary of the basic keys to understanding Jewish culture. It doesn't go too in-depth, so I wanted to post it kind of as a primer for those new to the site and the study of preterism. Plus, a review never hurts.First Century Jewish Culture & Christianity: The Ties That Bind
In a pluralistic society, it is a truism that cultural upbringing will color a person’s outlook. Although some cross-cultural behavior results in confusion, sometimes even offence, cooler minds interject, saying, “That is how they act in X culture,” and many, if not most, find this an acceptable explanation. Those who were born in China will predictably act Chinese. Those who are born in America will act predictably American. Imported movies create a window through which the viewer can make a connection with another culture that he might never see otherwise. He readily accepts that others do not see things the way he does, others will not react the way she does. They have learned differently.
Oddly enough, although generally sensitive to other cultures, those who study the Bible rarely give it any such courtesy. There is little attempt to understand the Bible in its own language, not just Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, but its cultural language, its historical language. These frameworks are virtually ignored by the average reader, and even worse, by the scholar on occasion. A temptation that does not exist when dealing with other modern day cultures (perhaps because they are more Westernized than previously) jumps to the forefront when dealing with ancient texts.
As an example, among a list of Biblical contradictions(1) on Infidels.org, an atheist website, there is a reference to Exodus 20:12, which says, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” They then claim that Jesus, who is supposed to fulfill the Torah,(2) negates this commandment by telling his disciples, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”(3) Apparently, the two are mutually exclusive and therefore a contradiction. However, it is interesting that in Ancient Israel sages and teachers were regarded as being more important than one’s own father,(4) and that in Mesopotamia teachers were actually called “Father.”(5) In addition, “father” in the Ancient Near East (ANE) was a term for one’s patron, someone who was socially higher, who provided what one needed.(6) In this case, the claim of contradiction reveals more about the character and motivation of the accuser than about the Bible.
Given the above illustration, understanding the cultural and historical framework is of great importance if we are to grasp the meaning of the Bible. The reader who does not attempt to gain such knowledge is doomed to misinterpret and misrepresent the meaning of a large part of the Old and New Testament. In light of this, I will investigate the historical and cultural features that characterize life and education in the ANE. Having set up that framework, I will then turn to Christianity as a Jewish sect that grew out of a Jewish culture, utilizing Jewish ideas and beliefs. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on previously dim areas of study.
Since Jewish history is a long and involved one, I have chosen to start from just after the Maccabean revolt and focus primarily on the era closest to the time of Christianity. Just after the Babylonian conquest, Jews that had been left behind or who had escaped began drifting towards Egypt. During the reign of Ptolemy I just after the Persian conquest of Babylon, the number of Jews migrating into Lower Egypt exploded, with Alexandria the most populated city.(7) In fact, every part of the Grecian and Roman empires experienced a surge of Jewish inhabitants, such that the Greek writers attested that “by the first century C.E. Jews were to be found in every part of Asia Minor.”(8) Religiously, the Jews were particularly privileged: they were not forced into the Imperial cult; Jewish military units did not have to serve on the Sabbath; etc. Bit by bit the Jews became more commonplace, gaining positions of power in the communities, developing and filling synagogues, and even inducing some “gentiles” to take up Jewish religious customs, hence “God-fearers.”(9) This political, social, and economic success did not sit well with all, and soon anti-Semites reared their ugly heads, accusing the Jews of practicing “barbarous superstition.”(10) However, there was little negative reaction, and by and large the Jews lived peacefully, if not amicably, with their neighbors.
In Palestine, the situation was more or less the same. The ruling Hasmonean Dynasty crumbled under internal squabbles over right to succession and other political issues, culminating in an appeal for help by Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II to Sextus Pompey. This move backfired when Pompey took control of the entire region of Judea, an area Rome had long wanted to possess.(11) Thus Judea and Jerusalem came under Roman rule, but little changed, at least religiously. The era was marked and would continue to be marked by sectarianism, until after the destruction of the Second Temple. However, this sectarianism was different from that of the Old Testament (OT). In the OT, disagreements sprang up over where the Jews should worship God: Jerusalem or at any “high place”? In the first century ANE, the issue of where to worship was settled. Almost no party disagreed that the Temple was God’s chosen place, and they were not willing to change such a characterizing feature, especially in the face of powerful Hellenizing forces. The main disputes had to do with A) what constituted Torah and how to interpret it, and B) how to confront and deal with inevitable Hellenizing influence.(12) Out of the clamor, a few distinct voices arose.
Perhaps the most well-known group is that of the Pharisees. While it would be easy to assume, due to the amount that Jesus interacts with them, that the Pharisees had a great following, they actually had a relatively small group. Yet by all accounts they held a great amount of sway in the way the Temple functioned, and were popular with the people due to their middle/lower class status. The Pharisees were generally un-Hellenized because of their lower status, and held to many traditional doctrines, e.g. humans had an immortal soul as well as free will (although God could still intervene in human affairs), and the “traditions of the fathers,” i.e. oral law handed down through the generations.(13) The Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the aristocrats, usually taking the positions of priest and high priest. They were far more Hellenized than the Pharisees; they rejected the oral traditions, strictly favoring the written Torah, and rejected any kind of divine intervention. The Sadducees were also very lax concerning the purity codes. While Pharisees recommended strict observance of the law, the Sadducees did not enforce Levitical laws outside the Temple.(14) These two groups constituted the two powerhouses in Jerusalem.
There were those who turned away from the Temple, however. The most notable dissenters were the Essenes and the Dead Sea Sect (DSS). The Essenes are most commonly associated with the group that hid the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran. They practiced “community of property,” sharing all wealth and possessions so that all were equal. The Essenes put a huge amount of emphasis on purity, washing several times a day to avoid uncleanliness. As for the Temple, their disagreement was not with the location, but with the purification and sacrificial rituals that the Sadducees practiced.(15) The DSS bears some similarities with the Essenes. Both groups were very secretive and shared communal property (although the DSS members owned it privately). The main difference was eschatological: the DSS believed strongly that it was predestined to help the soon-coming messiah forcibly over-through the Romans. They also believed another messiah from the line of Aaron would come to restore the Temple to its proper position.(16) While there were undoubtedly other groups, these four were the most vocal, and best represent the Jewish political and religious backdrop from which Christianity emerged.
In the ANE, educational concerns were quite uniform between cultures. Two essential interest characterized ANE education: maintaining tradition, and maintaining order.(17) For modern Americans, maintaining tradition seems strange and actually harmful to society and progress. However, the ANE, because it was a collectivist culture, viewed people dyadically, i.e. “in terms of their relationship to someone or something else.”(18) A person’s very identity was wrapped up in who her father was, what sect he belonged to, etc. Therefore, tradition had to survive in order for the Jews to know who they were and where they came from. The option to create one’s own “story” did not exist; a lack of ties led to a lack of certainty on the part of others, and where uncertainty existed, chaos followed closely. One could argue, therefore, that the continuity of tradition was bound to the establishment of order.
As for order and security, nothing lived closer to the edge. From the view point of the Ancient Israel, the world was constantly at risk of slipping into chaos.(19) Society was made up primarily of small groups that were somewhat connected. Such groups were self-contained, very devoted to the in-group, as discussed below. Since the in-group was small, the only way for it to continue was if the next generation maintained it. If a person left his family or village, that meant one less person to keep the village alive, and no village meant no security. Were every group to experience this, the entire nation would crumble. Obviously, it was important for education to maintain order.
The sages of ANE believed that the best way to ensure order was to acquire wisdom. Here it is important to point out that wisdom did not equal knowledge. In fact, knowledge was a neutral concept. Wisdom had to do with virtuous conduct: “Wisdom, the capacity to use information for human good, includes virtue.”(20) The most prized attributes were “self-control, restraint, eloquence, and honesty.”(21) These qualities were felt to guarantee against the looming chaos inherent in life, not just personal chaos but more importantly social chaos. Those who could control themselves could more rightly judge what Truth was, could better observe the world, and could better lead those who did not have self control. In addition, “whoever acquires Wisdom as a bride also possesses the personal attributes of the deity, particularly the four cardinal virtues.”(22) Since God overcame chaos in the creation story of Genesis,(23) anyone who could have His characteristics would undoubtedly be able to preserve order and provide security. This put the pursuit of wisdom at the forefront of Jewish education.
It is not difficult to realize that the ANE was collectivist. This area probably confuses Westerners more than any other aspect of first century Jewish culture. Unfortunately, as this is a broad and complex subject, I will only be able to deal with the most important details. That said, above all else the collectivist mindset established the base for all other characteristics of Jewish society. Since the group provided security, individuals were viewed in terms of others, i.e. dyadism. In short, “such people live in a world which is clearly and extensively ordered, a system which is well known to members of the group.”(24) As a result, people of the time were deeply concerned about what others thought. The worth of individuals grew in direct proportion to the extent that they embodied the beliefs, morals, and values of the group as a whole.(25) In the cultural language of the time, “worth” was “honor”: “Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgment of worth.”(26) As it applied to the Jews, honor meant first acting in accordance with what God commanded, then in accordance with what one’s group (e.g. the sects of the Pharisees or Sadducees) valued, and finally in accordance with the values of the family. This collectivism was particularly important to the Diaspora Jews, who lived among a hostile culture that did not share its values. It was important therefore that the Diaspora Jews develop a group-centered “court of appeal” that distributed meaningful honor.(27) While not overtly and deliberately ignoring the cultural cues of their neighbors, the Jews nevertheless held obedience and faithfulness to Torah as more honorable, for reasons I will enumerate below.
Opposite honor was, of course, shame. However, there were two different kinds of shame within the ANE framework. On the one hand, “negative” shame involved a rejection of one’s worth in the eyes of the group: “…Shame signifies…being seen as less than valuable because one has behaved in ways that run contrary to the values of the group.”(28) On the other hand, “positive” shame meant sensitivity to the opinions of others, and a desire to act in harmony with the group and its values: “To have shame in this sense is an eminently positive value. Any human being worthy of the title ‘human’…needs to have shame…to be perceptive to the opinions of others.”(29) Shame in either sense served to guard against destructive elements within the group, and in a sense ensured harmony and survival, as in the case of the Diaspora Jews.
Because of the small size of most of these communities, their livelihood was governed by the forces of nature, religion, and government. What they received to survive was not guaranteed, and since most were peasants, they “perceived themselves as subject to ‘nature,’”(30) and recognized that they had virtually no power to increase their supply without taking from others. Thus an attitude of “limited good” developed, which dictated that everything – and quite literally everything – was in short supply.(31) Food, love, honor, work, money, etc; all were of limited quantity. Given that what one was born with was what had been allotted to his family for generations, should he desire more of anything, he would be stealing from another’s allotment. Therefore, it was honorable to care for and sustain one’s “inherited status.” By taking care of what one had always had, no one could accuse him of depriving the group, thus threatening its existence.(32) However, because it was dishonorable to ask from others, therefore depriving them, a problem arose for those who, by misfortune, were unable to continue uphold their inherited status.
Those that fell into such positions resorted to appealing to social superiors. These social superiors, or “patrons,” could provide the unfortunate with what they needed but could not otherwise obtain. In a sense, “the client relates to his patron according to the social norms of child relations to actual parents, while the patron is expected to relate to his clients as a parent would to his actual children.”(33) Just as the father of the household provides his family with what it cannot obtain on its own, the patron gives as needed, in return for loyalty. Thus, when God is called the “father” of Israel,(34) He is acting as a patron, because he is providing life, land, and prosperity to Israel by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and into the land of Canaan. However, contracts did sometimes need a mediator,(35) and for the Jews, the Torah functioned as that go-between. The Torah brought Jews in contact with their patron, their “Heavenly Father,” so long as they obeyed it. Lack of obedience to Torah meant that the mediator no longer functioned, thus God could not be approached. In response to their patron’s grace, i.e. favor, the Israelites would have felt a responsibility to respond with gratitude.(36) Patronage was, therefore, a type of second family for those involved, as society pressured both parties to act as such.
The importance of family comes as no surprise. Since it was the basic unit of society, it served as the model and the foundation for all social interactions. Indeed, it “receives expression at every level...in society…and…provides the foundation for the society itself.”(37) The establishment of the family, i.e. marriage, was in turn a very important and critical step in the process. From the return from exile up to the first-century, the Jews practiced a defensive marriage strategy: sons and daughters married the closest kin allowed by incest laws, so that the family would remain close together and become more established.(38) The purpose was always to maintain a pure family line that would preserve the paternal legacy.(39) Ultimately, preserving the paternal line meant preserving the state and people of Israel as God had established it, which in turn meant that Israel had maintained purity before God, and could continue in her contract with Him.
Ancestry meant everything to Israel. One’s ability to trace his ancestry back to one of the Twelve Sons of Jacob proved that he belonged among God’s chosen and blessed people. If he could prove he was a child of Abraham, it served to “ground a claim to power, status, rank, office, or inheritance in an earlier ancestor.”(40) Since God had blessed Abraham, only his blood ancestors could lay claim to Abraham’s status as God’s chosen. Those who had a doubtful origin, those who could not prove their lineage, had none of the privileges that God had granted Israel, because they were impure. Those who could not procreate were also considered impure, because they could not perpetuate the people of Israel.(41) God had made his covenant with Israel, and only Israel, and covenants could last several generations,(42) so how could anyone who was not related by blood actually take advantage of a contract that was not theirs? It was imperative that the Israelites keep their blood pure so that the Torah could continue to function as a mediator between themselves and God.
So where exactly does Christianity fall into all of this? Now that I have established somewhat of a foundation, the answer will become clearer. Christianity was something new, yet at the same time it used language and ideas that were not new. I begin by noting that, in virtually all respects, Christianity was thoroughly Jewish in character, and viewed itself as that during the first century. Christianity developed during an era of messianic expectations, and Jesus had not been the only messiah on the scene.(43) Given the precedent and the desire, it would have been natural for Jews to latch on to someone who offered them hope, and many did. In addition, Jewish sects with a strong apocalyptic tradition already existed, such as the Dead Sea Sect at Qumran, and were accepted as legitimate Jews by the other sects.(44) Christianity certainly had its disagreements with the other sects, apparently the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but this conflict could be seen as an attempt by the Jews to redirect their wayward brothers back to the fold. From this we can see that Christianity was squarely within a Jewish framework.
The divinity of Christ, although seen as a later addition by some, was theologically within the boundaries of Judaism. Earlier on, Wisdom literature had gradually begun to shift its understanding about the nature of Wisdom. Sages, most notably Ben Sira, began personifying Wisdom as a helper to God, who was with God at creation and aided Him in restraining chaos and establishing order,(45) an idea that John very blatantly parallels in his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…” Ben Sira took this idea a little further, claiming that not only was Wisdom God’s helper, but that Wisdom manifest itself in the Torah, the mediator between God and man.(46) Jesus claim to be the fulfillment of the Torah,(47) combined with the writer of Hebrews calling Jesus the “mediator of the new covenant,”(48) clearly borrows from this idea. The writer of Baruch went still further when he “introduces the curious notion that Wisdom subsequently appeared on earth and dwelt among people…”(49) Here the connection requires knowledge of ANE culture. Human activity was divided into three zones: the eyes/heart (knowing, understanding, feeling), the mouth/ears (instructing, telling, revealing), and the hands/feet (acting, doing).(50) While the Father (God) is said to know, love, and judge, and the Spirit of God is said to empower the apostles to work miracles, Jesus reveals the Father, and instructs the apostles of what they are to do.(51) Since instruction and revealing the attributes of God are the task of Wisdom (see above), Jesus implicitly takes over that role; and if Wisdom is a divine aid to God, a part of Him, yet a distinct zone of activity, then Jesus is implicitly a part of God, yet a distinctly personified zone of activity. The idea of the Trinity, the oneness of Jesus with the Father, and yet his distinctiveness, are very Jewish concepts, rooted in Jewish theology and culture.
As Christ is link with the Torah, he takes on the roles of Torah. One of those roles is to act as mediator, as the writer of Hebrews calls him. Just as the Torah allowed access to God, Jesus now acted as that bridge, yet one that was not dependent upon man’s strict adherence. The most shocking thing about Jesus’ message, as de Silva points out, is not God’s grace and favor, or even that He offers it to the ungrateful, but that He offers it with the best that He has, and that he himself provides the mediator, instead of man needing to seek out the mediator.(52) Whereas the Torah required perfection and absolute obedience in order to function correctly, since it was mediator and contract, Jesus was a personal patron, who fulfilled the contract himself and staked his honor on it. Therefore, the contract was between the Father and the Son, and the Son was free to make a contract with whoever needed his help, thereby redirecting them to the Father.
Finally, those coming into a contract with Christ were brought into a new group that had new social standings. Since, according to Paul, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,”(53) all were on equal social ground. Those coming into Christ were consequently social equals coming together around a common cause, creating a “polyadic” relationship, or, a new family (group of clients) with a common Father (patron).(54) This family corresponds to the Jewish family, barring one major difference: the Jewish family was blood related, and therefore in contract with God through the Torah. Others could not enter into contract with God without becoming a part of Israel as a proselyte. The early Christians rather brilliantly dealt with this issue. The lineages in Matthew and Luke confirm that Jesus is a direct descendent of Abraham by blood, and therefore a true Israelite. Paul takes this assertion and expands it considerably when he calls the Church the “Body of Christ.”(55) Accordingly, those who come into the “body of Christ” become, in a sense, a full-blooded member of Israel. They come into the contract between God the Father and Jesus His Son, because their participation with Christ gives them that dyadic relationship necessary to take part in the new covenant. Christianity, from the Christian perspective, creates a new kinship group, and yet still manages to satisfy, in some sense, the Jewish requirements of the Torah.
The connections between Christianity and Judaism are deeper and richer than most given them credit for. Since Christianity grew out of a Jewish context, with Jewish theology and Jewish concerns, it is wrong not to interpret its earliest teachings in light of a Jewish framework. Whether one believes in the message of Christ or not, the beauty and intricacy of the message disappears when propelled into any other context but the original. Hopefully the ANE culture of the first century will receive more and more attention in the future, opening up the Old and New Testaments in ways previously incomprehensible.
(2) Matt 5:17-18
(3) Matt 23:9
(4) Crenshaw, James L. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. New York: Doubleday, 1998. 10.
(5) Ibid. 15-16.
(6) Pilch, John J. and Bruce J. Malina. Handbook of Biblical Social Values. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. 151.
(7) Schiffman, Lawrence H. From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism. Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991. 82-84.
(8) Ibid. 85.
(9) Ibid. 86-87.
(10) Ibid. 90-91.
(11) Ibid. 98-103.
(12) Ibid. 103-104.
(13) Ibid. 105-107.
(14) Ibid. 108.
(15) Ibid. 113-115.
(16) Ibid. 116-117.
(17) Crenshaw 201, 1.
(18) Pilch 53.
(19) Crenshaw 72.
(20) Ibid. 120.
(21) Ibid. 2.
(22) Ibid. 129.
(23) Ibid. 66.
(24) Pilch 94.
(25) deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2000. 35.
(26) Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Third Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. 30.
(27) deSilva 38-41.
(28) Ibid. 25.
(29) Malina 49.
(30) Pilch 123.
(31) Malina 89.
(32) Ibid. 91.
(33) Pilch 152.
(34) Deut. 32:6
(35) Malina 96.
(36) deSilva 101.
(37) Pilch 77.
(38) deSilva 175, Malina 151.
(39) Malina 138.
(40) deSilva 159.
(41) Malina 175.
(42) deSilva 97.
(43) Schiffman 149-150.
(44) Ibid. 150.
(45) Crenshaw 64-66.
(46) Ibid. 70-71.
(47) Matt. 5:17-18
(48) Heb. 12:24
(49) Crenshaw 247-248.
(50) Malina 69.
(51) Ibid. 73-75.
(52) deSilva 126-130.
(53) Rom. 3:23
(54) Malina 97.
(55) I Cor. 12:27-28