S a first step in our investigation it is necessary that we should ascertain our sources of information, and consider somewhat carefully to what extent they are severally to be relied upon, and the use to be made of them. This is important especially with respect to the Messianic beliefs of the Jews ; those of the earliest Christians, which are to be compared with theirs, are less open to question.
We desiderate the evidence of writings which may with probability be assigned to a date prior to the rise of Christianity, but not so long before that they cannot fairly be taken as an index of opinion at that time; or of Jewish writings subsequent to its rise, which there is good reason to think have not been influenced either by sympathy with or hostility to the new faith. Clearly we must beware of arguing from the Messianic passages of the Old Testament as interpreted by the Christian Church to the beliefs even of the most spiritually enlightened Jews before the Coming of Christ. When, indeed, we have direct evidence that a certain aspect of the Messiah's Person and Work was present to the minds of Jews at or shortly before the Christian era, we may refer to the passages of the Old Testament which seem to set forth this aspect in order to gain a more vivid sense of the way in which it would be apprehended; because we should have reason to believe in the case supposed, that these passages must have been received and meditated upon as Messianic by Jews of the time. But we can do this only on the ground of the contemporary evidence as to the conception of the Messiah and His times at the era in question.
The earlier Targums, the Talmud, and the older Midrashim will, I think, first suggest themselves to many readers as likely to meet our want. The Rabbinic literature has been commonly regarded as the great storehouse of illustrations of Jewish beliefs and customs in New Testament times. And on many points, no doubt, rightly so, but unhappily even its oldest portions can only be of very qualified use for the subject we have in hand. At best they can only be accepted as witnesses of a secondary order. The evidence drawn from them may be held to have a confirming force when it agrees with other evidence of a more direct kind ; while, if it should be found to differ, an explanation of the divergence may be demanded.
The Mishnah, which was the first great collection and arrangement of Rabbinic tradition in written form, and the oldest we possess, was the work of the second century. It was brought to a conclusion by R. Jehuda about the end of the century. A somewhat similar collection, the Tosephta, which, however, did not attain to the same authoritative position, has come down to us from the third century. Of the two " completions" of the Mishnah, the Palestinian and Babylonian Gemaras, the embodiment of the former the rabbinic literature.
Was this article helpful?