Varieties of Judaism

When Christianity came into being, Judaism was not all of one pattern. In it were to be found several trends, schools, and sects. Not all of them were important in the development of Christianity. We need notice, therefore, only those which were significant for the history of that faith.

A trend of primary importance was towards the penetration of Judaism by Hellenism. The Jews were widely scattered in the Mediterranean world. Here they fell under the influence of the Greek thought which was so potent in that region, especially after the conquests by Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ. Outstanding as a centre of Greek culture was Alexandria, in Egypt.

The preeminent representative of this trend was Philo, or Philo Jud^us. An Alexandrian, born late in the first century before Christ and doing most of his work in the first century of the Christian Era, he was a contemporary of Jesus. He was profoundly influenced by Greek thought, especially by Platonism, but also by the Stoics and the Pythagoreans. Indeed, he knew Greek much better than he did Hebrew and could almost be counted as a Greek philosopher. He was of the Hellenistic world, that cultural atmosphere, a mixture of the Orient and Greece, which arose from the spread of Greek thought and manners into the Orient. It was Hellenism in which Philo was nurtured. Yet Philo was a loyal Jew by birth and religion and sought through his writings to commend his faith to the Hellenistic world. In interpreting the Jewish scriptures he employed the device of allegory, a method which he did not originate and which was to persist long after him, in Christian as well as in other circles. With the aid of allegory he sought to show that the profoundest speculations of Greek thought were to be found in Jewish law. He insisted that Moses was the source of much of Greek philosophy. This, too, became the attitude of some of the Christian writers of the first centuries of that faith.

The Hellenistic Judaism of which Philo was the leading representative at once found expression and was reinforced through what was known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was made up of translations of Jewish sacred books into Greek. The name is derived from the tradition that the task of translation was accomplished in the third century B.C. in seventy-two days by seventy-two scholars sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria at the request of one of the Ptolemies. So the translation was the work of many different hands. It was obviously needed for the many Jews for whom Greek was the language of everyday life and to whom the Hebrew of the original was either unfamiliar or understood only with difficulty.

Hellenistic Judaism was varied. A certain amount of unity was given it by the synagogue and the use of the Septuagint in reaching and in the services of the synagogue. Yet the penetration of Judaism by Hellenism differed from community to community and even from individual to individual. Moreover, Hellenism itself was far from uniform. Hellenistic Judaism, therefore, had many aspects, most of which are now lost us through the ravages of time.

Through Hellenistic Judaism many converts were won from the surrounding non-Jewish communities. The Jews were profoundly convinced that theirs was the only true religion and that it would sometime become the faith of all mankind. They probably had few professional missionaries whose assignment it was to win the Gentiles, but in their intercourse with the non-Jews — the "Gentiles" — many Jews sought to bring the latter to their faith. Their synagogue services were open to all, whether Jew or Gentile. Many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism. Some of them partly adopted Judaism but did not become full members of the Jewish community. They abandoned idolatry and the worship of other gods, they observed the Sabbath and the Jewish regulations of clean and unclean foods, they attended the services of the synagogue, and, in general, observed Jewish ethics. Others went the whole way and became full proselytes. They not only conformed as did those who might be described as on the fringes of Judaism. In addition they were circumcised, were baptized (the baptism was by immersion), and offered a sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. They thus were accepted into the Jewish community as equals of those who were Jews by birth.

Many converts came from less than religious motives. Some were forced by the political authorities to accept Judaism. Numbers entered through marriage. Still others wished to share in the special privileges which were accorded the Jews in some regions and periods. However, many adopted Judaism from profound religious conviction.

Eventually, as we are to see, Christianity had much of its early spread through the circles of Hellenistic Judaism, both among those who were Jews by long heredity and those who had either become full proselytes or were on the fringes of the synagogue.

In general, the penetration of Judaism by Hellenism was less marked within Palestine than outside it. Some permeation there was, even in this traditional stronghold of the Jews. Many in its very home would have Judaism conform to Hellenism. However, as we have suggested, strong resistance was put up against the attempts at partial or complete conformity and especially against the efforts of Antiochus Epiphanes to assimilate the Jews to Hellenism.

Within Palestine the Hebrew religious heritage was shared by several groups. Some of these became significant for Christianity.

One of which we hear mention in the first century was the Samaritans. The Samaritans were not Jews. They were regarded by the latter as outsiders, partly akin and yet to be classed with the Gentiles. They were descendants of some of the Israelites who had composed the Northern Kingdom and who had not been carried away captive at the time of the downfall of that state. They accepted the Law as contained in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, but they rejected Jerusalem as the centre of true worship and would not venerate some of the writings contained in the Jewish scriptures.

Another group of which we hear something in the New Testament was the Saddu-cees. They were aristocrats, a kind of hereditary caste, who entered into political life and for a time controlled the temple in Jerusalem. They tended to conform to Hellenism and to lead the Hellenistic party, so far as such a party could be said to exist. Yet in some ways they were, as are most aristocrats, conservatives. As such they held to the written and repudiated the oral Jewish Law. They also rejected personal immortality, judgement after death, angels, and devils. They displayed little deep religious conviction and did not have enduring influence.

Far more important for Christianity were the Pharisees. They wished to keep the inherited faith pure from alien contamination. They stood for the strict observance of the Law. Theirs was a personal as well as a national religion, for they showed a sense of sin, recognized the need for repentance, and made much of the grace and forgiveness of God. In contrast with the Sadducees they believed in a future life with rewards and punishments. They stressed oral tradition and by it elaborated and supplemented the written Law. The rank and file of the Palestinian populace were more influenced by them than by any other of the competing kinds of Judaism. It was with them that Jesus and the early Christians had their chief conflicts. In his teaching Jesus and the Pharisees seemed to have much m common, but in the contest with a school which it appeared so closely to resemble some of the essential characteristics of Christianity stood out. To these we are to recur later.

A form of Judaism which seems to have included only a comparatively few was the Essenes. They appear to have lived together in groups, holding all things in common. The majority were celibates. They possessed no slaves, hated war, and refused to hurt man either voluntarily or at the command of another. They were austere in both food and clothing, worked hard, and denied themselves pleasure. They prized honesty and, except for the vows which they assumed on entering the Essene fellowship, would not take oaths but simply give their unsupported word. They preferred agricultural occupations, but were also to be found in towns and villages. They gave generous assistance to the deserving poor. Much that we know of the Essenes is akin to Christian teaching. Yet there is no proof of Essene influence upon the Christian faith.

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