Transforming Biblical Ideas

As biblical interpretation of the written law and the rabbinic oral law developed, so did Jewish thought. Developments occurred in a wide array of subjects, including conceptions of God, prayer, charity, the family, and relations with non-Jews. To understand Judaism in the first century and the emergence of Christianity, the areas of ritual actions and notions of purity, eschatology and the afterlife, and the messiah deserve particular attention.

Ritual actions are typical of much of the world's religious practice. Particularly complex are the messages implicit in concepts of purity prevalent among the Pharisees and rabbis. Purity laws have been viewed in modern times as a kind of primitive hygiene, because societies tend to make taboo harmful or noxious substances such as corpses or human excreta. However, cultures often identify as being taboo completely harmless substances, while harmful ones are sometimes central to ritual events. Biblical and rabbinic rules, similarly, do not always have obvious medical value.

Israelite society, like many non-Western societies, had a series of food taboos, of which meat from pigs is the best known. Others included not eating blood, a kid seethed in its mother's milk, nor any of the birds and mammals that themselves violate these rules in their activity as predators. Rabbinic authorities greatly expanded these ordinances, directing that the slaughter off all kosher, 'ritually acceptable', animals be done in a humane way, and that meat and milk be kept strictly separate, as a safeguard against violating the biblical rules. The Bible says not to eat a young goat boiled in its mother's milk; it says nothing about keeping separate utensils for meat and milk or about not eating a fowl, which provides no milk for its young, at the same meal as cheese. Yet as the rules were interpreted, poultry was treated like meat and cheese was treated like milk, so that combining these too became forbidden. The rabbinic expression of these rules illustrates what the rabbis called 'making a fence around the Torah', setting up rules that prevented the inadvertent violations of Torah statutes.

Biblical texts, especially Leviticus, describe a complex network of laws concerning ritual purity. Coming into contact with the dead or experiencing certain bodily fluids, such as menstrual blood or semen, would render a person impure. These laws had the practical effect of regulating an individual's participation in the Temple. Priests were required to maintain a high degree of purity while performing their official duties. In addition, anyone who wished to make a sacrifice, which could only be performed at the Temple, was to be free from impurity. Most forms of impurity were easily removed through immersion in water and/or the passage of time. These laws became the focus of attention for several Jewish groups in the Second Temple period, especially the Pharisees and Essenes. Their basic objective was to observe the laws of purity even when not interacting with the Temple. For them and for the rabbis who also devoted considerable attention to this subject, purity laws provided boundary markers for the areas of Jewish life that were to be held sacrosanct.

While much of the rabbinic corpus seeks to explain the correct practices to observe in this world, thoughts about life after death and the end of time often receive considerable attention. In discussing Jewish ideas about the end of time, we have to distinguish between projections of what might be the fate of the nation or the world at the end of this age, on the one hand, and the destiny of the individual at the end of this existence, on the other. Biblical literature abounds with examples of the first, but we come up practically empty-handed when looking for the second.

The doctrine of the events at the end of the age is termed 'eschatology', from the Greek word for the end. A genre of Jewish literature that developed in the later prophetic books and flourished in the Hellenistic era is termed 'apocalyptic', from the Greek word for unveiling. Most apocalyptic literature is eschatological, but that is not its only characteristic. The genre is visionary in its presentation; whereas the prophets had said, 'Thus says Yahweh,' the apocalyptists more often wrote, 'I saw, and behold.' The visions offered a form of coded symbolic representation. A human figure can represent a divine one, a beast a dynasty, a horn on that beast one of its rulers. Sometimes the code is explained for the reader, as in the sequence of visions in the first six chapters of Zechariah. Other times, it is left undeciphered, offering a wide field for reinterpretation and innovative application in later centuries. By and large, the evident concern of these texts is the corporate fate of Israel, or of a particularly faithful subgroup.

While people in biblical Israel may have formulated ideas about what happens to someone after death, scarcely anything in their literature anticipated the post-biblical ideas of paradise or resurrection as a reward for a righteous life. The original solution to the problem of where personality goes after death was Sheol, a place like the Greek Hades, where the person resides in greatly attenuated form. Sheol certainly is not equivalent to heaven or hell. It is a pit, a place of weakness and estrangement from God, from which the spirits of the dead issue on the rare occasions when they can be seen on the earth.

On the whole, ancient Israelite society was hardly preoccupied with the question of whether there is life after death. Whenever the question is raised as a direct issue, the answer seems to be no. Consider Ecclesiastes 3:19:

For the fate of the son of man and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.

The book of Job (14:14) asks directly whether people live again after they die: 'If a man die, shall he live again?' Job's answer (14:20-2) appears to be that people grow old and die, and there is nothing else:

Thou prevailest forever against him, and he passes; thou changest his countenance, and sendest him away. His sons come to honour, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not. He feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself.

In another passage that has suffered in transmission, Job's death is not clearly stated, though his death and resurrection have often been understood (19:25-7):

For I know that my redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

Although this passage is often read as a prediction of Job's resurrection, it appears only to affirm that Job wants to be vindicated while still alive, in a heavenly court by a heavenly vindicator or lawyer, as the logical outcome of his challenge to the justice of God. The original context for these statements must be extrapolated from ancient Near Eastern mythology, where the high god was pictured as a judge or king in a heavenly courtroom. The passage does not suggest there is life after death. Rather, it portrays a man seeking redress from God in God's own heavenly court. The book of Job almost seems to argue explicitly against any simple pietistic belief in immortality, in direct contradiction to the way the book is often understood.

Nothing in the Hebrew Bible describes the expectation of a literal resurrection. The metaphor of resurrection is explicitly interpreted in Isaiah and Ezekiel as a description of the people when they begin to live again under prophetic influence. Even the stirring phrases in Isaiah 26:19 which have contributed to the sophisticated doctrine of resurrection in later Judaism, appear to mean more than they do in fact: 'Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dusk, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.' This has been taken as a literal statement of resurrection. But like the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, Isaiah is speaking of the end of spiritual death and actual poverty that the nation was experiencing. These references were to be creatively re-understood in the first and second centuries when the note of resurrection was clearly sounded within the society.

The first indubitable reference to resurrection in biblical literature comes from the visions of the book of Daniel, which date to the years of oppression that engendered the Maccabean revolt, not to the earlier Babylonian period, as the book purports. Daniel 12:2 states:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.

No general theory of immortality is articulated here, only the resurrection of the 'many', which satisfies the Hebrew concept of justice. Those who suffered and died in remaining true to God's Torah will be vindicated. The reference to the saved as 'sleepers in the dust' may be a reinterpretation of Isaiah 26:19. Those who persecuted the righteous of Yahweh will also be resurrected so that they can be punished. The doctrine of resurrection, therefore, arose in response to the problem of righteous suffering and martyrdom. Immortality becomes a special reward for martyrs in Judaism, just as it was in Greek mythology for the heroes like Hercules and Perseus who accomplished superhuman tasks. The story of the seven martyred sons in 2 Maccabees 7 exemplifies this idea. A mother watches as her seven sons are tortured and put to death because they will not eat pork. The approach of death evokes the hope of being transported to heaven as an eternal reward after the short period of pain and suffering on earth.

Another important aspect of Jewish speculation dealing with the afterlife concerns the journey to heaven. In most cases a journey to heaven is assumed to take place at death, for paradise and hell were both thought to be located in one of the several heavens. No matter how the journey is viewed to have been made, the texts are unanimous in understanding the power of the voyage to be due to God's own desire for the adept to pay a visit. Once a credible prophet is actually said to have visited heaven and seen the ultimate rewards there, the proleptic experiences of eternal life and compensation after death are demonstrated vividly to the community in his writings. Great personages or mystics could undertake heavenly ascent during life by means of ecstatic trance or other extracorporeal experiences. 1 Enoch and other apocalyptic texts report the fabulous journeys of well-known biblical heroes. The resulting heavenly journey serves to verify the eschatological beliefs of the community. Reports of rabbis ascending to the heavenly world are preserved in merkavah

(chariot) traditions, an image adapted from the opening vision in the book of Ezekiel. Many rabbis, however, worried about possible dangers associated with these experiences, and therefore restricted study of mystical texts to persons of sufficient age and discretion.

By the first century, Judaism had developed ideas about numerous divine agents—angels, sons of God, magicians, and others. The messiah, however, ranks first because of its importance for understanding the development of Judaism and Christianity. Jews and especially Christians often have an impression that the concept was rooted in the time of the Israelite monarchy. What creates that impression is that an older vocabulary and older texts were pressed into service by Jews and Christians in the Hellenistic period. The Hebrew word mashiah, rendered in English as 'messiah', means 'an anointed one'. The ritual of anointing consisted of pouring oil over someone's head to inaugurate that person into a divinely sanctioned official position. In ancient Israelite society, principally kings but also prophets and sometimes priests were appointed to office by anointing. In the Hebrew Bible, the term mashiah is associated characteristically with the currently reigning king, not with some future king. Sometimes it appears in reference to priests, and twice in reference to the patriarchs. Saul's shield is once described as 'anointed', showing that the process of ordaining something for special service is more basic than the royal meaning of the word. Once it refers to Cyrus, the Persian king (Isa. 45:1).

The pre-exilic prophets sometimes express the expectation that God will raise up a king who will rule with justice and righteousness. Experience with less than perfect kings, as well as with foreign domination of the country, probably stimulated the belief in an ideal future kingship. The idea was greatly augmented when the last heir to the Davidic throne disappeared without historical trace during the Persian period. Since 2 Samuel 7 had promised that Israel should never fail to have a king of the Davidic line, there was a basis to hope for its restoration. Yet idealized future kings are not described in the time of the Israelite kingdoms by the term 'messiah'. The expected king is sometimes called the son of David (Isa. 11; Ezek. 34; Mic. 5); or he is called the branch, ostensibly a 'new shoot of the Davidic family tree' (Jer. 23). The concept of messiah would not have been self-evident or even comprehensible to an Israelite of the First Temple period. The explicit concept of a messianic hope does not develop until well after the Babylonian Exile.

Beginning in the Hellenistic period, the idea develops of a future anointed king, a messiah, who will lead Israel to victory against iniquitous foreign rulers. In the Psalms of Solomon, dated variously to the first century BCE or CE, the theme of the victorious battles of the messiah is extended to all those Gentile nations who have harmed Jerusalem, and the messiah himself is seen as a blameless ruler (17:41, 37, 44):

And he himself [will be] pure from sin, so that he may rule a great people. He will rebuke rulers, and remove sinners by the might of his word. His hope will be in the Lord; who then can prevail against him? [He will be] mighty in his works, and strong in the fear of God, [He will be] shepherding the flock of the Lord faithfully and righteously.

The messiah is not an absolutely necessary feature of Jewish eschatology of this period. Even in apocalyptic literature, many descriptions of the end of time do not include a messiah. The important characters of God's redemption tend to be either the leaders of the people or the angels, though the leaders may become angels in the end. In other words, the presence of the messiah is not a sine qua non for the redemption.

At Qumran, the concept of the messiah was tailored to fit the community's expectation of the last days. The generic term 'messiah' was used to describe both priestly and royal anointed leaders who would lead the community in the final days and preside at its eschatological banquet. In Alexandria, Philo also refers in a very veiled way to the messiah. He thinks of an actual future victory over evil and unjust rulers (On Rewards: 115-19). He does not, however, make explicit his criticism of the present political order or his hope for the pre-eminent role of the Jewish people in the coming revolution.

The most profound development in messianic thinking comes with Christianity. For most Jews, the coming of the messiah was an anticipated event whose fulfilment lay in the future. For Christians, and possibly Jesus himself, the messiah predicted in Scripture had arrived. Because Christianity originated within the broad spectrum of the varieties of Judaism in the first century CE, Christians were familiar with the biblical texts and their interpretive possibilities. Jesus' followers naturally chose to describe his life and death using the language of Scripture.

The fundamental distinction that separates Jewish and Christian conceptions of the messiah is the latter's faith in Jesus as the crucified messiah. Nowhere before the start of Christianity had there been any evidence that the messiah would suffer. The righteous might suffer, and the messiah in his rule might end the suffering of the righteous by finally implementing divine justice. Jewish texts do not reflect any evidence that the messiah was expected to die for humanity's sins. In the literature of the prophets the messiah is never viewed as weak or suffering. As the Lord's anointed, he is, according to Isaiah 11:3-4, the strong vindicator who will carry out God's vengeance against the unjust enemies of Israel:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

Jesus' failure to redeem his people, at least not in the visible manner expected of the messiah, along with his ignominious death on the cross appeared to disprove any messianic pretensions. Christians, therefore, had to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the expectation of what the messiah should be and do with the reality of Jesus' life and death. The result was a combination of reshaping messianic expectations and constructing stories about Jesus using scriptural references as inspiration or models. In other words, biblical exegesis served as the primary means by which early Christians made sense of Jesus' life and death.

Christians applied numerous biblical passages, many of which had been read without any messianic connotations, to Jesus as proof that he was and is the messiah. This process demonstrated that Jesus' death was not the scandal and folly that many perceived, but was actually foretold in Scripture. Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Not only Jesus' death and resurrection, but his birth, preaching and miraculous deeds also came to be understood in connection with biblical texts. Luke, for instance, reports how Jesus read from Isaiah in a synagogue in Nazareth, and proclaimed to those assembled that he was the fulfilment of that prophecy (4:16-30). The formula, 'this was to fulfil what was spoken', and similar expressions appear often in the canonical Gospels, especially Matthew, as demonstrative proof of the claim that Jesus is the messiah. Various scriptural images took on new life as they became the basis for understanding Jesus' identity. Titles applied to Jesus, such as 'Son of David', 'Son of Man', 'Son of God' and 'Lord', had their origins in biblical traditions. Descriptions of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God were adopted from biblical passages such as Psalm 110. The entire Bible became fair game for all sorts of christological exegesis. The interpretive methods employed by early Christians were indistinguishable from those of their Jewish contemporaries. The results, however, were very different. Christianity read the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and as a result united otherwise disparate biblical traditions and in an entirely new fashion.

The developing christological interpretation of Scripture ultimately resulted in the rift between Judaism and Christianity. Most Jews rejected the claims made by Christians that Jesus was the messiah and that his identity was confirmed by Scripture. For Christians the refusal by most Jews to accept Jesus as the messiah was indicative of their failure to comprehend Scripture. This latter idea is most vividly portrayed by Paul in 2 Corinthians. In chapter three he recalls Moses' ascent of Mt Sinai. The story in Exodus reports how Moses upon descending to rejoin the Israelites wore a veil. Paul interprets the covering as Moses' attempt to hide the fading splendour. In the same way, Paul explains, whenever Jews turn to Scripture they are masked by a veil that obscures the true meaning of the text. By having faith in Jesus, however, the veil is removed and one gains a proper understanding. The image of Jews as readers who lack the proper comprehension of Scripture was extremely durable. Medieval Christian art commonly portrayed the Synagogue in feminine persona wearing the very blindfold Paul describes.

Having begun as a sect of Judaism, Christianity soon established itself as a separate religious community. Although divided, Jews and Christians shared a common biblical tradition and many of the same methods for interpreting these texts. They differed, however, in the fundamental assumptions that each community brought to the exegetical process. Jews could not imagine Jesus as the messiah. Christians could not conceive of Jesus as anything else. These differences ultimately brought about the separation of Judaism and Christianity. The breach, bitter at first, turned malicious and in all too many instances lethal, especially after Christianity became the sanctioned religion of the Roman empire. The level of animosity is in part a reflection of this shared biblical heritage.

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