Outline

I. Jewish religious life in Palestine at the time Christianity was born was shaped by the tension between ancestral traditions and a hegemonic Greco-Roman culture.

A. Judaism after the exile of the sixth century b.c.e. was more coherent, self-conscious, and exclusive than the religion of ancient Israel, not least in its tendency to identify religious symbol and social institution.

1. Torah was to be the law of the land; the worship of one God meant the formation of a single people through endogamous marriage.

2. The Temple and the kingship were to be restored as the symbols and the social expressions of Jewish independence.

B. This sharpened sense of boundaries encountered an aggressive Hellenistic culture—and a forceful Roman rule—that threatened Jews at every point.

C. The resulting tensions led not only to forms of resistance to Greco-Roman culture and rule, through rebellion and war from the Maccabees to Bar Kochba (with the resulting destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. and final razing of Jerusalem in 135 c.e.), but also to complex patterns of conflict among Jews themselves concerning the necessary connection between religious symbol and social institution.

II. The divisions between Jews in Palestine involved different perceptions of how Judaism should relate to the dominant culture.

A. The "sects" within Palestinian Judaism, as described by Josephus and the New Testament, represent only a small and elite portion of the population, while the majority of the "people of the land" (am ha-aretz) go unaccounted. These "schools" nevertheless distinguished themselves on the basis of religious symbol and political stance.

1. The Sadducees drew from the aristocratic, priestly classes centered on Temple worship; although conservative in belief, they were accommodating politically.

2. The Pharisees were politically unaligned and formed themselves into intentional communities dedicated to the strict observance of Torah.

3. The Essenes were separatist in ideology and practice, forming a community of the pure as a way of symbolizing protest against the profanation of the land and the Temple. The most famous of the Essenes lived as a desert community in Qumran (the so-called Dead Sea Community).

4. The Zealots made the kingship the central symbol for Judaism and sought to overthrow Roman rule by military force and a group called Sicarii ("dagger-men") by killing Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Romans.

5. Of these four groups, the Pharisees had the best chance of survival, because they organized themselves in mobile communities in cities and did not identify with a physical structure. Pharisaism became the rabbinic tradition of Judaism, which in turn became the classical form of Judaism down to the present day.

B. Patterns of resistance and accommodation are more complex than the division into sects suggests and can be organized into four types of response to Greco-Roman culture and rule.

1. Some Jews were interested in active assimilation. Called "Hellenists" in 1 and 2 Maccabees, they represent a type of response that took the dominant culture as good and sought to accommodate Judaism to it.

2. Other Jews were more passive in their assimilative tendencies. The Sadducees, for example, were politically pliable but faithful to a deeply conservative understanding of Torah.

3. The response of passive resistance found three expressions.

a. One form was martyrdom, which became important in Judaism at this time and subsequently in Christianity (martyrdom: "witness in blood").

b. Other forms of passive resistance were the Pharisaic creation of intentional communities that maintained tradition even as their members mingled in society and apocalyptic literature, which created an imaginative alternative to the current state of affairs through subversive visions.

4. Other Jews actively resisted assimilation. The Dead Sea community (the Essenes) organized a life that separated entirely from the dominant ethos and, in the end, went to war against Rome. The Zealots and other militants translated their Jewish loyalty into violent rebellion.

5. Therefore, when Jesus proclaimed the approach of a kingdom of God but did not seem to spell out exactly what that meant, it was not surprising that his message did not receive a neutral interpretation, either politically or religiously.

III. Even in the context of cultural and political conflict, Palestinian Jews exhibit a range of religious experiences.

A. In apocalyptic literature, we find prayer and visions as a means of access to God's plan for the future.

1. Apocalyptic literature possesses distinctive literary features and a dualistic understanding of history.

2. As 4 Ezra 2:41-48 illustrates, such literature also reveals the powerful role played by prayer and visions of the divine realm.

B. Among Galilean Jews, we see the development of wonder-working traditions associated with certain charismatic sages.

1. The nature of rabbinic materials renders historical judgments concerning Honi the Circle Maker and Chanina ben Dosa difficult to make.

2. Stories told about the two rabbis, however, make clear that belief in wonder-working among the saintly—a tradition extending back to Moses and Elijah—remained alive.

C. At Qumran, the Teacher of Righteousness provides firsthand evidence for the deep piety that accompanied the sect's separatist ways.

1. The Teacher of Righteousness plays a key role in the history of the community as its authoritative guide to the meaning of Torah with respect to its history.

2. His hymns of praise (hodayoth) show him to be steeped in the language and spirit of the Psalms (see 1QH 11).

D. Around 28 C.E., a Galilean prophet named John experienced the call of prophecy in the Judean wilderness.

1. Both the New Testament and the historian Josephus testify to John's historical significance.

2. John's preaching and practice of baptism were connected to a call for communal and individual repentance among the Jewish population.

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