Outline

I. Judaism in the first century was based in ancient Israelite religion but had developed in significant ways as a vibrant, growing, and complex tradition.

A. In contrast to "biblical religion" of antiquity and to the stable "Talmudic tradition" that emphasized continuity and uniformity, Judaism in the Hellenistic period was above all diverse in its expressions.

1. Jews lived throughout the Mediterranean world; for hundreds of years, more Jews lived in the Diaspora than in Palestine.

2. Jewish life and literature developed not only in classical Hebrew (mostly written) but also in Aramaic and in Greek.

3. The different cultural and political contexts existing in Palestine and in the Diaspora influenced the development of distinctive expressions of Jewish identity.

4. Especially in Palestine itself, the presence of an aggressive Greek culture and an oppressive Roman Empire generated ideological clashes among Jews.

B. Yet in the eyes of outsiders, Jews were remarkably homogeneous and could be distinguished in the first century as a "second race" in Greco-Roman culture. Because they tended to live in tightly knit communities, they were even more highly visible to Greco-Roman observers—some estimate that, in the eastern part of the empire, as many as one in five of the population was Jewish and in the western part of the empire, one in ten.

II. Although Judaism was diverse, it was also a coherent tradition that was organized around the symbolic world of Torah.

A. Judaism retained its identity as the ethos (custom) of an ethnos (nation or people). Being a "child of Abraham" meant literally to be part of a family through maternal descent, but Gentiles also converted to the tradition as proselytes (those who come over).

B. Despite the importance of the Temple, the land, and the kingship as identifying symbols, Judaism was most clearly defined by its commitment to and conversations about Torah.

1. Torah refers first to a collection of literary compositions that made up the TANAK, or Scripture: the first five books of Moses (also "the Law") were Torah in the strictest sense, but the term also included the Prophets (Nebiim) and the Writings (Ketubim—Proverbs and so on). It is roughly the same collection that Christians call the Old Testament.

a. It was written in classical Hebrew, but by 250 b.c.e., the entire collection had been translated into Greek, reportedly by seventy scholars, all of whom agreed on every letter of their translation through divine inspiration.

b. This translation came to be called the Septuagint (LXX). This was the Bible for Jews in the Western Diaspora for some three hundred years.

2. Torah in a broader sense encompasses the narrative of the people who read these texts: the story that had its prologue in prehistory, became a family story with Abraham, a foundational epic with Moses, and a national history with David and his successors.

3. The texts and the story they tell also communicate the central convictions and principles: the distinctive belief in one God, the sense of election as a people (a Chosen People), the consciousness of covenant, and the articulation of covenant through God's commandments.

4. Finally, Torah includes all the ways in which those convictions are expressed through practice: In the first century, all Jews held to circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath and some forms of purity and dietary observance.

III. A review of the three loci gives some sense of the dominant religious patterns of Judaism in Palestine.

A. The Temple in Jerusalem is a powerful expression of the presence of the divine and the unity of the people.

1. Despite internal debates concerning the legitimacy of the Temple and despite competing versions (both real and ideal), the Jerusalem Temple was both one of the wonders of the ancient world and a vibrant heart of Judaism as a religion.

2. Unlike the many temples devoted to the many gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, the single Temple expressed both divine and human unity.

3. The Temple served as a treasury, a place of teaching, a place of prayer, and above all, the place where sacrifices were offered in honor of God.

4. The Temple was the ultimate expression of sacred space and sacred time organized around the holy. As sacred space, it was the center of all Jewish thought and piety, and the annual feasts that marked the sacred times of Jewish history were celebrated by pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple.

B. Another locus for Jewish prayer and study was the synagogue, or house of study, located in every Jewish village, as well as in Jerusalem and the Temple itself.

1. The synagogue served as a local gathering place, the center for communal prayer and the study of Torah, the settling of community disputes by the elders of the people, and the distribution of assistance to the poor people of the community.

2. The synagogue was notable in antiquity for a mode of worship that was "spiritual," that is, unconnected to animal sacrifice and devoted to the study of texts, preaching, and prayer.

3. Both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, the synagogue was the institution that attracted Gentile adherents and enabled Judaism to grow and thrive even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e.

C. The strong focus in Judaism on the family is expressed by the home as an expression of religious tradition.

1. The teaching of the commandments and of the practices of piety were nurtured in the context of the household.

2. The home was the setting for the weekly Sabbath observance, which gave a special place of prominence to the mother of the family.

3. The family (sometimes extended or Active) was also the unit of celebration for the Passover seder.

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