Sketches of Jewish Social Life at the Time of Messiah – Introduction

 

Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ  was written by Alfred Edersheim, a Vienna-born Jewish Biblical scholar (1825-1889) who came to faith Messiah.

The book was first printed in 1904, after Edersheim's death and also appears in print as as Sketches of Jewish Social Life at the Time of Christ.

Edersheim’s book cites Scripture, Rabbinic sources and the works of Josephus and Philo to place Yeshua (Jesus) and His teachings, within their Jewish context – shedding invaluable light on passages that cannot be fully understood otherwise.

This article is the first in an extended series which we’ve titled Sketches of Jewish Social Life at the Time of Messiah and which is based on Edersheim’s work.

Note: Edersheim's lived prior to the Balfour Declaration (1922), the division of the geographic region of Palestine into the Arab-Palestinian state of Jordan (1921),and the modern State of Israel(1948).  In this series, we use the term the Land - one Edersheim uses himself, as the equivalent term.

 


It was in the Land’s sacred boundaries that the prophets saw their visions and psalmists composed their songs. The Land had Jerusalem for its capital, and on its highest hill stood the Temple, around which clustered Jewish history, sacred worship and far-reaching hopes.

“There is no religion so strictly local as that of Israel. Heathenism was indeed the worship of national deities, and Judaism that of YHVH, the God of heaven and earth.”

Christianity was from the first, universal in its character and design, the religious institutions and the worship set out in the first five books of Moses, the Torah (“Pentateuch”) and as they concerned Israel, strictly of the Land and for the Land.

“They are wholly incompatible with the permanent loss of the Land.”

A Judaism without the Land is a Judaism without Priesthood, altar, Temple, sacrifices, tithes, first-fruits, Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and outside the Land, the people are no longer completely Israel – in view of the Gentiles they are Jews; in their own view, “the dispersed abroad.”

After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Rabbis set
to reconstruct their broken commonwealth on a new basis.  The Land, was the Mount Sinai of Rabbinism.  It was from this place the spring of Halachah (the collection of Jewish religious laws derived from both the Written Torah and “Oral Torah”) flowed in ever-widening streams.

For the first centuries, it was in Jerusalem, that the learning, the influence, and the rule of Judaism centered.  Attempts at rivalry by the Babylonian schools of Jewish learning were keenly resented and sharply put down. Later, only the force of circumstances of the day drove the Rabbis to voluntarily seek safety and freedom in the ancient seat of their captivity, Bablyon – where, in political freedom, they could give the final development to their religious system. It was their desire to preserve the nation and its learning in the Land which inspired them.

“Centuries of wandering and of changes have not torn the passionate love of this land from the heart of the people.”

Almost every prayer and hymn breathes the same love of the Land.

The lie of land and water, of mountain and valley, are the same; Hebron, Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, Nazareth, the Lake of Gennesaret, the land of Galilee, are still there, but all changed in form and appearance, and with no definite spot to which one
could with absolute certainty attach the most sacred events.

When Messiah walked the Land, the country had already undergone many changes. The ancient division of tribes had given way; the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel existed no longer; and the varied foreign domination and the brief period of absolute national independence under the Hasmoneans, had likewise ceased.

Yet, with the characteristic tenacity of the East for the past, the names of the ancient tribes still attached to some of the districts formerly occupied by them (Matt. 4:13, 15).

A comparatively small number of the exiles had returned to the Land with Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Jewish inhabitants of the country consisted either of those who had originally been left in the Land, or of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

The controversy about the Ten Tribes raged in the time of Messiah. “Will He go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles?” asked the Jews, when unable to fathom the meaning of Messiah’s prediction of His departure.

At the time of Messiah’s birth, the Land was governed by Herod the
Great and was a nominally independent kingdom, but under the rule of Rome. On the death of Herod the Great, and  very close to the opening of the Gospel account, a fresh, though temporary, division of his kingdom had just taken place.  A few days before his his death, Herod the Great altered his will and nominated Archelaus his successor in the kingdom; Herod Antipas – the Herod named in the Gospels, was named tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea; and Philip was named tetrarch of Gaulonitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Panias.

Each of the brothers had his own maneuvering to try to influence
the emperor, Caesar Augustus, who was inclined from the beginning towards Archelaus.

Note: Archelaus only ruled for two years, between 4 and 6 CE, and with the reference to his rule in Matthew 2:22, enables us to approximately date the birth of Messiah under Herod the Great. This simply demonstrates the birth account of Messiah, not in an abstract tale, but in the center of classical history.

Meanwhile, a Jewish delegation appeared in Rome, entreating that none of the Herodians might ever be appointed king on the grounds of their past deeds, which they related, and that they (the Jews) might be allowed to live according to their own laws, under the rule of Rome.

Caesar Augustus decided to carry out the will of Herod the Great, but gave Archelaus the title of “ethnarch” instead of “king”, promising him the higher grade if he proved deserving of it.

“But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee”

Matthew 2:22

The division of the Land at the time of Messiah, politically speaking, consisted of Judaea and Samaria, under Roman procurators, Galilee and Peraea (which lay on the other side Jordan) which were subject to Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist.

The Jews did not regard Samaria as belonging to the Holy Land, but saw it as a foreign strip, as the Talmud designates it (Chag. 25 a.) “a Cuthite strip,” or “tongue,” intervening between Galilee and
Judaea. From the Gospels we know that the Samaritans were not only ranked with Gentiles and strangers (Matt. 10:5; John 4:9, 20), but that the very term Samaritan was one of reproach (John 8:48).

The Samaritans attitude towards the Jews was one of equal hatred and contempt. At every turn, the Jews had a no more determined or
relentless enemy than the Samaritans, who claimed to be the only true representatives of Israel’s worship and hopes.


Coming next: Jews and Gentiles in the Land