We left off the last installment in the 3rd century with the writing of the Mishna and Gemara which became the Talmud. We are now at a point in our timeline when the Roman Empire is about to convert to Christianity, a move which will have a severe impact on the Jews. However, before we tell that story, we must go back in time to the 1st century, when the Temple still stood.
As we might recall that from the time of the invasion of the Romans and particularly following the persecutions of the sages by King Herod, the Great, the Jewish people were in turmoil. Soon nationalistic feelings would erupt in the Great Revolt and the Jews would be fighting the Romans as well as each other.
In this atmosphere of tension -- when the Jewish people were yearning for a leader who would help them throw off the Roman yoke -- the seeds of what would later become Christianity were first sown.
When Jews yearn for a savior, they are yearning for the Messiah.
It is important to realize that the notion of the Messiah was not invented by Christianity. It is an ancient Jewish idea -- one of the "13 principles of faith" within Judaism. It is recorded numerous times in the various books of the prophets, including Isaiah, Michah, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel.
|The idea of the Messiah is one of the 13 principles of faith within Judaism.
(Indeed throughout Jewish history, strong leaders arose and for a time where mistaken for the Messiah. But when the Messiah did not fulfill the prophecies -- by bringing world peace etc. -- it became clear he was not the Messiah.)
The English word Messiah, comes from the Hebrew word mashach which means "to anoint." The Mashiah then, is God's "Anointed One." This, for example, is how the Book of Samuel relates the anointing of David as king:
Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the midst of his brothers, and the spirit of God rested on David from that day on. (1 Samuel 16:13)
The Jewish definition of Messiah is a Jewish leader (without question, a human being), descended from the line of King David (that is, from the tribe of Judah) who will have the Torah knowledge and the leadership ability to bring all the Jewish people back from exile to the Land of Israel. He will rebuild the Temple, bring world peace, and elevate the entire world to the realization of one God.
(For Jewish sources for these points in the order listed above see: Deuteronomy 17:15; Numbers 24:17; Genesis 49:10; 1 Chronicles 17:11; Psalms 89:29-38; Jeremiah 33:17; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 27:12-13; Isaiah 11:12; Micah 4:1; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 11:6; Micah 4:3; Isaiah 11:9; Isaiah 40:5; Zephaniah 3:9; Ezekiel 37:24-28.)
The Prophet Isaiah, whose prophecy on this subject is perhaps the best known, describes the Jewish Messianic Vision with these words:
In the days to come, the Mount of God's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills. And all the nations shall stream to it. And the many peoples shall go and say: "Come, let us go up to the Mount of God, to the House of the God of Jacob -- that He may instruct us in His ways, that we may walk in His paths." (Isaiah 2:3)
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore... (Isaiah 2:4)
[At that time] the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf and the beast of prey shall feed together with a little child to herd them. (Isaiah 11:6)
Since the notion of a person who will redeem the Jewish people is a fundamental, philosophical part of the Jewish worldview, it is not surprising that the expectation of that redemption always appears at times of crisis.
Indeed, the sages say that the Messiah will be born on the 9th of Av, the worst date in the Jewish calendar when the worst disasters befell the Jewish people (see Parts 13, 23 and 35).
The Book of Ezekiel, for example, talks of a final showdown -- the War of Gog and Magog -- a terrible war when all the nations turn against the Jews. According to one possible scenario, this is when the Messiah is expected to come and bring final redemption.
This is why, when times are very bad, the Jewish people are prone to think that the final showdown is now. It looks like things couldn't get worse. If so, the Messiah must be right around the corner.
The Roman occupation was such a dark time in Jewish history. Some of the most brilliant of the rabbinical sages had been murdered by Herod. Corruption had crept into the Temple hierarchy. Jews had split into three major groups:
- the wealthy Sadducees, who denied the authority of the Oral Law, pledging allegiance to Rome;
- the fanatical Zealots ready to battle Rome to the death in a suicidal war;and
- the mainstream Pharisee majority, still loyal to Torah and Oral Law, caught in between.
|The teachings of these splinter sects did not catch on in any significant way among the Jews.
Out of this chaotic time -- marked by virulent anti-Semitism and cruel oppression of the Jews -- were born a number of splinter sects, whose members believed that the Apocalypse was at hand. Finding a receptive ear among the disfranchised, these sects preached that the ultimate battle of good versus evil would soon be fought, followed by the Messianic redemption of humanity.
The Dead Sea Cult -- which became famous in modern times after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and which may or may not have been associated with the Essenes -- was one such sect, but there were many others.
The teachings of these sects did not catch on in any significant way among the Jews. In the same way that the Jews usually rejected foreign religions, they also rejected attempts to tamper with the inner workings of Judaism.
Nevertheless, at this tumultuous time, the Jews were more susceptible than ever before. The countryside was alive with charismatic healers and preachers, and people flocked to them hoping to hear prophecy that the years of strife and suffering were at an end.
The one who would become most legendary, was Joshua, or Jesus, who later in history came to be called Christ, which is Greek for Messiah.
It is outside of the scope of a Crash Course in Jewish History to describe the beginnings of early Christianity under Jesus. Currently, there exist approximately 2,700 books in print on the subject, many of them written in recent years discussing the issue of the historical Jesus vs. the legendary Jesus, and debating what he said or did not say and what can be said of him with any certainty.
(For those interested, one good source is a highly readable book by the award-winning British biographer A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, which thoroughly analyzes all the data and throws in a fair amount of fascinating speculation as well.)
Historically speaking, very little is known. There are several references in the Talmud to various personalities of whom the rabbis disapproved and some have speculated that one or more of these references are to Jesus. The closest possibility is Yeshu HaNotzri, but according to Jewish chronology, he lived at the time that Joshua Ben Perachyah led the Sanhedrin (circa 150 BCE) and, therefore, predated Jesus according to Christian chronology by almost 200 years.
One would expect -- if Jesus was at all influential in his time -- that his contemporary, the historian Josephus would have devoted considerable space to him. However, Josephus is all but mum on the subject and the few references which supposedly relate to Jesus are considered by virtually all scholars to have been added later by Christian monks who copied such texts for church libraries.
|Josephus is all but mum on the subject of Jesus.
The best we can say with certainty is that the Christian world does agree that Jesus was a Jew who was familiar with the Torah, observed the "Law of Moses" and taught many of its precepts, though he also departed from some of them.
One of the most famous of his teachings consists of two Torah quotations that were staples of Judaism and echoes the emphasis of the rabbinic teachings of his era. Asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus, as cited in the Gospel of Matthew (22:37-40), replies:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments."
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is from Leviticus 19:18. These teachings predated Jesus by some 1,300 years.
Of course, the gospels, which are said to record what were the teachings of Jesus were written in Greek many years after his death (which, incidentally, Christian sources give as 32 CE or some 35 years before the destruction of the Temple.)
JEWISH FOLLOWERS OF JESUS
Who were the Jewish followers of Jesus?
The members of the Jesus sect were clearly religious Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They could not have believed that Jesus was "god" and remained Jewish, as such a belief would have been complete idolatry in Jewish eyes and would have appeared closer to the Greco-Roman pagan beliefs where gods took on human form and had relations with humans.
(Indeed, the concept of "son of God" appears later in Christian theology, though the gospels make much use of the term "son of Man" which is taken from the writings of the prophets and refers to the Messiah.)
|The gospels make much use of the term "son of Man" which is taken from the Messianic writings of the prophets.
At any rate, the Jesus sect in the Land of Israel was short lived. After the dispersion of the Jews by the Romans following the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Jewish followers of Jesus disappeared along with the Essenes, the Sadducees and the Zealots. (The Pharisees survived in part due to the vision of their leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai as we saw in Part 34)
So where did all the Christians comes from? Indeed, where did Christianity come from?
For the answer, we must look at another colorful personality who appeared on the scene after the death of Jesus, and who is given the credit by virtually every historian of Christianity for spreading the message of Jesus worldwide, if not fashioning Christianity for the consumption of the pagan world.
He was a Jew -- originally known as Saul -- who became famous in Christianity as "Saint Paul."
Published: Sunday, August 12, 2001
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