Hope for the Future during the Exile

The Jewish diaspora begins as early as 722 B.C. when Assyria destroyed Samaria and deported some of the population to other Assyrian cities. For Judah, the exile began before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Babylon began deporting key people to Babylon to help integrate Jews in the empire.

trumpet-zionThe scattering of the Jewish people throughout the world is the foundation for the hope or restoration to the land in the future as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Diaspora will eventually come to an end, the land will be repopulated, Jewish cities will be rebuilt and the people will worship God in Jerusalem.

During the exile many Jews living outside the land looked forward to a time when God would gather the twelve tribes from the nations and return them to the Land. For example, the Psalms of Solomon were written sometime between dates from 70 to 45 B.C. and reflect the thinking of “devout Jews to the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century B.C.” (OTP 2:640; Trafton, “Solomon, Psalms of” in ABD 6:115-117).

PsSol 11:1-3 (OTP) Sound in Zion the signal trumpet of the sanctuary; announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news, for God has been merciful to Israel in watching over them. 2 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. 3 From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them.

PsSol 17:28-31 (OTP) He will distribute them upon the land according to their tribes; the alien and the foreigner will no longer live near them. 29 He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness. 30 And he will have gentile nations serving him under his yoke, and he will glorify the Lord in (a place) prominent (above) the whole earth. And he will purge Jerusalem (and make it) holy as it was even from the beginning, 31 (for) nations to come from the ends of the earth to see his glory, to bring as gifts her children who had been driven out, and to see the glory of the Lord with which God has glorified her.

Notice in these two examples the children of Zion are gathered from the four corners of the world back to mother Zion (recalling Isaiah 54). This “signal trumpet” sounds from the Temple and is an announcement of “good news” since the Jews living in the Diaspora will once again live in the land. In fact, the land will be divided into tribal divisions as it was in Joshua first took the land, but they will be ruled by a son of David (17:21) who will smash the nations (17:23-25) and Israel will once again be a holy people (17:26). Jerusalem itself will be holy, but the Gentile nations will come from the ends of the earth to offer worship (17:31).

Even Philo of Alexandria expected the Diaspora to return to the Land of Israel. In the following example, diaspora Jews will suddenly be restored to freedom at the sound of a signal. Masters will be so surprised at the sudden change they will set their Jewish slaves free. These claves will return to a land which is abundant in wealth and agricultural prosperity.

Philo, Rewards, 164 For even though they may be at the very extremities of the earth, acting as slaves to those enemies who have led them away in captivity, still they shall all be restored to freedom in one day, as at a given signal; their sudden and universal change to virtue causing a panic among their masters; for they will let them go, because they are ashamed to govern those who are better than themselves.

Philo, Rewards, 168 And when they come cities will be rebuilt which but a short time ago were in complete ruins, and the desert will be filled with inhabitants, and the barren land will change and become fertile, and the good fortune of their fathers and ancestors will be looked upon as a matter of but small importance, on account of the abundance of wealth of all kinds which they will have at the present moment, flowing forth from the graces of God as from ever-running fountains, which will thus confer vast wealth separately on each individual, and also on all the citizens in common, to an amount beyond the reach even of envy.

It is this age of prosperity the Jews will look for as they return from the Exile. These eschatological expectations increase throughout the period and have a profound influence on the material found in the New Testament.

But to what extent are these hopes a kind of fantasy for people living in distant lands hoping for a restoration of the “good old days”? Or, are these the hopes of Judeans now living in a barren and oppressed land, people who are looking forward to a future liberation? Is this kind of hope a form escapism? Or more troubling, have Christians transformed some of these Jewish hopes for restoration into a hope for heaven?


Book Review: Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

Taylor, Richard A. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2016. 205 pp. Pb; $21.99.   Link to Kregel

This new contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of Old Testament Exegesis has a more narrow focus since apocalyptic literature only appears in parts Daniel and a few other prophetic books. Taylor therefore expands his comments beyond the canon of the Hebrew Bible to include literature from the Second Temple Period usually classified as apocalyptic.

taylor-apocalyptic-literatureThe first chapter defines apocalyptic literature. Taylor surveys the contemporary resurgence of interest in apocalyptic as well as the difficulty scholars have defining the genre. He distinguishes between an apocalypse as a form of literature and apocalypticism as a worldview. This is an important distinction since some literature labeled as apocalyptic does not represent the kind of apocalypticism commonly used in contemporary discussions. What is more, there is a difference between apocalyptic as a genre and an apocalyptic eschatology. The sudden and decisive intervention of God to judge the world may appear in wide a variety of literature, whether that literature is apocalyptic or not. Taylor also distinguishes between proto-apocalyptic (presumably Isaiah 24-27) and the later fully developed apocalyptic (presumably Daniel and 1 Enoch 1-36). The later forms of apocalyptic tend toward otherworldly journeys or esoteric allegories (The Animal Apocalypse).

In the second chapter Taylor surveys major themes in apocalyptic literature. This is the longest chapter in the book and is divided into three parts. First Taylor briefly summarizes the major works of apocalyptic in the Old Testament (Daniel, parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, and Malachi). Extra-biblical apocalypses include 1 Enoch (in five sections), 2 Enoch, Jubilees, Fourth Ezra, Second Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, Testament of Levi, Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Zephaniah and Testament of Moses. Most of these are summarized in a short paragraph. Taylor surveys apocalyptic in the literature of the Qumran community (the Dead Sea Scrolls) in four pages.

The section of this chapter offers an overview of literary features of apocalyptic. Of primary importance is the revelatory nature of the literature. The writers of extra-biblical apocalyptic express their revelations in the dreams and visions of a hero of the distant past who claims to be revealing or hiding deep secrets. In order to give authority to their revelation, the hero is often from the distant past (Enoch, Baruch, Ezra). Pseudonymity is a common feature of apocalyptic. Because the revelation is in dreams and visions, these books tend to use complicated imagery which overwhelms the reader.

The third section of this chapter develops several themes common in apocalyptic, including angelology, ethical dualism, and determinism. In most of this literature there a soon-to-come crisis, but the faithful remnant will perseverance through that crisis. The eschatological crisis concludes with divine judgment where the righteous remnant will be vindicated and the oppressors will be judged. Each of these features are richly illustrated from 1 Enoch, Second Baruch and Fourth Ezra.

Chapters three and four form a guide to interpreting apocalyptic. For the most part, this section offers genre-specific insights into dealing with apocalyptic beginning with figurative language. Taylor surveys several types of imagery and illustrates these with biblical prophetic texts. A second section is a brief discussion of reception history, although most of these might be better described as “do not let this happen to you.” Here Taylor dismisses attempts to decode apocalyptic in order to discover hidden meanings. The bulk of chapter three concerns textual history and original languages. Although the illustrations are drawn from apocalyptic, there is nothing genre-specific. Taylor presents a standard grammatical historical method which serves apocalyptic as well as prose or poetry in the Old or New Testaments.

His final warnings to would-be interpreters of apocalyptic are excellent, however. Both unnecessary ignorance and misplaces certainty in one’s interpretation of apocalyptic should be avoided. His third warning is to refuse to manipulate the details of apocalyptic in order to fit the eschatological scheme already adopted by the interpreter. The specific example he uses is a historicist reading of 1335 days in Daniel 12:12 and 2300 mornings and evenings in Daniel 8:14. But this warning equally applies to a futurist interpretation who wants to read the details of Daniel as referring to a future tribulation or an idealist interpreter who does not want to see any specific application to future events at all. Taylor’s fourth warning cautions against creating arbitrary timelines from apocalyptic literature. He appears to have the historicists in view again, although in a footnote he dismisses Hal Lindsey’s prediction of a 1981 or 1988 rapture.

Chapters five and six offers practical advice on preaching apocalyptic literature along with examples of expositions from Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-32. As with his exegetical method, much of his advice in these two chapters is not genre-specific (clarifying structure, main points of pericopae, etc.) I would have appreciated some comments on what NOT to preach in this literature. Preaching through Daniel 1-6 is relatively easy, but is it possible to preach through Daniel 11 in a series of expositional sermons in a way that is faithful to the text and applicable to a modern congregation?

Taylor concludes the book with a brief yet extremely helpful survey of antecedents of apocalyptic. Canaanite mythology (Gunkel, Cross), Akkadian prophecy (Hallo), Mesopotamian traditions (Kvanig), Egyptian apocalypticism (McCown), Wisdom literature (von Rad), Temple theology (Hamerton-Kelly), Hellenistic Syncretism (Betz), Persian religion (Hanson, Hultgård), Anti-Imperialism (Horsley) and Old Testament prophetic literature (Sweeny). Each is briefly illustrated and the footnotes point to relevant literature.

Conclusion. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature fills a need for a basic introduction to apocalyptic literature, although the book is limited to the few examples in the Old Testament. I would have liked to see Revelation included as well, so that a single Handbook would cover the genre of Apocalyptic, rather than one for the Old Testament and another for the New.  Nevertheless, this Handbook reaches its goal of providing students of Old Testament prophecy the tools for teaching and preaching these important and often neglected texts. This would make a good textbook for a college or seminary class on the Prophets, especially in more conservative circles.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Reviews of previous volumes in this series:

Gary Smith, Interpreting the Prophets

Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Tobit: Remembering the Covenant

The author the book of Tobit presents Tobit as keeping the Covenant in the diaspora by consciously paralleling him to Joseph and Daniel, the two characters in the Hebrew Bible who lived in a foreign country yet remained true to the Mosaic Covenant. In both stories the hero is described as committed to the covenant and therefore as successful. Both Joseph and Daniel experience the blessings of the covenant and rise to powerful positions in the administration of a foreign government.  Their commitment to the Law creates a crisis when required to do something which is against Torah (Genesis 39, adultery; Daniel 1, unclean food; Daniel 3 and 6, prayer to an idol).  The hero is then persecuted and stripped of position, yet still remains faithful.  Because of continued faith in persecution, they are restored once again to a state of blessing.  In both the Joseph and Daniel stories, this cycle is repeated several times.

Image result for TobitIn Genesis, Joseph is selected as the heir, but his thrown into the pit by his brothers and sold into slavery.  He is appointed head over Potiphar’s house, but is then thrown into prison (also a pit).  He then rises to prominence in the prison, but is forgotten after he interprets the baker and butler’s dreams.  In Daniel, Daniel is rises higher in the government in chapters 1, 2, 5, and 6, although only 1 and 6 are in direct connection to some form of pressure on Jewish traditions. The book of Tobit should not therefore be read as “an enchanting but nonetheless esoteric romance that lies outside the mainstream of authentic Judaism,” but rather as a “well-constructed narrative in the service of Israel’s religion” (Di Lella, Tobit, 387).

The book begins with Tobit in captivity in Assyria.  Tobit claims to be the only Jew in the Diaspora who attends festivals in Jerusalem (1:6a) and to do all which the “everlasting covenant” requires (1:6b, cf. 5:14, he lists others in the Diaspora who attended festival with him). Tobit makes all of the appropriate tithes and offerings required by the Torah (1:6b-8). In Deuteronomy 14:26 the people were encouraged to come to Jerusalem and spend a “second tithe” on whatever they want, as long as the money was spent in Jerusalem (Tobit 1:7). A family might have participated in a shared sacrifice, providing them with meat for a banquet with friends and family.  While the Law required participation in all festivals (Ex 33:17; Deut. 16:16) it was unlikely anyone living outside of Jerusalem made more than one a year, Diaspora Jews even less, perhaps once in a lifetime. Yet Tobit here claims to give all three tithes required in the law in Jerusalem!  He married within this family rather than marrying either outside the clan or outside of Israel (1:9).

Like Daniel, Tobit states he has kept himself from Gentile food, despite the fact that many Jews at this potentially unclean food (1:10-11). Because he was “mindful of God” with all his heart the Lord gives him favor and good standing in the government of Shalmaneser.  The verb translated “to be mindful” in the NRSV is μιμνῄσκομαι, a verb used in the LXX to translate זכר n several key texts in Deuteronomy.  For example, Deut 8:18 Moses admonishes the people to “remember (using a future passive of μιμνῄσκομαι) the Lord your God” because he is able to give them the ability to produce wealth “and so confirms his covenant which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today” (NRSV).

Remembering the Lord God is linked to production of wealth and the blessings of the covenant.  In 2:2 Tobit tells Tobias his son take some food from the feast and deliver it to the poor, to anyone who is “wholeheartedly mindful of God.” This description uses the verb “remember” to describe one the faithful among the diaspora Jews.

The book of Tobit would be an encouragement to Jewish readers living in the Diaspora to remain faithful to the covenant God gave to Israel. God still remembers his people even when they are living in exile and he will bless them when they remain “wholeheartedly mindful of God.” This may have resonated with early Christianity who sometimes described itself as “exiles” in this world (1 Peter 1:1).

Are the other examples of in Tobit of remembering the God of Israel?

Tobit: A Faithful Israelite

The book of Tobit is, on the face of it, a fairy-tale about a young man, Tobias, who goes out into the wide world, encounters many dangers, but is under the protection of the Heavenly Powers and returns with great riches and with Sarah, his wife, with whom he lives happily ever after. Benedikt Otzen

Tobias Saying Good-Bye to his Father by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1860)

Tobit was written in either Hebrew or Aramaic, there dozens of fragments from five manuscripts found at Qumran. Little can be said of the author other than the fact he was likely a diaspora Jew. The book is difficult to date, but since there is no reference to the Maccabean revolt, but if the provenance of the book is outside of Judah then it is possible the author was not particularly concerned with the problems of living according to the Law in Jerusalem. Carey therefore gives a range of dates from 300 to 100 B. C. (ABD 6:1358).

Often studies on Tobit focus on two well-known literary features. First, the “Grateful Dead” motif refers to a character who does some kindness for the dead. The dead then reciprocate in some way. Tobit risks his own life and health to give the dead a proper burial, but this is not done in order to illicit a favor at all, he is simply performing a duty required by the Torah. In addition, it is not the dead who bless Tobit, but rather God (through the agency of an angelic being). If a Greco-Roman “Grateful Dead” motif is present it is adapted along Jewish lines since it is God who reward Tobit’s piety rather than the ghost of the dead person.

The second motif is the “The Poisonous Bride,” another common theme in the ancient literature.  In the story Sarah is married seven times, but her husband is killed by a demon before consummating the marriage. As with the “Grateful Dead,” this motif is fairly minor in the book of Tobit and cannot be considered the driving motif of the book.

A far more fertile ground for literary parallels is the Hebrew Bible, especially the patriarchal narrative. Tobias goes on a journey and obtains a wife, recalling Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 24) and Jacob (Gen 29). In both of these stories a member of Abraham’s family leaves the Land and journeys to a distant country, yet finds both extended family and the blessing of God through marriage. That Tobit is a righteous sufferer clearly recalls the book of Job. Even the complaints of Tobit’s wife are not unlike those of Job’s wife (Job 2:9-10). While Job is not a part of the Pentateuch, the story of Job was thought to be patriarchal.

Tobit seems to be drawing on the most ancient stories of the Jewish people in order to demonstrate to Diaspora Jews that God still works in the same way he always has even if his people have gone well beyond the Land of the Promise (Weitzman, 60). Like Daniel, Nehemiah, Modecai or Esther, Tobit is a righteous Diaspora Jew.

Is this a fair reading of Tobit? Is there anything else in the book which might support this view?



Bibliography: Benedikt Otzen, Tobit and Judith (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 2; Steven Weitzman, “Allusion, Artifice, and Exile in the Hymn of Tobit,” JBL115 (1996): 49-61; 60.

Using Rabbinic Literature for the Study of the Second Temple Period

In a previous post I included rabbinic literature as a possible source for the study of the Second Temple period. I hesitated to include this on my list and placed it last intentionally. I was asked on twitter by @woofboy to expand on this point. (Sorry, I do not actually know a real name!)

Image result for rabbinical literature

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, printed by Daniel Bomberg, Venice, 1522.

By rabbinic literature, I primarily mean the Mishnah, a collection of legal commentaries on the Torah. The Mishnah as we know it today was not written until about A.D. 250, but there are oral traditions which likely go back to a generation or two before Jesus. The rulings of Hillel and Shammai are often discussed in the Mishnah; Hillel died about A.D. 10 and Shammai died about A.D. 30.  Before the Mishnah, the Tannaim (“the repeaters”) passed these traditional rulings along orally. After these oral traditions were written in the Mishnah, they were discussed and interpreted (the Amoraim and Savoraim), a process which eventually resulted in the Talmud. (This is a very simplified history!)

The rabbinic literature presents special problems as a source for studying the practice of the first century. First, what really goes back to the first century? In the Mishnah we read debates which occurred in the second century which sometimes cite rabbis who are from the pre-70 period. The evidence more solid when a debated topic also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls since we know they dated before the first century. But it is increasingly difficult to accept a tradition appearing only in the Talmud as reflecting first century practice.

A second and perhaps more perplexing problem is the issue of authority. The Mishnah and other traditions record debates between rabbis and there eventual rulings. So these debates accurately reflect the practice of the first century?  If the rabbi Hillel decided that a particular practice was lawful, does that mean that the average Jews of the first century accepted his teachings and followed his decision? The classic (and often reprinted) studies of Jewish practice by Jeremias and Schürer would likely answer both of these questions in the positive

E. P. Sanders disagrees with this in his Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. He argued it is not possible to know if the rabbinical decisions ever governed practice. These are only arguments, not civil law. A rabbi might state that a certain practice is not to be done, but it is quite possible the opinion never quite made it into the practice of the common people.

It is also possible rabbinical decisions in the Mishnah were ideal, perhaps the “way things ought to be” and not necessarily the way things were. The Pharisees did not have power to impose their decisions on the people in the first century. This is the biggest difference between Sanders and other scholars – the Pharisees did not control Palestine and the Mishnah does not describe actual practice in the first century.

Here is an example of what I mean. A Second Temple example of tithing multiple times a year is Tobit. He is described as giving a tenth to the Levites, spending a tenth in Jerusalem, a tenth to “those to whom it is his duty” (Tobit 1:7f). Jubilees 32:10-14 refers to a second tithe, and 32:15 mentions a tithe on cattle. Josephus also seems to say Moses required two tithes every year except the third and sixth, when three per year were required. This would be a total of fourteen tithes per seven years (Antiq. 4.69, 205, 240). The Mishnah developed the twelve-tithe system (see Ma’aser and Ma’aser Sheni), two tithes per year except the Sabbath year, and less tithe needs to be spent in Jerusalem than Josephus. An individual may have had a hard time convincing a Temple tithe collector he had already paid his share!

But did anyone actually give the tithes as described by a fictional righteous Diaspora Jew (Tobit) or the idealistic writer of Jubilees? Perhaps the Mishnah preserves a tradition which was practiced by some, or the opinion of the later rabbis about how tithes were supposed to be paid (whether they were or not).

The lesson here is to use caution when reading the rabbinic literature as “background” to the Second Temple period.

Resources for Studying the Second Temple Period


Christians have often called the Second Temple Period is sometimes called the “400 silent years” since there are no authoritative writers from the end of the Old Testament until Paul begins to write in the early 50s A.D. But this period is anything but silent! Jewish writers produced a considerable amount of literature during the Second Temple period, especially if we include Josephus and Philo. Aside from the New Testament, these are the main collections of texts a student needs to read in order to understand the Second Temple period

The Septuagint (LXX). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The translation took place over a long time, although the prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach indicates all three parts were known by the end of the second century B.C. Jerome knew three different versions in the fourth century A.D. and Origin used two different in the creation of his Hexapla.

Histories. The main source is Josephus, who wrote twenty volumes on the History of The Jews and another six on the Jewish War against Rome. His autobiography was probably intended as an appendix to Jewish War. He also wrote an apology for Judaism, Against Apion. I will have a great deal more to say about Josephus later in this series.

apocryphaThe Apocrypha. The Apocrypha represents books popular in the Second Temple period but were not accepted as authoritative by the Jews. The earliest post-biblical writers use the Apocrypha in their own writings and worship and some early Church Fathers used some of these books as Scripture. The Apocrypha provides valuable insights into the development of the Jewish community in the period from the end of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New Testament. The origins of the sects and divisions of New Testament Judaism are seen in the Apocrypha as well as the influence of external forces like the Greeks and Romans.

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. James Davila called the Pseudepigrapha “a motley collection of some scores of quasi-biblical books.” The name “pseudepigrapha” means “false writings.”  These are books which most believed were not inspired or authoritative.  There is no canon of the pseudepigrapha and early publications of this literature included some apocryphal books and one rabbinic text. Some texts are only available to us in translations dated centuries later than the Second Temple Period. For example, 2 Enoch (The Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch) may date to the late first century A.D., but there are no manuscripts which date earlier than the fourteenth century and any “supposed Greek composition need not have been produced before A.D. 1000.”

An additional measure of popularity is the amount additional pseudepigraphal material created based an earlier text. 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra seem to have sparked a whole series of books which are based on the earlier versions (i.e. 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch the various other books of Ezra). That Enoch was being read and re-created to reflect a later historical context is a witness to the influence the book may have had in the first century. The main collection for this literature is James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983–85).

dead-sea-scrollsThe Dead Sea Scrolls. The DSS is a collection of manuscripts dating from as early as 200 B.C. to as late as A.D. 70.  They appear to be the sacred library of a sect of Judaism known as the Essenes.  Prior to the Roman destruction of their community in Qumran, they hid the scrolls in caves. The scrolls were placed in sealed ceramic jars and hidden in caves near the Dead Sea. This collection includes copies of biblical books and literature collected by the community. It is difficult to know why a particular book appeared in the library. A given book in the library may or may not reflect the thinking of the Qumran community. Many of the documents are fragmentary so it is difficult to use them in reconstructing the thinking of the Qumran community in the first place.

Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Hellenistic Jew who wrote a philosophical apology for Judaism.  In doing so, he wrote 39 books of commentary on biblical books, historical-apologetic works (Against Flaccus, Embassy to Gaius), and philosophical works. He sought a philosophical interpretation of the rituals of Judaism by using Hellenistic allegorical interpretation to find ethical teachings in the rituals.

Rabbinic Literature. The Mishnah is a commentary on the Jewish Law reflecting the oral tradition of the teachers of the Law up to about AD 250. The rabbinic literature presents special problems as a source for studying the practice of the first century: what really goes back to the first century?

For most Christians the sources are an unknown territory, and perhaps intimidating. But there is nothing shocking in any of this literature. There are no hidden dark secrets which undermine Christianity and if anything in this literature shakes a Christian’s faith, that faith was fairly weak to begin with.

How should we use these sources? What cautions would you recommend before wading into this vast literature? Are there some of the limitations which will prevent full understanding of this literature?


Bibliography: James Davila, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as Background to the New Testament,” The Expository Times 117.2 (2005): 53-57.

Why Study the Second Temple Period?

Why would someone interested in the New Testament study the history of the Greco-Roman world?  This history is important because the key to understanding the New Testament is context….If we do not try to put ourselves into the context of the original readers of the Scriptures, we can very easily read our own culture into a passage and reach wrong conclusions about what it meant to the author and therefore what it should mean to us. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1999), 293.

The years between the two Testaments are critically important for understanding the New Testament. Let me offer two easy examples. First, the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often based on-going discussions in the Second Temple Period over Jewish practice. The Pharisees have a rich history prior to their role in the Gospels. Most Christians think of the Pharisees as the evil, works-for-salvation religious leaders who hated Jesus and were constantly trying to trick him into saying something worthy of death. But this is far from the case! Anyone who thinks this mischaracterization of the Pharisees is accurate is reading their own culture back into the New Testament (As Jeffers says in the quote above).

A second example is Paul’s struggle against what he calls Judaizers in Galatians. This group of Jewish Christians insisted Gentile converts submit to circumcision in order to fully convert to Judaism. There are a number of factors here, but these Pauline opponents should be understood in the light of circumcision as a boundary marker during the Maccabean Revolt. What define a person as “Jewish” 200 years before Paul’s day was the ritual of circumcision and to reject that practice struck at the heart of what it meant to be Jewish at that particular time.

The main struggle of the Jews during this 400 year period was how to integrate into a world which was decidedly not Jewish. As Greek and Roman culture came to pervade the post-exilic world, how could a Jewish person live out their lives in faithfulness to God’s Law yet also live in a pagan world?

One option is it withdraw entirely, as the Essenes will in the mid-second century. I do not think the Essenes were a monastic community who lived completely separate from other people (this is a misreading of the evidence and imposes a later Christian view of asceticism on the Essenes). But they certainly separated themselves from the mainstream of Judaism as we know it in the first century. For the group at Qumran, it appears they sought to live in a state of ceremonial cleanliness required for priests in the Temple as the waited for the messiah (or messiahs) to come to their community and lead them into battle against the “sons of darkness,” the Jews who were in charge of the Temple!

A second option is to become wholly integrated into the culture, as many Jews did. Philo of Alexandria’s brother is a chief example of this, since he rejected Judaism entirely. Although Herod the Great kept some Jewish practices, for the most part he intentionally lived as a Roman and he certainly ran his kingdom as a Roman. Throughout the Second Temple period there were Jewish people who completely Hellenized and walked away from their ancient Jewish practices.

Pharisees, Sadducees, and Christians fall in-between these two extremes since they found ways to remain loyal to God’s Word, yet also found a way to interact with the pagan world. In the case of Christianity, the motivation was to reach the lost world with the Gospel of Jesus.

This is exactly the same struggle American Christians face today as our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian. It is the same struggle Christians face in countries where Christian was never the majority religion. It is impossible to completely withdraw from the world, although some Christian communities have tried to be as separate as possible. It is also the case many Christians have become so integrated into their culture they have ceased to be Christian by any objective definition of the word.

Can the struggle of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period be a model for contemporary Christians as they struggle with similar issues?