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The activity of the Zealots and Sicarii further destabilized the political situation. The name Sicarii comes from a short sword that could be concealed under clothing.  The Sicarri would mingle into a crowd and assassinate their enemies. They were not really a religious sect, but rather a group of nationalist who advocated revolt against the Romans. They were “urban assassins,” primarily attacking the Jewish aristocracy who were pro-Roman.  Eventually they took to burning estates and taking hostages.  Jonathan the High Priest was their first victim. [Note that the word is used in Acts 21:38 to describe the activities of “The Egyptian,” the NIV translates the word as “terrorist” to avoid confusion with the later sicarri movement.]

Josephus, JW 2.13.3 (cf. Ant 20.8.10) (254) When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; (255) this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered.  (256) The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served, was more afflicting than the calamity itself; (257) and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain.  Such was the celebrity of the plotters against them, and so cunning was their contrivance.

Their terrorist activities helped to bring on the revolution.  The random assassinations lead to a distrust among the aristocracy and a general fear from the ruling class, leading to a breakdown of social order.

Image result for SicariiThe Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. There may be no New Testament examples, although Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was called the “Zealot.”  Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13.  It is unlikely that this term means that Simon was a member of this party, which was not formally a party until A.D. 67-68.

A possible New Testament reference is the disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot.  Is this disciple a political zealot, a revolutionary?  Most New Testament scholars think not, preferring to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.”  Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples.  Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power.  It is possible these men were born during the activities of Judas the Galilean.

The Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were therefore in a dangerous place. If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements, yet they clearly preached Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and that he was coming back soon to render judgment (on the temple officials, the Romans, etc.) and re-establish Messianic Kingdom expected by the prophets.

In addition to Jesus, there were other people claiming to be the messiah in the first century. Each of this examples are from humble origins (shepherds, etc.), sought to set themselves up as kings, and developed a peasant following.

Under the procurator Fadus (44-46) a messianic prophet appeared. Theudas convinced many Jews he could part the Jordan River. The Romans attacked the crowd, killing many, and beheaded Theudas. (Antiq. 20.97-99, Acts 5:36). Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the
fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904). This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Related imageTheudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Thuds’, he died and his followers dispersed.

Under the procurator Felix (52-60), prophets once again lead people into the wilderness promising that God was about to send signs of deliverance. Felix sent troops and once again killed large numbers. As Josephus says, “But the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified was incalculable, as also that of the citizens whom he arrested and punished as having been in league with them” (JW 2.13.2).

Another messianic pretender, known only as “The Egyptian” led a crowd in an attack on Jerusalem. Josephus reports 30,000 were in the crowd, but Acts 21:38 indicates only 4000 were involved. The Romans arrested many, but the Egyptian escaped. (JW 2.13.5, Acts 21:38).

Simon Bar Giora (Simon, son of the proselyte; died in A.D. 70). Simon represents the largest of the messianic movements (Josephus, JW, 4.9.3).  He fought against the Romans and helped unite the Zealots to a certain extent.  He eventually controlled Jerusalem, and took to wearing a white tunic and purple cape and called himself the “King of the Jews.”  He eventually surrendered to the Romans and was taken to Rome and ceremonially executed.

Josephus, JW, 4.9.3  (503) And now there arose another war at Jerusalem.  There was a son of Giora, one Simon, by birth of Gerasa, a young man, not so cunning indeed as John [of Gischala], who had already seized upon the city, (504) but superior in strength of body and courage; on which account, when he had been driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had, by Ananus the high priest, he came to those robbers who had seized upon Masada.  (505) At first they suspected him, and only permitted him to come with the women he brought with him into the lower part of the fortress, while they dwelt in the upper part of it themselves.  (506) However, his manner so well agreed with theirs, and he seemed so trusty a man, that he went out with them, and ravaged and destroyed the country with them about Masada; (507) yet when he persuaded them to undertake greater things, he could not prevail with them so to do; for as they were accustomed to dwell in that citadel, they were afraid of going far from that which their hiding-place; (508) but he, affecting to tyrannize, and being fond of greatness, when he had heard of the death of Ananus, left them, and went into the mountainous part of the country.  So he proclaimed liberty to those in slavery, and a reward to those already free, and got together a set of wicked men from all quarters.

The story of Simon Bar Giora has several similarities to the execution of Jesus, although Jesus never made his claim to be the king of the Jews as explicit as Simon did. Each of these men portrayed themselves as a new Joshua or David and managed to gain a following large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, and in each case the Romans treat these false prophets and messianic pretenders as rebels against Roman power.

Josephus, Wars 1.10.5 Now Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon.  As therefore he found that Hezekias, the head of the robbers, ran over the neighboring parts of Syria with a great band of men, he caught him and slew him, and many more of the robbers with him.

Josephus, Wars 1.16.2 But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty, the guards that should have kept it flying away before it was assaulted; where he gave an opportunity to his followers that had been in distress to refresh themselves, there being in that city a great abundance of necessaries.  After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done.  (305) Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces.  Yet were not the enemy affrighted at his assault, but met him in arms; for their skill was that of warriors, but their boldness was the boldness of robbers: (306) when, therefore, it came to a pitched battle, they put to flight Herod’s left wing with their right one: but Herod, wheeling about on the sudden from his own right wing, came to their assistance, and both made his own left wing return back from its flight, and fell upon the pursuers, and cooled their courage, till they could not bear the attempts that were made directly upon them, and so turned back and ran away.

 

In the first century, Judea had a problem “social banditry.” As early as Herod the Great, some Jews engaged in violence against the government. Social banditry is a “pre-political rebellion” and is usually found in agricultural societies in periods of oppression, high taxation, or famine. According to Sanders, these taxes probably did not create an environment of poverty which fed an ever-increasing revolutionary spirit and resulted in social banditry. N. T. Wright, however, notes one of the first things the rebels did when they took the Temple was to burn the records of debt stored there (JW 2.427-239).  Hatred of Rome and hatred of the wealthy aristocracy motivated this “debt-forgiveness” (JVG 169).

Image result for Robin HoodSocial bandits portray themselves as robbing the rich and giving to the poor, “righting wrongs” and other social evils, and providing justice for the oppressed lower classes. This is something like Robin Hood, or the American “gangster” of the depression era (Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James, etc.) The social banditry described by Josephus took place during the reign of Herod the Great, but it continued throughout the period of the New Testament, culminating on the rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.

The phenomenon of social banditry is in the background of the New Testament when Jesus is arrested and crucified.  In Mark 14:48, Jesus asks the arresting party:

Mark 14:48  “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? NIV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me?  KJV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as against a robber? NASB

When Jesus is crucified, he is placed between two thieves.  The word λῃστής is used to describe Barabbas in John 18:40. This is more than simply a thief or a burglar: the noun λῃστής refers to a brigand or pirate (BDAG). Perhaps the word terrorist is a possible translation since in recent modern history a terrorist is someone who acts violently to destabilize a society.

Prior to the Jewish revolt, at least some Jewish writers thought the people of Israel would be reassembled as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Diaspora will end and Jews will return to the Promised Land. Isaiah 40-66 anticipated a kind of new exodus. God would call his people out of their long exile among the nations are gather them back to the Land promised to Abraham. The newly assembled Israel would rebuild the cities populate the Land as they should have after the Exodus. The land will be central to the true worship of God.

Isaiah 40:1–2 (ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Jerusalem is like a woman who has lost her husband and is in need of comfort; she is inconsolable at the loss of her spouse. God will comfort her with “tender words.” The word “to comfort” is a strongly emotional term.  It is used in Gen 37:35, after Jacob learns Joseph is dead he is so upset no one is able to comfort him.  The word also appears in Image result for hen gathering chicksJob 2:11, the three friends attempt to comfort Job after his losses. The means by which this comforting occurs is through “tender words” (NIV), literally, “speak to her heart.” Heart is more than emotions, this may indicate that some were intellectually devastated, in doubt, wondering of the Lord would still keep his covenant.  But this word has strong connotations of emotions, almost seduction.

In Isaiah 40 the Lord says three things to Jerusalem to comfort this distraught widow:

Her hard service is over.  The word for service is used for the levitical cycle of service, it is a regular time with well-defined beginning and end.  But it can also mean military service, therefore many translations have “her warfare is over.”  The suffering of the exile is a “prisoner of war” situation, the time seen by this text is when Israel is safe and no longer under the threat of warfare.

Her sin is paid for. This is a phrase which appears in the passive in connection with blood sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4; 7:18; 19:7; 22:23, 25, 27); the idea is that the Lord has accepted the exile as a sacrifice as a payment for the nations sin.

She has received a double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins.  This does not mean that she has been double punished, but rather that the Lord has paid the penalty twice over.

These opening words in the second half of Isaiah are therefore a prophecy of the gathering of the exiles back to the Land of Israel. When the exile finally ends, God will do something which will atone for Israel’s sins which resulted in the Exile in the first place. Although this prophecy begins to be fulfilled as early as 539 B.C., when the exile officially ends, Israel is not completely restored to Jerusalem and they are never free from warfare – nor could we say that the sins of the nation were paid for at that time.

There hint of the ultimate fulfillment comes from Daniel 9, where we are told after 70 years in captivity that the exile will continue for “seventy sevens of years,” or 490 years altogether. This is what the Jews of the first century were looking for when John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near.

As N. T. Wright has said many times, Jews living in the first century knew the prophecy of Daniel 9 was nearing an end and they were fervently looking forward to the gathering of Jews living in the Diaspora to return to Zion and worship in Jerusalem once again. Even in Sirach (who was no wide-eyed apocalypticist), there is a hope for this gathering of all the tribes to the land of their inheritance. Closer to the first century, The Psalms of Solomon give evidence of this belief as well.

Sirach 36:12–16 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob, 16 and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning.

Sirach 48:10 (NRSV) Sirach 36:12–13 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob.

Psalms of Solomon 11:2-4 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.

It is therefore little wonder people were interested in a Jewish teacher who selected twelve disciples and talked of the soon-to-appear Kingdom of God. Jesus sent the twelve out to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel to a lonely place where he fed them with miraculous bread. Jesus was intentionally enacting the gathering of Israel out of the Exile during his ministry.

E. P. Sanders contended Judaism in the Second Temple period was not a religion of individual salvation (278). God made a covenant with the people of Israel and it is the people who will be preserved. The eschatology of Israel is a national eschatology rather than personal. What “future hopes” are found in the first century, they are hopes which concern the people of Israel as a whole rather than individuals.

Image result for romans monty python gifIt is likely most Jews longed for freedom from Rome. Even the line of Herod, which owed its power to Rome, would have preferred to have independence and self-rule. Rome was and ever-present reality in the politics of first century Palestine and freedom from Roman manipulation would have been the dream of Jews of every class and party. The problem is in defining that freedom: does that mean Rome is destroyed completely? Does that mean Rome rules Palestine but grants near-independence for Israel? Does Israel go back to Hasmonean rule? Would Rome be preferred to the Herodians? Hope for the future therefore ran from storing up arms for a time of revolt to praying quietly God will do something to change things. Some groups did not have much of a future hope (the Sadducees, for example), while others had a rather complex view of the near future, one in which they played a key role (the Essenes, for example).

Sanders observes these hopes were often expressed negatively, in the form of complaints, protests, and insurrections (280). There were people in the first century who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.  This “fourth philosophy” has been a bit of a mystery to historians, sometimes identified with the Zealots who started the war in 66 and were the last survivors of the war at Masada.

At least some of these Zealots were assassins, known as the Sicarii. There are problems with this identification, not the least of which is the 60 years between Judas and the War in which there is nothing said about the fourth philosophy or Zealots. Judas is not identified as a Zealot, and although there is a brief insurgency in 44, the idea of rebellion against Rome is unmentioned until the war actual breaks in 66. These revolutionary movements had one thing in common – they came at a time when the Roman Empire was not able to pay close attention to the back-water province of Judea. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and there was some question who would succeed him, another Herod or Roman rule. In 66 Nero was in his last days and was becoming more unstable. In 69 there were four emperors and the Roman Empire was distracted. It looked like a revolution might have a chance to succeed.

A more common method of protest for the Jews in this period was passive resistance. There were a number of points in century or so before the war when Jews demonstrated their willingness to die rather than allow something which transgressed their laws. For example, the protest against Pilate when he proposed to put Roman standards up in the Temple (War 2.169-174) and the protests made to Petronius when Caligula demanded his image be placed in the Temple (Antiq. 18.261-278). Nationalistic protests associated with the Temple sometimes erupted during Festivals in Jerusalem.

Between these two extremes (aggressive action against Rome and passive resistance even to death) is the belief that God or his representative will, at some point, intervene in history on behalf of his people. This view is represented in Qumran in the War Rule and in the Psalms of Solomon 17. Psalms of Solomon 17 looks forward to a Davidic messiah who will march on Jerusalem, banish the gentiles from the city, reassemble the tribes of Israel and establish the ideal kingdom (Sanders 285). The War Rule has similar hopes, but the only true Israel which is left is the sectarian community at Qumran. The messiah will lead them into Jerusalem and destroy the sinful Israelites (i.e. non-Qumran Essenes?) as well as the Gentiles.

It is God himself who will strike the blow against Rome, not individual revolutionaries. There were a number of other “messianic pretenders” in the first century who rallied a small number of followers with the hope of overthrowing Rome. The Romans dealt swiftly and violently with each of these leaders, but the hope of an imminent intervention by the Lord never died. Even while the Temple portico is burning a prophet told a crowd to go into the Temple to await help from God (J.W. 6.283, cf. 1.347).

The middle position, “ready to fight but hoping for a miraculous intervention” seems to represent a wide variety of groups including “hardcore calculating revolutionaries” and the more pacifist wing (Sanders 288). Perhaps when the times were not right for revolution and there was nothing to protest, everyone more or less harbored the hopes of this category.

I have posted on this topic before,  usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.

Image result for Caesar Nero divineRuler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.

The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.

The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.

Imperial cult, Augustus

Augustus as Jove, holding scepter and orb (via Wikipedia)

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

In the 90s A.D., Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13) Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domitian exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.

What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?

 

 

Bibliography: Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).

Roman religious thought is characterized by the syncretic thinking of the Roman people. They had little imagination and largely assumed the Greek gods with new names. Zeus, for example, is Jupiter in Rome. The three key gods of Rome, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno, were honored as early as 500 B.C. with a temple in Rome.

  • Jupiter was a city / state-god, Iuppiter Capitolinus. Consuls were required to sacrifice upon entering office. When a young man first wore his toga virilis (toga of manhood) he sacrificed to Jupiter. The ludi Romani were devoted to him and the triumphal parade of a victorious general led to Iuppiter Capitolinus.
  • Minerva developed from a Sabine goddess, although she is roughly equivalent to Athena. She was a virgin goddess who became the patroness of crafts, warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and the inventor of music.
  • Juno is Hera of Greek mythology, the wife and sister of Zeus. In early March she was honor with the festival of Matronalia, something of a mother’s day in which woman received gifts from husbands and daughters, and were to prepare the household meal.

Religion was administer by a collegia consisting of priests, although the priesthood was not a professional class. They were, however, the chief experts in matters of the gods. Religion in Rome was a matter of state, particularly in religious observance.

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

There are a number of important differences between Greco-Roman religions and modern religious practice. First, Religions in the Roman world were not usually exclusive. A person could devote himself to a particular god while recognizing other gods existed, or even worship various gods as needs arose.

Second, by the time of the Roman Empire, the identification of gods tended to reduce their numbers. Babylon and Egypt, for example, worship a wider variety of gods. The Greco-Roman trend was to reduce gods, blending multiple gods into a single deity. So, for example, all the “father gods” became Zeus. Although this seems like a trend toward monotheism, rarely would a Greek or Roman think in terms of a single god to the exclusion of all others.

Third, the Roman period tended to deify virtues, benefits, or abstract ideas, such as salvation (Salus) or liberty (Libertas), Luck (Tyche) and Fate (Moira). Even in Judaism, where monotheism was assumed, the angelic world was developed similar to the minor deity of the Greco-Roman world.

Fourth, the power of fate was very important in the early Empire. The idea of fate is critical to Stocism and was worshiped as a deity (Moira). Some religions developed, however, that claimed to have power over fate (Asclepius, Isis, Sarapis, for example). Since events were understood as somewhat “fixed” by fate, a belief in astrology became prominent. Astrology was rather technical, employing astronomy and mathematics.

Finally, morality was not closely tied to religion. Philosophy dealt with ethical matters, religion with the cultic ceremony. For example, there were few Greco-Roman writers who dealt with the religious problem of sin.

Once again, Christianity looks considerably different than most other religions in the Greco-Roman world. Although there were similarities to some mystery religions, the early Christians developed out of their Jewish foundations a distinctly different kind of religion in the Roman world.

Bibliography: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds to the New Testament, 173-176.

Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead and of graves…At the end of the year, during the Parentalia (13-21 February) the dead of the household were collectively honored as divi parentu…. Food, salt, and wine were carried to the graves, which were decorated with flowers and wreaths. It is noteworthy that the Romans never transformed the cult of the di parentes into a cult of divine ancestors of the clan.” (Gladigow, 811)

Despite this, religious practice in the Roman could be personal. For example, the custom of honoring a sacred image by touching one’s hand to one’s lips (adorandi gratia manum labris admovere) not only in a temple but even when passing by a temple (ANRW 2/16/1: 579-80). But even this devotion was not required, there was no “proper liturgical practice.” This practice developed as an expression of gratitude alongside the generally obligatory sacra privata and sacra publica.

Prayers were a part of Roman religious practice. Some may sit at the feet of an image in prayer, telling their troubles to the god or goddess:

Propertius 2.28.46 I bind myself with a sacred verse against this wish: I write: ‘By Jupiter, the Mighty, the girl is saved’: having taken such pains, she herself can sit at your feet, and, sitting there, tell you all her troubles. (Translated by A. S. Kline).

Family prayers were more likely made to household gods rather than powerful gods like Zeus. For example, families would offering prayers of thanks to Penates, the god of the storeroom, for providing daily meals. The spirits of family ancestors (lares) could be honored at meals as well.

  • Janus: God of doorways
  • Forculus: protector of doors
  • Limentinus: guardian of the threshold
  • Cardea: goddess of the hinges
  • Vesta: goddess of the hearth
  • Potina: goddess of children’s drinks
  • Sentia: goddess of children’s mental development
  • Orbona: the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless

Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son. Although based on its Jewish roots, Christianity was a radical view and therefore generated suspicion and anger.

 

Bibliography: Burkhard Gladigow, “Roman Religion,” ABD 5:809.

 

The prohibition of Gentiles in the main court of the temple during the first century is well known. Paul refers to a “dividing wall” of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:15, probably an allusion to the warning to Gentiles in the Temple courts that crossing into the Court of the Men would result in their death. Paul is accused of breaking this Law by sneaking a Gentile into the Temple courts (a false charge, but it nearly cost Paul his life).

Inscription from the Second Temple warning Gentiles from entering any closer to the Temple (Istanbul Museum)

But in the Torah a Gentile was permitted to bring a sacrifice in the same way any Israelite does, presumably right to the altar of the Tabernacle (Num 15:14-16).

By the third century B.C., however, Jews began to prohibit Gentiles from entering the Temple enclosure.  Antiochus III made a decree to this effect (Antiq. 12.145f) and even Herod the Great respected this when he was rebuilding the temple.  Priests were trained in masonry so that they could work on the sacred areas rather than the Gentile masons Herod used elsewhere (Antiq. 15.390).

What was the basis of the exclusion of Gentiles? The practice of exclusion seems linked to the results of the Maccabean Revolt.  After so much effort was expending in driving the Gentiles out of the Temple and re-dedicating it to the Lord, it would seem impure to allow any Gentile back into the holy places of the temple courts.  In 1 Maccabees 14:29-36 Simon Maccabees was praised for purifying the temple from Gentile impurity.

1 Mac 14:36–37 In his days things prospered in his hands, so that the Gentiles were put out of the country, as were also those in the city of David in Jerusalem, who had built themselves a citadel from which they used to sally forth and defile the environs of the sanctuary, doing great damage to its purity. 37 He settled Jews in it and fortified it for the safety of the country and of the city, and built the walls of Jerusalem higher.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” in Deut 5:14 define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? There are several Second Temple texts which indicate eating with Gentiles was a serious problem for some (many? most?) Jews.  Joseph and Asenath 7:1, “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”

Jubilees 22:16  And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10–12 (NRSV) After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, 11 but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. 12 Because I was mindful of God with all my heart,

Judith 12:1–2 (NRSV) Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. 2 But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.”

Although Gentile exclusion was not a “core belief” of Judaism in the Second Temple period, it is clear that by the first century Judaism was not a particularly open religion nor were Gentiles welcome to participate fully in worship of the God of Israel.

 

 

Bibliography: Joseph Hellerman, “Purity and Nationalism in Second Temple Literature: 1-2 Maccabees and Jubilees” JETS 46 (2003): 401-422.

While the synagogue was a place for prayer and study of scripture, the Temple was a place for sacrifice. Just as sacrifice of animals is always a part of religion in the ancient world, it played an important part of the practice of religion in Jerusalem.

Judaism differed from other pagan religious ceremonies in some very important ways.  For example, unlike Greco-Roman religions, there is only one place in the world where and acceptable sacrifice can be made, the Temple at Jerusalem. This was not always the case for the Jews, even as late as the reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C. there were still local shrines where sacrifices to the Lord were made.  Hezekiah attempts to reform this system with limited success. In the post-exilic period there are several examples of competing temples in Egypt (at Elephantine and Leontopolis).

Jewish sacrifices were more expensive than Greco-Roman sacrifices primarily because there was a class of priests who needed to be supported by the populace. There was no professional priesthood in Greece or Rome, anyone could function as a priest (Alexander the Great and the Caesars, for example, were priests). Priests in Israel were hereditary and were prohibited from working to support themselves outside of their role as priest.  See this previous post on the wealth of the Temple.

The Temple was central to the life of the “common Jew.”  As N. T. Wright puts it, “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224).  The impression one gets from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or Jesus’ sharp critique in the New Testament is that the Temple was viewed negatively in the first century. Despite politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption in the first century, most Jews supported the Temple through offerings willingly given.  Diaspora Jews even supported the Temple through the half-shekel “Temple Tax,” a practice the Romans required to be continued after the revolts, although the money was diverted to Rome (War 7.218; Dio Cassius, 66.7).

Sanders warns us it is possible to have too positive of a view of the Temple based on Josephus (a priest), Philo (a pilgrim, in this case) and other early writers (Judaism, 54). There were wealthy, powerful priests and others who lived in poverty.  The critiques of the Temple by the Essenes and the Gospels may therefore be taken as a corrective to the positive material in the Jewish sources.

Yet in the New Testament the Temple is impressive to the Disciples (Matt 24:1-2) even if the current leadership is under God’s judgment and about to be replaced (Mark 12:1-12). It is still the main place for the apostolic preaching in Acts 2 and 3, although by Acts 7 Stephen is accused of attacking the Temple. Both Paul (Eph 2:19-22) and Peter (1 Peter 2:4-5) refer to believers as stones in a living Temple.

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