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It is possible the book of 4 Maccabees represents the “fourth philosophy” mentioned by Josephus as a subgroup of Judaism in competition with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. It has been thought that this “fourth philosophy” referred to the Zealots, but this has been challenged by Richard Horsley in his work on first century messianic movements.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe fourth philosophy had several major teachings. First, a Jew should pay no taxes to Rome at all. Based on their interpretation 2 Sam 24, paying taxes to a foreign power was seen as equivalent to slavery, (cf. Luke 20:20-26, the question concerning paying taxes to Caesar may reflect the teaching of the fourth philosophy).

Second, Israel should be a theocracy and not be ruled by any foreign power. To submit to foreign rule is equivalent to idolatry and is a breach of the first commandment. God will work through faithful people if they actively resist their oppressors.

Third, if Israel actively resists, God will establish his kingdom on Earth. The resistance that the fourth philosophy taught was not armed rebellion (as with the Zealots), but rather a commitment to obedience to the Torah and a willingness to be martyrs. The fourth philosophy was therefore a martyrdom movement.

This description is compatible with the teaching of 4 Maccabees, especially in 10:18-21 (cf., 9:24; 11:3; 11:22-23).

4 Maccabees 10:18–21 (NRSV) But he said, “Even if you remove my organ of speech, God hears also those who are mute. 19 See, here is my tongue; cut it off, for in spite of this you will not make our reason speechless. 20 Gladly, for the sake of God, we let our bodily members be mutilated. 21 God will visit you swiftly, for you are cutting out a tongue that has been melodious with divine hymns.”

That a book like 4 Maccabees would continue to be read by the Christian church is quite understandable since the early church faced the same sorts of persecutions described in the book. The challenge to commitment to the word of God in the face of deadly persecution was attractive to the Christians facing Roman pressure to conform.

 

Bibliography: Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 190-237; W. J. Heard, “Revolutionary Movements” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by J. Green, S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 688-698.

In 4 Maccabees the role of the law as nearly equivalent to reason. Although God created humans with emotions and passions, he also “enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them” (2:21). The mind was given the Law, in order to “rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.” Temperate (σώφρων) refers to prudent thinking and self-control and is one of the virtues required of elders in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 2:2).

4 Maccabees 7:21-23 What person who lives as a philosopher by the whole rule of philosophy, and trusts in God, and knows that it is blessed to endure any suffering for the sake of virtue, would not be able to overcome the emotions through godliness? For only the wise and courageous are masters of their emotions (NRSV)

The “temperate mind” restrains the impulses of the body, what Paul calls “self-control” in Galatians 5:23. That Paul and 4 Maccabees both have a high view of the Law and the virtue of self-control is not necessarily and indication Paul knew the book or vice versa. Likely as not both the author of 4 Maccabees and Paul are drawing on implications of the wisdom literature drawn through the intellectual grid of a first century worldview which includes elements of Stoicism and other Greek philosophical streams.

Image result for self control memeSelf-control was perhaps the most important of the Greek ethical terms. Remarkably, the Greek world valued controlling one’s passions and acting moderately in all things. Any activity could devolve into a vice if it is not practiced with moderation.  For example, eating a proper amount of food is good thing; too much is glutton and too little is starvation. Paul claims here that the one who is walking by the spirit will walk moderately in everything that they do. In fact, Paul points out that the person who belongs to Christ Jesus “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

This is an important point that should probably be argued at length, but this sort of paper cannot do so. There are a number of works on Paul and the Stoics which make this point, although the probability of direct borrowing is very low. I prefer to think in terms of an intellectual grid made up of the Old Testament and various Jewish writings as a primary database through which Greco-Roman philosophy is drawn, elements which are compatible with the database are retained, others are rejected.

[Note: The recent posts on Third and Fourth Maccabees are reposts; Jim Davilla caught me. I changed the dates to put them in the order of this new series. Apologies.]

4 Maccabees is included in several manuscripts of the LXX, including Vaticanus but was not included in the Vulgate.  The book is therefore not a part of the Apocrypha although it is often included in introductions to the Apocrypha. It is also in manuscripts which contain the works of Josephus.  This led Eusebius and Jerome to suggest Josephus was the author, but this has been universally rejected by modern scholarship.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe book is related to the Maccabean period but the focus is on the martyrs who died for the Law during those years.  The book was written in Greek by a Jew who appears to be writing before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  The temple is never described as a thing of the past in the book but rather seems as though it is still active. It also appears to have been written after the invasion of Pompey in 63 B.C.  deSilva argues for the Roman date on the basis of two technical terms (θρησκεία, “religious” and νομικός, “skilled at law), both of which appear only in the literature of the Roman period (deSilva, 355).

The writer reflects an extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy and rhetoric.  He is a man who is devoted to the law of his people and his a theologian “of considerable depth” (OTP 2:533). A few scholars (Dupont-Sommer and Hadas) think the book is an oral address which might have been made as part of a “cult of martyrs” within a synagogue context.  As Anderson notes, this is possible, but the chief objection is that a synagogue speech would have been based on a text from the Hebrew Bible, not stories from the Maccabean period.

deSilva comments that the writer of 4 Maccabees is “thoroughly immersed in Hellenistic environment” and has “more than a passing acquaintance with Stoic and Platonic ethics” (deSilva, 355). The thesis of the book is stated in 1:1 and 1:13.  The writer wishes to discuss if “whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions” (cf. 6:31, 13:1, 16:1, 18:2).  While this sounds very much like Stoicism, the application of the “emotions” in this case is to continue to keep the Law in the face of physical threat and torment which culminates in death.

While the casual reader may be impressed by the faith of the martyred men in the story, the first century reader would have been impressed with the men as examples of living out one’s philosophy consistently, even to the point of death.  The book is therefore aimed at the Jewish community which may face persecution as they have in the past, in order to encourage them to maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face a dominant culture which is discouraging, and may at times employ persecution and extreme torture (deSilva, 357).

Even though the book is superficially related to 1 Maccabees, there is no mention of the great military victories celebrated by that book in 4 Maccabees.  The great victories in this book come in the form of the martyrdom of men faithful to the Jewish Law.  It is not military might which drove off the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanies.  God’s wrath was turned away by the death of righteous men (4:19-21, 6:27-29, 17:21-22, cf., deSilva, 369).

Perhaps this is why Christians preserved the book. It was an encouragement to face torture and death rather than compromise with the Empire.

 

Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

Third Maccabees book opens rather abruptly with the news of Philopater IVs victory over Antiochus III at the battle of Raphia (1:1-5). Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-203) was a weak and indecisive king, initially not defending his territory until the Antiochus III was in Egypt.  When he did act, he was relentless.  When the two armies met at Raphia in 217 B.C.  Antiochus III had 62,000 men, 6000 cavalry and 102 elephants; Ptolemy had a nearly equal force of 70,000 men, 5000 cavalry, and 73 elephants (Polybuis, Histories, 5.79). Antiochus lost 17,000 men in this battle and Ptolemy annexed Palestine.

Maccabees

The Leiden First Maccabees manuscript (Codex Per F 17)

The peace Ptolemy made with Antiochus III turned out to be a mistake since Antiochus would recover and shift the balance of power in favor of the Seleucid dynasty. Ptolemy IV escaped an assassination plot when a Jew named Dositheos replaced the king with an “insignificant man” who was killed instead of the king.

What is interesting is the description of Dositheos as a Jewish person who later “changed his religion and apostatized from the ancestral traditions” (μεταβαλὼν τὰ νόμιμα καὶ τῶν πατρίων δογμάτων). The noun νόμιμος refers to a statute or law (LXX Lev 3:17, for example) rather than the Torah itself. It is the word used 1 Maccabees when the Seleucids suppress traditional Jewish practices (1:14, 42, 44), similar to 3 Maccabees 3:2. These are ancestral traditions since they come from the “decrees of the fathers.”

Dositheos alienates himself from these ancestral traditions using ἀπαλλοτριόω. This word has the sense of being an outsider or a stranger. It is used in LXX Hosea 9:10 to describe the Israelites who shamefully worshiped the gods of Baal-peor and became detestable like the thing they loved.” This may be a significant intertext since the response to the apostasy at Baal-peor was the zealous action of Phineas, a model for Matthias at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt (1 Macc 2:26, 54). The verb also appears in LXX Jeremiah 19:4 with reference to profaning the sanctuary. In LXX Ezekiel 14:5-7 the house of Israel has become estranged from God because they worshiped idols.

Although it is unlikely Paul has this particular text in mind, he does use the same sort of language to describe Gentiles in Ephesians. Gentiles were alienated from God (4:18) and the “commonwealth of Israel” (2:12), separated by the law of commandments (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν) and decrees (ἐν δόγμασιν). As a Second Temple period Jewish writer, Paul describes the Gentiles in the same way the writer of 3 Maccabees describes Dositheos.

By giving up ancestral practices which set him apart as a Jew, Dositheos has made himself a stranger and an outsider both to Israel and to God. His estrangement is demonstrated by preserving the life of Philopater, who will defile the Temple and outlaw ancestral traditions (3 Macc 3:2).

The warning to the reader in this opening paragraph that to apostatize from the ancestral traditions has far reaching implications. In the case of Dositheos, he preserved the life of a man who will defile the Temple. He becomes a stranger and an alien to his God and his people as a result.

How would this warning be understood by Diaspora Jews in the Roman world?

Image result for third maccabees elephantsThird Maccabees is perhaps best remembered for God’s dramatic actions rescuing the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-205 B.C.). Josephus narrates a similar story, but dates it to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (169-116 B.C., Contra Apion, 2.52-55). The story narrated by 3 Maccabees is fanciful, but as Livia Capponi comments, the intention of the author was “to offer a testimony to the courage and firmness of the Egyptian Jews even in the face of death” (293).

Although he Jews maintain a respectful attitude toward the king, Philopater is enraged when the Jews refuse to obey his demands (3 Macc 3:1-10). Philopater commands that Jews be rounded up and arrested.  The Jews are not honest, Philopater argues, because “they accepted our presence by word, but insincerely by deed, because when we proposed to enter their inner temple and honor it with magnificent and most beautiful offerings, they were carried away by their traditional arrogance, and excluded us from entering; but they were spared the exercise of our power because of the benevolence that we have toward all” (3:17-18, NRSV).

The decree was read “to the heathens” at public feasts, but the Jews reacted with great mourning.  Jews are “dragged away” in iron bonds to Alexandria.  The chapter is filled with tragic descriptions of old men led off in chains and virgin brides are taken away from their bridal chambers. They are taken to Alexandria and brought to the hippodrome to be made a public example for those who might defy the king.

The king intends to kill the Jews he has taken captive by charging five hundred elephants (5:1-51).  He ordered the elephants to be driven into a frenzy with a mixture of wine and frankincense, but when the appointed hour came, God caused the king to fall asleep so that he never gave the order to kill the Jews. Philopater is enraged and intends to kill the Jews the next day. Again, the whole town turns out for the spectacle, but when the time comes for the king to give the order, the Lord made his mind go blank and he threatens to toss his friends to the elephants instead.  Finally the king himself drives the crazed elephants toward the Jews, who are praying, weeping and embracing one another in full expectation of their deaths.

At this moment, a priest named Eleazar prays to God, asking God’s will to be done (6:1-15).  If that means dying, then let it be, but God ought to act for his own glory and “let the Gentiles cower today in fear of your invincible might, O honored One, who have power to save the nation of Jacob” (verse 13, NRSV). As Eleazar finished his prayer the heavens open and two angels descend, visible to all but the Jews (6:16-29). So awesome was their appearance the king began to shudder and he repented of his plans to destroy the Jews.  He commands the guards to “release the children of the almighty and living God of heaven, who from the time of our ancestors until now has granted an unimpeded and notable stability to our government.”

These dramatic events are narrated as a kind of theological drama. The hand of the Lord is against Philopater and he cannot harm the Jews as he once intended. But like the three young men in Daniel 3, the Jews gathered in the hippodrome are more than willing to die rather than obey the orders of the king. Eleazar’s speech alludes to both the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 and Daniel’s refusal to pray to Darius in Daniel 6 (3 Macc 6:6-7). He also refers to God’s rescue of Jerusalem from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35) and God’s rescue of Jonah. In all four biblical cases, there is no human way for the person to be saved. They are only rescued by the “most high, all conquering God who governs all creation” (3 Macc 6:2).

As I suggested in a previous post, this book was written after Rome took control of Judea. The story of a large number of Jews resisting the king’s demand to give up their ancestral traditions may have encouraged those who sought to upset Roman rule in the years leading up to the first Jewish rebellion.

 

Bibliography. Livia Capponi, “‘Martyrs and Apostates: 3 Maccabees and the Temple of Leontopolis’”, in Hellenistic Judaism: Historical Aspects, Henoch 29.2 (2007), 288-306.

Philopater IV

Gold octadrachm issued by Ptolemy IV Philopator, British Museum

When Philopater visits Jerusalem wants to offer sacrifices at the temple in order to make his new subjects “feel secure” (1:6-16). He is greatly impressed by the Temple and wants to enter the Holy of Holies. But the priests explain this is forbidden even for the Jews. Philopater insists that as king he is above this law. The priests cry out and tear their cloths and pray that Almighty God would stop Philopater from this plan. The whole city joins in the mourning for the plan of the king, praying to God to stop the king from his “sacrilegious plan.” He refuses to be persuaded and the chaos grows in intensity (1:17-29).

The High Priest Simon makes an impassioned prayer asking God to stop this “wicked and corrupt man” who is “reckless in his effrontery” (2:1-20). He believes God is testing the people as he has done in the past and the priest is determined that the people will not fail this time. Simon’s prayer recalls other times when the wicked were destroyed (the giants, Sodom, Pharaoh). The High Priest begs the Lord not to punish the Jews for this defilement (v. 17). The Lord responds to this prayer by severely thrashing Philopater and paralyzing him (2:21-33).  His bodyguards were amazed at this and pull his body out of the Temple.

Philopater recovered but was not humbled by this punishment: “he by no means repented, but went away uttering bitter threats” (v. 24). He returned to Egypt where he was “even more extravagant in his wickedness.” He sought ways to bring shame on the nation of Israel.  He required the Jews to sacrifice to Dionysus and even to tattoo themselves with an ivy leaf over their hearts to show devotion to Dionysus. The Jews are to be taxed heavily and reduced to the level of slavery.

While there were some Jews who gave into these demands in order to advance themselves in society, “The majority acted firmly with a courageous spirit and did not abandon their religion; and by paying money in exchange for life they confidently attempted to save themselves from the registration” (3: 32, NRSV). The latter half of this verse is an indication there were some Jews who did attempt to capitulate to the Ptolemies.

There is very little in these events which is historical. The writer has combined elements of the abominations of Antiochus IV with Pompey’s entry into the Temple in 63 B.C. The writer created a biblical prayer and placed in the mouth of the last of the great High Priests, Simon. Although it is impossible to connect these events to any one actual event, the writer tells his generation that God will act as he has done in the past to deal with the current empire, Rome.

There are several indications the writer has Rome in mind in this text. First, it was Pompey who entered the Holy of Holies in 63 B.C. The author of 3 Maccabees pushes this sacrilege back more than a hindered years.

Second, during the Roman period Jews in Egypt were required to register in a census (λαογραφία, laographía). This tax was first introduced by Augustus, required the men of Alexandria aged 14 to 62. Those who were Greek citizens and “members of the gymnasium” were exempt. Some Jews could be considered Greek citizens by virtue of their education and were considered “Greek” for purposes of this taxation. This registration and marking (2:28-29) may be in the background of the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13.

Third, when Simon lists other times the Lord has defeated the enemies of God’s people, he begins with “giants who trusted in their strength” (2:24). The word translated “strength” is a rare word in the LXX, ῥώμη, which is a homophone for Rome.

The writer of 3 Maccabees is therefore creating a theologically driven story to encourage readers struggling against another oppressive Empire. Just as God has acted in the past to rescue his people (whether this is Antiochus or Pompey or the present evil emperor), so too will he act again to rescue those who are “those who are downcast and broken in spirit” (2:20).

This “historical romance” was written in Greek sometime after the battle of Raphia (217 B.C.) and before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The book seems to know the additions to Daniel and possible the Letter of Aristeas as well, so it is probable the book was written in the first century B.C. The book may also have used 2 Maccabees, there are parallels in vocabulary and style. The book is often included in texts on the Apocrypha. The book is misnamed, since it does not contain a history of the Maccabean period, nor is it a continuation of the other two Maccabean books.  The book concerns an incident unrelated to the Maccabean family, and is titled Ptolemaica in some manuscripts (deSilva, 306).

Image result for third maccabeesSome scholars date the book to the reign of Caligula because of his desire to place an image of himself in the temple in A.D. 40. This sort of fictional “reaction” to Caligula is told in the guise of a similar crisis of the not-too-distant past. The problem with this view is there nothing explicit in the text which points to Rome or Caligula as the real point of the book.

A third possibility is the book was written in response to the shift from Egyptian to Roman control of Egypt in 24 B.C. The civic status of the Jew in Egypt was in question at that time, therefore the author creates a story as a comment on the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt. The evidence for this is a hint in 2:28 to a Roman poll tax.

This is a very thin argument and cannot serve as a final proof of the date of the book either. As Anderson says in his introduction, the real problem with each of these theories is that the book does not read like a “crisis document.” It lacks nearly every important characteristic of the apocalyptic response to a crisis (judgment, retribution, overthrow of the present age by God himself).

3 Maccabees may have been written as a defense of Diaspora Jews written to a Judean Jewish audience (Williams, 17). Since they live outside the land, they are considered to be “still in exile” and are therefore still under God’s judgment. The book demonstrates that God hears the prayers of the Diaspora Jewish community and preserves them in persecution, as he did during the Jewish community in Judea during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. It is possible the Jews in Jerusalem looked down on the Jews living outside the land.  The Jew of the Diaspora has as close of a connection to God as of the Jewish living in the land.

The book certainly addresses the problem of apostasy in the Diaspora since the Jews who have renounced their faith in the book are judged harshly. A major theme of the book is the boundary between the Jew and the Gentile. When Gentiles appear in the story, they are prejudiced, lawless and abominable. Even in Egypt Jews are warned to keep their distance from Gentiles and to avoid apostasy at all cost.

The context of the Caligula decree seems to make the most sense, but there does not seem to be enough time for a book like this to be written and circulated to make much of a difference in that situation. It is possible the author has in mind “generic” persecution, since a number of Greek and Roman generals sought to enter the temple. Pompey did in fact enter the Holy of Holies without any judgment. It is possible the book was written after Pompey as a sort of “what should have happened” story.

The study of this book is valuable to the student of the New Testament because it describes the Jews as unwilling to compromise their faith even in the Diaspora. When Ptolemy threatens to enter the sanctuary the whole population of Jerusalem join in the protest, but it is a protest to God to step into the situation and stop Ptolemy himself.  God is “the God, who oversees all things, the first Father of all, holy among the holy ones” (NRSV), therefore he can act and do what he needs to in order to defend himself.

Paul’s encounters with Jews in Asia Minor, for example, indicate that most Jews were keeping the law and not particularly interested Paul’s encouragement of Gentiles to “convert” partially by believing Jesus is the Messiah and not keep the Law. Here in this book those Jews who chose to “following their own bellies” and reject the Law in order to gain favor with the King are killed in the climax of the story. It is little wonder Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law often resulted in riots and physical abuse (2 Cor 12).

 

Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 304-322; David Williams, “3 Maccabees: A Defense of Diaspora Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), 17-29.

 

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.

When it comes to distinctively Jewish practices, how much did the “average Jew” care about keeping these traditions?  The great majority of Jews, comments N. T. Wright, “cared sufficiently about their god, their scriptures, and their Jewish heritage to take a fair amount to trouble over the observance of at least biblical law” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 213-214). Thi would certainly be true for the practice of Sabbath in the Second Temple period.

Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest, those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned.  This day of rest was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited.  The Romans took advantage of the Jews’ refusal to shoot on the Sabbath to build earthworks near the walls (War 1.15-147).

Image result for shabbat shalom memeSabbath was not dour cessation from activity, on the contrary, most Jews tried to make it as festive a day as possible. Food was prepared ahead of time so that it was available for an evening meal after sundown when the Sabbath came in.

There were rules (often devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath (erub). Meals were likely fish or fowl, better than a regular mean but not the red meat of a feast day.  Many Jews gathered at a synagogue for prayer and scripture reading.

Practices like Sabbath worship caused problems for Diaspora Jews.  For a Palestinian Jew, it was likely more difficult to break Sabbath or to not eat kosher than to obey.  But in Gentile cites far from Jerusalem, Jews were a small minority with some “strange” traditions.  Why should the Jews not work once a week?  Why should the Jews receive other privileges other ethnic groups did not?  Rome consistently upheld the rights of the Jews to assemble and keep the Sabbath. These protections were remarkable since Julius Caesar dissolved all associations except those of very ancient practice.  Philo praised Augustus for allowing the Jews alone to assemble in synagogues.

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus refers to these additional clarifications of Sabbath and other laws. While Jesus never breaks the Sabbath, he seems to challenge more restrictive interpretations of the Law. In Matthew 12:8 Jesus declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath and proceeds to heal someone who is not critically ill on the Sabbath.

If the Sabbath was so important to some Jews that they were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to keep it, how might Jesus’ words and actions be understood? Is he challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?

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Christian Theology

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