Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Sabbath

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?

Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Election

“Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Philo Spec. Laws 1.303).

“I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Pseudo-Philo Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f)

One of the foundational assumptions of the Hebrew Bible is that the one creator God chose Israel out of the nations to be his own people. For example, Deuteronomy 7:6, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession.” God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, brought them to Mount Sinai and entered into a special covenant with them. And despite the rebellion in the wilderness, God gave them a special land promised to Abraham.

Image result for chosen people IsraelWith respect to the basis of this election (works or grace), it is best to use a both/and approach. There is no reason given for the choice of Abram in Genesis, but there are responsibilities within the covenant which will result in continued blessings for the elect people of God. Paul says in Romans 9 the basis for God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was the “electing purpose of God” rather than foreseen faith or good works on the part Jacob.

In Sifre Deuteronomy 343 God offers the Torah to other nations, but they all refuse.

“At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: “Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”

The text goes on to say “not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on its door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah.” But finally God came to Israel and they said, “We will do and hearken” (Exodus 24:7).

The basis of Israel’s election was a matter of some discussion in the Second Temple period. The Testament of Abraham describes Abraham’s realization the gods his father Terah crafts are nothing but wood and stone. His father asks him to sell five idols of Marumath, but Abraham loses three in the river.  Later, while cooking his father’s dinner he sarcastically asks the god Barisat to watch over the cooking fire while he went to ask his father what he should cook.  When he returns, the fire was still going and the god was burning himself. Abraham and Terah argue over this; Abraham says the god is nothing and says the gods are only honored because Terah made them well. While Abraham is pondering the gods, a voice from heaven calls to him and says he is the God of gods and commands him to leave the house of Terah (Test.Ab. 8). The story was likely written to offer an explanation of why God chose Abraham, but also to encourage Jews in the Second Temple to avoid idolatry.

It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist. They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God. Monotheism alone requires exclusivism.  But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least should not have developed into snobbery). The nation was set apart in order to be preserved from false beliefs and therefore raise the whole world.

 

Bibliography: Simon Gathercole, “Election,” pages 571-23 in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010).

Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Shema

The belief in only one God is the most basic aspect of Judaism. As expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4-6, the shema. The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath). The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath).

shema israel inscription

The Shema was fundamental to daily practice of Jewish. The word refers to Deut. 6:4-5 (which begins “Hear O Israel,” shema is Hebrew for “Hear.”) The passage directs Jews to keep the commandments upon their heart and to teach them to their children. These commands are the Ten Commandments which immediately precede this command, but essentially the whole law is to be kept in mind and taught to the next generation.

Tamid 5.1 The superintendent said to them, “Say one blessing.” They said a blessing, pronounced the Ten Commandments, the Shema [Hear O Israel (Dt. 6:4–9)], “And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken” (Dt. 11:13–(21), and “And the Lord spoke to Moses” (Num. 15:37–41). They blessed the people with three blessings: True and sure, Abodah, and the blessing of priests. And on the Sabbath they add a blessing for the outgoing priestly watch. (Translation, Neusner)

Although the practice of reciting the shema is well-known in rabbinic sources, it is not possible to date those sources earlier than the second century. Avery-Peck, for example, suggests “there is no reason to posit a long history of legislation concerning its recitation” (Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Oral Tradition: Early Judaism,” ABD 5:35). Tan, on the other hand, argues the practice of reciting the shema dates to the pre-A.D. 70 period on the basis of b.Berakhot 21a.

However, there are several indications in the New Testament that the shema was used as a prayer even in the first century. Jesus alludes to the shema in Matt 22:34–40//Mark 12:28–34, Paul alludes to the 1 Corinthians 8:4, “there is no God but one” (See Erik Waaler) and James 2:19 appear to quote the shema. This is not evidence of twice-daily prayers, but the prayer was familiar neough to appear in three diverse contexts in the New Testament,

According to Berakhot 1.1-3. The shema was placed in doorways (the modern mezuzot) and in tephillin, boxes strapped to the hand and forehead during prayer. We know the tephillin were used in the first century since the pharisaical practice of making wide straps is criticized in Matthew 23:5. Aristeas 158 refers to the “words” posted on gates and doors and Josephus refers to the practice of binding scripture on the arm (Antiq. 4.213).

At the very least, the evidence suggests Jewish people in the Second Temple period recited the shema regularly and were ultimately committed to the idea of one God. There are obviously ramifications of this belief (rejection of other gods, for example). But there are other implications as early Jewish Christians described Jesus as divine (Phil 2:5-11, for example). How did Second Temple Jewish believers integrate their new believing Jesus into their understanding of “one God”?

 

Bibliography: Kim Huat Tan, “Jesus and the Shema,” pages 2677-2707 in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter; Leiden: Brill, 2011); “The Shema and Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 59 (2008): 181-206. Erik Waaler, The Shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians: An Intertextual Approach to Paul’s Re-reading of Deuteronomy. WUNT 2/253. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).