Tag Archives: Judaism

The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

The Jewish Religious World of Jesus—A Brief Overview

There is a great deal of misunderstanding that often derives from a reading of the New Testament when the modern reader does not consider the religious matrix of the first-century.

Ultimately, proper application to our own situation suffers tremendously.

In the last 20 years, biblical scholars have taken great strides in discovering the world of Second-Temple Judaism. This new wealth of information has made it possible for the church to better understand the religious world of Jesus. Placing Jesus within his own context, helps us to see him in our own.

Scholars are learning that the Jewish Religious landscape was much more multi-faceted than previously imagined.

N.T. Wright has written, “the one thing we can safely say about first-century Judaism is that there is no such thing as first-century Judaism, and that it may be best to speak of ‘Judaisms,’ plural” (Wright, 244).

In the previous two centuries before Jesus, political and religious strife created a tumultuous climate, especially in the region of Palestine.

The successful Maccabean Revolt, and then the people’s utter disgust with the failure of the Hasmonean Dynasty, had largely brought about an apocalyptic worldview, deep longings for a Jewish Messiah to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, and a hope in the imminent restoration of Israel according to God’s covenantal faithfulness.

There were several religious parties and sects that grew up during this period, and they were in full bloom during the ministry of Jesus.

This article will briefly examine what is currently known about those Jewish Religious groups that existed in the time of Jesus, and beckon the reader to consider what Jesus’ relationship was to them.

Pharisees

The Pharisees emerge as the most popular of all religious groups in the first-century. The etymology of the name Pharisee is uncertain, but some scholars believe the name is derived from the Hebrew word parush, which means “separation” or “consecration.”

This religious sect has commonly been labeled as strict legalists who were bent on oppressing people with burdensome rules for their own self-righteous pleasure. But that may not be an entirely accurate portrayal.

Jesus did indeed speak harsh words to these religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and “white washed tombs” (Matt. 23). His words of rebuke were certainly the strongest with the Pharisees.

However, it appears that Jesus may have had more in common with the Pharisees than any other religious group in the first-century.

So, who were these teachers of the law? Who were the “scribes” and Pharisees? And why was Jesus so bothered by this religious group?

The Pharisees were deeply concerned about Torah and they actively sought ways to find fresh interpretions and apply the Scripture to a world on the move. The “scribes” were those specifically trained in interpreting Torah. Although the scribes did not belong to any one specific party, it seems that they resonated with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life and punishment. They also were accepting of other more recent theological developments regarding angels and demons. The Pharisees were not only concerned about proper biblical interpretation, but also with proving their covenant faithfulness in ritual purity.

For the most part, the people trusted the guidance of the Pharisees as they influenced the life of the nation at the local level and showed great devotion to God. The Pharisees believed that Torah was for all people, and they made a concerted effort to keep the Law of Moses fresh and alive.

“Woe to you, blind guides!”

Why then does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? It is because the Pharisees believed that rabbinical oral-interpretive traditions (i.e. “traditions of the elders”) were just as authoritative as the Torah itself.

Also, the Pharisaical purity practices led them to erect social distinctions between themselves and fellow Jews. It became rather difficult for Pharisees to maneuver in life after adhering to extra human-laws and traditions.

Jesus simply would not allow the accumulation of the petty Pharisaical traditions deter him from the divine law. Jesus was deeply troubled by the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:12).

It was a disregard for the Pharisaical traditions that placed Jesus at odds with this popular sect. The Pharisees were unwilling to depart from those interpretive traditions that they felt were the greatest display of God’s covenant faithfulness. For this, they sought to trap and kill him.

Had the Pharisees not been so fond of their own teachings, and had instead been open to the teachings of the Galilean rabbi, they may have possibly recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures.

Sadducees

The Sadducees are remembered as the smaller aristocratic party that “combined conservative religious attitudes with power politics” (Ferguson, 519). Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees adhered to stricter interpretations, claiming only Torah as authoritative—even rejecting the Prophets and the Writings. They were the Religious Right of Jesus’ day.

What scholars learn about the Sadducees comes mainly from their opponents. The Sadducees are mostly remembered for their denial of the resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23). They had no use for the theological developments of the intertestamental period.

Their primary role as a priestly party was controlling the temple ritual. The Sadducees appear to be mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Where most Jews detested the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, the Sadducees enjoyed the peace, power, and influence that Rome was able to give them. They preferred the Pax Romana over the peace of Jesus.

They were only interested in serving God in so far as it didn’t require them to give up their secure position of prosperity or progress in their theology. It is worth noting that there is evidence of several Pharisees who followed Jesus, but there is not a single record of a Sadducee convert.

The Sadducees drop off the religious radar soon after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These conservatives fade with the shifting of their world.

Essenes

The monastic sect that lived at Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were called the “Essenes.” The Essenes, according to Philo and Josephus, numbered over 4,000 men. This religious group believed they were the rightful heirs of God’s promises.

The Essenes communicated this belief by withdrawing from temple life in Jerusalem, believing the entire religious system was corrupt. They practiced extreme frugality, celibacy, and ritual purity.

Ritual purity was central to the Essene way of life as they began their day with a purification bath before dressing in standard white outer garments.

There were ritual morning prayers, communal meals, and daily agrarian duties. They may have also worked as shepherds, beekeepers, and craftsmen.

The Essenes held an apocalyptic worldview. They believed they were living in the last days and that the prophets pointed to their times. This can be seen throughout Qumran literature. The Essenes were anticipating a conquering Messiah and they believed that they were saving themselves as the faithful keepers of the covenant. All others were just religious pretenders.

They intensely studied and copied the Scriptures. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned that the Essene community believed they were “sons of light” and the last remnant of God’s covenant.

Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptist may have emerged from the Qumran community.

Zealots, Sicarii, and Herodians

The Zealots are known as the extreme anti-Roman party with violent tendencies. Scholars point out that it is likely that these revolutionaries only differed from the Pharisees in their willingness to use violent force and sacrifice themselves for the sake of Jewish liberty.

The Zealots held a biblical hermeneutic that encouraged violent revolt against the enemies of God. Josephus has written, they were Jews expressing their conviction: “No lord, but God” (Jospehus, Ant. 18.1.6). Simon the Zealot was one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus (Matt. 10:4).

Another branch of the Zealots were the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Acts 21:38). These terrorists would mingle among the crowds of people, especially during Jewish festivals, and strike down prominent Roman officials, only to quickly disappear back into the crowd undetected.

These were the men that held Herod’s wilderness compound, Masada, during the Jewish revolt which first began in AD 66. It was in this military fortress that hundreds of Sicarii, along with their families, would take their own lives in order to avoid capture by the Romans in AD 73. The Romans were impressed by the honor and bravery of these freedom fighters.

The Herodians were another political and religious group that carried great influence among the people of Palestine. They are mentioned only three times in the New Testament. As their name suggests, the Herodians were clearly partisan to the Herodian dynasty, but they are still seen joining with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is significant, since the Herodians were politically affiliated with Herod’s house, but religiously and economically in agreement with the Sadducees. The testimony of Matthew and Mark reveal that the Herodians were willing to work alongside their rivals to oppose Jesus of Nazareth.

Samaritans

Samaria was the hill country located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Jesus told a parable of a Good Samaritan who helped a man that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Several pious travelers walk right on by the helpless man, but it is the Samaritan that reflects the kingdom of God.

This story cuts to the heart of Jewish prejudices towards this religious and ethnic group. For the religious Jews living in the first-century, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ provocative challenge to reconsider popular opinion about a religious neighbor and fellow keeper of the covenant.

So who were the Samaritans? Why were they disliked among many Jews?

The Samaritans were considered an unclean and illegitimate “half-breed race” that was neither Jew nor Gentile. This was due to their practice of intermarrying with pagans, being descendants of the northern tribes that split from Judah after the time of Solomon, and their establishment of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim.

The woman at the well discusses this point of contention with Jesus in John 4:1-42. Jesus proposes that the religious feud of temple worship is no longer relevant because the Messiah has come to set the world to rights.

Jesus indicates that God has something else in mind which goes beyond what was being anticipated and practiced by all religious Jews.

What Religious Brand Was Jesus?

It is worthy of careful consideration that Jesus did not entirely agree with any Jewish Religious group of his own day. Jesus rebuked representatives and ideologies from each group in an effort to reform their ideas of covenant faithfulness, ritual purity, and Messianic expectations.

For some of these religious folk, he did affirm that certain points of their theology were correct, still they needed to be refined through his own divine interpretation of Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Jesus claimed to be the only one able to interpret and teach without any blind spots or lapse in judgment.

Jesus refused to affiliate himself with any of the Jewish denominations of his day. He would not allow himself to be pigeonholed, and he was angered by the efforts other Jews made to place God in a box, constrained by their own theological and philosophical paradigms.

No, Jesus kept a healthy distance from these religious groups and he refused to weigh in on the hot political and religious debates of the day.

Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He shocked his audience by challenging their view of the Father’s love, teaching the inclusion of all those that welcomed him as Messiah, and proclaiming himself savior of the world.

Instead of joining these religious groups, Jesus gave a clear and resounding call, “Come, follow me” (Mk. 1:17). And the invitation still stands today.

Suggested Reading

  • DeSilva, David. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
  • Evans, Craig, and Stanley Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
  • VanderKam, James. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
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Religionless Christianity

“…you and I will never be Christians, or servants of the Lord, in real spiritual life and effectiveness beyond the measure of our inward apprehension of the Lord Jesus.” T. Austin Sparks, The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ, 10

Why are we wasting precious time and energy attempting to answer the problems with the church today by tweaking the old paradigms?  We ask the wrong questions within a broken and flawed model of the church that Constantine built.  Our problems grow greater still. We must begin asking the right questions.  We must allow the Lord to exchange our old paradigms for new ones.

This sort of revolution will only come by us truthfully asking the Lord to give us the right questions and reveal to us the true knowledge of his Son Jesus Christ. How do we know which questions are wrong and right?  How is it possible for old paradigms to be crushed underneath the feet of brave revolutionaries?  The Scripture is the key because Christ is the treasure within it.

The written word of God unlocks the living Word of God who is Christ Jesus our Lord. Ultimately, He is the answer we are looking for. He is the pursuit of our hearts whether we recognize it or not. Unfortunately, too often, believers stop short of their purpose for living. They settle for some other passion other than the master. The answer is not found in a method, movement, or post-modern program.  It is not found in 12 steps, purpose-driven products, or some other religious gimmick published by Zondervan. It is Christ; he is the answer to our problems in the church today.

So, in order to see a biblical image of Christ we must ask questions which are biblically sound instead of denominationally or culturally colored with bias and misconception.  We must forsake everything else but Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated it best when he said, “Besides Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters.” The Cost of Discipleship, 59

Question Everything

When we speak of religion… our concern first and foremost must be, “What does the Scripture say about religion?” We can say a lot of nice, fanciful, and deep philosophical things for and against religion and we can seek to answer our problems by continually asking the wrong questions. When we do not ask the right questions we will most certainly get the wrong answers.

We must leave the realm of the familiar in order to ask the right questions. If we do not leave the familiar, we will continue to ask the same kinds of wrong questions that only lead to a reform of dead religion instead of a revolutionizing answer that brings a radical return to Christ. The only way to have a revolution in thought and practice is to leave the familiar and seek answers outside the previously accepted beliefs and practices of the majority. We must question everything believing that there are answers. Some see this as evil, yet I find it is most productive in the honest pursuit of truth.

To not question, is to accept unexamined truth claims.  To accept unexamined truth claims, even truly biblical ones, would be the same as accepting a lie. In other words, you are taking another person’s digested information and making it your own. If you were to do this with food you would see a very disgusting problem. You chew your own food and digest it yourself. It would be unhealthy, to say the least, if you were to make a habit of swallowing every “truth” that came to you from your “leaders” without first chewing on it and digesting it yourself.  When it comes to spiritual things we are referring to discernment, personal study, and personal experience. The healthy spiritual man will not only discern whole pieces of doctrine, but the words we use to describe our faith.

The one who divides the Word of truth correctly is the one who will go outside his preconceived notions to let the Lord speak whatever he so desires.  Even when it means redefining words in our language or to stop using certain words altogether.

The point I am making is this: If truth is to be discovered, the believer must offer everything up and be willing to let the Lord reveal things that previously were hidden and closed; letting go of previously held understandings so that the Lord may bring new understanding as he sees fit.

The Lord must have your preconceived ideas in order to give you his sight in return.  We must surrender everything be willing to let the Lord tell us we were wrong before he can show us the light of his wisdom. If we do not allow the Lord to do this we will continue to ask the wrong questions and keep getting the wrong answers.  We will fall short like so many men in the history of the church.

Defining Religion

Religion is something we hear spoken of in good and in evil ways.  I recently read a book entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball. Obviously, the author believes there are benefits to religion when it is not evil.

The author even went so far to claim that Islam worships the same God of Judaism and Christianity. He believes all religion is capable of bringing about peace in the world.  At the same time, he spoke of the exclusive way of salvation through Jesus Christ. See anything wrong here?

He has asked the wrong questions in his book because he does not allow for a redefining of religion.  Among his many problems, he has a preconceived belief that religion is not inherently evil in itself (i.e. religion is not the problem), and that religion is good or evil, true or false. He will inevitably come up with wrong answers because he is not allowing everything to be questioned specifically, his biblical understanding of religion. It is important that we understand there are several different ways of understanding what is meant by religion.

The popular understanding of religion is found on the lips of the majority today. They speak of religion to describe worshippers of a particular deity or devotion to a set of beliefs and ideas. Webster defines religion this way, “belief in a supernatural power… an objective pursued with fervor or continuous devotion.”

Most professing Christians, ignorant of church history, would describe Christianity as a “religion.” They of course would say it is the only “true religion.”

Learning a Religionless Christianity

I do not consider myself religious in any sense of the word and I make a concerted effort to learn of a “religionless Christianity.” I like to go so far as to distinguish the difference between the religious and the faithful; those committed to man’s unnatural rituals and laws vs. those committed to the natural faith of Christ. My heart longs for this distinction not to be cliché and clever “God talk,” but to sincerely be something totally set apart from man’s religion and our modern American “pop-culture” Christianity. I, along with many others in my generation, seek a faith of Christ free from all forms of religion that threaten to contaminate the natural faith of Christ and the communal Body life that is to ensue around it.

We must know that all religion contaminates that natural faith and Body life. Even religion that claims Christ is at the center.What is false religion? In the past, we have been conditioned to respond in the following ways, “Well, it is Islam… it is Buddhism… it is Mormonism… etc.”  Again, this is thinking inside the box. This reflects culture’s definition. We must speak a new language! Claiming that Christianity is the only true religion is unbiblical. You will not find it in the Bible.

So, what does the Bible say? Some may quickly quote James, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” At first glance, we might think James is condoning some kinds of religious activity. Yet, a second look, I believe, will reveal that James has absolutely nothing good to say about religion.

As a matter of a fact, the way in which he mentions it is to really tell of its true worth. He goes on to say, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: TO LOOK AFTER ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR DISTRESS AND TO KEEP ONESELF FROM BEING POLLUTED BY THE WORLD.” (James 1:26-27)

This is the only place in the New Testament where the word thrēskos (“religious”) is used. According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the adjective describes “a person who performs the external acts of religion, such as public worship, fasting, or giving to the needy.” Another source refers to the word as meaning, “the ceremonial service of religion.” It has been used in Greek to speak of the practices of Egyptian priests. The noun form of the word appears but four times in the N.T., two of which are here in James.

The other two times the word can be found in Acts 26:5 and 1 Timothy 5:4. In each case, the word “religion” is not used favorably. It would be accurate to paraphrase James as saying, “Religion is in fact worthless. It is man’s outward display of works done in the flesh (i.e. looking the part, attending services, being seen by the world, etc.). The faith that the Lord approves of is FAITH PROVING ITSELF BY WORKS BORN OF THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST.”

These works born of the Spirit will largely go unnoticed. For example… caring for widows and keeping your mouth shut when you have nothing to say that will edify… this is real faith in action! You will not find these works on a billboard, but you will find them showing up on the radar of God.

Therefore, the normal Christian life springs from an inward spiritual reality that is expressed in love and purity. Religion is only concerned about those things which are external (i.e. the outward appearance).

Furthermore, religion claims it can effect the internal by way of external modifications. This is not the method that Jesus taught. Who were the examples of the religious in James’ day?  You know them as the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.

There is little doubt that James was indeed thinking about these kinds of religious people. This was his context. Continue reading James and this will become clear.  It is the faith of Christ (commonly taught as “faith in Christ”) that is true. It produces real spiritual life that is made manifest by not only listening to the Word, but doing what it says (James 1:22). Our faith is the sum of all spiritual things: Christ Jesus our Lord!

Nothing else is needed but a natural out-flowing of that faith in our lives and in our lives joined with other Christians in the church. Religion is concerned with doing, the authentic faith of Christ is concerned with being. If you will look around you today, you will notice there are many Christians attempting to do great things for the Lord, but have little concern for the actual knowing of Christ and being an extenuation of his person.

The Natural Faith of Christ

Religion trains people to think about the doing.  The New Testament speaks about the being. For example, I bet your evangelistic practices have been influenced by religion to a large degree. Instead of simply being Christ naturally by showing love in lifestyle evangelism… many have resorted to a “in your face” non-stop display of religious solicitation. Many Christians learn an outline, similar in style to a salesman, and only regurgitate it for their client. Is this not unnatural?

When the Lord’s people begin with their primary purpose as doing for Christ, they will fail to ever reach the most important aspect of the faith: being Christ! They will devise many forms of unnatural religious practices and they ultimately will not be able to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21) They will continue to resort to scheduled “quiet times” and Avon evangelism.  And this is only the beginning of the nasty fruits produced by religious thinking.  If the faith of Christ is ever to be expressed naturally, religion has to go!

Finally, did Jesus say anything about religion? Well, he never gave a discourse over comparative religion, nor did he attempt to build a case that Christianity is the only true religion. However, he did say many things to those who believe themselves to be religious. From these things we see Jesus’ attitude toward religion. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus refers to these religious men as “hypocrites” and that they like to be “seen by men” on the street corners.

In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus tells the religious Sadducees, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Remember, Jesus said this to the religious of the religious. He said this to those conservatives and moderates who loved for their presence to be known on the street corners and in the synagogues. These men were highly regarded and respected by the worshippers of God.  And Jesus tells them, “You don’t know the Scriptures.” I believe this reveals the very root of the problem today. Many Christians have relied upon the denominational interpretations of the religious and have rejected the simple plain teachings from those whom the religious have discarded.

Primarily, we have rejected Jesus as being all-sufficient for life and living.  We have failed to discover the endless depths and riches that are found in Christ.  It is much easier to follow the seen instead of the person and the works of the unseen; instead of following the one who asks us to do better than obey some rules, but deny himself that he may live. (Matt. 19:16-24)  Jesus said it will not be on a particular mountain or temple that we will worship (Jn. 4:21-24), not a location or a building, but an attitude of the heart and a place of the Spirit. The Lord rejects the outward display of hypocrites, but says, “Well done!” to the faithful servant who has left all to sit around his feet in natural familial community.

Religious Christianity believes dominance, power, and visible presence is the way by which Christianity wins triumphantly.  Religionless Christianity is in no need of pagan rituals and edifices; no need of political power and the desire to conquer by baptizing the cultural.  Religionless Christianity is relational Christianity.  This faith is simple and its power comes from love and sacrifice.

Are we to say that all religious people are hypocrites? Not exactly. They may be true sincere followers of the Lord only involved in the activities of hypocrites because that’s all they know. They have grown up being taught that religion is a necessary function of ministry in this new and “post-modern” age.

Nicodemus is an example of a religious man, yet a sincere lover of God. He was practicing what he truly believed was the Lord’s will for his people.  Jesus challenged him in his understanding of spiritual things in John 3.

We do not know for certain what happened to Nicodemus after the resurrection, but we do know what happened to another religious Pharisee named Saul. And this man was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, the religious of the religious. Saul of Tarsus left it all to follow Christ into uncharted territory free from religion’s chains! He traded his religion for a faith of Christ that is natural. His aim was no longer serving the letter of the law, but to knowing the “power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11)

Embracing Religionless Christianity

Therefore, we must say with boldness and confidence, “Religion is rooted in the pride of man finding worth in himself apart from the simple way of knowing and being satisfied with the person of Christ.” It is really an English double negative to say, “false religion” for it can be nothing more or less. All religion is counterfeit life.

Can you imagine how our conversations would change if we would adjust our language and living to this truth? Never again would you tell someone from another religious devotion, “Christianity is the only true religion.”  Doing this would only continue the never-ending cycle of religious talk. You would say nothing new and absolutely nothing that would reveal your true identity: You do not belong to the world! Your faith founded in Christ is out of this world. This is not theoretical talk, but the true language of the alien, stranger, sojourner, and follower of the King whose kingdom is coming!

Religionless Christianity is a return to the simple faith of Christ. It is the only way to communicate who we truly are to a world filled with religion. The world has enough of religion.  It needs true citizens of the eternal kingdom to show it her King. May the Lord keep us from being polluted by the world.  Lord, help us to embrace your person that your life may naturally flow from our spirits.

Note: I have borrowed the phrase “religionless Christianity” from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I believe many have misunderstood this phrase.  I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer himself even had a full understanding of what this “religionless Christianity” implies for Christians living in community.  We would do well to ask the Lord to reveal to us its true meaning and begin a much needed dialogue on spiritual revolution instead of religious reformation.

D.D. Flowers, 2008.


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