Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus
© L.D. Underwood 2010
The Religious World in Which Jesus Lived
(Religion in The Time of Christ)
Jesus Christ lived in a world that was filled with competing religions. Each of these religions that were in competition, differed very widely from each other and from among themselves, but all of them possessed one common characteristic, each of these religious expression among the pagans, shows a struggle to reach a god, or perhaps many gods, depending on the religion, a struggle to reach the god, or gods who remained essentially inaccessible. Craving after a relationship with these gods, and yet never really coming to a place of satisfaction because they were allusive and always out of grasp.
Studying paganism, we find that that it is really a parody or a perversion of God’s original revelation to man. Within pagan religions, within cults, within off-the-wall religious beliefs, there is retained certain basic elements of truth. If it were completely off the wall, probably very few people would be interested. So, there are elements of truth in them, but they twist them until they become practical falsehoods. For example, divine sovereignty which we ascribe to God, becomes fatalism, what will be, will be. Grace, within the Christian tradition, becomes indulgence—"doing my own thing.” Righteousness, a glorious concept within scripture becomes conformity to arbitrary rules, and regulations of behavior. Worship becomes empty ritual. Prayer turns into selfish begging. The supernatural degenerates into the superstitious. Paganism is a perversion of what God intended through his divine revelation.
The consequent confusion of beliefs and values, left the vast majority of people’s wandering in a maze of uncertainty. To some people expediency became the dominant philosophy of life. That is, if there is no ultimate certainty, if there are no permanent principles, by which to guide one’s conduct in life then live to the advantage of the moment—just do whatever seems to work. Other people resorted to skepticism, as the old gods were losing their power, as people were increasingly turned away from them, new gods would come upon the scene to take their place. There were these numerous cults that would invade the empire with some new novel idea that would sweep people off their feet creating confusion and uncertainty. In fact, to catalogue paganism in that regard as we find it in the Roman empire, would be say, they would have the following characteristics. First of all, there would be polytheism, by which we mean the worship of many (poly) many gods. Most of these religions acknowledged many gods and many demons. Once these gods or demons were admitted to the pantheon, the cultural collection of these deities, then a god, or goddess could not be eliminated from that pantheon. He or she had gained divine tenure within the pantheon. They would just keep adding further gods to it, not substituting one for the other.
A second characteristic of paganism would be the worship of images. By contrast, Israel of course, were to have no images, no pictorial representations of God. But paganism would worship actual icons or images. Another characteristic would be self-salvation. In other words, the pagan gods, pictured anthropomorphically, were merely amplified human beings bigger than life. That is to say, the gods would not be that different from men, they would just be different in degree, not different in kind. So, it is up to the individual to work out his own salvation. One other characteristic would be sacrifice—animal sacrifice would be necessary to soothe their temperamental gods and to appease them in some way. With that sort of general description of paganism, let us come to some specific types of religious expression in the empire in the pagan realm. First of all, we have local gods and goddesses, local deities. These would start normally with what we call primitive animism. Animism is simply the belief that all-natural objects possess indwelling souls. We have gods of the forest, and gods of the fields, and gods of the sky, and gods of the stream. These natural objects all possessing indwelling souls, develop into the great Greco-Roman pantheon, these deities become fused after a while, where for example Jupiter is equal to Zeus as the sky god. Or Minerva is equal to Athena as the goddess of wisdom. Or Neptune is equivalent to Poseidon as the god of the sea. So, we have the fusion of these local gods and goddesses around that begin to be fused together within the pantheon.
This worship of local gods and goddesses began to decline around about the time of the coming of Christ. The reason for the decline in these local gods and goddesses, were due to the gross immoralities and petty squabbles and the ridicule of the philosophers for example, “Who could believe in that local god or goddess.” So, it began to decline, but it was still evident and still continued to some extent. We have one example of that in the book of Acts 19 where we see the goddess Artemis or Diana of the Ephesians as a local goddess. That is one example in the Bible of a local deity. Another kind of religious expression was what we call emperor worship. We have to understand, there was a growing cosmopolitan consciousness in the empire, which prepared the way for the worship of the state. Worshipping the emperor became a political duty and a means of binding the nation together and demonstrating the loyalty and unifying patriotism and making support of the state a religious duty. One must not think of this as just happening overnight. This form of worship grew gradually. For example, when Augustus the first emperor, Augustus Caesar, at first he refused the title of Emperor. In fact, he thought being called divine was an insult. But before his death, the Greek speaking provinces of the empire in the east insisted on deifying him and giving him the title, Pontifex, maximus, which means supreme pontiff, or high priest. For a long time, Greeks have described supernatural powers to their leaders, and so this concept gradually infiltrated the Roman empire as a cultural intrusion. Tiberias, and most of his successors were rather restrained in the matter. They didn’t make a big deal out the fact that being high priest or pontifex maximus. But there were some exceptions to the rule. For example, the emperor Caligula, who in the year AD 40 sought worship from the people directly. He built two temples to himself and dressed as Jupiter and began to utter some oracles and appeared between the statues of the gods to receive adoration from the people. He even ordered a statue of Jupiter with his own features to be placed in the temples in Jerusalem. Fortunately, diplomatically, the order was rescinded by the Syrian governor, so that never took place, but at least that was the desire of Caligula as the emperor of Rome.
But this kind of formal obeisance to the emperor, this worship of the emperor was typical as a preliminary event before a race let’s say or a game would be played. Most people participated with very little personal concern for the emperor. Like many people just sort of salute the national flag at the beginning when they play the national anthem. After all what was the problem of worshiping one more god? We’ll just add the emperor to the whole list of gods we’re already worshiping.
Now we can see why the Jews refused to participate, because they were monotheists, believers in one God, not polytheists, believers in many gods. So, they were exempted in having to pay tribute to the emperor and they were given a mantle of protection to allow them to have this exemption. Of course, the Christians—who were until, probably around the early 60’s or so, were thought of by the Romans as being part of the Jews, a sect of Judaism—were also allotted exemption from having to pay tribute to the emperor in that way. Except in certain localities where local officials wanted to make sure they had one hundred percent participation and this caused a great deal of problems with Christians and Jews refusing the bow the knee to Caesar.
But emperor worship was one expression of religious life at that time. Then we can add to that the mystery religions. Now these first two expressions with regards to local deities and emperor worship were really very unsatisfying for the vast majority of people. They were ritualistic, they were maintained collectively, very little focus on the individual. Most people were doing this just to protect themselves rather than having any fellowship with God, or the gods. There was little personal solace and comfort in times of stress and need. As a result of this dissatisfaction, the mystery religions from the east, began to infiltrate the empire and tried to fulfill the desire of a more personal faith on the part of individuals. And in theses mystery religions, you had the worshipers mystically and esoterically, associating themselves with mythological gods. They would have very elaborate initiation ceremonies in the dark. They would witness sacred dramas of all types. And some of these mystery religions, these more personalized cults as it were, became attached to localities, visited by pilgrims, perhaps similar to the worship of our Lady of Lourdes in France. Now the oldest of these cults was centered at a small town near Athens, Eleusis. Each year in Eleusis, a series of sacred rights and certain dramas, were reenacting a story of a Greek myth, attempting to observe and explain the yearly cycle of the changing seasons in September. So the observers as they would see this drama were expected to experience a kind of vicarious involvement in the drama. To become a part of it. Probably the most widespread cult was what we call Mithraism. Mithraism, in terms of its membership, was limited to men only. It had no priestly cult or cast, most of the ceremonies were performed by those who would achieve what they call the seventh degree of status within certain ranks. The worship ceremonies occurred in underground caves, each of which contained a statue of Mithra which was the sun god. The image would picture the sun god Mithra as slaying a bull, symbolizing his mastery over evil and darkness. We also have Cybele, a very distasteful cult that was characterized by wild frenzy in which the participants would cut themselves with knives and sprinkle their own blood on the alters, and participate in ritual sacrifices.
Add to this Gnosticism—a mixture of religion and philosophy. Gnosticism derives its name from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnostics claimed special knowledge, which those who desired salvation must obtain from them. They alone were in the know. Much like the Platonists, they conceived of matter as being of less value than things immaterial. In fact, they distinguished three classes of people. We had the pneumatic ones; we get that from our word pneuma, the word for spirit. These were the spiritual ones—pneumatic.
There were other philosophies, we could about cynicism for example, best known through a man Diogenes in the fourth century BC, an eccentric who lived in large tub, and concluded that real peace could only come through eliminating all desires. A view that would lead toward despair. Or there was skepticism, by Pharaoh of Ellis in the 300’s BC, who was suspicious of anyone who claimed to have the key to truth. His watch word was suspended judgment, for he believed that there were no absolute values of truth. These different philosophies are mentioned because these variant ideas were far too abstract for ordinary people to grasp and they lack any sense of finality. Therefore, the philosophers engaged in unsuccessful quest for truth. For example, take the first change. A change to idolatry to monotheism, the belief in one God. Remember the Babylonian captivity was a major catastrophe for the Jewish people. Yet it had certain advantages and useful purposes. For example, the Jews went into the exile with a hopeless incurable case of infatuation and love for godless idolatry. They were constantly serving other gods, whoring after heathen deities. Remember how they are scarcely out of Egypt and they worshiped the golden calf. They were barely into Canaan and they set up idol groves to Baal. During the Monarchial periods, Solomon led the nation in the worship of heathen gods. In the divided kingdom, Jeroboam set up golden calves at Baan and Bethel. So, they go into the exile with all of this craving for idolatry, and yet they emerge from the exile as the most monotheistic people in all the world. Why such a dramatic change? Certainly the environment cannot be the answer. We all know that Babylon was the hotbed of idolatry and should have increased that tendency. But the change most likely came about because of two factors. First of all, the miracle of prophecy was being fulfilled before their very eyes. The words of the prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah were actually coming to pass as they prophesied. Secondly, the witness of a man named Daniel in the royal court certainly had its effect. It came to dawn upon these people that the heathen gods were lying vanities. The Jehovah God, was the one true and living God.
Therefore, in New Testament times and even down to this day, the Jews remain staunchly monotheistic believers in one God. Another change we find is the rise of the Jewish synagogues.
Interestingly, the word ‘synagogue’ means literally “to gather together.” When they were in Babylon, pious Jews gathered together in homes on the Sabbath for prayer and for scripture reading. Upon their return back from the captivity, special meeting houses were erected in addition to the temple, one or more in every major town. For example, we are told in Jerusalem, prior to AD 70 that there were somewhere between three hundred and four hundred eighty synagogues in the city of Jerusalem. That perhaps would be a slight exaggeration but it was indicative of the spread and how widespread they were.
Perhaps this can best be described by saying there were Talmuds made available. The background of this can be summarized in this fashion: that there developed a system whereby generation after generation commentaries were produced. A commentary would be called a Midrash, or if you want the plural, Midrashim a mass of legalistic teachings, interpretations and supplementations the collection of these traditions with all of these conflicting rabbinic opinions were compiled in what constitutes the Talmud, the religious encyclopedia of Judaism. This document would rise and develop and evolve from as early as 250 BC to as late as AD 500. So, we are estimating about six or seven hundred years of development of these various ideas. There were actually two different versions of the Talmud. There was a Palestinian, and secondly there was a Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian was about three to four times larger than the Palestinian, and much more commonly used by those who were scattered abroad.
We can think of the Talmud as organized into two sections made up of the Mishna (that would be the text); and the Gemara (which would be like the commentary). The Mishna we can think of as the oral law, or tradition committed to writing, consisting of rules and regulations and mostly consisting of what we refer to as Halakkah or legal exegesis with authority equal to that of the Mosaic law. This legal code was organized into six subject groups. For example, the first order had to do with agricultural products and practices. Secondly the observance of festivals and feasts. Thirdly the marriage and divorce issues. Fourth, you would have civil and criminal laws. Fifth the structure of the temple services, and finally ritual purity and impurity. These six orders or groups were divided into 63 subsections or tractates which in turn were divided into chapters or paragraphs of a variety of lengths.
Also, Various oracles were present, where supposedly the gods would communicate their will to men through various priests. There is also a mania for horoscopes and occultism and astrology. Various forms of magic upon which people would rely. Then there were various philosophies of the time with which we should be familiar with. When religion degenerates into empty ritualism, or ignorant superstition, thoughtful people abandon it altogether, for there is no real satisfaction in it. Yet at the same time, there is a continued search in the midst of their skepticism. Just to list some of the prominent philosophies of the time: We could speak about Neo-Platonism; Plato founded the school, known as “The Academy” about the year, 400 BC. It was closed ultimately by the Christian Emperor Justinian, in the year AD 529. So it had close to a thousand years of existence.
According to the Neo Platonists, the Real World was the world of ideas, or concepts, the highest of which would be the idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Our world was only a shadow of the idea which lies behind it. Therefore, material things, including the human body, was viewed as a kind of prison house for man. His only hope for release from the unreal world of material things lay in contemplation and meditation and therefore God was looked upon as an impersonal idea to the Platonists. Salvation came about by correct thinking. If people only knew to do right, they would have sense enough to do that which is right, a very naïve view, because knowing right, does not bring about doing right.
We made some reference previously to Gnosticism a mixture of religion and philosophy. Gnosticism derives its name from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnostics claimed special knowledge, which those who desired salvation must obtain from them. They alone were in the know. And much like the Platonists, they conceived of matter as being of less value than things immaterial. In fact they distinguished three classes of people. You had the pneumatic ones; we get that from our word pneuma, the word for spirit. So these were the spiritual ones—pneumatic. Then there were the psychic which were viewed as being inferior to the spiritual ones. This would be found in the prophets and some of the good Hebrews. And then finally a classification spelled Hylic. This would refer to those subject to matter for whom there was no hope, in other words the vast majority of humanity. You can see then, why John the apostle, for example stresses the fact that Jesus came in the flesh in the body of his flesh, the fullness of the godhead bodily. Paul likewise stresses the same truth in the book of Colossians.
Take the philosophy Epicureanism. Epicurus, was a common sense philosopher who founded a school in Athens about 100 years after Plato. For him, truth was not an abstract idea way out there someplace, but rather truth was to be defined in terms of ones own senses and perception. Wisdom lies in the pursuit of pleasure. And pleasure of course would be the absence of pain. Sometimes we hear the Epicureans dubbed with the slogan: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Well even though Epicurus did not advocate sensual lust and glutinous behavior, certainly his ideas led to unbridled selfishness on the part of his followers.
We also have stoicism. This school of thought was founded by Zeno, in the city of Athens. A man who lectured his disciples under a covered porch known as a stoa, from which we get our word stoicism. He was in sharp disagreement with the Epicureans who were basically Atheists, and who leaned toward self-indulgence. For the stoics, there was an ultimate beyond this world, an impersonal force. And mans’ duty was to live in harmony with this reason, the will was thought of as superior to emotions. So that man, even in the face of stress could rise above his circumstances. The self-controlled man was the free man. The slogan for them would be “grin and bear it”; and if you can’t grin, then grit your teeth and bare it anyway. In many ways the stoics were quite opposite from Christianity. They were pantheistic in their beliefs in contrast to the Christian who believe the God and the world are separate from each other. They were fatalistic. Whereas we believe God exercises loving care and sovereignty over his children. They believed that unaided, man could be good, where Christians teach men are helpless apart from the grace of God. They felt there was no personal future life, whereas we believe in eternal loving fellowship. The stoics would crush emotion because it was felt that was inferior to one’s mind. Whereas Christians teach that emotions need to be sanctified, and whereas they would stress self-control, we would emphasize spirit control. There were other philosophies, that could be mentioned—cynicism for example—best known through a man Diogenes in the fourth century BC, who was an eccentric and lived in large tub, and concluded that real peace could only come through eliminating all desires. A view that would lead toward despair. Or there was skepticism, by Pharaoh of Ellis in the 300’s BC, who was suspicious of anyone who claimed to have the key to truth. His watch word was “suspended judgment”, for he believed that there were no absolute values of truth. All of these different philosophies are mentioned because these variant ideas were far too abstract for ordinary people to grasp and they lack any sense of finality. Therefore, the philosophers engaged in unsuccessful quest for truth.
Having examined the pagan life of the times, we turn now to Judaism. Several terms should be distinguished. The word Hebrew is a linguistic term referring to the language spoken by Jewish people. Hebrew—a language term. Israelite you’ll notice has the little letters ‘e’, ‘l’ in the middle of the word—one of the names for God. So this is a religious term—Israelite. ‘Jew’ was a geographical term referring to the people from the land of Judah. And interestingly that term Jew is for the first time used in the OT book of Esther.
But Judaism, to which we make reference now refers to that legalistic religion, characteristic of the Jewish people, after the time of the Babylonian exile. We are going to come to find that Judaism was a noble monotheism with a very high ethical system, a sacred book, a dignified worship a long proud history as a religious system it had everything, everything that is, except a savior. Judaism underwent many profound changes during this inter-testamental period of time, making it notably different in its New Testament appearance than it had been in the Old Testament. For example take the first change. A change to idolatry to monotheism, the belief in one God. We talked about the Babylonian captivity several days ago. We saw it to be a major catastrophe for the Jewish people. Yet it had certain advantages and useful purposes. For example the Jews went into the exile with a hopeless incurable case of infatuation and love for godless idolatry. They were constantly serving other gods, whoring after heathen deities. You will remember how they are scarcely out of Egypt and they worshipped the golden calf. They were barely into Canaan and they set up idol groves to Baal. During the Monarchial periods, Solomon led the nation in the worship of heathen gods. In the divided kingdom, Jeroboam set up golden calves at Baan and Bethel.
So, they go into the exile with all of this craving for idolatry, and yet they emerge from the exile as the most monotheistic people in all the world. Why such a dramatic change? Certainly the environment cannot be the answer. We all know that Babylon was the hotbed of idolatry and should have increased that tendency. But I believe the change came about because of two factors. First of all, the miracle of prophecy was being fulfilled before their very eyes. The words of the prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah were actually coming to pass as they prophesied. Secondly, the witness of a man named Daniel in the royal court certainly had its effect. And it came to dawn upon these people that the heathen gods were lying vanities. The Jehovah God, was the one true and living God.
Therefore, in New Testament times and even down to this day, the Jews remain staunchly monotheistic believers in one God. Another change we find is the rise of the Jewish synagogues. We can search throughout the whole Old Testament and not find a word about synagogues, and yet they are found everywhere in the New Testament. Where did they come into existence? Well, their first beginnings as an institution are rather obscure. We are not certain where they came from. We know that Philo and Josephus claim they can be traced back to Moses’ time, probably an attempt to enhance the venerable(ness) of the institution. Many scholars think that they arose from the time of the exile.
Interestingly, the word synagogue means literally “to gather together.” When they were in Babylon, pious Jews gathered together in homes on the Sabbath for prayer and for scripture reading. Upon their return back from the captivity, special meeting houses were erected in addition to the temple, one or more in every major town. For example, we are told in Jerusalem prior to AD 70 that there were somewhere between 300 and 480 synagogues in the city. That perhaps would be a slight exaggeration but it was indicative of the spread and how widespread they were.
These synagogues were often elaborate buildings situated normally on the highest spot in the town, and made to face toward Jerusalem. The basic idea within the synagogue was not worship or sacrifice, although elaborate liturgical services later developed, but the important emphasis in the synagogue was instruction in the scriptures. Philo for example called it the “house of study.” One might think of it as amounting to a layman’s Bible Institute. For the reading and the exposition of the Law. Of course later prayers and songs were added. It became a school for children; it became a law court for minor offenses; a place for political gatherings and for common meals; and even for mourning at the death of loved-ones within the community. Organizationally, the synagogues were congregational, not priestly. The few officers which they had were not hereditary, but were elected. For example, there was a ruler or a president, who was a leading layman, who had general oversight. There would also be a council of elders. There would be a legate, someone who would recite prayers. There would be deacons to look after the alms and the offerings. There was also the Hazzan, who was like a caretaker, one who would blow the trumpet on the Sabbath and take care of the scriptural scrolls and light the lamps and make sure the reader would read accurately the word of God. He is often times in the Bible referred to as a minister. But technically he is an overseer or a caretaker within the synagogue.
Priests if they attended were honored. But they had no special privileges in the synagogue. Their function was limited to the temple. Any visiting scribe or rabbi could read the scripture lesson for that day. Congregations of course were divided. Women were not counted as members of the congregation even though they could take part in reading the Sabbath lesson. At least ten adult males were required for a public service within the synagogue. Most services would include a call to worship, the recitation of the Decalogue, or ten commandments; the recitation of certain verses of scripture form the books of Deuteronomy and the book of numbers; certain prayers and affirmations of faith and scripture reading from both the Pentateuch and the Prophets—that would be both a translation and an exposition upon them. All of this to say that the synagogue became (and probably remains today) the most characteristic the most influential of all Jewish institutions. It insured the continuation of indoctrination. It became the center of religious intellectual and social life. It was a unifying factor within Jewish history, easily available to all people. A platform for scribes and ultimately the preaching house of early Christianity for Paul always went to the synagogues first before turning to the gentiles.
In addition to these first two changes that we have looked at, a third change is interesting namely a renewed zeal for the law. In terms of a very extensive rabbinic literature. And this came with the rise of interest in the scriptures and with the rise of the scribes—a group of individuals to be examined later. Perhaps this can best be described by saying there were Talmud’s made available. The background of this can be summarized in this fashion: that there developed a system whereby generation after generation commentaries were produced. A commentary would be called a Midrash or plural, Midrashim—a mass of legalistic teachings, interpretations and supplementations. The collection of these traditions with all of these conflicting rabbinic opinions were compiled in what constitutes the Talmud, the religious encyclopedia of Judaism. This document would rise and develop and evolve from as early as 250 BC to as late as AD 500. That is about six or seven hundred years of development of these various ideas. There were actually two different versions of the Talmud. There was a Palestinian, and secondly there was a Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian was about three to four times larger than the Palestinian, and much more commonly used by those who were scattered abroad. z We can think of the Talmud as organized into two sections made up of the Mishna (that would be the text); and the Gemara (which would be like the commentary). The Mishna is basically the oral law, or tradition committed to writing, consisting of rules and regulations and mostly consisting of what we refer to as Halakkah or legal exegesis with authority equal to that of the Mosaic law. This legal code was organized into six subject groups. For example, the first order had to do with agricultural products and practices. Secondly there is the observance of festivals and feasts. Thirdly the marriage and divorce issues. Fourth, we have civil and criminal laws. Fifth the structure of the temple services, and finally ritual purity and impurity. These six orders or groups were divided into sixty-three subsections or tractates; which in turn were divided into chapters or paragraphs of a variety of lengths.
The Gemara would be a commentary or even a catechism perhaps on the Mishna. Where the Mishna was made up of Halakhah, the Gemara was made up or composed of Haggadah. Which would be much more homiletical or devotional literature, in contrast with the technical, legal ponderous emphasis within the Mishna. The Gamara lacked the authority which its counterpart the Mishna had.
Individuals would make a commentary upon the law. Those who would come after them would seek to interpret the commentaries, and later individuals would seek to harmonize the various conflicting opinions of the various commentaries. So, we have commentaries on the commentaries ad infinitum. And this consisted of folk etymologies and mental gymnastics and far-fetched connections made on analogies on the sounds of words. One other technical term we should mention is Targum. These were Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew text for public reading in synagogues. These books or groups of technical works are what Jesus referred when he speaks of the Jews’ religion. Just to have an idea, from the ten commandments for example, six hundred thirteen rules were developed. Three hundred sixty-five “thou shalt nots” two-hundred forty-eight “thou-shalts.” Each of these negative and positives would have many subdivisions and variations and certainly quantity did not make for quality. There was the burdensome multiplication of rules and regulations developed in these forms of religion.
A footnote might be added here that the English edition of twenty volumes compile what is made known as the Talmud cost several hundreds of dollars. Given this fact, we can understand why only synagogues and certain large libraries have copies of the Talmud. Interestingly, to make it more accessible, Conservative Judaism United Synagogue of America back in November 1965 published the first volume of a new Paperback translation edited by a Rabbi from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The booklets were going to be issued at a rate of one a month back in 1965 and they estimated that the project would not be finished until 1985. That the text with all of its new explanatory notes could end up ten times longer than the formidable original had been.
Another change that took place in the intertestamental period was the translation known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Apparently, the background is the fact that in Alexandria Egypt was the home of a major colony of Jews of the dispersion. Here were Jews who spoke Greek. And Hebrew was becoming a less familiar medium of communication almost out of date except for the synagogue. There is a legend that tells us that someone proposed a Greek translation of the Old Testament to the King somewhere in the 200’s BC. He brought the idea to the King and the King bought the idea and requested six Jewish Elders from each of the twelve tribes, seventy-two in number, to retire for seventy-two days on the island of Pharaohs, to produce this version. Whether that legend is true or not, we do not know. But within this period of time, we had the translation of the Septuagint that included even the apocryphal books—unlike the Old Testament of the Palestinian Jew. This preserved the continuity of synagogue worship and the cohesion of the dispersed Jews and their ability to win gentile converts. In fact we can think of the Septuagint as the Bible of the dispersion, and subsequently, the Bible of the church. When we are trying to examine the New Testament use of the Old Testament, we will find that perhaps the majority of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament were adaptations from the Septuagint—which might explain, in part, some of the variations that we will find in wording from one version to the other. Here was a volume that made the word of God accessible throughout the empire because of it being translated into a language commonly spoken by the people, that is the Greek language of the archaic Hebrew of that time.
One of the changes that we have not yet described has to do with Jewish sects. There are a number of these, first of all ‘Scribes.’ The term ‘scribe’ comes from the Greek word, ‘drama’ or letter. A description of a scribe is given in Ezekiel 9:2 where it talks about a man clothed in linen with a writing case at his side. For the original task of a scribe was that of copying out the scriptures. This group of people with that function was established during the days of Ezra, just at the close of the Old Testament. They increased in number and influence and became the professional expounders of the law.
So that by New Testament times, they were called teachers, teachers of the law, or lawyers, or rabbis. The work of the scribe fell into three categories. Foremost they were custodians or preservers of the law. Constantly adding to the law fresh applications. In fact, we can think of the scribes as being hair-splitters, those who were engrossed in the letter of the law—custodians of the law, hair-splitters. Secondly, they were teachers of the law; and thirdly they were judges in certain court cases.
Keep in mind scribes were not priests. It was possible, most likely, for somebody to be both a priest and a scribe like Ezra was, but the two activities were utterly distinct. They were not priests. Instead, these scribes devoted their whole lives to copying and teaching the law along with all of its regulations. There was a great deal of corruption behind this outward sanctity of the scribal profession. We read Jesus’ charge against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Not all scribes were of that sort. Men like Nicodemus and Hillel and Gamaliel and others who were outstanding men. But the fast majority of that profession had gone downhill by New Testament times. Perhaps a group that should be more familiar to most would be the Pharisees. Now this party seems to have originated during the period of the Maccabees. That is back in the 160’s 170’s BC, as the crystallization of a reaction against the secularistic spirit of Hellenism or Greek culture. During that second century before Christ, these people abhorred the idolatrous customs of the Greeks, and stood firmly against the fierce attacks upon the faith by men like Antiochus Epiphanes. These were referred to as ‘Chasidim’ meaning “righteous ones” or “pious ones.” They became the forerunners of the Pharisees. Just of the Hellesnizers were the progenitors of the Sadducees, so now the Chasidim or the righteous ones became the forerunners of the Pharisees.
There are certain factors that brought about their rise as a group. For one thing their incarnation of the idea, the birth of the idea to reconstruct the Jewish community as a separate nation by observing carefully the law, that idea of bringing the nation together to reconstruct Jewish community as a separate nation by scrupulously observing the law of God. Not only that but we have the mounting influence of the High Priest. This was a coveted political plumb the resulted in criminality and even sharper resistance movements because of the corruption of the high priesthood. Then there was also the rise of two opposing groups inside the nation. We had the priest as opposed to the scribes with whom the Pharisees of course were linked. It is interesting to note that the word Pharisee means “to separate.” So, the Pharisees were separatists; they were the Puritans of Judaism. Their idea was to separate or to with draw from all evil associations, seeking to give complete obedience to every precept of the written law and the oral tradition. In other words, they separated not only from the heathen, but they separated even from the mass of their own nation, a people of the land, because they regarded themselves as the true Israel.
This group of Pharisees became the most influential sect in new testament times. Of all the religious and political groups that we will be studying about, the Pharisees alone have survived. Today form the basis of modern orthodox Judaism. Now one of the reasons the Pharisees survived all this period of time, arguably, is because it wasn’t primarily politically minded. That is the set kept away from politics, and it associated more with a synagogue rather than with a temple and thereby survived the destruction of the temple of AD 70 under Titus and carried on down even to our own day within Orthodox Judaism.
Anyone having done any kind of study in Bible already is aware of the fact that the Pharisees have had very bad press, since the first century. To describe anyone as being Pharisaical is to insult that person. In fact, the noun ‘Pharisee’ was officially banned in the year 1902 in the British house of Commons they would not allow them to use such words along with such words like ‘rat’ or ‘hypocrite’ or similar designations. But in one sense the Pharisees were the progressives, they were the ones seeking to implement the mosaic vision and the oral law into everyday life. And that was a very good intention on their part because religion should cover all of life, and not be reserved to little compartments.; religion should be progressive and not just static. They felt that by carefully studying the scripture, it was possible to prescribe right conduct for every possible situation. In fact we need to realize the Pharisees started out as a holiness movement. Later they degenerated to a mere observance of outward forms and customs. There only about 6,000 Pharisees in the time of Christ. That is not very many. But then we must remember the fact that they dedicated their lives to keeping all of those revelations that were worked out by the scribes which we referred to the other day—which was not very easy. So this lay party of Pharisees really has had an influence out of proportion to their numbers.
Interestingly, the Talmud, the Jewish encyclopedia, distinguished seven different classifications of Pharisees. Just to have an idea of what these are: the first kind of Pharisee they call a shoulder Pharisee. He wore his good deeds on his shoulder. That is he was out for a reputation of purity and goodness to be seen of men. Secondly, there was the “wait a little” who was always producing excuses for putting off good deeds, and therefore his practice lagged behind his doctrine. His deeds did not live up to his creed. There was the “bruised or bleeding” Pharisee, and that was self-afflicting, because the Pharisees were not allowed to look at women as they walked down the street, and so to avoid doing so they would close their eyes and bump into walls and buildings and gain a reputation for being pious. Then there was the humped-backed Pharisee also called the “pestle and mortar” or “tumbling” Pharisee. He shuffled along and walked in such a way so as to show his humility, and wouldn’t lift his feet off the ground and so he was always tripping over obstructions in the road. That would be a self-advertisement of his spirituality. There was the ever-reckoning Pharisee; the compounding Pharisee who was always counting up his deeds in terms of a profit and loss account. There was a timid or fearing Pharisee, always afraid of divine punishment and judgment from God. Finally there was the God-fearing Pharisee who loved God and found delight in obeying his law. Notice the classifications: six bad types, and one good type. That is a description from a Jewish perspective during that particular period of time.
Now these conservative formalists were divided doctrinaly into two camps (that you’ve read about). The more liberal would be the follower of the Rabbi Hillel and ultra conservatives followers of Shammai. But both groups were characterized by sanctimonious snobbery, petty exclusiveness, aloofness from earthly politics. Of course, they could be partisan when it came to religious issues that were at stake, but otherwise they kept aloof. The whole emphasis was upon ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s emphasizing tithing and ceremonial purity and extreme legalism. In fact they would make a tremendous contrast between themselves and the publicans who were the tax collectors. The Bible says that the Pharisee fasted twice a week. There is no command in scripture that they were to do that. In fact, there is only one demand in scripture that there be a fast once per year, and they were doing it twice per week.
Probably the best example of the externality of their religious expression can be seen in their response to the Sabbath law. In the scriptures we read in the Old Testament that they were simply told to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11); that no work was to be done on that day by man, by servants or by animals. That is all the Old Testament says. But they were not content with that. Later Jews spent hours every generation trying to define what work was and listing all the things that one could do or that one could not do on that particular day. In the codified scribble law, in the Mishna, that part of the Talmud, the section that deals with the Sabbath day and what someone could do or not do on that day extends to no fewer than 24 chapters. One rabbi spent two and half years studying one of those 24 chapters. For example, to tie a knot on the Sabbath day was to work. Then someone had defined what a knot was; the knots of camel drivers, and sailors, for example they would be guilty if they tied or untied those. But those that could be tied or untied with one hand was legal. If a man wanted to let down a bucket into a well to draw some water on the Sabbath day, he couldn’t tie a knot on the rope because that would be work. A woman was not to look into a mirror on the Sabbath day, because she might see a grey hair and be tempted to pluck it out and that would be working. Someone could swallow vinegar on the Sabbath day as a remedy for a sore throat, but he or she couldn’t use it for gargling purposes.
Or take how long one could journey on the Sabbath day. The law simply says back in the book of Exodus, that the Sabbath days’ journey was to be 2000 cubits maximum—that would be roughly about a thousand yards or so. But if they would tie a rope across the end of that street, then the whole street would become a house, and a person could go a thousand yards beyond that street on the Sabbath. Or if a person deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at some other person’s house, then technically, that became their house, and they could go a thousand yards beyond that on the Sabbath day.
These rules and regulations just piled up by the thousands. One couldn’t carry a burden on the Sabbath day. Alright, what is a burden? The answer was, food equal in weight to a dried fig. Enough wine for mixing in a goblet. Milk enough for one swallow. Honey enough to put upon a wound, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet. It had to be settled as to whether or not a woman could wear a brooch, or a man could wear his wooden legs or dentures on the Sabbath day. They had these great debates: could a chair be lifted, could a child be lifted on the Sabbath day? If a man, let’s say, arrived home before sunset on Friday, the beginning of the Sabbath day, should he unload his donkey. To do so involved work for him, not to do so meant work for the donkey. Should one eat an egg that was laid on the Sabbath? Because the laying of the egg involved work for the hen. This goes on ad infinitum, page after page after page of these regulations and rules. The scribes made them up, the Pharisees sought to live up to them. So, we can see why the Pharisees would be very greatly oppose Jesus Christ. They didn’t like his humble origin; they didn’t like his lack of higher education. They didn’t like the company he kept. They didn’t like his objections to their ceremonial practices, because he refused to fit into their mold as a glorified yes man.
Can we contemporize this? Do we have Pharisees today? Of course, some are very concerned about the outward and not the inward. That is one reason why we should fear religion like we fear rattlesnakes. “Beware the Levin of the Pharisees” , Jesus says in the gospels, because their concern will be outward, their concern will be ostentatious, they are the ones who wear the Phylacteries and occupy the front seats and are characterized by long prayers, usually prayed to men rather than praying to God. They’ll usually use words like, yea, yea, verily, and you say my God, he must be spiritual. He has a long face, and they say what’s wrong and he says nothing, just ask me again. He becomes a defender of God, one of God’s little protectors. He’s going to protect the world from communism; he is going to protect the Bible from its critics; someday he may learn that God is protecting him. They’ll scratch your eyeballs out protecting God. They’ll kill you, they’ll rend you to pieces and they’ll think they are doing God a favor. They’ll accuse you through journalistic slander, and all the rest, these are the “fighting fundies”—the fundamentalist, who, if there are no liberals to fight, will fight among themselves, because they just like a good fight. They involve themselves in the praise of men, they get into the numbers racquet, “How many did you have in Sunday school last week?” Or they love pledges, I’ll give $20.00, or $100.00, or $10,000.00 and they become perverted religiously. And it twists them—it has been known destroy families; it has been known to create freaks out of otherwise normal people. They become so insecure and so fearful, usually carrying a large Bible, 1818 edition, with lots of notes and a rubber band around it; and they’ll impress us with their baggy pants to show us that they are prayer warriors. They’ll usually have signs on their cars that say, “Be careful this driver’s going up in the rapture.” They’ve got that special religious stained-glass voice when they talk and they’re so insecure and fearful. Can we go to Disneyland and still be spiritual? Well, if we fast and do penance then maybe we can take in a day like that. We might laugh about it, but it is a very serious matter isn’t it?
To take a diversion for a moment, there is a principle in physics that every action produces a corresponding reaction. This also holds true in history. The French revolution for example, with its cry of liberty, equality and fraternity, went to such unbridled extremes that it produced the bloody dictatorship of Maximilien Robespierre and then the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte. hat principal of that pendulum like reaction seems to operate in religious light as well.
The Pharisees are castigated by our Lord in that chapter Matthew 23. That condemnation of our Lord is so caustic it cuts like a whiplash. It is as pulverizing as a blowtorch. We said that Pharaseeism is not always that bad. In fact, there is a Jewish scholar by the name of Joseph Klausner who says, “It never yet happened that there were parties or teachings or systems which in course of time did not deteriorate. And their teachings become corrupted by certain of their adherents who had no higher motive than honor, power, or gain. In every system as time goes on, the secondary comes to be regarded as primary, and the primary as secondary; the most exalted idea has associated with its disciples who distort it and transform it.” The Pharisees started out that way as a very praiseworthy reform and corrective that would bring the people back once again to where they should be. Yet, by the time we come to New Testament times, they degenerate into this extremism. In fact, there are several terrible errors that were characteristic of the Pharisees. For one thing, they insisted on extreme separation from gentiles, all non-Jews and therefore became guilty of terrible bigotry. To avoid idolatry the Jew was told to have no contact with pagans unless it was absolutely necessary for the sake of business, so anything a gentile touched would be unclean. Milk drawn by a gentile would be unclean and contaminated unless a Jew watched him do it. Even to sniff wine brewed by a gentile was sinful. If a gentile baby was starving, it was pious to let him starve. Why not? To feed him would be to augment the ranks of idolatry. One rabbi sternly advised, “The best among gentiles killed, the best among serpents crush its head.” Fortunately that advice couldn’t be carried out, but it reflects the spirit of the fanaticism of the Pharisees which our Lord so stingingly condemned. Not only that, but Phariseeism became guilty of nullifying the word of God by its own interpretations, its own rabbinical forms of exegesis, which eventually took precedence over the revelation of God’s word. What a paradox. Those who are arguably defending the truth of the scripture, substitute their own opinions for the truth of God. That is true of a lot of people who are involved in the ironies of religious history where this has happened over and over again. So they ask no longer what does scripture teach, they ask instead what do the rabbis say?
Not only that but Phariseeism changed the religion of Moses and the prophets into a matter of unethical externalism. That is, they would have a strict compliance with rabbinical rules and regulations, punctilious observing all the tradition put before it, and yet in a sense disregarding the whole intent and purpose behind God’s law. Their misguided zeal for the word of God, prompted them to engage in all kinds of hair-splitting discussions. This of course gave rise to factions and parties among themselves. So, they began as a corrective as a God-dishonoring worldliness and disobedience, and finally they changed sincere reformers into slaves of tradition, and people who were indifferent to morality, bogged down into hair-splitting debates and despising anyone who was different from themselves.
We could take many examples through history and see where this has happened over and over again. Just one for example is the protestant reformation. Because like Jewish traditionalism, it too showed a very fine function and purpose to be a corrective for much of the abuse that happened through the middle ages. Take Lutheranism for example of one expression of protestant reformation. In course of time it too began to degenerate into a lifeless kind of formalism, almost as bad as what they had revolted against earlier. We have a man like Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish Christian who reacts against his own Lutheran faith because what they said they were doing was not actually taking place. That all they were giving lip-service to was dead orthodoxy, and he comes up with a stinging rebuke trying to call back his own church to a place of true reform where they would not only put their faith in their doctrines, but that those doctrines would begin to affect the very life that they would live. Certainly, his criticisms were valid. People who study the Bible without ever translating that teaching into their living, can be almost worse than not having any exposure at all. And this is true not only in sub-or post reformation time, but this is also happening I think within fundamentalism or evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism, or any other term anyone might want to use in our own day.
There was an article that was published by a fundamentalist some years ago in which he diagnosed the fundamentalists of his own time. He said there are some of the dangers facing fundamentalists. The danger of pugnaciousness by which he means that fundamentalists are naturally and positively against some things, and that’s ok, he says, but often there is a danger in our fight against liberalism, or some other ‘ism’, that we become lopsided and negative in our attitude. It is easy to wear a theological chip on our shoulder. Like any overemphasis where passion and prejudice stand up, reason sits down. He says another danger faced by fundamentalist is censoriousness or a critical attitude—becoming hypercritical of the brethren, even those who are part of one’s own group. That attitude has a way of putting acid in a person’s blood and carrying with it the tendency to dry up the milk of human kindness in the soul. There is negativism. There is what he calls Phariseeism. There is individualism. There is self-seeking. Some of these same kinds of problems, or characteristics that were true of the Pharisees in Christ’s day. Doe fundamentalism needs a reformation? Does our own group need a reformation, because constantly this is a trend towards which religious people often times go.
In addition to Pharisees, there were the Sadducees. One way people remember is the Pharisees say I am fair you see—and the Sadducees are sad you see, because they did not believe in the resurrection. But they derive their name from one of two sources. Either from Zadoc who was the high priest in the days of David and Solomon in the Old Testament, or the Sadducee might actually come from the Hebrew word צַדִּיק (tsaddiyq) which means righteousness. The Sadducees constituted the nucleus of the priestly political, social aristocracy, the upper class of society. They were a social click representing the wealthy in-group. They virtually controlled the high-priesthood, the official religious establishment. There were not as many Sadducees as there were Pharisees, probably again because of their snob appeal. They found very little favor with the common people. Even within the group itself, there was very little party loyalty, each was suspicious of the other, and they confined their activities mainly to the temple. So the Sadducees were more open to Hellenizing influences, they were much more with-it in terms of Greek culture for example. Politically they were opportunists, operating according to a policy of expediency. Their theme song was: come wheel or woe, our status is quo. They wanted to keep things the way they were because it’s nice that way. We’re sitting pretty, they had prestige, they had influence. They were the upper-class working through the governmental processes—the Pharisees had come from lower ranks.
It is interesting to note how the Pharisees and the Sadducees provoked each other into existence and to mutual opposition, the fanaticism of the Pharisees provoked the skepticism of the Sadducees. The other worldliness of the one group irritated the worldly-mindedness of the other group. Whereas the Pharisees tried to influence the nation from the people upward, the Sadducees tried to influence the nation from the ruling powers downward. But of course when AD 70 came, and Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple with it, this group of Sadducees virtually vanished from the scene after that point.
Without going into a lot of detail concerning the Sadducees, their doctrine or tenants of belief meant that they believed as little as they had to. We think of them as sort of the liberals of that time, they denied the leading beliefs of the Pharisees, which means that they had no expectation of a messiah. They did not believe in the resurrection of the body. They did not believe in a future time of punishment or reward. Only live for this life. They did not believe in Angels or spirits; in fact, they did not believe even in the sovereignty of God over the actions of men. The Pharisees believed in sovereignty, but the Sadducees emphasized the absolute freedom of the human will and so when there are people who talk a great deal about free will, they are akin more to the Sadducees than they are to Pharisees. So these were the liberal rationalists, these were the anti-supernaturalists of Judaism.
A third group would be the Essenes, the word is Essene meaning Holy ones—or pious ones. They are not mentioned in the New Testament, they are not even mentioned in the Talmud. Until fairly recently we knew very little or nothing about them. We do know of course that unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes were not part of normal community life. They tended to be mystical. They were contemplative people who withdrew from society, they were almost like a monastic order. This community apart was an aesthetic brotherhood entered into by those who would voluntarily submit to the regulations of the group, and the ceremonies of the initiation involved. There were roughly about 4000 Essenes at this time, and they abstained from marriage, except for a few, because they had to allow some to propagate the race, otherwise they would have to recruit by adoption of by receiving converts. But they held all property in common together. They ate the plainest of food and dressed often times in white apparel when they weren’t working out in the fields. They were very sober people. Theologically, they were very close to the Pharisees. They closely observed the law and they were opposed to war, and they didn’t allow people to take oaths, and they were very much monastic very much set apart. They exhibited good virtues—their motive was very fine, but they weren’t of much influence in the community of that time.
We didn’t know very much about them in times past. But a very interesting thing happened in 1947 where a new chapter was opened by the excavations that were made at Qumran right by the Dead Sea, seven miles south of Jericho, on the heights right above the dead sea. The story is that a shepherd boy was throwing some rocks into a hole and it banged upon some pottery and so upon discovering what was in this, they found the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. We have learned a lot about the Essenes since that time which describe a lot of their nature and their work. In addition to these four groups that we talked about, there are the Herodians, mentioned several times in the gospels. This is more of a political group than it is a religious cult, but the leading aim of the adherents to this group of Herodians was to further the cause of Herod and his government. We don’t know whether they were directly subsidized from Herod’s household, or not, but obviously Herod would be very pleased with a group of people who would try to further his end. Many saw this group of Herodians as being the one Jewish hope of separate national continuance after all the fighting and the insecurity of Maccabean times. They thought the only thing they could do was sort of accommodate ourselves to these rulers and be on their best side. Most Jews of course hated these Herodians, especially the Pharisees, they couldn’t stand Herodians, which makes it very interesting, as will discover later, to find that several of these parties who couldn’t stand each other, consort together as common enemies against Jesus.
There were the Zealots, which was a Jewish national party, these were pious cutthroats, whose aim was to slit every Roman throat in sight. They were a terrorist group—fanatics who advocated violence as a means of liberating Rome. So they were constantly starting riots and insurrections. Whereas most of the Jews in Judea at the beginning of the intertestamental period were resigned to wait submissively until their Messiah would show up and deliver them from Roman oppression, there was now this impetuous contention that miraculous intervention would only come to people who were prepared to fight for Israel’s deliverance from foreign domination. So the most violent activities of the movement, sprung up around the area of Galilee in the North. The opposition of zealots to Rome by force of arms gradually degenerated into a pretext of violence even against their own countrymen. For example, Barabbas was a zealot. One of the apostles of our Lord was named Simon Zealot, or Simon the Cananite, or Simon the Cananean. One of the twelve apostles was a former zealot. The two thieves on either side of Christ may have been zealots.
There were more religious political parties than what have been mentioned, but all of these parties: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, all of these put together made less than ten percent of the total Jewish population. The mass of people didn’t belong to any party--the people of the land. If anything, they were part-time Pharisees, casually observing the law when it fit within their lifestyle. It is possible that these same Jewish sects are with us today. They remarkably resurrect themselves and dawn fresh garb in every new age. The Essenes and the zealots keep very far away from our Lord’s pathway. He’s too social for Essenes, and he is too gentile for zealots. But we have Pharisees who come in close who were the old-time ritualists, and we have the Sadducees who are the rationalists, and we have the Herodians who are the secularists. The Pharisees are always adding to—they are not content with the Word of God, they have to add to that and make a heavy burden with all those rules and regulations. If the Pharisees add to, the Sadducees take away from—they cannot accept the written word without drastic deletions and so everything has to be tried at the bar of human reason. The Herodians don’t add to or subtract from, they just heedlessly pass by, because their only concern is for today.
So we can think of the Pharisees as the high churchmen—who add all of their vestments and candles and sacraments and ceremonies and draperies of hyper religiosity; and the Sadducees are more of the broad churchmen, the skeptics and the modernists so broad that we can’t tell where their theology begins or ends and who are happier to tell us what they don’t believe than what they do believe. Eliminating all that is miraculous and supernatural. The Herodians are those who are the secularists. They trample underfoot the sacredness of religious things. Isn’t it interesting how each of these of these groups can be so spiritual so intellectual looking, so charitable, and yet if we touch that sensitive nerve and they will not have Christ; they will not have the real gospel in all of its simplicity; they will not have infallibility; and they will not believe in the blood of Christ or the word of God.
There was one other development religiously in the world of Jesus time, namely the development of the Sanhedrin. We will usually hear that pronounced (san-He-dren), but the emphasis is actually upon the first syllable (SAN-he-dren). In New testament times, this institution was the supreme civil and religious tribunal. The supreme court of the Jewish nation. Often times it is referred to in the gospels as the council. We’re not certain as to the exact origin of the Sanhedrin, it could only have come into being during a time when considerable self-government was allowed the Jews, but certainly by New Testament times, it was an institution of at least two or three hundred years and it had gathered up all kinds of traditions, reaching back even earlier into historical origin.
The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy-one members made up of the High Priest; twenty-four chief priests; twenty-four elders of the people; and twenty-two scribes. The high priest twenty-four chief priests, twenty-four Elders of the people, twenty-two scribes or expert interpreters of the Law. The Bible sometimes calls it the council; sometimes it will simply say the chief priests, rulers, and scribes. That is another alternative name for the Sanhedrin.
Among these seventy-one, they would select a figurehead president, vice-president, and a “referee”—who would pre-examine all impending matters, and then lay them before the house. They had daily meetings, between the morning and evening sacrifices, except on Sabbath days or on festival days. Usually the president would occupy a raised seat, the vice president would be at his right hand; the referee would be at the left; and then the rest of the members were sitting on low seats or cushions, sort of oriental style in a half-moon around them. Before those members of the Sanhedrin were three rows of disciples—those who would be future judges, sort of learning the ropes from these who were carrying out their duties. There would also be two notaries to write down all of the details. Of those seventy-one members, twenty-three constituted a quorum, which meant two-thirds of them at any one time could be occupied with their own business concerns. But no member could leave that group if by leaving would deplete the quorum. So, they had to have at least twenty-three members present and busy.
The qualifications for membership in the Sanhedrin were as follows: 1) the applicant had to be morally and physically blameless; 2) he had to be middle-aged (tall, good looking, wealthy; 3) learned in both divine law as well as in different branches of science such as medicine and mathematics and astronomy and so forth, in order that he might be able to judge in those matters; 4) He was required to know at least several languages so that the Sanhedrin would not be dependent upon an interpreter in case any foreigner or foreign question would come before them. Usually very old persons, proselytes, eunuchs, were ineligible because of their idiosyncrasies; nor could a candidate be elected if he had no children—thinking that they would not be able to sympathize with domestic affairs.
In addition to all those qualifications, a candidate for the great Sanhedrin was required to have been a judge in his own native town, to then to have been transferred to a small Sanhedrin which sat at the entrance of the temple before he could be received in as a member of the famous seventy-one. The jurisdiction of this court was acknowledged both by the Jews living in the homeland of Palestine, as well as those of the diaspora those of the dispersion—those Jews who had been dispersed into other nations of the world. Its religious jurisdiction was binding on Jews no matter where they lived around the world. They would surveil the legal purity--for example the priesthood. They would adjudicate in cases of alleged immorality among wives or daughters of priests. They were superintending the religious life of the nation. They would be on the lookout for false prophets or dangerous heretics. They would be very observant that neither King or high priest should act contrary to the law of God. They would have to give a decision and give permission as to whether war contemplated by the king could be waged or not. They would determine the boundaries of the Holy city and the boundaries of the temple. They would regulate the Jewish calendar they would harmonize the solar years with lunar years by putting in extra days. Also, they always manifested an anxiety to clear a person who was arraigned rather than seeking his condemnation, especially when it came to matters of life and death. In fact, their axiom that they had as part of the Sanhedrin that the Sanhedrin is to save life, not to destroy it. So, the taking of votes always began with the Junior members and gradually went on to the senior members in order that the lowest members might not be influenced by the opinion of the highest. In capital cases for example, it required a majority of at least two individuals to condemn the accused. And when the trial was before a quorum of only twenty-three members, then at least thirteen members had to declare that person guilty. In cases of capital offenses, the verdict of acquittal could be given on the same day; but if the verdict was guilty, they had to reserve that until the next day. No criminal trial could be carried on through the night. The judges who had to condemn a criminal to death had to fast all day. The condemned person would not be executed on the same day the sentence had been passed.
Later, when we look the case of Jesus before these same illustrious body of religious people, we will find violation after violation of their own standards as they have Jesus Christ standing before them.