Jewish Religion

Jewish Religion

The Jewish religion represents another major influence. By the time of the NT, the differing responses to the influences of Greek culture and the Roman Empire had crystallized (in Judea) into three quasi-political “parties.” The role that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians play, especially in the Gospels, is evident, as is that of the ruling body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin.

Other factions and population subgroups that are more in the background also play roles in the NT story: Zealots, Samaritans, Galileans, Hellenists, tax collectors, God-fearers, and, by way of counterpoint, the Gentiles.

Moreover, the NT is saturated with references to the Jewish religion, in terms of particulars such as the temple and synagogue; rabbis and priests; laws, feasts, and rites such as almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The fact is that the NT is steeped in Judaism.

Among the more prominent influences of the Jewish religion, the following merit special attention: (1) the Jewishness of Jesus; (2) the use of the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e., the OT; and (3) as a countepoint, the breakthrough of Christianity into the gentile world.

The Jewishness of Jesus is easily assumed; its significance is also too quickly dismissed. The fact is that the Word became flesh as a Jew; moreover, Jesus lived his entire life among the Jews and directed his ministry primarily to them (not exclusively, however, because he also had contact with Samaritans and Gentiles). He was called rabbi, and observed the religious customs of the Jews: circumcision, bar mitzvah at age twelve, weekly synagogue worship, Scripture reading, prayer, the Jewish feasts (in Jerusalem), worship in the temple, etc.

In addition and most important, Jesus spoke of himself and was perceived by his followers in Jewish categories. He called himself the Son of Man. Demons (in the presence of witnesses) and a Roman soldier (at the Crucifixion) declared Jesus to be the Son of God. His disciples confessed him as Messiah. And the charge nailed to his cross read, “The King of the Jews.” The writers of the NT refer to him hundreds of times as the Christ, i.e., Messiah. Throughout the NT the significance of his person and work are interpreted in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Indeed, on other matters as well, the OT is the primary sourcebook for the NT authors. Few citations are attributable to other sources, but hundreds of their quotations come from the OT. In addition, the writers make numerous allusions and indirect references to the OT. The NT is saturated with OT vocabulary, concepts, and themes. So dependent is it that the NT cannot be properly interpreted apart from the OT. From the Christian perspective, the two books are one: The OT is the foundation and the NT is the fulfillment.

As a counterpoint, the breakthrough of Christianity into the gentile world constitutes a development of significant proportions. But is was not without struggle, as Acts shows us. The central motif of that story, moreover, carries through the NT and beyond. Indeed, the nature of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is still fundamentally unresolved. But this much is clear: Early in its history (by the middle of the first century), Christianity, due in part to external forces, began to break the shackles of Judaism and move more freely into the gentile world. By the end of the NT era, Christianity, which was born in the womb of Judaism, had established itself as an independent religion.

In summary, the NT era was a historical period rich in diversity. Major contributors were Greek culture, the Roman Empire, and Jewish religion. Each of these left its mark on the writings of the NT and, in turn, the Christian church.

One other feature of the century, shared by Roman, Greek, and Jew, deserves special notice: Like the twentieth century, this was an era of great spiritual hunger.

Among the Jews, this hunger was manifest in the Qumran community; the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect a prayerful expectancy for the coming of a Teacher of Righteousness. Similarly, the “pious poor” in the Christian narratives of the Gospels exhibit a longing for God's deliverance. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna all prophesied the salvation of God. Anna spoke to “all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel” (Lk 2:38); God revealed to Simeon “that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ” (Lk 2:26).

There was also a great deal of genuine spiritual hunger in the Greco-Roman world, as illustrated in the stories of the Ethiopian eunuch (Ac 8) and Cornelius the centurian (Ac 10). It is also evidenced in the number of “God-fearers” attending Jewish synagogues throughout the empire, many of whom responded readily to the Gospel and thereby formed the nucleus of the churches planted through the missionary activities of Paul and others.

Spiritual hunger fueled the rapid growth of the Christian church (beginning at Pentecost) and its spread throughout Judea (see Ac 21:20), Samaria (Ac 8.4-25; 9:31) and “to the ends of the earth” (Ac 1:8; see Ro 15:23-24) in the first century and beyond. The reception of the Gospel by so many who represented diverse ethnic backgrounds and every social class was due in part to widespread spiritual need. So, too, today salvation comes not so much to the high and mighty as to those upon whom God's favor rests, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6).