Post Exilic Judaism, pt. 1

I spent a few lessons describing, very generally, the state of the world and of Judaism that set the stage for the arrival of Jesus Christ. From the outset, I recognize that much of this is generalized and I wouldn’t make the case that every character type we discuss was true across the board. If I make statements about a particular group, it doesn’t mean that everyone in that group bears my statements 100%. There are instances where these generalizations may start to fall apart if we narrow down to individuals, however, these generalizations are not designed to give you auto-biographical sketches, but rather a high-level idea of what was going on in the centuries leading up to the arrival of the incarnate Christ.

When Israel had divided into Israel (to the North) and Judah (to the South), both kingdoms had issues with following God (with arguably Israel having the most trouble). Their adherence to Torah was largely unknown as we do not have record of them observing much of what Torah prescribes. In fact, during the reign of King Josiah (of Judah), a book of the law is found in storage – not in active use in the temple. When the scribe reads the law to Josiah, Josiah rent his clothes in response to its message. Josiah was so convicted about what Torah said when compared to what they were actually doing that it moved him to take swift, reforming action (which you can read about in 2Kings 22).

Israel and Judah, however, still stammered and stumbled at loving the Lord their God with all of their hearts, and in 721BC, Israel is conquered by the Assyrians. Judah stands until 586BC, when they are conquered by the Babylonians (who had previously conquered the Assyrians). After about 70 years, the Medo-Persians conquer Babylon and under King Cyrus, the Jews are allowed to go back to their land. (As a side note, it is during the Babylonian Captivity that the captives from Judah become known as “Jews”, for short.) The Jews go back to Palestine under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, so the Jews construct a 2nd Temple. (This period of time is known historically as the “2nd Temple Period” or “2nd Temple Judaism.” This is essentially the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. The Jews understood what caused Exile into Assyria and Babylon and vowed that that would never happen again. Never again would they be a people who didn’t know “the way” nor “the text”.

In this return to Palestine, we begin to see the idea of ‘synagogue’ taking shape. There is debate, historically, about when this actually started and what all it entailed and eventually morphed into, but for the sake of our discussion, we can be confident that something started brewing with the post-exilic Jews. They began meeting communally as synagogues and eventually constructed buildings that became known by the same name. It is in these synagogues that the Jews would devote themselves to “the way” and to “the text”. Once buildings began being constructed, there were aspects of the facility that are worthy pointing out as some of these are mentioned specifically in the Gospels. You can go do more study on synagogues to get a deeper picture, however, for our purposes, I wanted to mention a few of the items of the synagogue. Remember – they are going to be people of “the way” and of “the text”.

1. Mikvah – this was a ritual washing/baptism that was done before coming together in synagogue. This was a ceremonial way of being clean before coming together. During this time, there were two versions of baptism that arises. There is something called, Pharisaical baptism, which is akin to a simple daily ritual washing that we might today (ie., taking a shower). It served no divine purpose per se, other than an outward cleansing. When Peter writes in 1Peter3 and speaks of baptism saving us, but by removing the filth of the flesh (i.e. dirt), but in an answer (response) to a good conscious before God, it appears that Peter might be playing on these baptismal ideas. The Pharisaical baptism being that which puts away the filth of the flesh and the other baptism (of a good conscious before God) being that of the Essene baptism. We’ll talk more about Essenes in the next post, but in short, their view of baptism was a baptism of repentance. (i.e. John the Baptist, Peter in Acts 2, etc.) When coming to synagogue, however, the Pharisaical mikvah was the custom. Essene mikvah would only be for those occasions where you were repenting back to God.

1Peter 3:21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: 

2. Basilica – this was a row of columns that supported the roof of the synagogue. It was lined with windows because the Jews wanted to read God’s light by God’s light. The scriptures were a light unto their path and a lamp unto their feet.

3. Torah Closet – complete Bibles didn’t exist yet so synagogues would have scrolls that they would keep in the Torah Closet. They didn’t have every scroll of Old Testament, so it wasn’t uncommon for folks to study only a few of the scrolls in their communal synagogue but have to travel to a neighboring community to study other scrolls in their synogogue. In Matthew 6, when Jesus says to pray, not by outward, open displays of theatrics (like the Pharisees), but by entering into their closet, the idea is that they would seclude themselves to pray in the very place where the Torah was kept. In other words, pray while being close to the text.

Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 

4. Moses’ Seat – Matthew 23 – this is where the Torah was read from. Each family of the community would take turns in synagogue reading the Torah and in so doing, they would essentially be serving as sitting in Moses’ seat, who initially read Torah to Israel as recorded in Exodus. When Jesus tells the Jews that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat and therefore do all that they TELL them but don’t do after their WORKS, it is because the Pharisees are reading Moses and the Jews naturally would listen to Moses. So, even though the Pharisees are speaking, it is really Moses the Jews are listening to.

Matthew 23:1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 23:2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: 23:3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 

5. Bema – This was a central platform where the congregants would gather around and the text was read. As they were striving to be people of the text, their time in synagogue service was gathered around the text, literally.

6. Chief Seats – Also Matthew 23 – These are seats that were reserved for those sages who had walked in the way and walked in the text. It was a place of reverence and honor for newer generations to look up to. The Pharisees, who loved the spotlight, would gravitate towards taking these seats as they believed they were the sages that the Jews should be honoring–hence Jesus’ strong critique of them in Matthew 23.

Still speaking of the Pharisees from verse 2, Matthew 23:6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 

7. Study Room – synagogues would have an area/room reserved for study of the text. During synagogue services, the text would be read, but study of the text happened in a different fashion.

This isn’t to say that every synagogue had all 7 of these things and this isn’t to say that these 7 things are the exhaustive list of things associated with synagogue, but hopefully this gives some idea of the dedication and devotion that the Jews were driving towards coming out of Exile.

In the next post, we’ll look at the secular worldview that the Jews found themselves in. They didn’t live in a vacuum and the Jews start interacting with this worldview and their response begins to shape their Judaism and indeed the very nature of the region that Jesus walks into. History will know this worldview as Hellenism. We will take a look at what Hellenism is and how based on various Jews’ responses to it, the sub groups of Judaism that it gives birth to. We’ll see 5 main sub groups emerge: Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes and the Pharisees.  Understanding the backgrounds of these groups, and indeed how Hellenism shaped their very existence, will begin to open up the interactions that Jesus has with some of these folks in the Gospels.

Our story continues…