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“Salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22. Comp. Luke 24:47; Rom. 9:4, Rom. 9:5) These wonderful people, whose fit symbol is the burning bush, were chosen by sovereign grace to stand amidst the surrounding idolatry as the bearer of the knowledge of the only true God, his holy law, and cheering promise, and thus to become the cradle of the Messiah. It arose with the calling of Abraham, and the covenant of Jehovah with him in Canaan, the land of promise; grew to a nation in Egypt, the land of bondage; was delivered and organized into a theocratic state on the basis of the law of Sinai by Moses in the wilderness; was led back into Palestine by Joshua; became, after the Judges, a monarchy, reaching the height of its glory in David and Solomon; split into two hostile kingdoms, and, in punishment for internal discord and growing apostasy to idolatry, was carried captive by heathen conquerors; was restored after seventy years’ humiliation to the land of its fathers, but fell again under the yoke of heathen foes, yet in its deepest abasement fulfilled its highest mission by giving birth to the Savior of the world. “The history of the Hebrew people,” says Ewald, “is, at the foundation, the history of the true religion growing through all the stages of progress unto its consummation; the religion which, on its narrow national territory, advances through all struggles to the highest victory, and at length reveals itself in its full glory and might, to the end that, spreading abroad by its own irresistible energy, it may never vanish away, but may become the eternal heritage and blessing of all nations. The whole ancient world had for its object to seek the true religion, but this people alone finds its being and honor on earth exclusively in the true religion, and thus it enters upon the stage of history.”
“Judaism was a Jewish religious system the was not really based on the Hebrew Scriptures. One of the most prominent divisions of Judaism, that of the Sadducees; Then, there were the Pharisees, another important branch of Judaism. There were other minor branches as well. These two main groups followed oral traditions and unscriptural traditions, which made it hard for many common Jews or Jewish religious leaders to accept Christ. The traditions of men helped to enslave the Jewish people to their unscriptural traditions and their religious leaders.” – Edward D. Andrews
Judaism, in sharp contrast with the idolatrous nations of antiquity, was like an oasis in a desert, clearly defined and isolated; separated and enclosed by a rigid moral and ceremonial law. The holy land itself, though in the midst of the three Continents of the ancient world, and surrounded by the great nations of ancient culture, was separated from them by deserts south and east, by sea on the west, and by mountain on the north; thus securing to the Mosaic religion freedom to unfold itself and to fulfill its great work without disturbing influenced from abroad. But Israel carried in its bosom from the first the large promise, that in Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. Abraham, the father of the faithful, Moses, the lawgiver, David, the heroic king, and sacred psalmist, Isaiah, the evangelist among the prophets, Elijah the Tishbite, who reappeared with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration to do homage to Jesus, and John the Baptist, the impersonation of the whole Old Testament, are the most conspicuous links in the golden chain of the ancient revelation.
The outward circumstances and the moral and religious condition of the Jews at the birth of Christ would indeed seem at first and on the whole to be in glaring contradiction with their divine destiny. But, in the first place, their very degeneracy proved the need for divine help. In the second place, the redemption through Christ appeared by contrast in the greater glory, as a creative act of God. And finally, amidst the mass of corruption, as a preventive of putrefaction, lived the succession of the true children of Abraham, longing for the salvation of Israel, and ready to embrace Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah and Saviour of the world.
Since the conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey, b.c. 63 (the year made memorable by the consulship of Cicero. the conspiracy of Catiline, and the birth of Caesar Augustus), the Jews had been subject to the heathen Romans, who heartlessly governed them by the Idumean Herod and his sons, and afterward by procurators. Under this hated yoke, their Messianic hopes were powerfully raised but carnally distorted. They longed chiefly for a political deliverer, who should restore the temporal dominion of David on a still more grand scale, and they were offended with the servant form of Jesus and with his spiritual kingdom. Their morals were outwardly far better than those of the heathen, but they concealed great corruption under the garb of strict obedience to their law. They are pictured in the New Testament as a stiff-necked, ungrateful, and impenitent race, the seed of the serpent, a generation of vipers. Their own priest and historian, Josephus, who generally endeavored to present his countrymen to the Greeks and Romans in the most favorable light, describes them as at that time a debased and wicked people, well deserving their fearful punishment in the destruction of Jerusalem.
As to religion, the Jews, especially after the Babylonish captivity, adhered most tenaciously to the letter of the law and to their traditions and ceremonies, but without knowing the spirit and power of the Scriptures. Moreover, they cherished a bigoted horror of the heathen and were therefore despised and hated by them as misanthropic. However, by their judgment, industry, and tact, they were able to gain wealth and consideration in all the larger cities of the Roman empire.
After the Maccabees (B.C. 150) time, they fell into three mutually hostile sects or parties, which respectively represent the three tendencies of formalism, skepticism, and mysticism, all indicating the approaching dissolution of the old religion and the dawn of the new. We may compare them to the three prevailing schools of Greek philosophy — the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Platonic, and also to the three sects of Mohammedanism — the Sunnis, who are traditionalists, the Sheas, who adhere to the Koran, and the Sufis or mystics, who seek true religion in “internal divine sensation.”
- The Pharisees, the “separate,” were, so to speak, the Jewish Stoics. They represented the traditional orthodoxy and stiff formalism, the legal self-righteousness, and the fanatical bigotry of Judaism. They had the most influence with the people and the women and controlled the public worship. They confounded piety with theoretical orthodoxy. They overloaded the Holy Scriptures with the traditions of the elders so as to make the Scriptures “of none effect.” They analyzed the Mosaic law to death and substituted a labyrinth of casuistry for a living code. “They laid heavy burdens and grievous to be borne on men’s shoulders,” and yet they themselves would “not move them with their fingers.” In the New Testament they bear particularly the reproach of hypocrisy; with, of course, illustrious exceptions, like Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and his disciple, Paul.
- The less numerous Sadducees were skeptical, rationalistic, and worldly-minded, and held about the same position in Judaism as the Epicureans and the followers of the New Academy in Greek and Roman heathendom. They accepted the written Scriptures (especially the Pentateuch), but rejected the oral traditions, denied the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, the existence of angels and spirits, and the doctrine of an all-ruling providence. They numbered their followers among the rich and had for some time possession of the office of the high-priest. Caiaphas belonged to their party.
The difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees reappears among modern Jews, who are divided into the orthodox and the liberal or rationalistic parties.
- The Essenes (whom we know only from Philo and Josephus) were not a party, but a mystic and ascetic order or brotherhood, and lived mostly in monkish seclusion in villages and in the desert Engedi on the Dead Sea. They numbered about 4,000 members. With an arbitrary, allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, they combined some foreign theosophic elements, which strongly resemble the tenets of the new Pythagorean and Platonic schools, but were probably derived (like the Gnostic and Manichaean theories) from eastern religions, especially from Parsism. They practiced communion of goods, wore white garments, rejected animal food, bloody sacrifices, oaths, slavery, and (with few exceptions) marriage, and lived in the utmost simplicity, hoping thereby to attain a higher degree of holiness. They were the forerunners of Christian monasticism.
The sect of the Essenes came seldom or never into contact with Christianity under the Apostles, except in the shape of a heresy at Colossae. But the Pharisees and Sadducees, particularly the former, meet us everywhere in the Gospels as bitter enemies of Jesus, and hostile as they are to each other, unite in condemning him to that death of the cross, which ended in the glorious resurrection, and became the foundation of spiritual life to believing Gentiles as well as Jews.