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The Jewish Context of Jesus

Torah scroll
Torah scroll

The time of Jesus—a period variously called late Second Temple Judaism, early Judaism, and even middle Judaism—had no single leader or authorized group to tell Jews how to follow Torah or what to believe. Even if someone had claimed this authority, most likely people would still have disagreed over the person’s scriptural interpretation, theological proclamation, ethical teaching, or claims of legitimation.

Jews disagreed on the Messianic job description (would the Messiah be a priest, Davidic king, angel, human being, shepherd, or some other kind of being?), on life after death (resurrection, immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and so forth), and on their relation to Rome (some wanted revolt, others accommodation or acceptance). They disagreed on what counted as Scripture: some accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, collectively called the Pentateuch; others regarded as sacred the prophetic literature and the other writings in the Bible; and still others included what we today would consider Pseudepigrapha such as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. Some Diaspora Jews read their Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint); in the homeland and points east where Aramaic was the vernacular language, Hebrew texts were sometimes glossed with Aramaic paraphrases (Targumim).

Yet despite such diversity, most Jews shared certain central beliefs and practices: they loved their God (Deut 6:5), followed the Torah, were the people Israel in covenantal relationship with their God, and shared a connection to their homeland and temple. Torah—Hebrew for “instruction” and often used to designate the Pentateuchdetailed their origins and practices. They knew they descended from Abraham, escaped Egyptian slavery, and received at Mount Sinai commandments (Hebrew: mitzvot) for living in covenant with their God, including such matters as male circumcision, diet, Sabbath observance, tort law, and the sacrificial system. Archaeology of first-century lower Galilee yields few pig bones, but numerous miqvaot (ritual baths), aniconic decoration, and stone vessels (which, unlike ceramics, do not convey impurity and so are more convenient for the preparation of kosher food).

All this indicates an environment that celebrated Jewish identity. We might think of Torah observance as an ancient form of “multiculturalism” in that it promotes the distinctive aspects of Jewish identity. By following certain practices based on Torah, Jews necessarily indicate that they have refused to assimilate into the broader Roman Empire and lose their distinct identity.

Because many Torah commandments lack detail—for example, how does one “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”? (Exod 20:8)—Jews developed various forms of interpretation. Jewish groups such as Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes disagreed on how to live according to Torah, just as today Christians disagree on how to understand and celebrate baptism and the Eucharist. Jews generally held that the Jerusalem temple was important, but some imagined a new temple that would replace what they considered a corrupt institution with illegitimate leadership.

The Greek term Ioudaios, usually translated “Jew,” can also be translated “Judean,” that is, someone whose homeland is Judea, just as an Egyptian would be from Egypt or an Ethiopian from Ethiopia: this translation demonstrates the connections of the community to their homeland, a connection recognized by Gentiles as well. Jews knew they were not Gentiles, although Gentiles did worship together with Jews in synagogues and the Jerusalem temple, and some formally affiliated with the Jewish community.

This Jewish diversity is easily demonstrated by a short list of Jews: Paul the Pharisee from Tarsus who once persecuted Jesus’ Jewish followers; Philo the philosopher from Alexandria in Egypt who read Scripture through Greek philosophical lenses; Josephus, the Judean priest and army general who wrote Jewish history under the patronage of the Roman emperor Vespasian; Herodias, wife of Herod Antipas and sister of King Agrippa I, who followed her husband into exile; and Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed Messiah and worshiped by fellow Jews and, eventually, Gentiles.

  • Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.