The Life of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 2


What religion did the Jews have in Jesus' day? We know that their Bible was the Old Testament, but that does not answer our question, A man's religion usually consists of three elements: what he believes, what he does, and what he hopes for. What Israel believed will be spoken of in the next chapter; here we consider the other two parts of her religion. Some one has said that Israel's religion was not like a circle with its center, but like an ellipse with its two foci. These two foci, around which the everyday life of the pious Jew moved, were the Law and the hope, and this everyday religion of the Jew we must now study in order that we may better understand Jesus' work and teaching.

How Israel Became a People of the Law

The Change. —The religion of the Jews in Jesus' day was a religion of the Law. The great concern was not the temple and its sacrifices, not the reading of words like those of the prophets, nor the service of men in the name of God; it was the keeping of a set of numberless rules which covered every part and every hour of a man's life. How different this situation from any Old Testament period a little consideration will show. In the Old Testament we see the priest or prophet as leader; here it is the scribe, the teacher of the Law. There the temple or shrine was the religious center; here it is the s3Tiagogue. How did this come about?

How the Change Came. —First of all, we must note that it was the result of the work of earnest and devout men whose principal aim was to preserve the religion of Israel from the defilement of her pagan neighbors, as well as to regulate more carefully the life of the people. So, for example, the keeping of the Sabbath was especially emphasized as a mark of separation from her neighbors when Israel was exposed to danger in the period of the exile and the return (Isa. 58. 13, 14; Neh. 13. 15-23). Circumcision was a mark especially emphasized, as were also the laws of ceremonial purity with particular reference to food (see Dan. 1). But the fight under the Maccabees put the seal upon this work. Here the Jewish religion faced perhaps the greatest peril that ever threatened it. Grecian thought and customs were the vogue. All other peoples were surrendering to this Hellenistic influence, and the very leaders of the Jews, the strong priestly party, were favorable to it. The stricter Jews seemed helpless at first; then they awoke. The Maccabees were their political leaders, but they had spiritual leaders, too. These were the students and teachers of the law whom we know in the New Testament as the scribes. They felt that the Law alone could save Israel from Grecian luxury, immorality, and superstition. They won their fight and Israel was committed to the strict observance of the Law.

Training in the Law. —There had been reforms and revivals in Israel before this time, but the people had backslidden; the scribes now set to work to make sure their victory. Israel must be made through and through a people of the Law. We are awakening to-day to the need of religious education, but these scribes saw that need over two thousand years ago. They did not rely upon the enthusiasm of this revival; they set two goals for themselves. The first goal was to train all Israel in the Law. They established the first national system of education for all the people. The center of the people's religious life now became the synagogue. In Jesus' day the synagogue was found in every village of Palestine and wherever else the Jews settled. While it had a religious service, it was more of a school than a church; the reading and teaching of the Law was central. With the synagogue there was usually the school where the children were taught; and whether the children read or listened or wrote, the one subject was the Law. This fact helps us to understand the saying of Josephus, that a Jew could more easily answer a question as to the Law than give his own name.

The Traditions of the Elders. —The second goal set by the scribes was to extend the Law so that it would cover the whole life of the people. The Law said, for example, that men were not to work on the Sabbath; but this must be applied to all possible circumstances. As a result we have that enormous mass of rules which the New Testament calls "the traditions of the elders." No one could know them who had not given his life to their stud}', and this the scribes did. They were not written down but were committed to memory. It was one of the chief duties of the scribes to gather pupils, whom they taught these traditions. These disciples of the rabbis were not to think for themselves; they were not even to study the Scriptures for themselves. They were simply to learn and repeat. The model pupil, so the saying ran, was like a well-cemented cistern, losing no drop of what it received, and letting nothing else leak in.

The Religion op the Law

In Daily Life. —Such a development led necessarily to the trivial and external. Men tithed mint and anise and cummin, garden herbs that had no value, and forgot "justice and mercy and faith.'* There were thirty-nine kinds of work which were forbidden on the Sabbath, with many divisions under each. They discussed the question whether a man might eat an egg laid upon the Sabbath. It was a serious matter for the tailor to forget to remove the needle that he had stuck in his robe, for then he would be likely to carry it on the Sabbath, and to carry your tools on the Sabbath was breaking the law. So Jesus' disciples were condemned for rubbing out the grain from the ears of wheat which they plucked, since this was threshing on the Sabbath. One of the prohibited labors was writing. To write one letter was permitted; to write two was a sin. But to scratch one letter on the wall and another on the earth was not a sin, provided they could not be read together. And this mass of rules and traditions became the real authority for the people, taking the place of the Scriptures themselves, just as the devout Roman Catholic today goes for final authority, not to the Bible, but to the teaching of the church about the Bible.

Its Consequences. —Some results of such a religion are apparent. The little and the great were all put upon the same plane; they were all so many things to be done. It tended to make religion formal, turning men away from the inner spirit to outward rules and deeds. It gave a wrong conception of God and of man's relation to him. God was not the Father near at hand, with whom men might walk in humble love and trust. He was the Ruler and the Judge. He gave to men not himself, but his commandments. The business of men was to keep these rules and at the end of this keeping there was to be the reward. No wonder that the message of Jesus was the light of another day to many discouraged souls.

Its Effect upon Men. —More important, however, is the question as to the effect that it produced upon the lives of men. The final test of a religion is the way it works. When we compare Jewish life of this time with that of other peoples, we are struck with its superiority. These men were deeply in earnest. Men like Paul were sparing no effort to keep the Law. Contrasted with life at Antioch or Corinth, we see the moral earnestness, the absence of the sensual and profligate, in the Jews of Palestine. In the light of the message that Jesus brought, however, we note the deep defects of the religion of the Law. The first of these was that of pride and self-sufficiency. "God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men," prayed the Pharisee (Luke 18. 11). It was this spirit that shut the hearts of the Pharisees to Jesus' message. The second defect is the spirit of uncertainty and fear that often lay beneath this very self-assurance. The man who must trust in what he himself does will always be haunted by the dread that in the end he has not done enough. In sharpest contrast were the joy and confidence of the early Christians to whom God was the Father of mercy and not the stern Judge. In the third place, as we see from the seventh chapter of Romans, the law brought commandments, but gave no power to keep them. It left large numbers of people discouraged and hopeless. These were the "sinners," of whom we read in the Gospels. They were not necessarily immoral people, but they had given up the task of keeping this whole system of rules. These were the weary and heavy-laden, scorned by the Pharisees who condemned Jesus so bitterly for associating with them.

Pharisees and Sadducees. —The Pharisees were the party of the strict observers of the Law. We find the first trace of them in the Chasidim, or "pious," of the Maccabean period. Though their opponents, the Sadducees, held the priestly places and the control of the temple, yet the Pharisees, with the scribes who belonged to them, were the real leaders. There were not many of them; Josephus says about six thousand. The Sadducees also take us back to the time of Antiochus. They were the successors of the liberal party that favored the Greeks at that time. In numbers they were still smaller than the Pharisees, but the hereditary priesthood largely belonged to them, with its prestige and political power and immense resources from temple tax and offerings. They rejected the traditions of the Pharisees and held simply to the laws of Moses. They rejected the Pharisaic teachings as to the resurrection, which was the "new theology" of the day, not being contained in the older books of the Old Testament. The real difference, however, was simply that between religion and worldliness. Though faulty, the Pharisees were the party of zeal and religious earnestness; the Sadducees were simply the little circle of the rich and worldly-minded. After the destruction of the temple they disappeared entirely from view.

The Hope

The Messianic Hope. —No religion can exist simply as a commandment; it must bring its promise also. The Law determined the activity of the pious Jew, but the spring of his religion lay in its hope. We usually call this the Messianic hope. It would be more correct to call it the Kingdom hope. The hope itself was held in many forms. The idea of the Messiah was not always prominent; sometimes it was even lacking. But one idea was always present: there is evil in the world now, but some time there will be only the rule of God; the kingdom of God is coming. There are two general forms which this hope takes. The first is that of a kingdom upon this earth, a political kingdom. Israel was the people of Jehovah, and Jehovah was the ruler of the earth; yet Israel was subject to the nations. That fact formed a hard problem for the faith of Israel, and she answered: "This is for the present; soon Jehovah will overthrow his enemies and show himself as the ruler of the nations." In all this it was a kingdom on earth for which men looked, and this triumph of Jehovah always meant to them the rule of Israel. In later years there was joined to this the idea of the rebuilding of the temple and the gathering of the scattered members of Israel from all lands.

Its Dangers. —It was this hope that kept alive the faith of Israel in the long years of oppression. But such a hope was full of danger also. In the minds of the people it tended to be political and external, rather than moral and spiritual; they thought of Israel's triumph rather than the rule of righteousness. It was narrow and national; when they thought of other peoples, it was as those over whom Israel should be victor and who should bring tribute to Jerusalem. The prophets denounced this selfish hope. Amos declared that the day of Jehovah should be darkness, and not light (Amos 5. 18). The book of Jonah is a wonderful protest against this narrow spirit. Yet this spirit ruled in Jesus' day; his teaching was one long effort to substitute another ideal. The fierce advocates of this conception were the Zealots from his own land of Galilee. These at length carried away with them the people that had rejected Jesus' message, raising the banner of revolt against Rome, and bringing in the awful days of famine and burning and slaughter in which Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70.

The Apocalyptic Hope. —In its second form we know this kingdom hope as the apocalyptic hope. In the last few centuries before Christ certain interesting changes took place. These appear in a class of writings which we call apocalypses, of which the book of Daniel is the first. As the years passed there seemed to be less and less chance for establishing an earthly kingdom over against Israel's mighty foes; and so men looked forward to another age with a new heaven and a new earth. The problem of the individual helped to advance the same ideas. The idea of the resurrection is found at most in two or three places in the late books of the Old Testament. The people had been content with the idea of a future for the nation. Now men began to ask about the individual. What should become of him? The ideas of immortality and resurrection began to come in, and the thought of individual judgment and reward. And so they thought of a new age that was to bring a general resurrection from the dead, the judgment upon every individual, and the reward of heaven and hell.

The Intermediate Kingdom. —These ideas existed side by side and often in great confusion: the Messianic hope of an earthly kingdom and the apocalyptic hope of a new age with its heaven and hell. In the effort to bring in some order there came the idea of an intermediate kingdom which has influenced many people since that day. Men simply joined the two forms of hope together. First there was to come an earthly reign of the Messiah, such as the Jews had always expected. In this reign the saints were to be raised and the oppressors overthrown, but the Kingdom still belonged to this age and the spiritual forces of evil were not yet destroyed. After this was to come the general resurrection and the final judgment, and the new earth with heaven and hell. How long this intermediate kingdom was to last was variously determined by the rabbis: forty, four hundred, one thousand, and two thousand years were suggested. The period of a thousand years was finally accepted, and so this teaching is known as millennialism or chiliasm from the Latin and Greek words for one thousand.


Before reading this chapter recall the story of Chapter I. Remember that Israel's great passion was her religion, as philosophy and art and letters had been that of Greece, and political rule that of Rome. Review the story of the Maccabees and try to fix the main points in mind. Try to realize how the Jews of Jesus' day read this story and how it deepened their zeal.

Read all of Psalm 119 and note the delight in the law that is here reflected. This psalm was probably written at a late period, but in any case it reflects the common attitude of the Jewish people at its best, their pride in the law and their devotion to it.

Read Matthew 15. 1-20 and note Jesus' criticism of the religion of legalism as exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees. He declares that by their traditions and rules they defeat the law of God. He points out the externalism of this religion, which is busy with outward things and misses the real evils.

In Luke 1 and 2 read the songs of Mary and Zacharias. What is the hope that is here expressed for Israel? Note that these represent the simple piety of the purest souls among the Jews, belonging neither to Pharisees, Sadducees, nor Zealots.