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The BACKGROUND to the New Testament #17

Ancient Jewish Theology Literature

                    BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT #17

From the book "Sketches of Jewish Social Life" by Alfred



     THE arrangements of the synagogue, as hitherto described;
combined in a remarkable manner fixedness of order with Liberty
of the individual. Alike the seasons and the time of public
services, their order, the prayers to be offered, and the
portions of the law to be read were fixed. On the other hand,
between the eighteen "benedictions" said on ordinary days, and
the seven repeated on the Sabbaths, free prayer might be
inserted; the selection from the prophets, with which the public
reading concluded--the "Haphtarah" (from "patar," to "conclude")
- seems to have been originally left to individual choice, while
the determination who was to read, or to conduct the prayers, or
to address the people, was in the hands of the "rulers of the
synagogue" (Acts xiii. 15). The latter, who were probably also
the members of the local, Sanhedrim, had naturally charge of
the conduct of public worship, as well as of the government and
discipline of the synagogue. They were men learned in the law and
of good repute, whom the popular voice designate, but who were
regularly set apart by "the laying on of hands," or the
"Semichah," which was done by at least three, who had themselves
received ordination, upon which the candidate had the title of
Rabbi bestowed on him, and was declared qualified to administer
the law (Sarah. 13 b). The Divine Majesty was supposed to be in
the midst of each Sanhedrim, on account of which even that
consisting of only three members might be designated as "Elohim."

Perhaps this may have been said in explanation and application of
Ps. lxxxii. 6:  "I have  said, Ye are Elohim; and all of you
children of the Most High."

     The special qualifications for the office of Sanhedrist,
mentioned in Rabbinical writings, are such as to, remind us of
the directions of St.Paul to Timothy (1 Tim. iii. 1-10). A
member of the Sanhedrim must be wise, modest, God-fearing,
truthful, not greedy of filthy lucre, given to hospitality,
kindly, not a gambler, nor a usurer, nor one who traded in the
produce of Sabbatical  years, nor yet one who indulged in    
un-lawful games (Sanh. iii. 3). They were a called  "Sekenim,"
"elders" (Luke vii. 3), "Memunim," "rulers" "(Mark v. 22),
"Parnasin," "feeders, overseers, shepherds of the flock"
Acts xx. 28; 1 Pet. v. 2), and "Manhigei," "guides" (Heb. xiii.
7). They were under the presidency and supreme rule of an "Arch-
isynagogos," or "Rosh-ha-Cheneseth," "head of the synagogue"
(Yom. vii. i; Sot. vii. 7), who sometimes seems to have even
exercised sole authority. The designation occurs frequently in
the New Testament (Matt. ix. 18; Mark v. 35,36,38; Luke viii.
41,49; xiii. 14; Acts xviii. 8,17). The inferior functions in
the synagogue devolved on the "chassan," or "minister" (Luke iv.
20). In course of time, however, the "chassanim" combined with
their original duties the office of schoolmaster; and at present
they lead both the singing and the devotions of the synagogue.

     This duty originally devolved not on any fixed person, but
whoever was chosen might for the time being act as "Sheliach
Zibbur," or "legate of the congregation." Most modern writers
have imagined, that the expression "angel of the Church," in the
epistles to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, was
used in allusion to this ancient arrangement of the synagogue.
But the fact that the "Sheliach Zibbur" represented not an office
but a function, renders this view untenable. Besides, in that
case, the corresponding Greek expression would rather have been
"apostle" than "angel of the Church." Possibly, however, the
writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews may refer to it, when he
designates the Lord Jesus "the Apostle and High-Priest of our
profession" (Heb. iii. 1). Besides these functionaries, we
also read of "Gabaci Zedakah," or collectors of charity, to 
whom the Talmud (B. Bathra, 8 b) by a "jeu de mots" 1  applies
the promise that they "shalt be as the stars for ever and ever"
(Dan. xii. 3), since they lead many to "righteousness."    
     Alms were collected at  regular times every week, either in
money or in victuals. At least two were involved in collecting,
and in distributing charity, so as to avoid the suspicion of
dishonesty or partiality. These collectors of charity, who
required to be "men of good repute, and faithful," are thought by
many to have been the model for the institution of the
"Diaconate" in the early Church. But the analogy scarcely holds
good; nor, indeed, were such collectors employed in every
     In describing the conduct of public worship in the syna-   
gogues, reference was made to the "meturgeman," who translated
into the vernacular dialect what was read out of 


1 Zedakah means righteousness, but is also used for "charity."


the Hebrew Scriptures, and also to the "darshan," who expounded
the Scriptures or else the traditional law in an address,
delivered after the reading of the "Haphtarah," or section from
the prophets. These two terms will have suggested names which
often occur in writings on Jewish subjects, and may fitly lead to
some remarks on Jewish theology at the time of our Lord. Now the
work of the "meturgeman" 1  was perpetuated in the Targum, and
that of the "darshan" in the Midrash. 


Primarily the Targum, then, was intended as a translation of the
Hebrew Scriptures into the vernacular Aramaean. Of course, such
translations might be either literal, or else more or less
paraphrastic. Every Targurn would also naturally represent the
special views of the translator, and be interesting as affording
an insight into the ideas prevalent at the time, and the manner
in which Scripture was understood. But some Targumim are much
more paraphrastic than others, and indeed become a kind of
commentary, showing us the popular theology of the time. Strictly
speaking, we have really no Targum dating from the time of our
Lord, nor even from the first century of our era. There can be no
doubt, however, that such a Targum did exist, although it has
been lost. Still, the Targumim preserved to us, although
collated, and having received their present form at later
periods, contain very much that dates from the Temple-period, and
even before that. 
     Mentioning them in the order of their comparative antiquity,
we have the Targum of Onkelos, on the five books of Moses; the
Targum of Jonathan, on the prophets (inclusive of Joshua, Judges,
and the books of Samuel and of the Kings); the so-called (or
pseudo) Jonathan on the Pentateuch; and the Jerusalem


1 Hence also the term "dragoman."


Targum, which is but a fragment. Probably the latter two were
intended to be supplemental to the Targum Onkelos. Late criticism
has thrown doubt even on the existence of such a person as
Onkelos. Whoever may have been the author, this Targum, in its
present form, dates probably from the third, that of Jonathan on
the prophets from the fourth century. 


     In some respects more interesting than the Targumim are the
Midrashim, of which we possess three, dating probably, in their
present form, from the first or second century of our era, but
embodying many parts much older. These are - mentioning them
again in the order of their antiquity--"Siphra" (the book), a
commentary on Leviticus; "Siphri," a commentary on Numbers and
Deuteronomy; and "Mechiltha,"  commentary on certain portions
of Exodus. 


     But we have even a monument more interesting than these, of
the views of the ancient Pharisees, and of their Scriptural
interpretations. Some of the fathers referred to a work called
"Lesser Genesis," or the "Book of Jubilees." This had been lost
to theological literature, till again discovered within the
present century, although not in the original Hebrew, nor even in
its first or Greek translation, but in an Ethiopic rendering from
the latter. The work, which no doubt dates from the era of our
Lord, covers the same ground as the first book of Moses, whence
the name of "Lesser Genesis." It gives the Biblical narrative
from the creation of the world to the institution of the
Passover, in the spirit in which the Judaism of that period would
view it. The legendary additions, the Rabbinical ideas
expressed, the interpretations furnished, are just such as one
would expect to find in such a work.  One of the main objects
of the writer seems to have been the chronology of the book of
Genesis, which it is attempted to settle. All events are recorded
according to jubilee-periods of forty-nine years, whence the name
"Book of Jubilees," given to the work. These "Jubilees" are again
arranged into "weeks," each of seven years (a day for a year);
and events are classified as having taken place in a certain
month of a certain year, of a certain "week" of years, of a
certain "Jubilee" - period. Another tendency of the book, which,
however, it has in common with all similar productions, is to
trace up all later institutions to the patriarchal period. 1


     Besides these works, another class of theological literature
has been preserved to us, around which of late much and most
serious controversy has gathered. Most readers, of course, know
about the Apocrypha; but these works are called the
"pseudo-epigraphic, writings." Their subject-matter may be
described as mainly dealing with unfulfilled prophecy; and they,
arc couched in language and figures borrowed, among others, from
the book of Daniel. In fact, they read like attempts at imitating
certain portions of that prophecy--only that their scope is
sometimes wider. This class of literature is larger than those
not acquainted with the period might have expected. Yet when
remembering the troubles of the time, the feverish expectations
of a coming deliverance, and the peculiar cast of mind and
training of those who wrote them, they scarcely seem more
numerous, nor perhaps even more extravagant, than a certain kind
of prophetic literature, abundant among us not long ago, which
the fear of Napoleon or other political events from time to


1 Although the "Book of Jubilees" seems most likely of Pharisaic
authorship, the views expressed in it are not always those of the
Pharisees. Thus the resurrection is denied, although the
immortality of the soul is maintained.


time called forth. To that kind of productions they seem, at
least to us, to bear an essential likeness - only that, unlike
the Western, the Oriental expounder of unfulfilled prophecy
assumes rather the language of the prophet than that of the
commentator, and clothes his views in mystic emblematic
language. In general, this kind of literature may be arranged
into Greek and Hebrew - according as the writers were either
Egyptian (Hellenistic) or Palestinian Jews. Considerable
difficulty exists as to the precise date of some of these
writings - whether previous or subsequent to the time
of Christ. These difficulties are, of course, increased when
it is sought to fix the precise period when each of them was
composed. Still, late historical investigations have led to much
accord on general points. Without referring to the use which
opponents of Christianity have of late attempted to make of these
books, it may be safely asserted that their proper study and
interpretation will yet be made very helpful, not only in casting
light upon the period, but in showing the essential difference
between the teaching of the men of that age and that of the New
Testament. 1
     For each branch and department of sacred study, the
more carefully, diligently, and impartially it is pursued,
affords only fresh testimony to that truth which is most
certainly, and on the best and surest grounds, believed among us.


     It were, however, a mistake to suppose that the Rabbinical 
views, extravagant as they so often are, were propounded
quite independently of Scripture. On the contrary, every
traditional ordinance, every Rabbinical institution, nay, every
legend and saying, is somehow foisted upon the text of the


1 This most important and interesting subject is one of those
which must be specially reserved for full elaboration in a larger


Old Testament. To explain this, even in the briefest manner, it
is necessary to state that, in general, Jewish traditionalism is
distinguished into the "Halachah" and the "Haggadah." The
"Halachah" (from "halach," to "walk ") indicates the settled
legal determinations, which constituted the "oral law," or
"Thorah shebeal peh."  Nothing could here be altered, nor was any
freedom left to the individual teacher, save that of explanation
and illustration. The object of the "Halachah" was to state in
detail, and to apply to all possible cases, the principles laid
down in the law of Moses; as also to surround it, as it were,
with "a hedge," in order to render every unwitting transgression
impossible. The "Halachah" enjoyed not only the same authority
with the law of Moses, but, as being explanatory, in some
respects was even more highly esteemed. Indeed, strictly
speaking, it was regarded as equally with the Pentateuch the
revelation of God to Moses; only the form or manner of revelation
was regarded as different - the one being committed to writing,
the other handed down by word of mouth. According to tradition,
Moses explained the traditional law successively to Aaron, to his
sons, to the seventy elders, and to the people - care being taken
that each class heard it four times (Maimonides' Preface to
Seraim, 1a). The Talmud itself attempts to prove that the whole
traditional law, as well as the writings of the prophets and the
Hagiographa, had been communicated to Moses, by quoting Ex. xxiv.
12: "I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and
commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them."
"'The tables of stone,'" argues Rabbi Levi (Ber. 5 a), "are the
ten commandments; the 'law' is the written law (in the
Pentateuch); the 'commandments' are the Mishnah; 'which I have
written,' refers to the prophets and the Hagiographa; while the
words, 'that thou mayest teach them,' point to the Gemara. From
this we learn, that all this was given to Moses on Sinai."

     If such was the "Halachah," it is not so easy to define the
limits of the "Haggadah." The term, which is derived from the
verb "higgid," to "discuss," or "tell about," covers all that
possessed not the authority of strict legal determinations. It
was legend, or story, or moral, or exposition, or discussion, or
application - in short, whatever the fancy or predilections of a
teacher might choose to make it, so that he could somehow connect
it either with Scripture or with a "Halachah." For this purpose
some definite rules were necessary to preserve, if not from
extravagance, at least from utter absurdity. Originally there
were four such canons for connecting the "Haggadah " with
Scripture. Contracting, after the favourite manner of the Jews,
the initial letters, these four canons were designated by the
word "Pardes" 1 (Paradise). They werei - 1. To ascertain the
plain meaning of a passage (the "Peshat"); 2. To take the single
letters of a word as an indication or hint ("Remes") of other
words, or even of whole sentences; 3. The "Derush," or practical
exposition of a passage; and 4. To find out the "Sod" (mystery),
or mystical meaning of a verse or word.  These four canons were
gradually enlarged into thirty-two rules, which gave free vent to
every kind of fancifulness.  Thus one of these rules - the
"Gematria " (geometry, calculation) - allowed the interpreter to
find out the numerical value of the letters in a word - the
Hebrew letters, like the Roman, being also numerals - and to
substitute for a word one or more which had the same numerical 


1 Of course the vowels are not marked in the Hebrew.


value. Thus, if in Num. xii. 1 we read that Moses was married to
an "Ethiopian woman" (in the original, "Cushith"), Onkelos
substitutes instead of this, by "gematria," the words, "of fair
appearance" - the numerical value both of Cushith and of the
words "of fair appearance" being equally 736. By this
substitution the objectionable idea of Moses' marrying an
Ethiopian was at the same time removed. Similarly, the Mishnah
maintains that those who loved God were to inherit each 310
worlds, the numerical value of the word "substance" ("Yesh") in
Prov. viii. 21 being 310.1     
     On the other hand, the canons for the deduction of a 
"Halachah" from the text of Scripture were much more strict and
logical. Seven such rules are ascribed to Hillel, which were
afterwards enlarged to thirteen. 2 
     Little objection can be taken to them; but unfortunately
their practical application was generally almost as fanciful, and
certainly as erroneous, as in the case of the "Haggadah."


     Probably most readers would wish to know something more of
those "traditions" to which our Lord so often eferred in His
teaching. We have here to distinguish, in the first place,
between the Mishnah and the Gemara. The former was, so to speak,
the text, the latter its extended commentary. At the same time,
the Mishnah contains also a good deal of commentary, and much
that is not either legal determination or the discussion thereof;
while the Gemara, on the other hand, also contains what we would
call "text."  The word Mishnah (from the verb "shanah") means


1 Compare Gfrorer, "Jahrh. d. Heils," i. p. 244, etc.
2 It would be beyond the scope of this volume to explain these 
"middoth," or "measurements," and to illustrate them by
examples. Those who are interested in the matter are referred to
the very full discussion on Rabbinical exegesis in my "History of
the Jewish Nation" pp.570-580.


"repetition"--the term referring to the supposed repetition of
the traditional law, which has been above described. The
Gemara, as the very word shows, means "discussion," and embodies
the discussions, opinions, and sayings of the Rabbis upon, or "a
propos" of, the Mishnah. Accordingly, the text of the Mishnah is
always given in the pages of the Talmud, which reproduce those
discussions thereon of the Jewish theological parliament or 
academy, which constitute the Gemara. 


     The authorities introduced in the Mishnah and the Gemara
range from about the year 180 B.C. to 430 A.D. (in the Babylon
Talmud). The Mishnah is, of course, the oldest work, and dates,
in its present form and as a written compilation, from the close
of the second century of our era. Its contents are chiefly
"Halachah," there being only one Tractate (Aboth) in which there
is no "Halachah" at all, and another (on the measurements of the
Temple) in which it but very rarely occurs. Yet these two
Tractates are of the greatest historical value and interest.   
     On the other hand, there are thirteen whole Tractates in the
Mishnah which have no "Haggadah" at all, and other twenty-two in
which it is but of rare occurrence. Very much of the Mishnah must
be looked upon as dating before, and especially from the time of
Christ, and its importance for the elucidation of the New
Testament is very great, though it requires to be most judi-  
ciously used.  

     Gemara, or book of discussions on the Mishnah, forms the two
Talmuds - the Jerusalem and the Babylon Talmud. The former is so
called because it is the product of the Palestinian academies;
the latter is that of the Babylonian school. The completion of
the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud ("Talmud" = doctrine, lore)
dates from the middle of the fourth, that of the Babylonian from
the middle of the sixth, century of our era. It need scarcely be
said that the former is of much greater historical value than the

     Neither of these two Gemaras, as we now possess them, is
quite complete - that is, there are Tractates in the Mishnah for
which we have no Gemara, either in the Jerusalem or in the
Babylon Talmud. Lastly, the Babylon Talmud is more than four
times the size of that of Jerusalem. 


     Obviously this is not the place for giving even the briefest
outline of the contents of the Mishnah. 1
     Suffice it here to state that it consists of six books 
("sedarim," "orders"), which are subdivided into Tractates 
("Massichthoth "), and these again into chapters ("Perakim"), and
single determinations or traditions ("Mishnaioth"). In quoting
the Mishnah it is customary to mention not the Book (or "Seder")
but the special Tractate, the Perek (or chapter), and the
Mishnah. The names of these Tractates (not those of the books)
give a sufficient idea of their contents, which cover every
conceivable, and well-nigh every inconceivable case, with full
discussions thereon. Altogether the Mishnah contains sixty-three
Tractates, consisting of 525 chapters, and 4,187 "Mishnaioth."


     There is yet another branch of Jewish theology, which in
some respects is the most interesting to the Christian student.
There can be no doubt, that so early as the time of our Lord a
series of doctrines and speculations prevailed which were kept
secret from the multitude, and even from ordinary students,
probably from fear of leading them into heresy. This class of
study bears the general name of the "Kabbalah" and, as even the
term (from "kabal," to "receive," or "hand down ") implies,
represents the spiritual traditions 


1 In Appendix I. we give as a specimen a translation of one of
the Mishnic Tractates; and in Appendix II. translations of
extracts from the Babylon Talmud.


handed down from earliest times, although mixed up, in course of
time, with many foreign and spurious elements. The "Kabbalah"
grouped itself chiefly around the history of the creation, and
the mystery of God's Presence and Kingdom in the world, as
symbolised in the vision of the chariot and of the wheels (Ezek.
i.). Much that is found in Cabbalistic writings approximates so
closely to the higher truths of Christianity, that, despite the
errors, superstitions, and follies that mingle with it, we cannot
fail to recognise the continuance and the remains of those deeper
facts of Divine revelation, which must have formed the substance
of prophetic teaching under the Old Testament, and have been
understood, or at least hoped for, by those who were under 
the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 


     If now, at the close of these sketches of Jewish life, we
ask ourselves, what might have been expected as to the relation
between Christ and the men and the religion of His period, the
answer will not be difficult. Assuredly, in one respect Christ
could not have been a stranger to His period, or else His
teaching would have found no response, and, indeed, have been
wholly unintelligible to His contemporaries. Nor did He address
them as strangers to the covenant, like the heathen. His was in
every respect the continuation, the development, and the
fulfilment of the Old Testament. Only, He removed the super-
incumbent load of traditionalism; He discarded the externalism,
the formalism, and the work-righteousness, which had well-nigh
obliterated the spiritual truths of the Old Testament, and
substituted in their place the worship of the letter. The
grand spiritual facts, which it embodied, He brought forward in
all their brightness and meaning; the typical teaching of that
dispensation He came to show forth and to fulfil; and its
prophecies He accomplished, alike for Israel and the world. And
so in Him all that was in the Old Testament--of truth, way, and
life - became "Yea and Amen"  Thus we can understand how, on the
one hand, the Lord could avail Himself of every spiritual element
around, and adopt the sayings, parables, ideas, and customs of
that period - indeed, must have done so, in order to be a true
man of the period, -- and yet be so wholly not of that time as to
be despised, rejected, and delivered up unto death by the blind
guides of His blinded fellow-countrymen. Had He entirely
discarded the period in which He lived, had He not availed
Himself of all in it that was true or might be useful, He would
not have been of it - not the true man Christ Jesus. Had He
followed it, identified Himself with its views and hopes, or
headed its movements, He would not have been the Christ, the Son
of the living God, the promised Deliverer from sin and guilt. 1

     And so we can also perceive the reason of the essential
enmity to Christ on the part of the Pharisees and Scribes. It was
not that He was a new and a strange Teacher; it was, that He came
as the Christ. Theirs was not an opposition of teaching to His;
it was a contrariety of fundamental life-principles.  "Light came
into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light."

     Closely related as the two were, the Pharisaical Judaism of
that and of the present period is at the opposite pole from the
religion of Christ - alike as regards the need of man, the
purposes of God's love, and the privileges of His children. There
was one truth which, we are reluctantly obliged to admit, found,


1 The full discussion of a subject of such unspeakable importance
in all its bearings would require a separate work.


alas! scarcely any parallel in the teaching of Rabbinism: it was
that of a suffering Messiah. Hints indeed there were, as certain
passages in the prophecies of Isaiah could not be wholly ignored
or misrepresented, even by Rabbinical ingenuity, just as the
doctrine of vicarious suffering and substitution could not be
eliminated from the practical teaching of the confession of sins
over the sacrifices, when the worshipper day by day laid his
hands upon, and transferred to them his guilt. 

     Yet Judaism, except in the case of the few, saw not in all
this that to which alone it could point as its real meaning: "The
Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
     And now, as century after century has passed, and the
gladsome Gospel message has been carried from nation to nation,
while Israel is still left in the darkness of its unbelief and
the misery of its mistaken hope, we seem to realise with ever
increasing force that "The people that walked in darkness have
seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of
death, upon them hath the light shined." Yes "unto us a Child is
born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon
His shoulder: and His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace"
(Isa. ix. 2,6). For assuredly, "God hath not cast away His
people which He foreknew." But "all Israel shall be saved: as it
is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall
turn away ungodliness from Jacob " (Rom. xi. 2,26).

"Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?  
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night " (Isa.
xxi. 11,12).



Edersheim's APPENDIX I have not reproduced on this Website, as
most readers will not be interested in such technicalities, those
who are can still obtain Edersheim's books.

Keith Hunt

Entered on this Website March 2009

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