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BACKGROUND to the New Testament

Jews and Gentiles in the Holy Land




     COMING down from Syria, it would have been difficult to fix
the exact spot where, in the view of the Rabbis, "the land"
itself began.  The boundary lines, though mentioned in four
different documents, are not marked in anything like geographical
order, but as ritual questions connected with them came up for
theological discussion.1
     For, to the Rabbis the precise limits of Palestine were
chiefly interesting so far as they affected the religious
obligations or privileges of a district. And in this respect the
fact that a city was in heathen possession exercised a decisive
influence. Thus the environs of Ascalon, the wall of Caesarea,
and that of Acco, were reckoned within the boundaries of
Palestine, though the cities themselves were not. Indeed, viewing
the question from this point, Palestine was to the Rabbis simply
"the land," 2  all other countries being summed up under the
designation of "outside the land." In the Talmud, even the
expression "Holy Land," so common among later Jews and


1 Rappoport, Er. Mill. p. 208, in Neubauer's "Geog-r. du Talmud,"
2 So mostly; the expression also occurs "the land of Israel."
3 The only passage of Scripture in which the term is used is
Zech. ii.12, or rather ii.16 of the Hebrew original.


does not once occur. It needed not that addition, which might
have suggested a comparison with other countries; for to the
Rabbinist Palestine was not only holy, but the only holy ground,
to the utter exclusion of all other countries, although they
marked within its boundaries an ascending  scale of ten degrees
of sanctity, rising from the bare soil of Palestine to the most
holy place in the Temple (Chef i.6-9). But "outside the land"
everything was darkness and death. The very dust of a heathen
country was unclean, and it defiled by contact.1  It was regarded
like a grave, or like the putrescence of death.   If a spot of
heathen dust had touched an offering, it must at once be burnt.  
More than that, if by mischance any heathen dust had been brought
into Palestine, it did not and could not mingle with that of 
"the land," but remained to the end what it had been--unclean,
defiled, and defiling everything to which it adhered.  This will
cast light upon the meaning conveyed by the symbolical directions
of our Lord to His disciples (Matt. x.14), when He sent them
forth to mark out the boundary lines of the true Israel -- "the
kingdom of heaven," that was at hand: "Whosoever shall not
receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that
house or city, shake off the dust of your feet."  In other words,
they were not only to leave such a city or household, but it was
to be considered and treated as if it were heathen, just as in
the similar case mentioned in Matt. xviii.17. All contact with
such must be avoided, all trace of it shaken off, and that, even
though, like some of the cities in Palestine that were considered
heathen, they were surrounded on every side by what was reckoned
as belonging to Israel.


1 The references here are too numerous for special mention.


The Mishnah 1 marks, in reference to certain ordinances, "three
lands" which might equally be designated as Palestine, but to
which different ritual regulations applied. The first comprised,
"all which they who came up from Babylon took possession of in
the land of Israel and unto Chezib" (about three hours north of
Acre); the second, "all that they who came up from Egypt took
possession of from Chezib and unto the river (Euphrates)
eastward, and unto Amanah " (supposed to be a mountain near
Antioch, in Syria); while the third, seemingly indicating certain
ideal outlines, was probably intended to mark what "the land"
would have been, according to the original promise of God,
although it was never possessed to that extent by Israel.2  
     For our present purpose, of course, only the first of these
definitions must be applied to "the land."   We read in Menachoth
vii.1: "Every offering, 3 whether of the congregation or of an
individual (public or private), may come from 'the land,' or from
'outside the land, be of the new product (of the year) or of old
product, except the omer (the wavesheaf at the Passover) and the
two loaves (at Pentecost), which may only be brought from new
product (that of the current year), and from that (which grows)
within 'the land.'"


1 Shev. vi.1; Chall. iv.8.
2 The expressions in the original are so obscure as to render it
difficult to form a quite definite judgment. In the text we have
followed the views expressed by M. Neubauer.
3 Neither of the English words: "sacrifice," "offering," or
"gift" quite corresponds to the Hebrew Korban, derived from a
verb which in one mood means to be near, and in another to bring
near. In the one case it would refer to the offerings themselves,
in the other to the offerers, as brought near, the offerings
bringing them near to God. The latter seems to me both
etymologically and theologically the right explanation.     
Aberbanel combines both in his definition of Korban.


     To these two, the Mishnah adds in another passage (Chel. i.
6) also the Biccurim, or first-fruits in their fresh state,
although inaccurately, since the latter were likewise brought
from what is called by the Rabbis Syria, 1 which seems to have
been regarded as, in a sense, intermediate between "the land" and
"outside the land." The term Soria, or Syria, does not include
that country alone, but all the lands which, according to the
Rabbis, David had subdued, such as Mesopotamia, Syria, Zobah,
Achlab, etc. It would be too lengthy to explain in detail the
various ordinances in regard to which Soria was assimilated to,
and those by which it was distinguished from, Palestine proper.
The preponderance of duty and privilege was certainly in favour
of Syria, so much so, that if one could have stepped from its
soil straight to that of Palestine, or joined fields in the two
countries, without the interposition of any Gentile strip, the
land and the dust of Syria would have been considered clean, like
that of Palestine itself (Ohol. xviii.7). There was thus around 
"the land" a sort of inner band, consisting of those countries
supposed to have been annexed by King David, and termed Soria.
But besides this, there was also what may be called an outer
band, towards the Gentile world, consisting of Egypt, Babylon,
Ammon and Moab, the countries in which Israel had a special
interest, and which were distinguished from the rest, "outside
the land," by this, that they were liable to tithes and the
Therumothe, or first-fruits in a prepared state.  Of course
neither of these contributions was actually brought into
Palestine, but either employed by them for their sacred purposes,
or else redeemed.


1 Syria sent Tucurim to Jerusalem, but was not liable to second
tithes, nor for the fourth year's product of plants (Lev. xix.


     Maimonides arranges all countries into three classes, "so
far as concerns the precepts connected with the soil" - "the
land, Soria, and outside the land;" and he divides the land of
Israel into territory possessed before and after the Exile, while
he also distinguishes between Egypt, Babylon, Moab and Ammon, and
other lands.1
     In popular estimate other distinctions were likewise made.  
Thus Rabbi Jose of Galilee would have it,2 that Biccurims 3 were
not to be brought from the other side of Jordan, "because it was
not a land flowing with milk and honey." But as the Rabbinical
law in this respect differed from the view expressed by Rabbi
Jose, his must have been an afterthought, probably intended to
account for the fact that they beyond Jordan did not bring their
first-fruits to the Temple. Another distinction claimed for the
country west of the Jordan curiously reminds us of the fears
expressed by the two and a half tribes on their return to their
homes, after the first conquest of Palestine under Joshua (Joshua
xxii. 24,25), since it declared the land east of Jordan less
sacred, on account of the absence of the Temple, of which it had
not been worthy. Lastly, Judaea proper claimed pre-eminence over
Galilee, as being the centre of Rabbinism. Perhaps it may be well
here to state that, notwithstanding strict uniformity on all
principal points, Galilee Judea had each its own peculiar legal
customs and rights, which differed in many particulars one from
the other.
     What has hitherto been explained from Rabbinical writings
gains fresh interest when we bring it to bear on the study of


1 Hilch. Ther. i.6. 
2 Bicc. i.10.
3 For a full explanation of the distinction between Biccurim and
Therumoth see my work on "The Temple: its Ministry and Services"
as they were at the Time of Jesus Christ.


the New Testament.  For, we can now understand how those Zealots
from Jerusalem, who would have bent the neck of the Church under
the yoke of the law of Moses, sought out in preference the
flourishing communities in Syria for the basis of their
operations (Acts xv.1).  There was a special significance in
this, as Syria formed a kind of outer Palestine, holding an
intermediate position between it and heathen lands. Again, it
results from our inquiries, that, what the Rabbis considered as
the land of Israel proper, may be regarded as commencing
immediately south of Antioch. Thus the city where the first
Gentile Church was formed (Acts xi.20,21); where the disciples
were first called Christians (Acts xi.26); where Paul so long
exercised his ministry, and whence he started on his missionary
journeys, was, significantly enough, just outside the land of
Israel. Immediately beyond it lay the country over which the
Rabbis claimed entire sway. Travelling southwards, the first
district which one would reach would be what is known from the
gospels as "the coasts (or tracts) of Tyre and Sidon." St. Mark
describes the district more particularly (Mark vii.24) as "the
borders of Tyre and Sidon." These stretched, according to
Josephus (Jewish Wars, iii.3,1), at the time of our Lord, from
the Mediterranean towards Jordan.  It was to these extreme
boundary tracts of "the land," that Jesus had withdrawn from the
Pharisees, when they were offended at His opposition to their 
"blind" traditionalism ; and there He healed by the word of His
power the daughter of the "woman of Canaan," the intensity of
whose faith drew from His lips words of precious commendation
(Matt. xv.28; Mark vii.29). It was chiefly a heathen district
where the Saviour spoke the word of healing, and where the woman
would not let the Messiah of Israel go without an answer. She
herself was a Gentile. Indeed, not only that district, but all
around, and farther on, the territory of Philip, was almost
entirely heathen. More than that, strange as it may sound, all
around the districts inhabited by the Jews the country was, so to
speak, fringed by foreign nationalities and by heathen worship,
rites, and customs.


     Properly to understand the history of the time and the
circumstances indicated in the New Testament, a correct view of
the state of parties in this respect is necessary. And here we
must guard against a not unnatural mistake. If any one had
expected to find within the boundaries of "the land" itself one
nationality, one language, the same interests, or even one
religion publicly professed, he would have been bitterly
disappointed. It was not merely for the presence of the Romans
and their followers, and of a more or less influential number of
foreign settlers, but the Holy Land itself was a country of mixed
and hostile races, of divided interests, where close by the side
of the narrowest and most punctilious Pharisaism heathen temples
rose, and heathen rites and customs openly prevailed.  In a
general way all this will be readily understood. For, those who
returned from Babylon were comparatively few in number, and
confessedly did not occupy the land in its former extent.   
During the troubled period which followed, there was a constant
influx of heathen, and unceasing attempts were made to introduce
and perpetuate foreign elements. Even the language of Israel had
undergone a change. 


     In the course of time the ancient Hebrew had wholly given
place to the Aramaean dialect, except in public worship and in
the learned academies of theological doctors. Such words and
names in the gospels as Raka, Abba, Golgotha, Gabbatha,
Akel-Dama, Bartholomaios, Barabbas, Bar-Jesus, and the various
verbal quotations, are all Aramaean. It was probably in that
language that Paul addressed the infuriated multitude, when
standing on the top of the steps leading from the Temple into the
fortress Antonia (Acts xxi.40; xxii.). 


     But along with the Hebraic Aramaean--for so we would
designate the language - the Greek had for some time been making
its way among the people. The Mishnah itself contains a very
large number of Greek and Latin words with Hebraic terminations,
showing how deeply Gentile life and customs around had affected
even those who hated them most, and, by inference, how thoroughly
they must have penetrated Jewish society in general. But besides,
it had been long the policy of their rulers systematically to
promote all that was Grecian in thought and feeling. It needed
the obstinate determinateness, if not the bigotry, of Pharisaism
to prevent their success, and this may perhaps partly explain the
extreme of their antagonism against all that was Gentile. A brief
notice of the religious state of the outlying districts of the
country may place this in a clearer light.
     In the far north-east of the land, occupying at least in
part the ancient possession of Manasseh, were the provinces
belonging to the tetrarch Philip (Luke iii.1). Many spots there
(Mark viii.22; Luke ix.10 ; Matt. xvi.13) are dear to the
Christian memory. After the Exile these districts had been
peopled by wild, predatory nomads, like the Bedawin of our days.
These lived chiefly in immense caves, where they stored their
provisions, and in case of attack defended themselves and their
flocks. Herod the Great and his successors had indeed subdued,
and settled among them, a large number of Jewish and Idumaean
colonists - the former brought from Babylon, under the leadership
of one Zamaris, and attracted, like the modern German colonists
in parts of Russia, by immunity from taxation. But the vast
majority of the people were still Syrians and Grecians, rude,
barbarous, and heathens. Indeed, there the worship of the old
Syrian gods had scarcely given way to the more refined rites of
Greece. It was in this neighbourhood that Peter made that noble
confession of faith, on which, as on a rock, the Church is built.


     But Caesarea Philippi was originally Paneas, the city
devoted to Pan; nor does its change of name indicate a more
Jewish direction on the part of its inhabitants. Indeed, Herod
the Great had built there a temple to Augustus. But further
particulars are scarcely necessary, for recent researches have
everywhere brought to light relics of the worship of the
Phoenician Astarte, of the ancient Syrian god of the sun, and
even of the Egyptian Ammon, side by side with that of the
well-known Grecian deities. The same may be said of the refined
Damascus, the territory of which formed here the extreme boundary
of Palestine. Passing from the eastern to the western bounds of
Palestine, we find that in Tyre and Ptolemais Phrygian, Egyptian,
Phoenician, and Greek rites contended for the mastery. In the
centre of Palestine, notwithstanding the pretence of the
Samaritans to be the only true representatives of the religion of
Moses, the very name of their capital, Sebaste, for Samaria,
showed how thoroughly Grecianised was that province. Herod had
built in Samaria also a magnificent temple to Augustus; and there
can be no doubt that, as the Greek language, so Grecian rites and
idolatry prevailed. Another outlying district, the Decapolis
(Matt. iv.25 ; Mark v.20; vii.31), was almost entirely Grecian in
constitution, language, and worship. It was, in fact, a
federation of ten heathen cities within the territory of Israel,
possessing a government of their own.   
     Little is known of its character; indeed, the cities
themselves are not always equally enumerated by different
writers. We name those of most importance to readers of the New
Testament. Scythopolis, the ancient Beth-shean (Josh. xvii.11,
16; Judg. i. 27; 1 Sam. xxxi.10,12, etc.), was the only one of
those cities situated west of the Jordan. It lay about four hours
south of Tiberias. Gadara, the capital of Peraea, is known to us
from Matt. viii.28; Mark v.1; Luke viii.26.  


     Lastly, we mention as specially interesting, Pella, the
place to which the Christians of Jerusalem fled in obedience to
the warning of our Lord (Matt. xxiv.15-20), to escape the doom of
the city, when finally beleaguered by the Romans. The situation
of Pella has not been satisfactorily ascertained, but probably it
lay at no great distance from the ancient Jabesh Gilead. 1
But to return. From what has been said, it will appear that there
remained only Galilee and Judaea proper, in which strictly Jewish
views and manners must be sought for. Each of these will be
described in detail. For the present it will suffice to remark,
that north-eastern or Upper Galilee was in great part inhabited
by Gentiles-Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and Greeks,  whence the
name "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matt. iv.15). It is strange in
how many even of those cities, with which we are familiar from
the New Testament, the heathen element prevailed. Tiberias, which
gave its name to the lake, was at the time of Christ of quite
recent origin, having been built by the tetrarch Herod Antipas
(the Herod of the gospel history), and named in honour of the


1 Compare the full discussion in Caspari, Chronol. Geogr. Einl.
in d. Leben F. C PP.87-90-.
2 Jos. J. W. iii. 9,3.


Emperor Tiberius. Although endowed by its founder with many
privileges, such as houses and lands for its inhabitants, and
freedom from taxation - the latter being continued by Vespasian
after the Jewish war - Herod had to colonise it by main force, so
far as its few Jewish inhabitants were concerned. For, the site
on which the city stood had of old covered a place of burial, and
the whole ground was therefore levitically unclean (Jos. Ant.
xviii. 2,3).  However celebrated, therefore, afterwards as the
great and final seat of the Jewish Sanhedrim, it was originally
chiefly un-Jewish.   
     GASA ad its local deity; ASCOLON worshipped Astarte; JOPPA 
was the locality where, at the time when Peter had his vision
there, they still showed on the rocks of the shore the marks of
the chains, by which Andromeda was said to have been held, when
Perseus came to set her free. CAESAREA was an essentially heathen
city, though inhabited by many Jews; and one of its most
conspicuous ornaments was another temple to Augustus, built on a
hill opposite the entrance to the harbour, so as to be visible
far out at sea. But what could be expected, when in Jerusalem
itself Herod had reared a magnificent theatre and amphitheatre,
to which gladiators were brought from all parts of the world, and
where games were held, thoroughly anti-Jewish and heathen in
their spirit and tendency? (Jos. Ant. xv. 8,1). The favourites
and counsellors by whom that monarch surrounded himself were
heathens; wherever he or his successors could, they reared
heathen temples, and on all occasions they promoted the spread of
Grecian views. Yet withal they professed to be Jews; they would
not shock Jewish prejudices; indeed, as the building of the
Temple, the frequent advocacy at Rome of the cause of Jews when
oppressed, and many other facts show, the Herodians would vfain
have kept on good terms with the national party, or rather
used it as their tool. And so Grecianism spread. 


     Already Greek was spoken and understood by all the educated
classes in the country; it was necessary for intercourse with the
Roman authorities, with the many civil and military officials,
and with strangers; the "superscription" on the coins was in
Greek, even though, to humour the Jews, none of the earlier
Herods had his own image impressed on them.1
     Significantly enough, it was Herod Agrippa I., the murderer
of St.James, and the would-be murderer of St.Peter, who
introduced the un-Jewish practice of images on coins. Thus
everywhere the foreign element was advancing. A change or else a
struggle was inevitable in the near future.   

     What of Judaism itself at that period?  It was miserably
divided, even though no outward separation had taken place.    
The Pharisees and Sadducees held opposite principles, and hated
each other; the Essenes looked down upon them both. Within
Pharisaism the schools of Hillel and Shammai contradicted each
other on almost every matter. But both united in their unbounded
contempt of what they designated as "the country-people"--those
who had no traditional learning, and hence were either unable
or unwilling to share the discussions, and to bear the burdens of
legal ordinances, which constituted the chief matter of
traditionalism. There was only one feeling common to all--high
and low, rich and poor, learned and unlettered: it was that of
intense hatred of the foreigner. The rude Galileans were as 
"national" as the


1 The coin mentioned in Matt. xxii.20, which bore an "image," as
well as a "superscription," must therefore have been either
struck in Rome, or else one of the tetrarch Philip, who was the
first to introduce the image of Caesar on strictly Jewish coins.


most punctilious Pharisees; indeed, in the war against Rome they
furnished the most and the bravest soldiers. Everywhere the
foreigner was in sight; his were the taxes levied, the soldiery,
the courts of ultimate appeal, the government. In Jerusalem they
hung over the Temple as a guard in the fortress of Antonia, and
even kept in their custody the highpriest's garments,1  so that,
before officiating in the Temple, he had actually always to apply
for them to the procurator or his representative! They were only
just more tolerable as being downright heathens than the
Herodians, who mingled Judaism with heathenism, and, having
sprung from foreign slaves, had arrogated to themselves the
kingdom of the Maccabees.


     Readers of the New Testament know what separation
Pharisaical Jews made between themselves and heathens. It will be
readily understood, that every contact with heathenism and all
aid to its rites should have been forbidden, and that in social
intercourse any levitical defilement, arising from the use of
what was "common or unclean," was avoided.  But Pharisaism went a
great deal further than this. Three days before a heathen
festival all transactions with Gentiles were forbidden, so as to
afford them neither direct nor indirect help towards their rites;
and this prohibition extended even to private festivities,


1 The practice commenced innocently enough. The high-priest
Hyrcanus, who built the Tower of Baris, kept his dress there, and
his sons continued the practice. When Herod seized the
government, he retained, for reasons readily understood, this
custody, in the fortress of Antonia, which he had substituted for
the ancient tower. On similar grounds the Romans followed the
lead of Herod. Josephus (Ant, xviii. 4,4) describes "the stone
chamber" in which these garments were kept, under seal of the
priests, with a light continually burning there.  Vitellius, the
successor of Pilate, restored to the Jews the custody of the
high-priestly garments, when they were kept in a special
apartment in the Temple.


such as a birthday, the day of return from a journey, etc. On
heathen festive occasions a pious Jew should avoid, if possible,
passing through a heathen city, certainly all dealings in shops
that were festively decorated. It was unlawful for Jewish workmen
to assist in anything that might be subservient either to heathen
worship or heathen rule, including in the latter the erection of
court-houses and similar buildings. It need not be explained to
what lengths or into what details Pharisaical punctiliousness
carried all these ordinances. From the New Testament we know,
that to enter the house of a heathen defiled till the evening
(John xviii. 28), and that all familiar intercourse with Gentiles
was forbidden (Acts x. 28). So terrible was the intolerance, that
a Jewess was actually forbidden to give help to her heathen
neighbour, when about to become a mother (Avod. S. ii. 1)! It
was not a new question to St.Paul, when the Corinthians inquired
about the lawfulness of meat sold in the shambles or served up at
a feast (1 Cor. x. 25,27,28). Evidently he had the Rabbinical law
on the subject before his mind, while, on the one hand, he
avoided the Pharisaical bondage of the letter, and, on the other,
guarded against either injuring one's own conscience, or
offending that of an on-looker. For, according to Rabbi Akiba,
"Meat which is about to be brought in heathen worship is lawful,
but that which comes out from it is forbidden, because it is like
the sacrifices of the dead" (Avod. S. ii. 3). But the separation
went much beyond what ordinary minds might be prepared for. Milk
drawn from a cow by heathen hands, bread and oil prepared by
them, might indeed be sold to strangers, but not used by
Israelites. No pious Jew would of course have sat down at the
table of a Gentile (Acts xi.3, Gal. ii.12). If a heathen
were invited to a Jewish house, he might not be left alone in the
room, else every article of food or drink on the table was
henceforth to be regarded as unclean.
     If cooking utensils were bought of them, they had to be
purified by fire or by water; knives to be ground anew, spits to
be made red-hot before use, etc. It was not lawful to let either
house or field, nor to sell cattle, to a heathen; any article,
however distantly connected with heathenism, was to be destroyed.
Thus, if a weaving-shuttle had been made of wood grown in a grove
devoted to idols, every web of cloth made by it was to be
destroyed; nay, if such pieces had been mixed with others, to the
manufacture of which no possible objection could have been taken,
these all became unclean, and had to be destroyed.1
     These are only general statements to show the prevalent

     It were easy to prove how it pervaded every relationship of
life. The heathens, though often tolerant, of course retorted.
Circumcision, the Sabbath-rest, the worship of an invisible God,
and Jewish abstinence from pork, formed a never-ending theme of
merriment to the heathen.2  
     Conquerors are not often chary in disguising their contempt
for the conquered, especially when the latter presume to look
down upon, and to hate them. In view of all this, what an almost
incredible truth must it have seemed, when the Lord Jesus Christ
proclaimed it among Israel as the object of His coming and
kingdom, not to make of the Gentiles Jews, but of both alike
children of one Heavenly Father; not to rivet upon the heathen
the yoke of the law, but to deliver from it


1 These particulars are gathered from the Mishnic tractate
"Avodah Sarah" (idolworship), although we have designedly given
only a general outline.
2 For details compare the well-known and valuable collection of
Meier (Judaic a seu vet. scr. prof. de reb. Jud. frag.).


Jew and Gentile, or rather to fulfil its demands for all! The
most unexpected and unprepared - for revelation, from the Jewish
point of view, was that of the breaking down of the middle wall
of partition between Jew and Gentile, the taking away of the
enmity of the law, and the nailing it to His cross. There was
nothing analogous to it; not a hint of it to be found, either in
the teaching or the spirit of the times. Quite the opposite.
Assuredly, the most unlike thing to Christ were His times; and
the greatest wonder of all "the mystery hidden from ages and
generations" the foundation of one universal Church.


To be continued

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