Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 10—537 B.C.E. onward—Still Awaiting a Messiah
“Self-determination is but a slogan if the future holds no hope.”—John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States
SEVENTY years of Babylonian captivity were over! Babylonian conquerer Cyrus, king of Persia, was letting the Jews return home. But once back in the Promised Land (537 B.C.E.), their hope of enjoying self-determination as a free nation went unrealized. They had no king, and the political authority of their governors was soon eclipsed by the religious authority of the high priest, who came to be viewed as head of the nation.
Pursuing a Messianic Hope
According to The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia, it was during this period that the concept of a Messiah developed, “the ideal monarch of future days [who] would not be just another ‘anointed’ ruler but the ruler who would destroy Israel’s enemies and establish a perfect era of peace and perfection.”
In the fourth century B.C.E., by conquest, Alexander the Great gathered the Jews into his embrace. But he was obviously not the Messiah they were awaiting, even though his empire did have a tremendous impact on their land, their culture, and their religion.
After Alexander’s death, Palestine remained in Greek hands, first under the Egyptian Ptolemies and later under the Syrian Seleucids, both dynasties set up by Alexander’s successors. As Greek influence grew, prominent and aristocratic Jews began viewing Jewish traditions and customs as out-of-date. Taking the lead was the Tobiad family, who boosted Menelaus, apparently a relative of theirs, into the high priesthood during the reign of Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.). This they did, even though Menelaus was not of the traditional priestly house of Zadok, high priest in Solomon’s temple. Greek influence became so strong that Jewish religious celebrations were outlawed and the temple was turned into a Greek shrine!
In 167 B.C.E., Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, commonly called the Maccabees, or Hasmonaeans, rebelled. The Maccabean Revolt, originally religious in nature, soon became a political struggle for Jewish self-determination. In 165 B.C.E., the temple was recaptured and rededicated, an event Jews today around the world annually celebrate during the eight-day feast of lights known as Hanukkah. But a Messiah was still not in sight.
Negligent Shepherds and Religious Disunity
At this time, “not only was spiritual and social leadership of the people in the hands of the priests,” comments the Jewish Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, “but they formed the strongest and wealthiest class in Jerusalem, politically and economically.” The priests became so aristocratic and negligent in fulfilling their shepherding duties, however, that nonpriests began replacing them in interpreting the Law and administering justice. These men, known as scribes, were adroit at finding loopholes for people intent on circumventing the Law.
During this same period of time, Jewish religion broke up into vying factions. The Pharisees taught that God had given Israel a twofold law, part written and part oral. It was on the basis of this oral law that they recognized the legitimacy of the high priestly line even after the traditional line was broken. The Sadducees, on the other hand, denying the existence of an oral law, claimed that only a direct descendant of Zadok could serve as high priest.
The name “Pharisee” came from a word meaning “separated” or “distinguished.” Some say it was used by their opposers to brand them as heretics. Others claim it refers to the “distinguished” position they assumed, separating themselves from the ‛am ha·’aʹrets (people of the land), whom they considered unclean. The Pharisees were extremely self-righteous in their observance of both the written law and the oral law. The Sadducees’ equally rigid attitude toward the written law possibly “arose not from any special religious feeling,” writes Jewish author Gaalyahu Cornfeld, “but as a political weapon in their opposition to the legislative powers of the Pharisees.”
The Essenes, another religious group, apparently developed during the same time. They broke with the official priesthood, refrained from taking part in religious services and sacrifices at the temple, but otherwise closely adhered to the Law. Like the Pharisees, to whom they were in many ways similar, they fell victim to Hellenistic influence, adopting belief in an immortal soul.
The group probably had no more than about 4,000 members, all male adults, many of whom were celibate. They lived in communal houses in isolated communities throughout Palestine. The Encyclopædia Judaica speaks of their supposed pacifism, saying that it “was probably like that of the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But it is evident that the Essenes did not really practice the strict neutrality today observed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jewish Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia says that the Essenes “fought heroically in the rebellion against Rome, some leaders even coming from their ranks.” Jewish historian Josephus refers to one such leader—a certain “John the Essene” who served as a Jewish general in the revolt of 66 C.E.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in 1947, provide information about the Qumran religious sect, thought by some scholars to be identical with the Essenes. But as to the suggestion that John the Baptizer and Jesus belonged to this group, or were at least influenced by it, The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Important arguments . . . speak against this assumption.” There are “fundamental differences between the Qumrān sect and John the Baptist . . . [as well as] diametrical differences between the views of the sect and the range of Jesus’ ministry, his message of salvation, his understanding of God’s will . . . and, especially, the radical character of his commandment of love and his fellowship with sinners and social outcasts.”
In reality, every Jewish religious faction opposed John the Baptizer and the one he announced as being the Messiah. Instead of giving credence to John’s message, many of the priests, Josephus says, turned to the Zealots, a group of Jewish revolutionaries bent on self-determination. For decades groups like this, opposed to the Roman domination that had replaced Greece in 63 B.C.E., carried on terrorist activity. Finally in 66 C.E., they broke into open rebellion. This led to the destruction of the Jewish temple and their priesthood. The Messianic hope dimmed.
A Judaism With No Temple, No Priesthood
Centuries before this, during or perhaps shortly after the Babylonian exile, great emphasis had been placed on gaining knowledge of the Law. Centers of instruction, known as synagogues, were built, and thereafter the temple was only visited on special occasions and for the purpose of offering sacrifices. So by the first century C.E., it was quite normal to worship in synagogues. Then, after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., they were apparently viewed as having replaced it.
Emphasis now shifted from the nonexistent priesthood to teachers known as rabbis. The Sadducees had ceased to exist as an effective body, and the Essenes had simply disappeared, so the Pharisees emerged as the undisputed leaders. Ellis Rivkin of Hebrew Union College explains the influence they had. “The Pharisees’ oral law gave birth to the Mishnah, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, the geonic, medieval, and modern responsa, and the various codes of Jewish law.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica adds: “Even today the various Jewish groups, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, all claim direct spiritual descent from the Pharisees and the rabbinic sages.”
Messianic Hopes in the Diaspora
Even before 70 C.E., millions of Jews lived outside Palestine, chiefly in Syria, Asia Minor, Babylonia, and Egypt. After 70 C.E., however, any surviving Jews were completely uprooted, scattered to take up life in the diaspora, the Greek word for “scattering.” Even there, many retained their hope of self-determination under a coming Messiah. Jewish leader Bar Kokhba proved to be a counterfeit messiah, unsuccessfully leading a rebellion against Rome in 132 C.E. According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, 28 such false messiahs appeared between then and 1744 C.E.
Thus, perhaps understandably, the Messianic hope became muddled. The Encyclopædia Judaica explains: “Jewish ideology in the Middle Ages did not receive from the ancient period a coherent, unified concept of the Messiah, . . . and talmudic literature and the various Midrashim included many contrasting views.” As early as the 12th century, Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides argued that Messiah’s reign was perhaps simply pictorial of a higher form of society. In the 19th century, Reform Jews “substituted the belief in a messianic age for the belief in a personal Messiah. . . . The messianic hope was severed from its traditional associations with a return of the exiles to Zion.”
Shortly before this, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in Europe further confused the issue. It promoted a Judaism that was willing to conform to the Western way of life. It helped divide Jews into those viewing self-determination in a reestablished Jewish homeland under the Messiah to be of top priority, and those feeling that integration into the life of the country of birth was of greater importance.
These developments, plus the rise of anti-Semitism, paved the way for the birth of modern Zionism, fathered by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century. Today, in May 1989, 41 years to the month after the founding of the State of Israel, Jews are enjoying the self-determination as a Jewish community in a Jewish homeland that he envisioned. Has their Messianic hope been realized?
If so, why do some Jews, according to The Times of London, see “in Zionism a profanity which became a reality with the creation of Israel”? Why did the late historian Theodore H. White, himself a Jew, candidly admit: “There are almost as many different sects of Jews, who quarrel with each other, . . . as there are among Protestants”? Why did Time magazine, calling attention in 1987 to the squabbling religious factions within Israel’s 120-member political body, the Knesset, write: “Some durable solution must be found if Israel . . . is not to become a house fatally divided against itself”?
Modern Jewish self-determination offers little hope for the future. By trusting in human politics to realize their Messianic hope, Judaism has ignored the words of its own sacred writings: “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. . . . Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”—Psalm 118:8; 146:3, The Holy Scriptures, published by the Jewish Publication Society of America.
In contrast with the difficulty many Jews today have in identifying their Messianic hope, a number of their ancestors back in the first century C.E. had no difficulty whatsoever. (See John 1:41.) They became followers of the One they accepted as the Messiah, becoming zealous proponents of a religion we can aptly call “The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love.” Our next issue will explain.
[Picture on page 21]
The Western Wall, commonly called the Wailing Wall, is all that the Jews have left of their holy temple, destroyed in 70 C.E.