THE WORLD PREPARED
Judah, the Springboard
The Roman world was fully prepared for Christ and for Christianity. But Christ came to the eastern extremity of the world — Judea in Palestine. And Christ never got more than a few score miles from Judea — only into His home area, Galilee, through Samaria, and to the sea coasts. Thus, for the preparation to be complete, the land of Palestine and its people, the Jews, also had to be prepared. Just as the Gentile world was ready, so were the Jews.
Four Hundred Years of Development
Earlier we read from the book of Daniel how the entire Jewish nation was taken into a national captivity between 604 and 585 B.C. After approximately seventy years in captivity, they were finally allowed to return to their native Judea and reestablish their nation. The Biblical history of this return is primarily found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The people knew they had gone into captivity because OF THEIR SINS just as their prophets had warned them. The return from captivity was accomplished by a firm and zealous desire to remain more faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their zeal, however, was somewhat MISGUIDED. Rather than really beginning to keep the laws of Moses and of their forefathers concretely, the Jews began to add rules, and traditions — many of them much more binding than Moses ever wrote.
Throughout the next four hundred or more years these traditions became more and more a part of JEWISH LAW. And because of these laws made by man for man the Jews began to divide up into religious and political groups and parties just as the Gentiles around them had done. These traditions and the resultant factions of the Jews were also to have a great bearing on the Church.
At the time of Christ there were three primary religious organizations within Judaism. Each had vastly different beliefs and customs, yet each maintained it was more holy and more “chosen” than the others. Two of these groups had numerous dealings with Christ and the later established Church — the third lived monastically, away from society.
While nearly every Church historian has written on these sects of Judea, and information concerning them is readily available, we must still look back to the Jewish historian of the times, Josephus, to really understand each more fully.
The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves; the sect of the Essenes, and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of those called Pharisees. . . .1
First the Pharisees
By far the most predominant group of the three was that of the Pharisees, who as Josephus says, “. . . live meanly, and despise delicacies in their diet; and they follow the conduct of reason . . . they determine that all things are done by fate . . . and also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them . . . .”2 He also describes them as having, “. . . so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”3
The Pharisees derive their name from the Hebrew, perushim which means literally, “separated.” And because they shunned those who did not live up to their principles, they became known as separatists.4 They separated themselves from both nations and peoples, especially the illiterate mass of those who “sit at the corners.”5 And they were distinguished from the bulk of the people because of their pureness and godliness.6
The Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes this group as the party which represented the religious views, practices, and hopes of the majority of the Jews. They were in opposition to the priestly Sadducees and were scrupulous observers of the law AS INTERPRETED by the scribes in accordance with tradition. They called their members “Haberim,” or, brothers, and had a second group called “Perushim” (one who separates himself). This second group admitted only those who in the presence of three members pledged themselves to the strict observance of the Levitical parity, to the avoidance of close association with the ignorant and careless people, and to the scrupulous payment of tithes and other imposts due to the priests, Levites, and poor.7
In the Temple they gained control at an early date and declared that the priests were only deputies of the people. They introduced rites in the Temple which originated in popular custom and were without foundation in the law. The Pharisees claimed to be in possession of the traditions of the fathers.8
The Encyclopaedia Britannica further states that the Pharisees believed since Israel was the first to recognize God as the Father, it was Israel’s duty to help other peoples to do the same. With this in mind, the Pharisees “transversed sea and land to make one single proselyte.”9
The Pharisees, then, represented the leading “denomination” of the day, held to the traditions more than the written law, and wielded a great influence among all the peoples of Judea.
Next the Sadducees
Josephus succinctly sums up the doctrines of the Sadducees:
That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity . . . . they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them.10
They probably derived their name from Zadok, a priest in the time of David. The name was chosen about two hundred years before Christ to denote the party of the priests. This does not mean all priests were Sadducees; in Christ’s time many of the priests were Pharisees, but the Sadducees were usually the higher priestly families.11
The Sadducees usually performed all the legal duties for the priests and exercised power over the temple worship and political affairs.12 They also controlled the Sanhedrin, even though they were rationalistic, worldly minded, and small in number.13
Although a minority group, and one which could not gain many new followers because of their doctrines, they nevertheless held a great deal of sway and influence in higher circles. It is the Sadducees who generally raised greatest persecution on the Church in later years.14 However, it was the Pharisees who harassed Christ the most in his lifetime.15
Finally the Essenes
Although they are not even mentioned by name in the New Testament, the Essenes did play an influential part in the affairs in Palestine during the early part of the first century A.D. The Essenes were known as the “Pious Ones,” the meaning of the word from which “Essene” came.16 Josephus devotes a great deal of space to this group, but it will not be necessary here to quote the entirety of the material. The following is a general summarization of Josephus’ account:
. . . These seem to have a greater affection one for the other than the other sects . . . . These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other person’s children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning… it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order . . . . They have no one certain city, but many of them dwell in every city . . .
Those who are caught in any heinous sins, they cast out of their society; and he who is thus separated from them does often die after a miserable manner; for as he is bound by the oath he hath taken… he is not allowed to partake of that food that he meets with elsewhere, but is forced to eat grass, and to famish his body with hunger, till he perish.17
Thus were the divisions and philosophies in the land of Palestine throughout the first century of the Christian era. Times do not really change so much. In our modern twentieth century, there are essentially the same divisions of liberals and conservatives — pleasure seekers and stoics. Even religion is divided into denominations, just as were the sects of Judaism and the tenants of the pagans.
Even more important to the Christian Church than the differences of thoughts among the Jews, was the TREMENDOUS DISPERSION OF JEWS THROUGHOUT THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Josephus records:
For as the Jewish nation is widely dispersed over all the inhabitable earth among its inhabitants, so it is very much intermingled with Syria by reason of its neighborhood, and had the greatest multitudes in Antioch, by reason of the largeness of the city . . . .18
The dispersion is really the CAPSTONE of God’s preparation. Everywhere the Jewish people went they established SYNAGOGUES where weekly Sabbath observances were held. These synagogues were to be stepping stones for the spread of Christianity, even throughout the Gentile world. Not only had the Jews provided a place for Christianity to begin, they had prepared the way for Gentiles to believe in the one true God.
Actually the dispersion started hundreds of years before Christ’s time. While thousands upon thousands of Jews returned to Palestine after the Babylonian captivity, other thousands spread throughout the Empire establishing themselves in the cities of trade and commerce.
Under the influence of the Greeks, some three hundred years before Christ, the Jews of the Dispersion came to be known as HELLENISTS since they embraced many mannerisms and customs of the Greeks and spoke the Greek language. Yet, these Jews always remained faithful to the writings of the Old Testament and looked to the Temple in Jerusalem as holy and the place where God dwelt.
Jews were found in large numbers in almost all parts of the Empire. A multitude of exiles had planted themselves permanently in Babylonia, instead of returning to Jerusalem with the caravans that followed Ezra (457 B.C.) and Nehemiah (444 B.C.). In Alexandria and its neighborhood they numbered not less than a million. Under the Ptolemies the Old Testament had been rendered into Greek (c. 250 B.C.), and this version, called the Septuagint, was in general use among the Hellenists, or Jews of the Dispersion, beyond the limits of Palestine. In Antioch and in other places in Syria, in the numerous cities of Asia Minor, in Cyprus, Crete, and other islands of the Mediterranean, in the cities of Greece, in Illyricum, in Rome and in other towns of Italy, Jews had settled in large numbers. They followed the example of the Phoenicians: wherever there was a prospect of gain through trade and commerce, Jewish merchants swarmed.19
These same Jews were also very instrumental in preparing the Gentile world for the coming of Christianity.
We have already read how the Pharisees desired to make converts worldwide. Josephus says, “ They also made proselytes of a great many of the Greeks perpetually, and thereby after a short time brought them to be a portion of their own body.”20
In nearly every example within the pages of the New Testament where the gospel went to the Gentiles, it was in the synagogues of the Jews and to these Greek proselytes. Paul seldom contacted the Gentiles directly. It would have been unheard of for a Jew to preach his doctrines to the pagan Gentiles. God had prepared a bridge by which the Gentiles could be reached — that bridge was the proselyte.
There were two different classes of Gentiles in the synagogues; first, the full proselyte, who was circumcised in the flesh and actually accepted as a Jew by race (such might have been the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip, because Cornelius was the first real Gentile convert). Second, the proselytes of the gate. These were Gentiles who accepted many of the teachings of the Jews, but were not circumcised and did not necessarily want to be called Jews, even though they had come to believe in the God of the Jewish people.
And here was the key. These Gentile converts already believed in the true God of Israel. They were already keeping the laws of God. They already had access to the scriptures and writings of the Old Testament which Peter, Paul, and all the ministers used.
Christianity was not some totally new concept to the Gentiles God was calling. In fact, the Gentiles accepted Paul and the gospel of Christ far more readily than the Jews of the Dispersion. Notice Luke’s account of Paul’s first preaching in Antioch of Pisidia: “And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, THE GENTILES [notice the Gentiles were in the synagogue] besought that these words might be preached to them THE NEXT SABBATH. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and RELIGIOUS PROSELYTES followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.”21
This was typical of nearly every area into which the Apostle Paul went. He first went to the synagogues, preached to both Jews and Gentiles, and nearly every time it was the Gentile proselytes who continued faithful. These Gentiles then spread the news around the area and hundreds — perhaps thousands — more came to hear Paul.
Time Was Then Complete
Without a doubt, we have now seen a complete and thorough preparation had been made WELL IN ADVANCE of the birth of the Messiah. In reviewing the high spots we can readily see and understand how the world was prepared to the last degree:
1. There was peace throughout the entire Roman world.
2. There were laws to assure the maximum security and freedom for the first thirty years of early Church history.
3. Basic freedoms lasted throughout the entire first century of the Christian era.
4. Highways and shipping lanes were swift and safe.
5. Language was no barrier — Greek was spoken everywhere, knowledge of Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew, benefited the Church greatly.
6. The Jews were divided into divergent groups and thoughts, so Christ did not suffer a totally organized persecution from them until his ministry was completed.
7. Because knowledge of God and His laws had spread throughout the Gentile world, the Gentiles did not find the gospel difficult to understand.
The fullness of time had come — it was time for the Messiah to appear.
1 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii. 1. 2.
2 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii 1. 3.
3 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii 10. 5.
4 Hollmann, The Jewish Religion in the Time of Jesus, p. 26.
5 Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. II, p. 35.
6 Hollmann, The Jewish Religion in the Time of Jesus, p. 26.
7 “Pharisees,” Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. IX, p. 662.
8 “Pharisees,” Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. IX, p. 662.
9 “Jewish Sects During the Second Commonwealth,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (1963), vol. XIII, p. 42B.
10 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii. 1. 4.
11 “Sadducees,” Hastings, A Dictionary of the Bible, p. 818.
12 Hollmann, The Jewish Religion in the Time of Jesus, p. 31.
13 Halley, Bible Handbook, p. 377.
14 Acts 4:1, Acts 5:17.
15 Matthew 9:34, Luke 16:14, John 7:32.
16 “Essenes,” Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. V, p. 224.
17 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, ii. 8. 2-8.
18 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, vii. 2. 3.
19 Fisher, The History of the Church, p. 14.
20 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, vii. 2. 3.
21 Acts 13:42, 43.