This is a paper I wrote for my New Testament class on Second Temple Judaism at Tyndale University. I have removed all footnotes so future students can learn as much as I did on this interesting time in Jewish History.
Second Temple Judaism is a topic and a time period that many Christians do not know very much about but it is essential in understanding the historical and religious context that Jesus, and subsequently the early Church, was in. From the very Gospels themselves to the Jewish apocrypha books of Maccabees, as well as extra biblical sources by Jewish historians, we can find a very unique and exciting time within Judaism, a Judaism that had Messianic hope in the near future, and one where bondage and exile played a crucial role in the reforms of the Jewish way of life. Second Temple Judaism is essential in understanding the New Testament more clearly, and by examining the worldview of Judaism at this time through commonly held beliefs, Jewish sect that were around at the time of the Second Temple, and the very role of the Temple in Jewish worship, we can see the impact and relationship that the Second Temple had on the life and work of Jesus.
Judaism during the Second Temple Period had a core set of characteristics that every Jew living in the period held to. The first characteristic of Second Temple Judaism was the temple. Although the main focus was on the temple in Jerusalem, Jews who had been displaced because of the diaspora and exile of the Jewish people, set up smaller temples within their own communities, called synagogues, which were places to worship and pray if you were too far from the temple in Jerusalem. Even though some people who thought the temple had be corrupted by Roman control still thought that it was an important place within Jewish religious life.
The second characteristic of Second Temple Judaism that was the same for all Jews was having monotheistic faith. The monotheistic nature of Judaism stood in sharp contrast with the religious of the neighboring areas and people, who had many Gods, each with varying amounts of power. Jews had only one God, the One True God, Yahweh, which means to be. This rejection of polytheism came from Moses and the Torah, a set of commandments divinely given by God to the Jewish people on how to live their lives. Within these commandments, Jews were un able to put idols, including other gods, before Yahweh. The God of Israel was both creational and providential, that is to say, Yahweh is creator of the world and everything in it and should be worshiped solely and that He is the God that reigns and rules all of creation.
The third characteristic of second temple Judaism is the election of the Jewish people as God’s chosen people. They believed that God had chosen them, and because of this they were bound together in a covenant bond. This covenant would be a blessing to the Jewish people if they followed God and a curse if they strayed. The obligations of the covenant were laid out in scripture, which the Jews thought to be divinely inspired. It is through the Jewish people that evil would be brought to an end by following these commandments. Some of these commandments included the right of circumcision, following food and purity laws, and observing special holy days and festivals throughout the year.
The final common belief was hope for the future which took the form of Messianic expectations. Since the Jews were not in control of their land, God had become a God of a people, not a nation. The Messiah was thought to come from God and deliver the Jews from be being under Gentile rule. The Messiah had to be descended from the kingly line of David, and many thought that the Messiah would be a military ruler who would lead the Jews from the Romans.
Although the majority of Jews held these common beliefs, there were still divisions between them in the form of different sect of Jews on how God would save them and who would be saved. The Pharisees and Sadducees where opposing forces to try and influence the non Jewish government and were formed around the second century BCE. The largest of these sects was the Pharisees who’s numbers swelled to over six thousand at the time of Jesus, even though they were a closed group. They were seen as highly religious and devout to God, and found their beginnings during the Babylonian Exile. Since there was no temple to sacrifice at during this time, reading and interpreting the scriptures became the replacement, and the Pharisees excelled at it. They also placed a lot of value in the oral tradition. They held little power politically, unlike the Sadducees, who held positions of power in the Sanhedrin, the main governing body of Judaism at the time. The Pharisees held mainline views on the future, and looked forward to the future messiah to rescue them, and were often leaders in revolts against the Romans. Their name comes from the word that means “separators”, as they wanted the Romans out of the land promised to them by God. They were progressive, and were able to update Judaism so it progressed at the same speed as society did.
The second group were called the Sadducees who comprised of upper class Jews who had powerful connections due to being connect with the priesthood and nobility. Unlike the Pharisees common Jews, the Sadducees did not have a belief in an after life or in angelic beings. The Sadducees held several prominent positions in Jewish society, including being priests, and only followed the written law, ignoring the oral traditions. Unlike the Pharisees, they were alright with having the Romans in power, as the positions they held were secured under them, and often worked with the Romans. The reason for being so close with the romans was the acknowledgement of the fact that the Romans appointed the High Priest and allowed for the Jews to do their sacrifices.
The third wing of Judaism, called the Essenes, was a radical one, who’s numbers were around four thousand adherents, placing them smaller than the Pharisees but larger than the Sadducees. They believed that they were the true holders of the covenant, and thus, were the only ones that would be saved. They thought that the priesthood, and by extension the Temple itself, was corrupt, and decided not to partake in any activities that involved the temple or the priest hood, including offering sacrifices to atone for sin. The Essenes set themselves apart from mainline Jews and set up closed communities with very strict rules. Within these communities they studied the scriptures almost exclusively. They longed for Yahweh to reform the temple and bring it back to it’s pure form.
The Temple was very important during the Second Temple Period, although it did take a different role during this time. The Temple in Jerusalem represented Jewish Statehood and was seen as a King’s Palace, the king being Yahweh, making Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish nation. The role of the Temple was extremely important because it is there that the Jews performed their sacrifices to God to atone for their sins, and it was the place that the Jews thought that God Himself, resided. Daily sacrifices were done by priests that were divided into teams with a total of twenty four thousand priests. The Temple was placed on a high point in the city and because of this could be seen from farther away than most structures in Jerusalem, placed upon Mount Zion like a jewel. The operations of the temple were were supported by a “temple tax” of about two days wages. As mentioned above, the temple held different importance and value compared between the different groups of Jews. The Sadducees thought the Temple was the most important part of Jewish ethnic and religious identify and held several high positions within the temple, such as priests, and held on to the ideal of a temple-state for Jewish law and way of life to be determined. The Essenes, on the other hand, thought the temple and the priesthood was corrupt and didn’t take part in the offering of sacrifices, and longed for Yahweh to return and reform the temple and bring it back to it’s pure form. Since the Jewish people had been spread out geographically from Judea, the temple become more of an ideal than a reality for those who did not live near it. For Jews that were no close to Jerusalem, it became an important pilgrimage to visit the temple at least once during a person’s life, and because of the distant, tradition temple worship changed, moving the focus from the temple to home and the family. Instead of doing sacrifices, the Jews in diaspora observed the law and important rites of the Jewish faith to replace not being able to sacrifice at the temple, having aspects of the law have greater importance than they would have had if the people lived near the temple. Since there was no king, the priesthood held the power that the king would have held, moving a religious position to a political one, with the Levites being used to administer because of their skills of being scribes. The majority of teaching and religious development happened at the temple. Local places of worship, called synagogues, which means house of gathering in Hebrew, acted like small temples where people could come together to pray and worship, especially after the Babylonian exile. These places of gathering allowed Jews who were not in Judea to have community and fellowship outside of the temple context.
Knowing the historical and social context in which Jesus lived in is invaluable for having a full understanding of the Gospels, and to a greater extent the New Testament. After understanding the messianic expectations that the majority of Jews in the Second Temple Period held, we can see that Jesus was not the messiah that they were looking for. Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Roman government as a military leader. Others thought the Jewish messiah would be a priestly figure, one who would reform the temple and bring back pure worship. The Pharisees sought a legal leader who could give correct interpretation of Torah so the Jewish People know how they were supposed to live. After one takes times to realize the lesser importance of offering sacrifices, and a heavier expectation of following the law, through the decentralization of the temple, we can see how radical Jesus really was, saying that the, both oral and written, could be fulfilled in the greatest commandment. Since Judaism had become strictly monotheistic during this time, the idea that God would come down as a man, would have been quite shocking, especially the doctrine of the trinity. The historical context helps us understand the gospels better since we don’t only have the portrayal of the groups within Judaism that we find within the gospels, but also secular writings that describe the actions of the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes, allowing us to better understand how Jesus responds to their questions.
In conclusion, the Second Temple Period in the history of Judaism has a huge impact on the life, ministry, and understanding of Jesus through the social and religious context that He lived in. After we understand the commonly head beliefs of Judaism at this time, the social and political groups, and the role of the Temple in worship, we can fully see the relationship between Jesus and the Second temple period. The period of full of revolts and unrest, with hopes of a messiah who would lead Israel out of Roman occupation, reform the temple back to it’s pure form, and fulfill the covenant between God and his chosen people. The Second Temple period ended in 70CE, and left the people without a temple, finishing the transition of Jews into local congregations in the synagogue. Overall, the Second Temple Period was a transition time into the new Judaism, one that would be sharing the stage of Palestine and Rome with Christianity.
Grabbe, Lester “History of Judaism Part II: Second Temple Times,” in Encyclopedia of Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Alan J Avery-Peck et al. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1999.
Wenham, David and Walton, Steve, Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2011.
Riches, John, The World of Jesus: First Century Judaism in Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Schwartz, Daniel R, Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity. Tübigen: Mohr, 1992.
Sandmel, Samuel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.