Jewish faith in the first-century was defined by belief in one god (monotheism), Yahweh, whose presence was in the Temple, which was surrounded by the Land that had been promised to Israel. N.T. Wright explains, “Temple and Land were regulated by the Torah, which formed the covenant charter for all that Israel was and hoped for.” Wright continues, “Israel’s belief in one god… was held in close conjunction with her belief that she was, in a unique sense, the people of this god.” This doctrine is known as election.
James Dunn states “that there was no single, uniform type of Judaism” at the time of Jesus’ ministry. These five symbols: monotheism, election, Land, Torah and Temple, were however “a common and a unifying core for second Temple Judaism.”
Monotheism marked out Israel as distinct from other nations. As Dunn explains, it was “absolutely fundamental for the Jew of Jesus’ day. Every day every Jew had been taught to say the Shema’: ’Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’: or, ‘… the Lord our God, the Lord is one’; indeed, on the basis of Deuteronomy 6:7 a devout Jew would say the Shema’ twice a day.”
It was creational monotheism; the one god alone is the creator and all other “gods” are, as Wright describes, “not ‘real’ gods [but] are idols.” It was ethical monotheism; the one god is angry at wrong behaviour and “expresses his anger in concrete acts of ecological and socio-political ‘judgement’.” It was covenantal monotheism; this god had chosen a people and made a covenant with Abraham and his descendents. Crispin Fletcher-Louis argues that it was also incarnational monotheism; “the perfect human, the image of God, is to be worshipped.”
When asked by a Pharisee which was the greatest commandment in the Torah, Jesus affirmed monotheism by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5; which is the second verse of the Shema’:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Racial identity as the chosen people of God was, according to Wright, “one of the largest issues among those who returned from Babylon.” They feared losing their identity could result in another exile. Ezra’s reforms, banning inter-marriage with non-Israelites and prohibiting foreigners from the assembly of God, helped re-establish the Jewish state and protect them from Samaritan and other foreign influence.  In the second-century BC, this was defended by the Maccabean resistance against, as Dunn describes, “cultural and national assimilation.”
During his ministry, Jesus begins to redefine the meaning of election. In Matthew 8:11-12, he says:
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.”
Jesus warns of a coming judgement on Israel and speaks in parables redefining who the true Israel is. In the parable of the weeds, the parable of the net, the parable of the wedding feast, the parable of the tenants and others, Jesus redraws the boundaries of Israel, as Wright describes, “to include those who ‘repented’ according to his own redefinition, but to exclude those who did not.”
In Matthew 21:32, Jesus says it is “the tax collectors and the prostitutes [who] believed him.” Wright explains that, “throughout the teaching, story-telling and career of Jesus, this message rang out again and again, in word and deed. Israel was being redefined; and those who fail to heed Jesus’ warnings would discover themselves in the position that they had thought was reserved for the pagans.”
Jesus symbolically demonstrated the redefinition of Israel in appointing the twelve apostles and placing them over the twelve tribes, as can be seen in Matthew 19:28:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”
Markus Bockmuehl adds that “the early Jesus movement evidently continued to focus upon the restoration of Israel’s twelve tribes in a new messianic kingdom, whose promised biblical boundaries extended to all the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The meta-narrative of the Jewish story was that of exile from and restoration to the Land. As well as being one of the symbols of Jewish faith, Wright describes the Land as “the source of bread and wine, the place to graze sheep and goats, grow olives and figs.”In other words, the place of blessing, a new Eden where Israel would experience shalom. Jerusalem was the focal point of the Land, which included ten zones of concentric holiness spreading out from “the Holy of Holies to the rest of the Temple (itself divided into concentric areas), thence to the rest of Jerusalem, and thence to the whole Land.”
In the first-century, however, the majority of Jews still lived outside the Land. It was polluted by the Greco-Roman culture that occupied the Land and, arguably as a result, it was not the Edenic paradise it was supposed to be, as it was prone to plague and famine. Israel did not rule herself, but was under Roman control.
Jesus conducted much of his ministry in and around Galilee, one of the outer zones of holiness, rather than in Jerusalem. Wright describes Galilee as being “surrounded by pagans” and “suspected to be under pagan influence.”
Jesus neither affirms nor redefines the symbol of Land. When Peter says about having left everything to follow him, Jesus does make mention of land in Mark 10:29-30:
“Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’”
At the end of his ministry, again in Galilee, Jesus commissions his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Jesus extends the meta-narrative to include all nations and reaffirms the Abrahamic blessing “on all the families of the earth” from Genesis 12:3.
Wright describes Torah as “the covenant charter of Israel as the people of the covenant god.” The Torah contained the promises relating to the Land, the instructions for the Jewish people and the blessings they would inherit if they followed Torah. Torah prescribed the ritual for the Temple, which was “the practical focal point of the observance of Torah.” Observance of Torah was one of the identity markers that defined Israel as a nation.
The study and practice of Torah had become an end in itself during the exile to Babylon as there was no Temple. Wright says that, “the study and practice of Torah increasingly became the focal point of Jewishness. For millions of ordinary Jews, Torah became a portable Land, a movable Temple.”
In the first-century, many could not worship in the Temple as they were outside the Land. Also, some groups, such as the Essenes saw the Temple and the priesthood as imperfect, and so relied on study and practice of Torah. Wright explains that “the Pharisees in particular, in conjunction with the burgeoning synagogue movement, developed the theory that study and practice of Torah could take the place of Temple worship.”
In the late second-Temple period, there was a tendency to have an increasingly strict interpretation and observance or Torah. “Putting a hedge about the Torah” so that it would not inadvertently be broken.
Jesus continually affirmed Torah. In Matthew 5:17-18 he said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Jesus actually intensifies the Law in relation to murder and adultery, where he says those who display the emotions of anger and lust are as guilty of breaking the Law. Jesus also intensifies the Law with regard to divorce.
Where Jesus criticises the Law, it is in relation to ritual commandments, such as observance of the Sabbath, hand-washing, and tithing. According to Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz this is because “justice, mercy and faith, i.e. social obligations, are more important than the command to tithe.”
Theissen and Merz explain that “for Jesus an intensification of norms relates to ethical commands… while a relaxation of norms relates to ritual and cultic norms. Ethical commandments tend to be universal. In all cultures, aggression and the striving for power and possessions have to be given a form that can be lived with, and that happens in comparable ways. Ritual commandments are far more the characteristic of specific cultures.”
The Temple was at the heart of first-century Jewish life. It was the political, economic, social and religious centre of the nation. Here the chosen people worshiped the one God by observing Torah. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians when Judah was taken into exile. A second Temple, not as grandiose as the first, was built by the returning exiles under the leadership of Ezra. This was substantially enlarged by Herod the Great.
The Temple had many symbolic functions. It was the place where God lives, a restored Eden, a microcosm of the universe, the cosmic centre. It was the story of creation in stone and a bulwark against chaos. The Temple was the Kingdom of God in miniature. God was enthroned in the Holy of Holies surrounded by angels. Gregory Beale likens the Temple to an architect’s model of a new building: “It was but a small replica of what was to be built on a much larger scale… when the Israelites looked at and thought of their temple,… they were to be reminded of the great goal of spreading the light of God’s presence throughout the earth until the entire world was under God’s tabernacle presence.”
As previously mentioned, there was dissatisfaction with the second Temple. Herod was not a messianic king; he was a convert to Judaism. The Essenes at Qumran rejected it completely. Wright says the Pharisees objected to the priesthood “but were prepared to tolerate it for the sake of being able to continue with the prescribed Temple rituals.” Dunn describes two alternative Temples which had been built by other Jewish sects; one in a Jewish colony at Elephantine on the Nile, and the other at Leontopolis in Egypt.
Dunn presents evidence that Jesus was a devout Jew who “had a very positive attitude to the Temple.” He attended Temple many times, paid the Temple tax, and regularly attended synagogue. However, Wright makes it clear that Jesus believed the Temple was under judgement and that he “was inviting his hearers to join him in the establishment of the true Temple.” This is evidenced in Matthew 7:24-27, where Jesus talks about the wise man building a house on the rock. Wright argues that the word ‘house’ would indicate the Temple, and ‘rock’ the foundation stone. This is also demonstrated in the parable of the tenants where Jesus quotes Psalm 118:
“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”
Fletcher-Louis summarises Wright’s view, “that throughout the gospel material Jesus claims that he and his movement are now what the Temple was always supposed to be. Jesus, for example, in his forgiving of people’s sins claims for himself the divine prerogatives and presence otherwise reserved for the Temple, and its sacrificial service.”
Further, if the Temple was a microcosm of the universe, and if Jesus and his followers believed they were the true Temple, Fletcher-Louis concludes, “that might also mean that they thought of themselves as a new heaven and a new earth, a new cosmology.” The implication of this is that when Jesus predicts “heaven and earth shall pass away” he expected the Jerusalem Temple to end and “he believed the physical world would then be sustained by himself, his words, and his people, who would embody the new Temple, and the new heaven and the new earth.”
Jesus redefined the Jewish symbols because he believed that Jewish history was reaching a climax and that those symbols which had identified Israel were in danger of bringing catastrophe. Wright concludes, “The danger lay in Israel’s obsession with her national existence and liberation, and in the symbols which identified and reinforced it.”
Jesus offered instead an opportunity for Israel to fulfil its call to be a blessing to all nations, to bring in a new heaven and a new earth.
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Bockmuehl, Markus, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
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Dunn, James D. G., The Parting of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity, (London: SCM, 2006).
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