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The Sadducees were composed of the upper class of Jews in Palestine, who were willing to turn away from Jewish traditions and extend cooperation to Rome. The conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees played a pivotal role in some of the social and cultural disputes that occurred during Christ's lifetime.
The political system of Rome had an economic impact on Jews, which impacted their cultural and religious practices. The differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees is described above. The Jewish middle class was composed of traders, merchants, and artisans. The lower class was composed primarily of manual laborers and those who were unemployable. Jesus, as a carpenter son and as a teacher, would have been a member of the middle class, but he spent a considerable amount of time among the lower class. However, all members of the population were subject to heavy taxation by Rome, a burden that impacted those with the least wealth more. Furthermore, Jews had financial obligations to the temple, which put an additional monetary burden on them (Jesus Central 2009). The economic system of this time period impacted Jesus' life in two ways. First, as a traveling teacher, Jesus's livelihood would have been dependent upon gifts from people who would come to hear him teach (Jesus Central 2009). In addition, "during the first century, the temple courtyards had often become a marketplace -- local merchants would sell sacrificial animals at excessive cost in order to turn a profit from the tourists or religious seekers that would come to the temple" (Jesus Central 2009). This was a step away from the purity that was dictated by Jewish religious practices, and is typical of the type of profane behavior in the Temple that would later outrage Jesus.
Jewish cultural life was inextricably intertwined with Jewish religious practices. Although Judaism has a matrilineal component, the Jewish family was undoubtedly a patriarchy. The husband was considered to be both the "spiritual and legal head of the house" (Jesus Central 2009). His responsibility was to care for his family, and if he failed to feed, shelter, or protect the family, he not only failed in his social responsibilities, but also in his religious responsibilities (Jesus Central 2009). Children were taught obedience and respect of their parents, and, until married, children often lived in the paternal household. Women did not have the same status as men in society. They were closer to property than to self-determining individuals. Therefore, the fact that women are mentioned among Jesus' followers is noteworthy, "both that they would be allowed to follow him with his disciples, and unusual that the authors of Jesus' biographies would mention their presence at all" (Jesus Central 2009).
Furthermore, because Judaism was a lived religion, the education of young Jews combined secular and religious education into one form of education. Jewish children were taught the Torah and the Mishnah by rabbis, and Jesus was one of these traveling teachers. "For Jews, the "Torah," translated "law" was the source of all learning -- religion, history and ethics. The Torah includes the first five books of the modern Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy)" (Jesus Central 2009). Formal education was limited to males, who began learning basic literacy at age 5 and then start their religious educations at 10 (Jesus Central 2009). Women learned from their mothers in the home. Normally, a man's formal education ended at 18, but some would go on to become scholars, seeking out particular teachers. The scholars who attached themselves to teachers were called disciples, which is why Jesus' early followers were called his disciples (Jesus Central 2009).
The Jewish religion as practiced in first century Palestine had many theoretical and philosophical things in common with modern day Judaism. However, there were also some very substantial differences between Judaism in the time of Christ and modern-day Judaism. "The Judaism of pre-70 times was formally structured in a quite different way from the Judaism of later times. The main religious institution was the Jerusalem temple, and temple worship went back many centuries in Jewish and Israelite history. The temple was not the same as a synagogue. The main activity in the temple was blood sacrifice. There were required sacrifices on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis and also at the major religious festivals" (Grabbe 1995, p.29). This emphasis on sacrifice helps explain why it was so crucial for Jesus to die for the sins of man, and is something that is missing from modern-day Judaism.
One of the main similarities between modern Judaism and first-century Judaism was a monotheistic religion. "Jewish tradition was centered on the Sabbath Day -- the day began on Friday at sundown and ended at Saturday sundown. Sabbath was started with prayer, the lighting of the candles by the wife of the household, followed by a joyful Friday supper. Sabbath was considered to be a day of rest and worship, where everything one did was in honor of God" (Jesus Central 2009). Furthermore, Jews observed a number of holy days. "The major religious holiday during the Jewish year was the Passover feast celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt. During the Passover, many Jews would travel to Jerusalem in order to celebrate in the holy city" (Jesus Central 2009). Understanding this Passover tradition is important because it explains why so many Jews, including Jesus and his disciples, were in Jerusalem at the time of the Last Supper and Jesus' trial and execution (Jesus Central 2009).
Furthermore, it is important to understand that Judaism was a complicated religion. First, it was a Messianic religion. The Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah to appear. The promised Messiah was not necessarily going to be an incarnate version of God; he was promised to be someone who would bring them freedom from the tyranny of the oppressors. Christians embraced the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, but it is important to understand that in Palestine during that time period there were many people making claims to be the Messiah. Moreover, not everyone believed that a Messiah was forthcoming. In fact, there were "at least two dozen competing belief systems among Jews in the first century: "Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, followers of Yeshua of Nazareth (Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Latin, Jesus in English), followers of other charismatic leaders, etc." Each group had a particular way of interpreting the Hebrew scriptures and applying them to the present" (Astle 2011). In many ways, they could be compared to the various denominations in modern Christianity. However, while these groups had differences, there were also similarities. According to Jacob Neusner, there were three approaches to Judaism at the time of Christ: sage, priest, and Messiah (Neusner 1984, p.35). "Jesus represented as a perfect priest, rabbi, Messiah, was one such protean figure. The Talmudic rabbi as Torah incarnate, priest manque, and model of the son of David was another" (Neusner 1984, p.37).
While first-century Jews believed in a single God, they did have a very active belief in the supernatural, which was not considered a conflict with their monotheistic religious beliefs. In fact, they even believed in what could be classified as witchcraft. Perhaps this belief in the supernatural is best understood by examining their attitudes towards spiritual events. One of the interesting components of first century Judaism was its position on angels and other forms of spirit visitation; there was a clear link established between signs of mental agitation, if not outright mental illness, and being religiously touched. "Other biblical texts which contain descriptions of the psychological agitation of prophets and seers, though without explicit reference to the spirit, hint wildly at the possibility of ecstatic experiences" (Levison 1997, p.34).
There was an associated idea of the loss of mental control, although whether this loss of mental control was result of the human being displaced by the spirit, or the response to horrors revealed in divine prophecies, was a subject of debate at that time (Levison 1997, p.35). From a modern perspective, this certainly suggests that some people who were experiencing what is now known to be mental illness would have been considered to be in contact with the divine.
One of the interesting elements of first-century Judaism as practiced in Israel was the notion of purity. Purity played a central role in the practice of the faith. The Jews had complicated sets of rules about what types of behavior exposed them to impurity, which required separation between males and females, that women be isolated while having their periods, dietary restrictions, special rules for dress, and other factors that are not associated with much of modern Reformed Judaism. However, even unusual things could be sources of purity, such as a scroll of the Torah. "Because of its guarded…[continue]
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