Skip Navigation Links

Is Judaism the Law of Moses? (part 3)

Here is the third installment — revealing what really happened under Ezra and Nehemiah,
and how the Government of God functioned in the Old Testament Church.


THE religious condition of the Jews during the time of Christ had not evolved in just a few years. It took over 200 years for Judaism to firmly implant itself in Palestine.

If we are to adequately understand the full development of Judaism, we will have to go back in history over 500 years before Christ. In these centuries history shows why and how "Judaism" replaced the Law of Moses as the religion of the Jews!


The Babylonian Captivity

The proper place to begin a study of the development of Judaism is with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

Between the years of 604 B.C. and 585 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, made war with the Kingdom of Judah. The Jews were not successful in any of the skirmishes with the Babylonians. In the first years of this war, Nebuchadnezzar carried away the majority of the Jews from Judah to Babylon. At the end of the war, in 585 B.C., all the Jews, except those under Gedaliah, were finally carried to Babylon. And even those under Gedaliah finally fled Palestine. This was a complete captivity.

The Babylonian captivity came to an end with the downfall of the Babylonian Empire in October 539 B.C. Isaiah had prophesied, about 200 years before, that Cyrus, the king of Persia, would be responsible for the overthrow of Babylon and for making it possible for the Jews to return to Palestine (Isa. 45:1-4). Thus, Cyrus and his armies captured the capital of the Empire and Babylon was absorbed into the Persian Empire.

Cyrus was so betook over the exact prophecy by Isaiah concerning himself, that he determined to honor the God who had granted him victory over the Babylonians. He issued an edict that the Jews who had been carried captive by the Babylonians could return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple of God (II Chron. 36:22,23; Ezra 1:1,2).

The issuance of this decree resulted in about 50,000 Jews later returning to Palestine. These Jews were under the leadership of two men: Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, and Joshua, the High Priest. The reason for the Jews' return was to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and to again establish the true worship of God. The books of Haggai and Zechariah were written during the period when these Jews were returning to Palestine and during the building of the Temple. These books describe the condition of the Jews at this time.


Majority did NOT Return

It must be remembered, however, that the majority of the Jews did not return to Palestine. Most of them elected to remain in the Babylonian area. Under the benevolent rulership of Cyrus, many of the Jews had their own homes, substantial properties and not a few were wealthy and influential. They did not want to give all of this up in order to go back to the wasted land of their forefathers. Even Cyrus did not want all of them to leave the Babylonian area since the bulk of the population in some provinces was principally Jewish. Depopulation would have been a serious setback to the economy of the area (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 8).

The majority of the Jews were content with the situation in Babylon. They had no desire to return, and in consequence, they built permanent schools, colleges, and synagogues. They were settling down to stay. And, even though there were several migrations from Babylon back to Palestine, the bulk of the Jews remained in the Mesopotamian area. Even as late as the New Testament times, there were still more Jews in Babylon than there were in Palestine (ibid., vol. i, pp. 7-9). This explains why the apostle Peter was in Babylon in the later years of his life. He wrote his two epistles from near Babylon on the Euphrates (I Pet. 5:13). Since the Apostle Peter was the apostle to the Circumcision scattered abroad — the Jews in the Diaspora (Gal. 2:7), it is not difficult to see why he went to Babylon, where many of the Jews lived.


Ezra Goes to Jerusalem

After the deaths of Zerubbabel and Joshua, who led the first wave of returning Jews to Palestine, the people began to take a lackadaisical attitude concerning the services in the Temple and religion in general. Even though the Temple had been completed in the early months of 515 B.C., the people of Palestine took no interest in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. It still remained in ruins! The people had also begun to intermarry freely with the idolatrous Gentile people round about. The religious life of the people in general was becoming corrupt. This condition was prompted because the people in general did not have any real spiritual leaders after the death of Zerubbabel and Joshua. As the years rolled by, the condition became worse and worse.

Finally, in the summer of the year 457 B.C., the seventh year of Artaxerxes, Jewish reckoning, Ezra came to Palestine to rectify the situation that was beginning to get out of hand (Ezra 7:7-8).

Ezra was a priest of no mean standing. He was a direct descendant of Aaron and some of his forefathers had been former High Priests in Israel. His grandfather was the High Priest who returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua to Jerusalem in the first migration back to Palestine (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. iii, p. 435). Ezra, himself, was a "scribe," a "ready scribe of the law of Moses," "a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord and of His statutes to Israel," "a scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:11, 12). He was considered by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the apostles' days, to have been, in a sense, the "High Priest" of the Jews who were still living in Babylon (Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 5,1).

The Scriptures say that Ezra "had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments" (Ezra 7:10). From these Scripture references alone, we can say confidently that Ezra was, to live by the laws of God and to teach them to the people. So profound an influence had Ezra over the Jews, and so righteous was his character, that a later Jewish writer said he would have been the lawgiver to Israel had not Moses preceded him (The Talmud, Sanhedrin, c.ii).

Ezra knew the laws of God — he was well trained in them. And God directed that he go to Jerusalem to beautify the Temple, establish its services in proper order, to teach the people the laws of God, and to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.

He went to Palestine, in the year 457 B.C., with authority from the Persian government to carry out these reforms.

About 2,000 people went with Ezra to Palestine. These were notably priests, Levites and servants of the Temple. The object of Ezra and these other important dignitaries in going to Jerusalem, was to restore the worship of God that was fast becoming defiled.


Ezra's Restoration

When Ezra and his retinue went to Jerusalem from Babylon, they went with a royal decree from the king of Persia — Ezra had the power he needed to carry out the reform. The decree gave him authority not only to establish the true religion in its purity, but also he had governmental orders to "appoint magistrates and judges which may judge all the people that are beyond the river (in Palestine), all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye him that knoweth them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him with all diligence, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment" (Ezra 7:25, 26). In other words Ezra was going to Jerusalem not only as a priest of God to re-establish the religious worship, but also to establish law and order by rebuilding Jerusalem as a Jewish capital city.

Why was the king of Persia so interested in the Jews' religion and why did he want Jerusalem to be rebuilt and inhabited? The answer is plain.

The Bible records how Esther, a Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin, became Queen of Persia, and Mordecai, her uncle, became Prime Minister of the kingdom (Esther 2:17; 10:3). Esther was married to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) who ruled, according to Persian reckoning, from 485 to 465 B.C. The king under whom Ezra was appointed to rebuild Jerusalem was Artaxerxes I — the son of Xerxes. Esther was still, undoubtedly, the Queen Mother, when Ezra left for Jerusalem in 457 B.C. Thus we see that there was considerable Jewish influence in the king's palace at this time. No wonder Ezra was given such responsibility by the Persian king. He had power from the king to perform the needed restoration. Ezra's personality and authority had a tremendous effect on the people.

The real intent of Ezra was to establish the Law of Moses as the constitutional law throughout Judea (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 33) — to make Judea a model state within the Persian Empire — one adhering to the law of Moses. The laws of the king were to be few, dealing mainly with taxation. Herford, the Jewish scholar, continues, "The Persian rulers, living far from Judea, seldom interfered with the internal affairs of their Jewish subjects, and were content to leave their public business in the hands of the governor of the province. If the royal taxes were paid, and order maintained, the Jews might organize their own life as a community in the way that seemed best to them" (ibid. p. 45). This was the policy of the Persian rulers for the two centuries they governed Palestine. This gave the Jews ample opportunity to settle down firmly in Palestine and to practice their religion without undue molestation.