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Is Judaism the Law of Moses? (part 10)

This tenth installment reveals the truth about the Jewish sects in Palestine in the days of Christ.


ALL the sects of Judaism in the New Testament period had their roots within the time of religious anarchy after the death of Alexander the Great. That was the time the Egyptians and then the Syrians dominated Palestine.

When these foreign elements came into Palestine, they brought with them their respective cultures — their forms of Hellenism. Every phase of life was affected by Hellenism. Nothing escaped its influence. That attractiveness of the new culture was overwhelming. The Jews accepted it almost as readily as any of the countries of the East which had been conquered by Alexander the Great.

Now let's continue this series.


Sects of Judaism

"Because the Jews represent the major non-Greek element in the eventual fusion it is important to observe that their reaction to Hellenism was initially no different from that of other non-Greek peoples" (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, p. xiv).

The Jews, after the peaceful introduction of Hellenism by the Egyptians, accepted it almost totally. And not the least affected by this acceptance of Hellenism were former religious beliefs of the Jews. Changes were made in the Jewish religious services. The foreign influence was so strong and the religious inclination so weak that the period had been called, as we have before mentioned, a time of religious anarchy.

The very basis of Hellenism was the philosophy of "free-thinking"; the right of the individual to think and reason for himself. This philosophy of individualism was accepted by the Jews. The Jews, like their Egyptian rulers, began to think on their own in regard to the arts, sciences, religion, etc.

As with Hellenism in Greece, Syria and Egypt, so in Palestine, the individual and his opinion became important to the educated. The study of Scripture, when indulged, became more of a private matter and of individual interpretation, as it is commonly done today, rather than of collective interpretation from an authoritative body, like the Sopherim were. In most cases the Scripture became interpreted according to the prevailing custom of viewing everything in the light of Hellenistic "enlightenment."

We find that during the period of religious anarchy there arose a number of individuals endeavoring to teach the Scriptures. These men were almost wholly laymen — the priests, on the whole, thought it not necessary to bother themselves with teaching or studying the Scriptures of their forefathers. At the end of the anarchy, we find these individual laymen establishing themselves, with a few of the faithful priests, into a body of religious authority among the Jews. However, when these men came together they brought with them many varying opinions of the Scriptures they had learned in independent study. Some of the laymen and priests had accepted much of the Hellenistic ways of teaching as well as many Hellenistic customs and practices. There were some teachers, however, who were less inclined towards Hellenism. Yet all these teachers in one way or another were influenced with Hellenism. There is no doubt of this (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).

The differences of opinion among these various teachers finally evolved into the real beginning of the sects of Judaism. All of the sects can be shown to have had their origins within or immediately after the period of religious anarchy. And it is also important to indicate that all the sects which came out of that anarchy had some form of Hellenism attached to their beliefs. In fact, the various sects of Judaism can be categorized according to the amount of apparent Hellenization that each sect absorbed. There were some sects which embodied much of the Hellenistic spirit; others a moderate amount; but hardly one which absorbed little.

It will be profitable to briefly survey the sects of Judaism which existed in the days of Christ. It will be obvious that none of them were keeping the true and unblemished Law of Moses.


The Truth About the Essenes

The first sect to be dealt with will be the Essenes. This group is placed first because they represent the sect which consumed the greatest amount of foreign doctrine.

"Greek culture must have had a powerful influence upon Palestine since the time of Alexander the Great — it was not repressed until the Maccabean rising — it is only natural, if we find actual proof of this influence of Hellenism in the circle of the Essenes" (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 218).

There were certain religious customs and beliefs of the Jewish sect of the Essenes which were totally Hellenistic in origin. For one, Josephus tells us they accepted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 5). He mentions this foreign belief of the Essenes in several places. Notice:

"For their doctrine is this: Tin-t bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue forever . . . And is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their souls beyond the oceans, etc." (Wars of the Jews, II, p. 11).

Josephus goes on to say, speaking of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul: "And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion" (ibid).

Notice that Josephus says that these Essenes taught their doctrine as did the Greeks. This doctrine is certainly of foreign origin, for no such doctrine is found in the Scriptures.

"According to him [Josephus], the Essenes had always professed the purest doctrines of Greek philosophy concerning the immortality of the soul" (Renan, History of the People of Israel, vol. v, p. 56).

This particular teaching is of itself proof of the influence of foreign philosophies (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. ii, p. 214). And further, he says:

"If then only one sentence which he (Josephus) says concerning the anthropology of the Essenes is true, it is certain that their doctrine of man is dualistic, i.e NON-JEWISH" (ibid).

There is absolutely no doubt that the Essenes had accepted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul directly from Hellenism. This doctrine is completely foreign to Scripture.


Other Heathen Doctrines

The Essenes also adhered to the doctrine of asceticism — the doctrine of perennial self-denial of even the good things of life. This belief as a continuing custom is entirely alien to the teachings of the Scriptures. However, such practices were common among certain Greek sects and Egyptian philosophies (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. ii, pp. 717, 720).

Because of this peculiar belief (which was condemned by the Apostle Paul in Colossians 2:23), the Essenes developed themselves into monastic orders and repudiated marriage (Wars of the Jews, II, 8, 2). In no place does the Scripture command an individual to withdraw into a monastery or nunnery and live a life of celibatic asceticism. In fact, the New Testament commands a person not to deliberately withdraw himself from society (I Cor. 5:9-10) and it teaches that marriage is entirely honorable and holy (Heb. 13:4).


Essenes Worshipped Toward Sun

While the Temple was on earth, the worshippers of God prayed facing the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:28, 29). Daniel prayed three times a day in this manner (Dan. 6:10). The Temple in Jerusalem was designed symbolically, from its origin, to be the residence of God, and the people were to sacrifice at the Temple and pray toward it.

The Essenes, however, omitted two requirements of God which were obvious violations of Scripture. They refused to sacrifice at the Temple, or anywhere for that matter; and they did not face the Temple when they prayed. They worshipped and prayed TOWARDS THE SUN! (Wars of the Jews, ii, 8, 9) This act was strictly forbidden in the Scriptures (Ezekiel 8:15, 16), but nevertheless, the Essenes turned their backs on the Temple and prayed towards the sun.

Relative to this esteem of the sun by the Essenes, Schurer writes that this clearly "leads to the conclusion, that they were in real earnest in their religious estimation of the sun. However this may be, the very turning to the sun in prayer was contrary to Jewish customs and notions, which required the turning to the temple and expressly repudiated the direction towards the sun as HEATHENISH" (The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec ii, vol. ii, p. 213).

To this, Schurer adds:

"Thus are we more and more driven to the view, that foreign influence cooperated in the formation of Essenism" (ibid., p. 214).


Essenism Was Extreme Pharisaicism

It must not be supposed that Essenism, or any of the sects of Judaism, were completely heathen in doctrines in all respects. This was not the case! What existed was a combining or a blending of pagan doctrines with certain teachings of the Scripture. The Essenes kept the Sabbath, circumcision, and many of the other customs common to the Jews. They also kept many of the traditional laws of the Pharisees. We are told expressly by Schurer (ibid., p. 209) that the rigid religious legalism of the Essenes and their punctillious care for ceremonial cleanness, were genuinely Pharisaic in origin.

The Essenes were, however, not a part of the popular Pharisee sect. They were entirely separate and on their own. They may, however, have represented a group that began as, a division of the Pharisaic sect and broke away early after the religious anarchy ended. For even though there were many doctrinal differences between the two sects, there were certain similarities. Schurer again tells us: "Essenism then is in the first place merely Pharisaicism in the superlative degree" (ibid).

The sect of the Essenes were actually more rigorous and exacting (if that were possible) than the Pharisees as a whole. They even went beyond the Pharisaic commandments in regard to being ritualistically clean.

"The Essene completely separated himself from the multitude and formed exclusive societies, in which similarity of disposition and endeavor afforded the possibility of realizing the ideal of a life of absolute ceremonial cleanness" (ibid., pp. 210, 211).

Thus, this extreme Pharisaicism led to asceticism and their other peculiar customs that most Jews completely disavowed. The Essenes went quite a bit farther than the Pharisees in accepting, outright, many of the customs of the heathen they learned while under Hellenistic influences.

"The doctrines of the Essenes were, however, tinged by foreign influence. In their neglect of the Temple sacrifices, and in their condemnation of wedlock, they departed from the full observance of the Law. . . . They also approached the Egyptian school in their allegorical interpretation of many parts of Scripture" (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 210).

There is no question that the Essenes were recipients of many pagan doctrines — and many of them came from Egyptian Hellenism. Schurer again tells us that Essenism represents "a Judaism of quite peculiarly blended ultra-Pharisaic and Alexandrian views [and] appears in alliance with Pythagoreanism [a pagan philosophy] and with many rites of Egyptian priests" (ibid., p. 208).

It is clear that Egyptian Hellenism, the Greek philosophies inherited by Egypt, was the primary influence upon the Essene doctrines. Their teachings were certainly far from those of Moses.

"So Essenism can be understood only when regarded as a blending of Jewish and Greek ideas" (Ency. Biblica, col. 2011).


The Truth About the Pharisees

Like the Essenes, many of the Pharisees had adopted the pagan belief in the immortality of the soul (Wars of the Jews, II, 8, 14). This doctrine is plainly recognized by scholars, as has been shown above, to have come from heathenism, not from Scripture.

However, it seems as if the Pharisees were not willing to go as far as the Essenes in its complete pagan interpretation. Some of the Pharisees seem to have had certain reservations concerning the new doctrine. Josephus, himself a Pharisee and thoroughly acquainted with their doctrines, makes a vague distinction between the Pharisee belief and that of the Essenes. He says the Pharisees believed in an "immortal vigor" to be in the body; while the Essenes believed outright in the "immortality of the soul" (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 3 & 4).

There seems to have been doubts in the minds of some Pharisees in regard to this doctrine. However, it appears certain that most of them believed in it, but with varying degrees of interpretation.

Of course, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not taught in the Scripture. In fact, the Scripture teaches just the opposite. For example, we read in Ezekiel 18:4, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." See also verse 21. Clearly, a soul can die! And also, the New Testament teaches that only Christ has now immortality — no other man has (I Tim. 6:15, 16).


Who Were the Apocalyptists

In the second installment of this series mention was made of other minor religious sects which have been called by our modern historians by the name Apocalyptists. The name denotes those who supposedly reveal "hidden truths" or "secret doctrines."

There are extant several books written by these minor sects, or perhaps only by individuals, which show their peculiar beliefs or their prophetical expectations. These sects certainly differed from the major groups of Judaism. And they assuredly do not represent any large religious movements among the Jews.

"The Apocalyptic literature certainly represents an element in the Judaism of its time, but it was an element of very minor importance compared with those [the Pharisees, etc] in which lay the real vitality and strength of Judaism. It is a fundamental mistake to suppose that the Apocalyptic literature can explain what Judaism really stood for, in that or any other age" (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 11).

The writings of these few individuals or religious sects were completely rejected by the Jews. Some of the reasons for their rejection by the other sects is because they were obviously contradictory with one another in many ways; they were at variance with the popular teaching of the Scriptures.

All of the writings of these Apocalyptists were written during or sometime after the period of the religious anarchy. Some were written even as late as the First Century A.D.

Their teachings on the whole, while having a Jewish basis, reflect men's opinions and ideas which were absorbed from Hellenism. The teachings of the various books are extremely diverse. Strong elements of Hellenism are found in some, and in others to a lesser degree (Ency. Biblica, col. 2010, 2011).

There is no question that some of their teachings, even the manner in which some of them wrote, were directly influenced by Egyptian and Syrian Hellenism. Their teachings represent those of some individual teachers who, after the religious anarchy, began to teach their own religious beliefs independent of the Pharisees, but nonetheless, equally as erroneous.

"Traces of Syrian Hellenism, which had been implanted among the less educated masses, endured, and the victorious Judean people [after the successful Maccabean Revolt] harbored a growing semi-Hellenized crowd who had neither grasped the pure Hebraic faith nor received the pure Hellenic spirit. This populace [certain leaders among them] fostered the apocalyptic literature with its fantastic and yet somewhat materialistic spirituality, which, while it was largely an expression of the Hebraic mind and a development of the prophetic vision, SHOWS A MARKED IMPRESS OF FOREIGN DOCTRINE" (Bentwich, Hellenism, p. 335).

The principles behind the apocalyptic literature are an infusion of certain Jewish beliefs with Hellenism. All of the writings of these minor sects, or perhaps only individual writers, were quite varied and contradictory.

"The aspect that that literature presents is of so diversified a character that it is difficult to combine all the different elements into one connected whole" (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. iii, p. 1).