The Literature and History of the New Testament (1915) [Lesson 4]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Jewish Background of Christianity


A) About the author of the chapter:

John Gresham Machen “studied at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the universities at Marburg and Göttingen. In 1906 he joined the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary …

He left Princeton in 1929, after the school was reorganized and adopted a more accepting attitude toward liberal Protestantism, and he helped found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

i) Sources

“The New Testament is one of the chief sources of information about the Palestinian Judaism of the first century. Other important sources are the works of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, and the Mishna. The Mishna is a collection of Jewish interpretations of the Mosaic law. In its written form it is thought to have been produced at the end of the second century, but it contains a mass of earlier material which had been preserved by oral tradition.”1

ii) Outline of Jewish History

“Old Testament history closes with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the reorganization of the national life which took place under Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century before Christ. At that time Judah, or “Judea,” was the only part of Palestine which was occupied by the Jews, and they occupied it only as vassals—though with independence in internal affairs—of the kings of Persia.”2

“The Persian dominion continued for over a century. Then, in the latter part of the fourth century before Christ, Judea was conquered by Alexander the Great. For some hundred years after the death of Alexander, the country was a bone of contention between the kings of Egypt and the kings of Syria—that is, between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. At the beginning of the second century before Christ the king of Syria won a permanent victory.”3

“Under the Ptolemies and at first under the Seleucids, as well as under the Persians, the Jews enjoyed a considerable measure of independence in the management of their own affairs … Under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria (175-164 B. C.), however, the policy of toleration was suddenly interrupted. Antiochus tried to stamp out the Jewish religion by force. The result was a heroic uprising led by Mattathias and his sons, who are called the Maccabees.”4

“The Maccabees were at first wonderfully successful against overwhelming odds; and when the opposing forces seemed at last to have become too powerful, internal conflicts at the Syrian court gave the Jewish patriots that independence which they could probably not otherwise have maintained. Rulers belonging to the Maccabean dynasty governed the Jewish nation for about a hundred years, during most of which period they were independent … Unfortunately the worldly power of the Maccabees had brought worldliness of spirit. The first revolt had been undertaken from a lofty religious motive, in order to maintain the worship of Jehovah. As the years went on, the Maccabean rulers became increasingly engrossed in the extension of political power. Allying themselves with the aristocratic party among the Jews, they came to favor the extension of those Greek influences—though not in the sphere of religion—which at first they had opposed. “5

“Under Queen Alexandra (76-67 B. C.) it is true, there was a reaction. The strictly Jewish, anti-Hellenistic party again became dominant. But under Alexandra’s successors there was civil strife, and the all-conquering Romans found the country an easy prey. Pompey took possession of Jerusalem in 63 B. C.

The years that followed saw the gradual rise of the family of Herod the Great, who, as vassal of the Romans, became king of all Palestine in 37 B. C. and ruled until 4 B. C.”6

“At Herod’s death, his territory was divided among his sons. Archelaus was given Judea, Antipas—the “Herod” of Jesus’ public ministry—received Galilee and Perea, with the title of “Tetrarch,” and Philip received certain territories to the east of Galilee. Archelaus was banished in A. D. 6, Antipas was banished in A. D. 39, and Philip died in A. D. 33. After the banishment of Archelaus, Judea was administered by Roman procurators till A. D. 41, when all Palestine was given to Herod Agrippa I. Acts 12:1-4,18-23. After A. D. 44, procurators were again in control.

The misgovernment of the procurators led to the great revolt in A. D. 66. After four years of war, Jerusalem was taken by the Roman army in A. D. 70. The temple was destroyed, and the offering of sacrifices ceased. The destruction of the temple marks an epoch in Jewish history. Henceforth the national center was gone.

There was another uprising in A. D. 132-135, but that was the last. A Gentile city was erected on the ruins of Jerusalem, and for a considerable time at least the Jews were forbidden even to enter its precincts.”7

iii) Administration and Parties

“After the return from the Exile, the priests occupied a position of leadership. The high priest, whose office was hereditary, was practically head of the Jewish state. With him was associated a council, composed of members of the priestly aristocracy. This state of affairs prevailed during the Persian and Greek periods.”8

“Under the Maccabees the power of the high priest reached its highest point. For after a time the Maccabean rulers themselves assumed the title of high priest, and still later the title of king. The high priest, then, under the Maccabees, was also king. Under Herod the Great, on the contrary, the high priesthood sank to its lowest ebb. Herod made and unmade high priests at pleasure.”9

“The council associated with the high priest was, under Alexandra, opened to the members of the strict anti-Hellenistic party. At the time of Christ it included both Pharisees and Sadducees.

These parties became distinct at the time of the Maccabees. The Sadducees—the origin of the name is not altogether clear—were the aristocratic party, hospitable to Greek culture. The Pharisees were the strict Jewish party, devoted to the law, and opposed to foreign influences.”10

“The name “Pharisee” means “separated.” The Pharisees were “separated” from the mass of the people by a stricter observance of the Mosaic law. At first the Pharisees supported the Maccabean leaders; for the Maccabean revolt was in the interests of the Jewish religion. But when the Maccabees became engrossed in worldly politics and susceptible to Greek influences the Pharisees opposed them.”11

iv) Language

“Old Testament passages in Hebrew were read in the synagogue. Hebrew was used also to some extent as the language of learned discussion. But for all ordinary purposes its place had been taken by Aramaic, a language of the Semitic family closely related to Hebrew. At the time of Christ Aramaic was the spoken language of the Palestinian Jews. Even in the synagogues, the Old Testament passages, after having been read in Hebrew, were translated orally into the language which the people could understand.”12

“But, since the time of Alexander the Great, another language had made its way into Palestine along with Aramaic. This was the Greek. The kingdoms into which Alexander’s empire was divided were Greek kingdoms … With the Greek government came Greek culture and the Greek language.”13

“In other spheres, however, under the Maccabean kings and still more under the Romans, Greek culture effected an entrance. At the time of Christ there were typical Greek cities not only to the east of the Jordan in Decapolis, where magnificent ruins even to-day attest the ancient Greco-Roman civilization, and not only along the coast of the Mediterranean, but even within the confines of Palestine proper. With some truth Palestine in the first century may be called a bilingual country. Greek and Aramaic were both in use.

Aramaic was the language of the mass of the people.”14

“As is proved by the presence of Aramaic words even in our Greek Gospels, Aramaic was undoubtedly the language in which the gospel was originally proclaimed.”15

“It is perfectly possible, however, that even Jesus may have used Greek upon rare occasions, for example in conversation with Pilate, the Roman procurator. His disciples, after the resurrection, found themselves at the head of a Greek-speaking community. The early Church in Jerusalem was composed not only of “Hebrews,” but also of “Grecians,” or Hellenists [Acts 6:1]. The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews of the dispersion who were sojourning more or less permanently in the holy city.”16

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