Yeshua’s Youth

Yeshua grew up in a devout Jewish family in the strongly religious region of Galilee.

Read Luke 2:40-52

At the beginning of Archelaus’ reign over Judea he was faced with sedition by some of the Pharisees, incensed at a despised Samaritan ruling over them, and crushed it with great severity.  This incited increasing anger and hatred among the general population, strengthening the hand of Bet Shammai and reinforcing their fear of all those associated with Rome.

Life in Galilee…

It was in the district of Galilee, under the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, that Yeshua grew up among this strongly religious and culturally conservative rural Jewish population. The name “Galilee” comes from the Hebrew word galil which means “circle” or “region”. The region of Galilee in the first century CE was encircled by Syro-Phoenicia stretching along the eastern Mediterranean coastline and northwards, by Gaulanitis to the north-east, by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis to the south-east, and by Samaria to the south which separated Galilee geographically from Judea.

Even though Galilee was encircled by Greek-speaking pagan cities, Scythopolis, Hippos, Caesarea, Philippi and Kadesh, and was under the authority of Greek-speaking rulers, most Galileans spoke Aramaic, or possibly Hebrew. Archaeologists have found only a few Greek inscriptions in the villages of upper Galilee, most being Aramaic/Hebrew, and there is little clear evidence Greek was spoken in the villages of lower Galilee. In first-century Galilee, Greek was mainly the language of those with political and administrative power. The evidence shows that it only made serious inroads in the second century CE, while Latin is virtually unattested in the region. In general, it seems that first-century Galilee was not as Hellenised as Judea, possibly because most Galileans were rural dwellers.

Herod the Great’s building programs had not reached into this area and it was without the Greco-Roman architecture prominent in other districts.  His son, Herod Antipas, focused on building up this district. He was not as cruel or capricious as his father or elder brother. He was an able leader and sought the good will of the Galileans so did not antagonise their sensibilities by building ostensibly Hellenistic or Roman structures. Antipas’ reign brought a period of peace and calm with no significant violent conflicts recorded between him and his subjects.  He completely rebuilt the city of Sepphoris, only 4 miles from Nazareth, where Yeshua grew up, and made it his capitol.  Galilee, however, remained without the common icons of Greco-Roman culture: no amphitheatre, no gymnasium, no stadium and no nymphaeum (large, elaborately decorated fountain).  The only public buildings were the synagogues.  Yet, while not forcing Hellenism on the independent and deeply religious Galileans, Antipas showed little interest in adopting their personal piety or living according to Torah


Jews were the only people in the ancient world who made educating your children a religious requirement.

Galilee surpassed even Judea in its schools of learning, and most of the famous rabbis of Yeshua’s day were from Galilee (Johnanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Doda, Abba Yose Holikufri, Zadok, Halaphta, and Hananian ben Teradyon).   Yet socially Galileans were considered simple rural folk who spoke a backward dialect.   Yeshua’s education in Judaism, like that of all children of pious Jewish families, began at home as a way of life, every aspect of which was governed by Torah and the increasing regulations that the Pharisees were adding to it.  At five years of age Yeshua would have joined the Bet Sefer (House of the Book) in the local synagogue, to begin his formal studies.  There the young children learned to read, write and memorise the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) over the next five years.  It is contested whether girls also attended the Bet Sefer.  (1) (2) 

And the child grew and became strong; He was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him.    Luke 2:40 NIV

Schooling in 1st Century Judaism

All Jewish boys attended two levels of schooling in their local synagogue.  From ages 5 – 9 they attended Beit Sefer (House of the Book) and from 10 – 14yo they attended ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning).   Very different teaching styles were used for the two different age groups.

On the first day of Beit Sefer the teacher asked each student to lift up their slate. Then he put some honey on each slate. He then asked the children to lick off the honey from their slate. While they did, the teacher quoted from Psalm 119:103 “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! [yea, sweeter] than honey to my mouth!   The teacher or scribe read from the Torah in Hebrew, and when needed an interpreter, known as the meturganim (one skilled in languages), then shouted the scripture back in Aramaic so the children could repeat it in their spoken tongue.   Scripture was often chanted musically to help with memorisation.  The expression “the chirping of children” referred to what people heard when walking past the synagogue as the children were reciting their verses in song.  In eastern education repetition was the key to learning and these early years of schooling involved continual repetition as the words of the scripture had to be firmly implanted before the meaning could be explored.   Lessons took place every day of the week, including Shabbat (Sabbath –ie from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), the difference being that no new material was presented on this day, they just repeated what they had been learning through the week.  As it was the Pharisees who had a passion for all the boys of the Jewish masses to be educated in Torah, they were the ones who organised and ran these Synagogue schools throughout Israel and the diaspora.

The next stage of Jewish education was ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning) for boys aged 10-14.  At home they were also learning their father’s trade during this time. In ‘Beit-Talmud’ Yeshua and his classmates memorised the rest of the Tanakh ( תַּנַ״ךְ, Hebrew Bible) and learnt the art of rhetorical debating of questions and answers, as they also begun studying the Mishna (Oral Law) and interpretations.  Instead of giving a rote answer that was simply learned as knowledge, the young Hebrew pre-teen had to give thought to the question and then answered the question with another question.  (3) (4) (5)

It was this training that prepared Yeshua for his visit to the temple for the “fulfilling of the commandments”when he was 12 years old.  After the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D. this was replaced in Jewish culture with what we know today, the Bar Mitzvah – a formal ceremony where a Jewish boy, at the age of 13, transforms from a boy into a man, having the full religious rites and responsibilities of an adult male.   (6) (7) 

12yo Yeshua in the Temple…

His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. Luke 2:41-45 HNV

A pilgrimage from the Galilee to the Temple in Jerusalem was so expensive and time-consuming that many pious Jews did not make it every year, some only once in a lifetime.  Although Exodus 23:17, 34:23 and Deut 16:6 all command every Jewish male to appear before the Lord three times a year – for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), schools of Pharisees had re-interpreted the scriptures to mean that pilgrimage was associated with these festivals and ruled that “to appear” meant instead that when one made a pilgrimage they were to bring an “appearance” sacrifice to the Temple and not come empty handed (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:6)  (8) (9).    Joseph and Mary were both exceptionally devout in making this long pilgrimage every year, and it appears that they took the scriptures much more literally than the ‘sages’ of their day whose rulings are recorded in the Mishnah.

When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Yeshua stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him.      Luke 2:42-45 HNV

As Matthew 1:25 records, Joseph had no union with Mary until she gave birth to Yeshua.  Once Mary had gone through her ritual purification from childbirth and the associated bleeding, she and Joseph fulfilled the final part of their nissuin (wedding) – the consummation of their marriage.  From this point on they continued to fulfil the Biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).  Scripture describes Yeshua as having four brothers – James, Joseph (Joses), Jude and Simon – and some sisters (Matthew 12:46-50 & 13:55-56; Mark 3:31 & 6:3; Luke 8:19; John 2:12 & 7:3; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; and Galatians 1:19).  It is possible that His family travelling to Jerusalem for this special occasion included up to six younger siblings on this occasion.  For Mary and Joseph to be focused on the care of the younger, more vulnerable, ones as they started travelling back home and assumed that the eldest was with the wider group of their relatives and neighbours would not have been unusual.  They had undertaken this journey for the last 12 years and Yeshua had never given them any cause for concern before.

It happened after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the rabbis, both listening to them, and asking them questions.  All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:46-47 HNV

There is intriguing speculation that Yeshua may have been talking with Hillel and/or Shammai during these three days in the temple, but it is more likely that it was with younger rabbis who had been trained by them.   They were clearly engaging in the rhetorical debate in which every Jewish boy was trained.   What was remarkable in these exchanges was not that Yeshua engaged in such debate, but the depth of understanding he demonstrated with the questions that he answered them with.  Also of note was that such discussions were more important to him, as a 12 year old, than all the attractions a large city like Jerusalem would have for a boy from rural Galilee.  When his parents eventually found him Yeshua’s response to his mother carried a strong sense of identity and divine mission even at this age:

He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”    Luke 2:49 HNV

Most Jewish young men continued working in their father’s trade to help support their family after their “fulfilling of the commandments” in Jerusalem. 

Tertiary Education in 1st Century Judaism

Only the most gifted scholars went on to ‘Beit Midrash’ (House of Study) after reaching 13-15 years of age, in order to train to become a scribe or rabbi.    To do so the young man needed to find a rabbi that he respected and request to become his תלמידם – talmid (disciple).  Rabbis did not usually go and seek out their own talmidim (disciples); they were few in numbers and their prestige and honour was such that ambitious young men came to them requesting admittance into their Beit Midrash.  It was important that the talmid follow the teachings of their particular rabbi because each rabbi carried different interpretations of the Tanakh ( תַּנַ״ךְ, Hebrew Bible) and Mishna (Oral Law).  If a rabbi thought that the prospective talmid was worthy of consideration, he would quiz him to see how committed he was, how well he knew the Tanakh and Mishna and how well he was able to put it to debate in line with the interpretations of that particular rabbi.  The testing was gruelling. Critical thinking and the art of answering questions with questions were heavily engaged.  

If the young man passed, and the rabbi thought he had it in him to become a scribe or a rabbi like himself, he was then told to “take my yoke upon you.”  Those were the words that every Jewish young man ambitious to enter into the Beth-Midrash longed to hear.  He was now accepted into higher education. To take his rabbi’s yoke meant the talmid (disciple) was willing to take on that rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah as his own, become his student in all aspects of life, and do all the work that was required ahead of him in learning how to live the Torah in the exact same way that his rabbi lived it. The young man was then obliged to leave his father, mother, synagogue, community, and family business to devote his life to following his rabbi – everywhere. Rabbis demanded honours of first rank, even surpassing those bestowed on parents.  If the rabbi travelled, his talmadim (disciples) travelled with him. Every detail of the rabbi’s life was copied, including his walk, talk, and mannerisms. The rabbi’s job was to teach his students along the way, testing them continuously, to become just like himself.  There is a prayer that comes from the Mishnah that says: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi,” meaning you followed your rabbi so closely that you get covered with the dust his sandals flung up as he walked, which was considered a great honour.  

Although we cannot categorically say that He did not, there is no evidence that Yeshua took this next step of formal education, even though His performance in the temple proved that He was eminently qualified to do so in terms of ability.   Yeshua may have felt that to commit to taking another rabbi’s yolk (interpretations) upon Himself as His own was not compatible with His mission of bringing a distinctly heavenly perspective to Torah.   There may also have been more earthly considerations.  We know from scripture that Yeshua had at least six siblings, all younger than himself.  The evidence of scripture also suggests that Mary’s husband, Joseph, had died before Yeshua began his ministry.  If Joseph died while Yeshua was a teenager, then as the oldest son He would have taken responsibility for His mother and younger siblings, providing for them until the youngest had finished their education and was able to provide for themselves, and then ensuring that His mother would have her needs cared for before He left to begin His ministry.   Doing this as His first priority, in honouring His father and mother, could have meant that Yeshua aged out of being eligible to study with a rabbi before he was relieved of this family responsibility.  What would have been considered in that society as unfortunate for a talented young man like Yeshua was in actuality part of the Father’s perfect plan for the Son to live and teach His own, and not another rabbi’s, interpretation of the scriptures. (4) (10)

Yeshua’s later teaching supports this:

And He said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions!  For Moses said, “Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’  But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is ‘Corban’ (that is, devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.  Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”     Mark 7:9-13a NIV

Anti-Semitism and Hellenization …

There were many other currents in the surrounding society as Yeshua was growing up.  Anti-Semitism and Hellenization were clashing with traditional Judaism and the proselytization of their heathen neighbours even while the two dominant schools within pharisaic Judaism were engaged in increasingly bitter conflict with one another.  All of these were shaping the world that He was preparing to minister to.   

Anti-Semitism in the 1st Century

Anti-Semitism already had deep roots in the prevailing Greeco-Roman culture. History wars were continuing between Jews and Egyptians while culture wars raged between religious Jews and Hellenists. The political and philosophical concern for tolerance, sociability and co-operative citizenship was a central feature of the Hellenistic era as the founding of new cities, the new mobility of populations, and the cultural mixing among the civic elite created new ‘virtues’ and their corresponding vices.  Thus the Jewish virtue of remaining faithful to their God and culture, preserving themselves as a distinct people, was to Hellenistic thinking a terrible vice which Plato had designated as a sign of feral character.  The dominant culture of the time demanded mutual acceptance and respect for others’ gods and customs, along with reciprocal hospitality. These were considered the fundamental social virtues supported by the Stoic notions of a universal humanity.  They lay in stark contrast to the Pharisees’ Essenes’, Hasidim’s or Zealot’s way of life and teachings about the need to be separate from the gentiles, to worship only Yahweh as God, observe the Jewish dietary laws, refrain from participating in other’s religious practices and keep pure from intermarriage.  By Roman times the worst vice and most unpardonable sin in the eyes of the dominant culture was that committed by the Jews, wherever they were found throughout the empire, of social aloofness and failure to integrate into the pagan civic life of the rest of the population.  The Jews thus became the antitype of the values of tolerance and social reciprocity considered in Hellenism as necessary for the well-being of civilization as a whole. (11) (12)

Apion (25 BC – 48 AD), a Hellenized Egyptian grammarian, sophist, and commentator on Homer, rose to prominence in Alexandria.  He was renowned for his exceptional oratory skills, his vast knowledge, his ostentatious vanity and his bitter hatred for the Jews.  Apion was consciously part of a Graeco-Roman anti-Jewish intellectual tradition that had included Manetho, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Cicero, Horace, Hecataeus, Chaeremon, Lysimachus and Tacitus. Over the centuries a set of standard charges had been developed to lay at the door of the Jews.  These included that their ancestors were lowly, leprous and diseased slaves who ate animals that represented the gods and thus angered them, causing the Egyptians to drive them out of their country.  Jews were depicted as carriers of disease, physically, intellectually and culturally inferior, antisocial, and as atheists who denied the gods.  Circumcision was a constant subject for coarse jokes. Sabbath-observance described as an indulgence in idleness, only the upper classes of other peoples had any such indulgence.  Also causing particular angst with their neighbours was the Jewish attitude of superiority, social separation from non-Jews, rejection of all the pagan religions, proselytization and efforts to replace Greek and Roman laws with Jewish ones.   Apion was a master at inciting hatred for ‘the other’ and worked to rouse the fanaticism of the populace against the Jews by coming up with additional charges against them.  “Every year”, he said, “it was the practice of the Jews to get hold of some unfortunate Hellene, fatten him for the year and then to sacrifice him, partaking of his entrails and burying his body, while during these horrible rites they took a fearful oath of perpetual enmity to all other peoples”.   Under such influence the educated Roman regarded the Jew with a mixture of contempt and hatred, bitter that this despised race confronted him everywhere, with a religion so uncompromising as to form a wall of separation, and with rites so exclusive as to make them not only strangers but enemies. Yet still Romans were turning to Judaism in increasing numbers, even among the elites, and this aroused even greater fear and suspicion among the populist masses.  Apion’s orations roused the citizens of Alexandria to riot against the Jews, attacking individuals, homes and businesses. (13) (14) (15) (16) (11)

Philo Judaeus (25 BCE – 50 CE), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher from one of the leading Jewish families in Alexander, also rose to prominence at this time.   When Apion led a delegation from Alexander to disparage the Jews to Caesar it was Philo who led the Jewish delegation to clear their name and seek Roman protection from the riots incited against them.  Philo is considered the epitome of how intellectual Jews of the Dispersion, isolated from Palestine and their native culture, allowed Hellenistic influences to shape their theology and philosophy.  He tried to fuse and harmonize ancient Greek philosophy and Judaism, using a composite of Jewish exegesis and the art of allegory he had learned from Stoic philosophy. Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture with a superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as “the most holy Plato” (Prob.13). Philo’s philosophy represented contemporary Platonism which was its revised version incorporating Stoic doctrine and terminology, as well as elements of Aristotelian logic and ethics and Pythagorean ideas.  Philo put forward the teachings of Moses, as “the summit of philosophy” (Op. 8), and followed the earlier Hellenistic Jewish tradition of considering Moses to be the teacher of Pythagoras and of all Greek philosophers and lawgivers. For Philo, Greek philosophy was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses.  

Philo attempted to achieve a twofold purpose through his writings:

  1. He endeavoured to justify the Jewish religion to the cultured people of Greco-Roman society. In view of the deterioration of pagan society and religion, he had a splendid opportunity to portray the Jewish faith as fulfilling ‘the desire of all nations.’
  2. He tried to show and persuade his strict coreligionists that Greek philosophy and learning were not actually hostile and opposed to the tenets of the Hebrew religion but that each stood for practically identical principles.

Philo thus adopted an eclectic viewpoint, one in which he blended the theological concepts of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) with Greek philosophical principles.   .   (17) (18) (19) (20)

Middot – Hillel’s Seven Rules for Biblical Interpretation

Such synthesis of scripture and Greek philosophy was abhorred in Judea.  The Tanakh was to be interpreted with reference to itself and the thinking of the great Jewish sages, not to Greek philosophy.  Hillel (60 BC – 10-20 AD?) established seven rules of biblical interpretation called middot (measures / norms). These rules aim at moving from peshat (literal sense) to remez (legally binding principle) for applying Torah to everyday live.  They were exemplified in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures) and, being the ‘norm’ for scriptural interpretation in Israel during NT times were used by both Yeshua and the NT writers. They did not, however, ensure unanimity of interpretation.  Hillel’s Seven Rules were:
1. Kal vachomer” (light and heavy / minor and major).  What applies to a less important case will certainly apply in a more important case.  A kal vahomer argument is often, but not always, signalled by a phrase like “how much more…”  Tenach examples include: Prov. 11:31, Jeremiah 12:5a, Jer. 12:5b, Deut. 31:27, 1 Sam. 23:3, Ezekiel 15:5 & Esther 9:12.  Examples of Yeshua’s use include: Mt. 6:26,30, Lk 11:13, Mt. 12:11-12, Jn 7:23, Mt. 10:25, Jn 15:18-20 and Jn 7:23.   Shaul (Paul) studied under Hillel’s grandson, Gamilel, and also frequently used kal vahomer (eg. Rom. 5:8-9, 10, 15, 17; 11:12, 24; 1Cor. 9:11-12, 12:22; 2Cor. 3:7-9, 11; Philippians 2:12; Philemon 1:16; Heb. 2:2-3; 9:13-14; 10:28-29; 12:9, 25.)  
2. Gezerah shavah” (equivalence of expressions).  If the same word occurs in two Biblical passages, then the law applying in the one should be applied to the other.  Tenakh example: By comparing 1 Samuel 1:10 to Judges 13:5 using the phrase “no razor shall touch his head” we may conclude that Samuel, like Samson, was a nazarite. This found far less use in the NT.  We have the opening of Mark’s gospel where he links Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) through the shared term “way” (1:2-3) and Mat. 15:1-9 where Yeshua links Exo 20:12 & 21:17 about honouring father and mother.

3. Binyan ab mikathub echad” (building up a “family” from a single text). One explicit passage is used as a foundation or starting point so as to constitute a rule for all similar passages or cases.

4. Binyab ab mishene kethubim” (building up a “family” from two or more texts). A principle is established by relating two texts together: The principle can then be applied to other passages.  The writer of Hebrews uses these two in establishing principles for blood and showing the Messiah to be of a higher order than angels.

5. Kelal uferat” (the general and the specific).  A general principle may be restricted by a particularization of it in another verse – or, conversely, a particular rule may be extended into a general principle. A Tenach example: Genesis 1:27 makes the general statement that God created man. Genesis 2:7, 21 particularizes this by giving the details of the creation of Adam and Chava (Eve).
6. Kayotze bo mimekom akhar” (analogy made from another passage).  Two passages may seem to conflict until a third resolves the conflict. Examples from the Tenach: Lev 1:1 & Ex. 25:22 resolved by Num. 7:89; 2Sam. 24:9 & 1Chr. 21:5 resolved by 1Chr. 27:1.  In Romans Shaul (Paul) uses Gen. 15:6 to resolve Ps. 62:12 & Ps. 32:1-2.

7. Davar hilmad me’anino” (explanation obtained from context). The total context, not just the isolated statement must be considered for an accurate exegesis.

The men who penned the Brit Chadasha (New Testament) participated in the Hebraic thought pattern of the sages and rabbis of their time period in interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures.   From Hillel’s rules for interpretation we can see three fundamental principles in Torah hermeneutics: logic, analogy and comparison.  These were the underpinnings of all Tenach interpretation by the Jewish sages and Torah scholars, including Yeshua and the NT writers.  In contrast, Hellenistic thinking reduced everything to logical interpretation alone and so lost much of the richness of the Hebraic way of thinking and Torah understanding. (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27)

Jewish evangelism …

This was also a time of Jewish proselytization.   The prophets during the exile had brought a greater emphasis on the reality that God is not just a tribal God of the Israelite nation but a universal God of all humanity.   With this emphasis on Judaism as a universal faith, formal proselytization developed, especially through the dominant Pharisaic school, Bet Hillel.  Jewish teachings and ways exerted a fascination among both the aristocracy and the common people of the Roman Empire and their proselytization was so successful that ten percent of the population became Jewish. (28)

Change in Leadership Over Judea…

After ruling for 10 years with a brutality rivalling that of his father, but without his father’s nation-building capacity, Archelaus was removed by the emperor Augustus in 6 A.D. and replaced by a Roman Prefect.  Ananias, son of Seth, was appointed by the Roman legate Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judaea that same year.  Ananias officially served as High Priest for ten years (6–15 CE), when at the age of 36 he was deposed by the procurator Gratus.  He remained as one of the nation’s most influential political and social individuals, aided greatly by the use of his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas as High Priests.  There are Talmudic references to the unworthiness of the High Priests during this period. (29) (30) (31)

Origins of Tax Collectors…

After the banishment of Archelaus, the Roman procurator, Coponius, attempted to directly tax the Jews and ordered a strict census for that purpose. B oth major pharisaic schools, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai protested. They stigmatised the new measure as being so outrageous as to justify all schemes by which it might be evaded.   Both schools also promoted abhorrence of every Jew who was officially concerned in carrying it out – even their testimony before any Jewish court was deemed worthless.

Hatred of “the other”…

In this atmosphere of heightened discontent with Roman rule Judas of Galilee (son of Hezekiah whom Herod had executed) and Zadok, of the Shammai school, united in forging the Zealots into a significant political league whose objective was to oppose by every means the practice of Roman laws and exercise of Roman governance.  ‘Hatred of the other’, primarily directed at the Romans but broadened to include all Gentiles, gained the ascendency and with it Bet Shammai gained political ascendency over Bet Hillel.  Viewed through this lens, anyone who fraternized with Gentiles was compromising the purity of God’s people, corrupting the holy Torah and unworthy of any respect.   An incident is recorded of Hillel going up to the temple to offer a burnt offering and being accosted by several students of Shammai.   Rather than risk confrontation in the very Temple courtyard, Hillel offered a lie that they accepted and moved off (b.Betazh 20a).  These two houses of Pharisees grew so bitterly opposed to each other that even in public worship they would no longer unite under one roof. (32)

The Eighteen Articles and a Violent Shift of Power within the Pharisees

In order to build a sufficient fence around the Torah to maintain Jewish purity the Shammaites and Zealots proposed a more strict interpretation of the laws of purity and association.  Known as “The Eighteen Articles”, these measures included prohibiting the Jews from buying any article of food or drink from their heathen neighbours.  The Shammaites placed such significance of ritual purification of the hands before eating, after the manner of the priest’s purification before serving at the altar, that one who ate bread without engaging in this ritual washing of his hands was considered “as if he had sexual relations with a whore”.  It needs to be understood that for the Jews ritual purification was not about washing dirt off but was an additional ritual washing after the hands, or item, were physically clean in order to demonstrate one’s spiritual purity.  Another example of adding more stringent articles to the rules of ritual purity related to objects which had become ritually unclean.  Now even melting metal objects down and using the molten metal to make new objects was deemed to be insufficient to remove their ritual uncleanliness if they had been forged by a gentile. 

The Hillelites were not in agreement with such sharply defined exclusiveness or such rigidly applied ritual purity laws that would have the effect of splintering the people even more than they already were, to the point where even a Pharisees could not eat with other Pharisees.   They could see the detrimental economic effects of such trade restrictions and also the difficulties such would pose for continuing their proselytizing of the Gentiles if all contact with them was prohibited.

The Sanhedrin was basically a democratic body, so with both the Sadducees and the Hillelites against their new measures there was little chance of the Shammaites and Zealots getting them passed into Jewish law as things stood.   Eleazar ben Ananias conceived a plot to change the way things stood.  He invited the disciples of both schools of Pharisees (Hillel & Shammai) to meet at his house. Armed men were stationed at the door, and instructed to permit everyone to enter, but no one to leave. During the discussions that were carried on under these circumstances, many Hillelites are said to have been killed with swords and spears; and there and then the remainder adopted the Shammaites’ Eighteen Articles.  On account of the violence which attended those enactments, and because of the radicalism of the enactments themselves, the day on which the Shammaites thus triumphed over the Hillelites was later regarded as a day of misfortune (Tosef., Shab. i. 16 et seq.; Shab. 13a, 17a; Yer. Shab. i. 3c). 

Many of the measures had been repealed by the time Rabbi Judah HaNasi penned the Mishnah, but while the Shammaites retained the ascendancy (which now lasted until after the destruction of the second temple) these measures remained fixed in the Jewish law. It was now unlawful for the Jew even ‘to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.’  To quarrel with this was to find fault with “the law” and the religion which made one a Jew. 

With this increasing polarisation of society the radical centre of Bet Hillel had shrunk from a broad way that carried most of the people to an endangered narrow path, under threat from both Romans and Zealots.  When Hillel died, sometime between 10 and 20 AD, the leadership of Bet Hillel passed to his son, but the leadership of the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin was now firmly in the hands of the stringent separatist Shammai. (33) (34)

New Capital for Galilee…

In 18 AD, Antipas built the city of Tiberias to replace Sepphoris as his capital. He named it to honour the Roman Emperor who was his close friend and patron. The urban cities built by Antipas were cosmopolitan and opulent, and quite unlike the traditional towns of Galilee. Furthermore, the city of Tiberias had been built over a cemetery making it “unclean” for Jews.   Interestingly, the gospels never recount that Yeshua, a devout Jew, travelled to either Tiberias or Sepphoris, even though Sepphoris is only a few kilometres, and even visible, from the village of Nazareth where he spent his childhood. (1)

The stage was now set for this much needed reform to begin.  A reform that would be, as the Gospel of Matthew keeps reminding us, a fulfilling of God’s purposes for Israel.

Reference List

1. Galilee in the First Century CE. New Life. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
2. Chancey, Mark A. How Jewish Was Jesus’ Galilee? s.l. : Biblical Archaelogy Society, 2008.
3. Stolebarger, Dan. Discipleship vs. Talmidim. Koinonia House. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
4. Erickson, Joyce A. 2-Jesus as Rabbi-Jewish Roots. The Online Bible School. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
5. Bivin, Roy B. Blizzard and David. Study Shows Jesus as Rabbi. Bible Scholars. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
6. Rabbi and Talmidim. That the World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 18th Sept. 2016.] .
7. Bivin, Roy B. Blizzard and David. Study Shows Jesus as Rabbi. Bible Scholars – Question the Answers. [Online] May 2013. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
8. Safrai, Shmuel. Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] Sept/Oct 1989. [Cited: 3rd November 2019.]
9. Safrai, Chana. Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and their Child Prodigy. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] [Cited: 3rd November 2019.]
10. Andrews, Samuel James. How Many Brothers and Sisters Did Jesus Have – The Life of our Lord on Earth. [Online] [Cited: 5th Aug 2019.]
11. Armin Lange, K.F.Diethard Römheld, Matthias Weigold. Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History. Oakville : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.
12. Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews.
13. Radl, Karl. Apion of Alexandria on the Jews (Part I). Semitic Controversies A Daily Blog About Jews and Judaism. [Online] 2nd Oct. 2012. [Cited: 2nd Oct. 2016.]
14. Kohler, Kaufmann. APION. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 2nd Oct. 2016.]
15. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Ml: : Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1886.
16. Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, Henry Louis Gates. Dictionary of African Biography, Volume 6. New Tork : Oxford University Press, 2012.
17. Hillar, Marian. Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.—40 C.E.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
18. Kirby, Peter. Philo of Alexandria. Early Jewish Writings. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
19. Mastin, Luke. By Individual Philosopher >Philo of Alexandria. The Basics of Philosophy. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
20. Nash, Ronald. Was the New Testament Influenced by Philo? CRI. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
21. DelHousaye, John. Hillel’s Seven Rules of Interpretation. Academia. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
22. Louis Jacobs, David Derovan. HERMENEUTICS. Jewish Virtual Librry. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
23. What are the seven middoth (Hillel’s rules for interpretation)? Biblical Hermeneutics. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
24. The Seven Rules of Hillel, and the Thirteen Rules of Ishmael. Upper Biblical Studies for All. [Online] 6th Dec. 2013. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
25. Chapter 10: Hillel’s Seven Principles of Bible Interpretation. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
26. Trimm, Dr. James. The Seven Rules of Hillel. Nazarene Space. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
27. Trimm, James. HHMI Newsgroup Archives. Hebraic Heritage Ministries International. [Online] 2011. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
28. Apple, Rabbi Dr Raymond. Jewish attitudes to Gentiles in the First Century. OZ Torah. [Online] [Cited: 15th Nov. 2016.]
29. Greene, T.E. Timeline. Tegworlds Total Context. [Online] 2nd Feb. 2016. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
30. Biblical Archaelogy Society Staff. Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse. Bible History Daily. [Online] 29th Nov. 2015. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
31. Jacobs, Rabbi Louis. High Priest Head of all priests had special rights and privileges. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 5th Oct. 2016.]
32. Marcus Jastrow, S. Mendelsohn. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 9th Sept. 2016.]
33. Bugg, Rabbi Mikha’el (Michael). The Eighteen Measures, Part 2: Another Upper Room. Return of Benjamin. [Online] [Cited: 9th Sept. 2016.]
34. —. The Eighteen Measures, Part 3: The Measures and Ritual Purity. The Return of Benjamin. [Online] [Cited: 9th Sept 2016.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* How did the Jewish school system prepare the people to hear Jesus’ message?
* In what ways is your schooling system like it was in Nazareth, and in what ways is it different? What impact do you think that has on the children’s learning, moral and spiritual development?
* Why were the people in Galilee, and especially in Nazareth looked down on?
* Why would God have chosen that place for Jesus to grow up?
* In what ways is your community like Nazareth, and in what ways is it different to Nazareth?
* Is there ‘hatred of the other’ in your community? If so, which people are hated, and how do you think Jesus would relate to them?

Second Temple Period under Roman Rule until Messiah (63 BC – 1BC)

Read Matthew 1 & Luke 1

Rome was now expanding towards the east, and in the year 64 BC Pompey entered Damascus. The Jews sent three delegations: first from Hyrcanus with gifts to try to secure Roman allegiance for his rule; then from Aristobulus with gifts to try to secure Roman allegiance for his rule; and then from the Sanhedrin, who requested Pompey ignore both brothers and appoint the Sanhedrin to run the country. All three groups apparently agreed that some type of Roman intervention would be welcomed, which emboldened Pompey in his conquest.

The fourth beast was so unlike any of the others that it is not even described as being like any animal but simply described as terrifying, frightening and very powerful with large iron teeth that “crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.” (Daniel 7:7 NIV).   In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream the fourth kingdom is described as “legs of iron” (Daniel 2:33a). 

The fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron, because iron breaks in pieces and subdues all things; and as iron that crushes all these, shall it break in pieces and crush. Daniel 2:40 WEB

Picture of the 4th beast

Another distinctive of this fourth kingdom is that none of Daniel’s visions name it.  Nebuchadnezzar is clearly named as ruler over the first kingdom (Daniel 2:37-38).  The second is named as the kings of Media and Persia in Daniel 8:20.   The third is named as Greece in Daniel 8:21-22 and Daniel 10:20.   But none of Daniel’s visions name who this fourth kingdom will be – that is left to the speculation of the reader.   And much speculation there was among Jews who eagerly searched the scriptures for the time of the coming of their Messiah.   Historically we can look back and see that the fourth kingdom to rule over Jerusalem was Rome, but when the differing Jewish factions invited the Romans to come, take over and settle their dispute in 64BC, they did not have the benefit of hindsight to see that they were inviting the rule of this brutal fourth kingdom.

In 63 BC Pompey arrived in Jerusalem and took Aristobulus captive to Rome. After two months the Romans broke through the Jerusalem citadel and massacred some 12,000 Jews who were defending the Temple.   Pompey reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest and ruler under Roman command.  Judea became a client kingdom of Rome. Before he left, Pompey had the walls of Jerusalem levelled, making it defenceless. He also imposed harsh taxes, but left the political governance of the Sanhedrin intact.

The Sanhedrin – comprised of 70 members from the Pharisees and Sadducees, and led by the High Priest.

Six years later, in 57 BC, Pompey appointed a governor in Syria, Gabinius, who would have ultimate control of the affairs in Judea.  Gabinius (57-55 BC) deemed it prudent to divide the Sanhedrin’s authority with two other local bodies which he established in Judaea. (1)

48 BC saw the two great Roman generals, Pompey and Caesar, battling for control of the empire. Hyrcanus had been an official ally of Pompey but after Pompey’s defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus, and subsequent assassination in Egypt where he sought refuge, the shrewd Antipater advised Hyrcanus to switch sides and declare his allegiance to Caesar. They then committed over 3,000 Jewish soldiers to an expeditionary force that invaded Egypt and helped raise the siege of Alexandria where Pompey’s remaining army was held up.   Caesar showed the Jews his gratitude for their help by revoking the harsh decrees and burdensome taxation imposed by Pompey. He also allowed the walls and fortifications of Jerusalem to be rebuilt and restored Jaffa, as well as a number of other coastal cities, to Jewish governance under Roman rule.  Caesar retained Hyrcanus in the position of High Priest and head of the Sanhedrin, which also had its political power restored over the whole area, but not for long.

In 47 BC Caesar stripped the high priesthood of its political power once again and appointed the ambitious and skilled Antipater to Procurator (Roman Governor) of Judea.  Antipater appointed his son Herodas to be Prefect over Galilee. Herod’s first act was to capture and, contrary to Jewish law which granted everyone the right to trial by the Sanhedrin, executed a Hasidim named Hezekiah who had been leading a band of rebels in attacking gentile outposts in Galilee. Some sources report that Herod executed Hezekiah’s whole gang.  As the court of the day, the Sanhedrin summoned Herod to Jerusalem to stand trial for carrying out an execution without their permission – the punishment for which was death.   The High Priest, Hyrcanus, fearful of Roman retribution should they execute the procurator’s son, managed to persuade most the Sanhedrin to absolve Herod of this crime and allow him to go free. (2)

Shemayah and Abtalion were the Zugos at this time.  They had reportedly been converts to Judaism in Alexandria and referred to themselves as “descendants of the heathen, who do the work of Aaron”, claiming that the descendants of Aaron were no longer “doing the work of Aaron”. 

Shemayah’s noted saying was: “Love work and hate to attain superiority, and see to it that your name be not known to the government.”  (Avot 1:9)

Abtalion was wont to say: “Ye wise be guarded in your words; lest you load upon yourselves the penalty of exile and be exiled to the place of evil waters; and the disciples that come after you may drink and die, and the name of Heaven be profaned.” (Avot 1:10) 

It is reported that when Herod appeared before the Sanhedrin to face trial, all lost courage except Shemayah, who predicted that if they failed to pronounce judgment on him now, he would execute them later. 

Ten years later Abtalion used his considerable influence with the people in persuading the men of Jerusalem, in the year 37 BCE, to open the gates of their city to Herod the Great. The king was not ungrateful and rewarded Abtalion.  Thus ended the pharisaic tradition, begun in response to Aristobulus in 104 BCE, of rebelling against unrighteous leaders, to be replace by a new tradition of peaceful cooperation with the ruler regardless of how unsuitable one deemed them for governing the nation. Thereby, the Pharisees became part of the establishment and secured their place on the Sanhedrin through the rest of its existence. (3) (4) (5) (6)

The Rise of the Zealots…

With the pharisaic leadership no longer willing to lead, or sanction, rebellion against unrighteous rulers, a new political group, the Zealots¸ arose from the Hasidim to take up this role in their stead.

Zealots – A Radical New Jewish Sect

The term “zealot”, in Hebrew kanai (קנאי, frequently used in plural form, קנאים – kana’im), means one who is zealous on behalf of God.

Hezekiah’s son, Judas, motivated by the Sanhedrin’s weakness in failing to convict Herod for the murder of his father and Herod’s subsequent appointment as king of Judea, went about stirring up religious fervour and expectation of another successful revolt against pagan rule as the Maccabees had done. There was strong religious feeling that it was an intolerable sacrilege for Gentiles to pollute the Holy Land and exercise lordship over the chosen people of Yahweh

Messianic hopes and expectations were high for a Davidic descendant who would lead the people to a supernatural victory over their enemies and rule the whole world from Jerusalem in accord with Daniel’s prophesy (Daniel 7). The Zealots were convinced they could help hasten this day by heroic efforts to deliver the Jews from heathen rule and purge their land from the pollution of heathen peoples. Theirs was a violent struggle. Rome would have called them “terrorists” if such a term were in vogue back then.  

Although their leaders were fearful of the impact on the Jewish nation of Roman reprisals for the Zealots’ actions, many of the Pharisees had sympathies for this group who shared their passion for the purity of the land and their zeal for ridding it of all pagans and pagan influences. Some of the Pharisees joined the Zealots out of their passion for the Law. They were particularly active in the Galilean region where the people were deeply religious and clung more closely to a traditional way of life.  (7) (8) (9)

Herod’s Brutal Rise to Power…

Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. and Antipater was poisoned in 43 B.C. Mark Anthony now ruled Rome and appointed Antipater’s two sons Herod and Phasael as tetrarchs over Galilee and Jerusalem respectively.    Herod won favour with the Romans by brutally crushing a Galilean uprising.

There had been some attempt within the Hasmonaean dynasty to reconcile the two halves of the family by marrying Hyrcanus II’s daughter, Alexandra, to Aristobulus II’s son, Alexander.   When Herod, at that time tetrarch, entered Jerusalem in triumph in 42 B.C., Alexandra sought to bring about the marriage of their daughter Mariamne to him, hoping thus to avoid the ruin of her house.   Herod welcomed this opportunity to help legitimise his reign by marrying into the royal family and took Princess Mariamne as his second wife, having divorced and imprisoned his Edomite wife, Doris, and their son, Antipater II, in order to do so. (10) (11) (12) (13)

As Roman control of the eastern provinces waned, the Parthians invaded Syria, including Judea, in 40 B.C. Phasael was taken in an ambush and forced to commit suicide.  Antigonus II, the surviving son of Aristobulus II and last of the Hasmonaean dynasty, had allied with the Parthians and captured Hyrcanus. Antigonus now proclaimed himself High Priest and king of Judea. He exiled Hyrcanus to Babylon and maimed him (some sources say cut off his ears, others say castrated) to make him there-after ineligible for the office of High Priest.

Herod was as ambitious as his father had been and as capable of reading the political climate and positioning himself for power.  So successful was he at this, and with his massive building programs, that he became known as Herod the Great.  In 39 B.C. the Roman Senate declared Herod king of Judea and Herod promptly set out to remove Antigonus.  Aided by Roman soldiers, Herod fought his way through the Jewish army and at last laid siege to Jerusalem, which after several months fell to the Romans in 37 B.C.  For some days the Roman troops indulged in murdering and pillaging until Herod was able to restrain them.  He succeeded in capturing Antigonus, after only three years’ reign, and put him to death. 

Sanhedrin Stacked with Those Who Would do Herod’s Bidding…

Next Herod took revenge on the Sanhedrin, for attempting to call him to account ten years earlier, by murdering most of them just as Shemayah had predicted.  Only the Zugos, Shemayah and Abtalion, are reported to have survived the slaughter and retained their positions in the Sanhedrin. Herod replaced those slaughtered with members who would do his bidding.

The Jewish people, however, were not well disposed to having someone of Edomite decent who rules so brutally being called king of Judea. Messianic longings and expectations continued increasing. 

Political Games with the role of High Priest…

Herod sought to undermine the last of the Hasmonaean dynasty’s claim to power and help legitimise his role as king of Judea by returning to the traditional practice of placing one of Aaron’s descendants from the Zadokite family, Ananel (Hananiel) as High Priest.  Ananel was descended from Onias IV who had fled to Egypt after his father, the rightful High Priest, had been murdered.   Herod also brought the aged and maimed Hyrcanus II back to Jerusalem, assigning to him the first place at his table and the presidency of the state council.  (14)

Alexandra, Hyrcanus’ daughter and Herod’s mother-in-law, was most upset at this intrusion on the Hasmonean line by returning to a Zadokite high priesthood. In her mind it had been well established over generations that the only high priestly family line was her own.  Alexandra wielded considerable power through Mark Anthony’s lover Cleopatra of Egypt and in 35 B.C. had Herod forced to remove Ananel and make her 17yo son, Aristobulus, High Priest in his stead.  Even though, according to the different rabbinical traditions, the age of eligibility to this office was either 20yo or 30yo, and in the past when the son had been too young for the high priest’s office another relative had been appointed in his stead.  It seemed that with every decision Herod made he increased someone’s hatred of him. (15) (16) (17) (18)

Within a year of being made High Priest the young Aristobulus drowned in suspicious circumstances and many concluded that Herod had him killed.  Ananel was reinstated as High Priest but retained the position for only three years.  There were now no males left in the Hasmonaean line apart from Herod’s own sons to Mariamne.  The next High Priest, another Jew from the Egyptian diaspora and descendant of Onias IV, Joshua ben Fabus, held the position for 7 years.

Herod’s Work on the Temple – as a monument to himself…

Herod the Great reigned with an iron fist and engaged in massive building programs, including the cities of Sebaste and Caesarea, an amphitheatre and hippodrome in Jerusalem, to display his glory and power. Herod also built temples to the Roman emperors and to other gods in cities outside Jerusalem, including a temple to Apollo and even one to Baal. 

Of all Herod’s building operations, however, the most magnificent was the restoration and refurbishment of the Jew’s Temple in Jerusalem, which he began in the 18th year of his reign (20-19 BC) and finished in just a year and a half, although work on out-buildings, courts and external walls continued for another 80 years.  Herod’s rebuilding of the Second Temple was done so that he would “have a capitol city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.” (19) 

To comply with religious law, Herod employed 1,000 priests as masons and carpenters for the building, which was even larger and grander than Solomon’s temple had been, with a massive court of the gentiles to attract tourists from all the surrounding peoples.  Filled with gold and marble there was no building that could compare with this huge and incredible masterpiece. Many Jews prided in Herod’s accomplishment, until he placed a huge Roman eagle over the most important gate of the newly refurbished temple.  This symbol of Roman rule even over their holy place stirred deep anger in many pious Jews.

Herod placed a huge Roman eagle, symbol of Roman rule, over the most important gate of the newly refurbished temple. This grand building program was undertaken for Herod’s glory, not God’s.

The temple hierarchy under Herod lacked the beauty of the building of their domain. Composed of an aristocracy who compromised whatever they needed to in order to keep their positions of power and wealth, along with their lives, they were corrupted and devoid of the beauty of holiness.  There were, however, still many priests who humbly served in the temple out of their devotion to God. (20) (21) (22)

Two Strongly Opposed Schools of Pharisees are Founded…

The last of the Zugos were Hillel and ShammaiHillel was born in Babylon, a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin on his father’s side, and from the family of David on his mother’s side.  He was proclaimed Nasi in 32 BC.  A significant shift was to occur, from Nasi being appointed by their peers or sages, to it becoming an inherited position within Pharisaic Judaism.  Although Shammai held the position for a time after Hillel’s death, thereafter the spiritual leadership of the people would be in the hands of Hillel’s descendants. A new dynasty was to begin, that would last until 356 AD. 

Hillel has three saying recorded in Avon1:
“Be a disciple of Aaron, love peace, pursue peace, love all men too, and bring them nigh unto the Law.”
“A name made great is a name destroyed; he who increases not, decreases; and he who will not learn from his masters is not worthy to live; and he who uses his knowledge as a tiara perishes.” 
“If I do not look to myself, who will do so? But if I look only to myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”  

Shammai’s defining saying is:
Fix a time for study; promise little, and do much, receive everyone with friendly countenance.”  

Bais Hillel and Bais Shammai are called the first Tannaim, or scholars of the Mishnah (Oral Law).  It was also during their time that the term rabbi was increasingly used for the great Jewish sages and scholars. The emerging talmidim (disciples) of their teachings divided into two schools of thought, or ‘houses’, known as Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. They are the most famous antagonistic schools of Pharisees that flourished during the Herodian reigns and contributed to the development of the Oral Law

Three hundred and sixteen controversies between these two schools are preserved in the Jewish Talmud. In all but fifty five of these the Shammaites were more restrictive and severe in their religious prohibitions than the Hillelites.  This beginning of large-scale argumentation between Pharisees (machlokes) is viewed by the Talmud as a sad diminution in Torah scholarship. There was, in their eyes, a danger that the Torah would become “two Torahs”; in other words, there was a danger of schism in which the religious practices and laws of one group of pharisaic Jews would be so drastically different from those of another group of pharisaic Jews that they could not both be governed by the same Sanhedrin.

Throughout Herod the Great’s reign, the Hillelites held sway in the Sanhedrin.  They were the party of the middle, with the aristocratic Sadducees on one side and the restrictive Shammaites on the other.  Hillel and Shammai had both trained under Shemayah and Abtalion, with Hillel faithfully keeping to his sage’s new pragmatic tradition of working peacefully with the leaders of the nation, regardless of how unrighteous they may be.  Shammai, who was younger, reverted to the earlier pharisaic tradition of supporting opposition against unrighteous and heathen rulers. 

The Shammaites would not bow to Roman rule nor countenance any social intercourse with either the Romans or those who in any way worked with them.  The Hillelites were more moderate in their political and social views.  Beit Shammai is known for criticizing the leniency of Beit Hillel, especially in regard to Gentile converts and contact with heathens. Shammai himself was renowned for driving away potential converts who then turned to Hillel, who accepted them with gentleness (b.Shabbat 31a). 

The Shammaites’ basic stance towards gentiles was fear of being polluted by them and their ways.  So, their active proselytization was only of fellow Jews (sheep stealing).  They put the bar very high for any gentiles who sought to convert to Judaism, so as to deter as many as possible, or at the very least ensure that they had been totally purged from anything ‘un-Jewish’ before coming close to earning acceptance into the community. 

The Hillelites’ basic stance towards gentiles was love, which expressed itself in active proselytization and making conversion as easy as possible while not compromising on their own standards. Thus, the Hillelites continued to grow in number and influence during this time with their middle path being broad and encompassing of most. (23) (24) (3) (25) (26)

It was a time of religious fervour and bitter battle for the soul of the nation. Increasing political and judicial power through dominating the Sanhedrin was seen as an important way to steer the nation in the religious direction that each ‘house’ believed it should go. It was into this atmosphere that Yeshua (Jesus) was to be born, and His ministry gave God’s answer to these power struggles.

Wealth and Power do not provide Happiness, Peace or Security…

Herod responded to any Jewish unrest by increasing taxes, banning any kind of public assembly, and quickly executing or imprisoning, in one of his many fortresses, any critic of his reign. He appears to have been deeply affected by his father’s assassination, and that of other leaders at the time, to the extent that he became very suspicious, even paranoid, of almost everyone.  Herod had his uncle and brother-in-law, Joseph, executed on suspicion of adultery with his wife.   In 30 B.C. Herod charged the aged and maimed Hyrcanus with participating in a conspiracy and had him executed so that there would be no male Hasmoneans left for the new emperor Augustus to make ruler of the Jews in his stead.  The following year a trusted courtier, Sohemus, and his much loved wife, Mariamne, were both executed by Herod.  The next year he had his mother-in-law executed.  Then he put to death his sister Salome’s husband and all the sons of Baba.  It was dangerous to be in any way related to Herod or close to the throne. (27) (28) (29)

Herod fell in love again, to another Mariamne, this one the daughter of priest Simeon ben Boethus.  As it was unseemly for a king to marry such a commoner, Herod removed Joshua ben Fabus from the high priesthood and replaced him in 23 B.C. with Simeon ben Boethus so that his marriage to Simeon’s daughter might not be regarded as a mesalliance (to someone of significantly lower social position). (30)

Through the years, many were charged with seeking Herod’s death, soldiers and sages alike, and executed.  Such suspicions returned again to Herod’s own household and in 6 B.C. his two sons to Mariamne I, the last remnants of the Hasmonaean dynasty, were also executed.  A year later his oldest son, Antipater, was executed on charges of plotting his father’s death, his third wife, Mariamne II, was sent away and her father removed from his position as High Priest.  Matthias ben Theophilos was promoted to High Priest in his place, but only for a year before Herod suspected him and had him replaced by Joazar ben Boethus. (31) (32)

God’s Plans Fulfilled Through a Godly Priest…

Although the high priesthood had been corrupted into a political office to suit Herod’s whims, and much of the temple aristocracy were focused on temporal power, position and comforts, there was still great piety among many of the priests and people who came to worship in the temple.  Luke’s gospel begins not with a critique of the corruption but with an affirmation of the piety of Torah obedience within the priesthood:

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain cohen (priest) named Zechariah, of the priestly division of Abijah. He had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisheva (Elizabeth).   They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.  But they had no child, because Elisheva was barren, and they both were well advanced in years.      
Now it happened, while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  The whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.   An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.                   (Luke 1:5-11)

Zachariah burning incense on the alter of incense in the holy place within the temple, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him.

Verse 19 identifies this angel as Gabriel, the same angel who appeared twice to Daniel (Daniel 8 & 9).  Daniel chapter 9 begins with Daniel responding to Jeremiah’s prophesy of Jerusalem being left a desolation for 70 years with repentance prayer and fasting for the restoration of Jerusalem and coming of Messiah.  God responds by sending Gabriel to give Daniel revelation concerning 70 sevens from the going forth of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, with 69 of those sevens to pass until Messiah would be revealed, and be ‘cut off’. 

“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.  Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’    Daniel 9:24-25a NIV

The decree to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was given by Artaxerxes in the seventh year of his reign – 458 BC, so it was coming close to the prophesied time of Messiah (69 sevens – 483 years) to ‘finish the transgression, put an end to sin, atone for wickedness and bring in everlasting righteousness’ (Daniel 9:24) when Gabriel was sent with another message, this time to the faithful priest Zechariah.  It was in response to the piety and prayers of priest and people that this angel was sent with a message declaring that now was the time of the fulfilment of those prayers.

…the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, because your request has been heard, and your wife, Elisheva (Elizabeth), will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Yochanan (John).  You will have joy and gladness; and many will rejoice at his birth.   For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord, their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to prepare a people prepared for the Lord.”   (Luke 1:13-17)

Then to a Young Woman in a Neglected Rural Community…

Six months later this same angel, Gabriel, made a much more private appearance to a young woman in the Galilee region.  No one was waiting outside to witness the effect of her heavenly encounter.  To Zechariah had been the promise of a son to turn the people to the Lord their God in preparing them for ADONAI.  To this young woman was the promise of the One for whom the people were being prepared, the Messiah that Gabriel had all those years before told Daniel about.

Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Yosef (Joseph), of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Miriam (Mary).  Having come in, the angel said to her,

“Rejoice, you highly favoured one! ADONAI is with you. Blessed are you among women!”   

But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be. The angel said to her,

“Don’t be afraid, Miriam, for you have found favour with God.   Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Yeshua.’  He will be great, and will be called the Son of Ha’Elyon (the Most High). ADONAI, God will give Him the throne of His father, David, and he will reign over the house of Ya’akov (Jacob) forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom.”  

Miriam said to the angel, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?”

The angel answered her,
“The Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) will come on you, and the power of Ha’Elyon (the Most High) will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God.”  Luke 1:26- 35

Fulfilling what the Angel Gabriel had Told Daniel…

Rome ruled over Jerusalem for longer than any of the three kingdoms preceding it.  During this Roman rule Daniel 9’s sixty-nine ‘sevens’ (483 years) since the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem would come to completion:

“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.”  Daniel 9:25-26 NIV

Looking ahead from Daniel’s perspective in verse 26a, we see that “the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.” The Hebrew word translated “put to death” is the common word used in the Mosaic Law and implies that the Messiah would not only be killed, but he would die a penal death by execution. The Hebrew expression translated “and will have nothing” has two meanings. It may mean “nothingness,” emphasizing Messiah‘s state at death. It can also be translated “but not for himself,” and the meaning would then be that he died for others rather than for himself, a substitutionary death. The latter meaning would be much more consistent with what the Prophets had to say about the reason for Messiah‘s death (e.g. Isaiah 53:1-12). The first three purposes of the 70 sevens – to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for wickedness – have to be accomplished by an atonement. The Law of Moses decreed that atonement is made by blood (Leviticus 17:11).  Thus, Messiah‘s death “not for himself” but for others would be the means by which Israel’s transgression, sins and iniquity would be atoned for. The point of this phrase is that between the end of the second subdivision (the 69th seven) and before the start of the 70th seven, Messiah would be killed and would die a penal, substitutionary death. (33)

But all that was yet to come.  For now, the angel’s message focused on miraculous births, not death:

 “You have a relative, Elisheva, who is an old woman; and everyone says she is barren. But she has conceived a son and is six months pregnant! For with God, nothing is impossible.” 

Miryam said, “I am the servant of Adonai; may it happen to me as you have said.”

Then the angel left her. Luke 1:36-38 CJB

Mary Visits Elizabeth…

Miryam (Mary) was eager to see the one person who might understand what had just taken place, Elisheva (Elizabeth), so she could share her joy and wonder.   Such required a long journey through difficult country, not the sort of journey that a young woman would normally take alone.  But these were not normal circumstances and Miryam did not know how to explain it so she just raced off.   Elisheva was the one person whom the angel had named, so to Elisheva she would go, immediately.   Miryam was a teenager.

Without delay, Miryam set out and hurried to the town in the hill country of Y’hudah (Judea) where Z’kharyah lived, entered his house and greeted Elisheva.  When Elisheva heard Miryam’s greeting, the baby in her womb stirred. Elisheva was filled with the Ruach HaKodesh and spoke up in a loud voice,

“How blessed are you among women! And how blessed is the child in your womb!  But who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy! Indeed you are blessed, because you have trusted that the promise Adonai has made to you will be fulfilled.” Luke 1:39-45 CJB

Already a tiny baby was growing in Miryam’s womb.   What had appeared an impulsive decision to undertake such a journey on her own was amply rewarded the moment that Myriam arrived at this distant relative’s home.   Confirmation of everything the angel had spoken to her.   Confirmation that her obedience would indeed see the fulfilment of God’s promise.   Miryam magnified the Lord:

My soul magnifies Adonai; and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, who has taken notice of his servant-girl in her humble position. For — imagine it! — from now on, all generations will call me blessed! The Mighty One has done great things for me! Indeed, His name is holy; and in every generation he has mercy on those who fear him. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, routed the secretly proud, brought down rulers from their thrones, raised up the humble, filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty. He has taken the part of his servant Isra’el, mindful of the mercy which he promised to our fathers, to Avraham and his seed forever.” Luke 1:46b-55 CJB

Meanwhile in Herod’s Palace…

Herod’s fourth wife was a Samaritan, Malthace, and his fifth wife was Cleopatra of Jerusalem. He also had another five wives who were not considered as significant. Herod’s sister was continually stirring up intrigues within his household and playing on his paranoia, inciting suspicions against both wives and children. 

As Herod grew older, his physical and mental health deteriorated.  He developed arteriosclerosis and suffered much pain.   Herod’s physical weakness seemed to feed his increasing paranoia.  Around 4 BC, As news spread that he had an incurable disease, two rabbis, Judas ben Sepphoraeus, and Matthias ben Margalus, stirred up their talmidim to tear down the Roman eagle from the Temple gate that had been such an offence to the Jews, having to walk under this symbol of an empire of pagan emperor worship to enter the holy precincts of the temple.

Roman eagle torn down from the Temple gate

Herod seized the offenders and passed sentences of death upon them and had the chief leaders publicly burned alive.  (29) (34)

Strengthened in fellowship…

Miryam stayed with Elisheva for about three months and then returned home. Luke 1:56 CJB

Three months of spiritual mentoring.  Three months of inspiration and encouragement.  Three months of close friendship and deep bonding.  Both women were experiencing a miraculous pregnancy, one in her old age and the other in her youth.  Somehow their babies were connected, Yochanan had leapt in the womb when Miryam arrived with Yeshua in her womb – this connected them.  Elisheva had been filled with the Holy Spirit at that moment and prophesied over Miryam and her unborn baby – this had connected them.  Miryam had likewise been filled and magnified the Lord, declaring His goodness to the lowly and to Israel – this had connected them.    Miryam had needed this time of affirmation to strengthen her for what lay ahead.  

How could she explain to her fiancée Yosef that she was pregnant?   How could she face all the village gossips in Nazareth, who never would believe her that she had not been with a man?  Elisheva had a husband who was the father of her baby, and a community who would rejoice with them over the miracle of his birth. All that Miryam had was the Word of God.

Yochanan (John) is born…

The time arrived for Elisheva to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard how good Adonai had been to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day, they came to do the child’s b’rit-milah (covenant of circumcision). They were about to name him Z’kharyah, after his father, when his mother spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called Yochanan.” 

They said to her, “None of your relatives has that name,” and they made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. 

He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is Yochanan.” 

At that moment, his power of speech returned, and his first words were a b’rakhah  (blessing /thanksgiving) to God.  All their neighbours were awestruck; and throughout the hill country of Y’hudah (Judea), people talked about all these things. Everyone who heard of them said to himself, “What is this child going to be?” For clearly the hand of Adonai was with him.

His father Z’kharyah was filled with the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) and spoke this prophecy: “Praised be Adonai, the God of Isra’el, because he has visited and made a ransom to liberate his people by raising up for us a mighty Deliverer who is a descendant of his servant David. It is just as he has spoken through the mouth of the prophets from the very beginning – that we should be delivered from our enemies and from the power of all who hate us. This has happened so that he might show the mercy promised to our fathers – that he would remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore before Avraham avinu (our father Abraham) to grant us that we, freed from our enemies, would serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. You, child, will be called a prophet of Ha‘Elyon; you will go before the Lord to prepare his way by spreading the knowledge among his people that deliverance comes by having sins forgiven through our God’s most tender mercy, which causes the Sunrise to visit us from Heaven, to shine on those in darkness, living in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the paths of peace.”   Luke 1:57-79 CJB

Standing Alone in the Midst of a Trial…

Miryam arrived back home in Nazareth, three months pregnant.   She was not showing yet but may have been experiencing morning sickness and other symptoms.   She had not been with her fiancée, Yosef, and soon people would start to notice that she was carrying a baby.   It had sounded so wonderful when the angel had first spoken to her, and when her relative Elisheva had greeted her with prophesy confirming the angel’s every word, but now earthly realities came crashing down.   This put Yosef in a very difficult position.  Miryam had not wanted to do that, she had not wanted to make things difficult for him.   This put her life at risk, for she knew what the religious zealots wanted to do to any woman found to have been unfaithful, and what further evidence did they need than for her to be with child.   There was nothing that Miryam could do to “fix” the situation, she would not abort God’s son.  All that she could do now was trust God to step in so that His word would be fulfilled in her life.

Judaism Dictated Every Aspect of Daily Life…

Judaism during Herod the Great’s reign was diverse and all encompassing.  There was no separation of “church” and “state”, no division between the sacred and the secular.  Their religion was their politics, and their law, and their education, and their community, and their culture.  It dictated every aspect of daily life: what they did when they woke up in the morning, what they could and could not eat, what they could and could not wear, how and when they groomed themselves, how they conducted business, how and when they had to attain ritual purity, and how they treated others.  Even the most trivial and mundane acts, such as eating and getting dressed, were thus turned into acts of religious significance where one was deemed to have either obeyed or disobeyed God’s law. 

Diversity existed only in the variety of different interpretations of what that law properly demanded.   Each of the different Jewish sects; Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Hasidim and Zealots, had their own interpretations of God’s law and intolerance of other perspectives.  Priests and rabbis disagreed on much.   Even within the Pharisees, each of their different schools (the two most famous of which were that of Hillel and Shammai) were developing very different sets of laws that “God had laid down in the beginning”.   One can imagine what the response would be if God Himself stepped down from heaven, walked among them, and started telling them what He really wanted.

Reference List

1. Morrison, W. D. The Sanhedrin, or Supreme National Council. Heritage History. [Online] [Cited: 6th Sept. 2016.]
2. Joseph Jacobs, Isaac Broydé. Herod I (surnamed the Great). Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 3rd Sept. 2016.]
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6. A.M., William Whiston. Josephus – The Complete Works. Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
7. Kohler, Kaufmann. Zealots (Hebrew, Kanna’im). Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
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9. Price, Jonathan. Zealots and Sicarii. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] 2008. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
10. Mindel, Nissan. Mariamne. Chabad. [Online] Kehot Publications. [Cited: 1st Sept. 2016.]
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* Biblical References from: Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H. Stern.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* Why did the Jewish leaders ask Rome to come and rule over them?
* Have leaders in your church, or community, or nation ever given up the freedom of self-rule to try to gain power or wealth?
* In what ways was Rome different to the other empires featured in Daniel’s visions?
* It is often quoted: “Sin will take you farther than you ever expected to go; it will keep you longer than you ever intended to stay, and it will cost you more than you ever expected to pay.” Rome’s takeover cost the Jewish people more than they thought it would. What were some of the consequences they suffered?
* Why was Herod not judged for carrying out an execution of Jews without affording them the opportunity to be tried before the Sanhedrin?
* What were the consequences of their failure to follow the processes of justice?
* Who were the Zealots and what motivated them?
* There was so much pride, greed and power-hungry corruption in the government and religious establishment, but there were still some priests who were humble, godly men. Who was one of these and what can we learn form his example?
* What would it have been like for Mary to be pregnant with God’s baby and what can we learn from her faithfulness?