‘The world was not created but only for the Messiah.’ - Sanh. 98b
Chapter I. The Jewish World in the Days of Christ - The Jewish Dispersion in the East.
Among the outward means by which the religion of Israel was preserved, one of the most important was the centralisation and localisation of its worship in Jerusalem. If to some the ordinances of the Old Testament may in this respect seem narrow and exclusive, it is at least doubtful, whether without such a provision Monotheism itself could have continued as a creed or a worship. In view of the state of the ancient world, and of the tendencies of Israel during the earlier stages of their history, the strictest isolation was necessary in order to preserve the religion of the Old Testament from that mixture with foreign elements which would speedily have proved fatal to its existence. And if one source of that danger had ceased after the seventy years’ exile in Babylonia, the dispersion of the greater part of the nation among those whose manners and civilisation would necessarily influence them, rendered the continuance of this separation of as great importance as before. In this respect, even traditionalism had its mission and use, as a hedge around the Law to render its infringement or modification impossible.
Wherever a Roman, a Greek, or an Asiatic might wander, he could take his gods with him, or find rites kindred to his own. It was far otherwise with the Jew. He had only one Temple, that in Jerusalem; only one God, Him Who had once throned there between the Cherubim, and Who was still King over Zion. That Temple was the only place where a God-appointed, pure priesthood could offer acceptable sacrifices, whether for forgiveness of sin, or for fellowship with God. Here, in the impenetrable gloom of the innermost sanctuary, which the High-Priest alone might enter once a year for most solemn expiation, had stood the Ark, the leader of the people into the Land of Promise, and the footstool on which the Shechinah had rested. From that golden altar rose the sweet cloud of incense, symbol of Israel’s accepted prayers; that seven-branched candlestick shed its perpetual light, indicative of the brightness of God’s Covenant Presence; on that table, as it were before the face of Jehovah, was laid, week by week, ‘the Bread of the Face,’ a constant sacrificial meal which Israel offered unto God, and wherewith God in turn fed His chosen priesthood. On the great blood-sprinkled altar of sacrifice smoked the daily and festive burnt-offerings, brought by all Israel, and for all Israel, wherever scattered; while the vast courts of the Temple were thronged not only by native Palestinians, but literally by ‘Jews out of every nation under heaven.’ Around this Temple gathered the sacred memories of the past; to it clung the yet brighter hopes of the future. The history of Israel and all their prospects were intertwined with their religion; so that it may be said that without their religion they had no history, and without their history no religion. Thus, history, patriotism, religion, and hope alike pointed to Jerusalem and the Temple as the centre of Israel’s unity.
Nor could the depressed state of the nation alter their views or shake their confidence. What mattered it, that the Idumaean, Herod, had usurped the throne of David, except so far as his own guilt and their present subjection were concerned? Israel had passed through deeper waters, and stood triumphant on the other shore. For centuries seemingly hopeless bondsmen in Egypt, they had not only been delivered, but had raised the God-inspired morning-song of jubilee, as they looked back upon the sea cleft for them, and which had buried their oppressors in their might and pride. Again, for weary years had their captives hung Zion’s harps by the rivers of that city and empire whose colossal grandeur, wherever they turned, must have carried to the scattered strangers the desolate feeling of utter hopelessness. And yet that empire had crumbled into dust, while Israel had again taken root and sprung up. And now little more than a century and a half had passed, since a danger greater even than any of these had threatened the faith and the very existence of Israel. In his daring madness, the Syrian king, Antiochus IV. (Epiphanes) had forbidden their religion, sought to destroy their sacred books, with unsparing ferocity forced on them conformity to heathen rites, desecrated the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus Olympios, and even reared a heathen altar upon that of burnt-offering. Worst of all, his wicked schemes had been aided by two apostate High-Priests, who had outvied each other in buying and then prostituting the sacred office of God’s anointed. Yet far away in the mountains of Ephraim God had raised for them most unlooked-for and unlikely help. Only three years later, and, after a series of brilliant victories by undisciplined men over the flower of the Syrian army, Judas the Maccabee - truly God’s Hammer - had purified the Temple, and restored its altar on the very same day on which the I abomination of desolation’ had been set up in its place. In all their history the darkest hour of their night had ever preceded the dawn of a morning brighter than any that had yet broken. It was thus that with one voice all their prophets had bidden them wait and hope. Their sayings had been more than fulfilled as regarded the past. Would they not equally become true in reference to that far more glorious future for Zion and for Israel, which was to be ushered in by the coming of the Messiah?
Nor were such the feelings of the Palestinian Jews only. These indeed were now a minority. The majority of the nation constituted what was known as the dispersion; a term which, however, no longer expressed its original meaning of banishment by the judgment of God, since absence from Palestine was now entirely voluntary. But all the more that it referred not to outward suffering, did its continued use indicate a deep feeling of religious sorrow, of social isolation, and of political strangership in the midst of a heathen world. For although, as Josephus reminded his countrymen, there was ‘no nation in the world which had not among them part of the Jewish people,’ since it was ‘widely dispersed over all the world among its inhabitants,’ yet they had nowhere found a real home. A century and a half before our era comes to us from Egypt - where the Jews possessed exceptional privileges - professedly from the heathen, but really from the Jewish Sibyl, this lament of Israel: -
Crowding with thy numbers every ocean and country -
Yet an offense to all around thy presence and customs!
Sixty years later the Greek geographer and historian Strabo bears the like witness to their presence in every land, but in language that shows how true had been the complaint of the Sibyl. The reasons for this state of feeling will by-and-by appear. Suffice it for the present that, all unconsciously, Philo tells its deepest ground, and that of Israel’s loneliness in the heathen world, when speaking, like the others, of his countrymen as in ‘all the cities of Europe, in the provinces of Asia and in the islands,’ he describes them as, wherever sojourning, having but one metropolis - not Alexandria, Antioch, or Rome - but ‘the Holy City’ with its Temple, dedicated to the Most High God.’ A nation, the vast majority of which was dispersed over the whole inhabited earth, had ceased to be a special, and become a. world-nation. Yet its heart beat in Jerusalem, and thence the lifeblood passed to its most distant members. And this, indeed, if we rightly understand it, was the grand object of the ‘Jewish dispersion’ throughout the world.
What has been said applies, perhaps, in a special manner, to the Western, rather than to the Eastern ‘dispersion,’ The connection of the latter with Palestine was so close as almost to seem one of continuity. In the account of the truly representative gathering in Jerusalem on that ever-memorable Feast of Weeks, the division of the ‘dispersion’ into two grand sections - the Eastern or Trans-Euphratic, and the Western or Hellenist - seems clearly marked. In this arrangement the former would include ‘the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and dwellers in Mesopotamia,’ Judaea standing, so to speak, in the middle, while ‘the Cretes and Arabians’ would typically represent the farthest outrunners respectively of the Western and the Eastern Diaspora. The former, as we know from the New Testament, commonly bore in Palestine the name of the dispersion of the ‘Greeks,’ and of ‘Hellenists’ or ‘Grecians.’ On the other hand, the Trans-Euphratic Jews, who ‘inhabited Babylon and many of the other satrapies,’ were included with the Palestinians and the Syrians under the term ‘Hebrews,’ from the common language which they spoke.
But the difference between the ‘Grecians’ and the ‘Hebrews’ was far deeper than merely of language, and extended to the whole direction of thought. There were mental influences at work in the Greek world from which, in the nature of things, it was impossible even for Jews to withdraw themselves, and which, indeed, were as necessary for the fulfilment of their mission as their isolation from heathenism, and their connection with Jerusalem. At the same time it was only natural that the Hellenists, placed as they were in the midst of such hostile elements, should intensely wish to be Jews, equal to their Eastern brethren. On the other hand, Pharisaism, in its pride of legal purity and of the possession of traditional lore, with all that it involved, made no secret of its contempt for the Hellenists, and openly declared the Grecian far inferior to the Babylonian ‘dispersion.’ That such feelings, and the suspicions which they engendered, had struck deep into the popular mind, appears from the fact, that even in the Apostolic Church, and that in her earliest days, disputes could break out between the Hellenists and the Hebrews, arising from suspicion of unkind and unfair dealings grounded on these sectional prejudices.
Far other was the estimate in which the Babylonians were held by the leaders of Judaism. Indeed, according to one view of it, Babylonia, as well as ‘Syria’ as far north as Antioch, was regarded as forming part of the land of Israel. Every other country was considered outside ‘the land,’ as Palestine was called, with the exception of Babylonia, which was reckoned as part of it. For Syria and Mesopotamia, eastwards to the banks of the Tigris, were supposed to have been in the territory which King David had conquered, and this made them ideally for ever like the land of Israel. But it was just between the Euphrates and the Tigris that the largest and wealthiest settlements of the Jews were, to such extent that a later writer actually designated them ‘the land of Israel.’ Here Nebardaa, on the Nahar Malka, or royal canal, which passed from the Euphrates to the Tigris, was the oldest Jewish settlement. It boasted of a Synagogue, said to have been built by King Jechoniah with stones that had been brought from the Temple. In this fortified city the vast contributions intended for the Temple were deposited by the Eastern Jews, and thence conveyed to their destination under escort of thousands of armed men. Another of these Jewish treasure-cities was Nisibis, in northern Mesopotamia. Even the fact that wealth, which must have sorely tempted the cupidity of the heathen, could be safely stored in these cities and transported to Palestine, shows how large the Jewish population must have been, and how great their general influence.
In general, it is of the greatest importance to remember in regard to this Eastern dispersion, that only a minority of the Jews, consisting in all of about 50,000, originally returned from Babylon, first under Zerubbabel and afterwards under Ezra. Nor was their inferiority confined to numbers. The wealthiest an most influential of the Jews remained behind. According to Josephus, with whom Philo substantially agrees, vast numbers, estimated at millions, inhabited the Trans-Euphratic provinces. To judge even by the number of those slain in popular risings (50,000 in Seleucia alone), these figures do not seem greatly exaggerated. A later tradition had it, that so dense was the Jewish population in the Persian Empire, that Cyrus forbade the further return of the exiles, lest the country should be depopulated. So large and compact a body soon became a political power. Kindly treated under the Persian monarchy, they were, after the fall of that empire, favoured by the successors of Alexander. When in turn the Macedono-Syrian rule gave place to the Parthian Empire, the Jews formed, from their national opposition to Rome, an important element in the East. Such was their influence that, as late as the year 40a.d., the Roman legate shrank from provoking their hostility. At the same time it must not be thought that, even in these favoured regions, they were wholly without persecution. Here also history records more than one tale of bloody strife on the part of those among whom they dwelt.
To the Palestinians, their brethren of the East and of Syria - to which they had wandered under the fostering rule of the Macedono- Syrian monarchs (the Seleucidae) - were indeed pre-eminently the golah, or ‘dispersion.’ To them the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem intimated by fire-signals from mountain-top to mountain-top the commencement of each month for the regulation of the festive calendar, even, as they afterwards despatched messengers into Syria for the same purpose. In some respects the Eastern dispersion was placed on the same footing; in others, on even a higher level than the mother-country. Tithes and terumot, or first-fruits in a prepared condition, were due from them, while the bikurim, or first-fruits in a fresh state, were to be brought from Syria to Jerusalem. Unlike the heathen countries, whose very dust defiled, the soil of Syria was declared clean, like that of Palestine itself. So far as purity of descent was concerned, the Babylonians, indeed, considered themselves superior to their Palestinian brethren. They had it, that when Ezra took with him those who went to Palestine, he had left the land behind him as pure as fine flour. To express it in their own fashion: In regard to the genealogical purity of their Jewish inhabitants, all other countries were, compared to Palestine, like dough mixed with leaven; but Palestine itself was such by the side of Babylonia. It was even maintained, that the exact boundaries could be traced in a district, within which the Jewish population had preserved itself unmixed. Great merit was in this respect also ascribed to Ezra. In the usual mode of exaggeration, it was asserted, that, if all the genealogical studies and researches had been put together, they would have amounted to many hundred camel-loads. There was for it, however, at least this foundation in truth, that great care and labour were bestowed on preserving full and accurate records so as to establish purity of descent. What importance attached to it, we know from the action of Ezra in that respect, and from the stress which Josephus lays on this point. Official records of descent as regarded the priesthood were kept in the Temple. Besides, the Jewish authorities seem to have possessed a general official register, which Herod afterwards ordered to be burnt, from reasons which it is not difficult to infer. But from that day, laments a Rabbi, the glory of the Jews decreased!
Nor was it merely purity of descent of which the Eastern dispersion could boast. In truth, Palestine owed everything to Ezra, the Babylonian, a man so distinguished that, according to tradition, the Law would have been given by him, if Moses had not previously obtained that honor. Putting aside the various traditional ordinances which the Talmud ascribes to him, we know from the Scriptures what his activity for good had been. Altered circumstances had brought many changes to the now Jewish State. Even the language, spoken and written, was other than formerly. Instead of the characters anciently employed, the exiles brought with them, on their return, those now common, the so-called square Hebrew letters, which gradually came into general use. The language spoken by the Jews was no longer Hebrew, but Aramaean, both in Palestine and in Babylonia in the former the Western, in the latter the Eastern dialect. In fact, the common people were ignorant of pure Hebrew, which henceforth became the language of students and of the Synagogue. Even there a meturgeman, or interpreter, had to be employed to translate into the vernacular the portions of Scripture read in the public services, and the addresses delivered by the Rabbis. This was the origin of the so-called Targumim, or paraphrases of Scripture. In earliest times, indeed, it was forbidden to the meturgeman to read his translation or to write down a Targum, lest the paraphrase should be regarded as of equal authority with the original. It was said that, when Jonathan brought out his Targum on the Prophets, a voice from heaven was heard to utter: ‘Who is this that has revealed My secrets to men?’ Still, such Targumim seem to have existed from a very early period, and, amid the varying and often incorrect renderings, their necessity must have made itself increasingly felt. Accordingly, their use was authoritatively sanctioned before the end of the second century after Christ. This is the origin of our two oldest extant Targumim: that of Onkelos (as it is called), on the Pentateuch; and that on the Prophets, attributed to Jonathan the son of Uzziel. These names do not, indeed, accurately represent the authorship of the oldest Targumim, which may more correctly be regarded as later and authoritative recensions of what, in some form, had existed before. But although these works had their origin in Palestine, it is noteworthy that, in the form in which at present we possess them, they are the outcome of the schools of Babylon.
But Palestine owed, if possible, a still greater debt to Babylonia. The new circumstances in which the Jews were placed on their return seemed to render necessary an adaptation of the Mosaic Law, if not new legislation. Besides, piety and zeal now attached themselves to the outward observance and study of the letter of the Law. This is the origin of the Mishnah, or Second Law, which was intended to explain and supplement the first. This constituted the only Jewish dogmatics, in the real sense, in the study of which the sage, Rabbi, scholar, scribe, and daršan, were engaged. The result of it was the Midrash, or investigation, a term which afterwards was popularly applied to commentaries on the Scriptures and preaching. From the outset, Jewish theology divided into two branches: the Halakhah and the Haggadah. The former (from halak, to go) was, so to speak, the Rule of the Spiritual Road, and, when fixed, had even greater authority than the Scriptures of the Old Testament, since it explained and applied them. On the other hand, the Haggadah (from nagad, to tell) was only the personal saying of the teacher, more or less valuable according to his learning and popularity, or the authorities which he could quote in his support. Unlike the Halakhah, the Haggadah had no absolute authority, either as to doctrine practice, or exegesis. But all the greater would be its popular influence, and all the more dangerous the doctrinal license which it allowed. In fact, strange as it may sound, almost all the doctrinal teaching of the Synagogue is to be derived from the Haggadah - and this also is characteristic of Jewish traditionalism. But, alike in Halakhah and Haggadah, Palestine was under the deepest obligation to Babylonia. For the father of Halakhic study was Hillel, the Babylonian, and among the popular Hagadists there is not a name better known than that of Eleazar the Mede, who flourished in the first century of our era.
After this, it seems almost idle to inquire whether, during the first period after the return of the exiles from Babylon, there were regular theological academies in Babylon. Although it is, of course, impossible to furnish historical proof, we can scarcely doubt that a community so large and so intensely Hebrew would not have been indifferent to that study, which constituted the main thought and engagement of their brethren in Palestine. We can understand that, since the great Sanhedrin in Palestine exercised supreme spiritual authority, and in that capacity ultimately settled all religious questions - at least for a time - the study and discussion of these subjects should also have been chiefly carried on in the schools of Palestine, and that even the great Hillel himself, when still a poor and unknown student, should have wandered thither to acquire the learning and authority, which at that period he could not have found in his own country. But even this circumstance implies, that such studies were at least carried on and encouraged in Babylonia. How rapidly soon afterwards the authority of the Babylonian schools increased till they not only overshadowed those of Palestine, but finally inherited their prerogatives, is well known. However, therefore, the Palestinians in their pride or jealousy might sneer, that the Babylonians were stupid, proud, and poor (‘they ate bread upon bread’), even they had to acknowledge that, ‘when the Law had fallen into oblivion, it was restored by Ezra of Babylon; when it was a second time forgotten, Hillel the Babylonian came and recovered it; and when yet a third time it fell into oblivion, Rabbi Chija came from Babylon and gave it back once more.’
Such then was that Hebrew dispersion which, from the first, constituted really the chief part and the strength of the Jewish nation, and with which its religious future was also to lie. For it is one of those strangely significant, almost symbolical, facts in history, that after the destruction of Jerusalem the spiritual supremacy of Palestine passed to Babylonia, and that Rabbinical Judaism, under the stress of political adversity, voluntarily transferred itself to the seats of Israel’s ancient dispersion, as if to ratify by its own act what the judgment of God had formerly executed. But long before that time the Babylonian ‘dispersion’ had already stretched out its hands in every direction. Northwards, it had spread through Armenia, the Caucasus, and to the shores of the Black Sea, and through Media to those of the Caspian. Southwards, it had extended to the Persian Gulf and through the vast extent of Arabia, although Arabia Felix and the land of the Homerites may have received their first Jewish colonies from the opposite shores of Ethiopia. Eastwards it had passed as far as India. Everywhere we have distinct notices of these wanderers, and everywhere they appear as in closest connection with the Rabbinical hierarchy of Palestine. Thus the Mishnah, in an extremely curious section, tells us how on Sabbaths the Jewesses of Arabia might wear their long veils, and those of India the kerchief round the head, customary in those countries, without incurring the guilt of desecrating the holy day by needlessly carrying what, in the eyes of the law, would be a burden; while in the rubric for the Day of Atonement we have it noted that the dress which the High-Priest wore ‘between the evenings’ of the great fast - that is, as afternoon darkened into evening - was of most costly ‘Indian’ stuff.
That among such a vast community there should have been poverty, and that at one time, as the Palestinians sneered, learning may have been left to pine in want, we can readily believe. For, as one of the Rabbis had it in explanation of Deu_30:13 : ‘Wisdom is not “beyond the sea” - that is, it will not be found among traders or merchants,’ whose mind must be engrossed by gain. And it was trade and commerce which procured to the Babylonians their wealth and influence, although agriculture was not neglected. Their caravans - of whose camel drivers, by the way, no very flattering account is given - carried the rich carpets and woven stuffs of the East, as well as its precious spices, to the West: generally through Palestine to the Phoenician harbours, where a fleet of merchantmen belonging to Jewish bankers and shippers lay ready to convey them to every quarter of the world. These merchant princes were keenly alive to all that passed, not only in the financial, but in the political world. We know that they were in possession of State secrets, and entrusted with the intricacies of diplomacy. Yet, whatever its condition, this Eastern Jewish community was intensely Hebrew. Only eight days’ journey - though, according to Philo’s western ideas of it, by a difficult road - separated them from Palestine - and every pulsation there vibrated in Babylonia. It was in the most outlying part of that colony, in the wide plains of Arabia, that Saul of Tarsus spent those three years of silent thought and unknown labour, which preceded his re-appearance in Jerusalem, when from the burning longing to labour among his brethren, kindled by long residence among these Hebrews of the Hebrews, he was directed to that strange work which was his life’s mission. And it was among the same community that Peter wrote and laboured, amidst discouragements of which we can form some conception from the sad boast of Nehardaa, that up to the end of the third century it had not numbered among its members any convert to Christianity.
In what has been said, no notice has been taken of those wanderers of the ten tribes, whose trackless footsteps seem as mysterious as their after-fate. The Talmudists name four countries as their seats. But, even if we were to attach historic credence to their value statements, at least two of these localities cannot with any certainty be identified. Only thus far all agree as to point us northwards, through India, Armenia, the Kurdish mountains, and the Caucasus. And with this tallies a curious reference in what is known as 4 Esdras, which locates them in a land called Arzareth, a term which has, with some probability, been identified with the land of Ararat. Josephus describes them as an innumerable multitude, and vaguely locates them beyond the Euphrates. The Mishnah is silent as to their seats, but discusses their future restoration, Rabbi Akiba denying and Rabbi Eliezer anticipating it. Another Jewish tradition locates them by the fabled river Sabbatyon, which was supposed to cease its flow on the weekly Sabbath. This, of course, is an implied admission of ignorance of their seats. Similarly, the Talmud speaks of three localities whither they had been banished: the district around the Sabbatyon; Daphne, near Antioch; while the third was overshadowed and hidden by a cloud.
Later Jewish notices connect the final discovery and the return of the ‘lost tribes’ with their conversion under that second Messiah who, in contradistinction to ‘the Son of David,’ is styled ‘the Son of Joseph,’ to whom Jewish tradition ascribes what it cannot reconcile with the royal dignity of ‘the Son of David,’ and which, if applied to Him, would almost inevitably lead up to the most wide concessions in the Christian argument. As regards the ten tribes there is this truth underlying the strange hypothesis, that, as their persistent apostacy from the God of Israel and His worship had cut them off from his people, so the fulfilment of the Divine promises to them in the latter days would imply, as it were, a second birth to make them once more Israel. Beyond this we are travelling chiefly into the region of conjecture. Modern investigations have pointed to the Nestorians, and latterly with almost convincing evidence (so far as such is possible) to the Afghans, as descended from the lost tribes. Such mixture with, and lapse into, Gentile nationalities seems to have been before the minds of those Rabbis who ordered that, if at present a non-Jew weds a Jewess, such a union was to be respected, since the stranger might be a descendant of the ten tribes. Besides, there is reason to believe that part of them, at least, had coalesced with their brethren of the later exile; while we know that individuals who had settled in Palestine and, presumably, elsewhere, were able to trace descent from them. Still the great mass of the ten tribes was in the days of Christ, as in our own, lost to the Hebrew nation.