Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Book 1, Chapter 6

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Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Book 1, Chapter 6

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Chapter VI. Political and Religious Life of the Jewish Dispersion in the West - Their Union in the Great Hope of the Coming Deliverer.

It was not only in the capital of the Empire that the Jews enjoyed the rights of Roman citizenship. Many in Asia Minor could boast of the same privileged. The Seleucidic rulers of Syria had previously bestowed kindred privileges on the Jews in many places. Thus, they possessed in some cities twofold rights: the status of Roman and the privileges of Asiatic, citizenship. Those who enjoyed the former were entitled to a civil government of their own, under archons of their choosing, quite independent of the rule and tribunals of the cities in which they lived. As instances, we may mention the Jews of Sardis, Ephesus, Delos, and apparently also of Antioch. But, whether legally entitled to it or not, they probably everywhere claimed the right of self-government, and exercised it, except in times of persecution. But, as already stated, they also possessed, besides this, at least in many places, the privileges of Asiatic citizenship, to the same extent as their heathen fellow-citizens. This twofold status and jurisdiction might have led to serious complications, if the Archons had not confined their authority to strictly communal interests, without interfering with the ordinary administration of justice, and the Jews willingly submitted to the sentences pronounced by their own tribunals.

But, in truth, they enjoyed even more than religious liberty and communal privileges. It was quite in the spirit of the times, that potentates friendly to Israel bestowed largesses alike on the Temple in Jerusalem, and on the Synagogues in the provinces. The magnificent porch of the Temple was ‘adorned’ with many such ‘dedicated gifts.’ Thus, we read of repeated costly offerings by the Ptolemies, of a golden wreath which Sosius offered after he had taken Jerusalem in conjunction with Herod, and of rich flagons which Augustus and his wife had given to the Sanctuary. And, although this same Emperor praised his grandson for leaving Jerusalem unvisited on his journey from Egypt to Syria, yet he himself made provision for a daily sacrifice on his behalf, which only ceased when the last war against Rome was proclaimed. Even the circumstance that there was a ‘Court of the Gentiles,’ with marble screen beautifully ornamented, bearing tablets which, in Latin and Greek, warned Gentiles not to proceed further, proves that the Sanctuary was largely attended by others than Jews, or, in the words of Josephus, that ‘it was held in reverence by nations from the ends of the earth.’

In Syria also, where, according to Josephus, the largest number of Jews lived, they experienced special favour. In Antioch their rights and immunities were recorded on tables of brass.

But, indeed, the capital of Syria was one of their favourite resorts. It will be remembered what importance attached to it in the early history of the Christian Church. Antioch was the third city of the Empire, and lay just outside what the Rabbinists designated as ‘Syria’ and still regarded as holy ground. Thus it formed, so to speak, an advanced post between the Palestinian and the Gentile world. Its chief Synagogue was a magnificent building, to which the successors of Antiochus Epiphanes had given the spoils which that monarch had brought from the Temple. The connection between Jerusalem and Antioch was very close. All that occurred in that city was eagerly watched in the Jewish capital. The spread of Christianity there must have excited deep concern. Careful as the Talmud is not to afford unwelcome information, which might have led to further mischief, we know that three of the principal Rabbis went thither on a mission - we can scarcely doubt for the purpose of arresting the progress of Christianity. Again, we find at a later period a record of religious controversy in Antioch between Rabbis and Christians. Yet the Jews of Antioch were strictly Hellenistic, and on one occasion a great Rabbi was unable to find among them a copy of even the Book of Es in Hebrew, which, accordingly, he had to write out from memory for his use in their Synagogue. A fit place this great border-city, crowded by Hellenists, in close connection with Jerusalem, to be the birthplace of the name ‘Christian,’ to send forth a Paul on his mission to the Gentile world, and to obtain for it a charter of citizenship far nobler than that of which the record was graven on tablets of brass.

But, whatever privileges Israel might enjoy, history records an almost continuous series of attempts, on the part of the communities among whom they lived, to deprive them not only of their immunities, but even of their common rights. Foremost among the reasons of this antagonism we place the absolute contrariety between heathenism and the Synagogue, and the social isolation which Judaism rendered necessary. It was avowedly 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 him a Jew. But besides, there was that pride of descent, creed, enlightenment, and national privileges, which St. Paul so graphically sums up as ‘making boast of God and of the law.’ However differently they might have expressed it, Philo and Hillel would have been at one as to the absolute superiority of the Jew as such. Pretensions of this kind must have been the more provocative, that the populace at any rate envied the prosperity which Jewish industry, talent, and capital everywhere secured. Why should that close, foreign corporation possess every civic right, and yet be free from many of its burdens? Why should their meetings be excepted from the ‘collegia illicita’? Why should they alone be allowed to export part of the national wealth, to dedicate it to their superstition in Jerusalem? The Jew could not well feign any real interest in what gave its greatness to Ephesus, its attractiveness to Corinth, its influence to Athens. He was ready to profit by it; but his inmost thought must have been contempt, and all he wanted was quietness and protection in his own pursuits. What concern had he with those petty squabbles, ambitions, or designs, which agitated the turbulent populace in those Grecian cities? What cared he for their popular meetings and noisy discussions? The recognition of the fact that, as Jews, they were strangers in a strange land, made them so loyal to the ruling powers, and procured them the protection of kings and Caesars. But it also roused the hatred of the populace.

That such should have been the case, and these widely scattered members have been united in one body, is a unique fact in history. Its only true explanation must be sought in a higher Divine impulse. The links which bound them together were: a common creed, a common life, a common centre, and a common hope.

Wherever the Jew sojourned, or however he might differ from his brethren, Monotheism, the Divine mission of Moses, and the authority of the Old Testament, were equally to all unquestioned articles of belief. It may well have been that the Hellenistic Jew, living in the midst of a hostile, curious, and scurrilous population, did not, care to exhibit over his house and doorposts, at the right of the entrance, the mezuzah, which enclosed the folded parchment that, on twenty-two lines, bore the words from Deu_4:4-9 and Deu_11:13-21, or to call attention by their breadth to the tepilin, or phylacteries on his left arm and forehead, or even to make observable the šišit, or fringes on the borders of his garments. Perhaps, indeed, all these observances may at that time not have been deemed incumbent on every Jew. At any rate, we do not find mention of them in heathen writers. Similarly, they could easily keep out of view, or they may not have had conveniences for, their prescribed purifications. But in every place, as we have abundant evidence, where there were at least ten baṭlanim - male householders who had leisure to give themselves to regular attendance - they had, from ancient times, one, and, if possible, more Synagogues. Where there was no Synagogue there was at least a Proseuche, or meeting-place, under the open sky, after the form of a theatre generally outside the town, near a river or the sea, for the sake of lustrations. These, as we know from classical writers, were well known to the heathen, and even frequented by them. Their Sabbath observance, their fasting on Thursdays, their Day of Atonement, their laws relating to food, and their pilgrimages to Jerusalem - all found sympathisers among Judaising Gentiles. They even watched to see, how the Sabbath lamp was kindled, and the solemn prayers spoken which marked the beginning of the Sabbath. But to the Jew the Synagogue was the bond of union throughout the world. There, on Sabbath and feast days they met to read, from the same Lectionary, the same Scripture-lessons which their brethren read throughout the world, and to say, in the words of the same liturgy, their common prayers, catching echoes of the gorgeous Temple-services in Jerusalem. The heathen must have been struck with awe as they listened, and watched in the gloom of the Synagogue the mysterious light at the far curtained end, where the sacred oracles were reverently kept, wrapped in costly coverings. Here the stranger Jew also would find himself at home: the same arrangements as in his own land, and the well-known services and prayers. A hospitable welcome at the Sabbath-meal, and in many a home, would be pressed on him, and ready aid be proffered in work or trial.

For, deepest of all convictions was that of their common centre; strongest of all feelings was the love which bound them to Palestine and to Jerusalem, the city of God, the joy of all the earth, the glory of His people Israel. ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.’ Hellenist and Eastern equally realised this. As the soil of his native land, the deeds of his people, or the graves of his fathers draw the far-off wanderer to the home of his childhood, or fill the mountaineer in his exile with irrepressible longing, so the sounds which the Jew heard in his Synagogue, and the observances which he kept. Nor was it with him merely matter of patriotism, of history, or of association. It was a religious principle, a spiritual hope. No truth more firmly rooted in the consciousness of all, than that in Jerusalem alone men could truly worship. As Daniel of old had in his hour of worship turned towards the Holy City, so in the Synagogue and in his prayers every Jew turned towards Jerusalem; and anything that might imply want of reverence, when looking in that direction, was considered a grievous sin. From every Synagogue in the Diaspora the annual Temple-tribute went up to Jerusalem, no doubt often accompanied by rich votive offerings. Few, who could undertake or afford the journey, but had at some time or other gone up to the Holy City to attend one of the great feasts. Philo, who was held by the same spell as the most bigoted Rabbinist, had himself been one of those deputed by his fellow-citizens to offer prayers and sacrifices in the great Sanctuary. Views and feelings of this kind help us to understand, how, on some great feast, as Josephus states on sufficient authority, the population of Jerusalem - within its ecclesiastical boundaries - could have swelled to the enormous number of nearly three millions.

And still, there was an even stronger bond in their common hope. That hope pointed them all, wherever scattered, back to Palestine. To them the coming of the Messiah undoubtedly implied the restoration of Israel’s kingdom, and, as a first part in it, the return of ‘the dispersed.’ Indeed, every devout Jew prayed, day by day: ‘Proclaim by Thy loud trumpet our deliverance, and raise up a banner to gather our dispersed, and gather us together from the four ends of the earth. Blessed be Thou, O Lord! Who gatherest the outcasts of Thy people Israel.’ That prayer included in its generality also the lost ten tribes. So, for example, the prophecy was rendered: ‘They hasten hither, like a bird out of Egypt,’ - referring to Israel of old; ‘and like a dove out of the land of Assyria’ - referring to the ten tribes. And thus even these wanderers, so long lost, were to be reckoned in the field of the Good Shepherd.

It is worth while to trace, how universally and warmly both Eastern and Western Judaism cherished this hope of all Israel’s return to their own land. The Targumim bear repeated reference to it; and although there may be question as to the exact date of these paraphrases, it cannot be doubted, that in this respect they represented the views of the Synagogue at the time of Jesus. For the same reason we may gather from the Talmud and earliest commentaries, what Israel’s hope was in regard to the return of the ‘dispersed.’ It was a beautiful idea to liken Israel to the olive-tree, which is never stripped of its leaves. The storm of trial that had swept over it was, indeed, sent in judgment, but not to destroy, only to purify. Even so, Israel’s persecutions had served to keep them from becoming mixed with the Gentiles. Heaven and earth might be destroyed, but not Israel; and their final deliverance would far out-strip in marvellousness that from Egypt. The winds would blow to bring together the dispersed; nay, if there were a single Israelite in a land, however distant, he would be restored. With every honour would the nations bring them back. The patriarchs and all the just would rise to share in the joys of the new possession of their land; new hymns as well as the old ones would rise to the praise of God. Nay, the bounds of the land would be extended far beyond what they had ever been, and made as wide as originally promised to Abraham. Nor would that possession be ever taken from them, nor those joys be ever succeeded by sorrows. In view of such general expectations we cannot fail to mark with what wonderful sobriety the Apostles put the question to Jesus: ‘Wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’

Hopes and expectations such as these are expressed not only in Talmudical writings. We find them throughout that very interesting Apocalyptic class of literature, the Pseudepigrapha, to which reference has already been made. The two earliest of them, the Book of Enoch and the Sibylline Oracles, are equally emphatic on this subject. The seer in the Book of Enoch beholds Israel in the Messianic time as coming in carriages, and as borne on the wings of the wind from East, and West, and South. Fuller details of that happy event are furnished by the Jewish Sibyl. In her utterances these three events are connected together: the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of the dispersed, when all nations would bring their wealth to the House of God. The latter trait specially reminds us of their Hellenistic origin. A century later the same joyous confidence, only perhaps more clearly worded appears in the so-called ‘Psalter of Solomon.’ Thus the seventeenth Ps bursts into this strain: ‘Blessed are they who shall live in those days - in the reunion of the tribes, which God brings about.’ And no wonder, since they are the days when ‘the King, the Son of David,’ having purged Jerusalem and destroyed the heathen by the word of His mouth, would gather together a holy people which He would rule with justice, and judge the tribes of His people, ‘dividing them over the land according to tribes;’ when ‘no stranger would any longer dwell among them.’

Another pause, and we reach the time when Jesus the Messiah appeared. Knowing the characteristics of that time, we scarcely wonder that the Book of Jubilees, which dates from that period, should have been Rabbinic in its cast rather than Apocalyptic. Yet even there the reference to the future glory is distinct. Thus we are told, that, though for its wickedness Israel had been scattered, God would ‘gather them all from the midst of the heathen,’ ‘build among them His Sanctuary, and dwell with them.’ That Sanctuary was to ‘be for ever and ever, and God would appear to the eye of every one, and every one acknowledge that He was the God of Israel, and the Father of all the Children of Jacob, and King upon Mount Zion, from everlasting to everlasting. And Zion and Jerusalem shall be holy.’ When listening to this language of, perhaps, a contemporary of Jesus, we can in some measure understand the popular indignation which such a charge would call forth, as that the Man of Nazareth had proposed to destroy the Temple or that he thought merely of the children of Jacob.

There is an ominous pause of a century before we come to the next work of this class, which bears the title of the Fourth Book of Esdras. That century had been decisive in the history of Israel. Jesus had lived and died; His Apostles had gone forth to bear the tidings of the new Kingdom of God; the Church had been founded and separated from the Synagogue; and the Temple had been destroyed, the Holy City laid waste, and Israel undergone sufferings, compared with which the former troubles might almost be forgotten. But already the new doctrine had struck its roots deep alike in Eastern and in Hellenistic soil. It were strange indeed if, in such circumstances, this book should not have been different from any that had preceded it; stranger still, if earnest Jewish minds and ardent Jewish hearts had remained wholly unaffected by the new teaching, even though the doctrine of the Cross still continued a stumbling-block, and the Gospel announcement a rock of offence. But perhaps we could scarcely have been prepared to find, as in the Fourth Book of Esdras, doctrinal views which were wholly foreign to Judaism, and evidently derived from the New Testament, and which, in logical consistency, would seem to lead up to it. The greater part of the book may be described as restless tossing, the seer being agitated by the problem and the consequences of sin, which here for the first and only time is presented as in the New Testament; by the question, why there are so few who are saved; and especially by what to a Jew must have seemed the inscrutable, terrible mystery of Israel’s sufferings and banishment. Yet, so far as we can see, no other way of salvation is indicated than that by works and personal righteousness. Throughout there is a tone of deep sadness and intense earnestness. It almost seems sometimes, as if one heard the wind of the new dispensation sweeping before it the withered leaves of Israel’s autumn. Thus far for the principal portion of the book. The second, or Apocalyptic, part, endeavors to solve the mystery of Israel’s state by foretelling their future. Here also there are echoes of New Testament utterances. What the end is to be, we are told in unmistakable language. His ‘Son,’ Whom the Highest has for a long time preserved, to deliver ‘the creature’ by Him, is suddenly to appear in the form of a Man. From His mouth shall proceed alike woe, fire, and storm, which are the tribulations of the last days. And as they shall gather for war against Him, He shall stand on Mount Zion, and the Holy City shall come down from heaven, prepared and ready, and He shall destroy all His enemies. But a peaceable multitude shall now be gathered to Him. These are the ten tribes, who, to separate themselves from the ways of the heathen, had wandered far away, miraculously helped, a journey of one and a half years, and who were now similarly restored by God to their own land. But as for the ‘Son,’ or those who accompanied him, no one on earth would be able to see or know them, till the day of His appearing.

It seems scarcely necessary to complete the series of testimony by referring in detail to a book, called ‘The Prophecy and Assumption of Moses,’ and to what is known as the Apocalypse of Baruch, the servant of Jeremiah. Both date from probably a somewhat later period than the Fourth Book of Esdras, and both are fragmentary. The one distinctly anticipates the return of the ten tribes; the other, in the letter to the nine and a half tribes, far beyond the Euphrates, with which the book closes, preserves an ominous silence on that point, or rather alludes to it in language which so strongly reminds us of the adverse opinion expressed in the Talmud, that we cannot help suspecting some internal connection between the two.

The writings to which we have referred have all a decidedly Hellenistic tinge of thought. Still they are not the outcome of pure Hellenism. It is therefore with peculiar interest that we turn to Philo, the great representative of that direction, to see whether he would admit an idea so purely national and, as it might seem, exclusive. Nor are we here left in doubt. So universal was this belief, so deep-seated the conviction, not only in the mind, but in the heart of Israel, that we could scarcely find it more distinctly expressed than by the great Alexandrian. However low the condition of Israel might be, he tells us, or however scattered the people to the ends of the earth. the banished would, on a given sign, be set free in one day. In consistency with his system, he traces this wondrous event to their sudden conversion to virtue, which would make their masters ashamed to hold any longer in bondage those who were so much better than themselves. Then, gathering as by one impulse, the dispersed would return from Hellas, from the lands of the barbarians, from the isles, and from the continents, led by a Divine, superhuman apparition invisible to others, and visible only to themselves. On their arrival in Palestine the waste places and the wilderness would be inhabited, and the barren land transformed into fruitfulness.

Whatever shades of difference, then, we may note in the expression of these views, all anticipate the deliverance of Israel, their restoration, and future pre-eminent glory, and they all connect these events with the coming of the Messiah. This was ‘the promise’ unto which, in their ‘instant service night and day, the twelve tribes,’ however grievously oppressed, hoped to come. To this ‘sure word of prophecy’ ‘the strangers scattered’ throughout all lands would ‘take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place,’ until the day dawned, and the day-star rose in their hearts. It was this which gave meaning to their worship, filled them with patience in suffering, kept them separate from the nations around, and ever fixed their hearts and thoughts upon Jerusalem. For the ‘Jerusalem’ which was above was ‘the mother’ of them all. Yet a little while, and He that would come should come, and not tarry - and then all the blessing and glory would be theirs. At any moment the gladsome tidings might burst upon them, that He had come, when their glory would shine out from one end of the heavens to the other. All the signs of His Advent had come to pass. Perhaps, indeed, the Messiah might even now be there, ready to manifest Himself, so soon as the voice of Israel’s repentance called Him from His hiding. Any hour might that banner be planted on the top of the mountains that glittering sword be unsheathed; that trumpet sound. Close, then, and still closer, must be their connection with Jerusalem, as their salvation drew nigh; more earnest their longing, and more eager their gaze, till the dawn of that long expected day tinged the Eastern sky with its brightness.