When considering the Judaism of the period prior to that of the advent of Jesus Christ (and the development of the new covenant Church), it makes sense to begin with the period of the exiles and the time of the second temple. This period of Judaism, which scholars aptly label “second temple Judaism,” is the Judaism that developed across various “sects” and in multiple nations, during the Jewish “diaspora.” According to the Old Testament (e.g. Ezra 1.1-4; 2 Chron. 36.22-23), the rebuilding of this second temple was made possible by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great (ca. 538 B.C.), who permitted a return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem in order to begin its reconstruction. This project was completed, after a few periods of interruption, in the year 518, under the reign of Darius the Great (cf. Ezra 5).
While the temple had been rebuilt, and its sacrificial worship remained the dominant “centerpiece” of the Jewish religious and cultural experience, the Jews of the diaspora remained the majority. In fact, there were more Jews living in the city of Alexandria during the second temple period than in Jerusalem itself (or in the rest of the diaspora), leading to a substantial Hellenization of the Jewish people. They found it necessary, as a result, to both speak and “think” in Greek terms while scattered among the nations. As Pelikan describes it: “the struggle to remain authentically Jewish and to ‘sing a song of the Lord on alien soil’ was combined with the need to explain and defend the faith to Gentile outsiders, who were also Greek-speaking” (Whose Bible Is It?, p. 56). Even in the city of Rome, and by the days of both Cicero and Virgil (ca. 2nd-1st century B.C.), Greek was the de-facto language of the world (Ibid., p. 51).
Of perhaps equal importance to the temple for the Jews of this period was the Torah or “Law” of Moses. While the temple dominated the religious observances at various times throughout the year, the remainder of time was spent gathered in “synagogues,” where the “elders” or scribes of the people would devote themselves to both the study and interpretation/proclamation of the Law to the people. These elders were the only people of the Jews who had the “leisure” time, as well as the education necessary, to both read and interpret the scriptures. The study of the scriptures (as well as the wisdom of the rabbis) as a sort of “worship” did not become commonplace until well after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. As a result, a “reinvention” of Judaism took place between this period and that of the 2nd century Bar Kochba revolt.
During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ca. 215-164 B.C.), some of the Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem sought to re-make the city into an almost exclusively “Greek” one, with the Law of Moses being supplanted by a new form of democracy. This, in turn, led to a popular revolt that was soon put down by the Seleucid ruler. Antiochus was so annoyed by this attempted rebellion, that he abolished Judaism entirely (2 Macc. 6.1), making the temple a place for the worship of Zeus. This is an event that the Old Testament describes as “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11.31; 12.11; 1 Macc. 1.54). These atrocities in the eyes of the Jewish people led to the Maccabean uprising (ca. 167 B.C.) and the restoration of the worship of the Lord in the temple. Additionally, the family of “Judah the Maccabee” were made the hereditary priest-kings of all of Palestine. Eventually, however, this arrangement led to an ironic reversion back to a Hellenistic monarchy in Jerusalem.
As Walker notes, this context of both revolt and compromise “dominated Palestinian Judaism in the time of Jesus” (A History of the Christian Church, p. 15). When the Roman Empire took possession of Palestine near the end of the first century (B.C.), they set an Idumæan ruler named Herod “the Great” over the Jewish people – and much to their disapproval, despite the fact that Herod restored a significant amount of glory and splendor to the temple, helped spread prosperity and wealth across Palestine, and even acted as an advocate for Jewish interests in the face of Roman opposition. The animosity between the Jews and Rome (and, in fact, any of their recent rulers) continued even when Rome made Judea a province (A.D. 6), as the subsequent, “local rebellion led by the founder of the Zealot party, Judah the Galilean” shows (Ibid., p. 16).
Emerging from centuries of controversy between the Jews and their successive “overlords” were the multiple sects of second temple Judaism, and especially as seen in the time of Jesus and his apostles.
The party most favorable to the secular rulers and the enticement of worldly power were the Sadducees. While being “loyal to the Law” (Ibid., p. 16), the Sadducees accepted a very limited number of the scriptures, rejecting outright the oral traditions of the scribes and “elders.” As Grabbe puts it, the Sadducees rejected “the traditions of the fathers” (An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism, p. 58), leading to a disbelief in both angels and the resurrection (for example). They were closely associated with the popular priesthood of their day, but are almost always referenced with a considerable amount of disdain (e.g. in Josephus’ Antiquities).
Given that the Sadducees – and indeed the majority of the priesthood in the first century – were “compromised” in a number of ways, their antithesis could be seen in the Pharisees, or “the Separated.” Seeking to be the dominant, influential “political party” of their day, the Pharisees existed as a sort of rebellion against the compromised, “mainstream” Judaism of the temple. Their zeal for the Law and their own written traditions (the “traditions of men” which Jesus found wanting, cf. Mark 7.5; Matt. 15.2; Damascus Document) inspired them. Their aversion to mainstream Judaism also perhaps led to their zeal for “food laws” outside of the context of the temple, subverting the priesthood for a “lay movement” that attempted to “extend the temple regulations outside the temple to their own homes” (Grabbe, p. 56). “Pharisee-ism” was not, as is popularly believed, a simple matter of “legalism” or “works righteousness,” but was rather a staunch concern for the ritual purity of the Jews in the midst of “polluting” Gentiles (their various occupiers over the centuries, and presently the Greco-Romans), not to mention the Gentile “invasion” within the temple itself (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q394-395). This was a viewpoint apparently shared by the “Essenes” or Qumran sectarians, which led to their extreme anti-temple isolation in the wilderness outside Jerusalem.
The Essenes are almost entirely known to modern scholars through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; a priceless library found in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in the early 20th century. Their documents set forth a conflict (dating to anywhere from the 2nd century B.C. to the first century A.D.) between their “Righteous Teacher” and the “Wicked Priest” of Jerusalem. Their adherence to the interpretations of their “Teacher” led them to not only abandon the mainstream Judaism of the city, but also to beliefs and practices that were somewhat distinct from that of second temple Judaism as a whole. Interestingly enough, many of their practices can be seen as precursors (or even influential) to early, Jewish-based Christianity; e.g. sacred meals of “bread and wine” led by the community leader (“Community Rule,” 1QS), consecration of “overseers” (bishops?) with qualifications similar to that as found in the writings of the apostle Paul (Damascus Document, Geniza A, Col. 16; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2-4), and an organized community structure with the purpose of awaiting the “future redemption of Israel” by a messianic figure (or figures) who would defeat their enemies and purify Judea from the “pollution” of the Gentiles once and for all (Walker et al., p. 17).
While both the Essenes and Pharisees disagreed on a number of points, their shared skepticism for the “current state of affairs,” combined with an apocalyptic expectation of deliverance from God cannot be overlooked. This hope for God to “visit and redeem his people” (Luke 1:68) was palpable by the time of Christ’s birth, and the literature of the preceding and even following decades bear witness to such a fact (e.g. 1 & 2 Enoch, the Wisdom of Solomon, The Assumption of Moses, the Apocalypse to John, etc.). Alongside the messianic hope came a proliferation of the genre of “wisdom literature,” which was primarily concerned with a proper understanding of “God’s law” (Walker et al., p. 18-9).
Like the Greek concept of “Logos,” the “Wisdom” of God was capable of ordering all of creation, “summoning people” to become “friends of God” as a “saving agent” (Ibid., p. 18). The later Christian connection between the person of Jesus Christ and both Wisdom and Logos seems only natural (e.g. John 1:1), and there was much groundwork laid by the writings of Jewish philosophers such as Philo, who taught that God is “linked to the world by the divine powers,” of which the “highest” power is Logos (Ibid., p. 19). Philo’s speculations regarding the Logos of God “fuses together elements from many sources,” such as Hellenistic wisdom literature, Greek philosophy, and the more ancient writings of the Hebrews (Ibid., p. 19).
It was within this context of “thinking” that the Christian religion arose as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 1 Enoch 91:18; 2 Enoch 30:15), being both a fulfillment and culmination of the speculations of philosophers as well as the reflections of the Jews (in their various sectarian manifestations) on the Law of God.