The Jewish World


Jesus was born into a Jewish family and lived his life mainly among Jews.  Also, the faith of the NT (Christianity) is rooted in the Jewish faith, and so knowledge of the Old Testament and the Jewish world of the First Century is vital to understanding the NT. 




1.       Old Testament History

2.       Jewish History between the OT and the NT (known as the Intertestamental Period)

3.       Jewish History during the NT Period

4.       Jesus could not have been born 50 years later

5.       4 Different Jewish Religious Groups


1. Old Testament (OT) History


I am going to send you to a link that covers the main points in OT history.  Do not be overwhelmed because you do not need to remember all of it.  I have highlighted the parts you need to know for this course because they play a role in the events of the NT.  At the web page I have the important aspects underlined but will list them and discuss them below.  I will make references to different parts of the OT story throughout this class, and so you should read it so you will be familiar when I mention different parts found there:


1.       Two Cornerstones:  the Covenant with Abraham and the Law with Moses

2.       The Tabernacle, the Temples, and Synagogues


You will need to know these for the following reasons:


The Covenant:  around 1950 BC


In the web page above you will see how God worked through Adam and Eve and Noah but finally created his own people.  According to the early chapters in Genesis, God and Abraham entered into a covenant that created that people of God.   You can read the Covenant here in verses 1-11: 


A covenant, like any contract, is between two parties.  Each party will agree to do something.  In this case, the following promises were made:


1.       God:

a.      Will make Abrahamís descendants into a large nation.

b.      Will give Abrahamís descendants the land where Abraham lived forever (called Israel today).

2.       Abrahamís part:  all male descendants will be circumcised at 8 days of age.


This covenant is the basis of Judaism and the OT.  Jesus, as a Jew, was also circumcised at 8 days of age (the Gospel of Luke tells us this).  Jews today see themselves as Godís chosen people because of this Covenant.  Please note that Jews use the OT as their holy book, although they do not call it the Old Testament.  Instead it is called the Tanak or Torah in a Jewish context.


The Law:  around 1450 BC, although many scholars believe the date should be 1250 BC


In the OT story web page you will see that God eventually told the Jews how to live and ďrunĒ their Jewish faith by giving them the Law through Moses.  In the OT story website you will remember that the Jews had escaped from Egypt and were beginning to wander in the desert.  At that point God gave them the Law.  In the OT this is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  You can think of the Law as a nation-building tool for the Jews.  They escaped from Egypt but had no rules to govern themselves or even instructions on how to please God.  So God put all those instructions into the Law.  Now, many people think the Law only contains the 10 Commandments, but it also contains the following:


         10 Commandments

         When to sacrifice

         What to sacrifice

         How to build the Tabernacle

         Describes the different religious festivals (but not Hanukah; more on that below)

         Which foods to eat

         plus much, much more


The Covenant and the Law


Put these two together and you have the complete Jewish religious system as found in the OT and used up to the days of Jesus.  You can think of them this way:


         Covenant:  established the people of God

         Law:  told the people of God how to live


Remember these two points because, once we get to the book of Acts, I will show you how Jesus transformed them into Christianity. 


The Tabernacle


In the Law of Moses God told the Jews to build a large tent where they could offer sacrifices.  This Tabernacle consisted of three parts:


1.       The Holy of Holies, 7.5 ft by 7.5 ft:  The ark of the covenant was located there.  This was a golden box that contained the 10 Commandments on the stone tablets and other items.  It was the most holy item the Jews owned.  This small room was the most holy place to the Jews.

2.       The Holy Place, 15 ft by 30 ft:  This was a larger room in front of the Holy of Holies

a.      Together these formed a large tent with two rooms called the Tabernacle

3.       The Courtyard, 75 ft by 150 ft.  The area around the Tabernacle had a fence around it.  The sacrifices were made in the courtyard.  Only the priests could go inside the Courtyard.  In order to make a sacrifice a Jew brought the animal or item to the priest at the gate to the courtyard, and the priest made the sacrifice inside the courtyard but not inside the Tabernacle. 


As the Jews traveled through the desert for 40 years, they carried the Tabernacle and the fence with them.  Whenever they camped they first set up the Tabernacle and fence and then took it down when they moved.  After they conquered Israel they set up the Tabernacle and did not move it again.  Once the Temple (discussed below) was built they did not use the Tabernacle again, and we do not know what happened to it.  For a picture of a life-size model of the Tabernacle and the fence go here:


The Temples


This gets a little bit complicated.  There were two temples:


         First one was built when Solomon was king around the year 950 BC.  It is known as the First Temple

         It was destroyed in 586 BC

         The Second Temple was completed around the year 519 BC

         It was destroyed in AD 70

         Optional:  It has not been rebuilt.  The Jews want to rebuild it but cannot because the Dome of the Rock is located there.  I will not say any more about that because it is a different class, but you can see a picture of the Dome of the Rock plus the last part of the Second Temple here:   The Dome of the Rock is the building with gold plating, and the Western Wall is the wall in the middle of the picture.  It is actually not a part of the Temple itself (which was destroyed in 70) but is a retaining wall built by Herod the Great (who tried to kill Jesus) to hold back dirt so that the area around the Temple could be enlarged. 

         So the Temple that Jesus and Paul went to was the Second Temple.  It also had a place for the priests to make sacrifices and a Holy of Holies.  You can see a picture of it here: 


In addition, the Temple was the only place where sacrifices could be made and so it was extremely important to the Jews. 




Remember back to the OT story:  The Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom of Judah in the year 586 BC and the First Temple was destroyed.  Most of the Jews were taken to Babylonia to live as prisoners.  While there the Jews wanted to continue to worship God but they had two problems:  (1) the Temple was destroyed and (2) they were over 500 miles from Jerusalem and couldnít get to the Temple even if it was still there.  Therefore they decided to develop what I call ďPlan BĒ:  Synagogues.  You can think of synagogues like churches in that there was not one synagogue but many synagogues.  The rule was that a synagogue had to consist of ten Jewish males and a copy of the Tanak (the OT). 


This worked so well for the Jews that, after they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple, they decided to continue worshipping at the synagogues whenever they could not get to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore, during the time of Jesus many synagogues developed.  Plus, after the Second Temple was destroyed, the Jews kept alive the idea of synagogues, and it has been so successful that that is where Jews worship today. 


2.  Jewish History between the OT and the NT


Timeline (all dates are approximate)


586 BC:  Babylonians conquer Israel and take most of the Jews to Babylonia as prisoners.

539 BC:  The Persians defeated the Babylonians; the Persian king allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and

rebuild the Temple (II Chronicles 36:23).

519 BC:  The Jews completed the Second Temple.  In Jewish studies the time period from this year to AD 70 is

known as the Second Temple Period.

450 BC:  Malachi lived, the last OT prophet.

323 BC:  Alexander the Great died.  He conquered Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Israel, Egypt, and as far east as

present-day Pakistan.

323 BC:  Alexanderís empire was divided amongst his generals; Egypt took control of Israel.

200 BC:  The Seleucid Empire took control of Israel from Egypt.  This empire was based in present-day Iran

167 BC:  The Jews rebelled and regained parts of Israel including Jerusalem.  The Jews gained more land over

the next fifty years and formed the kingdom of Israel. 

63 BC:  The Roman Empire took over Israel.  No battles were fought.  The Roman Empire dominated the region

and the Jews surrendered. 

40 BC:  The Roman Empire made Herod the Great king of Israel.  He was neither a real Jew nor a real king. 

         Not a real Jew:  His family were Idumeans who lived south of Israel.  (This is the same as Edom mentioned in the OT.)  They had converted to Judaism 100 years earlier either by being forced by the Jews (who were powerful at that point in time) or for political reasons. 

         Not a real king:  Herodís father, Antipater, with 3000 soldiers under his command, had rescued Julius Caesar when Caesar had been surrounded while fighting a battle in Egypt.  Caesar made him a citizen of Rome.  In 40 BC, the Romans made his son, Herod, king of Israel.

4 BC:  Herod the Great died.


3.  Jewish History during the NT period. 




4 BC:  Herod the Great died

         Remember from the lesson about Pax Romana that some of the Jews were happy the Romans were in control because of Pax Romana.  Other Jews didnít care about Pax Romana but instead were more concerned with the promises of the Covenant, especially the part about the Jews controlling the land forever.  Therefore some of the Jews began to wait for God to raise up a military leader like Moses and David to lead them in battle against the Romans and regain the land.

4 BC:  After Herod the Great died, the kingdom of the Jews was divided and given to Herodís three sons:

         The northern part, north of Nazareth, went to Herod Philip.

         The middle part, north of Jerusalem but where Nazareth was located, went to Herod Arippa.

         The southern part, where Jerusalem was located, went to Herod Archelaus. 

AD 6:  Many Jews complained to the Roman Empire about Archelaus, and he was removed due to his cruelty

(he killed many Jews) and a marriage that went against the Law of Moses.  He died in AD 18.

From AD 6:  The Romans did not choose another of Herodís descendants to control southern Jerusalem but

instead sent Roman governors.

26-36:  The Roman governor in charge of southern Israel was Pilate.

66:  Some of the Jews got tired of the Roman rule and killed many Roman soldiers.  They thus took back the

land of Israel for the Jews.  For extra in-depth information go here:

66-70:  The Romans counter-attacked.  The Romans lost one battle, but won the war.

70:  The Romans captured Jerusalem.  They then sacked the city and burned the Temple. 

         Optional:  the Temple has not been rebuilt because the Dome of the Rock is located in that spot.  This is a serious issue for Jews, because sacrifices (as described in the Law of Moses) can only be made in the Temple.  Therefore, since the year 70, when the Temple was destroyed, Jews have not made sacrifices.  In my opinion (and I could be wrong) Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) has replaced the sacrifices that Jews cannot make.  Yom Kippur is mentioned in the OT, and was practiced when the Temple existed, but it has taken on a heightened significance in the absence of the Temple.


4   Jesus could not have been born 50 years later


From the last date on the timeline, 70, you can see that Israel was under hostile occupation by the Romans.  Therefore, if Jesus had lived 50 years later, he would have been thirty years old in the year 80, when Israel was still under the Roman ďmartial lawĒ and so he would not have been able to travel around and gain followers. 


5.  4 Different Jewish Religious Groups


1.       Pharisees

2.       Sadducees

3.       Herodians

4.       Zealots

5.       A fifth group also existed, the Essenes.  That Jewish religious group produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But, since they have no impact on the NT, we will not discuss them.  On the other hand, all four of the above groups are mentioned in the NT. 


The simplest way to divide these four groups is in two categories:  what did they think about the Romans and what did they think about new ideas that developed in the time period between the OT and the NT.  Letís start with a chart and end with a discussion of the chart.


Jewish Religious Group

Did they like the Romans?

Did they accept new ideas?









Does not matter for our study



Does not matter for our study




Remember back to the discussion of Pax Romana.  I mentioned that some people the Romans conquered wanted the Romans to be in charge because it ended wars and made travel and commerce much more accessible.  For the Jews that was the Sadducees.  They were a prominent Jewish religious group who wanted to Romans to be in control and they desired accommodation to the Roman Empire.  They were not as passionate about fulfilling the Covenant and getting their land back because they valued peace and security more than ownership of the land. 


On the other hand, the Pharisees did want to see the Covenant fulfilled and the land returned to the Jews.


The Herodians were really more of a political group than a religious group.  They were followers of King Herod, and many of them had jobs because of the association with the king.  Think about it this way: whenever someone become president or prime minister of a country, that person has the right to appoint many of their followers to different jobs in the government.  It was the same way with the Herodians.  As long as the Roman Empire remained in power, they kept their jobs.  Therefore they were strong advocates of Rome because they know that if some of the Jews ever revolted against the Romans that they would lose their jobs, possibly their homes and money, and even their lives. 


The Zealots, on the other hand, despised the Romans.  They were enthusiastic and zealous for the land God promised t them in the Covenant; they were extreme Jewish nationalists.  Some scholars believe the Zealots led the revolt against the Romans in 66, and led in the subsequent battles with the Romans until Jerusalem was destroyed in 70

         One of Jesusí followers was a Zealot:  Simon the Zealot, listed in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13.

         A smaller group of Zealots were the Sicarii.  They were known as assassins and particularly targeted Jews who worked or fought for the Romans. 

         Judas, the Apostle who betrayed Jesus, might have been a Sicarii.  Judas was also known as Judas Iscariott, and some scholars believe that Iscariott is a form of Sicarii: 

  S i c a r i i

I s   c a r i   o t


New Ideas


A span of around 450 years exists between the last book of the OT, Malachi, and Jesus.  Over that time period different ideas developed within Judaism.  Some Jews accepted them and others didnít.  The Herodians were more interested in the Romans remaining in power, and the Zealots were more interested in getting the land of Israel back from the Romans, and so they were not as concerned about the new ideas.  But the Pharisees and the Sadducees were very interested in the religious aspect of Judaism and so were concerned about the new laws. 


For example, if you read the OT you will not have an understanding of what happens to someone after they die.  During the Intertestamental period the idea that people can go to heaven and live with God developed.  The Pharisees accepted new ideas, and so accepted this idea.  The Sadducees did not accept new ideas, instead only accepting the authority of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT that contained the Law of Moses) and so did not accept this idea.  You can see an example of this in one conversation between Jesus and some Sadducees in Luke 20:27:  ďSome of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.Ē 


Dr. Nickens


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