It is obvious to the most superficial reader of the New Testament that a fundamental difference existed between the teaching of Jesus and the Judaism of His day. Why? The answer is surprising!
History shows and the Jews themselves admit - that their religion had drifted far away from the simple doctrines of Scripture commonly call the ”Old Testament.” The Jews had modified God’s law and even instituted laws and commandments of their own which were in many instances, diametrically opposite to the precepts of Moses.
It is time were realize that Christ came to a people who had, through their human laws and traditions, rejected the religion of the Old Testament which God had given to their forefathers.
These are the plain facts of history. It is important that we understand this if we are to comprehend the significance of events in the New Testament period. Christ, in effect, came to retrieve the Jews from their apostasy from their rejection of the laws of God. And, He came to reveal to them the Gospel the New Testament revelation - to complete the promises that God gave to Moses, not to do away with them!
Many people have erroneously assumed that the Judaism in the time of Christ was a religion united in a common bond every Jew believing about the same thing all united into one major Jewish denomination. This is the first illusion that history reveals.
Judaism was divided into many sects in Jesus’ day. Each had its peculiar beliefs. One of the most authoritative Jewish writers on Judaism, Dr. Herford, tells us: “If it were possible to analyze the Judaism of the New Testament period into all its component elements, the results of the process would be to show how complex a variety is summed up under that name, and how far from the truth it is to speak of ‘the Jews’ collectively as if they were all alike; in respect to their Judaism” (Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 41-41).
Judaism was not one unified organization. Actually, there were many religious sects comprising it. And, even within some of these major sects there were many “splinter” groups which had their own ideas and beliefs. In many respects, the Judaism of Christ’s time was not unlike our own world. We have many competitive sects representing “Christianity.” So likewise, the Jews had their divisions, differing sects representing “Judaism.”
Some of these sects will be familiar from the New Testament. There were the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Zealots and Herodians. However, there were many more divisions of which we have a good deal of history. Some of these were the Essenes, the Qumran sects (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls of which so much has been written about), and others who are called, by contemporary religious historians, Apocalyptics.
There were other divisions among the Jews who lived in the surrounding areas, such as Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Greece, etc. There certainly was not just one single Jewish sect; Judaism was split into many fragments.
But history reveals another shocking and little-understood fact. It will eradicate the fiction from many people’s minds that the Jews, as a whole, were deeply interested in religion at that time in history.
The records show that far less than 5% of the total Jewish population of Palestine belonged directly to any of the religious groups mentioned above.
Unbelievable as it sounds it is true! Over 95% of the total Palestine population was neither Pharisee, Scribe, Zealot, Herodian, Essene, Qumran, nor Apocalyptic. These people the overwhelming majority in Palestine had not direct membership in these religious denominations of Judaism and in most cases were not particularly religious at all.
The Pharisees referred to the mass of the people as the Am ha-aretz. The word is Hebrew and signifies “The People of the Land,” or simply, “The Common People.”
These people were the multitudes who lived in the cities, towns, and country. They were, in many respects, like many non-church members today some went to the synagogues frequently, many only occasionally, and many never attended at all.
The scholar Herford had this to say about these people: “It is clear that the Am ha-aretz (the Common People) were not all of one type, either in respect of their religion or socially and economically. Just as they included rich and poor, capitalist and laborer, the merchant, the farmer, the artisan, the tax-gatherer (publican) and the tradesman, so, on the religious side, they included those who were just not Pharisees, and those who paid little or no heed to religion at all, with every shade of piety and indifference in between”(ibid, p. 72).
We can demonstrate quite easily that far less than 5% of the population in Palestine belonged to the Jewish religious sects in the New Testament times. By comparing the number of members within the Jewish religious sects with the sum of the total Palestine population we will arrive at some surprising answers. The figures should be interesting.
The Encyclopedia Biblical records that the population of Palestine must have been somewhere between 2 1/2 and 3 million inhabitants at this time. This is the figure that most scholars represent as the total population of Palestine.
There is a full discussion on the Palestine population question in Salo Baron’s, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. I, pp. 370-372). This Jewish historian has summed up the opinions of the experts in that matter. He quotes as his conclusion to the whole question, the findings of Dr. J. Klausner, a contemporary Jewish scholar:
“J Klausner, finally, has studied in particular, the records pertaining to the wars between 63 and 37 B.C. and has reached the conclusion that ‘at the end of the Maccabean reign there lived in all of Palestine approximately 3, millions Jews, not including half of a million Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Arabs and Greeks’” (ibid, vol. i. p. 372).
This figure should not be far from right. There were nearly 3,000,000 Jews living in Palestine in the days of Christ.
The most prominent sect in Judaism at this time was the Pharisees. This was the group Christ had more to say against than any other. One of the reasons for this is because the Pharisees were the most influential group and had more members than any of the other sects. They also had direct control over the majority of synagogues and schools, and in this respect, were the most popular with the people. But yet, even though the Pharisees were the most influential and the most prominent religious group among the Jews in the time of Christ, it is astounding and dumbfounding to realize that out of 3,000,000 Jews in Palestine only a mere 6,000 were Pharisees. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, and a Pharisee himself, informs us of this fact in his history Antiquities of the Jews, xvii, 2, 4.
But just imagine what this means! Here were the Pharisees, the major religious sect among the Jews, representing nothing more than an insignificant .2% of all the Jews in Palestine. These facts will have to change the convictions of many people who have had the erroneous idea that most of the Jews in Christ’s time were Pharisees.
Most readers of the New Testament have never thought it necessary to ascertain the religious condition of the Jews in Roman times. And because of this, most people have been making erroneous assumptions based on our own contemporary conditions.
All other sects within Judaism were of less significance than the Pharisees. The Sadducees, for example, were a sect that Christ came into contact with frequently, but they were less prominent than the Pharisees. There is no question about the fact that they had fewer members (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 4 and Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol, i. p. 322). If we number the Sadducees at less than 3,000 members we will not be far from the truth.
Another sect among the Jews at this time, but not mentioned in the Bible, were the Essenes. Josephus informs us that there only about 4,000 of them (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, I, 5). A group known as the Qumran, associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls were a part of this Essene sect and represented part of the 4,000 members.
The rest of the sects in Palestine were of minor importance and definitely had fewer members than the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes (e.g, Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 127-128)
These figures represent the startling truth that the overwhelming majority of Jews did not belong to the religious sects. With the facts staring us directly in the face, it should not be difficult to understand why it can be stated with absolute assurance that far less than 5% of the 3,000,000 Jews of Palestine belonged to these religious sects.
The majority of people, known as the Am ha-aretz, the Common People, who were not members of the religious sects, represented all classes and varying degrees of feeling in regard to religion.
It is definitely known that some of these Common People were not totally irreligious. Some of them did hold to a form of religion, even though they did not belong to the accepted religious sects.
Since there were synagogues scattered throughout Palestine, it is altogether obvious that those Jews who did attend had some form of religious conviction. Because the “ministers” in charge of most of the synagogues were Pharisees, it is likely that much of the Pharisaical teaching influenced them. However, these Common People were not Pharisees! Most of the people had no desire to practice the strict and disciplinary rules of the Pharisees. Nevertheless, some of the people did attend the Pharisaic synagogues to hear the Scriptures expounded on the Sabbath or on other occasions.
The Common People who did attend the synagogue services, however, were not required to hold to the teachings of the Pharisees. The Pharisees exercised little real authority over the religious life of the people. If a person desired to attend the synagogue, he could; if he obliged himself to stay away, it was his prerogative. There was no coercion to attend Sabbath services, for there was little exercise of any central religious authority within Judaism at this time.
“Pharisaism had no means of compelling those who were not in their fellowship to conform to their requirements” (ibid, p. 137).
“It is perfectly clear that the people at large did not share in the punctilious religious life of the Pharisees, however much they might admire it. In Palestine, as in modern lands, the proportion of those actively engaged in religious service was undoubtedly small” (Matthew, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 160).
It was only over the lives of the “pious” that the Pharisees saddled a harsh religion of “do’s” and don’ts.”
Even though the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees were open to all the Jews and they could attend them on the Sabbaths, this does not mean that all the Jews attended. In fact, from the available evidence, it appears quite strongly that only very few Jews, relatively speaking, attended the synagogues regularly. At least, if the size and number of synagogues, of which records exist, provide any credance, and they obviously do represent a guide, then we can safely say that very few of the Common People attended the synagogues with regularity. Take as an example the Capernaum Synagogue.
It is a matter of history, recorded in the New Testament, that there was only one synagogue in the city of Capernaum in Galilee and even that was built by a Gentile (Luke 7:1-5). That only one synagogue existed in such a large city surprises even Edersheim (one of the foremost Jewish writers on early Judaism), because Capernaum was very significant in New Testament times and had a considerable Jewish population. (See Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. I, pp. 365, 432-433.)
The ruins of this synagogue show that it would have probably seated around 500 people at the very most. This was certainly not large for the city of Capernaum.
Josephus tells us that there was not a city or village (township) in all of Galilee that had less than 15,000 inhabitants (Wars of the Jews, iii, 3, 3). There is no reason to doubt Josephus’ statement regarding this, for he should have known. He was governor of the province of Galilee under the Romans and was well aware of the number of his constituents, especially since he was responsible for collecting taxes from them. So, from Josephus, we can be certain that Capernaum had at least 15,000 inhabitants, but from other evidence which shows its political importance, in Galilee, there must have been considerable more inhabitants.
Most of the people in Galilee were Jews (Matthews, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 149). And of this Galilean population it is said that “no region was more punctual in observance of the Sabbaths and feasts” (ibid., p. 150). And yet there was only one synagogue in Capernaum one of the chief cities of Galilee.
The importance of Capernaum in New Testament times had been recognized by our contemporary historians (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. i. p.566). It is known that the city was the residence of a high officer of the King (John 4:46) and significant enough to have a customs station (Matt. 9:9 and 17:24).
Nonetheless, even being one of the chief cities of Galilee and having a considerable Jewish population it had only one synagogue. (In the New Testament, the definite Greek article is used, which indicates only one synagogue). It would have been virtually impossible to get even 10% of the Jewish population into this synagogue for Sabbath services. This serves to indicate that only a small minority of the Jews attended.
It is known that the great bulk of the synagogues of Galilee were quite small in size even though there were a considerable number of Jews living in every city.(Matthews, History of New Testament Times in Palestine, p. 149). In Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up, there was one synagogue. This, in itself, is not surprising, for Nazareth was not of the same prominence as Capernaum. Yet, Nazareth, with its immediate environs, to again cite Josephus, had at least 15,000 inhabitants. It was certainly no mean city, even though it was smaller than Capernaum. Edersheim informs us that Nazareth was a religious center for certain of the priest who ministered in the temple. Also, Nazareth was one of the major cities located on the great caravan route from the Mediterranean Sea to Damascus. This location gave it a particular importance.
But even with these advantages, the ruins of the synagogue at Nazareth show that it was so small that it could hardly seat more than 75 people. This size shows how insignificant was the synagogue compared to the population of the township of Nazareth, which numbered over 15,000 inhabitants. This again serves to indicate that the synagogues were not attended regularly except by the most pious of the Common People. The rest of them were not particularly interested in religion undoubtedly many of them did attend the annual festivals which were held in the synagogues and at the Temple in Jerusalem. To the Jews the annual festivals were like national holidays. But the evidence is clearly against the masses attending the synagogues regularly every Sabbath.
It has been conjectured by some that the Nazareth synagogue may have been built later than the time of Jesus because it was not situated in the highest part of the city, as they supposedly think it should have been. However, Edersheim shows that this is not a proper criterion and rejects the supposition. There is every reason to believe that this small synagogue was the one Jesus attended.
This religious condition in Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago should not surprise us much. Today it is common for many of the people who profess Christianity to attend church only on the two pagan holidays that almost all churches celebrate today Easter and Christmas. The rest of the year finds the majority not attending church with any regularity. The Jews, in Christ’s day can be compared in like manner with the common tendency today.
It is not known exactly how many synagogues there were throughout Palestine in Christ’s time. However, there are some hints as to the number.
Herford tells us that almost every area which had a considerable Jewish population had at least one synagogue in each of its cities (Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 27, 133). It must be remembered that Capernaum, as large as it was, had one synagogue. There can be little question about the fact that there was at least one synagogue in almost every town of any size. This seems to be a foregone conclusion of all the writers on the subject.
We happen to know, again from Josephus, that there were 250 cities and villages in all of Galilee (Life of Josephus, p. 45). Galilee was much more prosperous than Judea in the south, and in fact, Galilee was far above the province of Judea in material blessings. Edersheim says the cost of living in Judea, for example, was five times that of Galilee because of Judea’s relative sparisty of good soil and crops (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol, i. pp. 224-225). However, if we allow Judea to also have had about 240 cities and villages as did Galilee (although there were probably less), then we arrive at about 500 cities and villages in all of Palestine that could have had a synagogue. This would represent about 500 synagogues. But, if we allow some of the cities to have had two or more synagogue, the number could be raised to about 1,000 synagogues. That is, if every city and village did have a synagogue.
If there were, being extremely liberal, about 1,000 synagogues scattered throughout Palestine out of a population of 3,000,000 people, this would mean one synagogue for every 3,000 people. The size of the synagogues were from the very small, held in homes (ibid., vol. I, p. 433), to the size of the Capernaum synagogue with as many as 500. There were certainly none which could hold 3,000, not even a third of that amount. And the majority was small synagogues not much bigger than the one in Nazareth.
That there could hardly be more than 1,000 synagogues throughout Palestine is obvious in another respect, too, when we consider that there were only 6,000 Pharisees to minister in these synagogues. The Pharisees were the synagogue rulers. However, not all Pharisees were religious leaders in the synagogues. For example, Josephus, the Jewish historian, was a Pharisee but was not a ruler or synagogue official. In fact, a good percentage of Pharisees were not a part of the synagogue government.
And besides this, there were several offices to be filled in each synagogue (ISBE, vol, v. pp. 2878-2879). The limited number of Pharisees available could hardly have filled the necessary posts for more than 1,000 separate synagogues.
With about 3,000 Jews for each synagogue in Palestine, and the synagogues ranging in size from around 75 members to around 500 people, it can easily be seen that a good number of the Common People did not attend.
The religious condition of the Jews during the days of Christ can be compared with our own society. Today, there are about one billion who claim to be Christians, but how many of these are fervent in their beliefs? How many are consistent church goers? How many are zealously interested in their church? How may put their church above anything else in their lives? How many really know God?
Even the major Protestant and Catholic leaders are appalled at the seemingly lack of real interest expressed by so many of their members. It is a known fact that the majority of people today just aren’t interested in real, heart-felt religion at all even though most claim to be Christians.
Should we then be amazed that over 95% of the Jews of Christ’s time was no more religious than our own people? Of course not! People were the same then as they are today.
The false notion that the Jews of Christ’s day was intensely interested in religion the religion of Moses must be eradicated from our minds. Such deception must be replaced by the cold facts! The Jews were no more fervent about the religion of Moses than the majority of Christians are today about the religion of Christ!
We will discuss this subject further in future articles. What was Moses’ religion and how did it differ from Judaism?