The religious condition of the Jews during the time of Jesus Christ did not evolve in just a few years. It took over 200 years for Judaism to firmly implant itself in Palestine.
If we are to adequately understand the full development of Judaism, we will have to go back in history over 500 years before Christ. In these centuries history shows why and how “Judaism” replaced the Law of Moses as the religion of the Jews!
The proper place to begin a study of the development of Judaism is with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
Between the years of 604 B.C. and 585 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, made war with the Kingdom of Judah. The Jews were not successful in any of the skirmishes with the Babylonians. In the first years of this war, Nebuchadnezzar carried away the majority of the Jews from Judah to Babylon. At the end of the war, in 585 B.C., all the Jews, except those under Gedaliah, were finally carried to Babylon. And even those under Gedaliah finally fled Palestine. This was complete captivity.
The Babylonian captivity came to an end with the downfall of the Babylonian Empire in October 539 B.C. Isaiah had prophesied, about 200 years before, that Cyrus, the king of Persia, would be responsible for the overthrow of Babylon and for making it possible for the Jews to return to Palestine (Isa. 45:1-4). Thus, Cyrus and his armies captured the capital of the Empire and Babylon was absorbed into the Persian Empire.
Cyrus was so struck over the exact prophecy by Isaiah concerning himself that he determined to honor the God who had granted him victory over the Babylonians. He issued an edict that the Jews who had been carried captive by the Babylonians could return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple of God (II Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-2).
The issuance of this decree resulted in about 50,000 Jews later returning to Palestine. These Jews were under the leadership of two men: Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, and Joshua, the High Priest. The reason for the Jews’ return was to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and to again establish the true worship of God. The books of Haggai and Zechariah were written during the period when these Jews were returning to Palestine and during the building of the Temple. These books describe the condition of the Jews at this time.
It must be remembered, however, that the majority of the Jews did not return to Palestine. Most of them elected to remain in the Babylonian area. Under the benevolent rulership of Cyrus, many of the Jews had their own homes, substantial properties and not a few were wealthy and influential. They did not want to give all of this up in order to go back to the wasted land of their forefathers. Even Cyrus did not want all of them to leave the Babylonian area since the bulk of the population in some provinces was principally Jewish. Depopulation would have been a serious setback to the economy of the area (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i. p. 8).
The majority of the Jews were content with the situation in Babylon. They had no desire to return, and in consequence, they built permanent schools, colleges, and synagogues. They were settling down to stay. And, even though there were several migrations from Babylon back to Palestine, the bulk of the Jews remained in the Mesopotamian area. Even as late as the New Testament times, there were still more Jews in Babylon than there were in Palestine (ibid, vol. I, pp. 7-9). This explains why the Apostle Peter was in Babylon in the later years of his life. He wrote his two epistles from near Babylon on the Euphrates (I Peter 5:13).Since the Apostle Peter was the apostle to the circumcision scattered abroad the Jews in the Diaspora (Gal. 2:7), it is not difficult to see why he went to Babylon, where many of the Jews lived.
After the deaths of Zerubbabel and Joshua, who led the first wave of returning Jews to Palestine, the people began to take a lackadaisical attitude concerning the services in the Temple and religion in general. Even though the Temple had been completed in the early months of 515 B.C., the people of Palestine took no interest in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. It still remained in ruins! The people had also begun to intermarry freely with the idolatrous gentile people round about. The religious life of the people in general was becoming corrupt. This condition was prompted because the people in general did not have any real spiritual leaders after the death of Zerubbabel and Joshua. As the years rolled by, the condition became worse and worse.
Finally, in the summer of the years 457 B.C., the 7TH year of Artaxerxes, Jewish reckoning, Ezra came to Palestine to rectify the situation that was beginning to get out of hand (Ezra 7:7-8).
Ezra was a priest of no mean standing. He was a direct descendant of Aaron and some of his forefathers had been former High Priests in Israel. His grandfather was the High Priest who returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua to Jerusalem in the first migration back to Palestine (Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. iii. P. 435). Ezra, himself, was a “scribe,” a “ready scribe of the law of Moses,” “a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord and of His statutes to Israel,” “a scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:11-12). He was considered by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the apostles’ days, to have been, in a sense, the “High Priest” of the Jews who were still living in Babylon (Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 5, 1).
The Scriptures say that Ezra “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). From these Scripture references alone, we can say confidently that Ezra was determined to live by the laws of God and to teach them to the people. So profound an influence had Ezra over the Jews, and so righteous was his character, that a later Jewish writer said he would have been the lawgiver to Israel had not Moses preceded him (The Talmud, Sanhedrin cii).
Ezra knew the laws of God he was well trained in them. And God directed that he go to Jerusalem to beautify the Temple, establish its services in proper order, to teach the people the laws of God, and to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.
He went to Palestine in the year 457 B.C., with authority from the Persian government to carry out these reforms. About 2,000 people went with Ezra to Palestine. These were notably priests, Levites and servants of the Temple. The object of Ezra and those other important dignitaries in going to Jerusalem was to restore the worship of God that was fast becoming defiled.
When Ezra and his retinue went to Jerusalem from Babylon, they went with a royal decree from the King of Persia Ezra had the power he needed to carry out the reform. The decree gave him authority not only to establish the true religion in its purity, but also he had governmental orders to “appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people that are beyond the river (in Palestine), all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye him that knoweth them not. And whoever will not do the law of thy God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him with all diligence, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment” (Ezra 7:25-26). In other words, Ezra was going to Jerusalem not only as a priest of God to re-establish the religious worship, but also to establish law and order by rebuilding Jerusalem as a Jewish capital city.
Why was the king of Persia so interested in the Jews’ religion and why did he want Jerusalem to be rebuilt and inhabited? The answer is plain.
The Bible records how Esther, a Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin, became Queen of Persia, and Mordecai, her uncle, became Prime Minister of the kingdom (Esther 2:17; 10:3).Esther was married to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) who ruled, according to Persian reckoning from 485 to 465 B.C. The king under whom Ezra was appointed to rebuild Jerusalem was Artaxerxes I the son of Xerxes. Esther was still, undoubtedly, the Queen Mother, when Ezra left for Jerusalem in 457 B.C. Thus we see that there was considerable Jewish influence in the King’s palace at this time. No wonder Ezra was given such responsibility by the Persian King. He had power from the King to perform the needed restoration. Ezra’s personality and authority had a tremendous effect on the people.
The real intent of Ezra was to establish the Law of Moses as the constitutional law throughout Judea (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 33) to make Judea a model state within the Persian Empire one adhering to the Law of Moses. The laws of the king were to be few, dealing mainly with taxation. Herford, the Jewish scholar, continues, “The Persian rulers, living far from Judea, seldom interfered with the internal affairs of their Jewish subjects, and were content to leave their public business in the hands of the governor of the province. If the royal taxes were paid, and order maintained, the Jews might organize their own life as a community in the way that seemed best to them (ibid, p. 45). This was the policy of the Persian rulers for the two centuries they governed Palestine. This gave the Jews ample opportunity to settle down firmly in Palestine and to practice their religion without undue molestation.
The first thing Ezra found upon his arrival in Palestine was that most of the people possessed only a nominal religion. The Temple services were not being conducted properly and a great number of people had intermarried with foreign women. Ezra, in no uncertain terms, warned the people that these very acts were violations of the Law that caused their forefathers to be carried into captivity (Ezra 9:5-7). Upon hearing this, many of the people covenanted before God to disentangle themselves from their foreign wives (Ezra 10:2-5). However, we find that not all of the people were so willing to do this. Some became quite obstinate. It took about 13 years to get all the people to forsake their own ways and be obedient to the Laws of God.
The reason that the Law had commanded the Jews not to marry with the heathen is that the natural tendency of a person is to lean towards the religion of the wife not the husband. Solomon even set up heathen idols in Jerusalem and throughout Israel to please his pagan wives (I Kings 11:4). And because the Law specifically commanded the Israelites not to marry heathen women or men (Ex. 34:15-16), Ezra commanded the Jews to repent of their erroneous ways and to begin keeping the law (See also Deut. 7:3).
A paramount issue in the mind of Ezra was the establishment in Palestine of the civil law as given by Moses. In other words, he was determined to see that the Jews obeyed the commandments of God as revealed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Within these four books are found the basic spiritual commandments of God, plus many basic laws and statutes of a civil nature for the governing of the physical nation of Israel. Also within these books are the ritualistic and ceremonial laws of purity and the sacrificial ordinances that formed such a distinctive part of the Law of Moses that by New Testament times the term “Law of Moses’ often became a special and exclusive term for the sacrificial ceremonies and physical rituals (Acts 13:39; 15:5). Ezra was commissioned by God to teach the people all these laws from obedience to the spiritual laws to the observance of physical rituals.
Ezra was fully qualified in education, political power and divine favor to accomplish the job of establishing the Law of Moses as the Law of the land.
“To place the Torah (the Scriptures) in the position of supreme authority in Judaism, and to win the people to that recognition and acceptance of that supreme authority was what Ezra set out to do” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 37).And, we find that Ezra succeeded in transforming the Jews from a nominal Mosaic religion to the real thing. It took, however, the help of Nehemiah to finally and fully implant the Law of Moses as the law of the land.
Nehemiah was a Jew who was a high government official in the Persian kingdom (Neh. 2:1-8).After learning of the plight of the Jews in Palestine and the difficult time Ezra was having getting the Jews to obey the laws of Moses, he resolved to do something about the situation. Being in close communication with the king of Persia and in good favor with him, he petitioned for the right to become governor of the province of Judea, directly under the king himself. The petition was granted.
Ezra, who had also gone to Palestine in an official capacity, was not the governor of the province. He acted more as a civil servant of the king. But Nehemiah came with much more power. He went to Jerusalem as governor of the whole province of Judea.
Upon the arrival of Nehemiah in Artaxerxes’ 20th year Ezra’s position was greatly strengthened. Nehemiah was as much inclined toward getting the people back to God as was Ezra. Nehemiah and Ezra both worked together in harmony towards accomplishing their goal. And accomplish it they did! They established the Law of Moses as the law of the land, they set up the Temple service in proper order and they made the people put away their foreign wives. They established meeting places where the law was preached and expounded. The ordained priests were judges, teachers, and administers of the government. This was a phenomenal task to accomplish among thousands of Jews who were not always in favor of the law. But it was done.
Ezra and Nehemiah brought all of the leaders of the people: the priests, Levites, and all the principal men, and had them sign a covenant that they would henceforth obey the laws of God. In the covenant they signed, they all agreed to perform seven things. These articles of the covenant were mandatory: 1) They were to keep all the laws, statutes, judgments and commandments of God; 2) Not to intermarry with the heathen; 3) To keep the Sabbath holy; 4) To observe the Sabbatical year; 5) To pay the annual third of a shekel for the upkeep of the Temple; 6) To supply wood for the altar in the Temple; 7) To pay all the tithes that were commanded in the Law (Nehemiah 10:28-39).
The leaders signed the covenant on behalf of all the people. Consequently, all the Jews who lived in Palestine solemnly entered into this covenant. They all pledged to carry out its requirements.
Before this time, the people were content with a nominal form of religion, but after the surge of spiritual zeal and determination of Ezra and Nehemiah, with the Persian monarch backing them up, the people took on a new outlook towards the truth of God. There arose a new kind of constitutional government - a government which has as its laws the Law of Moses. It was a kind of Church and State government, under the authority of the Persian kingdom, but with its own schools, colleges, synagogues, court houses and Supreme Court. With this kind of central government unity was established not known since the days of Joshua. No wonder that Ezra, the principal figure of the time, was called the “second Moses.” This was a new beginning in the history of the Jews.
The convening of these Jewish elders was of great importance. This assemblage was actually a religious and political body of priests which was, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, empowered by God to maintain the obedience of the people to the Law of Moses for that and future generations.
This organization was known as “The Great Assembly.” It was an assembly comprised of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of God’s chosen ministers, along with all the principal priests of the Jews. This assembly was the ruling institution to guide the religious life of the Jews. It was the religious Supreme Court. It was the center of authority in regard to education and regulating the priests and Levites in teaching the people the Law of Moses. In effect, the Great Assembly was the governing body of the Jewish people in Palestine.
This assembly instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah has often been called by the Greek name “The Great Synagogue.” The word “synagogue” in Greek means assembly. This is the name most modern writers use when referring to this authoritative body of priests. But whether the name Great Synagogue or Great Assembly is used, it represents the same institution.
“According to the most ancient tradition, this assembly or synagogue was styled great because of the great work it effected in restoring the divine law to its former greatness, and because of the great authority and reputation which it enjoyed” (Cyclo. Of Biblical Theological, and Ecc. Lit, vol. x. p. 82).
This assembly actually represented the executive, judicial and legislative congress of the Jews. It was convened to insure the observance of the Law of Moses. From history we know that it accomplished its task. It brought the people back to the Law of Moses, and established that Law as the constitutional law of the land.
Some of the decisions of this Great Assembly have had far-reaching effects even unto our present age. It is necessary that we learn about this organization established by God under the supervision of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Jewish historians are united in telling us that there were 120 members in the original Great Assembly (Berakoth, ii, 4; Megillah, 17b) All of these members were priests (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 59). There were no laymen in this authoritative assembly.
The president or ruler was the High Priest. According to rank, this should always be the case. However, when the Great Assembly was organized by Ezra and Nehemiah, the High Priest Eliashib, did not meet with the Assembly. He did not entirely agree with the covenant that the Great Assembly made binding. (See Nehemiah 13:4-7).
He did not agree with the specific part of the covenant which commanded all Jews to give up their Gentile wives. His grandson, Manasseh, was married to a very important Gentile woman, of which more will be said later, and Eliashib did not necessarily want this particular union to be broken. Because of this attitude, he was rejected from having a part in the Great Assembly. Later on, however, the High Priests did assume their proper place as head of the Assembly.
The rest of the Great Assembly were priests of varying rank occupying difference positions within the institution. Their jobs were to carry out the actual work of the Assembly while the High Priest would supervise and oversee.
These priests were the leaders of the Jewish nation at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, about 440 years before Christ. They and their immediate successors were responsible for many weighty and authoritative decisions that affected the whole mode of Jewish life, and, in reality, settled a very important question, the effects of which reach unto our own day.
We shall see in the next article, how this Great Assembly, with the Spirit of God guiding them, put together the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Our Old Testament comes to us because of the work of this Great Assembly.