In the previous article we followed the Egyptian rule of Palestine until 198 B.C. In that year the Syrian kingdom on the north invaded and conquered the territory of Judea. The change in government from Alexander’s to Antioch in Syria – and the resultant establishment of the Syrian way of life in Palestine – meant that a readjustment had to be made in the Jews’ manner of living inherited from the Egyptian Hellenists.
The Syrians were Hellenists as much as the Egyptians were but there was quite a difference in their mode of observing it!
When the Syrians assumed control of Palestine, the Jews were fully conscious that something new was taking place. It was this contrast between the Egyptian Hellenism that had been used to and the Syrian Hellenism which they were now obliged to follow, that shocked a few Jews into becoming cognizant that another way of life was possible – their old way of life – living by the Holy Scriptures! The Jews knew the Scriptures plainly did not recognize either form of Hellenism. New interest in God and the religion of Moses began to revive.
This new interest in the religion of their forefathers caused some of the Jews to reflect on the past in order to ascertain how their forefathers had been governed in their religious life. They recognized that from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to Alexander the Great, the Sopherim had been the religious leaders and teachers of the people. The Sopherim, remember, had disappeared from the scene-- Simon the Just was the last of them.
Understanding that some organization like the Sopherim must exist if there was to be religious unity and the people properly taught the Law, the leaders of this new revival decided to meet in council with one another. Its avowed purpose was to direct those who were desiring to live according to the Law of their forefathers. This council became known by the Greek name, The Sanhedrin.
It is not clear when the Sanhedrin first began meeting. It must have been just a short time after the Syrians come into Palestine, perhaps about 196 B.C. or immediately thereafter (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 207).
The influence of the Sanhedrin was not great at first. Not many of the Jews recognized its authority or adhered to its injunctions. Yet, with its establishment, we can say that outright religious anarchy came to an end, even though the majority of the Jews were still greatly affected by Hellenism.
When the Syrians subdued the Egyptians in Palestine in 198 B.C., they brought to the Jews their own ideas concerning Hellenism. To the Syrians there must be nothing that rivaled their way of thinking.
Egyptian Hellenists had allowed the Old Testament to be used. The interpretation of it, however, must be by Greek methods – it had to be Grecianized. Thus, we have the Septuagint Version. But the Syrian Hellenists would not allow the Old Testament even to be in existence. Only Greek ways were allowed. No form of individual or nationalistic religion was allowed to exist that conflicted in any way with the doctrines of the Syrians.
The outstanding advocate of this philosophy was the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 B.C.
Antiochus Epiphanes was a Hellenist enthusiast, proud of his Athenian citizenship and bent on spreading Hellenic civilization throughout his domains. He built various temples to Apollo and Jupiter. He observed, and commanded his subjects to observe, all the pagan Greek festivities to the heathen gods. So fanatical was he in his zeal to implant his beliefs on all others that some of his contemporaries called him half-crazed (Margolis, History of the Jewish People, p. 135). He let nothing hinder him from realizing his desires.
A large number of the Jews readily accepted the newly established Syrian doctrine of complete surrender to the philosophies of Hellenism. Most of the Jews were thoroughly accustomed to much of the Greek culture anyway, and it was no hard thing to transfer allegiance from the Egyptians to the Syrians.
Yet, by the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, other Jews had also begun to realize the priests had proven unfaithful guardians of the Law, they would not entrust to them the religious life of the people” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 209).
This privilege, of assuming the role of the priests, was not a complete usurpation of every prerogative of the priests. They still were the only ones allowed to perform the ritualistic Temple services. No lay teacher ever thought of taking over this exclusive position of the priests.
But from the time of the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin, after the Maccabean Revolt, the lay teachers became the important religious teachers.
The establishment of the Sanhedrin was recognized as a necessity in order that there could be a resumption of some form of the religion of Moses.
“The members of this Sanhedrin took up the interrupted activity of the former teachers, the Sopherim, and, like them, sought to teach and interpret the Law and to regulate the life of the people in accordance with the laws and traditions of the fathers. But in their attempt to harmonize the laws of the fathers with the life of their own times, they encountered some great difficulties” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 105).
The people were keeping so many new customs, not observed by their forefathers, that the members of the Sanhedrin became perplexed over what to do.
It was not easy to find support from the Scriptures which might condone some of the practices of the Jews at this time. The members of the Sanhedrin began to look for ways of justifying the people, rather than following the Scripture commands to correct them (Deut. 32:1-47).
“Many new customs and practices for which there were no precedents in the traditions of the fathers, and not the slightest indication in the Book of the Law, were observed by the people and considered by them as a part of their religious laws and practices” (ibid., p. 195).
The majority of the teachers in the Sanhedrin came to the conclusion that the proper thing to do was to find some way to authoritatively justify these new customs. They were well aware that they could not go to the Scriptures for their support. This presented a troublesome situation to the Jewish teachers.
“The difficulty was to find a sanction in the Torah for the new customs and practices which had established themselves in the community” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 66).
The only commands the Jews had from God in this matter were clearly negative. “Learn not the way of the heathen” (Jer. 10:2).
“Take heed to thy self that thou be not snared by following them (the heathen) and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, how did these nations (the heathen), serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise” (Deut. 12:30).
How to avoid these plain Scriptural commands, and get these new customs sanctioned as proper religious observances presented a problem? The teachers thought it would have been misadventurous to tell the people who wanted to retain these customs the simple commands of the Scriptures. The people were not about to give up these new customs. The teachers were assured of this.
What, then, did the teachers do to finally get these new religious customs and practices authorized and as having the sanction of God? They came out with a most ingenious fiction which shows an amazing and clever display of human reasoning.
The conclusion of the Jewish teachers may surprise you. They merely taught that all the customs and practices which the Jews were now observing were actually Jewish in origin!
“They reasoned this: It is hardly possible that foreign customs and non-Jewish laws should have met with such universal acceptance. The total absence of objection on the part of the people to such customs vouched for their Jewish origin, in the opinion of the teachers” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, 211).
The Jewish teachers told the people that it was simply not possible for them, being Jews, to have inherited any heathen custom or practice!
Since the Jewish teachers accepted these customs as actually being Jewish in origin, it became necessary to carry the theory just a little further. The theory went like this: Since the customs were supposedly Jewish, then they must have been taught by the prophets and the teachers of Israel, even my Moses himself! That is how the customs and practices of the Jews, which in reality they had inherited from the heathen within the period of religious anarchy, were falsely termed the “traditions of the fathers” – handed down from Moses, the prophets and teachers of old! These traditions Jesus condemned.
There was, however, one difficulty for the Jewish teachers to overcome in this interpretation. There were no such customs and practices as these mentioned in all of Moses’ Law nor in any other part of the Scripture.
This did not dampen the spirit of the Jewish teachers! They also had an answer for this. They maintained that these customs were not put down in written form, and because of this, were not found in the text of Scripture. “These customs were handed down orally from Moses,” was their assertion! “They were passed by word of mouth from Moses through every generation.”
By assuming that there was an Oral Law, called the “traditions of the fathers,” this freed the Jewish teachers from having to appeal to the Written Scripture for evidence to back up their statements.
“Accordingly, the teachers themselves come to believe that such generally recognized laws and practices must have been old traditional laws and practices accepted by the fathers and transmitted to following generations in addition to the Written Law. Such a belief would naturally free the teachers from the necessity of finding scriptural proof for all the New practices” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 211).
These traditional laws – the Oral Laws – were not from Moses nor any of the prophets. There is not a single reference in the Scripture that Moses gave the Israelites any Oral or Tradition Laws that were to be handed down along with the Written Word. The Bible states just the opposite. It plainly says that Moses wrote the whole Law in a book. There was no such thing as an Oral Law of Moses.
“And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites . . . . . saying, take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee” (Deut. 31:24-26).
Moses wrote the Law of the book. And it was this written Word of God that was to be witness against the Israelites for future generations not any so-called Oral Law.
Notice this confession of Dr. Lauterbach: “These traditional laws naturally had no indication of the Written Law and no basis in the teachings of the Sopherim, because they developed after the period of the Sopherim” (ibid., p. 206).
In other words tradition originated in the period of the religious anarchy, when the Egyptians were in control of Palestine.
“The reorganized Sanhedrin had to reckon with these new laws and customs, now considered as traditional because observed and practiced by the people for a generation or more” (ibid., p. 206).
We should not suppose that this theory of the origin of the Traditional laws was wholeheartedly accepted by all the teachers and members of the Sanhedrin.
“The theory of an authoritative traditional law (which might be taught independently of the Scripture) was altogether too new to be unhesitatingly accepted . . . . .the theory was too startling and novel to be unconditionally accepted” (ibid., p. 210).
The Jewish teachers who were the most prone to accept the new fictional interpretation were the lay teachers. Some of the priests were not quite sure this was the way of handling the situation. They maintained that the Sopherim of old had always relied upon the Scriptures, and that they would never have countenanced such interpretations which completely side-tracked the Word of God.
“In their (the priests) opinion, the main thing was to observe the laws of the fathers as contained in the Book of the Law, because the people had pledged themselves, by oath, in the time of Ezra to do so. If changed conditions required additional laws and new regulations, the priests and rulers were competent to decree them according to the authority given to them in Deut. 17:8-13” (ibid., p. 709).
The priests, as a whole, declared that the Scripture was the only necessary code of laws to obey.
This apparently simple solution offered by the priestly group in the Sanhedrin did not find favor with the lay members of that body” (ibid., p. 209).
The lay teachers, who outnumbered the priestly group, claimed the only way of reconciling these new customs with the Scripture was to recognize them as Oral laws handed down from Moses.
They began to formulate methods of explaining how these laws were ordained by Moses and transmitted to the Jews then living. Their explanations were not true, but they deliberately taught them anyway.
Lauterbach says that these lay teachers of the Sanhedrin devised the “methods for connecting with the Law all those new decisions and customs which were now universally observed by the people, thus making them appear as part of the laws of the fathers” (ibid, p. 210). Notice, they made them appear as if they were actual traditions of Moses!
The lay teachers had to answer for almost every question that an opponent might ask them concerning the validity of these Traditional Laws.
If one would mention that Deuteronomy 4:2 forbade the addition to the Law, the lay teachers would readily admit that fact but staunchly affirm that the recognition of the Tradition Laws was not adding to the Law of Moses. They claimed these laws originated with Moses and represented the complete revelation that God gave him (ibid., p. 44).
If some opponent would voice the truth about the recent origin of these laws, the lay teachers merely declared that the laws were actually Mosaic but had been long forgotten and had just been recalled and reintroduced (ibid., p. 45).
And when someone would prove beyond question that these laws were nothing more than pagan practices, Lieberman points out that “in such cases the Jews could maintain that the heathen were following Jewish practices and not vice versa” (Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 129).
Such interpretations were absurdly extreme, completely unjustified and utterly false! How they managed to palm off such fallacious interpretations as actual truth can be understood only if we recognize that the people wanted to receive this error. With the people behind them, the lay teachers could teach about what they wished.
“Certain religious practices considered by the later teachers as part of the traditional law, or as handed down by Moses, originated in reality from other, perhaps non-Jewish sources, and had no authority other than the authority of the people who adopted them” (ibid., p. 241).
With the acceptance of these new customs and practices we can date the true beginning of Judaism as a religion! The opportunity of returning to the Law of Moses was rejected. From that time forward, about 150 years before Christ, we become familiar in history with the real Judaism – a religion which the Apostle Paul calls the “Jews’ religion.”
We will continue this series in future articles, be watching!