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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Greenberg

Translation Principle 10: Clarifying Names of People Groups

Next up in our walk through the Key Principles of the Tree of Life Version is Principle Number 10: Clearing up confusion about the terminology concerning the “Jews” of the New Covenant.

Words mean things. When misconstrued, they create unintended thinking and action. I will illustrate. There is a distinction between Jewish people (i.e., the descendants of Israel) and Judeans (i.e., all people living in the much smaller district of Judea).

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew religion wasn’t called Judaism, and Hebrews practicing the religion didn’t call themselves Jews. To better understand the Bible’s word and world, we believe distinct groups of Jewish people need to be better understood. There were antagonistic Jewish people that disagreed with Yeshua, there were Jewish people that loved and followed Yeshua, and there were Jewish people who were undecided about Yeshua. And there were Jewish religious leaders in all three of those categories.

Since what we call “Judaism” during Yeshua’s life was pluralistic, knowing who the participants are, in any debate, is considered essential to any understanding. Sound confusing? We help sort through this by identifying the sect, group, or locale of those speaking and labeling them as such in the text.

A Cheat Sheet

Here’s a cheat sheet to the different kinds of Jewish groups and their beliefs during Yeshua’s time, as succinctly outlined in the Helsinki University Press, circa 1997:

In Christian circles the Judaism of the time of Jesus has often been thought of as an outward legalistic religion to which the message of Jesus and the early Christians was a complete antithesis. Such a picture has, however, proved to be a blatant caricature. Today the ministry of Jesus is seen rather as a movement within Judaism rather than as something opposed to it. At the same time people have begun to understand how complex and still developing a phenomenon first-century Judaism was. At the beginning of the Christian era Judaism was divided into several different groups, each of which had its own views concerning the true Jewish way of life. On the other hand, certain basic beliefs were common to them all.

The Basic Beliefs of First Century Judaism

Although at the beginning of the Christian era Judaism comprised several different groups, certain basic beliefs were common to them all:

  1. belief in one God

  2. belief in the covenant which God had made with his people Israel,

  3. belief in the foundational book of this covenant, the Law of God or the Torah.

The covenant between God and Israel comprised of duties and commitments which pertained to both parties. God committed himself to treat Israel in accordance with its special position as his own people, and to teach the Israelites the principles of a good and blessed life. Israel made the commitment to be obedient to God and to live a life befitting the people of God. These principles are found in the Torah or Law of Moses, its teaching and practical applications. The Torah also included directions concerning atonement for offenses committed so that the covenant might nevertheless remain in effect.

It is important to note that in Judaism the Law is not a way of salvation. Salvation – the election of God – is based exclusively on the grace of God.

Jewish Groups:

At the beginning of the Christian era, Judaism was divided into many different groups. These were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots – and the Jesus Movement. In spite of differences between them the groups were united by certain basic beliefs.

The Pharisees

In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as the influential arch-enemies of Jesus. They tirelessly watch how the Jewish people observe the purity and holiness code. From this the word ‘Pharisee’ has come commonly to be a synonym of ‘hypocrite’. Such a picture of the Pharisees is, however,one-sided. In fact the Pharisees were one Jewish group among many – a lay movement which placed emphasis on the Torah (the Law of Moses and its interpretation) and in particular on the importance of the purity code for everyday holiness.

There were also many different types of Pharisee. Some of them seem to have been fairly close to Jesus in their thinking. Sayings resembling the teaching of Jesus occur among the sayings of Rabbi Hillel, for instance, and Hillel was active in Pharisaic circles. The Apostle Paul also came from among the Pharisees.

In the opinion of the Pharisees holiness was not only for the priests and the Temple. By observing the purity code every member of the people of God might participate in the holiness of God. In the interpretation of the written Law the Pharisees had the help of the so-called ‘Oral Law’, i.e. oral tradition consisting of explanations of the Law which was thought to go back to Moses himself.

Conflicts between the Pharisees and the disciples of Jesus came to a head after the death of Jesus, when the Jesus movement began to accept Gentiles into membership without demanding that they be circumcised or that they observe the purity code. These controversies are reflected in the way the Pharisees are portrayed in the New Testament.

Another group often mentioned in the New Testament in connection with the Pharisees are the Teachers of the Law. Here we are dealing with a very different group of people. While the Pharisees were a kind of revival movement, ‘Teacher of the Law’ is a professional term. The Teachers of the Law were authoritative professional interpreters of the Torah.

The Sadducees

Only sparse information has been preserved concerning the Sadducees, and none of it is impartial; most of the information comes from their opponents. In the traditional view the Sadducees were from the Hellenized Jewish upper class, which supported stable conditions and the prevailing social order, and whose religion was reasonable and worldly. The Sadducees did not, for example, believe in life after death.

The name of the Sadducees is believed to derive from the family of Zadok, the high priest who served as high priest in the days of King David. Not all the Sadducees were priests, however, and their number included other aristocrats. On the other hand, evidently only a small minority of the upper class were Sadducees.

The Essenes

The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament; the information concerning them is derived from other sources. Since 1947 manuscripts and archaeological discoveries have been made at Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea, and they are thought to derive from the Essenes who dwelt there.

The Essenes were a protest movement which withdrew from the world. They believed that the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple was elected on false pretenses, which invalidated the whole Temple cult. In addition, the calendar used by the Essenes and their way of interpreting and observing the Law of Moses differed from the rest of Judaism.

The Essene community of Qumran saw itself as the only true Israel, “children of light” as distinct from the “children of darkness” and their corrupt religious practices. The members of the community lived a disciplined life dictated by the regulations and a strict system of values. At the same time they – like many of their contemporaries -expected that God would soon intervene in the course of history in a decisive manner.

The Zealots

The Zealots (Greek zelotes, ‘zealot’) was a general term for a person who was zealous for a cause, in particular for the religious group he belonged to. One of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Simon who bore this nickname. Later the name Zealots came to refer to a rebel organization which supported armed resistance to Rome. This group only became a united, recognizable party just before the Jewish War.

Check out Matthew 16:1, Mark 11:27,  Luke 5:21, Luke13:14,  and John 6:41

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