Monday, December 12, 2011


My mother-in-law is part of a study of the New Testament book of Hebrews and recently asked me a question that got me going. Here's part of my answer, which a few of you history buffs and biblical enthusiasts may find interesting:

Okay. Let me see if I can do this question justice. First of all, it's important to note that there are lots of different understandings among Christians about how to view Judaism -- for example, is modern day Israel still included in the Old Testament prophecies, or do those now apply to Christianity? Or, are Jews saved through Jesus or are they subject to the first covenant outside of Jesus as Messiah and Savior?

I'm not going to settle any of those things.

But it is also important to say that Judaism has gone through many, many different changes. In fact, it wouldn't be accurate to even call the Old Testament religion "Judaism" or refer to them as "Jews" until the very last parts of the Old Testament after they come back from Babylon. Prior to the exile (587 b.c.) most religious scholars refer to "ancient Israelite religion". Prior to 587 b.c. the religion centered mostly on the priesthood and the prophets. The written scriptures they did have were not yet considered authoritative. After the return from Babylon (approx. 515 b.c.) Judaism gradually took shape. It centered in a few new elements that had developed during the exile in Babylon -- the written Torah became very important, gathering in synagogues became the primary social gathering (instead of the Temple), the rabbi rose in importance (overtaking the priests in influence) and so on. So what is commonly called "Second Temple Judaism" -- from about 515 b.c. to 70 a.d. -- was a both / and religion that focused on both the temple and the synagogue, both on the sacrificial system and the written Torah. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., the Temple was no longer available so the sacrifices ceased. Judaism came to emphasize only the synagogues, only the rabbis, only the written Torah.

Here's where it gets interesting. Some branches of Judaism grew to think that maybe God allowed the destruction of the Temple in order to get Jews to focus on scripture and prayer instead of (as one Jewish rabbi told me), "all those terrible bloody sacrifices." More liberal Jews -- what are usually known as "reformed" Jews -- take this approach, though they are still tremendously concerned about Israel because it is the homeland of the Jewish people and they see it as protection from anything like the Holocaust being repeated. The more conservative Jews, especially the "hasidic" or "orthodox" Jews, see things differently. Some of them, at least, believe that they cannot be truly reconciled to God without the sacrificial system, so they are looking forward to a day when the Jews possess ALL of Jerusalem and can tear down the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple. (Some evangelical Christians also believe that this is necessary before Jesus can return, so the "Left Behind" books and others make a big deal out of this.)

Hebrews was probably written (according to most scholars) before 70 a.d. The book seems to speak about Temple rituals as if they are still continuing at the time of the book's writing. If we suppose a date for the writing of Hebrews around, say, 60 a.d., the author (whoever it is) writes to an audience of Christians who are a mix of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom have put their trust in Jesus. The author, though, seems to be speaking primarily to Jews (see Hebrews 1:1). At the time of this writing, then, the animal sacrifices, the grain offerings and all the festivals are still being practiced. So when the author of Hebrews speaks to these things, he refers to them as currently in practice. That state of affairs didn't last long -- maybe another decade until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

Today, the Jews still practice the festivals, including the Day of Atonement (it's referred to as "Yom Kippur" on most calendars, which is just the same name in Hebrew). These festivals and the way they're observed has changed from the Old Testament prescriptions, though, since there's no place to bring animals or grain or oil to offer. Instead, these have become rituals to be practiced in the home and in they synagogue. (Probably the Passover, or "Pesach" is the most familiar of these since many Christians have experienced a Seder meal, a Christianized version of the traditional Passover meal observed by Jews.) Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and other Jewish festivals are listed on many calendars and are still practiced by observant Jews today. For some of these Jews, it's just a cultural thing like Norwegians observing Syttende Mai. For others, these are deeply significant religious holidays. You see the same cultural / religious division among Christians when it comes to Christmas and Easter.

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