Jewish Scholar: Roots of Christianity Reveal an Ancient Jewish World
EDITOR’S NOTE: Among the passages of the “New Testament” that are not outright fantasy or fabrication are some lines that simply give background information on the daily lives of Jews, Whites, and others in those times. This Jewish scholar’s work shows us that, in the Roman/Mediterranean world of 2,000 years ago, 1) the Jews were already “widely dispersed” as small minorities in many cities, living off the non-Jews there; 2) the Jews often assumed Greek or Roman names in order to “fit in”; 3) there is ample evidence of the Jewish origins of Christianity; and 4) the Emperor Claudius, when expelling the Jews from Rome in the year 49, made no distinction between Jews and Christians — the latter were considered to be merely one variety of Jew.
IT IS WELL KNOWN that Christianity sprang from a Jewish context. While there may be controversy about Jesus’ Judaism vs. the traditional Judaism of the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of Judaism in the first century), there’s no doubt that Jesus, his family, and followers were practicing Jews, as recorded in the New Testament. (ILLUSTRATION: A Torah scroll)
Biblical scholar Lawrence H. Schiffman, the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University (NYU), takes this understanding to a new level. He identifies citations in the New Testament that others have glossed over without recognizing their unique significance. On March 26-27, 2015, at a conference at NYU, “Integrating Christianity and Judaism into the Study of the Ancient World,” Professor Schiffman delivered a talk entitled “The New Testament as a Source for the History of the Jews and Judaism.”
I interviewed Professor Schiffman to gain further insight into his perspective on this fascinating subject.
Starr. Professor Schiffman: In Acts of the Apostles 2:5, book 5 of the New Testament, Peter, leader of the apostles after the crucifixion of Jesus, addresses a gathering of Jews from a long list of communities and countries outside of Israel. Acts 11:19 mentions additional communities of Jews in other Greek cities. What is unique about these citations?
Schiffman. We didn’t know about some of these Jewish communities. Josephus wrote about places where Jews claimed citizenship based on ancient privilege. Later excavations uncovered synagogues in some of these places. But these are the earliest citations of the existence of Jewish communities so widely dispersed. Also the passages confirm that Jerusalem was an international city in the time of Jesus and the apostles.
Q. You talk about the prevalence of Greek/Roman names that many Jews had in addition to their Hebrew names — like Paul, who was also known by his Hebrew name of Saul.
A. And Paul was not alone in that. Acts cites many Jews with Greek names, illustrating that this was not only commonplace but also that a degree of assimilation was commonplace for Jews living in the Greek Diaspora.
Q. There’s an ongoing debate about the language of the Jews in the first century. In your presentation you said that the New Testament throws light on that debate.
A. The Jewish community was basically a three language community. Clearly many Jews, especially in the Greek cities, spoke Greek and Hebrew — especially those, like Paul, as revealed in Acts 21:40. In Judaea and surrounding provinces such as Galilee, Aramaic was the primary language of the lower class — surely true for Jesus and his disciples, who were mostly working-class tradesmen. But as is common in international communities, even the working class are often fluent in several languages that they acquire through commerce with different cultures. Jesus probably spoke Aramaic but from citations in the Gospels and Acts we know that he could read Hebrew. He read from the Torah at Sabbath synagogue services (Luke 4:16).
Q. The Sabbath mandate for rest and renewal in Jewish law and tradition invokes many restrictions on activities — particularly work. Acts 1:12 mentions the allowable distance one can walk on the Sabbath before it is considered a violation. Didn’t Jews always know and practice that?
A. Yes and No. Yes we know about that law, but some say that these particular Sabbath laws only came into existence after the destruction of the Second Temple. But here we have verification that the laws existed in Jesus’ time in the first century — and that the disciples were scrupulously following Jewish law. In Acts 1:12 they were able to walk to the Mount of Olives (Olivet) on the Sabbath because it was in the allowable distance — “A Sabbath day’s Journey away” of 3000 ft (2000 cubits). In fact, archaeological excavations have uncovered stones in some locations for marking the Sabbath limits.
Q. What about celebrating the Jewish holidays?
A. We know that the Torah called for Jews to celebrate three holidays at the Temple in Jerusalem: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). The New Testament verifies that this mandate was actually followed. Luke 2:41 reports that Mary and Joseph traveled every year to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover. Then Acts 2:1 and 20:6 say that Jesus’ disciples and Paul also celebrated the prescribed holidays.
Q. In the Torah, the age of prophesy ends with the Prophet Malachi in about 420 BCE. You point to a citation in the New Testament that calls David a prophet, although he is not listed among the prophets.
A. Rabbinic Judaism says that David was an author not a prophet. But Peter’s words in Acts 2:29-30 inform us that in Second Temple Judaism some Jews considered David a prophet (“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne.”). Prophesy is also cited in a minor way in Acts 21:8-10 (“We went into the house of Philip the evangelist. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy. While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.”)
Q. You were struck by a citation about the time of prayer.
A. Yes, who would think that the time of prayer would be noteworthy? But Acts 3:1 gives the earliest mention of the actual appropriate time for afternoon prayer — 3:00 PM.
Q. What about other prayer times?
A. In later commentaries the rabbis prescribed three prayers — morning, afternoon, and evening. The Dead Sea Scrolls say two — morning and afternoon. And according to the Talmud the evening prayer was originally optional. But again, Acts gives us the actual time of the afternoon prayer, which we didn’t know otherwise.
Q. Resurrection is a central doctrine of Christianity. But what about resurrection in Jewish thought? It’s an issue that comes up in the New Testament.
A. The New Testament confirms a division of thought about resurrection at that time between the Pharisees and the Sadducees — Jewish Roman historian Josephus wrote about the controversy but he was considered untrustworthy. Later, rabbis noted the split in thinking. But the New Testament gives a specific time and place, bringing the discussion to life. In addressing the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:6-8 Paul reveals the dispute within Judaism about resurrection: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.”
Q. In the New Testament, Jesus, and later others, are prepared for burial according to Jewish law and customs. Didn’t we know that those procedures go back to ancient times and were practiced in the first century?
A. We did not know exactly how bodies were prepared for Jewish burial at that time except from much later sources which were questionably authoritative. However, in the Gospels and Acts we have detailed descriptions of Jewish burial procedures (John 19:40; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:53-56; Acts 5:6). Some of these things are not even discussed in later sources.
Q. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was the first Jewish follower of Jesus to be martyred — he was stoned to death after his trial before the Sanhedrin. I was intrigued by your view that Stephen’s trial and execution not only tells us a lot about the Sanhedrin but that the execution was a violation of Talmudic law.
A. This trial is very important because the accounts of Josephus and the New Testament differ completely from descriptions of how the Sanhedrin or high court operated according to rabbinic sources. This is another confirmation that the real Sanhedrin in Second Temple times was not functioning according to Pharisaic law — that the Sanhedrin was a group of Pharisees and Sadducees and not a rabbinic court as described in rabbinic sources. And the elite Sadducees seemed to be running the show. But the Sadducees didn’t hold to the oral law concept or customary law. What significance does this have for the trial and eventual stoning to death of Stephen? Apparently they set up false witnesses who all were willing to condemn Stephen (Acts 6:9-13). But actually there’s a law in the Talmud that if the vote is unanimous you can’t execute, and the accused is considered innocent.
Q. That seems strange, since unanimous is usually interpreted as a confirmation of guilt.
A. In Jewish law it is assumed that if a verdict is unanimous the accused must have been framed. And, similarly, the action of the Sanhedrin leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus doesn’t follow this rabbinic law. The discrepancy provides overall evidence for the historic problem of what is being described in the New Testament vs. Talmudic law.
Q. Some commentators have questioned the importance of the synagogue in the Second Temple period stating that the temple in Jerusalem was the center of worship, with the synagogue being secondary if not optional. But in your view the New Testament gives ample evidence of and a broader picture of the importance of the synagogue in Jewish life, especially in the Diaspora.
A. That there were synagogues all over the Diaspora is no big deal since many have been excavated. But we wouldn’t have known about some of those places that have not been excavated if not for their citation in Acts. The fact that some have been excavated strongly indicates that the others also existed — and their mention in the New Testament has encouraged excavations in search for them. There’s some question of how observant of the Jewish way of life these Jews were who were living in various locations, since there was a lot of assimilation. Many Jews were Greek-speaking so it’s important to know that the synagogue was central in worship and that Jews commonly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath.
Q. Doesn’t that explain why Paul did most of his preaching in synagogues?
A. In Paul’s travels throughout Greece and Asia Minor his first stop was a synagogue — in some instances he stayed and preached for months. The descriptions tell us that the synagogue services included readings from the Torah and Prophets (Acts 13:27), a sermon, plus discussion and debate (Acts 13:14-18;17:1-2;18:1919:8).
Q. It’s also interesting that synagogues are sometimes near the water as the one in Acts 16:13. It’s not clear that this synagogue in Philippi Macedonia was a physical synagogue — it was apparently outdoors.
A. The word “synagogue” actually means “assembly,” not necessarily a building. Why in this instance near water? We don’t know. Perhaps for purity or possibly that Jews didn’t want to be tied to the land. In any event, the citation is the earliest mention of a synagogue near the seashore.
Q. Doesn’t the New Testament also inform us about the far reach of the Sanhedrin in ruling over Judaism?
A. The fact that the high priest in Jerusalem had influence throughout the Diaspora is revealed in Acts 9:1-2, when Paul is provided with a letter to a synagogue in Damascus authorizing him to seize Jewish followers of Jesus. And these letters apparently carried weight. Today, if the chief rabbi of Israel wrote to a synagogue in Westchester, NY, they probably wouldn’t listen to him.
Q. You comment that Jesus wasn’t the only one thought to be the Messiah in the New Testament period.
A. We know that throughout history there were many Messiah claimants — and probably at least six during the New Testament period. Acts 5:36-37 names two: Theudas, who rose up against Rome with his followers around 46 CE and was killed. Judas the Galilean similarly perished in his insurrection earlier in 6 CE, around the time of Jesus’ childhood. The New Testament citations are the earliest sources about these two rebel “Messiahs.” Their armed insurrections also reveal the ferocious Jewish resistance to Roman occupation.
Q. Any other firsts for the New Testament about Judaism?
A. Yes. Acts is the earliest source (5:34-39 and 22:3) that mentions the eminent Jewish scholar Gamaliel. He is known as Rabban Gamliel (I) the Elder in Jewish tradition and is quoted numerous times in the Mishnah (legal code). He was the grandson of Hillel and an important teacher and member of the Sanhedrin at the time of the crucifixion and during the ministry of Paul. In Acts we have reports of actual events in which Gamaliel was involved, which support the centrality of his position as described in rabbinic literature, despite the claims of some scholars that his role was fabricated.
Another first: In 49 CE the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. And that included Jews, Jewish/Christians, and Christians — the Romans didn’t know the difference. They were all Jews to the Romans. The first mention of this event is in Acts 18:2. Decades later the expulsion was also chronicled by Roman historian Seutonius, who may have learned about it from the New Testament.
Starr. Thanks Prof. Schiffman Your discoveries of what we can learn about Judaism from the New Testament should be of great interest to scholars as well as the general populations of Jews and Christians who seek a deeper understanding of the Jewish foundation of Christianity.
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