Jesus was in fact a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! The Lord himself made it quite clear by his own statements regarding His lineage and how salvation was to come to the whole world. When speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus said,
“You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.”
There is no need to delve into any deep exegesis of the words in this statement it is clear that Jesus identified himself as a Jew and with the Jews by saying, “we” and how salvation comes, “for salvation is of the Jews.”
Now the question is how can the Jewish Messiah bring salvation to the whole world and not just to Israel as so many Jews believed? The answer requires a brief study of Judaism of the late first century BC and early first century AD. There were many competing sects in Israel in the time of Christ some are mentioned in the New Testament, some are alluded to and their teachings are alluded to as well.
For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essens. Josephus War of the Jews book 2:8.2
The first century Jewish historian, Josephus (37 – c. 100 AD), himself a Pharisee, estimated the total Pharisee population prior to the fall of the Second Temple to be around 6,000. Antiquities of the Jews 17.42. Josephus claimed that Pharisees received the backing and goodwill of the common people, in contrast to the Sadducees who were the elitist, Hellenistic rulers and High Priestly sect.
Since Josephus refers to the “common people” we can deduce that they were not apart of any particular sect, but identified themselves with the House of Israel as well as their tribal distinctions, geographical areas, hometowns and families. Indeed our Lord said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew 15:24. And when He sent out the twelve he instructed them, “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew 10:5-6
For the purpose of this article we will only examine the sect of the Pharisees and the sub-sects within it. The word Pharisees comes from the Aramaic word peras (found in Dan 5:28), signifying “to separate,” and lived a different manner of life than that of the general public. They were a religious and at times a political group in Israel and after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Pharisaic beliefs became the liturgical and ritualistic basis for Rabbinical Judaism, but not all Pharisees followed the same school of interpretation.
There were two Jewish Sages who established schools of interpretation of the law and the prophets. Hillel and Shammai were the two leading rabbis of the late first century BC into early 1st century AD who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought, known as the House of Hillel and House of Shammai. The debate between these schools on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology was critical for the shaping of the Oral Law and Judaism as it is today and as it was in the time of Christ.
The differences between the two Sages can be summed up in an encounter they each had with a gentile seeking to become a convert to Judaism or Noahide monotheism.
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’ Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat folio 31.a
After Hillel died, circa 20 AD, Shammai took his place as president of the Great Sanhedrin, but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy.
So when we read of Pharisees in the New Testament we can no longer assume that they all had the same beliefs for they were often from differing schools of interpretation. The Lord generally agreed with the House of Hillel and Hillel’s disciples were more accepting of The Lord.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” John 3:1-2
Jesus was warned to leave the Galilee by certain Pharisees because Herod believed that The Lord might be John the Baptist risen from his grave to torment him.
On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.” Luke 13:31
Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” John 9:40
Remember when Peter and the apostles were arrested by the Captain of the high priest’s guards, and they were brought before the Sanhedrin and there Peter witnessed to them of the resurrected Christ.
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.” Acts 5:34-35
Gamaliel Son of Simon and grandson of Hillel: according to a tannaitic tradition (Shab.15a), he was their successor as nasi and first president of the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. Although the reliability of this tradition, especially as regards the title of “nasi,” has been justly disputed, it is nevertheless a fact beyond all doubt that in the second third of the first century Gamaliel occupied a leading position in the highest court, the great council of Jerusalem, and that, as a member of that court, he received the cognomen “Ha-Zaḳen.” Jewish Encyclopedia.
It is this same Gamaliel that Paul identifies as his teacher. “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, Acts 22:3-4 NASB
Gamaliel was eulogized in the Mishnah with this saying, “When he died the honor [outward respect] of the Torah ceased, and purity and piety became extinct” (Soṭah xv: 18).
Some of the believers in Christ in the early church were Pharisees. They were there at the Council in Jerusalem when Paul and Barnabas had come to report their success in furthering the gospel among the Gentiles.
But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Acts 15:5-9
This was the great debate in the early church when the disciples of The Lord had been called a sect of Judaism known as, “the Way.” Many scholars believe that the Jesus movement adopted the title, “the Way” because of the statement The Lord made about Himself. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. John 14:6 NASB
In Paul’s testimony before the Roman Procurator Felix he stated that the Jewish high priest and that the council identified the followers of Jesus as a sect known as the Way. Felix, having been appointed Procurator of Judea in 53 AD by the Emperor Claudius, was all to aware that the followers of Jesus were known as the Way, for he had to know about all the religious and political sects in the lands he administered.
“But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets;” Acts 24:14 NASB
But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide your case.” Acts 24:22 NASB
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2 NASB
When Paul was proclaiming the gospel in Ephesus to Jews and God fearing Gentiles in their Synagogue some opposition arose concerning the Way.
And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. Acts 19:8-10 NASB
The Gospel message and the Way was so compelling Ephesus and the surrounding area that it was having a negative financial impact upon those who sold idols and sacrificial animals that there was a great disturbance in Ephesus.
And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: “Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. “Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands.” Acts 19:32-26 NASB
The success of the Gospel in converting a great number of people in Asia Minor is attested to by Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (now in modern Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around 112 AD and asked for counsel on dealing with Christians.
Pliny’s Letter to Trajan:
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent….
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded. Epistulae X.96
I encourage everyone to read the entire letter to Trajan for it is very enlightening, but for now we will focus on the last paragraph.
“For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”
So fifty years after Demetrius the silversmith riled up the crowd in Ephesus with his complaint that, “not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands”, had now come to complete fruition.
The pagan, “temples, which had been almost deserted…that the established religious rites, long neglected…from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found”, all indicate the effect that the Way had on the populace and their pagan religious practices. Bottom line the Way was bad for business in the eyes of the Romans and it needed to be checked and cured.
I wonder if we as American Christians, born into a “Christian Nation” have not strayed from the Way. Are we just following the established religious rites, maintaining our own form of “temples” and being purchasers/consumers of Christianity? I’m afraid the answer is yes if we are only going through the motions and not spreading the Gospel through the nation.
But what if we turn the equation around and become Christians in America, born again to be examples of Christ in a nation. For it is not the nation which makes a people righteous in the eyes of God, but it is the righteousness of the people in the nation which makes a nation righteous in the eyes of Christ.