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Political and Religious Status of the Jewish People in the Days of Our Lord

by Joseph I. Schade


This article gives the history of the Jews during the time of Christ.

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The Ecclesiastical Review



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American Ecclesiastical Review, August 1936

Reviewing the later history of the Jewish people one must take into consideration a division of this race which the times themselves had introduced, namely the Hebrews of Palestine and those of the Dispersion. The former were the scrupulous guardians of the Revelation of God, while the latter had the special mission to bring the gentile world in contact with this Revelation, to disseminate among other nations the Messianic promise, and finally to become the channels whereby the blessings of the future Messiah would be transmitted to the gentile world.

The origin of this division dates from the Babylonian captivity. Until that time the Jewish people had never left the land of Canaan, which God had given to them, but the captivity of Babylon made a complete change in their habits and in their relations with other nations. When Cyrus, king of the Persians, brought this sad period to an end and permitted the Jewish people to return to their native land, only a small number, guided by Zorobabel, took advantage of the leniency of the king. The greater majority of the ten tribes and many too of the two tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained in Babylon. An idea of the importance and number of the Jewish population residing in the Babylonian Empire can be gained from the fact that, during the persecution of Aman, King Assuerus, upon the solicitation of Esther, ordered letters to be written to "the Jews, and to the governors, and to the deputies, and to the judges, who were rulers over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India even to Ethiopia" (Esther 8:9). In the fourth century B.C., following the war of Artaxerxes III, colonies of Jews were established on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Some authors declare that descendants of these Babylonian Jews found their way even into the Himalayas, Malabar, Afghanistan, Cashmere and Turkestan. The principal center of influence, however, remained always at Babylon, and even after the return from captivity this Babylonian colony was held in great honor by that of Jerusalem. To these exiled Jews, however, marriage with gentiles was interdicted, and, though living among other nations, they retained their national identity, their practices and laws, and for this reason drew upon themselves the attention, the envy and frequently the persecution of their gentile neighbors.

Oriental monarchs were witnesses to the genius and industry of their Jewish subjects and availed themselves gladly of their services for colonization purposes. In this the Jewish people were experts, for their flexibility of character, their riches and indefatigable activity caused them to forget their native land and become acclimated to new environments. The colonies thus formed remained always Hebrew, both in custom and religion, and were governed according to the Law of Moses. On the other hand, when free to migrate, Israelites chose generally those colonies which offered them the greatest liberty and independence.

When Alexander became master of the East, realizing the valuable qualities of the Hebrews, he granted them the privileges enjoyed by the Macedonians (Josephus). Under the government of the Seleucids many Jews settled in Antioch. The Ptolemies invited them into Egypt and eventually the city of Alexandria became two-fifths Jewish. In this city the Jewish people not only established a religious organization, with a flourishing synagogue as the center, but they became also a political entity, with an Ethnarch as the ruler of their nation, a council and their own tribunals. In a word they became a nation within a nation. From Alexandria they migrated to other parts of Egypt, everywhere establishing synagogues and governing themselves according to their own laws, so that at the time of Christ they numbered about one million, about one-eighth of the entire population (Philo). This colonization of the Jewish people extended over entire Asia, so that after five centuries there was scarcely a city or port wherein they had not established themselves, as Strabo and Josephus relate.

In the Roman Empire Jewish people were found in even greater numbers, and their ghettoes and synagogues were established on the shores of the Mediterranean and in every province. In a letter to Caligula, Herod Agrippa enumerates the various provinces wherein the Jews had established themselves: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Syria, Phoenicia, the coast of Africa, Greece, Thessalonia and Peloponesus, and the islands of Cyprus and Crete. Though scattered over a great area, they were bound together by a most active commerce, and if one city refused them asylum they found it in another, consoling themselves with the words of the Sybilline Oracle: "The whole earth and the whole sea are filled with thee. If all are hostile to thee it is because thou has conquered all" (Chap. III, 271).

These Jews of the Dispersion had forgotten their mother tongue, and, though in some parts of the East they still spoke a Semitic language, still Greek was the common medium of communication. For this latter reason a translation into Greek of their Sacred Books was made, called the Septuagint, around whose origin time has woven many interesting legends.

Having abandoned Canaan and having forgotten their mother tongue, these Jews became a different people, both in custom and spirit. They were no longer shepherds and husbandmen, as we read of them in the Books of the Judges and Kings, but became a people of commerce, which in time brought them immense riches and enviable privileges. These privileges, especially in the Macedonian Empire, were numerous and important: the right of citizenship and the right to govern themselves according to the Mosaic Law together with complete freedom of worship. Nevertheless these concessions rendered them a privileged class, freeing them from military service and other obligations incompatible with the Mosaic prescriptions. Similar privileges were conferred upon them by the Roman Emperors. Their fortunes had grown and their credit was so increased under Julius Caesar, that he not only followed the standard set by Alexander, but even amplified these privileges. In several edicts Caesar granted them the right to live according to their own laws and customs; to collect taxes for the support of the Temple at Jerusalem and that of their own synagogues; and every seventh year they were freed from taxes so that they could celebrate the Sabbatical precept. The high priest of Jerusalem was considered the patron of all Israelites of the Dispersion and had the right to defend them before the tribunals of the Emperor and Proconsuls. Augustus confirmed these edicts, which carried force not only at Rome but also in the provinces. In fact provincial governors treated the Jews with great courtesy and cultivated their friendship, knowing well the influence and power that the Jews could wield.

The Jews of the Dispersion, although living a distinct life, soon fell under foreign influence, and while the Jews of Palestine were multiplying the minute observances of the Mosaic Law, these others mingling daily in commerce and business with Romans, Greeks and Orientals, adopted gradually many foreign usages and customs. While in Palestine Aramaic became the popular language and Hebrew was retained solely as "the sacred tongue", the Jews of the Dispersion used Greek in their synagogues, adopting the language of the country in which they found themselves. The Egyptian Jews went even farther and studied the literature and philosophy of Greece, so that at the end of the first century B.C. the Hebrew School of Alexandria wrote history in the style of Thucydides and produced tragedies in that of Sophocles from subjects taken from their Sacred Books. Others studied Plato and Aristotle, surprised to find in the works of these philosophers subjects akin to those in their own sacred writings. Some went even so far as to claim that Greek philosophy was taken from Judaism and that Plato and Aristotle were personifications of Moses. In order to reconcile Jewish and Greek philosophy they began to interpret the Scriptures in an allegorical sense, just as the Greeks interpreted the Iliad. Abraham became the personification of wisdom, Sarah of virtue, Noe of justice, and the four rivers of Paradise became the cardinal virtues.

In one matter, however, the Hebrews of the Dispersion were guided by those of Palestine, namely, sacrifice, which according to their Law could be offered only in the Temple of Jerusalem. Residing at a distance from that city they adored Jehovah only in spirit with prayers, hymns and reading of the Scriptures. Although wavering in certain practices, their faith in the Eternal God, in the Law and in the Sacred Books was firm and unalterable. Proof of this fact is found in the abundant offerings which they made each year to the Temple of Jerusalem and which were carried to the Holy City by a deputation from each synagogue accompanied by numerous pilgrims. The piety of these Jews manifested itself on every occasion; their entire lives were wrapt up in their synagogues, and their zeal for religion made a deep impression on the minds of their pagan neighbors. The elevating dogmas of Judaism, its pure morals, fraternal charity and austere practices attracted many, who were wearied and disgusted with paganism or eager for novelty. Josephus speaks of this influence when he writes that "it is the style to imitate the piety of the Hebrews and there is no Greek city or uncultured people who have not introduced respect for the Sabbath and fasting and abstinence from food. Many imitate our harmony, our generosity, our activity in the arts, our courage to suffer for the sake of the Law. This Law, without any intrinsic attraction, has had the power to diffuse itself among men" (Apion II, 39).

The liturgy of the Hebrews of the Dispersion conveyed the idea of a religion entirely spiritual, but unlike that of Jerusalem lacked an altar and bloody sacrifice. Instead there was the Sacred Book, venerated and interpreted piously, prayers and a psalmody both inspiring and touching. Among them Mosaicism was at its best, shorn of all those hypercritical adjuncts which our Lord himself so often criticized and condemned. What gave these Jews their irresistible influence was not the austere majesty of their worship, nor the dogmas and virtues inspired by their Law, but their certainty of possessing the Truth.

The independence of the synagogue, however, exerted an undoubted influence on both Jew and gentile. While laws regulated other societies, limited their numbers, curtailed their meetings and taxed their treasuries, the synagogue was free from these regulatory laws and was considered a purely religious assembly. This privilege and the superiority of the Mosaic Law found favor with many pagans. Women especially were attracted by the mysteries of the synagogue, by the sweet charity that prevailed and by the plaintive psalms that were chanted. At Rome there were many converts to Judaism, and the number of female converts was so large that even the poet Ovid commented upon the beauty of the synagogue. The Jewish teachers encouraged these conversions and saw therein neither embarrassment nor uneasiness. Regarding male converts, however, they were more diffident, because they feared that men might be drawn to the synagogue either because of special privileges, such as exemption from taxes or military service, or because by conversion to Judaism they sought to escape punishment for crime, as was the case of the Tribune Mitelius, or by the hope of a wealthy marriage. These subterfuges, as recorded by the rabbis, show the reason why the latter looked askance upon male converts and how deeply they sought for the reason of their conversion. There was indeed reason for this circumspection, since the synagogue of Alexandria was filled with apostates. These renegades were despised by the Jews of Palestine, who called them "the leprosy of Israel" and accused them of retarding the coming of the Messiah. The Jews of the Dispersion, however, were more liberal and made easy the path of the convert. Some teachers exempted them from the rite of circumcision and other legal precepts, and required merely an acknowledgment of Jehovah as the true God, together with adoration and meditation on the Law. Other teachers, more severe, required the scrupulous observance of every law, circumcision together with ablutions and sacrifice. These converts were numerous and filled the ghetto and synagogue of every city, and insensibly prepared the way for Christianity, for they formed a class in which the Apostles found willing hearers and became so many channels for disseminating the Gospel among the pagans. Like the true sons of Abraham, they too looked for the Messiah, but they were not attached obstinately to the belief that this Messiah was to establish an earthly kingdom and restore the throne of David. In truth they formed that golden harvest which, according to the words of Christ, was awaiting the scythe of the reaper to be gathered into the granary of the Lord.

In Palestine, however, the situation was different, for there the Jews were no longer masters of this land of promise, given to them by God himself, but were chafing under the galling yoke of foreign domination. For a short time after the captivity of Babylon, the Jews enjoyed independence, and even now were making a firm and organized stand against every effort to denationalize and paganize the nation. Their chosen leaders, however, had fallen under the influence of Roman wealth and seduction, and in 63 B.C. Pompey with his army entered Jerusalem and defiled the Holy of Holies. A few years later Crassus came and plundered the Temple. Hyrcanus enjoyed, it is true) the title of high priest and ethnarch, but he could do nothing without the approval of Rome. With the intervention of the Romans in the affairs of Judea, the prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled; the scepter had passed from the house of Juda, and the Messiah, "the expectation of nations" was eagerly awaited.

During the next few years political changes came swiftly. Pompey replaced Hyrcanus with the Idumean Antipater, who enjoyed the complete confidence of the Jews. The second son of Antipater, Herod, became governor of Galilee. Upon the murder of Antipater, an Asmonean prince, Antigonus, with the aid of the Parthians, became ruler of Jerusalem. Herod, obliged to flee from Galilee and abandoned by the neighboring kings from whom he had sought help, passed into Egypt to Cleopatra, and thence to Rome, where he so impressed Antonius with his eloquence and reminded Octavius of the services rendered by his father that the Roman Senate, upon the demand of the Triumvirs, proclaimed Herod King of the Jews. The Idumean had accomplished this in the short space of seven years. Without losing time Herod returned to Judea, and with the aid of the Roman army passed through a sea of blood and carnage to Jerusalem, thus inaugurating that reign of cruelty, bloodshed and suspicion, which made him unhappy amidst the splendors of empire. Even if his cruelty and cunning were enormous, still it cannot be denied that he possessed some good qualities. "Herod", said Augustus, "does not have the kingdom corresponding to his ability. He merits the crown of Syria and Egypt". Standing alone amid his family, who hated him because not a Jew, and amid a people, who despised him because a foreigner, he knew, nevertheless, how to preserve his throne and when abandoned by those around him, he made friends of the Greeks and Romans and of the Hebrews of the Dispersion, to whom he showed many favors. The Palestinian Jews did not support him, for they looked upon the pagan monuments and circus, which he caused to be erected in Judea, as so many insults to their religion. Despite the food which Herod gave them during a time of famine, the people continued to look upon him as a usurper, an assassin and the profaner of their Temple. Not even the reconstruction of the Temple, nor the riches with which Herod endowed it could win for him the affection and esteem of the people. Marble, precious woods, gold and silver were not spared, and still the people saw only a tower, built at one corner of the Temple and named in honor of Antonius, the Tower of Antonius, and over the entrance thereto the golden eagle of Rome, as a constant reminder of their slavery. No matter how much the Jews hated and resisted Herod, they realized that they were bound by chains forged by the Roman people. This power of Rome is seen on the very first pages of the New Testament, where we read that upon the command of Augustus, Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the Messiah was born. We can readily comprehend the great joy of the shepherds at hearing the message of the Angels, for they were persuaded that, with the coming of the Messiah, foreign domination and oppression would cease. Herod, in view of the opposition of the people and considering every one an enemy, must have trembled when he heard that a new king had been born, not indeed of the Asmonean dynasty, but of the House of David.

After the death of Herod the populace revolted against Archelaus and this gave the Romans a new pretext to enter Judea. Varus, Praetor of Syria, subdued Jerusalem, but owing to the opposition of the Jews to a governor of the hated Idumean tribe, Judea became a Roman province and was thenceforth governed by a Procurator. The first to hold this position was Coponius, who completed the census or registration for taxation ordered by Cyrinus, governor of Syria. Roman prudence, however, feared to place the seat of the Procurator at Jerusalem and selected Caesarea, which was more than half Greek. Here too was encamped the garrison, composed of Samarians and Greeks of Syria, although detachments were quartered in other localities. One such detachment was stationed in the Tower of Antonius at Jerusalem, and its numbers were augmented yearly at the time of the Passover.

One consequence of Roman domination was the imposition of taxes. These were twofold: direct and indirect. Direct taxes consisted of tax on the land and a personal or family tax, and it is probable that the Pharisees referred to this tax when they asked: "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?" The indirect taxes consisted of customs and duties imposed on imports and exports. The official gatherers of these taxes were known as "Publicans", and were hated by the people and were called "sinners", because they were considered degraded and unpatriotic for serving the Romans and because of their extortion. Zacchaeus probably belonged to this class. These Publicans usually sublet the taxes to contractors of lower grades and the actual collectors were driven to the severest exactions.

The best known of Roman Procurators was Pontinus Pilate, a man of execrable memory, who ruled the province during ten years. He was not acceptable to the Jews and both Josephus and Philo accuse him of pride and tyranny. In many things he displeased the Jews, especially when he caused images to be painted on the Tower of Antonius and on the walls of the Temple. The people promptly rebelled and appealed to Caesar so that Pilate was forced to bow to their wishes. Another incident is found in St. Luke (Chap. 13:1) where Pilate presumably having killed some Galileans, mingled their blood with that of the Temple sacrifices. Pilate despised the Jews, but he never touched the treasures of the Temple; he even showed prudence and intelligence in governing, and sought justice, although he lacked the firmness to fulfil its demands. He loved luxury and comfort and feared to displease the Jews, as we know from the history of the Passion. When taunted with the enmity of Caesar, Pilate delivered Christ into the hands of the Jews to be crucified, for which crime his memory is held in universal malediction. The Procurators of Judea were answerable directly to Rome. Galilee and the two tetrarchies, Iturea and Abilene, were governed by kings who were not Jews but who were dependent upon Roman power to maintain their authority. The best known of these was that Herod who ordered the murder of St. John the Baptist.

Despite these political divisions Palestine preserved its national unity, whose medium of conservation was its religious organization, the center and pivotal point of which was the Temple of Jerusalem. The heart of the nation was true to its ancient teachings, but the exasperation produced by foreign domination had, nevertheless, a deplorable effect upon religion, and religious ideas began gradually to assume a political aspect. The chief proponents of these ideas were several sects whose history goes back more than an hundred years. In the prolonged contest of the noble Machabees with their enemies, we meet with a fraternity under the name of "Assideans" described as "the stoutest of Israel" (I Mach. 2). From this fraternity, whose sole purpose was to uphold the Law in all its integrity, sprang directly or indirectly the various politico-religious parties which, during the days of Herod, became most active and ultimately brought about the ruin of the Hebrew community of Palestine. The most influential of these sects were the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes.

The Sadducees began with the supreme obligation of morality and ended as mere rationalistic moralists. Rejecting traditional supplements to the Mosaic Law they denied any doctrine not plainly and literally taught by the Scriptures. The philosophy of the Sadducees was based upon the belief in the absolute freedom of man's will. Their opinions seem to have made great headway with the rich and upper classes, and hence, as the wealthier party of the State and having lost much of their ancestral faith, they became reconciled to the Romans and friends of the new rulers. In the days of Christ and the Apostles the high priest and his party were "of the sect of the Sadducees" (Acts 4:1); St. John the Baptist called them a "brood of vipers" (Matth. 3:7), and our Lord named them a "wicked and adulterous generation" (Matth. 16:4) and warned His disciples against the "Leaven" of principles of both Sadducees and Pharisees. Annas and Caiaphas were members of the Sadducean party. Of them Josephus writes: "They are able to persuade none but the rich; but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side" (Ant. 13:10).

These Pharisees belonged to the sect of the "Distinct" or Separatist. Two doctrines were held by the Pharisees as of the greatest importance: one was the obligation to pay all tithes before the use or sale of any commodity, the other was the avoidance of all uncleanness, in regard to which many minute details were laid down. Our Lord vehemently condemns these two characteristics of Pharisaism as recorded by St. Matthew (23:23-25). Their chief distinction, however, centered in their adherence to the Oral Law, a series of unwritten interpretations of the Divine Law, handed down by the doctors and forming an elaborate system governing every detail of life and worship. These "traditions of the elders" in their multiplicity of subtle distinctions and vexatious rules became a burden and oppression to the conscience. Formalism was substituted for religion, as evidenced by their broad phylacteries, their long prayers recited on the highways, as well as by the inconsistency of their lives, which proved their piety to be mere affectation. Hence the terrible indictment brought against them by our Lord (Mark 7 and Luke 11). They were the principal obstacle to the reception of Christ and His Gospel, for they could neither accept the spirituality of His doctrine nor practise the humility to follow Him. Politically the Pharisees stood for the independence of the Jewish people and were opposed to Roman domination. They were divided into two schools, the leaders of which were Hillel and Shammai, both of whom were contemporaries of Herod. Hillel in general gave to the written Law a more liberal interpretation and endeavored to introduce greater harmony and stability in the prescriptions of tradition. Shammai, on the contrary, was a rigorist and propounded a strictly literal exegesis. In their interpretation of the Law both proposed a mass of regulations, for instance 1279 regarding the proper sanctification of the Sabbath, to the utter confusion of the people. Dogmatic questions were discussed but seldom among them, for to them the strict observance of the rites and prescriptions of the Mosaic Law was the only essential.

The Essenes were the "mystics" of the nation, and though not mentioned in the Scriptures, are described by Josephus (Wars 11,8) as "one of the three philosophical sects of the Jews". They not only rejected the Temple sacrifices, but maintained a non-Levitical priesthood; they contemned the body and held the immortality of the soul, but not the resurrection. Their standard of morality was high and their four classes were distinguished by degrees of asceticism. Abstinence, not only from wine, but from all animal food was strictly enforced, and it was a mark of perfection to forswear the marriage state. Widely as these sects diverged from one another, and bitter as were their mutual controversies, they were united in their opposition and enmity to Christ.

The Gospel speaks frequently of Scribes and Doctors of the Law, and both fell under the scathing censures of our Lord.

In more ancient times Scribes occupied secretarial positions, but in the days of Christ the name came to signify the transcriber and reader of the Scriptures and also their expositor. Scribes had assumed the office of public teachers and the priests, unless also Scribes, took a subordinate place. They sat as teachers in Moses' seat and to them were made appeals on doctrinal and ritual questions. Thus Herod consulted the chief priests and Scribes as to where the Christ should be born. As the oral as well as written Law was the subject of their teaching, they are constantly coupled with the Pharisees, who were the exponents of the former (Matth. 23). They abused their position by ostentation and extortion and became eventually the most clamorous enemies of Christ. When true to his calling the Scribe occupied an honored position, but this was seldom the case, and when the people perceived that Jesus taught "not as the Scribes", He became in their eyes no mere expositor but an original teacher of the Law. At this time their authority had increased to such an extent that they actually supplanted the priests, who were mostly Sadducees.

The Doctors of the Law seem to have been professional men. Jewish jurisprudence was not abolished by Roman domination, for the Jews were allowed, except in capital cases, to administer their own laws. Hence Pilate said of our Lord: "Take you him and judge him according to your law" (John 18:31). The Mosaic Laws had to be enforced on Jews by Jewish officials in Jewish courts, and hence professional Counsel would be needed. There was nothing to prevent a Doctor of the Law from being a Scribe also, and this may explain how St. Matthew speaks of the Doctor of the Law who asked our Lord about the great commandment, while St. Mark calls him a Scribe. These Doctors of the Law were rebuked by our Lord for their unprofessional conduct, for "they despised the counsel of God against themselves" (Luke 7:30).

In addition to these religious sects there were several political societies whose influence was widespread. Of these the "Zealotes" were perhaps the most influential. They denied the right of any foreign power to rule over the people of God, and were ready to suffer even death for this conviction. They maintained the Mosaic Law with fanatical strictness and resisted every attempt to enforce foreign usages upon the people. Simon, one of the Apostles, is named "Zealotes", probably because he was a member of this society.

Closely allied with the Zealotes was the society of the Galileans. The name Galilean was always used as a term of opprobrium by the Jews of the South, but in the time of our Lord events had brought the name into deeper disfavor, and the word was synonymous for disaffection and rebellion. In the days of Cyrinus, Judas of Galilee raised the standard of revolt and urged the people not to pay tribute to the Romans. These Galileans overran the country, and while the Holy Family were dwelling quietly in Nazareth, the entire surrounding country was given up to lawless rebellion. The power of Rome, however, prevailed; Judas was slain and his followers dispersed, but the Galilean spirit remained as a constant menace to Roman authority. Bearing this in mind the expression used at our Lord's trial: "Jesus of Galilee" and the accusation made against St. Peter: "Thou art also a Galilean," seem to show an attempt to identify our Lord and His Apostle with the promotors of sedition and create prejudice against them.

Another sect were the "Herodians", who in a word were Romanized Jews. They courted the Romans to their own profit, and, like the Pharisees, undermined the faith of the people; the former by their foreign corruption, the latter by their traditions. Both are condemned by our Lord: "Take heed and beware", He said, "of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (Mark 8:15); both joined in proposing to Him the insidious question of the tribute money, and both were called "hypocrites".

The other group were the Samaritans. They were originally immigrants from Assyria sent to colonize the provinces from which the Israelites had been deported. Their pagan religion disappeared gradually, due to the influence of a Jewish remnant still scattered throughout the land. When Cyrus permitted the Hebrews to return from Babylon, their leader Zorobabel spurned the offer of assistance from these Samaritans, and the latter thenceforth became the most bitter enemies of Juda. Antiochus Epiphanes (B.C. 175) endeavored to paganize the Jews, and while the latter refused, the Samaritans submitted to the tyrant.

This act placed them in opposition to the Jewish patriots, who under the able leadership of the Machabees overran Samaria and destroyed the temple of Gerizim (B.C. 130). The spirit of the Samaritans, however, remained unbroken and their animosity persisted even to the time of our Lord. When Jew and Samaritan met, angry discussion arose (Luke 9:51) and the name alone produced bitter scorn (John 8:48); hence our Lord's repeated lessons of brotherly love (Luke 10:33). It is interesting to note that the disciple, who would have called down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans, afterward himself preached the Gospel in many Samaritan villages (Luke 9: Hand Acts 8: 25).

For both the Jews of Palestine and those of the Dispersion the synagogue was the true center of religious life, for here the Scriptures Were expounded and the Law interpreted. But the Temple of Jerusalem was the only place in which sacrifice could be offered, and here the high priest, with his associates of the tribe of Levi, ruled supreme. The knowledge of these priests was confined mostly to liturgical regulations, and their duties consisted in reciting prayers and offering sacrifice. The high priest families were Sadducees, and, since they lived of the Temple, they were constrained to foster friendly relations with the Romans. Moreover, being Sadducees and wealthy, they were the only ones able to pay the price for these high positions. The high priest usually burdened the people with heavy taxes, much of which went into his private coffers. He presided over the Sanhedrin, which was composed of seventy men: twenty-four priests, who were probably former high priests, twenty-four Elders, who were usually laymen, and twenty-two Scribes. The chief duty of the Sanhedrin was to supervise the religious life of the nation, to preserve the purity of the sacerdotal caste, and to investigate and punish defections from the faith. It could judge also in secular disputes, and could punish with fines, imprisonment and stripes, but, under Roman rule, was deprived of right of capital sentence.

Such then was the political and religious situation of the Jewish people when our Lord came to preach and establish His spiritual kingdom. An erroneous conception of the Messiah, impatience of Roman sovereignty, the extraordinary excitement of the more fanatical portion of the people, and the crafty prudence of the priests in controlling the masses, lest rebellion jeopardize their position, — all these circumstances helped to account for the reception which Jesus of Nazareth received from a people whom the Patriarchs and Prophets had prepared for this great event. Preaching, as He did, doctrines so contrary to the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees, and so repugnant to their national pride, and implying the dissolution of the Mosaic constitution and the establishment of a new and more comprehensive faith—a faith too pure and spiritual for their comprehension—caused them to reject Him and brought them ultimately before Pilate to demand the crucifixion of the Son of God. Little wonder then that Christ wept over Jerusalem saying: "If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace" (Luke 19:42). And yet there must have been a better and more spiritual element, which exhibited a nobler conception of the Messiah. This we must infer from the so-called "Psalms of Solomon", written about 63 B.C., in which we read of many "pious souls", both among the learned and the masses, who clung with simplicity to the hope of a personal Messiah and of a moral and spiritual redemption through Him. Moreover, St. Luke, in the very first pages of his Gospel, gives an attractive picture of those who, like Simeon, were "waiting for the consolation of Israel", and like Anna, the prophetess, "spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel". Many of these pious souls were undoubtedly numbered among the first followers and disciples of our Lord, and others were absorbed later on by the early Church.

Joseph I. Schade Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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