Author Archives Bill Heinrich

Unit 02 Cultural Background Studies

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Unit 02

Cultural Background Studies

02.01 People Groups

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Chapter 01

People Groups

02.01.00.A. CHRIST AND THE YOUNG CHILD by Carl Bloch

  02.01.00.A. CHRIST AND THE YOUNG CHILD by Carl Bloch. Saint Augustine once said that Jesus died for everyone of us, as if there was only one of us. His life, message, and sacrifice was for everyone regardless of age, occupation, or ethnicity.

02.01.01 Introduction

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02.01.01 Introduction.  The Holy Land in the first century consisted of several Jewish subgroups along with a variety of Gentile ethnic groups. The following definitions clarify people groups discussed in this e-book. They represent religious sects, cultural and political bodies that conflicted with each other and shaped the ministry environment of Jesus. Not all are mentioned in the gospels, but nonetheless, their influence was present, and sometimes quite powerful.

02.01.02 Arabs (see Idumeans)

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02.01.02 Arabs (see Idumeans)

2.01.03 Diaspora

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2.01.03 Diaspora. The term refers to Jews who were dispersed from their Holy Land, either forcefully or by free choice.[1]  So many Jews lived “abroad” that by the end of the Inter-Testamental Period there were two Diasporas. The “Western Diaspora,” located in the area from Tarsus and Ephesus in modern Turkey to modern France, was dominated by the Hellenistic culture.  The “Eastern Diaspora,” located in a region encompassed by eastern Turkey, Egypt, and Babylon, was dominated by rabbinic law and lore. Both cultural groups had a tendency to confront each other, especially when they met during the festivals in Jerusalem.


02.01.03.Z MAP OF THE TWO JEWISH DIASPORAS. By the end of the Inter-Testamental Period the Jewish people had spread over a large region from the Persian Gulf to Western Europe. The eastern rabbinic Jewish Diaspora tended to clash with their western Hellenistic counterpart. Courtesy of International Mapping and Dan Przywara.

[1]. Mills and Michael, Messiah and His Hebrew Alphabet. 104.

02.01.04 Elder

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02.01.04 Elder. There are several definitions for the term elder, (presbuteros 4245) and there are corresponding variations of the Greek term,[1]

  1. The older of two persons.
  1. A person who is advanced in age.
  1. The head of a tribe or clan.
  1. In the first century, every village had a group of elders[2] who functioned as a judicial body, had general administrative duties, and represented the village to their Roman overlords. It was also their responsibility to insure that all villagers remained faithful to the teachings of Moses. Theologically, they were more aligned with the Pharisees and their Oral Law than with the Sadducees.[3] However, within the sect of Pharisees there were two schools of theology, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, who held opposing views of application of the Oral and Mosaic Laws.


[1]. Vine, “Elder, Eldest.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:191.


[2]. See 03.05.11.


[3]. Shepherd, “Elder in the New Testament.” 2:73-75.

02.01.05 Epicureans

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02.01.05 Epicureans The Epicureans were originally Greeks who followed the philosophy of life developed and taught by the Athenian teacher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.).  The purpose of his philosophy was to bring stability to an unstable social environment caused by the death of Alexander the Great and the empire division that followed. The religions of the Greeks and Romans had lost their vitality and never succeeded in changing the heart.

Into the volatile Middle East came Philodemus (110 – 30 B.C.), an influential Epicurean philosopher and poet to the Roman world in the century prior to the time of Jesus. He was born in Gadara, the Greek city where Jesus healed the demoniac and 2,000 swine committed suicide in the Sea of Galilee. He, as other Epicurean philosophers, promoted the common saying that “pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily.” Epicureanism is essentially a feelings-based philosophy of life.  It states that all experiences related to pain are directly associated with evil while pleasure is associated with the highest good. The function of wisdom is to measure the cost of pain and to best achieve the full pleasure of life. Happiness was totally a human responsibility and achievement because the gods were not interested in what people did.[1]  


02.01.05.A. FRAGMENT OF PHILODEMUS’ EPICUREAN WRITING. The Epicureans believed that the sole purpose of life was the pursuit and achievement of pleasure. Internet Photo:

Historians have said that by the first century (B.C.), Gadara was equal to Athens in philosophy, art, and other aspects of Greek culture. Certainly this underscores the significant influence Hellenism[2] had upon the close proximity to the Jewish people. It has rivaled Judeo-Christian ethics throughout history and, today, it is embodied in popular humanistic philosophies. The Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175-164 B.C.) attempted to replace Judaism with Hellenistic Epicureanism.[3]  There is no record that Jesus ever encountered promoters of this philosophy, although He probably did while traveling through the Greek cities of the Decapolis. The Bible does indicate, however, that the Apostle Paul had dialogues with such philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:18). Among the Jewish people, the Hellenists and Sadducees endorsed this lifestyle while maintaining some Jewish traditions for cultural reasons.

In response to the hard issues of life, the philosophy of Epicureanism[4] (Gk. apicuros)[5] exalted self-indulgences and happiness as the ultimate goals in life. Some six decades before the birth of Jesus, Julius Caesar told the Roman senate that there was no future life after death and no immortality of the soul; one needed to live for the present.[6]  Therefore, by the time Jesus came on the scene, there was a discouraged Gentile audience searching for hope. They accepted Him, and within a century the Gentile church exploded in numbers, far outpacing the number of Jewish believers.

[1]. Retrieved March 13, 2012.


[2]. The Greek word Hellen means Greek. Bietenhard, “Greek.” 2:124.


[3]. DeLaney, Dictionary. 2-3; Cressey, “Epicureans.” 1:465.


[4]. De Lacy, “Epicureanism and the Epicurean School.” 3:2-3; Bruce, New Testament History. 39-41.


[5]. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 196.


[6]. Geikie, The Life and Words. 1:28.


02.01.06 Essenes

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02.01.06 Essenes.  The origin of the Essenes has been a subject of debate among scholars, as some believe the group broke from the early Sadducees, while others believe the group separated from the early Pharisees.  The former point to Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (Heb. Miqsat Ma’ase ha-Torah meaning Some Principles of the Law)[1] that is dated to the early Hasmonean Period.[2] This scroll is believed to have been written by conservative Sadducees and sent to their Hellenistic brothers in Jerusalem.  In it, the author(s) compared Hasmonean rules to biblical rules and said that God’s rules would result in divine blessings. The scroll pertains to those who would not accept the rulings of the Hasmonean and scholars believe this suggests that the Essenes came out of the early Sadducean movement.

However, other scholars believe the Essenes were a group of Jews who separated from Pharisees early in the second century B.C. and they were the descendants of a group known as the Hasidim.[3] Like the Pharisees, their primary concern was purity and strict observance of the Mosaic Law, although they differed on some doctrines and practice.[4] The name “Essene,” is thought to have originated from the breastplate that was worn by the high priest.[5]  They were descendants of the Zadokite Dynasty and some of them moved to the desert regions of Damascus after Antiochus IV Epiphanes killed the High Priest Onias III around 171 B.C.[6] Other Essenes relocated to the wilderness near the Dead Sea to escape persecution by the Hasmoneans (ruled Jerusalem 163-63 B.C.).[7] The first members of the Essenes were priests, but by the time of Alexander Jannaeus (104-76 B.C.) many others joined the group.  According to Philo and Josephus,[8] approximately four thousand Essenes lived in Israel,[9] although archaeological studies reveal that only about three hundred lived in Qumran.  That leaves a majority of them to have lived in other areas such as the western part of Jerusalem, Damascus, Alexandria, and Cairo, Josephus said they established their own orthodox theology,[10] which was considerably more restrictive than the Oral Law, but like the Oral Law, was held as superior to the Mosaic Law.  They also believed Moses was almost equal to God.[11] They were highly disappointed by the spiritual corruption of both the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem as well as the leaders of government. They had such a great disdain for the religious establishment that they chose not to be involved in any sacrifices or religious observances in the temple. This was in part because the Essenes adopted a 365 day calendar as opposed to the 360 day calendar used by the rest of the Jewish world. This meant that their festivals were observed at different times of the year.  In response, the ruling Sadducees excluded them from worship at the temple which intensified the hatred between them.[12] Some scholars believe that Jesus observed Passover a day earlier than did other Jews, because He observed it according to the Essene calendar.[13]

Since the temple was the only place where sacrifices could be made for the atonement of sins, the Essenes taught that any Jew could abolish his or her sins by repentance and strict observance of the laws of Moses.  However, this abolishment of sin would occur only if the repentant Jew observed the Essene interpretation of Scripture and practiced the Essene laws.  They coined phrases in observance of these laws, such as, “sons of  light, sons of darkness,” and “Belial,” [14] a name given to Satan (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-15).  In addition, they called themselves “The Way,” “The Elect,” “The New Covenanters,” and the “Yahad” (Heb. meaning “those who have become one”).[15]  They considered themselves to be the “voice in the wilderness,” calling upon people to repent from sin and return to the one true God.

As to their daily activities at Qumran, they arose at sunrise in the nearby caves, where they slept every night, and then came to the community center.  They spoke no words, prayed certain prayers, and performed their assigned tasks until about 11:00 a.m.  In this communal village, they held all property in common, shunned trade, wore white garments, and maintained a strict lifestyle of work, study, and worship.[16] Then they had a ritual bath and a communal meal in strict order.  The evening meal was the same as the previous one.  Strict discipline was their way to earn salvation and encourage the coming of the messiah, which was the major emphasis of their theology.

They believed that God demanded purity and holiness, but such virtues needed to be developed by their own efforts and not by His grace.  Their worldview was rather Calvinistic in that they believed they were predestined to be the holy sons of light, being the exclusive ones to enjoy the blessings and approval of God, while those outside their group were damned unto death.

As to the messiah, they had difficulty separating the Old Testament prophecies that referred to Him as a suffering servant from those that referred to Him as a victorious king.  So they concluded that there would be two messiahs: The messianic king who would be a descendant of David and the other, a descendant of Aaron who would be a priest and suffering messiah.[17] The messiah of Aaron would restore the temple and the messiah would lead the sons of light into war against the sons of darkness, and the present evil age would end, Rome would be defeated, and the Davidic Kingdom would be restored.[18] The Essenes, as well as so many other Jewish people, had four faulty concepts of their messiah.

  1. They were interested in a messiah who was only for the Jews
  1. They were interested in a messiah who would accept every Jew
  1. They were interested in a political messiah who would overthrow the Romans
  1. They were interested in an economic messiah who would restore the prosperity their forefathers enjoyed during the reign of King David and, hence, the name, “son of David.” The phrase “son of David” was an allusion to the Davidic Covenant that was expected to be restored.[19]

All the Jews wanted a messiah who would pander to Israel but instead, they were confronted by a Messiah who confronted Israel – and consequently, they rejected Him.  The Essenes were also observers of the end-times, as they believed the messiah would come and destroy the Romans. Therefore, the Romans considered this non-violent group potentially dangerous and killed thousands of them after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. They would have faded into history were not for their Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in the years 1947 to 1956 (See 02.02.06). Note that “messiah” is with a lower case “m” because they did not associate deity with him.

Critics have long said that phrases such as “sons of light” did not exist in the first century Jewish world, but were inserted in the gospels by later editors. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the truth was revealed – those phrases were in common use in the days of Jesus.[20]


02.01.06.Q1 How did a one become a member of the Essene sect and how does this relate to the Pharisees?


The Essenes, like the Pharisees, were very legalistic.  How a young man became a full pledged member of the Essene community would generally not have any interest to the study of the life of Jesus, until one scholar[21] concluded that the Pharisees may have had similar requirements of membership.  If so, that presents insights of their Pharisaic attitudes as revealed in the gospels. Therefore, if it is possible to review the Essene requirements, we can “look backwards” and obtain a better understand of the Pharisees.

There are some interesting common factors between the Essenes and the Pharisees. It is common knowledge that both groups originated in the early second century (B.C.) in response to the advances of the Hellenistic culture. Both groups were separatists and, in fact, the name Pharisee originated from the Hebrew phrase meaning the Separated ones. Both groups were also highly legalistic in their doctrines and lifestyle.

Fortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls, written by those Essenes living in the Qumran community near the Dead Sea, contained two important documents that tell us much about their lifestyle and the requirements for entrance into their community of believers. According to the Damascus Document and the Manual of Discipline, the Essenes had the following beliefs and practices:

  1. They categorized members as priests, Levites, Israelites, or proselytes.[22]
  1. The minimum age of admission was twenty.[23]
  1. New members had to learn and observe all admission requirements.[24]
  1. Once a candidate felt he was ready for membership, he had to pass a preliminary examination. Evidently notes were carefully taken as the exam was administered by a scribe.[25]
  1. The candidate was required to give an oath of loyalty, after which he was informed of the secrets of the community.[26]
  1. Upon the completion of the ceremonial oath, the candidate was on a two-year probationary status.[27]
  1. Any transgressions during this time could result in either temporary or permanent expulsion from the community.[28]
  1. All supervisory scribes had to be between the ages of thirty and fifty.[29]
  1. Since supervisory scribes were experts of the Hebrew laws, as well as the community rules, they could either “bind” or “loose” the judgment of a transgressor[30]
  1. Supervisory scribes as well as judges collected charitable gifts from the community and distributed them to the needy.[31] They also functioned as shepherds of the flock and, in that sense, they were like a pastor or rabbi.[32]

While these legalistic requirements cannot be imposed upon the Pharisees per se, these do give some insight as to what a legalistic group might have required of a new candidate.[33] Scholars are examining these requirements with the possibility that very similar procedures existed for new Pharisee candidates.

[1]. Schiffman, Lawrence H. “A Short History of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” 49.


[2]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 5, Session 2.


[3]. See 02.01.14 “Pharisees”; Bruce, New Testament History. 65-66, 96.


[4]. Recent scholarship has explored the possible relationship between the Essenes and Pharisees. See 02.01.06.Q1 “How did a one become a member of the Essene sect and how does this relate to the Pharisees?”


[5]. Schmaltz and Fischer, Messianic Seal. 12.


[6]. Schmaltz and Fischer, Messianic Seal. 10-13; Bruce, New Testament History. 55.


[7]. Schmaltz and Fischer, Messianic Seal. 10-14.


[8]. Josephus, Wars 2.8.4.


[9]. Cited by Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism. 60.


[10]. Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5 (18-22).


[11]. Ironically, Moses is a prophetic picture or “type and shadow” of Jesus. See comparisons in Appendix 2.


[12]. Crutchfield, “The Essenes.” 104-07; Bruce, “Essenes.” 1:478.


[13]. See 14.02.05.V See 14.02.05 for more details, including the video The Last Passover and Possible Connection to the Essene Calendar by Dr. Paul Wright.


[14]. Schmaltz and Fischer, Messianic Seal. 10-14; The name “Belial” in Hebrew is Bee-Ya’al, and means utterly worthless.


[15]. Schmaltz and Fischer, Messianic Seal. 18.


[16]. Buchanan, “Essenes.” 2:152-55; Connick. The Message and Meaning of the Bible. 116; Bruce, “Essenes” 1:478.


[17]. Buchanan, “Essenes.”  2:152-55; Harrison, “Essenes.” 2:370-74; A few scholars do not agree with the two messiah concept, including L. D. Hurst of the University of California, Davis, who believes that the Qumran texts do not necessarily support the two messiah viewpoint. See Retrieved October 10, 2013. See also Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:459-61.


[18]. Mellowes and Cran, Producers. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. (DVD). Part 1.


[19]. The messianic title “Son of David” appears in the following three groups of passages in the gospels where it is always reflective of the Davidic Covenant: 1) In various healings by Jesus – Mt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; Mk. 10:47-48; Lk. 18:38-39. 2) In connection of the harassment the religious leaders gave Jesus – Mt. 22:42-43, 45; Mk. 12:35, 37; Lk. 20:41, 44, and 3) The praise the crowds gave Jesus at His entry into Jerusalem – Mt. 21:9, 15; Mk. 11:10. See Rogers. “The Davidic Covenant in the Gospels,” Bibliotheca Sacra. Part 1 of 2. 158-78.


[20]. See 02.02.06 and the video 02.02.06.Vof Dr. Bryant Wood who discusses the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


[21]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 86-88.


[22]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 13:12; 14:3.


[23]. Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 Qsa. 1, 8; This age limit may have been derived from Numbers 1:3.


[24]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 13:1, 2; 15:5, 6.


[25]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 13:11, 12; 15:11.


[26]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 15:6.


[27]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 20:1-13; MD 1QS 4:24 – 7:25.


[28]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 20:1-13; MD 1QS 4:24 – 7:25.


[29]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 14:8.


[30]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 13:10; 9:18, 22; 12:12.


[31]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 14:13.


[32]. Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 13:10.


[33]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 260.

02.01.07 Gentiles

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02.01.07 Gentiles. This term refers to any person who was not a Jew or a Samaritan.[1] It is from the Latin word genus meaning of the same birth or race, as well as from the Greek word ethnos, meaning heathen.  Ethnos is also translated to the English word ethnic.[2] Jewish views of the Gentiles differed between two Jewish schools of biblical interpretation.  The School of Shammai[3]  taught that there was no possible salvation for the Gentiles, which was in total agreement with the Essenes.  The School of Hillel,[4]  however, taught that the mercy of God was extended to the Gentiles if they obeyed the Noahide Commandments; and if so, they could worship God in the Court of the Gentiles.[5]

[1]. See 02.01.17.


[2]. Miethe, The Compact Dictionary of Doctrinal Words. 98.

[3]. See 02.01.20.

[4]. See 02.01.19.


[5]. The Noahide Commandments were and continue to be, in the opinion of orthodox Jews, divine laws that Gentiles need to obey to obtain favor with God if they did not want to convert to Judaism. See Appendix 17 for more information.


02.01.08 Greeks

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02.01.08 Greeks. The Greek culture had spread throughout the Mediterranean world during the three centuries before Christ, primarily because of the military victories of Alexander the Great.  They believed in a variety of gods who were quickly accepted by all conquered peoples with the exception of the Jews. The Greeks chose to represent their heroes and gods in the nude because they viewed the human body as beautiful and full of meaning. This was, of course, in direct conflict with the values of Judaism. The Greek cities along the Jordan River were originally Canaanite cities, who also accepted the Greek culture and religions, known as Hellenism.  By the time Jesus was in His ministry, pagan thought and reason had made major inroads into Jewish life and theology.[1] 

Finally, the Greeks and Romans had great difficulty understanding the Jewish religion.  They could not understand how anyone could worship a god they could not see, and that deity did not behave as they did. Their thoughts were expressed very well by Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote Histories between the years A.D. 69 and 96. He made the following comments about the Jews.

The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to show compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies.

They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at naught parents, children, and brethren. Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. They hold that the souls of all who perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are immortal.

Tacitus, Histories 5.5


[1]. Pasachoff & Littman, Jewish History in 100 Nutshells. 49-51; Blaiklock, “Greece” 2:824-25; Strange, “Greece.” 2:566-67.

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