02.03.11 Religious Institutions

02.03.11 Religious Institutions

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 18, 2016  -  Comments Off on 02.03.11 Religious Institutions

02.03.11 Religious Institutions. The religious faith of the Jewish people has always been anchored to a number of covenants, such as the Abrahamic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, and others. In essence, the covenants stated that if they obeyed God, He would bless them and if they disobeyed Him, they would be punished.[1] After several generations of disobedience, judgment fell – and the defeat and deportation to Babylon had been a crisis for the Jews.  To the Hebraic mind, the destruction of the temple was paramount to the destruction of God. In fact, the destruction of a temple was associated with the defeat of a deity in all ancient Middle East cultures. Now the Jews had no place to worship or to offer sacrifices.  (It was during this captivity, known as the “Exilic Period,” that scholars believe the synagogue developed as a place for worship, communal support, and family activities.)[2]  For years it has been the common opinion that when the Jews gathered in synagogues to worship, they faced Jerusalem in a similar manner that Muslims face Mecca today.[3]

However, an archaeological survey of many of the 200 synagogue ruins revealed that pre-destruction synagogues did not face Jerusalem.  Only after the temple destruction were synagogues built facing the Holy City. [4]

It has been generally said that to establish a new synagogue, ten men were needed. Furthermore, this is well attested in Jewish writings. However, those writings are from the fifth century and later. Furthermore, it has generally been said that men and women were separated in the synagogue at the time of Jesus.  This too is found in Jewish writings dated from the fifth century and later.[5] There is, in fact, no archaeological or literary proof that women were separated from men until the 500s in the Common Era. In fact, there is evidence that women could make up the ten persons needed to establish a new synagogue, and most likely did so in areas such as the District of Galilee.[6]  However, there were differences in various communities, and Jerusalem may not have permitted women to teach, speak, or be part of the organization of a new synagogue. No archaeological evidence has been found, such as a women’s balcony, in synagogue ruins that would suggest separation between men and women.[7] See 02.03.04 “Education” concerning women in the synagogue, as this was where learning for boys and girls took place.

In the days of Jesus, the synagogue, not the temple, was the center of life in the local village and in the cities.  The synagogue was more of a teaching institution than a worship institution. In fact, the Hebrew word for synagogue is beit-knesset or beyt-knesset, meaning house of gathering.[8] Instruction was given by anyone who was willing and able to do so, including visitors.  It was not restricted to a local rabbi, although he served as an overseer. Synagogues housed a school and at times living quarters for visitors. It was here that men would gather to discuss various points of the Torah in endless intellectual debates, arguing how a particular law should be applied in every possible situation.  It was truly a community center and, for this reason, the Jews were best described as the people of the Torah, or people of the synagogue.  Religion was their essence.[9] 

The chief “operating officer,” to use a modern term, of the synagogue was the ruler (Heb. Chazzan).[10] His responsibilities included the following:

  1. He was responsible for the safekeeping of the sacred scrolls of Scripture. He brought a scroll out in the beginning of the service and returned it in the storage “ark” at the end of the service.
  1. He was the custodian in charge of keeping the synagogue clean.
  1. He blew the silver trumpet three times to announce the moment the Sabbath had begun.
  1. He was responsible for the education of the children in the community.
  1. He was the distributor of alms
  1. He was not an ordained rabbi or the local preacher.[11]

Since the synagogues did not have professional ministers, Jesus could walk into any synagogue, and as an honored visitor, begin preaching.  This was especially true after He performed some miracles and people wanted to hear His message.

References to a synagogue are found in the second century (B.C.) book of 3 Maccabees (7:20), the New Testament, and in the works of Josephus.[12]  As to the Old Testament, a passage in Psalm 74:8, which was written late in the post-exilic period, appears to refer to places of worship other than the temple, and may have been a reference to synagogues.

The significance of the temple lies in the fact that it was the only place where a priest, on behalf of the Jewish people, could offer sacrifices to God.  Sacrifices were most often offered for the forgiveness of sin and for fellowship with God. Jewish people living in the land were expected to travel to Jerusalem three times a year for the observance of the biblical festivals.  But those who lived in foreign lands were expected to journey to the Holy City only once in their lifetime. Visiting Jerusalem had become a religious rite and was accompanied with expectations and excitement.

However, at the time of Jesus, the temple priesthood had become steeped in corruption, in sharp contrast to the ideal temple worship described in Ezekiel 40-48.  The Sadducean High Priest was a Roman appointee who controlled all the worship activities.  He used his religious authority to attain personal wealth.  For this reason, some rabbis and the Essenes dissociated themselves from the established religious order. They were looking for a political-messiah who would deliver them from the Roman tyranny and temple corruption so as to establish another temple.

The Inter-Testamental writings give ample evidence of temple corruption.[13] Furthermore, it was believed that the earthly temple was a copy of the dwelling place of God in heaven.[14]  Jesus arrived at a time when the temple was in a moral and spiritual free-fall and the people were praying for a divine intervention.[15]  The temple was a building of such paramount beauty and significance that there are at least nine ancient sources that give physical descriptions of the building.[16]  Yet its exterior beauty was a facade covering internal corruption. Twice Jesus cleansed the edifice and caused mayhem for the controlling Sadducees.

The Sanhedrin was the Jewish Supreme Court consisting of 70 members plus its president, who at the time of Jesus was Caiaphas.  The court was comprised of 24 Sadducees, 24 Pharisees, and 22 Scribes, plus the president, who also functioned as the temple High Priest.[17]

Prior to Herod the Great, the Court’s authority was over the three provinces of Galilee, Perea, and Judea, but the tyrannical king limited its power to Jerusalem and Judea.  Hence, Jesus was able to minister in Galilee and Perea without concern of an arrest by the Sanhedrin, although they did send spies.  Other members of the court were the elders, the tribal and family representatives of lay aristocracy, as well as the scribes who were the lawyers of religious law.[18]  However, the Jews were not the only people living in their Promised Land. They had plenty of company, including

  1. Greeks who had lived there for centuries, mostly from the Dead Sea northward and toward the Mediterranean Sea.
  1. Some Idumeans, (in later years became part of the Arab world) lived in the Negev desert region, south of the Dead Sea.

Among the Romans, Greeks and Idumeans there were a wide variety of religions, and all were polytheistic. The Romans were pagan idol worshippers who took the gods of the Greeks and gave them Roman names. Accompanying the assortment of false gods were lascivious religious rituals and customs, temple prostitution, drunkenness and other vices that appealed to many and were common across the empire. Similar to the Greeks, the Romans worshipped mythological figures who freely gave in to carnal desires—deceiving, stealing, getting drunk and committing fornication, adultery, even rape! They chose to depict their heroes and gods in the nude which they deemed as beautiful, but to the Jews this was an affront and incredibly shameful.

The Roman/Greeks in the region of Caesarea Philippi, now known as Banias, worshiped the half man-half goat deity of Pan. There were religious philosophies rooted in Platonism, such as Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. The Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism was growing in popularity and had some parallels with Judaism, since part of it was founded upon Judaism. Astrology and a wide variety of mystery religions were commonplace throughout the Holy Land. Many of these belief systems were introduced during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and were never completely eradicated after the Maccabean Revolt. Therefore, their influence continued in the lives of Jewish people in the days of Jesus.[19] The legalism of the Pharisees was an attempt to curtail the Greco-Roman influence upon the Jewish people.

The Idumeans believed in a variety of gods, although each tribe had its own supreme deity.[20] The most common one was Babylon’s ancient moon god of war, later known as Allah. Judaea was known for its hot springs that many believed had healing qualities.[21] This in turn was attractive to many pagans who were suffering from various ailments. Therefore, by the time Jesus began His ministry, He had an audience waiting for Him.

While discussing the religious institutions, it is also important to briefly review the relationships between various religious sects.  While this is discussed with each individual sect, this may be a good place to illustrate relationships. The high priest and Sanhedrin played a significant role in Israel because the people had no king, but were under foreign domination. The Sadducees were few in number but had the full support of the Roman overlords, while the Pharisees were more numerous and had the support of the common people. There were not only conflicts between these two religious groups, but also animosity between the subgroups within each party. So many righteous Levites, scribes, and priests were so frustrated with the corrupt religious establishment, that Josephus said that when the revolt began in A.D. 66, they joined the Zealots and fought against the religious aristocrats as well as the Romans. There were three priests who served as commanders in Galilee region[22] and four in Jericho,[23] just to name a few.

A chief priest was in charge of each of the 24 courses that ministered in the temple on a rotating schedule throughout the year. Since many priests belonged to the Pharisees, it is generally assumed that the chief priests did likewise.  However, according to Josephus, there were about 6,000 men who belonged to the Pharisees, but there were about 24,000 or more priests. Obviously not all belonged to this religious sect, but most followed the teachings of the Pharisees to one degree or another, as there were several sects within the Pharisees.  To understand the role various individuals had within the temple, a brief listing of the temple hierarchy is presented below:[24]

  1. High priest[25]
  1. Captain of the temple (sagan)[26]
  1. Director of the weekly course (ros-ha-mismar)
  1. Director of the daily course (ros bet ab)
  1. Temple overseer (‘ammarkal)
  1. Treasurer (gizbar)
  1. Chief priests (ha kohen)
  1. Ordinary priests (kohen hedyot)[27]
  1. Levites

The scribes, elders and Pharisees, were not on the official temple staff although many worked there. While the chief priests were very influential, there were four individuals above them controlled by the high priest, who at the time of Jesus was Caiaphas.  Prior to the rule of Herod the Great, the high priest would not be placed in his position unless he first served as the captain of the temple. But from the years 37 B.C. to the destruction of the temple, all high priests were appointed by a local Roman ruler.  In the 108 year span from 37 B.C. to A.D. 70,[28] there were twenty-eight high priests.[29]

Therefore, the reign of Caiaphas from A.D. 18-36 was incredibly long.[30] Yet these frequent changes reflect the change of appointments by various governors who sold the office of high priest to the highest and most loyal bidder. During this century-long period there were four priestly families that competed against each other for the envied position. Each had complete control of temple proceedings at one time or another according to the Talmud, which is briefly confirmed in Acts 4:5-6. The families are as follows:

  1. The family of Boethus had eight high priests. This influential family from Egypt became so powerful that years later, the Sadducees were at times referred to as the “Boethuseans.” [31] The first member of this clan was Simon, the father-in-law of Herod the Great.[32] Therefore, the relationship of the chief priests and government dictator was well-established from the beginning of Herod’s reign, and continued for more than a century.
  1. The family of Annas had eight high priests, the most famous of which is, of course, his son-in-law, Caiaphas.[33]
  1. The family of Phiabi had three high priests
  1. The family of Kamithos had three high priests according to Josephus, but the Talmud reports seven. In order to keep the family in power and wealth, this family eventually became related to the Boethus family through marriage.

As if the Sadducees were not bad enough during the life of Jesus, four powerful Pharisaic families became so powerful and corrupt, that the common lament was this:

Woe unto me because of the house of Baithos [Boethus],

            Woe unto me for their lances [evil-speaking],


Woe unto me because of the house of Hanin [Annas]

            Woe unto me for their whisperings


Woe unto me because of the house of Qadhros [Kantheras]

            Woe unto me because of their reed pens.


Woe unto me because of the house of Ishmael ben Phiabi

                        Woe unto me because of their fists.


For they are high priests and their sons are treasurers

            And their sons-in-law are temple overseers

And their servants smite people with sticks.


Tosephta,[34] Menahoth 13.21[35]   


The internal strife among the temple staff was phenomenal before, during, and after the life of Jesus.  A vast majority of priests and a number of Levites had to find employment outside of the temple to support themselves and their families. The Jewish writings identify a number of them and the occupations at which they were employed.

According to Josephus, the greed of the chief priests as well as the Sadducees was so great that they sent out armed servants to the threshing floors in order to take the priestly tithes by force,[36] ungodly acts of violence which were also recorded later in the Babylonian Talmud.[37] They even took the tithes that were given to them by the local people. As a result, some priests died of starvation because the “big men of the priesthood” took their wheat.[38] The Pharisaic leaders and teachers in the local synagogues were among the poor, just as were the common peasants. Local Pharisees suffered as much from their Pharisaic leaders as did nearly everyone else.[39]  The difference between righteous godly Jewish leaders in the local synagogues and those in the temple could not have been more profound.  A brief overview of the political infighting of this era leaves one to conclude that it was far superior to anything that occurs today in modern politics, especially since the temple was to be a holy sanctuary.[40]

Unfortunately, the aristocratic leaders who consisted of priests, chief priests, scribes, elders, and Sadducees, all had great disdain for the common people.  Some priests even wore gloves as not to become “defiled” by touching common people whom they called issah, meaning mixture, as in mixed breed of families.[41] Even pure blooded Jews were degraded in this manner if they were common peasants. When a Levite or priest was ordained into office, the genealogical records were examined to see if there were any issah, in his ancestry going back five generations.

[1]. For a study of Jewish covenants from a messianic Jewish perspective, see Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology.


[2]. See 03.02.10 “587 – 516 B.C. Exilic Period” for further information.


[3]. Freeman, The New Manners and Customs. 406; Metzger, New Testament. 56-60.


[4]. For further study on pre- and post-destruction synagogues, see Hachlili, Rachel. “Synagogues: Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 41:3 (May/June 2015) 30-38, 65.


[5]. Safrai, Shmuel. “The Place of Women in First-Century Synagogues,” Jerusalem Perspective. 40 (1993): 3-6, 14; See also Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. 12.


[6]. Source: Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 7, Session 1.


[7]. See articles in the Sept-Oct., 2000 of Biblical Archaeology Review issue concerning this topic (no evidence for a separate women’s section).


[8]. Mills and Michael, Messiah and His Hebrew Alphabet. 7.


[9]. Guignebert, The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus. 75-77.


[10]. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 276, 308-09.


[11]. Barclay, “Mark.” 30-31.


[12]. La Sor and Eskenazi, “Synagogue.” 4:680; Freeman, The New Manners and Customs. 405-06.


[13]. See Tobit 14:5; 1 Enoch 90:28ff; Jubilee 1:15-17, 26-29, as well as in the Dead Sea Scroll: 11QTemple 29:8-10.


[14]. This belief was written in Exodus 25:9; Revelation 11:19; 14:17; 15:5; and the Testament of  Levi 5:1.


[15]. Westerholm, “Temple.” 4:768.


[16]. The nine ancient sources that record information concerning the temple building and/or its religious functions are (1) Josephus, Wars. 5.5.1 – 5.7;   (2) Josephus, Antiquities. 15.11.1 – 11.7; (3) Mishnah, Middoth 1 – 4;   (4) From the Dead Sea Scrolls a description is found in The Temple.  See Yadin, Y. ed. Megillath Hammiqdash Jerusalem: I E S, Hebrew University, 1977. 1:145-214; and pages 153, 159, 192, 195;   (5) Strabo, Geographyy vii. 281; 16.28-40; cf 16.2.34;   (6) Tacitus, History. 4.4;   (7) Dio Casius, History of Rome 37.15-17; 49.22; 66.4-12; (8) Pliny the Elder, Natural History. 5.14; and (9) Polybius, The Histories of Polybius. 16.4.


[17]. Thompson, “Sanhedrin.” 3:1390.


[18]. Metgzer, New Testament. 52.


[19]. Mould, Essentials of Bible History. 563-70; Wheaton, “Antiochus.” 1:71-72.


[20]. Thompson, “Idumea.” 2:682.


[21]. Hot springs were located primarily along the eastern and western sides of the Jordan River Valley. Hammat-Tiberias (1st to 4th century), along the western side of the Sea of Galilee was a well-known hot spring.  Others were on the eastern side of the river.


[22]. Josephus, Wars 2 (562).


[23]. Josephus, Vita 29.


[24]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 160. Jeremias notes that not all Jewish sources agree on the details of this hierarchy.


[25]. Whenever the term “high priest” is written in the plural form, it refers to the high priest in office as well as those who previously held the office. Mishnah, Hor.3.4.


[26]. Josephus, Antiquities 20.6.2 (131); Acts. 4:1; 5:24, 26. This person had oversight of all temple activities and, being the captain of the temple police, he had the power to arrest. At the time of the crucifixion, he was the liaison between Caiaphas, the chief priests, and all others involved in the process.     


[27]. These priests were members of the twenty-four courses who ministered in the temple for one week twice a year, plus at the three major festivals; Deut. 16:16; Ex. 23:14-17; 34:20, 23-24.


[28]. In the study of history, there was no year zero.  The modern Julian calendar ends the B.C. era with December 31, 1 B.C. and the A.D. era begins with January 1, A.D. 1. The time from December 31, 1 BC to January 1 A.D. 1, is one day, not one year.


[29]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 190, 93.


[30]. See Appendix 1. Jeremiah argues that Caiaphas was the high priest until the year 37, because according to Josephus, Antiquities 18 (89). Vitellius, the governor of Syria, sent Pilate to Rome to account for his actions. But Pilate did not arrive until March, 37, after the death of Tiberias. See Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 195 n153.


[31]. Tosephta, Sukkah 3.1; Yom. 1.8; 1.181; Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 43b.


[32]. Josephus, Antiquities 19 (297).

[33]. Annas served from A.D. 6 to 15.  See Appendix 1 and Lk. 3:2; Jn. 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6.


[34]. The Tosefta is a compliment to the Mishnah, written in the late second century. It obviously reflected first century life as these families were destroyed during the destruction of Jerusalem.


[35]. Quoted by Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 195-96. Bracketed inserts by Jeremias. See also Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57a. See also Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:344.


[36]. Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.8 (181); 20.9.2 (206).


[37]. Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57a.


[38]. Another name for these priests was “men of violence.” See Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.8 (181); 20.9.2 (206); Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57a;  Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 98, 106-07.


[39]. Golub, In the Days. 272-73.


[40]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 179-81, 190-97.


[41]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 221.


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