Chapter 4

work in progress

Obeying the Torah.

As with the Old Testament, the New Testament was written during a time of rapid social change. The Jews were a minority group struggling to find a voice against the awe-inspiring Roman Empire. There was immense confusion and doubt surrounding religious beliefs with conflicting ideals grappling to become the major influence. The Romans had conquered Egypt and Greece combining a multitude of different Gods and ideals in the process. Greek philosophy had a significant stimulus, impacting social behaviour to influence both life-styles and religious views.

The School of Athens. Raffael, 1511

Preceding the Romans occupation, Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle (356-323 BC) brought Hellenic teachings to the Middle East. In addition to recording information about the culture and natural environment of the countries he encountered, Alexander wanted to disseminate Greek knowledge and values. At the western edge of the Nile Delta he founded a city named Alexandria that became a prominent seat of learning. EuclidArchimedes and Eratosthenes all researched in the museum that he established there. When Alexander died the region fell into turmoil, with Palestine caught in between the constantly bickering Egypt and Syria. Rome around this time was heavily influenced by Greek and Oriental philosophies through trading with the Eastern countries of the Mediterranean, subsequently, it was receptive to new ideologies. The fact that other societies had their own Gods made Romans sceptical about the Gods that they worshipped and many were ready for change.

Once Rome had control over France and Spain in Western Europe it set out to dominate intimidating cultures from the East. It overturned Syria and Palestine and under the leadership of Caesar Augustus gained Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra. Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome when they invaded Palestine around 63 BC. He was still emperor when Jesus of Nazareth was born,  the Hellenic-inclined Herod the Great was  King of Palestine. Caesar Augustus was one of the most powerful Roman emperors. He had mediated in disputes amongst Roman leaders following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and had successfully policed trade routes within and around the Mediterranean. He was held in high regard by the people of the Roman Empire who saw him as a saviour-king, constructing temples in his honour as if he were a deity.

Ecce homo (Behold the man). Ciseri, 1871

In Palestine, Herod built a huge temple to honour Augustus called Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of his name. To encourage the Jews to follow a Hellenistic way of life he also constructed gymnasia, theatres and stadia. To pay for these ambitious building projects he collected taxes from the Jews. The Jews resented his  efforts to bring Greek influence to the district. As a consequence of this Herod was always fearful that his position would be threatened and so appointed secret agents to ensure that none of his subjects would be disloyal. In this respect he went to extremes, having his mother-in-law, two of his sons and a wife executed because he questioned their loyalty. Upon his death, Herod’s three sons, ArchelausHerod and Philip, under the direction of the Roman Empire, distributed his territory between themselves. Archelaus ruled Judea, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, during the time of Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, while Philip governed the remaining regions. Rome also appointed a series of procurators to govern the Jews, the most famous being Pontius Pilate. The procurators were as unpopular as the other occupiers because they resorted to cruelty in order to control the Jews, who persistently refused to acknowledge Greek religions in favour of their own. The Jews believed that if they did not understand and follow the words of God as told to Moses in the Torah they would become slaves once more. It was in this atmosphere of intense suppression that the Jews hoped for a redeemer to free them once more from the trappings of servitude. Jesus of Nazareth became a contender in this role.

The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth did not obey the Torah in an orthodox or  familiar  way and therefore, some religious groups treated him with contempt. The two main sectarian Jewish groups at this time were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. In the New Testament Jesus uses the characteristics of leaven to denote human behaviour or more specifically a mutual social conduct that permeates through society. For instance, Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees [Mk. 8.14-21; Mt. 16.6]. He seems to be symbolically warning them against false doctrine and hypocritical practises. Jesus had acquired a reputation of performing miracles by feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread. The Pharisees doubted his ability, asking him to execute a similar act as evidence that God approved of him. He did not replicate a miracle. On his journey away from the Pharisees with his disciples to the far side of a lake, his followers began complaining about their lack of food. Jesus explained the reasons for his inability to perform a miracle to make more bread in the following passage:

When the disciples crossed over to the other side of the lake, they forgot to take any bread. Jesus said to them, “take care; be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. “ They started discussing among themselves. “He says this because we didn’t bring any bread.” Jesus knew what they were saying, so he asked them, “Why are you discussing among yourselves about not having any bread? How little faith you have! Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand men? How many baskets did you fill? And what about the seven loaves for the four thousand men? How many baskets did you fill? How is it that you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? Guard yourselves from the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees!” Then the disciples understood that he was not warning them to guard themselves from the leaven used in bread but from the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
[Mt. 16.5-12;  Mk. 8.14-21]

This seems to suggest that in fact it was the quality of the leaven that could increase the bread yield or, metaphorically speaking, spiritual fulfilment. Obviously some leaven had better fermenting properties than others and this could be used as an analogue for comparing the quality of philosophical thought. Here Jesus compares the unproductive corrupt leaven or doctrines of the Pharisees with the bountiful yield produced by his own. Perhaps he is also commenting on the rituals involving leaven practiced by the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Politically and religiously, the Sadducees were the most conservative segment of the Jewish population. They were mainly wealthy and aristocratic families that were anxious to stay peaceful with Rome. They strictly followed the Pentateuch and stressed the importance of the Law of Moses (The Torah) in upholding sacrificial rites and regulations governing the priesthood. The main focus of their worship was a temple in Jerusalem where they practised the rites specified in the Torah, many sacrifices were conducted several times a day. The temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt when the Jews returned from exile around 500 BC according to specific instructions laid down in the Pentateuch. The temple consisted of a series of courts leading to an innermost court that only the High Priest could enter. The innermost court was where God was thought to dwell.

On a daily basis many sacrifices were performed in the temple. It was always crowded with priests, Jews and people selling sacrificial animals. Money-changers were there to provide the unique coins that were specified by the Torah at an inflated  exchange rate. Ritual and ceremony had reached a high level of intensity, even the priests were selected by the stringent criteria of the Torah. Only those that were direct ascendants of the sons of Aaron could officiate at ceremonies. The High Priest had considerable social status and enjoyed a high amount of authority, being incorporated into government decision-making. He was also head of the Sanhedrin, a court that handled cases that defied the Torah and was recognised by the Romans. This authority was often questioned by the Pharisees and eventually diminished when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. The disappearance of the temple marked the disappearance of the Sadducees who were so entrenched in the Temple cult that they couldn’t survive without it. The Pharisees also followed the Torah but did not concentrate exclusively on the written word in the Pentateuch but other writings and books that were being incorporated into the Old Testament. The Pharisees led the Jewish community to recovery following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple around 70 AD during the war with Rome. The Torah excludes certain people from society that are viewed as unclean, such as lepers. The fact that Jesus associated with people considered socially and religiously unacceptable, angered the Pharisees and his radical interpretation of the Torah also alienated him from the Sadducees. The fundamental difference between the philosophies of the Jewish sects and those of Jesus were in obeying the Torah. The Pharisees believed that righteousness consisted within the Torah whereas Jesus believed that the Torah was in itself under the judgement of God. Despite this it is very clear from his teachings that Jesus did not reject the Torah as he was very familiar with its content. For instance when a follower asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus referred him to the Ten Commandments :

“Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; do not cheat; respect your father and mother.” [Mk. 10. 17-19]

He also told the man that if he wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven he must sell all of his belongings, give the money to the poor and then he would find riches in heaven. When the man walked away dismayed Jesus turned to his followers and told them that it was easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven [Mk. 10. 20-25].

The Pharisees question Jesus. Tissot, 1886.

There were numerous conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, particularly in his association with undesirables, sinners and social outcasts. In response to the Pharisees criticism Jesus explained that if you are not sick than you do not need a physician; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners [Mk. 2.17]. According to the Pharisees, Jesus constantly defiled himself by coming into contact with lepers and outcasts and therefore was ritually unclean and in direct contradiction to the Torah. The Pharisees believed that eating food without first washing the hands was ritually unclean. They and all Jewish people believed that the Torah instructed them to clean all utensils and food before eating. In response to this criticism Jesus argued:

“There is nothing that goes into a person from the outside that makes him ritually unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean.” [Mt. 15.10-20; Mk. 7.14-23]

In many ways Jesus seems to place the sinners above the self-righteous Pharisees. He explains that those that do not pass judgement on others will be looked upon more favourably in the eyes of God, as described in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

Jesus also told this parable to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else. “Once there were two men who went up to the temple to pray: one was Pharisee, the other tax collector. The Pharisee stood apart by himself and prayed, ‘I thank you God I’m not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer, like everybody else. I thank you  that I’m not like that tax collector over there. I fast two days a week and give you a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector stood at a distance and would not even raise his face to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have pity on me, a sinner!’ I tell you” said Jesus, “the tax collector and not the Pharisee, was in the right with God when he went home. For everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be made great.” [Lk.18.9-14].

More specifically, what Jesus exactly feels about the Torah is explained in the gospel according to Matthew [5.17-20]. He states:

‘Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.’

He goes on to explain that if anyone disobeys the commandments and teaches others to do the same they will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. He ends by saying:

‘You will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.’  

Jesus disagrees with the methods that the Pharisees use to follow the Law of Moses. The Pharisees had evolved a self-righteous approach to obeying the Torah whereas Jesus was more concerned with spiritual fulfilment and consciousness. This perhaps explains why he compares the corrupting characteristics of leaven to the philosophies of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He is suggesting that by obeying the Torah according to their teachings, through rules and regulations, you will lose sight of the message that God was initially trying to convey. The philosophies of Jesus predominately passed by unnoticed until the last year of his life. His teachings in Galilee had not reached the major religious centre of Jerusalem but when he did arrive in the city he caused a major disturbance. Firstly, he arrived in a messianic role but in a humble manner riding on an ass, as prophesied by Zechariah. In Eastern tradition horses are associated with war whereas the donkey is a symbol of peace:

I have seen how my people have suffered. Shout for joy you people of Jerusalem! Look, your King is coming to you! He comes triumphant and victorious but humble and riding on a donkey. [Zec. 9.9]

“Tell the city of Zion. Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey” [Mt. 21.5]

Secondly he forced the vendors and money-changers from the temple in direct conflict with the behaviour of those obeying the Torah.

Jesus went into the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables and money-changers and the stools of those who sell pigeons, and said to them, “It is written the Scriptures that God said, my temple will be called the house of prayer, but you are making it a hideout for thieves!” [Mt. 21. 2-13]

In the days leading up to the Passover everyone visiting the Temple to worship or make a sacrifice had to pay a temple tax, apart from the Pharisees, High Priests and Rabbis of the temple. A special currency was used for the tax which could only be obtained from money-changers, who usually offered unfair rates and charged a fee for their services. Money-changers were often relatives or associates of the Pharisees and High Priests. As a consequence of his disruptive actions, religious leaders and Roman authorities considered Jesus to be a rebel who had the potential to influence a Jewish uprising.

Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. Simonet, 1892.

Shortly after Jesus leaves Jerusalem, he sensed that his predicament was precarious and arranged a meal with his disciples. Here, unleavened bread is once again used to symbolise doctrines and philosophical thoughts. The last supper was thought to occur during the festival of unleavened bread,  kept to commemorate the Israelites flight from Egypt featured in the Old Testament. It seemed to be Jesus’ intention to share the Passover meal with his disciples but there is strong belief that he was in fact executed before the Passover ceremonies were due to take place on the Sabbath [Mk. 14, 12-21; Lk. 22, 7-13, 21-23; Jn. 13, 21-30]. Even though the last supper may not have been a Passover meal it was portrayed as one by Jesus who saw himself as the sacrificial lamb, the wine was symbolically the sacrificial blood and the unleavened bread represented his body:

While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples. “Take and eat it,” he said; “this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. “Drink it, all of you,” he said; “this is my blood, which seals God’s covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” [Mk. 14. 22-25]

In following chapters this passage will be discussed in more detail. Following the last supper Jesus and the disciples go to the Mount of Olives were he  predicted that his followers will deny they knew him.  He recites a passage from the book of Zechariah [13.7-9] in the Old Testament which predicts that God will kill the shepherd and that the sheep of the flock will be scattered. One of the disciplines, Judas Iscariot, had been promised 30 pieces of silver if he betrayed Jesus to the high priests.

Agony in the garden. Mantegna, circa 1458-60

Judas led armed men to Jesus were he was speaking with his followers in the gardens of Gethsemane. He identified Jesus to the men by kissing him. Jesus was  arrested and brought before the high priests. Following a brief court appearance he was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. When Judas learnt that his actions had  condemned Jesus he repented and returned the 30 pieces of silver stating that he had betrayed an innocent man to death. In dismay he took his own life.  Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate who was reluctant to condemn Jesus, because he did not understand the charge, but accepting that he was politically dangerous ordered his execution. Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, several of his followers began to spread his philosophy. Politically there was a thirst for change. Instead of halting the spread of Christian philosophies, the death of Jesus served to intensify the movement. Jewish Christians spread throughout Palestine and beyond, establishing themselves in Syria. Early missionaries extended the philosophies to Rome. Where the founding of the Catholic Church was attributed to Simon Peter.  Armenia became the first Christian state through the work of Thaddeus.

A major contribution to the spread and writing of  the New Testament philosophies was the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee,  to Christianity. Previously he had been responsible for imprisoning the followers of Christianity. On travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus, with some prisoners, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light. So bright was the light that he remained blind for three days until his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus.  The apparition and blindness, which may have been a consequence of heat exhaustion, served to show Saul the error of his ways. He changed his name to Paul, the Roman equivalent to Saul, and began to preach in lands around the Mediterranean, especially in Greece were the name Christ from the word christos, Greek for Mesiah, was first used.

The Conversion of Saint Paul. Caravaggio, 1600.

Paul established a church in Corinth and was attributed with fourteen epistles in the New Testament. In the following passage he speaks about immorality within the congregation and again uses leaven as a synonym to describe corruption:

Now, it is actually being said that there is sexual immorality among you so terrible that not even the heathen would be guilty of it. I am told that a man is sleeping with his stepmother! How, then, can you be proud? On the contrary, you should be filled with sadness, and the man who has done such a thing should be expelled from your fellowship. And even though I am far away from you in body, still I am there with you in spirit; and as though I were there with you, I have in the name of our Lord Jesus already passed judgement on the man who has done this terrible thing. As you meet together and I meet with you in my spirit, by the power of our Lord Jesus present with us, you are to hand this man over to Satan for his body to be destroyed, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord. It is not right for you to be proud! You know the saying, “A little bit of leaven makes the whole batch of dough rise.” You must remove the old leaven of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough without any leaven, as indeed I know you actually are. For our Passover Festival is ready, now that Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us celebrate our Passover, then, not with bread having the old leaven of sin and wickedness, but with the bread that has no leaven, the bread of purity and truth. [1 Cor. 5-13]

Interestingly, in this passage, the old leaven is portrayed as sin and wickedness. Perhaps another benefit of throwing out all leaven during the Passover was to ensure that a fresh, uncontaminated batch would be started. Leaven is also used by Paul to  illustrate corruption when trying to persuade the Galatians that they only required faith to be right with God and there was no need to rigidly obey the Torah:

“You were doing so well! Who made you stop obeying the truth? How did he persuade you? It was not done by God who calls you. It takes only a little leaven to make the whole batch of dough rise, as they say. But I still feel confident about you. Our life is union with the Lord makes me confident that you will not take a different view and that the man who is upsetting you, whoever he is, will be punished by god.” [Gal. 5. 7-9]

In the above passage Paul was mainly attacking the practice of circumcision. Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice and labelled those that advocated it as false brothers.


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