By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
One of the things that made Judaism stand out from the other religions of the world was the Jewish law as a whole. Jews understood that following the law of God, that God had given to Moses, was their part of the covenantal agreement. God would protect them for their devotion and the devotion entailed following the laws that God had given.
The Law of Moses
The law is found in what came to be known as the Torah. The Torah literally means law, and the Torah is often used to refer to the law of Moses. Today, in the Hebrew Bible, or in the Christian Old Testament, the law of Moses, can be found in the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy together.
These five books are sometimes themselves referred to as the Torah. They’re not entirely God giving the laws. The laws don’t start showing up until the book of Exodus, but they dominate the books after that.
Practices of Worship
Roughly speaking, the law that God gave to Moses consists of two kinds of instructions. The first type includes instructions involving the practices of worship, of how God’s people are to give him his proper due. These laws involve things such as instructions about how, where, when, and why to make sacrifices, and which holy days to observe, such as the Sabbath and other special festival days throughout the year.
It also specifies special customs, such as keeping strict kosher food laws. Additionally, it specifies the need to give tithes in order to fund the temple and the priesthood.
Living Together in a Community
The second kind of law involves how Israelites are to live together in community together as God’s chosen people. These rules involve laws regulating what we today might call personal and social ethics. These are essentially laws about how to get along together in a community.
On a fundamental level, Jews self-identified, and were identified by others, as what we might call an ethnic group. It’s important to stress that Jews were not located in only one place. Let’s take the example of the Jewish homeland that Romans later called Palestine, and that we today call Israel.
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Establishing Communities Outside
Starting about the 6th century, BCE, because of the conquest of foreign powers such as the Babylonians, many Jews had left, or had been taken out of, the promised land.
These Jews established communities in other regions of the Mediterranean and farther East, including such places as Babylon, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. Hence, most Jews in the ancient world lived outside of Roman Palestine and lived in these other places, just as most Jews today don’t live in Israel.
A Trans-national Religion
But in all these places throughout the empire, Jews understood themselves to have the same national roots, genealogical lineage, history, and customs. There was no other religion or culture like that in the Roman world; a trans-national religion whose adherents lived throughout the Roman world.
It’s true that many of the gods were worshiped all over the place, Zeus, Athena, and Apollo among the Greek gods, but the worship of Zeus in a city like Ephesus was not particularly connected with his worship in Antioch or Alexandria. There was no worldwide congregation or religion of Zeus. It was different wherever one happened to live.
These different places had different customs and different approaches to worship even with Zeus. So, the Zeus worshipers in one place had no real relationship or close ties of any kind to those in another place. And they certainly did not think of themselves as belonging to the same community.
That’s to say that being a worshiper of any of the other gods, any of the pagan gods, was not a kind of identity marker based on bloodlines, a shared history, common customs of worship, and daily life.
Function of the Jewish Law
However, under the Jewish law, the Jews stood together as a community irrespective of their geographical location. And yet, many Christians today misunderstand the purpose and function of the Jewish law. Often among Christians, it’s thought that the law made and makes Judaism a legalistic religion requiring obedience in order to attain a right standing with God.
That’s a misunderstanding. The law was not given in order to show people how they could get right with God; the law was given to the people God had already chosen. And so, it was not to earn God’s favor—they already had God’s favor.
In addition, many non-Jewish people think that the law was widely seen as a heavy burden for Jews; something that had all of these do’s and don’ts, and that were a set of arbitrary demands that could not possibly have been kept. Christians have long argued that that’s why Christ was needed because God gave the Jews this burdensome law, but they just couldn’t keep it.
A Great Joy
And yet, these are not the views the Jews had of their own law. The law was not a way of attaining salvation, it was given by God because God had already shown Jews favor. Moreover, the law was not seen as a huge burden, and when one actually reads the laws of the Old Testament, they are not burdensome and they are not that many in number.
Thus, in reality, the Jews themselves saw these laws as a great joy. The God of the universe had given them, the chosen ones, instructions about how to worship him, and how to live in peace and harmony together. How could it get any better than that?
Common Questions about Judaism in the Roman World and the Jewish Law
In the Hebrew Bible, or in the Christian Old Testament, the law of Moses can be found in the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy together. These five books are sometimes themselves referred to as the Torah.
Starting about the 6th century, BCE, because of the conquest of foreign powers such as the Babylonians, many Jews left the promised land.
Irrespective of where Jews established communities, they understood themselves to have the same national roots, genealogical lineage, history, and customs. In that sense, there was no other religion or culture like that in the Roman world; a trans-national religion whose adherents lived throughout the Roman world.