Though most pagans thought Jewish monotheism was a rather foolish or even a risible view, Judaism stood out as distinctive within the broader Roman world. It was certainly recognizable as a form of worship, comparable in many ways to the polytheistic cults surrounding it. But what exactly did it mean to be Jewish in the time of Jesus?
Unlike pagan cults, Judaism not only had a large number of ancient traditions, but also a set of written scriptures. This made them stand out from the pagan cults. By the time of Jesus, Jews throughout the world accepted the books of the Torah, the first five books we think of as the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.
These came from God, and he had given them to Moses himself. Most Jews at the time also accepted the writings of the prophets that indicated how God had worked with his chosen people over time, helping them, guiding them, judging them when they broke their covenant with him and providing them hope for the future.
Given its ethnic character and the injunctions of the law, Judaism emphasized on the importance of fellowship and regular community worship. This was quite different from most pagan cults. Since according to the Torah, sacrifices could be made in only one place, the temple in Jerusalem, Jews in other places developed other forms of worship independent of sacrifice. And so, throughout the Jewish world, there were synagogues which were local meetings of Jews.
Eventually synagogues became meeting places where there would be an actual building. But a synagogue, actually, just means a gathering of Jews who come together on sabbath for worship.
The worship would involve reading scripture, talking about it, and interpreting it. It would involve prayer; and it would involve discussion of the life of the community.
These kinds of meetings for worship, both weekly on Sabbath and on other holy days, were occasions for worshipers to commune in fellowship with one another—reading the same scriptures, observing the same customs together as communities. This made Judaism highly unlike pagan cults.
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Differences between Jews
Even though all these features were widely shared among Jews throughout the empire, Judaism was no monolith. There were lots of differences from one Jewish community and from one Jew to another.
On a broad level, there was obviously a very big difference between those few Jews who could worship regularly in the Jerusalem Temple and the vast majority who were far away and never could. Those outside Judea tended to focus on non-sacrificial aspects of their religion, keeping Jewish customs and following other aspects of the Jewish law.
Jews also differed in how they understood and practiced their relations to the broader gentile world, just as it happens in Judaism today with, say, the difference between separatist groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and thoroughly assimilated Reformed Jews.
So, many Jews were completely comfortable living among pagans and being influenced by pagan customs and ways of thought, while others were far more sectarian and separatist.
Even within the homeland, there was a wide range of Jewish views, as can be seen in the Jewish groups we know about from the time of Jesus. Although most Jews did not belong to any of these groups, but knowing about these groups does give us a good idea of the range of practices and emphasis that one could find in Judaism at the time.
One of our best sources for knowing about these groups is the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus himself was Jewish. He was very active in Jewish affairs in the 1st century, and he wrote a large number of books near the end of the 1st century.
These books describe what Jewish life was like, and also give us a good bit of Jewish history. He’s our principal source for knowing about Judaism in Israel in the time of Jesus.
Hence, we have these different groups with range of practices. For example, the Pharisees were highly religious Jews who were devoted to following the laws of Moses as closely as possible. They developed traditions to help them understand these laws and keep them, especially when the laws were vague and general.
We can better understand their role using the example of Sabbath. The law indicates that the Sabbath day should be kept holy, and one is not supposed to work on the Sabbath. But what does it mean? What could one do on the Sabbath and not do?
For example, if one is a farmer, could he harvest his crops on the Sabbath? No. Well, what if he went into the fields just to grab something to eat, was that allowed? Well, Pharisees might debate the permissibility of that, debate it, and they’d come off the rules and then those rules were to be followed.
To sum it up, all of the laws of the Old Testament needed interpretation as most of them were very vague, and Pharisees did just that. However, later, Christian said the Pharisees were hypocrites because they got all these rules they don’t even keep themselves.
Pharisees were not power players in the time of Jesus. But after the 1st century, they were the ones who determined the character of Judaism down to the present day. So, Pharisees were very important historically.
Common Questions about What Made Judaism Stand Out in the Roman World
Unlike pagan cults, Judaism not only had a large number of ancient traditions, but also a set of written scriptures. This made them stand out from the pagan cults.
Throughout the Jewish world, there were synagogues, which were local meetings of Jews. Eventually synagogues became meeting places where there would be an actual building. But a synagogue, actually just means a gathering of Jews who had come together on sabbath for worship.
Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian who himself was Jewish. He was very active in Jewish affairs in the 1st century, and he wrote a large number of books. These books describe what Jewish life was like, and also provide a good bit of Jewish history.