The Jews of Jesus’ Time
By the times of Jesus, the nation of Israel had arrived at a settled concept of their religion. They had built up a rigid wall of separation between themselves and the gentile world; and they looked upon all gentile ways with utter contempt. They worshiped the letter of the law and indulged a form of self-righteousness based upon the false pride of racial descent. They had formed preconceived notions regarding the promised Messiah, and most of these expectations envisioned a Messiah who would come as a part of their national and racial history. To the Jews of those days, Jewish theology was irrevocably settled, forever fixed.
When Jesus arrived, his teachings and practices regarding tolerance and kindness ran counter to the long-standing attitude of the Jews toward other peoples whom they considered heathen. For generations the Jews had nourished an attitude toward the outside world which made it impossible for them to accept the Master's teachings about the spiritual brotherhood of man. They were unwilling to share Jehovah on equal terms with the gentiles and were likewise unwilling to accept Jesus as the Son of God.
The scribes, the Pharisees, and the priesthood held the Jews in a terrible bondage of ritualism and legalism, a bondage far more real than that of the Roman political rule. The Jews of Jesus’ time were not only held in slavery to the law, but were equally bound by the slavish demands of the traditions, which involved and invaded every domain of personal and social life.
These minute regulations of conduct pursued and dominated every loyal Jew, and it is not strange that they promptly rejected one of their number who presumed to ignore their sacred traditions, and who dared to flout their long-honored regulations of social conduct. They could hardly regard with favor the teachings of one who did not hesitate to clash with dogmas which they regarded as having been ordained by Father Abraham himself. Moses had given them their law and they would not compromise.
By the time of the first century, the spoken interpretation of the law by the recognized religious teachers, the scribes, had become an authority higher than the written law itself. And all this made it easier for certain religious leaders of the Jews to array the people against the acceptance of a new gospel.
These circumstances rendered it impossible for the Jews to fulfill their divine destiny as messengers of the new gospel of religious freedom and spiritual liberty. They could not break the fetters of tradition. Jeremiah had told to ‘write it on their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33); Ezekiel had spoken of a ‘new spirit’ to live within man (Ezekiel 11:19); and the Psalmist had prayed that God would ‘create a pure heart and a new spirit.’ (Psalms 51:10)
But when the Jewish religion of good works and slavery to law fell victim to the stagnation of tradition and ritual, the hand of the Father passed the mantle of religious enlightenment by means of the Kingdom of Heaven to a new nation producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:43) Into this world, Jesus came.