THE pilgrim who, leaving other countries, entered Palestine, must have felt as if he had crossed the threshold of another world. Manners, customs, institutions, law, life, nay, the very intercourse between man and man, were quite different. All was dominated by the one all-absorbing idea of religion. It penetrated every relation of life. Moreover, it was inseparably connected with the soil, as well as the people of Palestine, at least so long as the Temple stood. Nowhere else could the Shekhinah dwell or manifest itself; nor could, unless under exceptional circumstances, and for 'the merit of the fathers,' the spirit of prophecy be granted outside its bounds. To the orthodox Jew the mental and spiritual horizon was bounded by Palestine. It was 'the land'; all the rest of the world, except Babylonia, was 'outside the land.' No need to designate it specially as 'holy;' for all here bore the impress of sanctity, as he understood it. Not that the soil itself, irrespective of the people, was holy; it was Israel that made it such. For, had not God given so many commandments and ordinances, some of them apparently needless, simply to call forth the righteousness of Israel;1 did not Israel possess the merits of 'the fathers,'2 and specially that of Abraham, itself so valuable that, even if his descendants had, morally speaking, been as a dead body, his merit would have been imputed to them?3 More than that, God had created the world on account of Israel,4 and for their merit, making preparation for them long before their appearance on the scene, just as a king who foresees the birth of his son; nay, Israel had been in God's thoughts not only before anything had actually been created, but even before every other creative thought.5 If these distinctions seem excessive, they were, at least, not out of proportion to the estimate formed of Israel's merits. In theory, the latter might be supposed to flow from 'good works,' of course, including the strict practice of legal piety, and from 'study of the law.' But in reality it was 'study' alone to which such supreme merit attached. Practice required knowledge for its direction; such as the Am-ha-arets ('country people,' plebeians, in the Jewish sense of being unlearned) could not possess,6 who had bartered away the highest crown for a spade with which to dig. And 'the school of Arum' - the sages - the 'great ones of the world' had long settled it, that study was before works.7 And how could it well be otherwise, since the studies, which engaged His chosen children on earth, equally occupied their Almighty Father in heaven?8 Could anything, then, be higher than the peculiar calling of Israel, or better qualify them for being the sons of God?
It is necessary to transport oneself into this atmosphere to understand the views entertained at the time of Jesus, or to form any conception of their infinite contrast in spirit to the new doctrine. The abhorrence, not unmingled with contempt, of all Gentile ways, thoughts and associations; the worship of the letter of the Law; the self-righteousness, and pride of descent, and still more of knowledge, become thus intelligible to us, and, equally so, the absolute antagonism to the claims of a Messiah, so unlike themselves and their own ideal. His first announcement might, indeed, excite hope, soon felt to have been vain; and His miracles might startle for a time. But the boundary lines of the Kingdom which He traced were essentially different from those which they had fixed, and within which they had arranged everything, alike for the present and the future. Had He been content to step within them, to complete and realise what they had indicated, it might have been different. Nay, once admit their fundamental ideas, and there was much that was beautiful, true, and even grand in the details. But it was exactly in the former that the divergence lay. Nor was there any possibility of reform or progress here. The past, the present, and the future, alike as regarded the Gentile world and Israel, were irrevocably fixed; or rather, it might almost be said, there were not such - all continuing as they had been from the creation of the world, nay, long before it. The Torah had really existed 2,000 years before Creation;9 the patriarchs had had their Academies of study, and they had known and observed all the ordinances; and traditionalism had the same origin, both as to time and authority, as the Law itself. As for the heathen nations, the Law had been offered by God to them, but refused, and even their after repentance would prove hypocritical, as all their excuses would be shown to be futile. But as for Israel, even though their good deeds should be few, yet, by cumulating them from among all the people, they would appear great in the end, and God would exact payment for their sins as a man does from his friends, taking little sums at a time. It was in this sense, that the Rabbis employed that sublime figure, representing the Church as one body, of which all the members suffered and joyed together, which St. Paul adopted and applied in a vastly different and spiritual sense.10
If, on the one hand, the pre-eminence of Israel depended on the Land, and, on the other, that of the Land on the presence of Israel in it, the Rabbinical complaint was, indeed, well grounded, that its 'boundaries were becoming narrow.' We can scarcely expect any accurate demarcation of them, since the question, what belonged to it, was determined by ritual and theological, not by geographical considerations. Not only the immediate neighborhood (as in the case of Ascalon), but the very wall of a city (as of Acco and of Cæsarea) might be Palestinian, and yet the city itself be regarded as 'outside' the sacred limits. All depended on who had originally possessed, and now held a place, and hence what ritual obligations lay upon it. Ideally, as we may say, 'the land of promise' included all which God had covenanted to give to Israel, although never yet actually possessed by them. Then, in a more restricted sense, the 'land' comprised what 'they who came up from Egypt took possession of, from Chezib [about three hours north of Acre] and unto the river [Euphrates], and unto Amanah.' This included, of course, the conquests made by David in the most prosperous times of the Jewish commonwealth, supposed to have extended over Mesopotamia, Syria, Zobah, Achlah, &c. To all these districts the general name of Soria, or Syria, was afterwards given. This formed, at the time of which we write, a sort of inner band around 'the land,' in its narrowest and only real sense; just as the countries in which Israel was specially interested, such as Egypt, Babylon, Ammon, and Moab, formed an outer band. These lands were heathen, and yet not quite heathen, since the dedication of the so-called Terumoth, or first-fruits in a prepared state, was expected from them, while Soria shared almost all the obligations of Palestine, except those of the 'second tithes,' and the fourth year's product of plants.11 But the wavesheaf at the Paschal Feast, and the two loaves at Pentecost, could only be brought from what had grown on the holy soil itself. This latter was roughly defined, as 'all which they who came up from Babylon took possession of, in the land of Israel, and unto Chezib.' Viewed in this light, there was a special significance in the fact that Antioch, where the name 'Christian' first marked the new 'Sect' which had sprung up in Palestine,12 and where the first Gentile Church was formed,13 lay just outside the northern boundary of 'the land.' Similarly, we understand, why those Jewish zealots who would fain have imposed on the new Church the yoke of the Law,14 concentrated their first efforts on that Syria which was regarded as a kind of outer Palestine.
But, even so, there was a gradation of sanctity in the Holy
Land itself, in accordance with ritual distinctions. Ten degrees are here
enumerated, beginning with the bare soil of Palestine, and culminating in the
Most Holy Place in the Temple - each implying some ritual distinction, which
did not attach to a lower degree. And yet, although the very dust of heathen
soil was supposed to carry defilement, like corruption or the grave, the spots
most sacred were everywhere surrounded by heathenism; nay, its traces were
visible in Jerusalem itself. The reasons of this are to be sought in the
political circumstances of Palestine, and in the persistent endeavour of its
rulers - with the exception of a very brief period under the Maccabees - to
Grecianise the country, so as to eradicate that Jewish particularism which must
always be antagonistic to every foreign element. In general, Palestine might be
divided into the strictly Jewish territory, and the so-called Hellenic cities.
The latter had been built at different periods, and were politically
constituted after the model of the Greek cities, having their own senates
(generally consisting of several hundred persons) and magistrates, each city
with its adjoining territory forming a sort of commonwealth of its own. But it
must not be imagined, that these districts were inhabited exclusively, or even
chiefly, by Greeks. One of these groups, that towards Peræa, was really Syrian,
and formed part of Syria Decapolis;15
while the other, along the coast of the Mediterranean, was Phoenician. Thus
'the land' was hemmed in, east and west, within its own borders, while south
and north stretched heathen or semi-heathen districts. The strictly Jewish
territory consisted of Judæa proper, to which Galilee, Samaria and Peræa were
joined as Toparchies. These Toparchies consisted of a group of townships, under
a Metropolis. The villages and townships themselves had neither magistrates of
their own, nor civic constitution, nor lawful popular assemblies. Such civil
adminstration as they required devolved on 'Scribes' (the so-called
But this is not all. From motives similar to those which led to the founding of other Hellenic cities, Herod the Great and his immediate successors built a number of towns, which were inhabited chiefly by Gentiles, and had independent constitutions, like those of the Hellenic cities. Thus, Herod himself built Sebaste (Samaria), in the centre of the country; Cæsarea in the west, commanding the sea-coast; Gaba in Galilee, close to the great plain of Esdraelon; and Esbonitis in Peræa.16 Similarly, Philip the Tetrarch built Cæsarea Philippi and Julias (Bethsaida-Julias, on the western shore of the lake); and Herod Antipas another Julias, and Tiberias.17 The object of these cities was twofold. As Herod, well knowing his unpopularity, surrounded himself by foreign mercenaries, and reared fortresses around his palace and the Temple which he built, so he erected these fortified posts, which he populated with strangers, as so many outworks, to surround and command Jerusalem and the Jews on all sides. Again, as, despite his profession of Judaism, he reared magnificent heathen temples in honour of Augustus at Sebaste and Cæsarea, so those cities were really intended to form centres of Grecian influence within the sacred territory itself. At the same time, the Herodian cities enjoyed not the same amount of liberty as the 'Hellenic,' which, with the exception of certain imposts, were entirely self-governed, while in the former there were representatives of the Herodian rulers.18
Although each of these towns and districts had its special deities and rites, some being determined by local traditions, their prevailing character may be described as a mixture of Greek and Syrian worship, the former preponderating, as might be expected.19 On the other hand, Herod and his successors encouraged the worship of the Emperor and of Rome, which, characteristically, was chiefly practised in the East.20 Thus, in the temple which Herod built to Augustus in Cæsarea, there were statues of the Emperor as Olympian Zeus, and of Rome as Hera.21 He was wont to excuse this conformity to heathenism before his own people on the ground of political necessity. Yet, even if his religious inclinations had not been in that direction, he would have earnestly striven to Grecianise the people. Not only in Cæsarea, but even in Jerusalem, he built a theatre and amphitheatre, where at great expense games were held every four years in honour of Augustus.22 Nay, he placed over the great gate of Temple at Jerusalem a massive golden eagle, the symbol of Roman dominion, as a sort of counterpart to that gigantic golden vine, the symbol of Israel, which hung above the entrance to the Holy Place. These measures, indeed, led to popular indignation, and even to conspiracies and tumults,23 though not of the same general and intense character, as when, at a later period, Pilate sought to introduce into Jerusalem images of the Emperor, or when the statue of Caligula was to be placed in the Temple. In connection with this, it is curious to notice that the Talmud, while on the whole disapproving of attendance at theatres and amphitheatres - chiefly on the ground that it implies 'sitting in the seat of scorners,' and might involve contributions to the maintenance of idol-worship - does not expressly prohibit it, nor indeed speak very decidedly on the subject.24
The views of the Rabbis in regard to pictorial representations are still more interesting, as illustrating their abhorrence of all contact with idolatry. We mark here differences at two, if not at three periods, according to the outward circumstances of the people. The earliest and strictest opinions25 absolutely forbade any representation of things in heaven, on earth, or in the waters. But the Mishnah26 seems to relax these prohibitions by subtle distinctions, which are still further carried out in the Talmud.27
To those who held such stringent views, it must have been peculiarly galling to see their most sacred feelings openly outraged by their own rulers. Thus, the Asmonean princess, Alexandra, the mother-in-law of Herod, could so far forget the traditions of her house, as to send portraits of her son and daughter to Mark Antony for infamous purposes, in hope of thereby winning him for her ambitious plans.28 One would be curious to know who painted these pictures, for, when the statue of Caligula was to be made for the Temple at Jerusalem, no native artist could be found, and the work was entrusted to Phoenicians. It must have been these foreigners also who made the 'figures,' with which Herod adorned his palace at Jerusalem, and 'the brazen statues' in the gardens 'through which the water ran out,'29 as well as the colossal statues at Cæsarea, and those of the three daughters of Agrippa, which after his death30 were so shamefully abused by the soldiery at Sebaste and Cæsarea.31
This abhorrence of all connected with idolatry, and the contempt entertained for all that was non-Jewish, will in great measure explain the code of legislation intended to keep the Jew and Gentile apart. If Judæa had to submit to the power of Rome, it could at least avenge itself in the Academies of its sages. Almost innumerable stories are told in which Jewish sages, always easily, confute Roman and Greek philosophers; and others, in which even a certain Emperor (Antoninus) is represented as constantly in the most menial relation of self-abasement before a Rabbi.32 Rome, which was the fourth beast of Daniel,33 would in the age to come,34 when Jerusalem would be the metropolis of all lands,35 be the first to excuse herself on false though vain pleas for her wrongs to Israel.36 But on wordly grounds also, Rome was contemptible, having derived her language and writing from the Greeks, and not possessing even a hereditary succession in her empire.37 If such was the estimate of dreaded Rome, it may be imagined in what contempt other nations were held. Well might 'the earth tremble,'38 for, if Israel had not accepted the Law at Sinai, the whole world would have been destroyed, while it once more 'was still' when that39 happy event took place, although God in a manner forced Israel to it. And so Israel was purified at Mount Sinai from the impurity which clung to our race in consequence of the unclean union between Eve and the serpent, and which still adhered to all other nations!40
To begin with, every Gentile child, so soon as born, was to be regarded as unclean. Those who actually worshipped mountains, hills, bushes, &c. - in short, gross idolaters - should be cut down with the sword. But as it was impossible to exterminate heathenism, Rabbinic legislation kept certain definite objects in view, which may be thus summarised: To prevent Jews from being inadvertently led into idolatry; to avoid all participation in idolatry; not to do anything which might aid the heathen in their worship; and, beyond all this, not to give pleasure, nor even help, to heathens. The latter involved a most dangerous principle, capable of almost indefinite application by fanaticism. Even the Mishnah goes so far41 as to forbid aid to a mother in the hour of her need, or nourishment to her babe, in order not to bring up a child for idolatry!42 But this is not all. Heathens were, indeed, not to be precipitated into danger, but yet not to be delivered from it. Indeed, an isolated teacher ventures even upon this statement: 'The best among the Gentiles, kill; the best among serpents, crush its head.'43 Still more terrible was the fanaticism which directed, that heretics, traitors, and those who had left the Jewish faith should be thrown into actual danger, and, if they were in it, all means for their escape removed. No intercourse of any kind was to be had with such - not even to invoke their medical aid in case of danger to life,44 since it was deemed, that he who had to do with heretics was imminent peril of becoming one himself,45 and that, if a heretic returned to the true faith, he should die at once - partly, probably, to expiate his guilt, and partly from fear of relapse. Terrible as all this sounds, it was probably not worse than the fanaticism displayed in what are called more enlightened times. Impartial history must chronicle it, however painful, to show the circumstances in which teaching so far different was propounded by Christ.46
In truth, the bitter hatred which the Jew bore to the Gentile can only be explained from the estimate entertained of his character. The most vile, and even unnatural, crimes were imputed to them. It was not safe to leave cattle in their charge, to allow their women to nurse infants, or their physicians to attend the sick, nor to walk in their company, without taking precautions against sudden and unprovoked attacks. They should, so far as possible, be altogether avoided, except in cases of necessity or for the sake of business. They and theirs were defiled; their houses unclean, as containing idols or things dedicated to them; their feasts, their joyous occasions, their very contact, was polluted by idolatry; and there was no security, if a heathen were left alone in a room, that he might not, in wantonness or by carelessness, defile the wine or meat on the table, or the oil and wheat in the store. Under such circumstances, therefore, everything must be regarded as having been rendered unclean. Three days before a heathen festival (according to some, also three days after) every business transaction with them was prohibited, for fear of giving either help or pleasure. Jews were to avoid passing through a city where there was an idolatrous feast - nay, they were not even to sit down within the shadow of a tree dedicated to idol-worship. Its wood was polluted; if used in baking, the bread was unclean; if a shuttle had been made of it, not only was all cloth woven on it forbidden, but if such had been inadvertently mixed with other pieces of cloth, or a garment made from it placed with other garments, the whole became unclean. Jewish workmen were not to assist in building basilicas, nor stadia, nor places where judicial sentences were pronounced by the heathen. Of course, it was not lawful to let houses or fields, nor to sell cattle to them. Milk drawn by a heathen, if a Jew had not been present to watch it,47 bread and oil prepared by them, were unlawful. Their wine was wholly interdicted48 - the mere touch of a heathen polluted a whole cask; nay, even to put one's nose to heathen wine was strictly prohibited!
Painful as these details are, they might be multiplied. And yet the bigotry of these Rabbis was, perhaps, not worse than that of other sectaries. It was a painful logical necessity of their system, against which their heart, no doubt, often rebelled; and, it must be truthfully added, it was in measure accounted for by the terrible history of Israel.