THE CONTEMPORARIES OF CHRIST
Christ is the great central luminary of history. We rejoice in proportion as we are able to see all events in his light. As to future retribution, as we have seen, there had been great mental activity before his day, and various and decided opinions had been formed and widely promulgated. Let us now endeavor to conceive who they were with whom our Saviour would come in contact, and what forms of belief he would encounter.
The Jews of his age had three main centres of population and development – Babylon, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The Jews of Babylon, as we have seen, were more exposed to Persian and Oriental influences. Those of Alexandria were more under the influence of Greek philosophy. Those of Palestine were more conservative of the original and unaltered institutions of Moses. And yet, at the great yearly festivals at Jerusalem, leading Jews from all these centres were assembled from year to year, and Christ must have met them there. He may have met even Philo in this way. John also tells that on a certain occasion some Greeks – proselytes, no doubt – came to worship at the feast of the Passover, and desired to see Jesus – John xii. 20. Probably this was not a rare event. In these great gatherings there would be scribes, or expounders of the law (called sometimes lawyers), as well as priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Probably he met also Essenes, though of them nothing is said in the New Testament. Besides these, he would meet with Roman magistrates and soldiers, and finally, and more than all, he would come in contact with the common people. And in these great convocations there would be those who had read whatever works had been written or published on the great theme of retribution – works called by us apocryphal or apocalyptic. What forms of belief, then, did he meet?
Testimony of the Evangelists.
Looking at the Evangelists, we at once discover one great fact. Christ stood in the midst of a very great, keenly-contested, and wide-spread controversy. On one side were the Sadducees, denying future life and all its retributions, as entirely unknown to the law of Moses. On the other side stood the Pharisees, teaching with emphasis the resurrection, and a future life and its retributions. In this great controversy he sided with the Pharisees. So much we gather clearly from the Evangelists. But what, in their view, were these retributions? On this point the New Testament gives us no definite information whatever. It is not even expressly said that the Pharisees taught that the rewards of the good would be eternal life, though it may be reasonably supposed that they did. Much less does it inform us whether, with Philo, they held to the annihilation of the wicked, or, with the book of Enoch, to their endless punishment. Nor is it intimated that they held to the doctrine of universal restoration. Indeed, it is not probable that, as Jews, full of conceit of their own peculiar prerogatives, they even adopted an idea so enlarged and liberal as the salvation of universal humanity, and their exaltation as sons of God, though it might have been suggested in Persia.
If we had a work on the questions involved in the great controversy of the day by a Sadducee or a Pharisee then living, with what interest should we scrutinize it! Especially would it be interesting to hear from a Sadducee the reasons of their belief, or rather unbelief. But no one arose to represent or defend them to the ages. All that we know of them comes from their opponents.
Of the Pharisees this is not true. There are at least two Pharisees, contemporaries of Christ, who have spoken of them, and these are both distinguished men. One is the apostle Paul and the other is Josephus.
Testimony of Paul.
But the testimony of Paul in one case is indirect, and bears only on the fact that the Pharisees held to the resurrection. Luke informs us that, on his trial before the Sanhedrim [sic] in Jerusalem, Paul, perceiving that one part was Sadducees and the other Pharisees, made a diversion of the Pharisees in his own favor by declaring his faith in the resurrection to be the point on which he was called in question. On this, Luke says, the multitude was divided. “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both” (Acts xxiii. 6-8).
But after this, on his trial before Felix at Cesarea, he distinctly declares, “I have hope toward God which they also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust” (Acts xxiv. 15).
But Paul nowhere states what their views of the punishment of the wicked, or of the rewards of the righteous.
Belief of the Masses.
That the doctrine of the Pharisees, on the subject of the resurrection, was believed by the masses, there is no reason to doubt. It is clearly indicated by the reply of Martha to Jesus, when he said to her with reference to the time then present, “Thy brother shall rise again.” She said unto him, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John xi. 24).
Testimony of Josephus.
From Paul let us now turn to the other Pharisee, Josephus, and question him. At first sight it seems as if we should thus obtain full satisfaction, for in each of his great works he professes to give a careful account of the doctrines of the Pharisees, as well as of the Sadducees and Essenes.
But, though he was a priest as well as a Pharisee, he perplexes rather than enlightens us by his disagreement with the testimony of Paul, and of the Evangelists, as to the resurrection.
He Seems to Teach Transmigration.
His language teaches rather the transmigration of souls – not into animals, but into new human bodies – than the true doctrine of the resurrection. It is suggested that he uses words ambiguously, so that the Greeks, who held to transmigration, and not resurrection, might put their sense on his words, and, at the same time, believers in the resurrection might interpret them in their own sense. This may be the truth, and, if so, Josephus simply acted on the slippery principle of compromise, which even Christian councils have not hesitated to follow. But the force of his language predominates on the side of transmigration. Take the statement in his speech at Jotapata, to deter his companions from suicide in a great extremity. He says to them: “Do you not know that those who depart out of this life according to the law of Nature, and pay that debt when he that lent life is pleased to require it back again, enjoy eternal fame? That their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain a most holy place in heaven, whence, in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies, while the souls of those whose hands have acted madly against themselves are received into the darkest place in Hades?” (“Jewish War,” iii., 8, 5). It deserves notice here that he is speaking to Jews, and not to Greeks, and, unless in reporting his speech for the Greeks he modified his address to his comrades, it is clear that he set forth to them the doctrine of transmigration, and not of resurrection. Again, in ii., 8, 14, he says of the Pharisees: “They say that all souls are immortal, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, and that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” Here the resurrection of the unjust is expressly denied, and that of the just is transformed into a removal into other bodies, as already stated. In another place, he states the case thus: “The wicked shall be detained in an everlasting prison, but the righteous shall have power to revive and live again” (“Antiquities,” xviii., 1, 3). This last form of words is nearest to a compromise of the two systems, for it can be taken so as to express either.
Views of Alger and Twisleton.
Different views are taken of these facts. Mr. Alger does not hesitate to say that “the Greek culture and philosophical tincture wit which Paul was imbued led him to reject the doctrine of a bodily resurrection; and this is probably the reason why he makes no allusion to that doctrine in his account of the Pharisees.” If he was reporting his own opinions, there would be a good reason for saying nothing of the resurrection, if he did not believe it. But it would not be a good reason for misrepresenting the main body of the Pharisees, who held it. We cannot suppose that the Evangelists, and Paul, and our Saviour, were mistaken in asserting that the Pharisees held the doctrine. E.B.T. Twisleton, in Smith’s “Bible Dictionary,” says: “The value of Josephus’s account of the Pharisees would be much greater if he had not accommodated it, more or less, to Greek ideas. So that, in order to arrive at the exact truth, not only much must be added, but likewise much of what he has written must re retranslated, as it were, into Hebrew conceptions.” This implies that Josephus, in order to adapt his narration to the Greeks, translated the Jewish resurrection into the transmigration of souls, and that, in order to get at the exact truth, we must translate it back again into the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the body. One other view of the case is possible.
It may be that among the Pharisees there was, in fact, a Grecian party of Alexandrian Jews and their sympathizers, who held to the transmigration of the soul, and called it a resurrection. It would appear, from Luke ix. 7-9, 19, that some of the Jews regarded Christ as one of the old prophets risen again. Hence it would seem that if the spirit of an old prophet was born into this world in a new body, it would be called by some of the Jews a resurrection from the dead; for it is hard to suppose that any of them were so ignorant of the fact that Christ was born in the usual way as to suppose that in his case there had been a literal resurrection of the dead body of any old prophet. If there was such a party, Josephus, in dealing with the Greeks, in order to avoid their prejudices against the resurrection, may have chosen to make these views prominent, though perhaps the majority of the Pharisees held to the literal resurrection of the body. In this supposition there is nothing improbable. The Alexandrian Jews thought very freely. We have seen that Philo held to the annihilation of the wicked, though eternal misery, according to Josephus, was the prevailing doctrine of the Pharisees.
Hence an exact agreement among the Pharisees is improbable. The doctrine of preexistence among the Greeks was generally associated with the transmigration of souls, and there is evidence that the doctrine of preexistence was widely spread among the Jews of Alexandria. Of it we have an illustration in the Wisdom of Solomon, in which the wise King of Israel is introduced as saying of himself, “I was an intelligent child, and had a good spirit, yea, rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled” (Wisdom viii. 19, 20). This resembles, in no small degree, the statement of Josephus to his fellow-soldiers that, “In the revolution of ages, the good are sent into pure bodies.” The extent of this belief in preexistence finally became so great that Alger says, “The Talmudists generally believed in the preexistence of souls in heaven.” Indications of this belief in preexistence occur also among the masses in Palestine, as is indicated by the inquiry of the disciples, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John ix. 2). On this supposition we see that Josephus may have stated the truth, though not the whole truth, in saying that the Pharisees held to the transmigration of souls. Of a large number it may have been true, though the majority still held to the resurrection of the body.
THE ESSENES: Eternal Punishment.
But, on one point, the testimony of Josephus is full and explicit, and he is our only witness on that point. The Pharisees, as is proved by his testimony already given, held to the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked. According to them, they were never raised from Hades. They never could enter other bodies. They were confined in an everlasting prison. They were subject to eternal punishment.
As to the nature of this punishment, Josephus is silent. He makes no mention of fire, though this means of torment seems to have been naturally suggested among many nations.
Concerning the Essenes, the third Jewish sect, Josephus says that they taught that the body is corruptible and the soul immortal; that their bodies are prisons of the soul; that the soul, when set free, rejoices, and mounts upward. He says that their views are like the opinions of the Greeks: that good souls dwell in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat; while the bad are consigned to a dark and tempestuous region, full of never-ceasing punishments (“Jewish Wars,” ii., 8-13).
So much for the contemporaries of Christ. We will next consider the Christian ages.
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