Divisions Within in First Century Judaism
First Century Jewish community had many divisions within it. There were the geographical divisions of Galilee and Judea. There were the normal social and economic divisions of class and occupation and education. But it also had its political/religious divisions. These are frequently reflected in the New Testament and are helpful to understand in order to grasp the significance of some of the New Testament statements and actions. Our information about the parties is scanty and confusing, especially as only the Pharisees continue to pass through the first century. Good articles can be found in the New Bible Dictionary on the different groups or in the book by F. F. Bruce entitled "'" New Testament History".
The chief parties to pay attention to are:
- The Pharisees, who were a middle class lay movement. Their main concern was for obedience to the law. They perceived the judgement of Babylon and the failure of the Messiah to yet come related to Israel's disobedience to the law. Their concern for reading, codifying and obeying the law was their chief passion. They were hostile to fraternization with the Gentiles though they weren't political revolutionaries as they saw obedience to the law as the way to bring in the Messianic kingdom. They survived the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the overthrow of the Bar Kochba revolution in A.D. 135.
- The Sadduccees. This was a priestly party; more political in intention than the Pharisees. They were the upper class, closely associated with the temple and the Sanhedrin. Not all priests were Sadduccees, but nearly all Sadduccees were priests. They were not concerned with the Old Testament beyond the first five books of the law and are distinguished in the New Testament as not believing in the resurrection.
- The Herodians are not well known outside the New Testament but presumably were the party in support of the Herod family. The Herod family ruled in one way or another for nearly a Century. They were half caste Jews, thoroughly pragmatic in their efforts to maintain power; happily bending their Jewish allegiance to their Gentile overlords.
- The Zealots seemed to have been the party involved in revolutions starting from A.D. 6 with the insurrection of Judas the Galileen. They continued and took an active leading part in the revolution against Rome in A.D. 66 and therefore were exterminated when the last zealot stronghold of Masada fell in A.D. 73.
- The Essenes are not referred to directly in the New Testament. Various contradictory reports from Philo, Pliny and Josephus give us background to the Essenes. They are a religious group, not particularly political, who may have been the Dead Sea Scroll community or related to them. Their concerns were religious but the particular pattern of their teaching and religion is shrouded in some confusion.
Rertrand Russell and the Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
Bertrand Russell wrote of Jesus' statement in Mark 3:28: "That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come ….. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world."
There are several points that need to be made about the unforgivable sin:
- There are some translation emphases to take note of. The phrase is not 'an eternal sin' but 'eternal sin'. That is, too much emphasis has been placed upon a single act when the phrase means a continued act. Furthermore, the word 'said' in verse 22 & 30 is in the imperfect tense, that is 'they were saying' rather than 'they said it once'.
- The passage doesn't say that the scribes had already committed this sin but were in danger of it and therefore being warned.
- While we must not water down the awfulness of sin, let us rejoice to see that it is not stealing or adultery or murder that is considered to be the unforgivable, but the spiritual matter of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
- Blasphemy is not only the speaking of a word but also the attitude of heart and behaviour.
- The continued rejection of the Spirit's call of salvation in Christ leads to a total confusion of moral values. If, when you meet God, you call Him the devil how will you ever see the truth, repent and be saved. Such a rejection of the Spirit's testimony carries its own eternal consequences.
- The old and practical wisdom is still true: those who worry the most about committing this sin are in no danger that they have committed it for they are still aware of the Spirit's prompting. It is those who do not care about committing this sin who are in the greatest danger.
As can be seen from the footnote of the NIV we are uncertain of the form or derivation of this term. It does seem to be a play on words. Beelzebul comes from a Canaanite term to mean the Lord of Heaven which Jews turned into Beelzebub meaning the Lord of the Flies (cf. 2 Kings 1:2). In Mark 3 the terms being used synonymously with the Prince of the Demons and Satan.
The Twelve Apostles
While we mustn't look for hidden meanings in every number in the Bible, we must be wary of carrying our modern Western interest in mathematical relationships and accuracy of computation into our reading of the Scriptures. Certain Biblical numbers have symbolic rather than mathematical significance. Numbers such as forty, three and a half, seven, forty-two months and four are used in a fairly consistent symbolic pattern. The number twelve is frequently associated with the people of Israel. Twelve Patriarchs saw the establishment of the twelve-tribe nation. Jesus' choice of twelve men to be His apostles would or could symbolise the establishment of a new people of God.
Two other pieces of information from the New Testament indicate this interpretation is likely. Firstly, in Acts 1 the apostles are concerned to elect a twelfth member to replace Judas, even though there is a thirteenth who is available as fully qualified as the twelfth man Matthias.
The number could not be left at eleven or stretched to include thirteen. Furthermore, in Revelation 21:12 and 13, the heavenly Jerusalem has the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Iamb written upon it. Presumably these are the twenty-four elders referred to in Revelation 4.
1. The place and significance of Mary is a matter of great contention between religious groups in our society today.
2. Mary was a godly Jewish woman; a virgin when she conceived her son Jesus. She raised Jesus remembering many of the unusual things that happened in His childhood and was present at the crucifixion. She was numbered with the believers after His resurrection in the upper room. Her experience of life has led future generations to call her blessed by God.
3. However, some people have increased her significance greatly. She is seen as:
- Perpetually a virgin never having normal sexual relationships with her husband and not being the mother of any other children;
- Being peculiarly close to Jesus so as to have a status significantly higher than other believers;
- Being a (or ‘the’) favoured mediator between Christians and Jesus so that as she is closer to Jesus we can approach Him through her;
- Being without sin herself so that the sinless son of God could have a pure virgin through whom He was born without any possibility of inheriting sin/ and so that she could respond in obedience to God's invitation to share in the work of redemption;
- Being the fountain and source of grace to whom we can turn for help;
- Being the co-redemptrix with Jesus in that her willingness to conceive Him was a necessary step enabling His work of redemption to take place;
- Being bodily assumed from the grave and now seated in glory as the Queen of Heaven.
4. Many steps have been involved in these developments of these views. As a result of this heightened view of Mary she is imported into passages of the Bible such as Revelation 12 or given a significance in passages like Luke 1:28-30 which are inconsistent with the passages in their context. One confusing step in the development of these ideas was the title "mother of God" which the Council of Ephesus accepted in 431 A.D. This title was accepted not in reference to Mary and her status in heaven or redemption but in reference to Jesus' divinity while human. The point under discussion at the time was whether Mary's baby was only human or also God. The phrase (theotokos) “mother of God", became the litmus test of the Orthodox view of Jesus' divine human existence.
5. However, the Scriptures and Biblical theology make the developed tradition of Mary completely impossible to maintain because:
- So little is said of her in the Bible. The points a) to g) above are all added to the Bible and not found within it.
- Some of the things said of Mary in the Bible contradict the points above. So, Jesus has brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31, 6:3; John 2:12, 7:1-10; Acts 1:14; Gal 1:19), and Jesus’ attitude to Mary gives no grounds for assuming her especial place (John 2:4; Mark 3:31-34; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21 & 11:27-28).
- There is some disagreement about the ideas of brothers and sisters. Some people see them as Joseph's children from a previous marriage while others say the word can be translated 'cousins'. While both these are possible, neither is a natural reading of the passages concerned. We know absolutely nothing of a previous marriage of Joseph's. While the word 'brother’ (adelphos) can be translated 'cousin’ or ‘nephew' and can be used figuratively of friend or neighbour, its most basic normal usage is that of brother. When found in the context of a father or mother it would, be most extraordinary to mean anything other than a sibling (e.g. Mark 1:16 – Simon and his brother Andrew; Mark 1:19 – James the son of Zebedee and his brother John; Mark 3:17 – James the son of Zebedee and his brother John). The references in Mark 3:31-35 and Mark 6:3 use the word brother and sister in the context of child and parent.
- Jesus’ response to Mary in John 2:4 may not be as harsh as is sometimes translated. However, in passages such as Mark 3:31-35 and its parallels we see that Mary is confused about Jesus’ view that obedience brings one closer to God and God's family than does blood relationship. This is repeated most forcefully in Luke 11:27-28 where Mary's place is contrasted unfavourably with that of true disciples.
- Theologically the elevation of Mary undermines the unique mediatorial role of Jesus. If Mary is the co-redemptrix Queen of Heaven, then there is some deficiency in Jesus' human identification with us for He needs to be approached by somebody else as He is too busy or disinterested or unapproachable to listen to us Himself. Furthermore, there would be some deficiency in His divinity for He was impotent to save us but needed Mary's help. A verse like 1 Timothy 2:5 (for there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus) now becomes very strange if there is another "perfect" human in Heaven to whom we can approach in prayer and from whose fullness we can receive grace.
- Ethically, Mary's perpetual virginity implies that marital sex is in some sense spiritually inferior to virginity; that in some way Joseph having sex with Mary would defile her. Whereas Paul argues that if there is any spiritual contagion through sexual contact in marriage it is the reverse of defiling i.e.- sanctification 1 Cor 7:14.
- Historically, the nature of the Christian revelation is undermined by the elevation of Mary. The Gospel explanation of our relationship with God is founded and verifiable in history. The enormously significant place given to Mary cannot be attested from history but finds its roots in second and third century Gnosticism and isn't developed until many centuries later. In fact, the assumption of Mary bodily from the grave to heaven was opposed by St. Thomas Aquinas and not made mandatory on Roman Catholic believers until the 1950's. Christianity is based in history not in assumptions!