35 – Ancient Jewish Literature

Brief Outline of Ancient Jewish Theological Literature

Part  1

The arrangements of the synagogue combined a remarkable fixedness of order with liberty of the individual. 

There were the different seasons and times of public services.  These were to be ordered, prayer were to be offered at set times, and there were to be fixed portions of the law that were to be read. 

On the other hand, between the eighteen “benedictions” that were said on ordinary days, and the seven that were repeated on the Sabbaths, the people could insert prayers that were personal to them.  Also, the public reading that was read from the prophets (the Haphtarah), seems to have been originally left to individual choice.  In the hands of the “rulers of the synagogue”, though was the determination of who would read, conduct the prayers, or address the people. 

These “rulers of the synagogue” were probably members of the local Sanhedrim, because they would have naturally had charge of the public worship, as well as of the government and discipline of the synagogues. 

These “rulers” were men who were learned in the law and ones who had a good reputation.  They were voted on by the people, and were regularly set apart by the “laying on of hands”.  This “laying on”, or Semichah,  was done by at least three people who themselves already received ordination.  After the ceremony, then the candidate had the formal title of Rabbi bestowed on him and he was declared qualified to administer the law. 

The Divine Majesty was supposed to be in the midst of each Sanhedrim, and even if they only had three members it could still be said that Elohim (God) was in their midst. 

Special Qualifications of a Sanhedrist

The special qualifications for this office are mentioned in Rabbinical writings.  This may have been where Paul got his instructions to Timothy about the same subject. 

A member of the Sanhedrin was to be :  wise, modest, God-fearing, truthful, not greedy of filthy lucre, given to hospitality, kindly, not a gambler, nor a usurer, not one who traded in the produce of Sabbatical years, nor yet one who indulged in unlawful games.

They were called elders, overseers, or shepherds of the flock.  They were under the presidency and supreme rule of the “head of the synagogue”.  This designation occurs frequently in the New Testament.  Then the inferior functions in the synagogue devolved on the “chassan”, or minister, according to Luke 4:20.

In the course of time, though, the “chassanim” became the minister and the schoolmaster.  At the present time, they lead both the singing and the devotions of the synagogue.  This duty was originally not given to any fixed person, but just whoever was chosen for a time. 

Alms were collected at regular times every week.  There were at least two people employed in collecting, and three in distributing charity, so as to avoid that suspicion of dishonesty or partiality.  The collectors of charity were required to be “men of good repute, and faithful”.

In describing the conduct of public worship in the synagogues, reference was made to the “meturgeman” (who read the Targum), and the “darshan” (who spoke from the Midrash).   The first translated the scriptures that had just been read, and the second was more like a preacher who expounded on them. 

The Targum was basically intended to be a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaean.  Some of the translations were literal, and some of them were just paraphrases of what the original Hebrew scriptures said.  Every Targum basically represented the views of its translator.  Reading the ones that are available gives one an insight into the ideas at the time they were written, and the manner in which they understood the Scriptures. 

Although some of them have been found, one has not been found that dates from the time of Jesus, nor even from the first century.  It is believed that such a Targum did exist, though, during the time that Jesus lived on the earth. 

The Targums that have been found are, from oldest first:

Targum of Onkelos, on the five books of Moses (3rd Century)

Targum of Jonathan, on some of the prophets  (4th Century)

Jonathan on the Pentateuch

Jerusalem Targum, of which only a fragment has been found

These last two may have been intended to be supplemental to the Targum of Onkelos.

 In many respects, the Midrash are more interesting than the Targum. They date from the first or second century, but contain parts that are much older.  Only three of them have been found so far.  They are, from oldest:

“Siphra”, (the book), a commentary on Leviticus

“Siphri”, a commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy

“Mechiltha”, a commentary on certain portions of Exodus.

There are also other works that have been found that contain the views of the ancient Pharisees and their Scriptural interpretations.  One of the works has a title called “Lesser Genesis”, and is written in the Ethiopian language. 

The work dates from the era of Jesus, and covers the same ground as the Book of Genesis, hence the name of “Lesser Genesis”.  It gives the Biblical narrative from the creation of the world to the institution of the Passover, in the spirit in which the Judaism of that period would view it.  One of the main objects of the writer seems to have been the chronology of the book of Genesis.  All events are recorded according to Jubilee periods of 49 years, of whence came another name of “Book of Jubilees” for the same book. 

These “Jubilees” are again arranged in weeks, each of seven years, with a day for a year; and events are classified as having taken place in a certain month of a certain year, of a certain “week” of years, of a certain Jubilee-period.  Another tendency of the book is that is in common with all similar productions and can be traced to patriarchal period. 

Besides the above works, there is another class of theological literature that has been preserved to us.  There has been much controversy that has surrounded these books, though.

These works are called the “pseudo-epigraphic writings”.  Their subject-matter may be described as mainly dealing with unfulfilled prophecy, and they contain language and figures borrowed from the Book of Daniel as well as some of the other books. 

This class of literature is larger than one might expect for this particular period.  One must remember about the troubles of the times, and the feverish expectations of a coming deliverance, though, that would have been the particular mind-sets of those who wrote these books.  When you look at them with this particular mind-set, it is easy to see why there would be so many of them that would be written from different angles and with such fervor.  Also, it was a terrible time for the people, because they had some terrible, harsh rulers, and they wanted deliverance from them.

About Cathy Deaton

Cathy Deaton

My name is Cathy Deaton, Owner of Fan the Flame Ministries. God has radically changed my life, and He has shown me that I am to share the awesome things I am learning with the Millennial Generation (1981 – 1996.) I have found that the Holy Spirit is an awesome teacher when I listen to, obey, and apply what He teaches to my life. You truly can make a difference for God in an uncertain world.