Words of Wisdom: Early Jewish writings traced to Greece

This is the second installment of a four-part series on early Jewish writings

Article Highlights

  • The word “Judaism” appears for the first time about 170 B.C., in the second book of Maccabees, written in Greek.
  • Long before or during the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul were writing their Gospels, the Mishnah was being compiled.

The word “Judaism” appears for the first time about 170 B.C., in the second book of Maccabees, written in Greek. We find it, for example, in chapter 2, verse 21. Its intended meaning was to contrast the Jewish religion with Hellenism. The corresponding noun, “Jahaduth,” never appears in the Bible in Hebrew with that intention. Judaism was used here to describe the religion of a people, the Jews, that transcended tribal boundaries. Prior to this usage, a Jew had been originally a Judaean, or someone from Judah, in the southern part, as opposed to Israel in the northern part of the kingdom.

The word then, in the early centuries of the Christian era, was evolving to describe the religion of a people, the Jews, without tribal boundaries, beginning with the Babylonian exile and finding its more concrete meaning with the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jews, henceforth, would become a broader community and a distinct race with a religion, as opposed to what they had been previously, a nation.

Among the sources of Judaism is first of all, the Torah, the most general word in Hebrew for law and has both a written and an oral form. The written Torah is called the Tanak (part of the Old Testament). The oral Torah is found for the most part in the Rabbinical literature, especially in the Mishnah (tradition/repetition) which is the core of a larger collection of Rabbinical opinions known as the Talmud (teaching). The interpreted teachings in the Talmud can be either literal or practical teaching. The practical interpretations as teachings are then called Midrash.

The Babylonian Talmud

Long before or during the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul were writing their Gospels, the Mishnah was being compiled. Around the year 200 A.D., this series of codes, which was the result of the Jewish fathers’ activities spanning several centuries, was being put into written form. Similar to the Gospels, the Mishnah, or “teaching by repetition,” had been mainly an oral tradition that was formed, spoken and then handed on from generation to generation. Now, it was being placed in writing.

Following the compiling of the Mishnah and flowing from it, came the Talmud, or I should say, Talmuds, because first came the Palestinian Talmud and then the Babylonian Talmud. The name “Talmud,” was applied to what had been a long phrase in Hebrew, loosely translated as “oral law” (Torah-she-b’al-peh). This word was the designation for all the commentaries of the wise Jewish fathers, whom the Pharisees were then interpreting in a figurative way. Figurative interpretation actually began in the days of the Great Assembly, when its members resolved to keep themselves separate and distinct from the Samaritans, who were adherents of the literal interpretation of the text.

It was during the time of the Macedonian conquest of Judea that the term, “Great Assembly,” was translated into the Greek “Sanhedrin.” All sages, who were, from that time on, interpreting the biblical passages figuratively, were then called “Pharisees.” The teaching of the Talmud could be literal or practical teaching. The practical interpretations, known as “Midrash” (searching) could take the form of ethical interpretation, called “halakhah,” or the form of homiletical interpretation, which was called “haggadah.” The Babylonian Talmud was completed and written around 500 A.D., about the same time that many of the early church fathers in the Christian community set their words into writing.

Just as tradition in the early Christian community was not a dead word from the past, but a living, flowing, dynamic, and changing word, so also with the Talmud, and a word or words were added, changed or adapted in accordance with the needs of the day. Beginning at that time, the Talmud, in its completed form, was studied in all the colleges of Palestine, Alexandria or wherever else Jews lived in community. Almost from the moment it was put in writing, there were those bent on its destruction or the persecution and sometimes death of its adherents. This would include Samaritans, Sadducees, Roman Emperors, Zealous Christians, bishops and yes... even popes.

Michael Hickey is a local writer and poet who lives in Pelican Bay and Swampscott, Mass. His book, “Get Wisdom,” is published by Xlibris Div. Random House Publishing and is available at 1-888-795-4274 Ext. 822, at www.Xlibris.com, or your local bookstore. E-mail Mike Hickey at Mikehic@nii.net.

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