Beliefs of the First Century Jews
In our previous articles we discussed what (1) the Patriarchs and Moses (2) the Psalmist, Solomon and the Prophets believed about the question “Mankind’s hope for the future. Where will it be?”
We will now examine what were the beliefs of the 1st Century Jews.
Belief of the 1st Century Jews
In Matthew 6 we find the account where Jesus was discussing practising righteousness, and prayer. In Matthew 6:9-10 we find the passage referred to variously as the Model Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and the Our Father Prayer. Jesus gave the following suggestions:
“YOU must pray, then, this way: “‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.”
In this model prayer, Jesus stated that at that time early in his ministry, God’s will was taking place in heaven. The prayer was for the kingdom to come. From where to where? The Greek word ‘erchomai’ translated ‘let come’ means ‘to come from one place into another’ as in persons arriving. Jesus was here on earth, he taught us to pray for the Kingdom, so it would be understood by his listeners that the Kingdom was to be here on earth, where his followers were praying from. It was to be also God’s will being done upon the earth like (as) it was in heaven.
If it was God’s will that at some point in the future, some humans be resurrected at their death to life as a spirit creature in the heavens, then surely would it not make much more sense for Jesus to say “your kingdom come” or begin in heaven instead of “your kingdom come”? He would also say let “your will take place in heaven” rather than take place “also upon earth”.
It is God’s will for the Kingdom to come. His will is already being done and carried out in the heavens, but not on the earth. As we learn from other scriptures, the Kingdom would bring righteous rule to the earth, so this would ensure his will would be done here on earth as well.
We also have to keep in mind that up to this point in time in the writing of the inspired scriptures, no such statement is recorded in God’s word that it is part of God’s will for some or all faithful humans to go to heaven.
Some may ask – how has God’s will been done in heaven since the time Jesus was on earth? Especially with Satan not cast out of heaven? The scriptures show that Satan was allowed access to heaven according to God’s will [allowance] until the time appointed mentioned in Revelation 12:7-9 for him when he is no longer to be allowed to be in heaven (See Job 1:7 and Job 2:2). When exactly the events in Revelation 12 take place is not clear. It may already have taken place in the 1st Century or it may be still future. Whatever the case it does not affect our understanding that God’s will is being done in heaven.
- Conclusion: The focus of the prayer was on the application of God’s will already being done in the heavens, being now applied to the earth to bring its benefits to mankind. In context of the previous scriptures, with which the disciples and Jesus’s audience would have been familiar, (see in particular the comment on Exodus 19), then it is not surprising that the disciples were looking for the Kingdom of God on earth affecting life in Israel at that time. Jesus stated nothing here that would change this perception.
We will now look to examine a very interesting passage of scripture which causes problems for any teaching of heavenly life for righteous people either from time immemorial or from the first century onwards. It is the passage found in Luke 13:23,28-30. The question arose about the number of those being saved. We read:
“23 Now a certain man said to him: ”Lord, are those who are being saved few?” “28There is where [YOUR] weeping and the gnashing of [YOUR] teeth will be, when YOU see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown outside. Furthermore, people will come from eastern parts and western, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And, look! there are those last who will be first, and there are those first who will be last.”
Jesus told his disciples that they should “Exert yourselves vigorously to get in through the narrow door, because many… will seek to get in but will not be able”. (Luke 13:24). He would also reject many who knocked at the door because they were “workers of unrighteousness”. (Luke 13:27b). The Kingdom of God was not just for Jews who listened to Jesus according to his statement in verse 28. Why? It was because Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the [true] prophets would also be there along with many non-Jews[i] (“people from eastern parts, western, north and south”) reclining “at the table in the Kingdom of God’ [not under the Kingdom of God]. The clear implication here is that the kingdom of God would be on earth [with a resurrected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], rather than in heaven of which there is no mention.
There is a parallel account in Matthew 8:10-12 where Jesus is dealing with the army officer of Capernaum (a non-Jew). There he says: “I tell YOU the truth, With no one in Israel have I found so great a faith. But I tell YOU that many from eastern parts and western parts will come and recline at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens; whereas the sons of the Kingdom will be thrown into the darkness outside. There is where [their] weeping and the gnashing of [their] teeth will be.”
The Greek word for “in” is ‘en’ [Strong’s Greek 1722] meaning ‘inside’, ‘within’. The sons of the kingdom, who were initially the Jews, because of their action in rejecting the Messiah, they would themselves be rejected by God. Only Jews like the faithful Patriarchs would be in the kingdom of the heavens along with many non-Jews. It is the Kingdom belonging to (‘of’) the heavens, not the Kingdom in the heavens. It is a Kingdom of heavenly origin, rather than earthly origin.
That this was the first century disciples understood is confirmed to us by the account recorded in Luke 19:11-27. There we read:
“11While they were listening to these things, he told another illustration, because he was near Jerusalem and they thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear instantly. 12 So he said: “A man of noble birth traveled to a distant land to secure kingly power for himself and to return. 13 Calling ten of his slaves, he gave them ten miʹnas and told them, ‘Do business with these until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent out a body of ambassadors after him to say, ‘We do not want this man to become king over us.’ 15 “When he eventually got back after having secured the kingly power, he summoned the slaves to whom he had given the money, in order to ascertain what they had gained by their business activity. 16 So the first one came forward and said, ‘Lord, your miʹna gained ten miʹnas.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because in a very small matter you have proved yourself faithful, hold authority over ten cities.’ 18 Now the second came, saying, ‘Your miʹna, Lord, made five miʹnas.’ 19 He said to this one as well, ‘You too be in charge of five cities.’ 20 But another one came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your miʹna that I kept hidden away in a cloth. 21 You see, I was in fear of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and you reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘By your own words I judge you, wicked slave. You knew, did you, that I am a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 So why did you not put my money in a bank? Then on my coming, I would have collected it with interest.’ 24 “With that he said to those standing by, ‘Take the miʹna from him and give it to the one who has the ten miʹnas.’ 25 But they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten miʹnas!’— 26 ‘I say to you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 27 Moreover, bring these enemies of mine here who did not want me to become king over them and execute them in front of me.’”
Here it is clear that the disciples believed the Kingdom of God was going to appear here on earth. When? While Jesus was here on earth as he was the one with the legal right to the throne of David and hence King Designate of that Kingdom. Jesus then gave them a parable where he explained what would happen.
- The man of noble birth [Jesus himself] would go away [die and ascend to heaven]. (Luke 19:12), (Luke 18:31-33).
- He [Jesus] would secure the Kingly power [from Jehovah after presenting his ransom sacrifice]. (Luke 19:15), (Matthew 28:18).
- He [Jesus] would then return [to earth]. (Luke 19:15), (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
- On his [Jesus] return [His Coming] he would call an accounting [judgement] of those on earth. (Luke 19:15), (Matthew 25:19, 31-33).
- Here he [Jesus] would examine his slave’s actions [Christian followers] and the faithful [Christians] would be given more responsibility according to their talents holding responsibility for cities [as kings and priests]. (Luke 16:19-23), (Matthew 25:20-31).
- He [Jesus] would then arrange for the wicked who rejected him to be destroyed. [Harvest, Armageddon]. (Luke 19:27), (Matthew 25:41-46).
Note that Jesus did not correct the disciple’s belief that the Kingdom of God was going to appear here on earth. Instead, he just corrected the timing of that event. The timing was that it would be in the future on his return, rather than in the near future during the time while he was alive on earth.
The events that occurred during the last resurrection performed by Jesus while on earth in the first century are also important to understanding the belief, not only of the Jews, but of Jesus disciples.
The faith building event of the resurrection of Lazarus is recorded in John 11:23-25. We pick up the account when Jesus was talking about the dead Lazarus to Martha, Lazarus’ sister.
“Jesus said to her: “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him: “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me, even though he dies, will come to life;”
From this we learn that Martha in common with the other 1st Century Jews believed in a future resurrection, “on the last day”, to earth.
Jesus did nothing to change or correct this view. It would have been an ideal opportunity to make clear that there were now two destinations for those resurrected, but he did not.
Additionally, there is no record that when Lazarus was resurrected, he complained about or mentioned about being brought back to earth from heaven [to have die again]. This would add weight to the understanding that resurrection to heaven was not occurring at that time.
- The Greek word used for “will rise” means to raise up, stand up, from a state of lying in death. It is related to ‘resurrection’ which is to stand up again referring to physical resurrection of the body.
After Jesus death and resurrection, he appeared to his disciples. Did they have a different view now? Note what happened. Acts 1:6-7 tells us:
“When, now, they had assembled, they went asking him: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” He said to them: “It does not belong to YOU to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction;”
Even after Jesus death, did the disciples understand the kingdom of God/Heavens to be in the heavens or on Earth? From their question, they were expecting an earthly kingdom of God over/on Israel of heavenly origin or source, i.e. from God not men. Earlier before Jesus death, they wanted to rule at his right- and left-hand side [on earth]. How did Jesus handle this question?
- Did Jesus correct them as to where the Kingdom of God would be? No.
- However, he did correct them as to when its rule would be. In verse 7 he said “it does not belong to you” to know when. The logical implication drawn from this is that
- they were correct as to where, and so did not need correction or
- this would be corrected later.
- If it was corrected later, we need to ask ourselves what scripture(s) show(s) when it was clearly corrected.
- If it was corrected later, on what authority was it corrected?
We now move some years forward to when the Apostle Paul was defending himself before Roman Governor Felix. Paul answered the questions put to him by the Governor and told him:
“And I have hope toward God, which hope these men also look forward to, that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15)
As we can see the Apostle Paul commented that both he and his accusers [the Pharisees] had the hope of a resurrection in common [to the earth, as a location is implied]. As the Pharisees did not believe in resurrection to heaven, but to earth, it would be logical to conclude that therefore so also did the Apostle Paul, especially as he was a former Pharisee. The dispute that had ensued previously in the Sanhedrin between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was about whether or not there was a resurrection, not where the resurrection would take place. (Acts 23:6-8).
In conclusion we can see clearly that the 1st Century Jews believed there would be resurrection back to life on earth on the last [judgment] day. There was no concept of resurrection to heaven as a spirit creature. Jesus and the Apostle Paul (a former Pharisee) preached in agreement with these prevailing beliefs. The Jews clearly had no concept or understanding of an alternative destination at that time.
Thus far we have examined:
- The beliefs and writings of the Patriarchs and Moses.
- The beliefs and writings of the Psalmists, Solomon and the Prophets.
- The beliefs of the 1st Century Jews.
So far all these examinations show that the Israelites/Jews had a belief in everlasting life. Also, that this everlasting life would follow resurrection back to life on earth, but not a hint of any hope of life in the heavens. Did Jesus teach any exception or change to this belief?
This is what we will examine in our fourth article of the series. What did Jesus Christ, the Son of God teach and believe?
IMPORTANT REQUEST: It is requested that any comments (which are very welcome) be confined to the Bible books and period covered by this article. The whole of the Bible will be covered in sections so later Bible writers and periods will be covered by later articles and would be the best place for relevant comments to those sections.
[i] John 10:16 : Jesus speaking to the Jews said: “And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; those also I must bring, and they will listen to my voice (which the majority of 1st century Jews were not) and they will become one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus was clearly the shepherd as he says ‘I have other sheep’. He and the apostles only preached to the Jews. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus said “I was not sent forth to any but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (‘this fold’). But with the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, (see Daniel 9:26, 27 ‘And after the 62 weeks Messiah will be cut off with nothing for himself. .. and he must keep the covenant in force for the many for one week; and at the half of the week he will cause sacrifice and gift offering to cease”) the invitation was to be extended (‘those also I must bring’). The extending of the invitation happened with the opening up of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles in 36 CE with the baptism of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10:28 where Peter said: “You well know how unlawful it is for a Jew to join himself to or approach a man of another race; and yet God has shown me I should call no man defiled or unclean.” An angel told Cornelius in Acts 10:31 “Cornelius, your prayer had been favourably heard and your gifts of mercy have been remembered before God.” See Appendix: Who are the Other Sheep?