A brief reflection on Jews and Gentiles in the time of Christ.
When Christ appeared on the scene, it was during a time of hatred, factions, and divisions. Judaism was split into three factions: the middle class Pharisees, rich aristocratic Sadducees, and the Essenes who had taken vows of poverty. All three disliked each other and looked down on the Galileans, whom they viewed as uneducated country people.
Yet two things united them even to these hot-headed inferior Galileans.
- Their intense hatred of foreigners.
- And their fierce nationalism.
Zealous nationalism and intense hatred of the foreigner dominated them one and all.
Which is none too surprising, considering life under oppressive Roman rule. Crushing with its heavy taxes and restrictive laws, and controlled by soldiers everywhere. Rules which even governed Jewish religious life. Requiring the high priest to retrieve his garments from the Roman rulers before he could officiate in the Temple!
Yet even the Romans (as outright heathens) were a bit more tolerated than the Herodians: Jews who mixed Judaism with heathenism. Which was strictly forbidden under Jewish law.
But the Pharisees, in particular, built walls of separation.
Mind-boggling laws to divide Jews and Gentiles, and making it unlawful to:
- Have any dealings, business or otherwise, with Gentiles for 3 days before heathen festivals and private parties.
- Pass through heathen cities, enter their buildings, or even help build them.
- Rent or sell property or cattle to them.
- Leave a Gentile alone in their own home, after inviting him in.
- Let them use any of their items. (They had to destroy or purify any item Gentiles touched, even to the regrinding of knives!)
- Eat or drink anything prepared by heathen hands. (No wonder they debated so fiercely over eating meat offered to idols in Paul’s day!)
This extreme fervor usually caused the often tolerant Gentiles to retaliate in the same way. Ridiculing Jewish religious customs and their worship of an unseen God. And in the naturally superior attitude of conquerors, they expressed their disdain of this people who dared to look down on them.
Unfortunately their zeal over keeping themselves clean even led to acts of downright unkindness and neglect. As we in the episode Christ recounted of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). And with their strict laws, which stopped them from giving aid to Gentile neighbors giving birth!
This attitude of contempt and hatred, permeating every area of Jewish life, is the scene into which Christ stepped.
And much to the dismay of Pharisees and Sadducees, Christ came, not to turn Gentiles into Jews, but to make Jews and Gentiles all children of the same heavenly Father. Not to place Gentiles under the burden of the Mosaic law, but to free them from it!
For the Jewish mind, this tearing down of walls between Jews and Gentiles was a most unexpected revelation.
Their law didn’t give any hint of this possibility. Nor did the times in which they lived, filled with division and hatred, prepare them for such a revelation.
Paul proclaimed this revelation “the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations.” For up to the coming of Christ, the breaking down of these walls was an unheard of, unimaginable possibility.
But he is our peace who breaks down every wall. And still today, Christ’s kingdom remains the greatest revelation ever. The wonder which removes not only the law’s burden, but also its dividing wall.
And Christ longs to tear down the walls we build too. Walls that create division, not friends and neighbors.
Cultural or ethnic walls. Those built on rules not found in Scripture, or on secondary doctrines. Stones of comparison, pride, and lack of acceptance. Or barriers we form to keep us from associating with those we consider inferior, unclean, or unholy.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. — Ephesians 2:14.
Yes, he has broken down every wall. And if we let it in, his peace will tear down walls that divide us from God and from our fellow-man. Christ’s peace builds bridges across barriers and differences. Making everyone a neighbor to love.
Where could you start building some bridges today?
Resources: An essay/summary based on Chapter 2: Jews and Gentiles in the Land of Sketches of Jewish Social Life; in public domain.
[Image of Etruscan wall & grave ©TheScorziellos-Mario]