New Testament Jewish culture

by | Dec 1, 2020 | 02 Library, Introductions

Jesus spent a lot of time interacting with the Jewish culture of his day. The New Testament authors assume their readers are familiar with the Jewish culture in their day. Here are some of the basics.


  • Belief in one Holy God who is good and loving, creator and redeemer.
  • Belief in one Holy people of God who are partners in the divine covenant; brought into being through the Exodus from Egypt; preserved by God’s grace; and called to holiness and obedience.
  • Belief in one Holy Law which was divinely revealed at Sinai and instructs the people how to live before a Holy God.
  • A growing Messianic expectation made of a variety of complex views and perspectives.

Messianic expectations

  • “Birth pangs” before the Messiah comes (e.g. evil, wars, famine, etc.)
  • The return of Elijah in time of need to prepare the way for the Messiah
  • Some thought the Messiah would be a pre-existent heavenly figure who comes to earth.
  • Some thought the Messiah would be born a descendant of David who is already present in Israel but suddenly appears publicly.
  • A smaller minority held to a suffering Messiah in line with the “righteous sufferer” in Isaiah 53.
  • Work of the Messiah: destroy the forces hostile to God; rebuild the earthly Jerusalem or bring the heavenly Jerusalem; gather the scattered Jews; rule in the Kingdom of God with peace and justice; judge the righteous and the wicked.

Scribes and rabbis

  • The prototypical scribe is Ezra (Ezra 7).
  • Scribes are also called “lawyers” and “teachers of the law” in the New Testament.
  • There were scribes in various ruling and political parties. Not all scribes were Pharisees and vice-versa.
  • Scribes interpreted and preserved the Law; taught the Law to their disciples; and also acted as lawyers, making legal decisions.


  • The Temple built by Solomon was destroyed in 586 BC.
  • The second Temple built by Zerubbabel was completed in 515 BC.
  • Herod the Great decided to tear it down and built a larger structure around 20-19 BC, which took 10 years to finish.
  • The Temple court (approximately 26 acres) area was the Court of the Gentiles.
  • A much smaller court = “Court of the Israelites”
  • There was also a “court of women”
  • And the temple building itself which held the sanctuary and Holy of Holies.
  • Three yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem: 1) Passover; Booths/Tabernacles; Weeks/Pentecost.
  • Layout of Herod’s Temple
  • What was Herod’s Temple?
  • Herod’s Temple


  • The origin of the synagogue is uncertain. Most think it originated during the exile.
  • Synagogues were found throughout the New Testament world wherever Jews lived.
  • There was no standard floor plan. The best seats were benches around the wall plus the “Moses seat” for the leader.
  • The important furnishing was a chest ,called “the ark,” which held their Scriptures.
  • A synagogue service typically included: an invitation to prayer; corporate responsive prayer; reciting of the Shema; prayers said by a single leader; reading and exposition of the Mosaic law or prophets; a closing blessing.

Alfred Edersheim

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