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AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
who differed in opinion respecting some of the most important points of religion, nothing like a general harmony was to be found amongst its members. On the contrary, having adopted the principles of various sects, they allowed themselves to be carried away by all the prejudice and animosity of party, and were too often more intent on the indulgence of private pique than studious of advancing the cause of religion, or promoting the public welfare. A similar depravity prevailed among the ordinary priests and the inferior ministers of religion. The common people, instigated by the shocking examples thus held out to them by those whom they were taught to consider as their guides, precipitated themselves into every species of vicious excess; and, giving themselves up to sedition and rapine, appeared alike to defy the vengeance both of God and man.
There were at that time two prevailing systems of religion in Palestine, the Jewish and the Samaritan; and, what contributed not a little to the calamities of the Hebrew nation, the followers of each of these regarded those of the other persuasion with the most virulent and implacable hatred, mutually venting their rancorous animosity in the direst curses and imprecations. The nature of the Jewish religion may be collected from the books of the Old Testament; but, at the time of Christ's appearance, it had lost much of its original beauty and excellence, and was corrupted by errors of the most flagrant kind, which had crept in from various sources. The public worship of God was indeed still continued in the temple of Jerusalem, with all the rites of the Mosaic institution; and their festivals never failed to draw together an immense concourse of people at the stated seasons : nor did the Romans ever interfere to prevent those observances. In domestic life, also, the ordinances of the Law were in general punctually attended to; but it is manifest, from the evidence adduced by various learned men, that even in the service of the Temple itself numerous ceremonies and observances, drawn from the religious worship of heathen nations, had been introduced and blended with those of divine institution; and that, in addition to superstitions like these of a public nature, many erroneous principles, probably brought from Babylon and Chaldea by the ancestors of the people, at their return from captivity, or adopted by the inconsiderate multitude 'in conformity to the example of their neighbours, the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Egyptians, were cherished and acted on in private.
The opinions and sentiments of the Jews respecting the Deity, the divine nature, the angels, dæmons, the souls of men, their duties, and similar subjects, appear to have been far less extravagant, and formed on more rational grounds, than those of any other nation or people. Indeed, it was scarcely possible that they should wholly lose sight of that truth in the knowledge of which their fathers had been instructed through the medium of revelation; especially as this instruction was rendered habitual to them, even at a tender age, by hearing, reading, and studying the writings of Moses and the prophets. In all their cities, towns, and villages, and indeed throughout the empire, wherever any considerable number of Jews resided, a sacred edifice, which they called a synagogue, was erected, in which it was customary for the people regularly to assemble for the purposes of prayer and praise, and hearing the law publicly read and expounded; but these synagogues had no connexion with the worship or service of the Temple, and ought not to be identified with it. The latter was of positive appointment in all its branches, and regulated by express law, which was not the case with the former. In most of the larger towns, there were also schools established, in which young persons were initiated in the first principles of religion, as well as instructed in the liberal arts.
But though the Jews certainly entertained many sentiments more rational and correct than their neighbours-sentiments which they had adopted from their own scriptures; yet they had gradually incorporated with them so large a mixture of what was fabulous and absurd as nearly to deprive the truth of all its force and energy. Hence the many pointed rebukes which Jesus Christ gave to the Scribes and Pharisees, the prime leaders of religion in his day; telling them that they taught for doctrines the commandments of men, and that they had made the divine law void through their traditions.* Their notions of the nature
* The Jews acknowledge two laws, which they believe to have been delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai; of which one was immediately committed to writing in the text of the Pentateuch, and the other is said to have been handed down from generation to generation, for many ages, by oral tradition. From the time of Moses to the
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of God are supposed to have been closely allied to the oriental philosophy on that subject; while to the prince of darkness, and his associates and agents, they attributed an influence over the world and the human race so predominant as scarcely to leave a superior degree of power even to the Deity himself. Of various terrific conceits, founded upon this notion, one of the principal was, that all the evils and calamities which befal the human race were to be considered as originating with this prince of darkness and his ministering spirits, who had their dwelling in the air, and were scattered throughout every part of the universe. Their notions also, and manner of reasoning, respecting angels, or ministers of divine providence, were nearly allied to those maintained by the Babylonians or Chaldæans, as may be readily perceived by those who will give themselves the trouble to investigate the subject.
But on no one point were the sentiments of the Jews of that day more estranged from the doctrine taught by their prophets than on what regarded the character of their Messiah. The greatest part of the Jewish nation were looking with eager desire for the appearance of the deliverer whom God had promised to their fathers. But their hopes were not directed to such a one as the scriptures described : they expected not a spiritual deliverer to rescue them from the bondage of sin and Satan, and to bestow upon them the blessings of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, the adoption of children into his family, and the hope of an eternal inheritance in the world to come; they looked for a mighty warlike leader, whose talents and prowess might recover for them their civil liberty. Fondly dreaming of a temporal kingdom for their Messiah, their carnal minds were so riveted under the dominion of this master prejudice, that, in general, their hearts were blinded to the real scope of the law and the prophets.
days of Rabbi Jehuda, no part of the moral law had ever been committed to writing for public perusal. In every generation, the president of the Sanhedrim, or the prophet of his age, for his own private use, is said to have written notes of the traditions which he had heard from his teachers; but he taught in public only from word of mouth : and thus each individual wrote for himself an exposition of the law and the ceremonies it enjoined, according to what he had heard. Thus things were situated till the days of Rabbi Jehuda. He observed that the students of the law were gradually diminishing, that difficulties and distresses were multiplying, that the kingdom of impiety was increasing in strength and extending itself over the world, while the people of Israel were driven to the ends of the earth. Fearing lest, in these circumstances, the traditions would be forgotten and lost, he collected them all, arranged them under distinct heads, and formed them into a methodical code of traditional law. Of this book, entitled the MISHNA, copies were speedily multiplied and extensively circulated; and the Jews at large received it with the highest veneration. See MR. ALLEN's Modern Judaism, ch. iii. p, 22–36, where the reader will find numerous quotations from the Rabbis, showing how this (supposed) oral law is by them extolled above the written law of Moses just as the Papists in later ages have made void the doctrine of Christ and his apostles by the traditions of the fathers.
It is abundantly manifest, from the New Testament scriptures, that at the time of Christ's appearance the Jews were divided into various sects, widely differing in opinion from each other, not merely on subjects of smaller moment, but also on those points which enter into the very essence of religion. Of the Pharisees and Sudducees, the two most distinguished of these sects, both in number and respectability, mention is made in the writings of the evangelists and apostles. Josephus, Philo, and others, speak of a third sect, under the title of the Essenes; and it appears, from more than one authority, that several others of less note were to be found among them. The evangelist Matthew notices the Herodians, a class of men who, it seems highly probable, had espoused the cause of the descendants of Herod the Great, and contended that they had been unjustly deprived of the greater part of Palestine by the Romans. Josephus makes mention also of another sect, bearing the title of Philosophers, composed of men of the most ferocious character, and founded by Judas, a Galilean—a strenuous and undaunted asserter of the liberties of the Jewish nation. They maintained that the Hebrews, the favourite people of heaven, ought to render obedience to God alone, and consequently were continually stimulating one another to throw off the Roman yoke and assert their national independence.
The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, the three most powerful of the Jewish sects, were cordially united in sentiment respecting all those fundamental points which constituted the basis of the Jewish religion. All of them, for instance, rejected with detestation the notion of a plurality of gods, and would acknowledge the existence of but one Almighty Power, whom they regarded as the Creator of the universe and believed to be endowed with the most absolute perfection and goodness.
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They were equally agreed in the opinion that God had selected the Hebrews from amongst all the other nations of the earth as his peculiar people, and had bound them to himself by an unchangeable and everlasting covenant. With the same unanimity they maintained the divine mission of Moses; that he was the ambassador of heaven, and consequently that the law delivered at Mount Sinai, and promulgated by his ministry, was of divine original. It was also the general belief among them that in the books of the Old Testament were contained ample instructions respecting the way of salvation and eternal happiness; and that whatever principles or duties were inculcated in those writings must be reverently received and implicitly obeyed. But an almost irreconcileable difference of opinion, and the most vehement disputes, prevailed among them, respecting the original source or foundation whence all religion was to be deduced. Both the Sadducees and Essenes rejected with disdain the oral law, to which the Pharisees, however, paid the greatest deference. And the interpretation of the written law yielded still further ground for acrimonious contention. The Pharisees maintained that the law as committed to writing by Moses, and likewise every other part of the sacred volume, had a twofold sense or meaning; the one plain and obvious to every reader, the other abstruse and mystical. The Sadducees, on the contrary, would admit of nothing beyond a simple interpretation of the words, according to their strict literal sense. The Essenes, or at least the greater part of them, differing from both, considered the words of the law to possess no force or power whatever in themselves, but merely to exhibit the shadows or images of celestial objects, of virtues and of duties. So much dissension and discord respecting the rule of religion, and the sense in which the divine law ought to be understood, could not fail to produce a great diversity in the forms of religious worship, and naturally tended to generate the most opposite and conflicting sentiments on subjects of a divine nature.
The Pharisees, in point of number, riches, authority, and influence, took precedence of all the Jewish sects. And as they constantly manifested an extraordinary display of religion, by an apparent zeal for the cultivation of piety and brotherly love, and by an affectation of superior sanctity in their opi