The " question heading this article is an oft-repeated one. It seems difficult for many to understand how or why the Jewish nation rejected Jesus as the Saviour and Messiah, when the Old Testament Scriptures were so filled with prediction, type, and prophecy regarding His advent into our world. Especially does it seem difficult to understand the refusal of the Sanhedrin to acclaim Jesus as Messiah when the inspired apostles repeatedly state that, had the people known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. Their sacrificing of His life was done through ignorance. It seems well-nigh inexplicable for some to harmonize the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees while they were recognized as the leaders who sat in Moses' seat.
That the Jewish people were honest, zealous, and sincere is evident from the Scriptures. Paul says of them: "I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." Rom. 10:2. And of his own training and education, even before he accepted the Saviour, he adds:
"Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward man." Acts 24:16.
"I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." 1 Tim. 1:12, 13.
The Jews Anxious to Follow God
Because of the bitter experience through which the seed of Abraham passed in the captivity of Babylon for seventy years, after their deliverance from Babylonian exile the leaders determined never again to reject the counsel of God's word. The influential men of Israel feared the serious consequences which might overtake them if they were again led away from the true God. The following statement from Ezra is to the point:
"Should we again break Thy commandments, and join in affinity with the people of these abominations? wouldst not Thou be angry with us till Thou hadst consumed us, so that there should be no remnant nor escaping?" Ezra 9 : 14.
In a Jewish book entitled, "Ethics of the Fathers,"3 written about the second century before Christ, chapter 1, paragraph 2, says: "Be deliberate in judgment; train up many disciples; and make a fence for the law." The sages of Israel put forth their best effort to fence in the law. They multiplied comments, explanations, treatises, targums, and other religious helps, in order that the people might better understand the teaching of the word of God. Unfortunately, in their endeavor to familiarize the people with the requirements contained in Scripture for following God, they stumbled over a great stumblingstone.
After Alexander the Great worshiped in the temple at Jerusalem, following his reception by Jaddua the high priest,2 a spirit of friendliness developed between the Greeks and the Jews. Alexander's generals found it difficult to understand why their chief should embrace the high priest, when they met on Mt. Scopus, instead of putting him to death. Alexander told his officials that what occurred that day was shown to him in a vision when he was in Macedonia, and he wanted the privilege of entering the temple and worshiping the God of Jaddua.
Greece assured the Jews that they desired to be their true friends and benefactors.2 They were desirous of learning more of the God of the Hebrews. An arrangement was entered into that allowed a large number of rabbis from Jerusalem to go to Alexandria and translate the writings of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language. Greek scholarship and learning was seeking every possible avenue of information to enhance the value of its own culture and refinement. It was also suggested by the Greeks that the Jews send their talented young men to Alexandria for training and instruction in the philosophies, sciences, and learning of the Greeks.
Many of the elders of Israel feared the results of such a course; the sages remembered the sorrows of their ancestors who came into contact with heathen manners and customs. They counseled the younger men against such a procedure. These, in turn, argued that it would be an advantage for strong, thoughtful, vigorous young men to enter the schools of Greece, as they might influence the philosophers and Greek scholars to see the value and beauty of the Jewish religion, and some of the learned Greeks might embrace Judaism. Yet the aged men of Israel advised against it. They maintained that should the younger men be given encouragement to come into contact with the learning of the heathen, it might be ruinous to the future of the Jewish race.
Greece assured the fathers in Israel that they might hold to their own standards of religion. They were encouraged to believe that the synagogues where the children were taught their religion would net be interfered with; their Beth Hamedrosh (house of learning, their high schools), where their young people received' a preparatory training, would continue as heretofore; the Talmud Torah (their colleges where advanced studies were conducted) would be strengthened if the teachers of the law should only imbibe the wisdom and learning of the scholars of Greece; and by receiving recognition from the world's greatest nation, the graduates of Jewish schools would find it greatly to their advantage.
Many of Israel's influential men yielded to Greek insistence. The former said that God would help their young men to be true to their religion, and the training schools of Jewry would have a better standing in the eyes of the nations. The men of Israel were made to feel that the advantages to the Jewish scholars would be immeasurable, for they would have incentives, or goals, to reach. The young men would gain knowledge, influence, prestige; and the more they advanced in learning the higher would be their attainments.
Gradually the Jewish schools came to confer degrees upon their graduates. There was the Ray, or rabbi, the Tana, the Gayon, the Sadi, and the Rabbon. It was thought necessary for the graduates of the rabbinical schools to show the mark of their rank by wearing different clothing. The man with a degree must wear a peculiar, distinctive gown and cap. Little by little an educational aristocracy was formed, which was called the Sanhedrin. This term is of Greek origin, the Hebrew name being Beth Din Ha-go-dol, Great House of Judgment.
Decline of Sprituality
While the religious schools continued to operate, a marked declension in spiritual influence and power was visible. Year by year the word of God was studied less, as the courses of studies based on culture an philosophy increased. The curriculum of the rabbinical schools was influenced toward intellectualism. As the years passed, man became exalted and God was less thought of. The rabbi was extolled; the unlearned were depreciated. Piety gradually diminished as form and ceremony increased. Many laws were passed favoring rabbinism and school customs, yet the students were encouraged to love and obey God.
In "Ethics of the Fathers," the rabbis taught: "A child of five years should study the Bible, at ten the Mishna, at fifteen the Gemara."
The Mishna is a voluminous commentary of the Bible; the Gemara is the commentary of the Mishna. So as the student advanced in years and developed in mental acumen, he studied God's word less, and man's writings more.
Intellectualism Sets Aside Inspiration
In order for men to be accepted by Jewish assemblies, they must have completed a course in the rabbinical schools. Those who failed to follow the procedure mapped out by the Great Sanhedrin (or by the lesser Sanhedrin located in cities and towns of Palestine outside the city of Jerusalem, headquarters of the Beth Din Ha-go-dol, the Great House of Judgment), received no recognition by the populace. The graduate rabbi was known by his garb. It was vital that rabbinical qualifications be met in order for a person to gain a hearing by the children of Abraham.
Such were existing conditions in the land of Judea at the time when John and Jesus appeared in the land of Israel.
The following from "The Desire of Ages" is pertinent here:
"By the Babylonish captivity the Israelites were effectually cured of the worship of graven images. During the centuries that followed, they suffered from the oppression of heathen foes, until the conviction became fixed that their prosperity depended upon their obedience to the law of God. . . . After the return from Babylon, much attention was given to religious instruction. All over the country, synagogues were erected, where the law was expounded by the priests and scribes. And schools were established, which, together with the arts and sciences, professed to teach the principles of righteousness. But these agencies became corrupted. . . . In many things they conformed to the practices of idolaters.
"As they departed from God, the Jews in a great degree lost sight of the teaching of the ritual service. . . . The Jews lost the spiritual life from their ceremonies, and clung to the dead forms... In order to supply the place of that which they had lost, the priests and rabbis multiplied requirements of their own; and the more rigid they grew, the less of the love of God was manifested. They measured their holiness by the multitude of their ceremonies, while their hearts were filled with pride and hypocrisy."—Page 29.
"As the Jews had departed from God, faith had grown dim, and hope had well-nigh ceased to illuminate the future. The words of the prophets were uneomprehended."—Id., p. 32.
Since John and Jesus were not attendants at rabbinical schools, the people would not recognize their authority as teachers. However, God gave these men a message filled with divine power and with the heavenly Spirit. Because the leaders of Israel failed to accept the message of John as coming from God, they were unprepared to receive the message of the Saviour, although He assured them that His life and advent were based on the Sacred Scriptures. The rabbis argued: "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" John 7:15.
Since the family of Jesus were loyal to the synagogues, His own brothers did not believe on Him as Messiah. (See John 7:4, 5.) Because the standards of learning were set up by the Sanhedrin, and none who refused to accept the teaching of the rabbis were given recognition, it is not difficult to understand why, when the Saviour came to those who were custodians of the oracles of God, they failed to recognize Him as the fulfillment of the types and prophecy noted in Moses and the prophets. By mingling human philosophy with the word of God, the spiritual force and power of the Scriptures was lacking in the lives of teacher and layman. They did not have spiritual discernment. Greek philosophy, Alexandrian and Athenian culture, had sapped the spiritual strength of the house of Israel. The influence of this worldly religious training unfitted all classes to meet Him when "He came unto His own." "His own received Him not." His claims were heavenly; the people were of the earth, earthly. Heaven and earth did not harmonize.
At the beginning of His work, Jesus told the people that the populace would kill Him The Pharisees accused Him of being a Samaritan and of having a devil. Being blinded by sin, influenced and hypnotized by human learning and rabbinical tradition, the masses were void of spiritual intuition. In the end they rejected their only hope, their one source of deliverance. No honesty, zeal, or earnestness could deliver or save them from sin. Only Jesus, the light of the world, the Saviour of men, could bring deliverance.
The leaders of Israel had, to a great extent, yielded to the demands of Greek culture and learning, thereby hoping to gain prestige and influence. They had been led to believe that they could make better progress in their God-given task by assimilating worldly standards of education than by clinging with tenacity to the old standards bequeathed to them by their godly ancestors. So the Israelites lost much of their influence, failed to retain their prestige, and rejected their long-looked-for Messiah and Saviour.
Washington, D. C.
Incorporated in "Jewish Daily Prayer Book," edition of 1890, published by Rosenbaum & Werbelowsky, New York City.
Tosephus, "Antiquities," book 11, chap. 8, par. 5. "New Testament Times in Palestine," Shailer Mathews, chap. 1, pp. 13, 14,
"Palestine Guide," G. O. Matson, edition of 1930, published by American Colony Stores, Jerusalem, Palestine.
Graetz's "History of the Jews," Vol. I, pp. 440, 457, 487.
Schurer's "History of the Jewish People hi the Times of Jesus Christ," Div. I, pp. 199-218.
Ewald's "History of Israel," chap. 5, pp. 260, 293302.
New Testament Times in Palestine," by Shailer Mathews, chap. 2, pp. 15-26 ; chap. 3, p. 30 ; chap. 4, pp. 38, 40, 42.