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Biblical Righteousness--Part 2

Jul 16, 2009

To understand any matter requires knowing its antithesis. This gives us the "Blackboard Effect," so that we are able to define our terms in contrast to the opposite "wrong" idea.

Biblical "righteousness" was synonymous with justice, and its antithesis is injustice. When applied to God as the Judge of all, it specifically refers to His manner of judging the nations, mankind in general, and specific individuals. It has to do with the law's requirement and instruction for judges. Judges, to be righteous, must be absolutely impartial and then apply the law with absolute justice. The judge cannot put away the law by making exceptions. He cannot be lenient with his friends and harsh on his enemies. There was to be "one law for the whole land."

In Paul's day, and in the context of Judaistic culture, when a man or nation was said to be "righteous," it was not normally meant to indicate moral perfection. In the context of the divine court of law, it meant that the man or nation had been vindicated in his case and had been pronounced "not guilty" (i.e., "innocent"). The great "hope of Israel" was that God would vindicate the nation as "not guilty" in her suit against the nations. It was hoped that God would vindicate her claims to being "chosen" and worthy to rule the world. And one of her primary arguments was on the basis of her monotheism, as opposed to the polytheism of other nations.

In other words, they believed that God would vindicate Israel because it was ultimately in God's own best interest.

In seeking this verdict of innocence, they were seeking vindication and justification. This is the thought behind these very important words.

In Judaism there developed two main schools of thought, founded by two significant rabbis: Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was the peacemaker; Shammai was the strict, stern, and harsh religionist. It is important that we understand something about these two schools, because they affected Saul, the young student who was ultimately to become the Apostle Paul. Though Saul received some education from Gamaliel, a follower of the peaceful Hillel, he soon joined the school of Shammai, if not by membership then at least by passion or "zeal."

Hillel was born about 110 B.C. and was made president of the Sanhedrin about 31 B.C. Professor H. Graetz describes him in his History of the Jews, Vol, II, p. 96, 97,

"Hillel was particularly distinguished for his winning, dove-like gentleness, his intense love of humanity, which arose from his own humility, and from his deep faith in others, and lastly, for that perfect equanimity proceeding from his profound trust in God, that never wavered in the midst of trouble. In later ages he was revered as the ideal of modesty and gentleness. When he was once asked to express the essence of Judaism, he uttered this golden maxim: 'Do not unto others what thou wouldst not have done unto thyself.' If strife and dissention arose, Hillel was invariably the peacemaker."

Jesus would have had great respect for Hillel, who died at an old age around 10 A.D. Some accounts place his death in 20 A.D. When he died, Shammai was made President (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin until his death in 30 A.D. He was replaced by Gamaliel, who, in Acts 22:3, was said to be Saul's teacher (later Paul).

In contrast to Hillel was Shammai. It was said by the followers of Hillel, "Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai" (Shab. 31a; Ab. R. N. xv.).

During Shammai's presidency, the so-called "18 ordinances" were passed to conform to his ideas that stood in contrast to Hillel's peaceful ideal. These ordinances radicalized Jewish thinking by insisting on a stringent separation between Jews and non-Jews. According to Graetz,

"In the same way as the school of Hillel endeavored to preserve the characteristic gentleness of their master, the followers of Shammai emulated and even exceeded the stern severity of the founder of their school. It seemed impossible to the school of Shammai to be sufficiently stringent in religious prohibitions; the decisions which they arrived at, in their interpretations of the law, were so generally burdensome that those who were milder in character were treasured up as rare exceptions. (p. 131)

"In the school of Shammai, the Pharisaic principles were carried to the very extreme. . . . The school of Shammai were not only severe in their explanations of the laws, but entertained very stern and rigid opinions on nearly all subjects; they were particularly harsh and repellant towards proselytes to Judaism. Any heathen who came to the school of Shammai, requesting to be received into the community might expect but a cold and repellant reception. The school of Shammai cares not for proselytes." (p. 132)

Another faction in the first century was that of the Zealots. One of Jesus' disciples was called Simon Zelotes, or Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), who learned from Jesus the better way. Graetz tells us that the Zealots were "a faction which at first only comprised followers of Shammai," but by the time of the great revolt against Rome, "soon included a great number of Judeans who chafed indignantly under the weight of the Roman fetters." (p. 133)

"The watchword which Judas [not a disciple of Jesus but another] gave the party of the Zealots, and which was eagerly endorsed by Zadok, was that obedience to the Roman law was disregard of the Divine law, for God alone was ruler, and could alone demand obedience; that it became, therefore, a clear and solemn duty to strain every nerve and sacrifice property, and life, and family in this struggle against the usurper, who exacted submission due to God alone." (p. 133)

It was this combination of teaching from Shammai and from Zadok (founder of the Zealot faction), which eventually brought upon Judea the wrath of Rome, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. After the failure of the second revolt in 135, Judaism received a revelation that Hillel was right after all, and this philosophy was dominant among Jews until recent times when the school of Shammai has now made a strong comeback in the Israeli state.

Much of the philosophy of Shammai and Zadok is bound up in the highly-charged word "zeal." When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he begins by telling them,

(11) For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. (12) For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (13) For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; (14) and I was advancing in [Shammaite] Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely ZEALOUS for my ancestral traditions."

When Saul persecuted the Church, he was following the teachings of the school of Shammai, which believed that renegade Judeans had to be forced into compliance to their rigid and oppressive brand of law--in order for God to justify the nation and pronounce the nation "righteous." Only in this way could the way be prepared for the Messiah's coming to deliver them from the hated Romans.

Young Saul was of this school of thought until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus to show him the true way for Israel to be justified. Herein is found the antithesis to Shammaite Judaism.


This is the second part of a series titled "Biblical Righteousness." To view all parts, click the link below.

Biblical Righteousness


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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones


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