Judaism and Early Christianity

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This article will review, in brief, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity between the AD second century and fifth century and how it formed the Christian community with lasting effects in the Orthodox Church. In this period the Jewish and Christian communities changed in their attitude towards each other, certainly both external without and internal pressures within Christianity moved Christians in a distinctive way not only spiritually but also sociologically. Literature from Christian, Jewish, and pagan sources will demonstrate what these pressures were and how they acted upon the early Christians.

Covering the following points would take a series of volumes to make good any thorough investigation. But the attempt here is to offer information in an evenhanded way to the layperson who is not conversant on the subject. In each topic the reader will discover how within the late Hellenistic and early Roman imperial periods the Jewish-Christian dialogue took on its own character and sometimes, unfortunately, in quite unpleasant ways for both groups at least rhetorically if not concretely.

Problems of Historical Investigation

Despite the issues involving this interaction, whether from the medieval or modern eras, a caution faces the reader who eagerly desires to smell the odor of controversy. The period under review is neither medieval nor modern and is not one under psychological scrutiny (though the latter would make for much interesting subjective ideas). Instead, sticking to the time period is essential without trying to read back into it developments which never occurred but in the imagination of a modern writer.

Too much literature written on the subject tends to the sensational and one suspects that this is done more to sell books than to demonstrate sound ideas. Book-selling is a tough field wherein most books do not make a profit so the tactic is understandable. As bad as this situation may be in the capitalist climate in the non-academic world, there has been infiltration of this approach among academics as well. So while one may indeed charge an Orthodox Christian with an anachronistic reading of early Christian history surely the Orthodox Christian may return the charge against many other writers of various persuasions.

Most unfortunate is the lack of falsifiability; i.e., much of what we infer from sources is not a falsifiable scientific endeavor. Thus, perusing through sources for historical writing demands even more self-criticism and care on the part of the author. Let it be stated that this endeavor will not only be rigorous but also charitable to the sources at hand as this writer will strive to avoid besserwissen, that today one "knows better" than our predecessors. Unless it can be shown with reasonable abduction that it is otherwise the case he will give way to the ancient sources.

Can he also investigate the topic without engaging the popular indulgence for marking parallels as necessary indicators of a causal relationship? This is as much as a challenge as it is to discern the substantial contribution such "parallels" may make to understanding the history of the Jewish-Christian relationship of this period. For example, to note that Jesus was Jewish and taught in ways similar to teachers of his day is one thing, to claim that Jesus was the same as other rabbis is quite another. And it is not for the sake of piety that one states this, but more for the sake of accuracy. For to mark Jesus as another AD first century rabbi is to ignore the amount of the Gospel tradition that reports his teaching as more otherwordly than the Jewish community would have liked it. Meier's title of his work about Jesus, A Marginal Jew, is very important to comprehending his points.

So it is in this discussion. That the first Christians were Jews is undeniable, that some of them were Gentile proselytes is also secure. And yet the direction the Jerusalem Christians took was not that of Hillel and Shammai but one leading from a conviction that the ultimate authority in Judaism--the Messiah of Israel--had taught them.

The Categories of Investigation

The following categories are not proposed to be an exhaustive list, but is a foundational one which will help any reader comprehend the results of the early Jewish-Christian dialogue within what is now the Orthodox Church. It is likely that this also would benefit an understanding of the Catholic Church. To the degree that Protestant and independent churches relate to this early Christian history would be the mark of whether such Christians would gain much comprehension of their current church practices by reading it. For instance, a Lutheran would gain most from it whereas less so for an independent Christian whose leadership eschews Christian development throughout the centuries and ultimately rejects it.

Herewith the categories:

Prologue: The Dialogue of Judaism and Hellenism

I. Art and Architecture

II. Ecclesiology

III. Ethics

Interestingly, Jewish readers may obtain as much comprehension of their own special synagogal history although on the surface it may seem that this would not be so. But since the Jewish community was the "other half" of this dialogue one can affirm from the outset that it must necessarily be the case, that significant information about Jewish ideas will be presented is just as serious an exploration as those of the Christians.

The Dialogue of Judaism and Hellenism

In order to comprehend the Jewish-Christian dialogue in this era one must first gain a clearer picture of the Judaism practiced at hand. This can only be done in a summary manner here and all readers are encouraged to search a library to discover more at their leisure.

Much alike to their Israelite ancestors the Jewish people used what they could of the surrounding cultures in appropriate fashion while maintaining their distinctive identity. Just as the Hebrew Bible shows a Gentile impression on nearly every page, so does the Hellenistic culture stamp itself onto the Jewish culture. Not only so in the employment of the Greek language but also in many ways the imitation through ritual or politics offers correction to a view of an isolated community.

It was not for nothing that there were those who withdrew to the caves of the Dead Sea away from the urban centers. Albeit there were those members who may well have kept ties to both their families and to their vocations, the Qumranic literature presents, in the main, an intensive society (what in the past would be denoted as a "sect") within the larger religious population. Their contention against the priesthood, the calendar, and the perceived softening of the rigors of the religion are well known. The "Sons of Belial" may just as well designate any Jewish population outside the intensive group of Qumran. Thus, the beginnings of Jewish sectarian conflict in this period.

But what would possibly stir up such sentiment?

For instance, although several Jewish writers as Aristeas had claimed inspiration for the Greek rendering of Old Testament books, by the AD first century such enthusiasm began to wane. The more the authorities of the day oppressed them, the more Jewish reaction tended to conservatism. And yet the Hellenistic influence could not be denied.

Judea was right at the crossroads not only of an East-West trade but also of military exploits. Further, migration of the Jewish people throughout the Mediterranean sometimes diffused the religious observances. The best example of this is the Jewish temple at Elephantine wherein performing animal sacrifices (contrary to Deuteronomic law) in the name of alien deities for monotheistic worship was the practice.

The Jews at Alexandria began to translate various books (most likely the Pentateuch) into Greek for their own reading. Accepted by the community, it may have served Jewish thinkers well in their own apologetic dialogue with pagan intellectuals. Besides, proselytizing was hardly an unknown activity among the Jewish people as Matthew 23:15 attests. Even later Jewish writing of the period under review commends bringing one in "under the wings of the shekinah."

But even in Judea itself young priests neglected their duties so as to be able to participate--in the nude--at the gymnasium at Jerusalem. That some underwent the assuredly painful surgery of epispasm, the removal of the marks of circumcision, demonstrates just how serious they felt about this transition. Feeling gain in the advantage of opportunity was more than enough incentive for one to succeed in the society at large.

Further, an appeal to the foreign power to decide cases--whether it was to Antiochus IV Epiphanes deliberating about the office of the High Priest or the Roman procurator Cumanus of Antioch concerning tensions with the Samaritans--was probably distasteful to many Jewish people. And yet, to take one example, the Maccabean revolt ended in irony--it resulted in a Hellenistic dynasty (i.e., the Hasmoneans) and the city of Jerusalem as a polis long after the "superpowers" of the Seleucids and Ptolemies had superseded the ideal of the city-state as a foundational political entity.

Another episode involving a Gentile ruler that is more pleasant is that of the Jews and Julius Caesar. Reaffirming Jewish leadership over Judea and Samaritan territory, he permitted them to regulate their own religious disputations as well as to collect funds for religious practices. Not surprisingly, he kept in place various tribute-taxes. Nonetheless, his establishment of Judea as a kingdom under tribute to Rome rather than as a province meant that Rome required no military assistance or quarters. Upon the assassination of Caesar, even in the pagan literature writers noted the extent of Jewish mourning.

Concerning the Qumran communities, they show an interesting parallel to other utopian ideals. Iambulus' Islands of the Sun (c. 165 BC) described a society of isolation from the world, no private property, no marriage (though women were had in common), children raised as a part of the community family, uniform dress, no temple, and the desire for homonoia, "unity." The Pergamum revolt of 133 BC may also have been a catalyst, an uprising of the king Eumenes III Aristonicus against Rome became a conflict also between the country folk and the urbanites. A seemingly idealistic revolt promising freedom would surely not have been lost on disenchanted Jewish people.

The later Roman action stamping out two Jewish revolts in AD 70 and 135 sobered the Jewish people but did little to damage them insofar as their religious or intellectual vigor. One finds a lively Jewish community in most cities with synagogues that were richly adorned if not also impressive in their architecture. Right on through to the end of the history of this investigation one finds a rich literature that addresses similar problems of current philosophy.

So by the time of the AD first century, Jewish literature in Greek was hardly uncommon. That the majority of Jewish inscriptions in the Roman catacombs were Greek, that Judean synagogues had names in Greek, that Jewish persons in the later works of the Talmud had Greek names; none of this is a surprise. The example of Philo of Alexandria, sometimes thought to be an extreme one, portrays a Jewish thinker who was both observant in his Judaism as well as conversant with Hellenistic philosophical idioms. Besides the well known Philo or Josephus, tracking down the Jewish literature of this time on the theme of Moses alone yields the following Jewish authors who wrote in Greek or with Hellenistic attitudes: Aristobolus, Artapanus, Eupolemus, Ezekiel the Tragedian, and Orphica. Hence, for the both the Judean and Diaspora Jew, Aramaic was important, Hebrew was the sacred language, but Greek was the lingua franca for Mediterranean urban intellectual Jews as much as it was for Mediterranean urban intellectual Gentiles. And reading the scripture in Greek, praying in Greek; these were Jewish activities before they were Christian ones.

Language, then, was not an impediment to Jewish understanding of the world through Hellenistic eyes. All the more so does one find Hellenism within religious ritual a similar approach. For instance, gilding the horns of a sacrifical animal may appear to be pagan in its source to the proverbial man from Mars although it was circumvented by noting it as the adornment of a commandment. Further, a question as to whether the Amidah was a civic prayer for Jerusalem just as the Greeks prayed for their cities is worthy of exploration. But the most fascinating example of Hellenistic custom in Jewish religious ritual is that of the Passover seder.

The Pesach seder or Passover meal had, and has, many practices that one does not find so readily in Scripture of any canon. One must first note that many items of the Israelite and Jewish religion were provided and handed down through a robust teaching tradition (e.g., how to tie the tzitzit or "fringes" of Numbers 15). The veracity of oral tradition in Judaism as well as in other traditions has more merit than most moderns will allow. Nonetheless, more than one curious similarity among a few Passover meal traditions are simply not found in the Ancient Near East records but are so among the Hellenistic banquet symposiums.

Following customs current among their Gentile contemporaries at the Hellenistic symposium, the seder follows the order of these banquets along with the various customs. Nonetheless, not only the outline of the meal but also particulars as well follow. Reclining at times throughout the meal is well known. The recounting of the plagues with the dropping out of the wine on a plate is alike to the tossing of wine into a center bowl of the Hellenistic banquet. Even the use of wine, not required according to the Exodus account, does not occur in the known literature until the Book of Jubilees, chapter 49, which book is usually dated to the second century BC when the Jewish community was in the thick of the late Hellenistic world.

Additionally, questions and discussions about the menu itself, in the philosophical manner, were a part of the symposium ritual. But the earliest Jewish reference to the afikoman (Mishnaic tractate Pesahim 10.8) noted that one should not conclude the celebratory meal with it. Why so?

While later tradition took this to mean quite the opposite, the context of the Hellenistic symposium afikoman shows why it was rejected by the earlier Jewish communities. The afikoman or "dessert" of the banquet was a time for carousing and drunkenness. That it was later introduced into the seder, and even used by some Christians in modern times as a "proof" of messianic significance about Jesus, only becomes an intellectual and historical twist. For the Jewish community, it remains as a sanitized vestigial custom from another era.

Significant particulars differ between the Hellenistic banquet and the Jewish Passover meal, of course. For one, the latter was a family meal in celebration of the Exodus story and the liberation from Egypt. The specific selection over time by which the Jewish community allowed and rejected certain symposium customs demonstrated that the surrounding culture had not dulled their theistic sensitivity.

Despite the assimilation of many Hellenistic features into the Jewish community, the Gentile reaction to Jews and Judaism ranged from admiration to antipathy. Some writers categorized them as "atheists," others attacked the very origins of the religion, still others found the notion of an invisible deity who demanded a rest from work to be most unusual.

Other pagan writers, however, admired the Jewish community. The antiquity of the Jewish people could not be gainsaid and respect was paid to them for this characteristic alone. Moses was, indeed, a sophon or "wise man"; a law-giver who had heroic proportions in the eyes of Gentile thinkers. Further, the dispersion of the Jewish population did not seem to upset a fundamental unity among them as a people. And Gentile intellectuals agreed with the Jewish approach that veneration or deification of creatures was detestable.

Thus, Judaism was one of many Hellenistic religions of its day. But it was not just any Hellenistic religion and for Christians prepared a way inasmuch as a theistic religious community could make headway into the prevailing pagan culture.

I. Art and Architecture

Although some laypersons have the notion that Christians could not have their own separate facilities for worship before the Edict of Milan (AD 313/314), occasionally governors would allow Christians to maintain both a church and a cemetery. Permission was intermittent, however, hence many Christians prudently found protection in a private house; i.e., security was preferable given the possibility of persecution.

The "house church" of Dura-Europos (in what is now Syria), an AD third century structure pre-dating the Edict, offers a clue as to its art and structure since it is within walking distance of a Jewish synagogue on the same street and of the same date. Of course, this "church" had its own particulars formed by specific Christian needs (e.g., a baptistry or a martyr's tomb). Although in other churches the bishop's seat might just as well connect the practice of this seat to “Moses’ seat” or to the elders benches in the synagogues (with an apse, no less) of which there is hard evidence archaeologically.

Whether these Christians were deliberately copying the Jewish forms is likely not so much the question here as they had little to work with in terms of resources and capability. The Jewish community was lively and resourceful if one may infer this from both the architecture and the art of both buildings at Dura-Europos and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the desire to use artistic expression is not only an extension of the so-called "catacomb art" but also that of using Jewish examples for sacred stories. Both Jewish and Christian figures in these paintings have a debt to pagan styles as well; in terms of content and perhaps solemnity, one may see the unique presentation in the synagogue and in the church.

Little doubt remains on the rise of church-building after the Edict of Milan. Constantine himself engaged in this activity and promoted the building of churches throughout the empire, generally in the basilica form.

As to the basilica style of most Western churches Constantine built, one asks: what else? One discovers that many, if not most, Jewish synagogues of the day were a basilica. Varieties of synagogues either adapted the basilica or took another form too. The basilica was used for housing as well; a “hall,” as we might say today.

Constantine had other types built (octagonal in Antioch), and so it was in the East that the cruciform church was predominant. One remembers that cultures and religions influence each other. He had a pagan temple torn down so a Christian church could be built over the holy tomb. Thus, while the Christian use of the basilica or "great hall" was a popular one in the Western Empire for Jewish, Christian, pagan, and secular structures it was in the Eastern Empire where the Christian church took on its special form.

Although some authors point to the Jewish influence upon the Christian adoption of the basilica form, the varied Christian building in the East and the ubiquitous, if not overwhelming, influence of secular architecture muddle this conclusion. Possibly, however, the Jewish employment of such plans marked a direction for Christians. At this point there appears to be no strong, external vestiges of special Jewish influence, though the internal working of the church may have similarities to that of the synagogue which now will be reviewed.

Moses' Seat

First, the aforementioned "Moses' Seat" in the synagogue; the obvious association that a Christian may make with this is the seat of the bishop in a church. The temptation to make this parallel is lessened, however, when one realizes that the model of Roman government may have been in the background of both synagogue and church. Nonetheless, while the function of the synagogue varied from that of the church the need for placement of a position of authority has religious roots as much as political.

But in reviewing the "religious roots" it is unknown whether they are Israelite, pagan, or Christian. Nothing alike to this is found described in the Old Testament. That is, to date the best of archaeological evidence indicates more that it was a Jewish adoption of a pagan practice and possibly a Christian one. The earliest account of "Moses' seat" is found in the New Testament (Matthew 23) and whether this was a literal or metaphorical description of authority provides fodder for perennial debate. Hence, the question becomes not whether Christians derived the "bishop chair" from the synagogue but whether both synagogue and church communities appropriated the notion from pagan buildings.

The question concerning the function of the synagogue "seat" divides into two: was it for the placement of the Torah scroll or was it for a person? And if for a person, was it for the president, the teacher, or for a guest? Perhaps the "seat" was employed for all of these purposes depending upon the stage of the liturgy. For the relevance here, however, none of this appears to have made an impact on the use of the bishop seat in the church except that it was a place of honor. Specifically, the Christian employment was a depiction of the ideal unity of the church in the bishop.

Apparently the connection between this feature of a church in Antiquity and that of the current Orthodox or Catholic practice is more direct than other architectural features from the past. That the bishop had supreme importance in the earliest churches there is no serious scholarly controversy; the question, today, is one of the degree of that significance. For Orthodox and Catholic dialogue, of course, the other aspect is that of judicial aspirations. But in terms of "Moses' seat" one may conclude that the unity that the synagogal community saw and today sees in Mosheh Rabbenu ("Moses our teacher") so the Orthodox churches see in its overseer, the bishop (Episkopos).


Previous to the twentieth century, popularly maintained was the approach that the early Jewish community eschewed religious artwork and particularly in the synagogue. Among scholars it was commonplace to think either of the Israelites or of the Jewish community as iconoclasts. Were it not for the Hebrew scripture that tells us otherwise concerning Israelite artistic depictions in the tabernacle and temple, in addition to Josephus' descriptions, one would need concede to this puritanical view of early Jewish or Christian practice. Although this is hardly the case another question would remain as to the Jewish representation of the human figure.

As the 1932 archaeology team of Clark Hopkins removed millennia-old patina from the walls of the Dura-Europos synagogue (AD third century), so was the popular belief removed. The use of not only representational art in the synagogue, but also that of especially the human figure, demolished once-and-for-all the opinion about the early Jewish community and art. That other such examples have been found only affirmed the point that the Jewish people in Antiquity expressed their beliefs through representational art.

One wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue is forty-feet long and covered from top to bottom with various scenes from the Bible. Abraham, Moses, pictures of the Exodus, illustrations of the book of Esther, pictures of the temple and temple instruments--all of these are shown in bold lines and color. Even more significant is the metaphorical representation of divinity by a hand seen in some of the pictures. The divine power shown as present through this biblical idiom of the "hand of the Lord"(yad yhwh) is not so odd in the literature as it might seem in visual artwork. Incongruent though it may seem to some, one suspects that it looks stranger to those unfamiliar with the conception of synagogal artwork.

In any case, Dura-Europos is not the only example. Earlier synagogues such as the AD first century Galilee structure with much ornamentation and designs portrays an artistically-sensitive community employing visual effects for the engagement of the religious person. Carved animals (e.g., lions), temple objects (e.g., menorah), and vegetation (e.g., grapes, figs) supplement the usual decorative acanthus leaves and hexagram (i.e., the magen David). The friezes offer relief illustrations of the temple furniture (e.g., the menorah).

That other synagogues as those of the AD fifth century Bet Alpha in Galilee are decorated with mosaics of pagan motifs (e.g., a zodiac) should not be as surprising as that early Christian art in churches or in burial places lacks some of these specific themes. While the early depiction of Christ in the catacombs is more pagan than Jewish the usual pagan motives do not appear quite as blithely or blatantly in Christian communal locations as they do in the Jewish synagogues of the same period. Here one may cautiously conclude that the Jewish community was, perhaps, simply more comfortable in its environment whereas the Christians of this period were always "outsiders," rejecting the culture of its oppressors.

So it is that few are the people today who debate the issue of the Jewish use of artistic devices, but the next question is how much influence this tradition had upon early Christians. Did Jewish art influence Christian artists? Probably so. But one might say that any powerful visual effect, Jewish or pagan, affected Christian style.

Here we encounter an imposing challenge as to how to qualify exactly what is meant by some authors regarding the "higher" or "loftier spirituality" of early Jewish art in contrast to the that of pagan work. After all, one first needs to look at pagan art. Is there not a "higher" or "lofty" spirituality in some of the finest pagan portraits? Anyone who has viewed the Demosthenes of the third century BC or the Dying Gaul of the same period or even the first century BC Laocoon cannot but help have sympathy for the subjects. Here are figures with personalities! Whichever view the reader holds, let it be noted that this writer does not want to go too far in order to prove a point that lacks hard evidence. As in all discussions of the arts, this topic lacks the precise kind of falsifiability criteria that causes one to look on enviably at colleagues in the sciences who can utilize it in their work.

Instead, one might better begin with the Jewish art itself. How many times one hears the remark, after showing someone early Jewish figurative representations, how much these are alike to Christian art. Certainly pagan painting and sculpture offered art of the highest caliber (if such may be said of the arts), but beyond technicalities one does not stray far into speculation to think that Christian art inherited its religious approach more from its Jewish than from its pagan backgrounds. There is no need to think this is more "lofty" as compared to "lowly" pagan art which comprehension in itself is a silly comparison; one thinks of such evaluations made of Rembrandt with a "low score" in comparison with other artists popular in his day.

What is only declared here is that Jewish and Christian art are a continuum of two communities having a theistic view of the world. Each community taught that there was a personal deity who had scruples and acted in history. Granted, the Christian view intensified decidedly in the belief that divinity has come in the flesh. And this extraordinary doctrine supported the perspective that as one may see the deity, one may represent the person.

This theistic approach concerned a deity who did care about human behavior in terms of divine standards while offering compassion and mercy. One is tempted to say that Jewish and Christian art had less sensuality and this is concretely demonstrated by those religious conventions against what was thought to be immoral (e.g., nudity). Nevertheless, both communities had in common the stories of the Old Testament and though each read them in dissimilar contexts the theism of both came through in their artistic expression. That the Christian wing of Western theism carried on the religious figurative tradition in contrast to mosaics or Islam does not obscure the evidence for not only a theological reason (i.e., the incarnation) but also a cultural, environmental one which included both paganism and Judaism.

How did Christian art, then, manifest itself among this small and persecuted community in the Empire? Our first examples of Christian art are from what have been called the "Catacombs." These underground burial places of Christians followed Jewish practice and it is unknown to date as to precisely why it was so. Was it due to persecution? This is doubtful. Once Judea was subdued Rome did allow many rights to the Jewish people and upon the assassination of Julius Caesar there was mourning in synagogues. Certainly many people did not like or even the trust the Jewish community who were seen as atheists (atheoi) because most Jews would not participate in local pagan festivals. And if the much later Mishnaic tractate Avodah Zarah indicates any of the social reality of Antiquity, the Jewish community kept aloof from Gentiles.

Nonetheless, one may suppose reasonably that the Jewish people brought their practice of burial with them to Rome and elsewhere. Burial in underground caves or tombs dug out for the purpose was the convention in Judea and so it was that in Antiquity where there was a Jewish community, so there were cemeteries or catacombs, rejecting the pagan practice of cremation.

And so we do have the Jewish catacomb in Rome and their artwork as evidence of a practice pre-dating the rise of Christianity. That much of the writing is in Greek rather than Latin or Aramaic only shows the common tongue of every Mediterranean center of the day. But the artwork itself portrays Jewish symbols, most notably the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah). Other items painted are the etrog (citrus fruit for the festival of tabernacles), the Torah scroll, and various plants as decoration.

Christian artists in the various catacombs of the Empire followed suit, if only deviating from the Jewish model by way of content as well as by the level of technical ability. Early Christian attempts are decorative, derivative, and not as yet on the level of pagan or Jewish art. Still, even the sketchiness of the Virgin with Child from the late AD second or early third century is enough to stir one's imagination. In many of these early paintings the composition is not quite as organized as one might hope, but neither are they in hopeless disarray.

Later Christian artwork of this period, however, in painting and mosaics are as deliberately designed and delightful as are any other two-dimensional works of the time. Abstract shapes, flora, fauna, and figures all combine with lively color to capture the attention of the viewer. As to the Christ depictions, one notices that the early Christ figures are beardless, reflecting the cultural backgrounds of most of these Christians. Eventually, by the end of this period, the Christian artists portray him with a beard, a convention that has held throughout the centuries. Whether the portrayal of a bearded Christ is due to a Christian reading of Jesus as following the Jewish custom is unknown, but it most assuredly would make it a more accurate rendering.

Long after St. Paul and up til at least the fourth century, church planting followed the synagogue throughout the Mediterranean. Philo-Semitism of the Christian layfolk caused many to cross lines frowned upon by both Church presbyters and Jewish rabbis. Nonetheless, while the art of the pagan world surely influenced the Christian artist it would be reasonable to presume the art of the synagogue provided an example as well.

II. Ecclesiology

Church Offices

A diverse number of Jewish structures of elders appear, at first glance, to be the prototypes of the church offices. An attractive notion, this point has become debatable in recent scholarship.

A usual perspective is that those as St. Paul and others simply copied what they knew best from either the Sanhedrin or from the synagogue hierarchy of elders with the prominent member known respected as a "master" or "teacher," i.e., a rabbi. The challenges to this view are at least fourfold.

First, the use of elders is similar throughout several, if not all, cultures. For instance, the Latin noun senatus ("senate") means, quite simply, "old man" or "elder." That the Israelites also had elders is no more, though no less, interesting than that other ancient Near East societies had them as well. And that this continued down to the time of our period under discussion is no more a Jewish characteristic than it is a Gentile one.

Next, if one attempted to draw strict parallels between the functions of the synagogue elders and those of the Christians, the attempt will end in a failure to do so. Other lesser known synagogue titles for Levitical priests or nobles are lacking entirely in the Christian ecclesiology.

Instead, in the Christian churches not only do we find the "elders" but some of these elders are also episkopoi, "bishops." Others Christian workers are servants or deacons, diakonoi. Neither of these terms or their particular roles are found quite exactly within the Jewish religious institutions.

Thirdly, the move to draw parallels between the mebaqqer, "overseer," of the Dead Sea community and the Christian bishop, episkopos, are no more successful. Granted, the pastoral, judicial, and teaching roles of the Jewish overseer and that of the Christian bishop tempt one to state that here is discovered a Jewish foundation for the Christian bishop.

Distinctions remain, however, that separate the Christian employment of the term from that of the Jewish operation of the office. A Qumran community would have just one such overseer, a Christian church may have many. The Jewish leader was celibate whereas the early Christian bishops were married. A mebaqqer handled financial and property matters, in the church the deacons carried out this function.

Lastly, the use of the Sanhedrin as a source does not hold up as is sometimes claimed. The functions of the Sanhedrin were strictly judicial and while this role can be one of a pastoral office, it does not fit well with the role of the early Christian presbyter whose duties included also a pastoral and a priestly role.

Thus, while both the Jewish and the Christian communities shared the term of "elder" it is wrong, from what is now recognized, to see the Jewish institutions as a model for Christians. At best, one can claim that the pastoral role of the elders in both communities may be a new function in religion; religious leaders not only providing a link between the people and the divinity but also caring for the plight of their people in the world. Such an agreement may be more due to the common theism of the two religions than it is to a causal, or even mutual, relationship between them.

Nonetheless, a search for a Jewish use of episkopos which influenced Christians is not so unpromising. The new community of Christians spread throughout the urban centers of the Empire used Greek and so it was that they used the Greek translations of the Old Testament. Utilizing a term they found often in the Greek Bible (albeit a term designating various tasks), by the second century Clement of Rome and Irenaeus affirmed its place in sacred history through a passage as Isaiah 60, distinguishing the word from the use of pagan government and religion.

Today the Orthodox form of "bishop-priest-deacon" holds to this early understanding given that the bishops and the priests ("priest" a derivative of "presbyter") are the elders of the church. And, as remarked in the section on "Moses' Seat," it is the central unity of the church seen in the bishop; perhaps as much as the synagogue community today sees its unity in Moses.

The Function of the Church: A Christian Synagogue?

This section may be more difficult by contrast with that concerning "offices." After all, the Orthodox reader may forget that other Christians do not view the church, and likely not the Orthodox church, as the visible, present manifestation of divine grace in the world. Naturally, one is tempted to arrange a sorites of arguments with demonstrative interlinking chain of "proofs" that this is the case with a triumphalistic Orthodoxy in view. Instead, the intention here is to offer the terms and idioms concerning the Christian community and deliberate whether the Jewish synagogue helped to shape these ideas.

Hence, rather than beginning with the synagogue and then moving on to a comparison with the Christian church, it is fitting to start with just how the early Christians comprehended their churches. First, the terms will be explored in brief and then followed as to the comparisons and contrasts with the Jewish understanding of the synagogue purpose.

Ekklesia is the term most often used from time of the New Testament onward. A popular comprehension is that its compound form best expresses a theological purpose (Greek ek + kaleo) of those who are "called out"; i.e., those called out from the nations of the world to be the people of Christ.

But this is doubtful. Ekklesia had the more mundane meaning of "assembly" and even in the Greek translation of the OT it carried no particular religious significance beyond its convenience as the appropriate word for many Hebrew vocables. What gave it a special meaning among Christians is rather a more important phenomenon that captures the attention.

It turns out that ekklesia had at least three distinctive meanings among the early Christians. First, the term expressed those who were meeting together as Christians (Rom. 16:5, 1 Cor. 11:18). Next, it was employed as those Christians who lived in the same region or a more particular location (Matt. 18:17, Acts 8:3, Gal. 1:2). Lastly, it designated the Christian community as the "universal" or "cosmic" assembly, perhaps including the dead as well as the living (Matt. 16:18, Act 9:31, Eph. 1:22).

Each of these offer a purpose of the church; to show the Christians as a distinct group, that they were of a particular regional identity, and that they were inclusive of Jew and Gentile, male and female.

Just as significant an exploration is that of the idioms the NT writers utilized about the church.

"Assembly of the firstborn" (Heb. 12:23; vid. Ex. 4.22)

"Bride of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2, Rev. 22:17; vid. Is. 54)

"Flock of God" (Luke 12:32, John 10:16, 1 Pet. 5:2; vid. Is. 53:6)

"Holy Nation" (1 Pet. 2:9 [Gal. 6:16?])

"Royal Priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:9; vid. Gen. 12:3, Ex. 19:6)

"Temple of God" (1 Cor. 3:16, 1 Pet. 2:5)

"Vine" (John 15)

Nearly every one of these idioms has a direct precedent in the Hebrew Bible; those that do not certainly have parallel imagery to an Old Testament institution or theological convention. The early Christians drew upon the OT as a foundational literature and it is no wonder that the same idioms found their place in the new group. This was not much different, insofar as the use of the OT was foundational, from that role in the synagogue.

Apostolic Fathers as Clement of Rome used several metaphors for the Church as demonstrated in a section of 2 Clement 14. He described it as "the first Church" (ek tes ekklesias tes protes), the "spiritual one, created before the sun and the moon." Further, he calls it the "church of life" that is also the "body of Christ," a body which is the female as Christ is the male. It is not for now, the present, but has existed since the beginning (anothen).

So the Christian literature reports of both an immanent and transcendent view of the Christian community. The Church is not only at work in the world but has a supernatural reality as well. Operating often in an hostile environment, the members endure for the mission of the divine body, the Christian community.

What, then, were the precise similarities and differences in the purpose of the Church and that of the synagogue?

The synagogue rose to significance after the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. Upon return, the institution was not to give way to the Temple ritual but instead was a supplement to it. The synagogue, a place of religious gathering, was not so much a ritual cult as it was a place of reading and exhortation. Squarely in the Ancient Near East tradition of teaching wisdom, the syngagogue was a place to discuss not only the meaning of the Pentateuch but also its application. And such applications, as seen in the scripture itself (e.g., Proverbs), was often as secularly clever in its application as it was religious. Of course, one makes this dichotomy with a modern perspective but it should not be thought that it was determined as such in the past. And so it was that in this way the pagan writers saw the Jewish people of the Hellenistic era as another school of thought as much as it was a national religion.

As noted above, the interior of the synagogue was often that of the Roman basilica or "great hall." The various functions of the Jewish synagogue were several and ran the gamut from civic to religious activities. One such civic function was the freeing of a slave, the manumission procedure. And naturally education took place within, though surely it was not a secular education as we might think of it today. Of course, the same kind of attention given to memorizing, and apologizing for, the works of Homer among the Gentile students was the same kind of tasks designated for the synagogue student but concerning the sacred books of the Jewish community. Perhaps in one sense it was "secular" insofar as the acculturation of Jewish children to their own religion and religious perspective was consequential for them to recognize their place of the Jewish people in the Hellenistic culture; i.e., it gave them a way to grasp the world.

But the religious activities were most important to be sure. The far-flung Jewish communities throughout the ancient world needed a center and the synagogue institutions provided one for them. Even in Judea, albeit with a streamlined service that centered on devotion to reading of the Torah, the synagogue remained as a standard of Jewish religious life. Elsewhere, it was not unusual for the synagogal community to expand its prayers; one might say that it may well have been intended as a substitute for the acts of the Temple cult.

While there have been contenders for the "house synagogue" such evidence is not overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, what one finds is that in this era hundreds of synagogues within and without Judea were built(except for perhaps the immediate generations following the Bar-Kokba rellion). The synagogue was, after all, a community affair, the building was the physical plant within which people could pray, read, and learn. Judgements on civic and financial matters took place and affirmed the synagogue as the center of the community, particularly outside Judea.

In regards to the popular view that the synagogue suppressed a female role it is clear that both male and female members participated, the latter inasmuch as females were permitted locally. The evidence indicates that early on the community tradition allowed a more energetic female presence in the synagogue including the recitation of blessings, prayers, and reading from the scroll. Though apparently this role decreased to the point that by the end of the fifth century it would have been unthinkable for such to occur in a synagogue until modern times. Nonetheless, the seating of male with female was the norm and not the exception in the synagogue of the Hellenistic era, countering the trend of male and female division in both pagan associations and Christian churches.

The synagogue, then, was not only a religious center but also a national center. One may look about today in US cities and see that the local Hindu or Islamic center functions not only as a transmitter of religious ideals but also offers national or ethnic examples to its population. Reminders of the "old ways" are not only religious but may be integrated with the political, national, or ethnic strains of the people. And so it was with the ancient synagogue or the modern synagogue or "Jewish Center"; not only the religious activity but also the mundane affairs take place within.

The Christian church, on the other hand, was not quite the same in its function. Granted, one may argue that certainly there were parallels between the church and the synagogue--what else did they have to use? And naturally the prayer offerings in the synagogue paralleled the offerings in the Temple cult ritual. But several items show how different as well as similar were the functions of the Christian church, whether a "house church" or a dedicated structure for that task. One can approach this particular subject through the archaeological and literary evidence of the early Christians and see if it is possible to bring both to help construct some kind of picture.

As an illicit religion, a group without national underpinnings to make it legitimate to Roman rule and, thus, protected under law, Christianity functioned as one more Oriental religious group. Additionally, one takes care to recall the confusion of pagan writers attempting to comprehend Christianity as another Jewish group. Concretely, however, it was not seen as such during times of persecution. Because of such attacks the Christians found it wise early on to prefer the confines of a private home rather than build separately as some governors permitted. Nonetheless, such gatherings hardly resembled what would be considered today as an informal meeting of friends chatting about their faith.

Unlike the synagogue, the Christians held their gatherings not only as a time of worship but also for ceremonial reasons. And what ceremony had more meaning to the Christians than the eucharist? The eucharist was practiced not so much as merely a memorial or agape meal but as much perceived as the divine strength given through Christ to his body, his people. Debate continues among Catholic and Protestant thinkers as to the meaning of the eucharist in the apostolic and apologetic literature. And yet, one finds a comprehension that goes beyond what would be professed of the eucharist by the reformers of the 16th century.

Without extending this section of the article (which needs be taken up in a section on Theology), it is sufficient to say that as the Jewish pious had both the Temple and the synagogue, the Christian had them in the body of Christ; i.e., the Church. Certainly, then, it would be as wrong to say that the local church was either a "Christian synagogue" or a "Christian temple"; the ancient people in Christ saw themselves as both an assembled body and a temple of Christ.

This body had a stratification according to membership from the catechumenate to the fully-communing, and yet all were "one in Christ." As a temple, this leveling made sense in light of the eucharist. After all, the mysterion, the eucharist of Christ, could not be given to anyone but only to a repentant convert who recognized the power of the resurrected Christ. From the earliest times as recorded in St. Paul, the Apostolic Fathers, and in the early Apologists a work of worship--a liturgy--was the course of the meeting.

Early Christians celebrated two meals, the agape meal of the risen Christ (i.e., “Lord’s Supper”) and the eucharist of Jesus (i.e., “Last Supper”). Both gave meaning as defining the Christians as the body of Christ. The agape was a celebration of the divine spirit of Christians through the resurrected Christ, the eucharist was the more solemn occasion of the death of Christ before which one was to consider their own standing within the body and before God.

The strains of the agape meal or the “Lord’s supper” and the eucharist combined by the mid-second century into one full ceremonial meal, simply called the eucharist. And surrounding that meal were the attendant ritual celebrated so as to insure the propriety, an issue that arose at least by the mid-first century as reflected in the Pauline correspondence with the Corinthian churches.

Hence, the Christian worship divided according to its body and to its work. The first part was the liturgy of the catechumenate involving the reading of the scripture with a sermon, the second part was the liturgy of the faithful and the giving of the eucharist. The dismissal of the catechumens after the first division holds to this day in Orthodoxy and is a vestige of the ancient liturgy. This is the division which is more alike to that of the synagogue worship. Profession of faith, reading of Scripture, a homily of encouragement; each of these finds its place of origin in the synagogue.

Nonetheless, the liturgy of the faithful finds it necessary for the attendance of the bishop, the symbol of church unity. Of course, the Pauline emphasis on either the "one loaf" or on the "one cup" indicates a Christian unity in the people themselves. Also, it would be a mistake to think that the importance of the bishop excludes the members; indeed, all are a royal priesthood. Still, the celebratory nature of the eucharist does not diminish its importance as a "sacrament"; i.e., the mysterion.

The function of the local church is that while there may well have been parallel activity to the synagogue, ultimately the eucharistic ritual divided the church from synagogue activity. Certainly there was a way for the synagogue to appropriate a temple-like status in light of the Solomon speech about prayer (1 Kings 8) and its practice (Daniel 6), and after the destruction of the second Temple the synagogue increased in importance. But the local church operated not only as a community gathering but also as a place where it was believed the union of heaven and earth took place through the body of Christ in the unity of the eucharist.

III. Ethics

The ethical program of the Second Temple Jewish community was tied into their Israelite heritage but shaped by the Hellenistic environment as well. While much of the Christian ethical approach was certainly "Jewish," there is much that is not.

Jewish Ethics of the Individual

The personal, subjective response was alive and well in this period. Granted, as Jesus' and the Mishnaic criticisms show, there were those who followed a rote way of religious life. In religious practices as elsewhere, that which is supposed to be uncommon soon become common--at least in the experience of the worldly or of the faint-hearted. Considering the usual look at either the ancient Israelites or at the early Jewish communities as presenting a group ethics, prayers as The Prayer of Manasseh and many Psalms demonstrate piety on an individual level.

And there was serious religious devotion taking place through the synagogue and in the administering of the Temple cult. Further, one need remember that the religious enthusiasm as a renewal of what was thought to be the "true" Torah-abiding community found manifestation in the sects which took to the Qumran wilderness.

Indeed, even here there was some discord as individual ideas began to run through these communities. Much has been written about the variance of practices inferred from the writings ranging from complete celibacy to married life, even some members lived in villages and were not maintaining a routine lifestyle entirely at the Qumran outposts. One perceives that while there was a community way to do things, the community needed to allow each person some degree of individuality.

Of course, the Qumran communities themselves were extensions of the Jewish people, what used to be called "sectarian." The flowering of these circles reveal the discontent that people had with the state of religious affairs. It may be the case that these groups drew upon Gentile approaches to community living, but even if so they maintained a distinctive Jewish lifestyle and devoted to their understanding of the Torah. That these groups existed at all points to a creative and individual set of minds within Judea searching for a better way than the institution of priests which were thought to be corrupted.

But what about the early Christians?

Klausner had pointed out in his Jesus of Nazareth that the Judaism of Jesus in some respects is an "exaggerated Judaism." As deeply as Jesus had gone into the ethical obligations based on love for God and others, he appears to have neglected a full program of a national ethics. A criticism that recalls the work of those as Albert Schweitzer in that such writers held that Jesus was preparing a community that saw impending doom for the world. Hence, there was no need for a national ethical program for a state of Israel or even for an institution as the Christian church.

This does not seem entirely fair to either Jesus or to the early Christians who did assemble in a religious, congregational structure (however today one wishes to understand it). Surely in the Gospels themselves the notion of a group ethics in the idea of a "brother" is important throughout. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke widens this scope (as, indeed, does Luke's Gospel on the whole towards not only women but also to Gentiles). Matthean emphases on church structure and discipline are significant enough to disclose an early reckoning of how things were to be done. Other writings as the Didache, dated anywhere from AD 80 - 120, reveal a program of ethics that is oriented towards a community.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that in regards to loyalty to a national state Christianity offered no such connection. In this sense Christianity was more alike to the so-called "mystery religions" which offered salvation without commitment to a nation. Here one may turn to the Epistle to Diognetus 5 and read how the difference between the Christian and others is that the Christian is tied neither to a region, a language, or a culture, but is a sojourner on the earth. Granted, the Shepherd of Hermas presents the importance of the Church, but the Church itself is not a matter of nationality, language, or culture--regardless of a variety of attempts throughout Christian history to equate it thus. Contrast these ideas to the Jewish ethics wherein individual faith is important, but the individual is always a part of the people of Israel. The prayer in Daniel 9 is illustrative in this respect.

Jewish Ethics of the Community

Both through the synagogue and in the Temple rites, as well as in sectarian devotion, the Jewish people in Judea and throughout the Mediterranean cities were able to continue as both an ethnic and a religious society. Thanks to their antiquity, which many pagans admired, the Jewish people often enjoyed privileges which later groups as Christians could not. The ability to adapt to the Gentile customs and language stood the Jewish people in good stead, their loyalty to their ancient language (at least in worship) and religous ways grounded them in a distinctive religion.

Jewish Ethics of the State

The imitation since the Maccabean period of the Hellenistic polis, an political entity soon on its way out due to the oncoming superiority and domination of regional superpowers, was all that the Judeans had left to them. At the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the attempt of the hellenizing faction to impose the ways of the Gentiles upon the Jewish people met with revolt. The result, however, was ridding themselves of a Hellenistic Judea with a ruler whose patron was Antiochus and building a Hellenistic Judea whose rulers were of the Hasmonean dynasty. In sum, while it is certainly true that the Maccabees restored the old Israelite cult it is also true that they installed themselves as a Hellenistic dynasty.

But it would be anachronistic to think that the Maccabean rebellion was one of the desire for an individual conscience of freedom to govern as they desired. Instead, the rebels saw themselves as nothing less than as participants in the struggle between the divine and the human, wordly power. Such was their cause as they saw it. So it is a challenge here to denote this as an ethics of the "State," as if the State were seen as a separate entity from religious institutions and beliefs.

What can be said in this concern is how the Maccabean conflict also became a civil war. This was a war between a religiously traditional and economically depressed population aligned with the Jewish customs and those who were urbanites of the educated and wealthy classes who wanted Judaism and Jewish culture to align with the standards of the time.

Jewish Religious Ethics

To state that the Jewish religious ethical outlook comprised all three of the above ethical ideas may surprise those of the modern era. In our age it is common for a citizen to have varying ethical goals individually, politically, and religiously. Compounding this complication is the problem of locating one's "community": is it one's religion, one's neighborhood, one's online virtual community?

Of course, none of these questions were a problem for the Jewish people of the Hellenistic era. They did have their own problems with a large, dispersed population outside Judea and the occasional misunderstandings and rhetorical attacks. And among the Jewish people themselves there were many solutions given both political and religious. Still, despite their diversity when more severe situations came upon them they were, admirably, able to handle them. As the Maccabean uprising demonstrated, for instance, they were hardly without recourse to militia-like activity when the need arose. And as Philo's Embassy to Gaius attests, they were not without diplomatic means to try to make good their need to maintain their religious heritage.

But whether these responses came in literary, political, or military form there is one thing about the Jewish people shining through in all these conflicts, and that is the adaptability within their limits to best their adversaries. Whereas some writers, past and present, may see a stubbornness in the Jewish people of this time, can we not see a higher quality of loyalty and devotion? One can say that the religious ethic was primarily an ethic of not just a community but of a people.

Finally, it would be a caricature of either religion to state that Christianity is of the individual and Judaism is of a people, as if either there were no Church or there were no individual Jewish persons. True, out of Christianity came an assortment of individual thinkers on serious subjects, but Judaism had as many lively intellectuals. And while there were bad results of a misguided idealism in the rebellion of Bar-Kokva, there were enough Christian verbal assaults against both Jews and pagans given on behalf of the Church. Also, one may note that as the synagogue became a center for a people without a Temple, so the Church became the hope for Christians who had undergone persecution by both Jews and pagans right up to, and beyond, the Edict of Milan in AD 314.

See also

External Links



The reader will do well to look up the primary texts, many available online, of various Christian and Jewish writers. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the ancient authors but only relevant to the subject at hand.

  • Josephus
  • The Mishnah
  • Philo of Alexandria
  • Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs


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  • Daniel Boyarin. "Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism." Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1998, pp.577-627.
  • William G. Braude, Jewish Proselytizing in the First Five Centuries, 1940.
  • John Bright, A History of Israel, 1981.
  • Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, 1967.
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  • Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 1940.
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  • Roland de Vaux, The Early History of Israel, 1978.
  • Alan Dundes, ed., Sacred Narrative, 1984.
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  • Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971.
  • Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner, eds., Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 1993.
  • Louis H. Feldman, Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, 1996.
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  • Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, 1985.
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  • _______, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 1969.
  • Andre Grabar, The Beginnings of Christian Art, 1967.
  • _______, Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins, 1968.
  • Frederick Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament, 1962.
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  • _______, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2000.
  • Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 1950.
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  • Arnaldo Momigliano, The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, 1962.
  • Eric M. Meyers and James F. Strange, Archaelogy, the Rabbis, and Early Christianity, 1981.
  • Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Origins of Judaism, 1990.
  • Maren Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, 2001.
  • Martin Noth, The History of Israel, 1960.
  • Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1950.
  • James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, 1934.
  • Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 1971.
  • Max Radin, The Jews among the Greeks and Romans, 1916.
  • D. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod, 1967.
  • Samuel Sandmel, "Parallelomania," Two Living Traditions, 1972.
  • Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. G. Vermes and F. Millar, 1973.
  • Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple, 2002.
  • Michael E. Stone, ed., Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, 1984.
  • E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, 1976.
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  • Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, 1982.
  • Clemens Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism, 1980.
  • Arthur Voobus, The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, 1979.
  • Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy, 1989.
  • Ronald Williamson, Jews in the Hellenistic World: Philo, 1989.
  • Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 1983.
  • _______, Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, 1971.
  • David Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria, 1985.
  • _______, The Ancestral Philosophy, 2001.
  • D. J. Wiseman and Edwin Yamauchi, Archaelogy and the Bible, 1979.
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