Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Temple

The Temple on Mount Zion, with its imposing ordinances of worship and its array of hereditary priests, was an institution of much greater antiquity than the Sanhedrin, and was regarded in Roman times by every faithful Jew as the only sanctuary where an acceptable sacrifice could be offered to the God of his fathers. It had its origin at a period when the Hebrew tribes, which had settled in the land of Canaan, were compelled by, the pressure of surrounding peoples to adopt a more centralized form of rule, and to subject themselves to a single head. The creation of a monarchy in the days of Saul and David was intended to tighten the bonds of national unity which had hitherto been comparatively weak. In the early career of humanity unity in religion was the basis of effective national unity, and the erection of the Temple after David's death was designed to strengthen the feeling of religious solidarity among the Israelites. The new edifice rose in stately grandeur on one of the hills of the capital, to serve as a common centre of worship for the whole people and to keep alive the conviction that they were one. But for several centuries after its institution the Temple at Jerusalem had to tolerate the rivalry of the numerous High Places which had existed among the Israelites as places of sacrifice from ancient times.

Still, from the hour of its completion, the Temple continued to grow in influence and importance. The development of religious ideas produced by the prophets tended to depress the old sanctuaries in popular estimation and to exalt the sanctity of the Temple. But in spite of these favouring circumstances, and in spite of Josiah's attempt to abolish the High Places, it was not till the return from Babylon that they completely disappeared, and that the Temple came to be regarded as the sole sanctuary of the Jewish race. Old Israel ceased to exist with the Captivity; it was not a nation, but a religious community which returned to Palestine after the Exile; and the Temple which this community rebuilt, and around the sacred precincts of which it settled, became the only orthodox seat of sacrificial worship, and continued to maintain this position till the final downfall of the Jewish state.

The popularity of the Temple in the first century of the Christian era may be inferred from the immense multitude of Jews which used to flock to it from all parts of the Roman and Parthian Empires. Josephus very probably exaggerates when he says that three millions of people were to be found assembled in Jerusalem on the occasion of certain festivals. It is, however, undoubtedly true that the worshippers who frequented the sanctuary were vast in number, and were not confined to the Jews of Palestine alone. In apostolic times Parthians and Medes and Elamites and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome both Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, were among the multitude who worshipped at the Temple, and whose pious offerings made it one of the richest sanctuaries in the East. Whatever commotions might be disturbing the peace of Judaea, pious bands of pilgrims were always ready to leave their homes for Zion's holy hi1l, and Jerusalem was filled with worshippers when the legions of Titus closed around it. It may be permissible to speak of the synagogue as a rival to the Temple, for the synagogue, as time went on, succeeded more and more in satisfying the religious aspirations of the Jews. But the synagogue was an unconscious rival, and the rabbi who taught in it was as ardent in upholding the necessity for offering sacrifice in the Temple as the priest who ministered at the altar. Not only did the rabbi uphold the privileges of the Temple while it was in existence, but for centuries after its destruction he looked back on. its departed glories with regret, and was firmly persuaded it would be restored again with all its ancient ceremonial at the commencement of the Messianic age.

The worship at the Temple was conducted by a hereditary priesthood, which in the days of Jesus is said to have numbered about twenty thousand men. As it was impossible for such a large body to minister in holy things at the same time, the priesthood was divided into twenty-four families or classes, which were again subdivided into smaller groups, and each of these divisions was presided over by a leading priest who was called the head. All the members of the priesthood were in theory on .a footing of equality, for all of them were equally members of a sacred caste which traced its descent from the family of Aaron. As a matter of fact, however, as much social disparity existed amongst the priesthood as amongst the rest of the community. High above the ordinary priests stood those well-known families from which the high priests as a rule were drawn. As members of the Sanhedrin, and as officials entrusted by the Romans with important civil and judicial functions, these high-priestly families exercised an authority which placed them in a very different position from the ordinary priest, who only emerged from his obscurity on those occasions when he had to minister in the Temple. As is very frequently the case, difference of position created divergence of interest; the high-priestly families and the higher Temple officials sided in the main with the established order of things, and did not scruple to oppress and rob their poorer brethren, when the opportunity presented itself. The inferior ranks of the priesthood were, on the other hand, in sympathy with the popular movement against Rome, for the rapacity of the Temple nobility had so impoverished them that, apart altogether from religious convictions, they had everything to hope and nothing to lose from change.

Although the Jewish priesthood was in its latter days divided upon political questions, it always continued to remain at one as to the conditions which had to be complied with before a new member was admitted within its ranks. Unlike the prophets and the scribes, the priests were a hereditary caste, and the candidate who claimed admission into it had to show that he possessed a genealogy which was above suspicion, and which proved that he belonged to the family of Aaron. When the Sanhedrin was satisfied on this important point, the candidate became a member of the priestly class, and had a right to a share in the temporalities of the priesthood. But before he was permitted to exercise any priestly functions, he had to prove that he was free from certain bodily infirmities which are specified in the Law. If he failed to satisfy this second test, he was, according to the Talmud, clothed in black garments and had to go his way; but, if he was found to be without physical blemish, the ceremony of ordination was proceeded with. This ceremony was of a very elaborate character, and lasted seven days. At the end of this time the new priest was arrayed in white clothing, and went into the sanctuary to assist his brethren in the service.

In the ordinances of worship the priests were assisted by a subordinate class of officials known as the Levites. The Levites were divided into the same number of classes, and possessed an organization similar to the organization of the priests. According to the Sinaitic legislation which was in full force during Roman times, the Levites were not the direct descendants of Aaron, and were not considered as priests. They stood in a kind of servile position to the priesthood, and as the priests were regarded as the servants of Jehovah so the Levites were regarded as the servants of the priests. They were not permitted to officiate at the altar or to enter the inner sanctuary; their duties were of an inferior character, and mainly consisted in slaughtering the animals offered for sacrifice, and in acting as choristers and doorkeepers, and watchers over the fabric of the Temple.

At the head of this great sacerdotal corporation stood the High Priest, the prince of the Temple, who united in his own person the highest civil and ecclesiastical dignities. He was not merely the chief dignitary of the Jewish Church; he was, at the same time, the chief representative of the nation in all its secular affairs. The Herodian family and the procurators had been thrust upon the community by the force of outward circumstances, and possessed no internal relation to the national life. The position of the high priest, on the other hand, was the direct result of the hierocratic form of society which had existed among the Jews since the return from exile, and it was in virtue of his spiritual dignity that he became the head of the people in the secular acceptation of the term. Although no political attributes are ascribed to him in the Law, the position which he occupied as the supreme pontiff of the Jewish Church compelled him to assume them; he was the natural intermediary between the Jews and their foreign masters; he conducted all political affairs which remained in Jewish hands, and the quasi-regal forms which took place at his investiture are a kind of symbol of the authority which he was afterwards to exercise.

In consequence of the multiplicity of secular duties which the high priest had to discharge, it was only occasionally that he took an official part in the services of the Temple. In those services a unique position was assigned to him. He alone was permitted to offer sacrifice whenever he chose, the other priests had to do so only in the order of their course; he alone could enter the Holy of Holies to burn incense on the Day of Atonement, and it was through him alone that on this great day the congregation of Israel came into the immediate presence of Jehovah.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The most important personage connected with the sanctuary after the high priest was the Captain of the Temple, who was responsible for the safety of the sacred edifice as well as for the sums of money and other treasures which it contained. Like many of the heathen temples of antiquity the Temple at Jerusalem was a kind of treasure-house as well as a place of sacrifice. Although it had been plundered on several occasions, it was still considered by the people to enjoy the privilege of inviolability; it was regarded as the securest place for their savings, and the property of the widow and the orphan was often deposited within its walls. In the forecourt a number of safes were kept, into which the money placed under the charge of the Temple authorities was laid, and also the treasure which belonged exclusively to the Temple itself. To assist him in the important duty of protecting the sacred building with all its precious contents, the Captain of the Temple had a body of Levites under his command. All the gateways to the Temple were carefully guarded by these officials both night and day, and during the time the sanctuary was open to the people they had to see that no one defiled it or intruded into those portions which were forbidden them.

In the Roman period the priesthood was a richly endowed class, and derived its revenue from a variety of sources, the chief of which consisted in what was practically a number of imposts on the produce of the soil and the animals bred by the Jewish husbandman. The first-fruits of the ground were in all cases the property of the priests, they had also a claim on all the choicest products of the harvest, and although the quantity required was not definitely fixed by law, the husbandman was expected to give at least a fiftieth of the whole to the servants of Jehovah at Jerusalem. After these dues had been paid the claims of the Levites had to be satisfied, and these claims assumed truly formidable proportions, amounting to no less than a tenth of the entire harvest. The Levites, however, had in their turn to pay back a tenth of what they received from the peasantry to the priesthood. When it is remembered how unwillingly the Jews paid the tribute which the Romans had laid upon them, it might be supposed that they would show a similar reluctance to bear the enormous burden which had been imposed upon them by the priests. But this was very far from being the case, as is manifest from the scrupulous way in which they used to tithe the very smallest produce such as mint, anise, and cumin. In addition to a large share of the raw produce, a certain portion of all the bread which was baked in Jewish households formed a part of the priest's income; it amounted in the case of bakers to a forty-eighth, and in the case of private persons to a twenty-fourth of the whole. As has just been said, the taxes on the property of the husbandman extended to the domestic animals which he reared, and included not only clean animals such as the ox, the sheep, and the goat, but also such animals as the horse, the camel, and the ass, which were regarded as unclean. The firstborn male of all of these beasts was the property of the priests, but if the animals belonged to the unclean category they could be bought back by the original owner for a fifth of their value; if, however, they were clean animals they had to be handed over to the priests. So widely did this law respecting the firstborn extend that even human beings were not exempted from its operation, and the first male child born of Jewish parents was supposed to be the property of the priesthood till he had been redeemed by the payment of five shekels, a sum equal to about thirteen shillings of English money.

These various imposts formed the main portion of the sacerdotal revenues, and constituted the ordinary sources from which they were derived; but during the time the priests were exercising their ministry at Jerusalem their regular income was augmented by the share they received of the sacrifices offered in the Temple by the worshippers. The only sacrifice of which the carcass was entirely consumed upon the altar was the burnt-offering, and even of this sacrifice the priests always retained the skin, a most important item when the immense number of animals sacrificed is taken into consideration. Of all the other offerings such as the meal-offering, the sin-offering, and the guilt-offering, the priest as a rule received nearly the whole; he obtained a portion of the peace-offering, and the proceeds of certain kinds of votive offerings also fell into his hands. It will thus be seen that the priesthood by reason of its wealth alone .was a most important element in the Jewish state, and it would doubtless have been more important still if the high-priestly aristocracy had not driven the mass of the ordinary priests and Levites into the ranks of the discontented by defrauding them of their just proportion of the sacerdotal revenues.

The duties appertaining to the great body of. the priesthood were limited in their range, and mainly consisted in the offering of sacrifices at the Temple. On the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar, the Passover Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, the multitudes which came to worship at Jerusalem were so enormous that the entire priesthood was required to assist in the sacred ministrations. But on ordinary occasions this was not the case, and each of the twenty-four classes into which the sacerdotal body was divided officiated at the altar for a week at a time. As each class contained a larger number of priests than was necessary for the proper performance of the usual daily services, it was subdivided in such a manner that every priest exercised his sacred calling once at least before his week of duty came to a termination. Great precautions were taken to ensure the legal purity of the officiating priests. During the period of their ministrations they had to be in a state of Levitical cleanness; the use of wine was forbidden them; after taking a daily bath they had to wash their hands and feet in the brazen laver of the Temple before they were permitted to appear at the altar of sacrifice arrayed in the white garments of their office.

The sacred structure in which the priests performed their sacerdotal duties, and where the multitudes assembled to witness the solemnities of public worship was built in the form of a terrace with the Temple at its summit. The Temple was a roofed edifice of moderate size, and was divided into two unequal portions. The first of these was known as the Holy Place, while the other which lay beyond it was called the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a large curtain; it was completely empty, and was only entered once a year on the Day of Atonement by the high priest. The Holy Place was about twice the dimensions of this inner sanctuary, and contained the golden Altar of Incense which was used morning and evening for the incense offering; it also contained the Golden Candlestick, which had always to be kept alight; and the golden Altar of Shewbread, where the twelve loaves which had to be replaced every Sabbath day were laid. Outside the Temple proper lay the Temple courts, roofless enclosures amounting to four in number. The largest of these and the furthest removed from the Temple was the Court of the Gentiles, so called because men of all nations were permitted to enter it. Five gates opened into this vast court.? It was here the money-changers had their stalls, and that the vendors of beasts for sacrifice disposed of them to the people. This was the court where the rabbis disputed, and where Jesus and His disciples used to teach. It was in fact a market, a money-changers bureau, a place for public discussion, and a general meeting-point for Jews from all parts of the world.

On the terrace above this court stood the Court of the Israelites, which was composed of two parts—one court for both sexes and another for men alone. Only Jews had the privilege of entering those courts, and notices were put up at the approaches to them forbidding Gentiles to proceed further on pain of death. A peculiarity connected with these courts consisted in the fact that the women's court was available for men as well, but the women on the other hand were not permitted to enter the court set specially apart for the men. Some steps above the Court of the Israelites and in close proximity to the Temple stood the Court of the Priests, which was set apart for the priests alone. Close to this court and in front of the Temple stood the great Altar of Sacrifice. It was a large square structure made of unhewn stones, on which a fire was constantly kept burning, and where public and private sacrifice was daily offered to the God of Israel.

The sacrifice of animals upon the altar at Jerusalem was the ordinary means adopted by the Israelites to gratify or appease the Deity. To many Jews of the Roman period sacrifice had assumed a highly symbolical meaning, but it is probable that some of them still adhered to the primitive conceptions of the divinity which the literal acceptation of this religious rite implied. It may be said that there were three kinds of sacrifices in use among the Jews—the Burnt-offering, the Peace-offering, and the Sin and Trespass-offering. The Burnt-offering was the most customary form of sacrifice; it was the only offering which was entirely consumed upon the altar, and in its highest significance was intended to express the complete devotion of the worshipper to the decrees of the Divine will. The Peace-offering—only the fat of which was burnt, the carcass being used by the offerer as a festive meal—was a sacrifice offered either for the purpose of procuring a temporal blessing from Jehovah, or as an expression of gratitude for one which had already been received. The fat of the Sin-offering was also consumed upon the altar, but the flesh was given to the priests. This was an offering which proceeded from the feeling that union with God had been destroyed by some conscious or unconscious act of sin, and was offered with the object of appeasing the Divine displeasure, and restoring harmonious relations between the offending Israelite and the Most High.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


Many of these offerings were of a private character, and only concerned the person who brought them to the altar, but the daily burnt-offering was a public sacrifice for the whole community, and constituted the regular daily service of the Temple. This offering consisted in the sacrifice morning and evening of a lamb without blemish. The morning service began at break of day, and the evening about three o'clock in the afternoon. Certain psalms were appointed for every day of the week, and sacred music, both. vocal and instrumental, was employed to increase the dignity and solemnity of the service. As soon as the sacrifice had been killed and was laid upon the altar, the song of the Lord began. "And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt-offering was finished." But the ritual of the daily service was quite eclipsed by the splendid ceremonial which took place on high festivals, and especially on the great Day of Atonement, when the high priest officiated in person, and formed the centre of religious interest. It was on this day that the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to expiate the sins of the people; and when he appeared again before the curtain which shut him off from human sight, he seemed to the expectant multitudes

"As the morning star rising from a cloud,

as the moon when it is full;

As the sun shining on the temple of the Most High,

as the rainbow giving light on a bright cloud;

When he put on his robe of honour,

and was clothed with the perfection of glory,

When he went up to the Holy Altar

he ennobled the court of the sanctuary;

As he stood by the hearth of the altar,

he took the consecrated portions out of the priest's hands.

Encompassed with his brethren round about

like a cedar of Lebanon,

All the sons of Aaron in their apparel,

like palm trees compassed him round about,

Holding in their hands the offering for the Lord

before all the congregation of Israel.

And finishing the service at the altar,

that he might adorn the offering of the Most High Almighty,

He stretched out his hand to the cup,

and made the libation with the blood of the grape;

He poured it out at the foot of the altar,

as a sweet-smelling savour to the most High King of All.

Then shouted the sons of Aaron,

and sounded the brazen trumpets;

And made a great noise to be heard,

to recommend the nation to the Most High.

Then all the people together hasted,

and fell down to the earth upon their faces

To worship their Lord,

the Almighty, the God most high.

The singers also sang His praises with their voices,

in the great house was there made sweet melody.

The people besought the Most High,

and addressed their prayers to the God of mercy,

Till the solemnity of the Lord was ended,

and they had finished His service.

Then he went down and lifted up his hands

over the whole congregation of the children of Israel,

To give them with his lips the blessing of the Lord,

and to exalt His name.

And the people bowed themselves down a second time,

to receive a blessing from the Most High."