Beginning about the time of the Maccabean Revolt (175-164 B.C.), a new focus began to emerge in Judaism. The synagogue and the study of the Scriptures had provided a firm foundation for a Jewish identity forged during and after the difficult circumstances of exile. The return from exile was not easy, however; and the plight of the struggling people was suddenly deepened by the conquests of Alexander the Great. The military prowess of the Hellenic armies led to the conquest of a region that stretched from Macedonia and Egypt (including Palestine) in the West to India in the East. Upon Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., his empire was carved up among his generals and their descendents. Palestine was under the control of Ptolemy and his descendants until 198 B.C., when the descendants of Seleucus took and maintained a semblance of control until the Romans arrived in 63 B.C.
The Seleucid rulers held great disdain for the Jewish faith and practices, and their attempts to suppress the Jews actually produced a revival of sorts among the people. Not only was the Maccabean Revolt fomented, but a parallel revival of religious faith resulted. This was especially seen in a revival of interest in keeping the laws of the covenant. This revival began the development of a distinctly Jewish identity that has continued into our own time.
Christians and Jews share the common base of the Old Testament. [You will notice that I am using the traditional Christian designations for the Hebrew Scriptures and for historical dates. This is done in the interest of a general readership and does not reflect a lack of sensitivity to the broad issues involved in our choice of terms that might be offensive to some.] The New Testament became the identifying marker that shaped the expressions of the Christian faith. A similar shaping took place in Judaism in the development of the Mishnah, a book that is relatively unknown outside scholarly circles. The Mishnah, however, does provide us with clues to how the role of teaching rose in importance among the Jews and how discipleship was molded and shaped within the milieu that birthed both Judaism and Christianity as we know them today. The Mishnah deserves more of our attention.