The principal sects among the Jews, in the time of our Savior, were the Pharisees, who placed religion in external ceremony; the Sadducees, who were remarkable for their incredulity; and the Essenes, who were distinguished by an austere sanctity.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are frequently mentioned in the New Testament; and an acquaintance with their principles and practices serves to illustrate many passages in the sacred history. At present, the Jews have two sects -- the Caraites, who admit no rule of religion but the law of Moses; and the Rabbinists, who add to the laws the tradition of the Talmud, a collection of the doctrines and morality of the Jews. The expectation of a Messiah is the distinguishing feature of their religious system. The word Messiah signifies one anointed, or installed into an office by an unction.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, in whom all the Jewish prophecies are accomplished. The Jews, infatuated with the idea of a temporal Messiah, who is to subdue the world, still wait for his appearance.
The most remarkable periods in the history of the Jews are the call of Abraham, the giving of the law by Moses, their establishment in Canaan under Joshua, the building of the temple by Solomon, the division of the tribes, their captivity in Babylon, their return under Zerubbabel and the destruction of their city and temple by Titus, afterwards emperor, A. D.70.
Maimonides, an illustrious rabbi, drew up for the Jews, in the eleventh century, a confession of faith, which all Jews admit. It is as follows: --
"1. I believe, with a true and perfect faith, that God is the Creator, whose name be blessed, Governor, and Maker, of all creatures, and that he hath wrought all things, worketh and shall work forever.
"2. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the Creator, whose name be blessed, is one, and that such a unity as in him can be found in none other, and that he alone hath been our God, is, and forever shall be.
"3. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the Creator, whose name be blessed, is not corporeal, nor to be comprehended with any bodily property, and that there is no bodily essence that can be likened unto him.
"4. I believe, with a perfect faith, the Creator, whose name be blessed, to be the first and the last, that nothing was before him, and that he shall abide the last forever.
"5. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the Creator, whose name be blessed, is to be worshipped, and none else.
"6. I believe, with a perfect faith, that all the words of the prophets are true.
"7. I believe, with a perfect faith, the prophecies of Moses, our master, -- may he rest in peace; -- that he was the father and chief of all wise men that lived before him, or ever shall live after him.
"8. I believe, with a perfect faith, that all the law which at this day is found in our hands, was delivered by God himself to our master, Moses. God's peace be with him.
"9. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the same law is never to be changed, nor another to be given us of God, whose name be blessed.
"10. I believe, with a perfect faith, that God, whose name be blessed, understandeth all the works and thoughts of men, as it is written in the prophets. He fashioneth their hearts alike; he understandeth all their works.
"11. I believe, with a perfect faith, that God will recompense good to them that keep his commandments, and will punish them who transgress them.
"12. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the Messiah is yet to come; and, although he retard his coming, yet I will wait for him till he come.
"13. I believe, with a perfect faith, that the dead shall be restored to life, when it shall seem fit unto God the Creator, whose name be blessed, and memory celebrated, world without end. AMEN."
This people constitute one of the most singular and interesting portions of mankind. For about three thousand years, they have existed as a distinct nation; and, what is remarkable, by far the greatest part of this time they have been in bondage and captivity.
The calling of Abraham, the father and founder of this nation; the legislation of Moses; the priesthood of Aaron: the Egyptian bondage; the conquest of Canaan, and the history of the Jews to the coming of the Messiah; their cruel and injurious treatment of this august and innocent personage, -- are facts which the Scriptures disclose, and with which, it is presumed, every reader is well acquainted.
For about eighteen hundred years, this wonderful people have maintained their peculiarities of religion, language, and domestic habits, among Pagans, Mahometans, and Christians, and have suffered a continued series of reproaches, privations, and miseries, which have excited the admiration and astonishment of all who have reflected on their condition.
The siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Roman general, was one of the most awful and distressing scenes that mortals ever witnessed; and the details, as given by Josephus, are enough to make humanity shudder. During the siege, which lasted nearly five months, upwards of eleven hundred thousand Jews perished. John and Simon, the two generals of the Hebrews, who were accounted the ringleaders of the rebellious nation, with seven hundred of the most beautiful and vigorous of the Jewish youth, were reserved to attend the victor's triumphal chariot. The number taken captive, during this fatal contest, amounted to ninety-seven thousand; many of whom were sent into Syria, and the other provinces, to be exposed in public theatres, to fight like gladiators, or to be devoured by wild beasts. The number of those destroyed in the whole war, of which the taking of the holy city was the bloody and tremendous consummation, is computed to have been one million, four hundred and sixty thousand.
In addition to the terrors of the Roman sword, this devoted nation was exposed to famine, pestilence, and the implacable fury of contending parties among themselves, which all conspired together to make the siege of Jerusalem surpass, in horror, every account of any other siege in the records of the world.
A small portion, indeed, of this wretched, ruined nation were permitted to remain, and establish themselves in Judea, who, by degrees, reorganized a regular system of government, which became the centre of Jewish operations, not only for those in Judea, but for such as were dispersed in other nations. But the yoke of foreign masters was so grievous and burdensome, that they were continually restless and impatient; and, in consequence of a general revolt under the emperor Adrian, in 134, they were a second time slaughtered in multitudes, and were driven to madness and despair. Bither, the place of their greatest strength, was compelled to surrender, and Barchochba, their leader, who pretended to be the Messiah, was slain, and five hundred and eighty thousand fell by the sword in battle, besides vast numbers who perished by famine, sickness, fire, and other calamities.
Kings have enacted the severest laws against them, and employed the hand of executioners to ruin them. The seditious multitudes, by murders and massacres, have committed outrages against them, if possible, still more violent and tragical. Besides their common share in the sufferings of society, they have undergone a series of horrid and unutterable calamities, which no other description of men has ever experienced in any age, or in any country. Princes and people, Pagans, Mahometans, and Christians, disagreeing in so many things, have united in the design of exterminating this fugitive and wretched race, but have not succeeded. They have been banished, at different times, from France, Germany, Spain, Bohemia, Hungary, and England; and from some of these kingdoms they have been banished and recalled many times in succession.
The Romans and Spaniards have probably done more than any other nations to oppress and destroy this people; and the inquisition has doomed multitudes of them to torture and death.
At different times, they were accused of poisoning wells, rivers, and reservoirs of water, and, before any proof of these strange and malicious charges was produced, the populace in many parts of Germany, Italy, and France, have fallen upon them with merciless and murderous severity. At one time, the German emperor found it necessary to issue an edict for their banishment, to save them from the rage of his exasperated and unrestrained subjects.
As the Jews have generally been the bankers and brokers of the people among whom they have resided, and have made a show of much wealth, this has tempted their avaricious adversaries to impose upon them enormous taxes and ruinous fines.
Muley Archy, a prince of one of the Barbary states, by seizing the property of a rich Jew, was enabled to dispossess his brother of the throne of Morocco.
The English parliament of Northumberland, in 1188, for the support of a projected war, assessed the Jews with 60,000 pounds, while only 70,000 were assessed upon the Christians; which proves either that the Jews were immensely rich, or that the parliament was extremely tyrannical.
The English king John was unmercifully severe upon this afflicted people. In 1210, regardless of the costly freedom he had sold them, he subjected them all, as a body, to a fine of 60,000 marks. The ransom required by this same unfeeling king, of a rich Jew of Bristol, was 10,000 marks of silver; and on his refusing to pay this ruinous fine, he ordered one of his teeth to be extracted every day; to which the unhappy man submitted seven days, and on the eighth day he agreed to satisfy the king's rapacity. Isaac of Norwich was, not long after, compelled to pay a similar fine. But the king, not satisfied with these vast sums extorted from these injured Israelites, in the end confiscated all their property, and expelled them from the kingdom.
About the beginning of the 16th century, the Jews in Persia were subjected to a tax of two millions of gold. Long would be the catalogue of injuries of this kind, which this outcast and hated nation has sustained. Numerous are the cases in which those who have become deeply in debt to them for borrowed money, have procured their banishment, and the confiscation of their property, as the readiest way to cancel their demands; and, as they have ever been addicted to usurious practices, they have, by this means, furnished plausible pretexts to their foes to fleece and destroy them.
The fraternal disposition of this people led them to seek the society of each other; and, notwithstanding the wideness of their dispersion, in process of time, they, by uniting under different leaders, formed two communities of considerable extent, known by the name of the eastern and western Jews. The western Jews inhabited Egypt, Judea, Italy, and other parts of the Roman empire; the eastern Jews settled in Babylon, Chaldea, Persia, &c. The head of the western division was known by the name of the patriarch, while he who presided over the eastern Jews, was called the prince of the captivity. The office of patriarch was abolished, by imperial laws, about 429, from which time the western Jews were solely under the rule of the chiefs of their synagogues, whom they called primates. But the princes of the captivity had a longer and more splendid sway. They resided at Babylon, or Bagdad, and exercised an extensive authority over their brethren, as far down as the 12th century. About this period, a Jewish historian asserts that he found, at Bagdad, the prince of the captivity, lineally descended from David, and permitted, by the caliph, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over the Jews from Syria to Indostan.
The existence of a succession of these imaginary potentates, from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Jews have ever been strenuous in maintaining, partly to aggrandize their nation, and partly to deprive Christians of the benefit of an argument furnished by the prophecy of Jacob, concerning the termination of the Jewish polity and independence, soon after the coming of the Messiah.
Notwithstanding the world, in general, has shown a spirit of hostility and contempt for the remnant of Israel, yet they have found a few, in every age, who, either from motives of policy or justice, have treated them with kindness and respect. The first Mahometan caliphs, a number of the Roman pontiffs, and some of the Asiatic and European sovereigns, have shown them friendship and protection. Don Solomon, a learned and illustrious Jew of Portugal, in the 12th century, was raised to the highest military command in that kingdom. Casimir the Great, of Poland, in the 14th century, received the Jews as refugees into his kingdom, and granted them extensive privileges; and from that time to the present, they have been more numerous in that country than in any other in Europe.
For many centuries, this persecuted race found a favorite asylum in Holland, and, by their dexterity and success in commerce, became very affluent.
Cromwell, seeing the benefit which the Netherlands had derived from this money-making and money-lending community, was very desirous to recall them to England, from which they had been exiled about three hundred and fifty years. The celebrated Manasses Ben Israel had many interviews with the Protector; and so high were the expectations of the Israelites, from the clemency and authority of this illustrious statesman, that they began to look up to him as the promised Messiah. And, although Cromwell's friendly proposals, as to their recall, were overruled by the bigoted and intolerant policy of the times, yet, from that period, they have found favor and protection in England, and have been much more numerous and prosperous there than formerly.
In France and the United States, the Jews are admitted to equal rights with all other citizens, which cannot be said of any other nations in Christendom. In the United States, they have acquired this freedom, of course, with all other citizens of this free country. In France, they were admitted to it by Bonaparte; and afterwards, in 1807, by his directions, they convened a Grand Sanhedrim, consisting, according to ancient custom, of 70 members, exclusive of the president. The number and distinction of the spectators of this Sanhedrim greatly added to the solemnity of the scene. This venerable assembly passed and agreed to various articles respecting the Mosaic worship, and their civil and ecclesiastical concerns.
The extreme aversion of the Jews to every thing which bears the Christian name, and their obstinate attachment to their ancient religion, have, in former years, discouraged all attempts to convert them to the Christian faith. And not only has their conversion been neglected, but for many centuries they have been persecuted, plundered, and destroyed, by those who have called themselves Christians; they have not been permitted to enter their churches as worshippers, nor their dwellings as guests, nor reside in their territories, where Pagans and Mahometans have found an unmolested abode. While we, then, blame the blindness and incredulity of the descendants of Abraham, let us lament the folly and unkindness of the professed disciples of the mild and compassionate Redeemer. But a different spirit is now prevailing in many parts of Christendom, and a new era, as to the tribes of Israel, seems about to burst upon the world. Societies are formed in Europe and America for their benefit, and a disposition is said to be increasing, among the Jews, favorable to that Messiah and that religion which they have so long hated and rejected.
The history of this people certainly forms a striking evidence of the truth of divine revelation. They are a living and perpetual miracle, continuing to subsist as a distinct and peculiar race for upwards of three thousand years, intermixed among almost all the nations of the world, flowing forward in a full and continued stream, like the waters of the Rhone, without mixing with the waves of the expansive lake through which the passage lies to the ocean of eternity.