Jesus appears on the scene at a time reminiscent of the tumultuous times of Axial Sages. The oppressive rule of the Roman Empire caused rebellion and a large number of political and sectarian groups called for different kinds of reform, with different ideas about the individual and their country’s future.
Prophets, Messianic Zealots, Hellenists, Romanists, Sadducees and others, all contributed to the unrest of the times. One of the most progressive groups was the Pharisees, who were repelled by violence and who emphasized that God was present in every thought and action. Atonement for one’s sins could be attained through acts of kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Rabbi Hillel (c. 65 BCE – 20 CE), who came to Palestine from Babylonia, was perhaps the greatest of their number. As did the Axial sages before him, he advocated the importance of personal responsibility: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
Photo of the entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the
Elder, as it was around 1900.
Similarities between the sayings of Hillel and those spoken by Jesus in the New Testament have been noted by scholars. Here are examples:
One of the famous Talmudic stories tells that the Pharisee Shammai – a fundamentalist and opposed to Hillel’s views – was visited by a pagan who promised to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him everything that was in the Torah while he stood on one leg.
Shammai dismissed him angrily, but when the joker went to Hillel, Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
The same idea is found spoken by Jesus in Matthew 7:12 when he says “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Hillel is quoted as saying, “Pass not judgment upon thy neighbor until thou hast put thyself in his place.” Which is again familiar to New Testament readers where Jesus says: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37).
Hillel also said: “Whoever would make a name loses the name… whoever makes use of the crown perishes.” And Jesus said: “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 7:33).
Hillel and his group believed in the Resurrection – for they believed that Elijah had ascended to Heaven – and were flexible in their interpretation of the Law. They accepted Gentile converts, taught that one should “love peace, seek peace, love mankind and thus lead them to the law.”
Shammai and his associates disagreed with them on this and on almost every aspect of the Law; so when Hillel died around 10 – 20 CE and the Shammaite Pharisees took control of the Temple, things changed.