200 years that shaped Judaism, Jesus, and all that followed

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of a man sowing good seed in a field. In the night, an enemy sows tares (weeds) among the wheat, and the two kinds of plants grow up together. The farmer tells his servants not to try purging the tares immediately, lest they damage the wheat. Jesus explains his meaning:

He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. . . . The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matt. 13:37–43, KJV)

The rigorous determinism of this passage—the implication that humans are born good or wicked, with no ability to change their destiny—together with its hellfire imagery, makes it unpopular among modern-day Christian preachers.

As with many such stories credited to him, Jesus used commonplace rural imagery. He framed it, though, in a worldview that made many assumptions about spiritual realities as well as the universe and its hierarchies. Forces of good and evil, light and darkness, contend in the world until God’s final victory. People must be urgently concerned about these conflicts because their conduct in the present world affects their fate in the afterlife.

Although this parable is unusually explicit in its imagery, the basic ideas are quite unsurprising to anyone who knows the West’s religious heritage. Angels and judgment, Messiah and Satan, hell and demons—these are the familiar building blocks of Western religion. They are also staples of two millennia of Christian art. All are integrated into a complex mythological system.

What few modern readers will understand from such a passage is just how new the themes were at the time Jesus preached. Clearly, we assume, the source for these ideas is the Bible. But however pervasive they are in the New Testament, they are not firmly rooted in the Old. During the period covered by the Hebrew Bible, up to around 400 BCE, few of these ideas existed in Jewish thought, and those that did were not prominent. By the start of the Common Era, these motifs were thoroughly…

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