Book Review: Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at

Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ by Alfred Edersheim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970 reprint of 1876 edition. 342 pp., hardback.
sketches_cvr.jpgOur understanding of the New Testament (as with the Old) is hindered by large “gaps” between our present twenty-first-century world and the first-century world of Christ and the apostles. There is the language gap—we speak and think in English; Jesus and the apostles thought and spoke and wrote in Greek and Aramaic and to some extent in Hebrew. There is the geographical gap—we in North America are thousands of miles removed from the scenes in the New Testament in the Holy Land and the greater Mediterranean world. There is the history gap—we are two millennia distant from the time of New Testament events. And there is the cultural gap—the events in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and much of Acts, occurred in the cultural milieu of first-century Judaism, with its culture, customs, traditions, laws, practices, ideas, and perspective. If we are to correctly interpret the New Testament, we must, as far as we are able, bridge those gaps and transport ourselves mentally, as it were, into that ancient context, to know its situation, hear its sounds, smells it smells, see its people, and absorb its atmosphere. Close familiarity with Jewish writings actually or roughly contemporary with the New Testament can effectively return us to that day and time and place.

Alfred Edersheim (pronounced E-ders-heim [commonly mispronounced E-der-sheim]; 1825-1889), was a Hebrew of Austrian birth who was converted to faith in Jesus as the Messiah under the influence of a Presbyterian chaplain in Pest, Hungary, where he had gone to study. Edersheim was a thorough student of Jewish literature from the centuries before and after Christ—the Apocrypha, Josephus, Philo, the Targums, Mishnah, Midrashs, Talmuds, vego”—and sifted this huge corpus of complicated literature for whatever light that it could cast on the words and content of the New Testament. His findings are preserved in a series of exceptionally valuable works:

History of the Jewish Nation after 70 A. D. (1856);

The Temple, Its Ministry and Service at the Time of Jesus Christ (1874);

Bible History (7 vols. 1876-1887);

The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (2 vols., 1883 [no doubt the most famous “Life of Christ” in the English language]); and

Prophecy and History in Relation to the Messiah (1880-84; 1885);

Each of these has its own focus and interest.

The particularly valuable volume here under review, originally published in 1876, focuses on the cultural background of the New Testament—the historical, political, social, and religious context of the life of Jesus and the apostles: Jews and Gentiles, Galilee, travel, Jewish home life, education, death and burial practices, the place and treatment of women, business life, the various religious sects, and synagogue worship, with a brief survey of Jewish theological literature. In two appendices, we are given excerpts from the Mishnah, which is a codification of traditional rabbinic law (circa AD 200), and from the Babylonian Talmud (circa AD 500), which is a very diffuse discussion of the Mishnah.

Though much has occurred in New Testament studies and the exploration and excavation of the Holy Land since Edersheim wrote, this book is still valuable and authoritative. I first read it through during my first semester in Bible college in the fall of 1971, with a re-reading of selected portions in the decades since. On a second full reading just now of the whole, I came across several quotes and incidents that I have remembered over the years, but could never recall just where I’d originally encountered them: “Oh, so it was Edersheim!” I said to myself more than once.

Edersheim is always informative and worthwhile reading. One remains ignorant of his works to his own detriment. (And I have made a personal resolution to read or reread all of his published works in the near future).

Selected quotes from Sketches of Jewish Social Life by Alfred Edersheim:

“Philo might indeed, without exaggeration, say that the Jews ‘were from their swaddling clothes, even before being taught either the sacred laws or the unwritten customs, trained by their parents, teachers, and instructors to recognize God as Father and as the Maker of the Work,’ … To the same effect is the testimony of Josephus that ‘from their earliest consciousness’ they had ‘learned the laws, so as to have them, as it were, engraven upon the soul’ (pp. 110-111).

“The obligation to train the child rested primarily upon the father” (p. 112).

“In the case of heathenism every advance in civilization has marked a progressive lowering of public morality, the earlier stages of national life always showing a far higher tone than the later” (p. 122).

“In the days of Christ the pious Jew had no other knowledge, neither sought nor cared for any other—in fact, denounced it—than that of the law of God… . To the pious Jew … the knowledge of God was everything; and to prepare for or impart that knowledge was the sum total, the sole object of his education. This was the life of his soul—the better, and only true life, to which all else as well as the life of the body were merely subservient, as means towards an end” (pp. 124-125).

“The Talmud itself (Menahot 99b) furnishes the clever illustration of this [i.e., the prohibition of heathen learning], when, in reply to the question of a younger Rabbi, whether, since he knew the whole ‘Torah’ (the Law), he might be allowed to study ‘Greek wisdom,’ his uncle reminded him of the Words (Joshua 1:8), ‘Thou shalt meditate therein day and night.’ ‘Go, then, and consider,’ said the older Rabbi, ‘which is the hour that is neither of the day nor of the night, and in it thou mayest study Grecian wisdom’” (p. 126).

“Ordinarily, a young man was expected to enter the wedded state (according to Maimonides) at the age sixteen or seventeen, while the age of twenty may be regarded as the utmost limit conceded, unless study so absorbed time and attention as to leave no leisure for the duties of married life. Still it was thought better even to neglect study than to remain single” (p. 147).

Cremation was denounced as a purely heathen practice contrary to the whole spirit of Old Testament teaching” (p. 169).

“In general, it may be said that the NT teaching concerning original sin and its consequences finds no analogy in the Rabbinical writings of that period” (p. 177).

“It was a Rabbinical principle, that ‘whoever does not teach his son a trade is as if he brought him up to be a robber.’” (p. 190; quoting the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Kiddushim 29)

kutilek.jpgDoug Kutilek is editor of, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.
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