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Herod was a
grave, had so little thought of his latter end, that he reigned with such cruelty and tyranny, as justly rendered him the abhorrence of his subjects. A late writer has asserted, that the Jews were, at this time, grievously oppressed by the Roman power, but as Herod was, for the most part, in favour with the emperor Augustus, and had liberty from him to rule as he pleased, and even, on slight grounds of complaint, to put his own sons, Alexander and Christobolus to death; it must certainly be the oppression of Herod, and not of Augustus (who was a prince of a contrary character) whom the Jews groaned under. prince of Idumean descent, whose ancestors had been proselytes to the Jewish religion. He had no right to the regal authority, but was imposed on the Jews by the Roman power, when there was a contest between Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, two brothers of the Asmonian family, for the royal dignity. The Romans took the advantage of this, and Herod was declared king of the Jews by the senate, and three years after, assisted by the Roman arms in the taking Jerusalem : and from that time he reigned over the Jewish nation, in subjection to the Romans, about thirty-five years. Herod was a prince of a martial disposition, but as he knew he had no legal right to the crown, he was guilty of the highest injustice and cruelty to keep possession of that dignity which he had by unlawful means obtained; and never was at rest till he had procured the death of every prince who was related to it. Having thus erected his throne on murder, treachery and all kinds of wickedness, his reign was such as might be expected from such a beginning. For though he rose to great opulence and power ; though he was possessed of all that his ambition aspired to, yet he was constantly disturbed by domestic divisions, and troubles of various kinds, which rendered him most deplorably unhappy in the midst of prosperity. Though he was successful in his wars, and constantly augmenting his dominions; though in the sumptuous buildings he erected, and in his grandeur and magnificence, in all
respects, he exceeded his predecessors, Solomon only excepted; yet his reign was one series of plots, jealoušies, cruelties, murder, and every thing that is shocking to human nature
The state of religion in the world, at the time of our Redeemer's birth, was such as stood in the greatest need of a teacher sent from God. The various nations around the globe were immersed in the darkness of idolatry and superstition. And though the unity of God, and the immortality of the soul had been taught by Socrates and Plato, yet their sentiments were dark and confused, very little known amongst the vulgar, and very little depended on amongst the more learned. The Jews only retained the worship of the true God. Their temple-worship was the same as established by Solomon ; and the law and the prophets were weekly read in their synagogues; but they had, in a great measure, made the moral law void by their traditions, and their temple-worship was much declined from the primitive glory of its institution. The second temple had now stood upwards of four hundred years. It was vastly inferior, in magnificence and grandeur, to that which was built by Solomon. It wanted the ark of the covenant, the Divine Presence, the Urim and Thummim, the holy fire upon the altar, and the spirit of prophecy. It was first profaned and plundered by Antiochus Epiphanus. It had lately been dishonored by the impious boldness of Pompey; and soon after by Crassus, another Roman general, who rapaciously seized those vast treasures which Pompey's piety and modesty had spared. In a few years after came Herod, who having obtained the grant of the kingdom at Rome, besieged and took the city and temple. And though, in order to insinuate himself into the affections of the people, he did all in his power to preserve the temple from being plundered, and a few years after expended vast sums in repairing and beautifying it; yet, as he obtained the regal dignity by the favour of the Romans, he was always careful to
please and oblige them; and accordingly profaned the temple with a golden eagle, which was fixed upon the great porch at the entrance of that fabric, in order to court the favour of the emperor Augustus. This gave great offence to the Jews, who were scrupulously exact in the observance of the minutest rituals, but scandalously careless in the weightier matters of the law: and while, on every trifling occasion, they were ready to cry out, The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord! they had so little regard to the divinity which dwelt within, that they made this holy place a market for trade and merchandize; and filled the sacred apartments with dealers, merchants, money-changers, and usurers. And such were the injustice and extortion they practised in the holy place, it was justly observed, that the house which God had appointed for an house of prayer, they had converted into a den of thieves.
However little religion there was amongst the Jews, they were very forward and open in their profession, and there were several parties amongst them who violently opposed each other. Those who are mentioned in the gospels are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians and the Samaritans; of each of these it may be proper to give some account. The Pharisees were the greatest of all the Jewish sects; and by their pretences to extraordinary purity, and the shew they made in things external, they drew the bulk of the common people after them. They maintained a kind of priestly pride, and solemn stiffness in their deportment, doing every thing in their power to aitract the notice, and gain the veneration of the multitude. A trumpet was sounded before them when they gave alms to the poor; they made long prayers at the corners of streets, and in the markets, taking every occasion to exhibit the utmost ostentation of piety and devotion.
But the distinguishing character of the Pharisees, was their zeal for the traditions of the elders, which
they constantly maintained, were of equal authority with the written law, as they were received from God himself by Moses when he was forty days on the mount. These traditions were multiplied to such an enormous number, that they were sufficient to fill twelve folio volumes: and these men pretending to an exact and rigorous observance of the law according to these traditions, would fain have themselves looked upon more holy than others, and therefore separated themselves from those whom they esteemed great sinners and profane persons, and refused to eat or drink with them. They looked with contempt on the common people, and the constant language of their looks and behaviour was, Stand by! Come not near me! I am holier than thou! They were scrupulously exact in the performance of the minutest rituals, and prided themselves in their punctuality in paying tithes of herbs, while they neglected the weightier matters of the law. They presumed so far as proudly to mention their good deeds in their prayers, and proposed them as the grounds of the divine acceptance; though, at the same time, while they maintained the fair outward shew of piety and goodness, they were privately guilty of great and scandalous vices. This sect of the Pharisees, in process of time, swallowed up all the other sects amongst the Jews; and, at present, it is by the traditions of the Pharisees, and not by the law and the prophets, that the Jewish religion is formed.
Joined with the Pharisees in the gospels, are the Scribes and the Lawyers, who were not distinct sects or parties amongst the Jews, but men professing learning, and chiefly followers of the Pharisees in their religion; for the learning of the Jews principally consisting in the knowledge of the Pharisaical traditions, and the interpretation of the scriptures by them, it is no wonder that the twelve folio volumes, above mentioned, found employment for great numbers of
Another noted sect amongst the Jews, at the time of our great Redeemer's birth, was the Sadducees: These, at their first separation, differed only from the Pharisees in their refusing to receive the tradition of the elders, and abiding by the written law; but in process of time, they degenerated into an universal scepticism; and like our modern Deists, they neither believed there existed good or evil spirits, or that there would be a resurrection, or a future state. As to the Herodians, it is not so precisely known what their distinguishing tenets were; but as their doctrine is called in the gospel, The leaven of Herod, and as their party takes its name from that prince, it is to be supposed their particular opinions were derived from him: now as, from his general character and conduct, we may conclude that the doctrine of the Sadducees would be very agreeable to him, as it delivered him from the fears of an hereafter, and as it is well known that as soon as he was securely settled on his throne (having cut off all the heirs of the Asmonian family) he began to introduce Pagan customs amongst the Jews; it is very likely that the Herodians held nearly the same sentiments as the Sadducees, and that they approved the conduct of Herod, in the introduction of the Heathen superstitions,
It is necessary, lastly, to give some account of the Samaritans : These people were not of Jewish extraction, but were the offspring of those Heathen pations whom the king of Assyria sent to dwell in the land of Israel, in the room of the ten tribes who were carried away captive. Those people when first planted in the land, were grievously annoyed by lions; and supposing that this misfortune arose from their being ignorant of the worship of the god of the land (for the Heathens supposed that every land had its peculiar deity) they applied to Esarhaddon, the grandson of the king who carried them captive, and he sent them an Israelitish priest, who taught them the worship of God according to the law of Moses. They