The Origins of Jewish Universalism: What it is, and Why it Matters
In the late Second Temple period, Jews produced many texts that distinguished them as a divinely elected community that enjoyed a special relationship with the One True God. At the same time, Persians, Greeks, and Romans wrote and circulated legends that undermined the idea of Jewish election by presenting Judaism as an antiquated and superstitious religion. One story, for instance, told of the Israelites worshipping the head of an ass after they left Egypt. Another argued that the Jews were not miraculously delivered from Egypt, but expelled because they were leprous. While these legends did not stand the test of time, other stories about the Jews endured, and even grew in popularity as the centuries passed. The most effective and enduring anti-Jewish claim was also the simplest: Jews only care about themselves.
There are many versions of this idea. Judaism is a particularist religion. Its adherents are too legalistic. Even the Jewish God is particularist, having little concern for all of humankind. In the early Christian period, this particularist God of the Hebrew Bible—a God who is quick to get angry, is petty, vindictive, and focuses on minute details in order to discern whether the Israelites are properly obeying him–would be contrasted with the God of the New Testament, a God who is kind, understanding, patient, and bears an equal love for all people.
The literary material that survives from the Second Temple period suggests a different reality. Universalist ideas were central to Jewish authors living in the Second Temple period, and to the readers who read and circulated these authors’ texts. The circulation of Jewish universalist ideas at this time indicates that the once-dominant model of Christianity as a universalist religion and Judaism as a particularist one cannot be upheld.
We tend to think of the consecutive developments of Greek philosophy, normative Judaism, and early Christianity as being exclusive to one another. But the opposite is in fact true: these schools shared many ideas, including how to understand and relate to the “Other,” the individual who lived outside of the community in question. Indeed, the very universalism that Christianity is credited with advancing was an extension of Jewish thought, which in turn was influenced by Stoicism.
As Greek schools, followed by schools within rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, reached maturation, their boundaries became more rigid. But before this stage, in the Second Temple period, Judaism was a petri dish of ideas that nurtured a pluralism which invited all people to worship the Jewish God.
What is Jewish Universalism?
To understand what Jewish universalism is, we must first establish what universalism, generally speaking, is not. Universalism has nothing to do with welcoming converts into one’s faith community, which actually runs counter to universalism. The concept of conversion depends on a particularist “in” or “out” framework in which all of humankind falls into two categories. Either one falls within a particular faith community, in which he or she reaps the benefits of being a member of God’s elect people, or outside the faith community, or one is defined according to what he or she is not: he is not elect, he is not chosen, and he is not, according to most opinions, going to be saved in the end of days.
As opposed to Judaism, Christianity has been credited as being a universalist faith. It was Paul, many say, who was responsible for arguing that all people could enter into the covenantal community through faith in Jesus, rather than through “works,” that is, the observance of Mosaic law. Yet the idea that all one has to do to become part of a faith-community is to believe in Jesus is still a particularist viewpoint. This idea relies on an “in” and “out” model of humanity. The foundational core of universalism must lie outside the realm of conversion.
Jewish universalism, therefore, must be defined as the invitation to all people, regardless of ethnicity, to worship the One True God, and to enjoy equal benefits that this relationship yields, without assimilating into another religion.
Asecond aspect of Jewish universalism should be emphasized: Universalism is not in tension with particularism. While many perceive universalism and particularism as being irreconcilable opposites of one another, most Jews living in the late Second Temple period did not perceive a tension between these worldviews. A universalist concern for all of humanity and a particularist concern for the elect people of Israel both lie at the core of early Jewish universalism and appear in later rabbinic texts as well.
The Universalized Worship of God
Some of the earliest Jewish universalist statements are expressed in the latest strata of the Bible. One striking example is Isaiah 66:18–23, a passage that most scholars date to the early decades of the Second Temple period:
For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. From them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud—which draw the bow—to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring a grain-offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord. For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version)
In this passage, the prophet envisions an end of days in which ambassadors from the foreign nations will be dispatched by God to bring Judeans living in exile back to the land of Israel. After these Judeans are returned, Jerusalem will become a centripetal force for all of humanity. All people will stream towards Jerusalem in order to worship the One True God from the Temple. At this point, God will select priests and Levites from the nations to administer in the Temple. The prediction that all people will worship God “from new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath” suggests that all of humanity will observe a Jewish calendrical cycle. But the oracle, which marks the end of the book of Isaiah, ends on a dark note: The speaker predicts that those who rebel against God will die violent deaths:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
The condemnation of all those people who disobey the will of the One True God is not limited to Israelites. In the speaker’s vision of the end of days, all of humanity will be expected to follow God’s will, or suffer dire consequences. This condemnation is all the more intriguing because of the oracle’s emphasis on the nations’ worshipping God at the Temple and observing the Sabbath. The implication that failure to do so will incur God’s wrath suggests that while in the end-time the foreign nations will not assimilate into the Israelite community, they will enter into a parallel covenantal relationship with God that requires equal commitment and observance.
Isaiah 66 is not the only biblical passage to issue a warning to all of humanity that they must obey God’s will, and that His will includes engaged and sustained worship at the Temple. One of the last passages in the book of Zechariah, which is also dated to the early Second Temple period, envisions a time in which Egyptians will be required to pay homage to the Israelite God by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year on Sukkot. According to Zechariah 14:16–19:
Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year by year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the Lord inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. (NRSV)
At the end of this passage, it is not only Egypt who must celebrate Sukkot annually, but “all the nations.” Moreover, the foreign nations will incur a terrible punishment if they refuse to participate in this festival. The idea that the nations will be punished if they do not properly worship the One True God in an ongoing and sustained manner—a theme we also find in the very last verse of Isaiah— does not undermine a passage’s universalism. In fact, such punishment amplifies a text’s universalism because it holds all of humankind to the same standards of worship. Just as the Israelites must worship God or be subject to punishment, so all of humankind must worship God or be subject to punishment. And just as the Israelites’ worship does not entail only acknowledgment of the One True God but also requires regular pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so too, all of the nations must make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
The idea that all of humankind can worship the One True God in an ongoing manner without assimilating into the Israelite community became further developed in the middle of the Second Temple period. One book that advocates for this idea is the book of Tobit.
Tobit is a Jewish adventure tale that was probably written in Judea in either the late third century BCE or early second century BCE. This book is preserved in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was written in the middle of the Second Temple period. In Tobit, the eponymous Jewish hero who lives in Babylonia sends his son Tobias on a journey in which he must retrieve a family inheritance. On his way, Tobias is protected by the angel Raphael, and finds love with a young Jewish woman named Sarah. Despite various hiccups along the way, Tobias successfully achieves his mission and settles down happily with his wife. The book closes with a deathbed scene in which Tobit imparts final words of wisdom to his children before his death. In this speech, Tobit envisions a time in which all of humankind will stream to Jerusalem to worship God:
But God will again have mercy on them: God will bring them back to the land of Israel. They will rebuild the Temple, although not like the first one, until the era when the appointed times shall be completed. Afterward all of them will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in her splendor. And the Temple will be rebuilt within her, just as the prophets of Israel spoke concerning her. Then the nations in the entire world will all be converted [epistrepsousin] and will worship [phobeisthai] God in sincerity. They will abandon their idols, which have deceitfully led them into error, and in righteousness they will bless the eternal God. And all the nations will bless the Lord. And his people will give thanks to God, and the Lord will exalt his people. All who love the Lord God in truth and righteousness will rejoice, showing mercy to our kinsmen. (Tobit 14:5–7; NRSV)
Most English translations of Tobit render the Greek epistrepsousin as “converted,” as if to imply that the author of Tobit envisions all of humankind assimilating into the Jewish religion through conversion. As noted above, this model of worship would not be universalist, since it presumes that one cannot cultivate a sustained relationship with the One True God without conversion. Moreover, translating epistrepsousin as “converted” presumes the existence of a formal conversion process that probably did not exist at the time that Tobit was written.
A more accurate translation of epistrepsousin is “turn towards.” In other passages that employ this verb that were composed in the Second Temple period, such as 1 Enoch 99:6, 4 Baruch 3:14–15, and 3 Maccabees 7:8, “conversion” would be an incorrect translation. Authoritative Greek lexicons such as the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (known colloquially as BAGD, an acronym for the last names of its authors), translates the first person singular form of this verb as either “turning one’s attention to something,” or “changing one’s way of thinking or believing, conversion.” Neither of these entries imply that conversion should be the default translation of this verb. What Tobit is really saying is that a time will come when all people will worship the One True God in an ongoing and sustained manner, without assimilating into the Israelite community.
This passage in Tobit bears a number of literary parallels with Isaiah 66. In both of these passages, the speaker envisions all of the nations (panta ta ethne, “all of the nations,” Isaiah 66:18; Tobit 14:6) worshipping God. In Isaiah, members of the foreign nations will act as God’s ambassadors by bringing the exiled Israelites who are scattered throughout the earth back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:20), while in Tobit, all people who love God will show mercy to the Israelites (Tobit 14:7). In both of these phrases, the speaker refers to other Israelites as “your brothers.” In both passages, the Israelites’ exile will come to an end as they gather together in Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:20; Tobit 14:5) where they will worship God (ton oikov kuriou in Isaiah 66:20; oikos tou theou in Tobit 14:5). According to Tobit, the Israelites will return to their land (Tobit 14:5), but the restoration described in Isaiah 66 culminates in the creation of an entirely new earth (Isaiah 66:22).
While it is possible that the parallels between Tobit 14 and Isaiah 66 indicate that the authors of these passages were relying on a common template, it is more likely that the author of Tobit intended for his protagonist to paraphrase the last verses of Isaiah, which he upheld as his own worldview.
The Letter of Aristeas is another text authored in the Second Temple period. This document was written in the form of a letter, but intended for a broad audience of Jewish readership. It recalls how the Hebrew Bible came to be translated into the Greek Septuagint. The author opens with a passage in which the Jews of Egypt ask Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–247 BCE) to release Jews who were taken captive by Ptolemy’s predecessor, Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BCE) at the Battle of Ipsus against the Macedonians. The Jewish captives should be released, these Jews say, because the Jews share a kinship with the Greeks. They are not a foreign enemy, but in fact worship the same god as the Greeks:
But out of your unsullied and magnanimous soul release those who are subject to misery; the (same) God who appointed them their Law prospers your kingdom, as I have been at pains to show. These people worship God the overseer and creator of all, whom all men worship (sebontai) including ourselves, O King, except that we have a different name. Their name for him is Zeus and Jove. (trans. Loeb Classical Library)
This passage makes a striking argument: all of humankind (or at least those humans living in the Greco-Roman world) worship the same God. The only difference between their worship of this God is that Jews and Greeks call this God by different names. This is the very embodiment of universalism: a variety of people are united in their common worship, and yet there is no hint of an assimilation process here.
The word used in Aristeas for “worship,” sebontai, is the same verb that is used in the late Second Temple period in reference to so-called “God-fearers,” a term for Gentiles who observed aspects of Jewish tradition without assimilating into the Jewish community. Texts that were probably or certainly written in the first century CE, such as the Testament of Joseph and Josephus’s Antiquities, both use this verb in reference to the God-fearers (T. Jos. 4:6; Antiquities, 14.110). The Letter of Aristeas was written about two centuries before these documents were composed, and attests to an early awareness of the idea that Gentiles could relate to Judaism as a religion that welcomed Gentile participation, if not Gentile conversion.
In the early Second Temple period, Jewish universalist texts highlighted the differentiating aspects of Judaism. The Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary law were emphasized rather than ignored. By the middle of the Second Temple period, these practices would become known as the most foundational expressions of Jewish commitment. But in the first century BCE, a new kind of Jewish universalism arose. Like the universalist texts in Zechariah 14 and Isaiah 66, it advocated for a worldview in which all of humankind had access to a sustained and meaningful relationship with the One True God without assimilating into the Jewish community. But this new kind of universalism looked very different from what had been produced earlier. It identified with Judaism, and yet made no mention of the distinguishing markers of Judaism. It also made no references to the historical aspects of Israel that underscored their divine election, specifically the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai. Instead, it emphasized the importance of cultivating positive and ethical relationships between all people. I call this new brand of universalism, Ethical Universalism.
One example of such a text is called The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides. This document is in many ways typical of Greek wisdom literature that was produced during this time, but betrays a Jewish identity. The book comprises instructive statements regarding how one should live.
References to Jewish scriptures and ideas are threaded throughout Pseudo-Phocylides. Among its many allusions to the Septuagint, Pseudo-Phocylides opens with a paraphrase of the Decalogue of Exodus 20, coupled with a paraphrase of Leviticus 19, which emphasizes proper behavioral and ritual conduct. Oddly, the paraphrases of these biblical passages include only its ethical injunctions. Pseudo-Phocylides mentions every one of the ten commandments, for example, except for the requirement to observe the Sabbath.
In another intriguing passage, the author combined Greek beliefs with Jewish ones:
Do not dig up the grave of the deceased, nor expose to the sun what may not be seen, lest you stir up the divine anger. It is not good to dissolve the human frame; for we hope that the remains of the departed will soon come to the light (again) out of the earth; and afterward they will become gods. For the souls remain unharmed among the deceased. For the spirit is a loan of God to mortals, and (his) image. For we have a body out of earth, and when afterward we are resolved again into earth we are but dust; and then the air has received our spirit. When you are rich, do not be sparing; remember that you are mortal. It is impossible to take riches and money (with you) into Hades. All alike are corpses, but God rules over the souls. Hades is (our) common eternal home and fatherland, a common place for all, poor and kings. We humans live not a long time but for a season. But (our) soul is immortal and lives ageless forever. (Pseudo-Phocylides 100–115; trans. P. Van der Horst)
This is one of the strangest passages in the corpus of Second Temple literature. On the one hand, the author explicitly expresses his confidence in resurrection. His statement that “we hope that the remains of the departed will soon come … out of the earth” reflects a belief that, in the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, was a specifically Jewish idea. On the other hand, the author insists that the soul is immortal. He does not try to harmonize these two seemingly contradictory ideas, but simply articulates them alongside one another.
The Third Sibylline Oracle is another Early Jewish text that employs universalist ideas. Sibylline Oracles were documents that were mostly of pagan Roman origin and attributed to female prophetesses called Sibyls. The Third Sibylline Oracle is believed by scholars to be written by a (male) Jew, probably in the late Second Temple period. This oracle employs well known aspects of other Sibylline Oracles, but cites the Septuagint and makes explicit references to the Abrahamic family and early Israelite history. It also condemns idolatry in the strongest terms, and presumes that all of humankind must worship the One True God.
While the author of the Third Sibylline Oracle presents the Israelites as admirable examples of people who reject idolatry, he stops short of suggesting that Gentiles must convert to Judaism. On the contrary, his message is that all humans must reject idolatrous practices:
[The descendants of Abraham] do not worry about the cyclic course of the sun or the moon or monstrous things under the earth nor the depth of the grim sea, Oceanus, nor portents of sneezes, nor birds of augerers, nor seers, nor sorcerers, nor soothsayers, nor the deceits of foolish words of ventriloquists. Neither do they practice the astrological predictions of the Chaldeans nor astronomy. For all these things are erroneous, such as foolish men inquire into day by day, exercising themselves at a profitless task. (Third Sibylline Oracle 221–230; trans. J. J. Collins)
For the author, God gave all of humankind a share in the universe:
Always a prosperous man among the people gives a share of the harvest to those who have nothing, but are poor, fulfilling the word of the great God, the hymn of the law, for the Heavenly One gave the earth in common [koinen] to all. (Third Sibylline Oracle 244–247; trans. J. J. Collins)
This statement underscores the commonality of all humankind: those who have more than they need have an obligation to provide for the poor; all people comprise a common population of people who are responsible for one another.
Second Temple Era texts, therefore, point towards an opposite conclusion on Jewish universalism: Documents that employ Ethical Universalist ideas such as Pseudo-Phocylides and the Third Sibylline Oracle are explicitly Jewish and conscientiously omit references to the distinguishing aspects of Jewish law. They do make reference to beliefs that were unique to Judaism, such as resurrection, and beliefs that were not unique to Judaism but foundational to it, such as monotheism. These texts also paraphrase obscure verses in the Septuagint that would not have been well known in the Greco-Roman world.
Universalism as a Stoic Innovation
The idea that all of humankind should live in common with one another was not invented by Jews. It was a concept first expressed by Stoic philosophers in the second century BCE, at the same time that Jews, particularly Jews in cosmopolitan regions such as Alexandria and Antioch, were becoming prolific. In the early period of Stoicism, philosophers began to explore not how one might achieve true wisdom, but the nature of humankind. This led to a shift from studying the nature of the elite sage-philosopher to studying the nature of the common person. At the core of this new perspective was the idea that all people were essentially the same. Based on this sameness, all people had a mutual obligation to care for one another.
The founder of Stoic thought, Zeno, is the first to be credited with this idea, but it entered into mainstream Roman society in the first century BCE when rhetoricians such as Cicero began to emphasize in their public speeches the commonality of all humankind. In his De Finibus, for example, Cicero refers to humankind as a series of concentric circles, where the individual lies at the center, and is connected to all other people in varying degrees. The inner circle is his kin, the next one is his friends, and so on (De Fin. 3.19.63, 5.23.65).
The Stoic idea that all people live in common with one another meant that certain rules and values could be advanced that all people should strive to achieve. Household codes, for instance, which are well known from some of Paul’s letters that are preserved in the New Testament, were first expressed by Stoic thinkers who believed that all household units should adhere to common practices. Likewise, Stoic writers composed vice lists and virtue lists, that is, lists of qualities that people should strive to avoid or attain. These lists became prominent in early Christian writings, but before early Christians used them, Jews writing in the late Second Temple period were writing lists of their own.
Scholars who have argued that early Christians were influenced by Stoic thought miss a key link: early Christians were influenced by contemporary Jewish thought, which, a century or two centuries earlier, had already been profoundly affected by Stoic thinking.
What Happened to Jewish Universalism?
The Jewish community in which universalism most thrived was Alexandria and its environs. Many of the most well circulated texts that advanced universalist ideas, such as the Third Sibylline Oracle and Pseudo-Phocylides, were likely produced within an Alexandrian Jewish context. Yet the Jewish community that once flourished in this great city did not stand the test of time. While hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in the city during the late Second Temple period and reached high levels of social and political integration, they also came into direct conflict with the Romans, Greeks, and native Egyptians who were their neighbors.
We know of at least two major clashes between the Alexandrian Jews and their Gentile neighbors. The first of these came in 38 CE, when violent anti-Jewish riots broke out in the city. According to the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, the Roman prefect Flaccus stood by and allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, the violence. Synagogues were set on fire, homes were destroyed, and many Jews were killed or escaped with their lives. Philo was one of five Jewish delegates sent from Alexandria to Rome in order to appeal to the Emperor, Gaius Caligula, to intervene on behalf of Alexandrian Jews. Caligula rejected their appeal, and Philo and his colleagues returned to Alexandria, humiliated. Philo wrote about this incident extensively in two of his treatises, Embassy to Gaius and For Flaccus.
We know of another major clash between Jews and Romans that occurred almost a century later, in 115–117 CE. This clash is known in rabbinic literature as the War of Kitos. The word Kitos is probably a reference to Lucius Quietus, the general who was assigned with the task of quelling the Jewish uprising by the Emperor Trajan. Scholars are not certain how this clash came about, and Roman historians who wrote about this war are biased in favor of Rome. What we do know is that this war spelled the end of Alexandrian Jewry. Following 117, we have no more evidence for a thriving Jewish presence in Alexandria. The demise of Alexandrian Jewry and of the prolific literature it produced signaled the end of the greatest diasporan Jewish community in the Second Temple period.
Over the next centuries, the rabbinic community in the land of Israel and in Babylonia would begin to organize, arrange, and record the legal material that it had produced. This material would come to represent a form of normative Judaism that both marginalized universalist ideas, and incorporated them.
Universalism in Rabbinic Literature
The universalist and particularist ideas that Jewish authors were expressing in the Second Temple period extend into rabbinic literature. As is the case in Second Temple literature, universalist thought is not presented in lieu of particularist thought in rabbinic texts; both strands appear at the foreground of various texts. As we explore a few of these passages, it is useful to remember that the authors of these legends did not have access to terms that were equivalent to “universalist” and “particularist.” It is doubtful that they saw these concepts as actual categories, let alone as contradictory ones.
According to Leviticus 23, the Israelites must observe the first day of the seventh month (the biblical calendar begins in the Spring, in Nissan), but a reason for this celebration is not given:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offering by fire.(Lev. 23:23–25; NRSV)
While the biblical mandate to observe the first day of the seventh month is specific to Israel, a midrashic legend presents this holiday as the day on which all of humankind is judged by God. The day is not specific to Israel, and Adam, the first man, becomes the paradigmatic human who is judged in the same way that all of his descendants will be judged. The departure here from the biblical description of the New Year is striking. In the rabbinic imagination, this holiday is celebrated as the New Year, and the beginning of the ten-day period of universal judgment that culminates in Yom Kippur:
Rabbi Eliezer taught: The world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul This is in keeping with the spirit of the Shofar service of the rabbis in which it is written, zeh hayom t’khilat ma’asekha… This day marks the beginning of creation…on it (judgment) is pronounced upon the nations of the world, which to the sword, which to peace, which to famine, which to plenty, which to death, and which to life; on this day all creatures are noted and remembered, for life, for death. Thus we see that Adam was created on Rosh HaShana.
In the first hour Adam emerges as a thought in God’s mind; in the second, God consults the angels; in the third God gathers the dust; in the fourth God kneads the dust; in the fifth God joins the parts; in the sixth God stood Adam up as an unanimated corpus; in the seventh God breathed life into him; in the eighth God brought him into the Garden; in the ninth God commanded him; in the tenth he transgressed the commandment; in the eleventh he was judged; in the twelfth he went forth from the Holy One’s presence a free person. The Holy One said to Adam, “This is a sign for your children. Even as you came into my presence for judgment on this day and went forth free, so will your children come into my presence for judgment on this day and go forth free.” When? Year in and year out, in the seventh month, in the first day of the month (Lev 23:24). (Pesikta D’Rab Kahana 23; trans. Y. Poupko)
In this midrash, the New Year has equal import for all of humankind: all people are judged by God. Rather than being a holiday that all Israelites must observe, as it is depicted in Leviticus, God Himself proclaims this day as being significant for all of Adam’s descendants, that is, for all of humanity.
Other rabbinic statements contain explicit universalist material as well, such as the following statement in the early midrashic collection Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael:
“They encamped in the wilderness” (Exod 19:2) The Torah was given [démos, parrésia] in a free place. For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, "You have no share in it." But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly, in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it. could come and accept it. (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bahodesh 1; trans. M. Hirshman)
This passage depicts the Torah as a gift that was given in an open space, a space owned by no monarchy or empire, in order to signify that all people have access to its teachings. Marc Hirshman has noted that the concept of the open space being a forum in which all residents of city life can participate in political discourse was a specifically Greek idea, which testifies to the fluidity of Greek and Jewish ideas that circulated at this time.
Many Jews in the Second Temple period believed that Israel shares a special relationship with God, and at the same time, that all people are capable of participating in a covenantal relationship with God. But as boundaries between religious communities began to lose their fluidity in the early centuries of the Common Era, Jewish universalism became untenable outside of a legal framework. While many Christians embraced the idea that all of humanity can participate in the same covenantal community through a common faith in Christ, the rabbis based their brand of Judaism not on world-wide accessibility, but on a commitment to a common legal system which encompassed ethical values. What makes the Second Temple period so unique is that much of its literature sees no need for hard distinctions between religious communities. At the same time, it was this period during which the most fundamental aspects of what would become rabbinic Judaism took form.