Have you ever had a spirited disagreement with anyone? Have you been filled with indignation over what you were convinced was their wrong view? If you have lived for any length of time, you have been incensed over the views and philosophies of others.
But, you have not carried it as far as the Shammaites did around 66 AD. There were two great teachers in the time right before the incarnation of Christ, Hillel and Shammai. They frequently found themselves on the opposite sides of a doctrine or Jewish tradition, and it is said they often took a position just to oppose the view the other took. Perhaps the most famous disagreement occurred over what cause(s) one could divorce his wife under the old law. Hillel took the broader, more liberal view, while Shammai’s view of Deuteronomy 24:1 restricted the grounds to unchastity. In fact, Hillelites were often viewed as the faction taking the moral liberal view, though that was not always the case.
Alfred Edersheim relates the account of a particular dispute between these two groups over a number of questions. The more nationalistic Shammaites pushed hard for a particularly anti- Gentile interpretation of 18 questions. Edersheim writes, “In general, the tendency of these eighteen decrees was of the most violently anti-Gentile, intolerant, and exclusive character” (484). The meeting to decide these 18 questions was held in the home of a Shammaite, and supposedly the Shammaites waited for the Hillelites in a lower room, murdering many of them (ibid., 166). This gave the Shammaites the majority needed to have their views carried, and Edersheim builds a compelling case that these strongly anti-Gentile decrees led to war with Rome and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24.
The Shammaites would have considered themselves the purists and the conservatives, but they compromised biblical commands and principles in order to promote and defend their views. This is a tendency against which we must guard ourselves. We might be tempted to “stretch the truth,” exaggerate the facts, or outright lie in order to “defeat” someone whose beliefs or teaching loose what God has bound. We may gossip about someone whose immoral behavior we disapprove of. We might sin with our tongue or behavior in our indignation concerning a behavior or person we believe sinful. The haunting reality, though, is that sin is sin. Sinning to defeat sin is completely contradictory and futile. The Shammaites illustrate this. In fighting sin and immorality, we must keep our integrity and moral scruples intact. Otherwise, we are the same as the very ones we seek to condemn.
Edersheim, Alfed. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).