Simon the Just was the last of the generation which considered that knowledge of the Torah and its interpretations was the exclusive privilege of the priests. He had numerous disciples among whom were many non-priests. Antigonos of Socho was one of the latter and he came to occupy the position of Simon the Just in the continuation of scholastic development.
There is even some doubt as to whether Antigonos was the direct successor of Simon the Just or whether he lived some generations later. But since history does not mention any intermediate personality between the two, we can rely on the Mishnah1)אָבות פרק א׳ משנה ג׳. that Antigonos received his knowledge directly from Simon the Just.
The name Antigonos, which is Greek, is characteristic of the time. We already described how the name Alexander came to be accepted among Jews and it is possible that the name Antigonos was popularized in a similar manner. One of the Greek governors of Palestine, Antigonos by name, showed kindness to the Jews and out of gratitude to him they decided to immortalize his name. However, it is more logical to assume that the Hellenist movement which sought to bring the Jews closer to Greek customs was already in vogue at that time, for we find many Greek names in popular use such as Antigonos, Aristobul, Boetus and others. Even the “Great Court” in Jerusalem was known by the Greek name “Synhedrion” and this name was later sanctified through popular use. During the time of Antigonos there developed a crisis in Jewish thought; it is probable that the spirit of philosophic doubt became prevalent in the country and, against his will, Antigonos contributed to its spread.
He frequently used to say: When you serve God, be not like servants who serve the master with the expectation of receiving gifts but rather be like servants who serve the master without expecting gifts and the fear of Heaven will be upon you. Two of his pupils, Zadok and Boetus, who heard his words said: What can be the meaning of these words? Can a person expect that his servant work for him all day without receiving compensation? We must conclude that our teacher would not say so if he believed in a life to come and the resurrection of the dead.
Zadok and Boetus thereupon founded a new mode of living and organized a new party which came to be known as Sadducees or Boetusians. This party began to imitate the extravagant mode of living of the Greeks under the following pretext: Why should a person deny himself the pleasures of life if he can await nothing after death? In time this party evolved new forms of observing Judaism which were different from those of the majority of the people, they clung to the literal meaning of the commandments of the Torah as against the traditions of the scholars. For that reason they denied the resurrection of the dead and also the theory of compensation and punishment in a life to come. They ridiculed the belief of the masses that a new redemption would be brought by a Messiah since the conditions then prevailing could not be the culmination of the dreams of the prophets.
Jews very particularly observed all regulations pertaining to the “uncleanliness of the dead.” Upon dying a person ceased to exist for his family and friends and the body was given over to strangers for burial. The Sadducees considered this procedure disrespectful toward one’s parents since one could not be sure what was done with the bodies. In rejecting the traditions they insisted that the commandment “an eye for an eye” should be interpreted literally and not, as the Talmudic scholars claimed, that monetary compensation was sufficient.
Antigonos lived in a time of constant wars between the kings of Egypt and Syria. Palestine was frequently the battle-ground of the warring armies and it was impossible to maintain order and to assure the security of life. Plunderers invaded the land from outside and when these left, the population was further impoverished by domestic banditry. Learning was on the decline. In a time of changes it was necessary to modify the Torah to adapt it to the needs of the day, but there was no one capable of doing this. As a result of this the people neglected their studies and Judaism was being forgotten. For nearly a hundred years the people lived in ignorance and spiritual poverty until the historical circumstances changed when the throne of Syria was occupied by a king who interfered with the religious life of the Jews and undertook to destroy the entire Jewish religion
Alexander the Great followed the principle of religious tolerance toward the peoples of his empire. This principle was adhered to by his followers. Any deviation from the religious observances on the part of the Jews occurred as a result of their own neglect. This condition lasted until Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria attempted to impose his religion on all the peoples of his kingdom. Among the Jews this attempt led to the revolt of the Hasmoneans which started a new epoch in Jewish history.
The belief that God protects the Jewish nation and will punish their enemies was deeply rooted among the people. They believed that the historical events chronicled in the Torah were not related just as historical events but that their aim was to teach the people to understand the rules according to which the world was being governed This was held to be the intention of Moses in describing the war with Amalek so that coming generations may know how to deal with the Amalekites who warred against the Jews in their wanderings in the desert after their first liberation.
Considerable attention was also given to the Hebrew language. Upon returning from Babylonia the people spoke a mixture of the neighboring languages together with Hebrew. Later the Syrian Greek language predominated. The court of the Hasmoneans then commanded that Hebrew should be employed as the spoken language. This ancient language had lost some of the power of its expression, but it developed again until it could be used to express all concepts.
In the development of the Hebrew language, both Aramaic and Greek were borrowed from extensively for certain new expressions.