Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Am Ha'arez

AM HA’AREZ (צַם הָאָרָץ) means literally ‘the people of the land.’ Sometimes—particularly in later books of OT—it is found in the plural ‘ë hâ’ârez or ‘ë hâ’ărâzôth. Its use in the time of Christ indicates the following development:—From being (1) applied to the ordinary inhabitants of the land (Genesis 23:7; Genesis 23:12-13) or to the people at large as a body (2 Kings 11:14; 2 Kings 11:18-20; 2 Kings 15:5; 2 Kings 16:15; 2 Kings 21:24 etc.), the term came (2) to be used to designate the common people as distinguished from the king, princes, priests, etc. (Jeremiah 44:21, Haggai 2:4, Zechariah 7:5), and (3) like ‘pagan’ from , was applied to those remote from or untouched by the culture (particularly religious culture) of the time, till it became (4) finally, an expression of contempt meaning ‘uncultured,’ ‘rude,’ ‘barbarous,’ ‘irreligious,’ applied to a certain class or even to a member of that class. To the ‘hâ’ârez the Pharisees directly refer in John 7:49 ‘This multitude which knoweth not the Law are accursed.’

The origin of this cleavage is found in the OT. At the Exile we are told ‘none were left save the very poor of the people of the land’ (רַלַח עַם חָאָרָץ 2 Kings 24:14). These mingled with the neighbouring non-Israelites and perhaps also with the settlers from Assyria, intermarrying with them, and probably adopting their customs. Hence at the Return both Ezra and Nehemiah demanded a complete separation (Ezra 9:1; Ezra 9:12, Nehemiah 10:28-31) between the returned exiles who observed the Law strictly, and those settlers who constituted ‘the people of the land.’

This idea developed and led to the formation of a party called ‘Separatists,’ Hăsidim or Pĕrûshim (Aram. [Note: Aramaic.] Pĕrishayyâ’; see art. ‘Pharisees’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. p. 826b), who regarded all contact with the vulgar crowd (‘am hâ’ârez) as defiling, observed a strict régime of ceremonial purity, and called each other hâbçr (i.e. ‘brother’). The ‘am hâ’ârez was the antithesis of the hâbçr, outside the pale of this higher Judaism, poor, ignorant of the Law, despised. In Rabbinical literature, where he is always regarded as a Jew, many definitions of the ‘am hâ’ârez are given. Thus in the Talmud (Berakhôth 47b) he is described as one ‘who does not give his tithes regularly,’ or ‘who does not read the Shema morning and evening,’ or ‘who does not wear tĕphillim,’ or ‘who has no mĕzûzâh on his doorposts,’ or ‘who fails to teach his children the Law,’ or ‘who has not associated with the learned.’ Montefiore in his Hibbert Lectures denies that such sharp cleavage between the Hăsidim and the ‘am hâ’ârez ever existed save in the minds of later Rabbis who had difficulty in defining ‘am hâ’ârez, and consequently he questions the authenticity of John 7:49, but on insufficient grounds. A great gulf and much bitterness existed between the two. A Pharisee would not accept the evidence of an ‘am hâ’ârez as a witness, nor give him his daughter in marriage. Even the touch of the garment of an ‘am hâ’ârez was defiling; and Lazarus (Ethics of Judaism) quotes a saying, ‘An ‘am hâ’ârez may be killed on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, or torn like a fish.’ This can hardly be taken literally; yet it illustrates the feeling which doubtless prevailed in the time of Christ towards the ‘am hâ’ârez. The mind of Jesus triumphed over this narrow spirit. In these poor despised outcasts He saw infinite possibilities for goodness. They were the objects of His special care. To them had the Father sent Him, for at the very worst they were only ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6).

Literature.—Jewish Encyclopedia (art. ‘Am-haaretz’); Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 40 [English HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 22]; Weher, Jud. Theol.3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (Index, s. ‘Am haarez’); Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, i. 85; Wunsche, Der Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Talm. [Note: Talmud.] ii. i. 295; Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism, English translation i. Appendix, note 48a, 258; C. G. Montefiore, Hibbert Lectures, 1892, ‘Origin and Growth of Hebrew Religion,’ pp. 497–502; Rosenthal, Vier Apokryphische Bücher, pp. 25–29; Hamburger, RE [Note: E Realencyklopädie.] ii. 54–56.

G. Gordon Stott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Am Ha'arez'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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