Shammai and Hillel were two influential Jewish rabbis whose commentaries on the Torah shaped Jewish theology and philosophy for hundreds of years. The Shammaite and Hillelite schools were the two dominant approaches to Jewish Law during the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Unfortunately, the destruction of the temple in AD 70 resulted in the loss of most records relating to the debates between these two groups. The Hillelite school quickly gained dominance after the temple was razed, so much of what we know about first-century Hillelite and Shammaite law comes exclusively from later Hillelite writers. These writers portray the Shammaite-Hillelite divide in a manner similar to modern two-party politics, with each side seemingly bound and determined to contradict the other on everything.
According to tradition, Shammai was a Pharisee who taught in the years just prior to Jesus’ birth. In his commentary on the Law, he emphasized the need for temple rituals, and his interpretation is characterized as strict, literalist, and Israel-centric. The school that followed those interpretations is referred to as the Shammaite interpretation of Jewish Law.
Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Shammai, was less concerned with temple worship. His commentary is seen as being more liberal, tolerant, and accepting of Gentiles. Hillel was also known for codifying traditional patterns for exegesis into seven individual rules. His Hillelite school was a rival to the Shammaite approach. After the destruction of the temple, the influence of the Shammaite school faded, and Hillel’s philosophy became the dominant approach to Jewish Law for more than 400 years.
Scholars are unsure how many of the differences between the Shammaite and Hillelite schools are factual and how many are the products of revisionist history. While Jewish scholars prior to AD 70 make frequent reference to the disagreements between these two groups, the vast majority of surviving records are from Hillelite writers. It’s possible that the Hillelites exaggerated some of the differences between Shammai and Hillel in order to portray Hillel in a more heroic light.
Even with such open questions, it’s clear that the interplay between Shammai and Hillel influenced Judaism during the early Christian era. The rivalry between the two schools greatly contributed to Judaism’s growing belief that the oral law—such as promoted in the Shammaite or Hillelite schools—was as authoritative as the written Torah.
Some scholars debate which school, Shammaite or Hillelite, had a greater influence on the theology of the New Testament. Jesus’ restrictive rules on divorce echo those of Shammai, while Hillel allowed for a wider range of acceptable reasons to end a marriage. Jesus also phrased the “Golden Rule” using a more challenging, positive expression, in contrast to Hillel’s lighter, negative expression of the same basic idea. At the same time, Jesus was welcoming of non-Jewish people and often castigated the Pharisees for their excessive legalism. The fact is that Jesus presented the truth, and His agreement with either Shammai or Hillel was secondary and coincidental. Jesus spoke the Father’s Word, and His teaching cannot be seen as a defense of any rabbi (John 12:49).
There is also an academic debate over the influence of Shammai and Hillel on the theology of the apostle Paul. On one hand, Paul was a student of Gamaliel, who came from the Hillelite school and might have even been Hillel’s grandson. But, prior to his conversion, Paul (Saul) was hardly a tolerant, Gentile-friendly Pharisee. Rather, in opposition to Gamaliel’s teaching, Paul took a severe stance. And in his letters Paul expresses an Israel-centric, all-or-nothing obedience to the Law (Romans 3:19–28; cp. James 2:10), which many scholars would identify more with Shammai. Of course, as he was writing inspired Scripture, Paul was not concerned with what rabbi might have had a past influence upon him; he was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” and wrote what the Spirit wanted (2 Peter 1:21).
Ultimately, the differences between Shammaite and Hillelite interpretations of Jewish Law are more a matter of historical trivia than a major concern for Christianity. While their influence on Jewish theology might have been significant, the teachings of Shammai and Hillel are ultimately irrelevant against the contents of Scripture and the actual teachings of Jesus Christ.