Chapter Two



Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He would have grown up with stories of conquest and oppression. These stories recounted the many waves of foreign invasion that sought to subjugate the Jewish people. The Roman occupation of Israel (63 BCE.) was the last in a long line of invasions beginning with the Babylonians (539 BCE), then the Persians and the Greeks. Jewish identity also rested on stories of the Patriarchs--Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--as well as the founding story of the Moses-led liberation from the Egyptians at the Exodus. There were yet other stories that recounted successful self-rule under the Hebrew kings Saul, David and Solomon. However, history records that the Jewish people were more often the victims than the victors in their fight for national sovereignty.

Hebrew identity was maintained--as it is with most oppressed peoples--through a deep spiritual conviction. This conviction was expressed in terms of a Covenant theology: the belief that Yahweh had chosen them to play a unique role in the history of the world. In particular, the Jewish people had come to expect a Messiah who, they believed, would enable them to fulfill this divine mission. There were differing understandings of the mission and role of the Messiah ranging from the establishment of a Jewish political kingdom here on earth to the eschatological notion of a heavenly kingdom at the end of the world (which many Jewish people considered to be immanent). It goes without saying that religion and politics were deeply intertwined in Hebrew faith and self-understanding.

By the time of Jesus' birth, the Romans had established a two-tiered system of government consisting of Roman overseers and Jewish leaders who exercised control in the name of Rome. This was the system of power in which the family of Herod the Great grew to prominence. Although half-Jews, the Herodian family was detested by the Jewish people for its tyrannical rule and also because of its key role in selling out the Jewish heritage to a foreign power. One of Herod's sons, Archelaus, was so brutal in his exercise of power in Jerusalem, that Rome replaced him with one of its own governors, Pontius Pilate, who was to play a significant role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Another of the sons, Herod Antipas, was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist. It was the same Antipas who is accredited with the mocking of Jesus at his pre-crucifixion trial.


Life in Galilee

Jesus was a Nazarene. He lived most of his life in the town of Nazareth within the province of Galilee. Although a small village, Nazareth was close to the metropolitan centres of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Unlike those predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) cities, Nazareth was a Jewish enclave. It was also relatively poor and overpopulated; there was a scarcity of natural resources such as water and fertile soil. In such a situation, there tended to be a fair amount of sickness and disease. Nonetheless, Nazareth could not be called destitute. Jesus came from a family of craftsmen or carpenters which suggests a reasonable socio-economic standard of living.

Education was a priority for Jewish people. Jesus would have learnt the Bible at the village school (until the age of twelve) and at the local synagogue. This accounts for Jesus' knowledge of Hebrew (the language of the Bible) and Aramaic (the language in which religious discussion was held). It was also the custom of the time for young adults to attach themselves to a local teacher or sage. Although we know little of Jesus' young adult life, we do know that he eventually chose to be a disciple of John the Baptist. Certainly, by the time of his 'public ministry', Jesus was well versed in the Scriptures and the Jewish tradition. This suggests that he spent many years learning and discussing his Jewish faith and heritage.



Jerusalem was the centre of the Jewish world. Male Jews were supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple for the three major Jewish feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. However, since Nazareth was a three or four day journey from Jerusalem (about a hundred miles), it is unlikely that Jesus made the trip often. The Gospels tell us that he went with his family at the age of twelve. He also visited Jerusalem during his public life (once or three times depending on the Gospel). On one visit to the temple, Jesus is recorded as reacting violently to those who were using the temple for commercial purposes. It is highly probable that this action of Jesus is related to his trial and eventual execution. Of further historical interest is the fact that the temple was destroyed by the Romas in 70 CE.


Society and politics

Judaism at the time of Jesus was a complex mixture of divergent social, political and religious ideologies. In general terms, we can speak of four distinct movements, ideologies or life-options. It is helpful to situate Jesus in terms of these social groups of his day in order that we can come to appreciate the distinctiveness of his own life and mission.

The Zealot movement took the revolutionary option. It advocated outward violence, even armed rebellion, to rid Israel of Roman oppression. Nothing else, they figured, would bring final liberation to the Jewish people. Depending on the point of view, Zealots were looked upon as freedom-fighters or terrorists. One thinks of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or activities of the Irish Republican Army during the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland. Certainly Jesus had zealots among his followers, for example 'Simon the Zealot'. Moreover, Jesus came into conflict with both the Jewish temple and the Roman state. Finally, he was executed as a zealot revolutionary. However, few would argue that Jesus was a violent revolutionary. Like other non-violent figures in history, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus posed a more radical threat to the established order than any armed person might do.

The Sadduccees were the great pragmatists of the day. As wealthy lay-nobles, priests and aristocrats, they sought to conserve their wealth and power through comprosmise with Rome. Politically speaking, this was the most realistic option. Most of the members of the Sanhedrin were from the Sadduccee group. In many ways, the Sadduccees could be described as the least religious group as is evidenced by their non-belief in the resurrection from the dead. However, it would be wrong to see them as agnostics or atheists as some have argued. They were committed to the Jewish faith on the basis of the earlier books of the bible. Moreover, as the people at the top of the pecking order in the Jewish society of their time, they were much more concerned with present-day affairs than speculation on the life-to-come. In the Gospels, it is evidently the Sadduccees who are the main opponents of Jesus at the time of his trial and death. They rightly saw that Jesus' radical brand of religion threatened their power and status.

The Pharisees were in many ways the idealists of Jewish society. Most of the Scribes (the 'theologians' of the day) were Pharisees. In general, despite their 'bad press' in the Gospels, the Pharisees sought to live a life of spiritual purity by a meticulous following of the torah (Jewish law). They did not believe in compromise with the Romans (as did the Sadduccees) nor in revolutionary activity (as did the Zealots). No doubt their emphasis on the law could result in legalism which may, in turn, become a pretext for hypocrisy. Nonetheless, many Pharisees were highly committed and deeply spiritual people. They believed in the resurrection of the dead. From their perspective, Jesus seemed to relativize the law which explains their anger towards him.

Finally, there were the Essenes who solved the problem of Jewish identity in a Roman-occupied Israel by withdrawing to a monastic-like setting. They were, if you like, the hippies of the day insofar as they completely opted out of mainstream Jewish society. The most notable group in Jesus' time was the Qumran community who lived an ascetic life and were waiting for God's apocalyptic intervention in human history. It is unlikely that Jesus had any contact with this particular group. Still, he was introduced to the ascetical option through his contact with the disciples of John the Baptist who represented a quasi-Essenic withdrawal from maintstream society. Jesus' public ministry demonstrates his decision to engage directly with the wider members of his society.

Consequently, while Jesus had dealings with the various socio-political groups and religious ideologies of his his time, he took his own unique life-option. It was a position that had certain parallels with the likes of his mentor, John the Baptist, though there are significant differences in their teachings and ministry. Some scholars compare Jesus to a near-contemporary of his, a teacher named Hillel. Both Jesus and Hillel had profound respect for the Jewish torah, but they were also renowned for preaching compassion, forgiveness and love. Their ministries were profoundly people-oriented. However, Jesus was more than a teacher. He was also experienced as prophet, miracle-worker, healer, defender of the poor and oppressed. Nonetheless, Jesus' distinctiveness needs to be appreciated in the context of his Jewish life and times. This was a context in which religion and politics were intertwined in a much more complex way than we think of them today.


 Back to Christology Home Page