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A lengthy commentary today from Dr Brian Gleeson as he explores the Jewish world in which the historical Jesus lived. If you think the politics of the world in which we live is complicated spare a thought for Jesus and the politics of the world in which he found himself operating. This commentary sits with the parallel series of commentaries we are running by Vynette Holliday and should also be considered within the context of the interesting discussions opening up on our forum exploring the Jewishness of Jesus and the implications for our thinking today. The commentaries, and the forum discussions, might help open up to the intelligent lay reader a more nuanced way of interpreting what we read or hear in the Scriptural accounts of the life of Jesus.
POLITICS AND CONFLICTS
As a backdrop to the mission and ministry of Jesus in first-century Palestine, it is necessary to understand their historical context. This includes the power plays that left their mark.
The Ptolemies and the Seleucids
For an understanding of first-century Palestine one has to begin with the first waves of invasion from the west that began with Alexander the Great from Macedonia. By the time of his death in 323 BC he had conquered most of the Mediterranean world. After his death the attempt was made to consolidate the territories he conquered by carving them up between two of his generals, Seleucid and Ptolemy. The Seleucids were based in Antioch of Syria, the Ptolemies in Alexandria of Egypt. For the first century of Greek occupation, the Ptolemies ruled Israel, but since Egypt was so far away from Palestine the Jews experienced little interference in their internal affairs. But gradually Greek culture began to seep into Jewish thought and life in the form of theatres, public baths, gymnasiums, as well as trade and political associations. Meanwhile Galilee in the north came under the rule of the Seleucids in nearby Antioch. Greek soldiers and their families came to settle in Galilee. Greek influence became so profound that the region came to be known by its biblical nickname "Galilee of the Gentiles". In 198 BC the whole of Israel came under Seleucid rule. At first its rulers let the province of Judea enjoy autonomous local rule, but not for long. A thirst for revenues brought this experiment to an end. In 190 BC Roman naval forces dealt the Greeks a crippling blow. To sustain the Greek war effort and to pay taxes to the Roman authorities, the Seleucid rulers imposed cruel and systematic taxation on Israel.
Two reactions to foreign invasion and occupation
On the one hand, the landed wealthy, those in positions of power, and the priestly aristocracy sought ways to accommodate their Greek overlords. But another group called the Hasidim or "pious ones" considered compromise with Greek culture a threat to religious fidelity. From these two streams of reaction were born many of the factions that dominated the religious and political life of Jesus' own day.
In 167 BC the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, tried to capture Ptolemaic territory in Egypt, but he was thwarted by the Romans. Hearing of his defeat, rebels in Judea attempted to overthrow the Greeks' puppet ruler in Jerusalem. Antiochus, however, plundered and destroyed Jerusalem on his way back from Egypt. Worse, he desecrated the Jerusalem temple and enshrined a statue of Zeus in its Holy of Holies. Judea, led by the Hasmonean family of Matthias and his sons, erupted in revolt. For his ferocity in opposing the Gentile enemy, one of the sons, Judas, got the nickname Maccabeus i.e. "the hammer". (Their exploits are revered in the two biblical books of Maccabees.) The resistance of the rebels achieved a surprising victory. By 164 BC the hated statue of Zeus had been removed and the temple purified and rededicated. In 142 BC the Seleucids granted full independence to Israel, which would last for almost a century until its conquest by the Romans.
The Hasmoneans as rulers, however, were disappointing failures, aping the worst features of the Seleucids. One particularly offensive action was Jonathan Hasmonean's acceptance of the "gift" of the high priesthood from the Seleucid ruler, in violation of the tradition of hereditary accession to the office. Throughout the time of their troubles with their rulers many Jews left Israel and settled throughout the Mediterranean world. The term Diaspora, from the Greek for "disperse" or "scatter", was applied to Jews living outside the land of Israel. There were probably several million of them living in the Diaspora in Jesus' time.
Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees
Under the rule of the Hasmoneans, those being ruled found they had much to fear from their rulers. But reactions were not uniform. For the first time the various religious and social groups familiar to Jesus began to be clearly defined.
The Sadducees were a priestly aristocracy with their power base in Jerusalem and the Temple. They worked out an accommodation with the Hasmoneans just as they had done with the Seleucids.
Cave Four is the most famous of the Dead Sea Scroll caves. It is also the most significant in terms of finds. More than 15,000 fragments from over 200 books were found in this cave, nearly all by Bedouin thieves. 122 biblical scrolls (or fragments) were found in this cave. From all 11 Qumran caves, every Old Testament book is represented except Esther. No New Testament books or fragments have been found. For pictures of other caves and further information visit: www.bibleplaces.com/
Another life option in the face of political oppression was to withdraw from active political and religious life in outrage and disgust. Groups like the Essenes formed monastic communities where they strove to live with the utmost religious purity. This entailed complete fidelity to the Law, while they waited for the Messiah and for the restoration of an authentic priesthood and liturgy at the defiled Jerusalem temple. Ruins of an Essene monastery were discovered in 1947 on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, near the desert valley of Qumran. The discovery included the monastery's "library" of scrolls that had been stored or hidden in caves near the main buildings. These Dead Sea Scrolls, as they are known, give a fascinating insight into the mentality of this breakaway group and an inside view of some of the religious ferment of the Hasmonean period. Their raison d"etre was the Law which was studied twenty-four hours a day. Their leader seems to have been a priest known as the "Teacher of Righteousness". Their rule of life was called the Manual of Discipline. They prepared for a war of the end-time, as they waited for two messianic figures, a Davidic Messiah and a priestly one, the Messiah of Aaron. During the revolt of 66-70 AD the Romans destroyed their monastery at Qumran. This seems to have destroyed their movement too. Although they existed in the time of Jesus, there is no indication that he was ever directly connected with this group. But John the Baptist may reflect some of their thinking and values.
The Pharisees were a lay movement that arose in the second century BC. They sought to extend the temple purity rules to all Jews. They emphasized meals in common with religious discussions. They steered a middle course between the compromise of the Sadducees and the radical withdrawal of the Essenes. They were influential with the people as strict and faithful upholders of the religious laws of Judaism. But at times they tended towards such rigid and heartless application of laws that Jesus found himself in conflict with them. With few exceptions NT writers present them as opposed to Jesus. Matthew, in chapter 23 attributes to Jesus harsh words against them.
Hasmonean expansion and misrule
Soon the foreign policy of the Hasmoneans became as expansionist as that of the Greeks. They annexed Idumea, the desert territory south of Judea. They forced its inhabitants to accept the Jewish faith. It is ironic that King Herod and his family, who with the assistance of the Roman occupiers would form the dynasty that would replace the Hasmoneans, were Idumeans. Herod's Idumean background meant that the genuineness of his faith would always be suspect in the eyes of most mainline Jews.
Samaria, immediately north of Judea, was also invaded by the Hasmoneans, who were inflamed with Jewish suspicion of Samaritan faith and hatred of its people. The Samaritans, remnants of the northern Jewish tribes, had not been subject to exile in Babylon (587-537 BC) as had the Judeans. When the exiled Jews returned from Babylon they refused to allow the Samaritans to participate in rebuilding the life of the nation. They invaded and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim and attempted unsuccessfully to force the Samaritans back into Jewish orthodoxy. Hatred between Jews and Samaritans became ever more vicious. Jesus' favourable references and responses to Samaritans were deliberately aimed at Jewish prejudices. Galilee too was annexed by the new state. Its heavily Gentile population was forced to accept conversion to the Jewish faith or face deportation. This programme succeeded so well that by the time of Jesus the population was mainly Jewish although there remained a number of Hellenized or Greek cities.
Roman conquest and the rule of Herod and Herod's sons
By 63 BC, when the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine, Hasmonean excesses and the rivalry of the various groups had brought the country to the edge of civil war. Both Sadducees and Pharisees had appealed to Rome to arbitrate the power struggle. Rome not only arbitrated; it took over the whole country. But it was the policy of Rome to administer its territories through carefully selected local leaders. By 40 BC the Romans had chosen to entrust Israel into the capable hands of a shrewd Idumean Herod, who became known as Herod the Great. Herod himself was to rule as a client and puppet king of Rome from 37-4 BC, and his sons would maintain the Herodian dynasty until almost the end of the first century. Herod himself gradually solidified his newly acquired kingdom with a combination of political savvy and brutal terror. He made great efforts to ingratiate himself with his Jewish subjects who regarded him as a half-breed, and who resented his lavish lifestyle which included a series of ten wives and several palaces. He also had a keen taste for Greek culture. He was a master builder, and brought great wealth to his kingdom. His buildings included a theatre and an amphitheatre in Jerusalem, sports arenas, baths and fortresses. His most ambitious project was the reconstruction of the temple. Begun in 19 BC, it was not fully complete until 63 AD. Its building brought employment and economic stability for many citizens. This is the temple that Jesus visited. Only seven years after its completion, it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the great revolt.
Herod died in 4 BC. At his death Rome divided Herod's kingdom between his three sons. They inherited much of their father's cruelty but little of his intelligence. It was the end of the unity of the land. Its division encouraged the nationalist sentiments in Jesus' own day of different factions which we meet in the gospels. The political division of Israel into three regions with three rulers (known as "tetrarchs") becomes the background of the gospel story. Philip took over the extreme northern section. He built the town of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter is recorded as declaring that Jesus was the Messiah, an important turning point in the gospel drama. From 4 BC to 39 AD Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, the home region of Jesus, and also Perea, the area east of the River Jordan. He gets a bad press in the gospels because of his illicit marriage to Herodias, wife of his half-brother Herod Philip (not to be confused with Philip the tetrarch). For this he drew the fire of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas imprisoned and executed John (see e.g. Mk 6:17-29). He showed great interest in Jesus, fearing that he may have been John the Baptist risen from the dead. But Jesus dismissed him with his remark "that fox" (Lk 13:32). It is to this king who was visiting Jerusalem that Pilate sends Jesus during his passion. Archelaus, a third son of Herod, was placed over the key districts of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. He was so unpopular and repressive that the Romans exiled him to France in 6 AD.
From that time Rome assumed direct rule of Judea through a series of Roman prefects under the command of the Roman legate stationed in Syria. Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD), one of those prefects, would execute Jesus. All through the lifetime of Jesus, the division of the country under the Herodian dynasty and the resulting tensions and frustrations, remained the situation. Under pressure of increasing taxation and political mismanagement, and fired by the vision of the revolt by the Maccabees, nationalist feelings began to build. They exploded in 66 AD, some thirty years after the death of Jesus, when the radical Zealot party led an open rebellion against Rome. The Romans crushed the revolt completely, and by 70 AD they destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. They put down a second suicidal revolt in 130 AD, when they declared Jerusalem off limits to Jews, and changed the city's name to Aelia Capitolina. Jewish hopes for national freedom were utterly destroyed. Only the strength of the party of the Pharisees enabled Judaism to find the hope to survive. "It was out of this catastrophe that a law-centred rather than temple-centred Judaism emerged."
The influence of Hellenism
Click map to enlarge.
Yoder Neufeld sheds particularly valuable light on the social and political culture of the world of Jesus:
Whereas we speak of the political power of this era as the Roman Empire, centered in the great imperial city of Rome, the world culture we call Hellenism still very much shaped the common culture of the time. Greek, not Latin, was the linguistic means of communicating across cultures and regions. So, when we come to the time of Jesus, Palestine had been under Hellenistic cultural influence for more than three hundred years. It had been under Roman rule for more than half a century and endured the rather uneven and often brutal rule of puppet rulers doing Rome"s bidding. Bluntly put, Palestine was occupied territory during the time of Jesus. And, as is typical in such circumstances, some flourish, many more suffer terribly, and a large number of folk simply wish to survive from one day to the next. So also in the time of Jesus.
Groups and movements in first-century Israel
During this whole time of upheaval many Jews lived an intense hope that God would very soon live up to the promises made to their forebears, re-establish Israel in freedom and glory, and that a descendant of David — a messiah — would come to rule. "Messianic hopes were very much alive during the time of Jesus and mark much of the excitement and also the resistance to Jesus." The gospels themselves highlight several important groups of the period. To gain a more complete understanding of the tense and critical times in which Jesus of Nazareth lived and worked, it will help to return to the various groups and movements among the Jewish people, but this time in the society of first century Israel at the time of Jesus.
The Sanhedrin or Council was the supreme religious authority in Jerusalem. Consisting of seventy-one members, it was made up of three different classes: 1. the elders, made up of members of the chief families and clans; 2. the priests, made up of the current high priest, former high priests, and representatives of the four priestly families; and 3. the scribes, most of whom were Pharisees. The ruling high priest presided over it. Its jurisdiction in both religious and secular matters was limited to Jerusalem. But its influence extended further. Jewish communities in the Diaspora looked to it for guidance. At the time of the death of Jesus the Sanhedrin was a puppet government of Rome, and more immediately of the procurator. The procurator could appoint high priests. He symbolically kept the high priest's vestments in the Antonia, a Roman fortress overlooking the Temple.
The Sadducees, or priestly class, were a hereditary group associated with the temple cult. They were the aristocracy in the Jewish society of Jerusalem. They kept adapting to the political realities of Palestine. "Deal was their advice, deal with the great power of Rome to gain all you can for yourselves; do not fight and lose all you have." But in religious matters they were much more rigid and conservative, indeed fundamentalists. They insisted that only the written Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah or Law — should be the basis of Jewish faith. They rejected any theological developments that sprang up in later writings or in reflection on the Law. Their rigid attitude explains some of the gospel disputes between them and Jesus. Thus in Mark Chapter 12, in a discussion with Jesus about resurrection from the dead, they show their disagreement with the idea of an afterlife. This is because it was a relatively new development in Judaism. They did not survive the catastrophes of 70 AD and 132 AD, which included the destruction of the temple, their power base. They are the dominant opponents of Jesus at his trial, for the religion of Jesus could be seen as an attack on temple religion as controlled by the Sadducees.
They exercised their influence mainly through the government of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, whose head was the high priest. He represented all Jews before God, and in theory he represented all Jews before the emperor. In fact, the high priest represented the people of Judea before the procurator (who, incidentally, was known as "the prefect" from 44 BC).
More liberal than the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in angels and demons, free will, judgment after death, and the resurrection of the dead. While their reform movement began with priests, it became, for the most part a lay movement. Their name "Pharisee" probably derives from the Hebrew word meaning "to separate", referring to their strict attachment to the Law of Moses, an attachment and zeal which distinguished them from less faithful persons and groups. Their faithful adherence to the Law and their rejection of compromise with foreign influence earned them great respect and influence.
Their devotion to the Law, however, should not be seen as blind legalism. Their system of oral commentary on the Law and its details was an attempt to make it liveable, not impossible. On the law of Sabbath rest e.g., their commentaries and prescriptions sought to cover every contingency: how far one might walk, how much to eat, what sort of movement was permitted, and so on. They would not wheel and deal like the Sadducees. Also, unlike the Sadducees, they were open to new developments in Jewish thought, such as belief in the resurrection of the dead as an expression of hope that God would intervene. What they required is referred to in the NT as "the tradition of the elders". Their interpretations of the Law has been called a "hedge" around it. In Christian circles they have become a virtual byword for legalism and intolerance, but this is hardly fair to them.
Their power base was the family and the synagogue rather than the temple. It was they who lifted Judaism from the ashes after all Roman attempts to destroy the nation. Although the temple was gone, the Law remained. One could still worship God in the sanctuary of one's home and in the assembly of the synagogue. Modern Judaism is ultimately derived from Pharisaism. They dominate the pages of the gospels. Their prominence at the time of Jesus helps to explain some of their negative image in the gospels. Jesus certainly had differences with them over their interpretation of the Law and what religious fidelity involved. His growing differences with them as well as that of his first followers partly account for the bad press they receive in the NT. It represents them as mere opponents and persecutors of Jesus. But early on in fact, many Pharisees, including Paul the apostle, joined the Church. In their efforts to rebuild Judaism, they became less and less tolerant of fringe groups within it. A parting of the ways became inevitable around the year 80 when synagogues began excommunicating Jewish Christians.
The Zealots emerge clearly as a movement or party at the time of the first revolt against Rome in 66 AD. But it is likely that their brand of fanatical nationalism and armed resistance began to crystallise during Jesus' own lifetime. Their name is synonymous, then, "with revolution-aries, guerrilla warriors, and even assassins". They turned the second commandment of the Decalogue into a political programme for rejecting Roman rule, and believed that they were engaged in the holy war of the end-time that would destroy the enemies of Israel. They maintained that Jewish independence could be achieved only by military action against the Romans to open the way for God's kingdom. They saw themselves as patriots filled with "zeal for the Lord", but the Romans called them "sicarii" (stabbers). Their God was a God of vengeance, who destroyed the enemies of the people. Remembering the earlier victory of the Maccabees, they firmly believed that they could overcome the military might of the occupying power if the Lord's faithful servants would only begin the struggle. The only possible reference to the Zealots in the gospels is the mention of Simon the Zealot (Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15) as one of the apostles. Many scholars believe that he may have been a member of the Zealot movement before becoming a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps the preaching by Jesus of the imminent coming of the kingdom and the force of his leadership could have attracted Zealots. But the teaching of Jesus shows that he carefully distanced himself from the Zealot movement on such questions as Roman taxation and the use of violence. His sayings about turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies indicate that he did not wish to be identified in any way with the Zealots. They did not lead a general uprising until 66 AD, but it was snuffed out by the Romans in 70 AD. Their survivors fled to the rock fortress of Herod at Masada, where they held out for three years while the Romans besieged the fortress. When they realized their cause was lost they committed mass suicide rather than submit to Roman rule.
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 Senior, ibid., 33.
 Senior, ibid., 33-34.
 Senior, ibid., 34-35.
 Daniel Harrington, Who Is Jesus? Why is He Important? (London: Sheed & Ward, 1999), 6.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 35.
 Senior, ibid.
 Senior, ibid.
 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 259.
 Thomas Rausch, Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 59.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 42
 Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 94.
 Daniel Harrington, Meeting St Paul Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008), 5.
 Harrington, Jesus: A Historical Portrait, 16.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 35.
 Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 90.
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., 92.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 36.
 Sean Freyne, The World of the New Testament (Dublin: Veritas, 1980), 59.
 Cf. Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait,37. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan Eerdmans, 2003), 413.
 Cf. Senior, ibid., 38-39. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 414-415.
 Cf. Senior, ibid., Ferguson, ibid., 414-415.
 Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 87.
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., describes "Hellenism" as "a fusion between Greek and local cultures" (85).
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., 87.
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., 87-88.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 39.
 Rausch, Who is Jesus? 57-58.
 James Mackey, The Man and the Myth: A Contemporary Christology (London: SCM Press, 1979), 58.
 Mackey, The Man and the Myth, ibid.
 Cf. Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 40.
 Freyne, The World of the New Testament, 102.
 Mackey, Jesus the Man and the Myth, 58.
 Rausch, Who is Jesus? 58.
 Freyne, The World of the New Testament, 111.
 Mackey, Jesus the Man and the Myth, 59.
 Mackey, ibid., 61.
 Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 91.
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., 90.
 Yoder Neufeld, ibid., 91.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 40-42.
 Rausch, Who is Jesus? 58.
 Cf. Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 42-43.
 Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 94.
 Freyne, The World of the New Testament, 120-121.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 43.
 Freyne, The World of the New Testament, 122.
 Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, 43.
The image of Jesus used in the header and footer has been sourced from calabresed.tripod.com/jesus/gesucat.jpg.
Dr Brian Gleeson, a Passionist priest, lectures in systematic theology at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. He recently stepped down as the Head of the Department of Church History and Systematic Theology at YTU. He joined the faculty at the beginning of 2001. His previous appointments were at Catholic Theological College Adelaide (2 years); St Paul's National Seminary Sydney (13 years); Catholic Theological Union Sydney (8 years); Pius XII Regional Seminary, Brisbane (1 year); and Good Samaritan Teachers' College, Sydney (4 years). His postgraduate studies were with the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium; the Gregorian University, Rome; and the Melbourne College of Divinity. Fr Gleeson is also an active member of ACTA (Australian Catholic Theologians' Association).
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