Dr Brian Gleeson today concludes his three-part exploration of the Jewish world in which the historical Jesus lived. As he suggests at the end, we've learned a lot from scholarly study in recent decades but there is still much which we will probably never know. What we have been learning from modern scholarship, Dr Gleeson suggests, "is essential" to any investigation of Jesus' mission, ministry, destiny and identity.
THE ORDINARY PEOPLE...
Who were they?
Most Jews of the time of Jesus were not members of special groups, parties and movements, but the ordinary, uninfluential people who make up the bulk of any country at any time. Most of the population were peasants, living in small villages and coaxing a living from the unpromising soil covering most of Palestine. Shepherds, descendants of nomads, were still numerous. They were often branded by the general population as thieves and untrustworthy. The fishermen of Galilee, from whom Jesus selected several of his disciples, were relatively prosperous. They owned boats and had access to the rich fisheries of the lake. There were a few sizable cities such as Jerusalem, the heavily Gentile Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth (though not mentioned in the gospels), and coastal cities such as Caesarea Maritima, Tyre and Sidon. The urban masses of tradespeople, merchants, and the professional classes made their homes in the cities. Some tension existed between the larger cities and the rural villages. Adherence to Jewish religious practice tended to be stricter and more traditional in the smaller and more isolated places of the country.
The status of women at the time of Jesus was not high. They lived in a patriarchal structure and were not greatly respected. Widows were particularly vulnerable. Some were driven by poverty into prostitution. Male dominance was taken for granted. Marriage laws and customs, divorce, property rights and inheritances all favoured men over women. Marriages were generally arranged. A man could divorce his wife, but generally speaking a woman could not divorce her husband. Men participated in civic life, but the place of a woman was in the home, although this often included helping with the crops.
We meet many women in the gospel stories of the activity of Jesus and of his openness to them:
Their presence in the gospel stories, especially at the high points in the narrative such as Jesus' death and resurrection, is all the more noteworthy if, as many scholars believe, the early church became less open to women's full participation as years and decades passed.
Their economic burdens
Economic problems compounded political tensions. The burden of taxation, especially on the peasants, was almost unbearable. A tithe (10%) was demanded of every male Jew for the upkeep of the temple and its worship. Then there were the relentless demands of Roman taxes with a system open to abuse. Hired Jewish agents were given a quota to fill, and they were practically free to levy taxes as they saw fit. Taxation on Galilean peasants may have gone as high as 40%. Tax collectors were understandably despised as thieves and traitors. So they also bore the brunt of anti-Roman anger, in Judea especially. Jesus seems to have recognised their very vulnerable situation by reaching out to them. The impact of his ministry to Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, is summed up in the assurance Zacchaeus gives Jesus in Lk 19:8 that he will make things right with those he has wronged, and with the response of Jesus, 'Today salvation has come to this house…'! (Lk 19:9).
Much land was in the hands of absentee land owners, and so there was little opportunity to redress injustice and little incentive for the peasants to work hard on the lands of their absentee landlords. Their economic burdens forced many peasants into slavery. Jesus recognised their plight in his parables about unlucky tenant farmers, day labourers in vineyards, absentee landlords, and unscrupulous middlemen. Such parables were true to the realities of life and were anything but pious platitudes.
Yoder Neufeld makes this insightful comment on people in the parables of Jesus:
Jesus's parables take on special resonance within this world, a world of unequal wealth and power, of economic vulnerability, of fierce competition, as well as of wily survivors. The sometimes dark humor of the parables reflects the yearnings and sense of injustice that people would have experienced. We should imagine that Jesus' popularity was in no small measure owing to his understanding of the vulnerability and everyday suffering of "little people" and of his care for their everyday welfare, illustrated in the gospel accounts by his feeding of the multitudes (e.g., Mark 6/John 6) and by his challenge to the rich to give their wealth to the needy (Matt.19-16-22//Mark 10:17-22//Luke 18:18-23).
Their burden of religious guilt
To the oppressive political tensions and economic problems must be added the burden of religious guilt. It was impossible for most people to practise the fidelity to the Law required by the Pharisees. Those whose occupations brought them into contact with Gentiles were labelled as officially unclean or incapable of keeping the Law. They included shopkeepers, toll collectors, and traders. Shepherds bore the stigma of suspicion that they were dishonest, like the gypsies of modern Europe. Such proscribed persons were banned from temple worship and from giving testimony in a law court. Of course, such public sinners and outcasts as prostitutes had no hope of achieving the expected standards. This begs the question: Why would Jesus have reached out to them, thereby 'putting a cloud on his reputation'? Yoder Neufeld answers as follows:
Without approving of illicit sexual behaviour, especially of those abusing the women (John 8:3-11), Jesus seems to have been able to provide the kind of respect and acceptance that allowed them to value themselves as daughters of God. The gospels are clear that he was willing to do so at the cost of his reputation among the religious elites.
Complicated rules of purity and exclusion in the time of Jesus are evident in even a casual reading of the gospels. One could become impure or unclean by birth or behaviour, or by eating the wrong kinds of food. One could become impure or unclean through sickness or skin disease (usually referred to as 'leprosy' in the gospels), or by failing to observe the moral requirements of the Law. Those with 'leprosy' had to warn others of their approach with a bell. They became outcasts from the community. In the stories of his meetings with 'lepers' it is worth noting how Jesus deals with them. 'He gets close to them, he touches them, eats with them, and he addresses them with respect (e.g. Matt.8:2-4 // Mark 1:40-44; Matt.26:6 // Mark 14:3; Luke 17:12-19). Jesus's behaviour would have shocked both lepers and those who avoided them.'
A woman during her period was considered unclean. Purity was associated with wholeness, while disabilities such as blindness were associated with sin (see John 9:2). Those born out of wedlock were also considered impure. Many of the ordinary citizens of Israel, then, those known as the amharetz or 'people of the land', found themselves unacceptable and on the outer with the religious establishment. Their way to religious fidelity was permanently barred. The rules of purity, then, resulted in the marginalization of whole classes of people.
At the time of Jesus, the people of Palestine were caught up in intense religious, political, and social ferment. 'Many were pushed to the margins of society, either because of extreme poverty or because of debilitating and ostracizing illnesses of a physical and spiritual nature.' What the Jews had in common was their belief in one God, their conviction that their God had entered into a covenant with them, that God expected them to respond to this by obedience to his Law or Torah, and that God had given their land to Abraham and his descendants. So some 'struggled mightily to practice fidelity to the will of God as expressed in the Torah and sometimes fell victim to the vices that easily upset the virtuous, namely, intolerance and hypocrisy.' Many had an intense desire that God would bring about his kingdom or reign, that God would send a new David, a messiah, to set things right.
But what particularly united Judaism as the religion of the nation was a common religious heritage and a more-or-less common set of scriptures. Beyond the beliefs that united the Jewish people, however, there was much diversity within Judaism. Indeed there were various ways of being a religious Jew. One could be a Pharisee, a Sadducee, an Essene, a Samaritan, or a Christian, and maybe many other things as well.
Thus the world of Jesus was a Jewish world, but in contact with both Greek and Roman cultures. An educated religious Jew might well be trilingual, fluent not only in his native Aramaic and Hebrew, the traditional religious language, but able to carry on business in Greek, the language of the empire. His world was also one of deep religious conviction, but where dissent was generally tolerated. It was also a world of rising political tension, a world that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable holocaust.
Our overview of the world of Jesus, to the extent that it has been recorded in one form or another, is now relatively complete. New discoveries are being made all the time which will gradually fill out our picture, but it is unlikely that we will ever know everything that we want to know.
This was the world to which Jesus was sent and the world to which he ministered. To know his world it is to know the context in which he lived and worked, and something more about his personal identity. Daniel Harrington makes some valuable comments on the context in which Jesus found himself:
Where does Jesus fit on this map of Jewish groups and movements? On the one hand, Jesus has been described as a "marginal Jew" in a book of the same name by John P. Meier on the grounds that he defies any specific categorization [See the current featured video lecture by John P Meier on the Catholica Video Channel LINK]. On the other hand the scholar N.T. Wright portrays him in Jesus and the Victory of God as the incarnation of his people Israel and all its hopes.
This background of his Jewish world is essential to any investigation of his mission, ministry, destiny and identity.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Brian Gleeson CP