20120507-Baptism of of ChristFrancesco_Francia_001.jpg
Baptism of Christ by Francesco Francia
At the time of Christ, Palestine (present-day Israel) was a poorly-run, repressive Roman colony that had been conquered by Pompey in 63 B.C. After the conquest Palestine was run by a Roman-Jewish government under Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) who enjoyed considerable autonomy and ruled in such a way that both the Romans and local population were reasonably happy despite his sometimes despotic ways.

The rulers after Herod — namely Archelaus, who inherited a third of Herod’s land, including Judea and Jerusalem — were not so good. After 10 years Roman prefects took over Archelaus’s territory. The other portions of Herod’s former lands, including Jesus’s state of Galilee remained under Jewish rule. This arrangement remained until the Roman crackdown after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.

About 2 million of the world’s five million or so Jews at that time lived in the Jerusalem area. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were puppets of the Roman government. A handful of merchants, high priests and leaders lived in luxury, while the vast majority of the population lived in poverty. The local government was corrupt; inflation and landlessness were high; and peasants paid huge taxes to absentee landlords and corrupt Jewish priests. Over all Roman rule was not too strict. Most people paid a small tribute and that was all.

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Josephus, the Primary Source on the Jesus-Era Holy Land


Josephus — the first-century Roman-era Jewish historian — is our primary source on the Holy Land and Judaism during the period in which Jesus lived. Professor L. Michael White at the University of Texas told PBS: “One of our most important sources for all the history of this period is the Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus himself grew up in and around Jerusalem; he claims to have been a part of the Pharisaic group. But he was also obviously from a fairly prominent family. He's very important because he lived through and was actually part of the first revolt against Rome. After the revolt, he then went on to live in a lavish retirement at Rome itself. And there wrote the history of the Jewish War, and also another work, called "The Antiquities of the Jews," a long, extensive history of the Jewish people ... from Biblical days coming down to his own time. Josephus wrote mostly at the end of the first century ... around the year 100, just a few years before and after. And so he gives us a perspective on the whole century of development that had gone before, from the time of Herod the Great down to his own day, when these profound changes were taking place. [Source: L. Michael White. Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin,Frontline, PBS, April 1998

“Josephus, as an historian, is something of a puzzle sometimes. On the one hand, he's an eyewitness to many of these events. And in many cases, he's the only source we have for some very important events and stories. On the other hand, Josephus embellishes, as do most ancient historians. They tell the story. They create speeches for generals, even when they weren't there to hear them first hand. And so, sometimes we have to be careful with these ancient history writers like Josephus. ... Josephus is [also] interesting from another perspective because he clearly embellishes the stories from his own experience. Josephus himself had gone over to the Roman side at the end of the revolt. And so, when we tell some of these stories, it's clear that he's also defending his position ... defending his judgments and his change.

Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: “Josephus is certainly among the most enigmatic personages in the history of the Jewish people. He wrote "The Jewish War," he wrote a history of the Jewish people, and he was commander of the Galilean forces of the army that opposed Rome for two years. He gave up those forces in a really traitorous event..., and that makes him a very complex person. Because after 68, he becomes the major spokesperson against prosecuting the war with the Romans. And it is that change of attitude on his part, that we can find parallel in other segments of the population, that makes reading Josephus and understanding him so difficult. After the war he winds up in Rome [sponsored by] the Roman Emperor, and gets paid to write the rest of the history he didn't finish in Palestine. [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“[As historians of the ancient world,] Josephus is our primary source for reconstructing history in the late second temple period and in the time of Jesus and the first century. Josephus is our Bible, he is our map. He is the guy we all turn to. And his complexity and his change of opinions on key ideas and key events of this time make him very difficult to take as a reliable source. Josephus winds up in Rome, sponsored by none other than Vespasian, the Roman Emperor, and being paid to write the history of the Jewish people. And because of that, and because of his happy life that he lived out during his days in Rome, many people have distrusted his account of events.

Hellenistic Culture in Jesus’s Time

Christ before Harod Antipas

Greek language, philosophy and culture had a strong impact on Jews living at the time of Jesus and early Christians. The era and world that Jesus lived in was really more of a Hellenistic era world than it was a Roman one. Hellenistic refers to the period of Greek culture that began after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS:“The Hellenistic world is that world that was created after the conquests of the near east by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century B.C. And his conquest, which extended from India all the way through Egypt, [was] divided into three main areas within 20 years after his death. And the two major areas that survived down to the first century B.C. would have been the Syrian kingdom, the Seleucid kingdom, and the Ptolemaic kingdom which survived in Egypt, which was finally taken over by Rome in 31 B.C. The language and culture of the Hellenistic world was Greek. That became the lingua franca of all of these subject peoples. It was to that world what English is to the modern world in many ways, what French was to the world of the 19th century. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Jesus apparently grew up in Galilee which was at that time under Herod Antipas undergoing a form of Hellenization. There was a continuation of the program of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. And that Hellenization was most visible in a place like Sepphoris which was being reconstructed during the youth of Jesus. It was visible in several other cities around Galilee. A place like Beth-shean, for instance, which still has a magnificent theater dating from the Hellenistic period. We have clear evidence in all of that architectural remains Hellenism was having a strong impact even on Galilee during this period.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: One must think of the development of the eastern Mediterranean, really, in two major phases. The first, the conquest by Alexander, which brought Greek culture to the middle eastern territories. And then, subsequent to that, the Roman imperial expansion, which would take that over politically. But, Rome didn't immediately transform everything into a kind of Latin-Roman culture. Rather, they worked with the Greek idiom. And so, much of what we see in the culture of these cities, like Caesarea Maritima, is a kind of Greek city structure with a Roman political organization, playing off between the different elements of Roman and Greek city life. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“For many Jews, it seemed not to be a problem at all. There was a high degree of comfort or acculturation with many aspects of Greek life and thought. Just as we see in major Jewish communities in Egypt at this same time as well, and had been there for two hundred years before. So for some it probably meant no more than what it would be like to live in a modern city with a very mixed culture. For others, however, for other people in the Jewish tradition, it probably was more of a problem that Herod, supposedly a Jewish king, would have been so willing to turn himself over, as it were, to Roman religious interests and Roman imperial ideology

Influence of Hellenistic Culture in Jesus’s Time

Cleopatra died about 30 years before Jesus was born and Alexandria, not far from Israel, was a major cultural and intellectual center

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: ““Jewish culture and civilization during the Hellenistic period was in intense dialogue with Hellenistic culture and civilization, beginning with the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek, a translation which survives and which we know as the Septuagint. That's certainly an example of the way in which Greek literary forms and Greek language impacted Jewish civilization and literary traditions. That impact extends far beyond scripture, and we see during the Hellenistic period Jews adopting literary forms of the Greek tradition, and writing plays, epic poems, lyric poems, all in the Greek language. Much of this activity would have centered in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, but there was similar activity going on in Palestine, and some of these literary products that survive in some cases only in fragments, were probably written in Palestine, by Jews who were adopting these Hellenistic literary modes. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Philo was an example of the intense Hellenization of Judaism. He was a philosopher and scriptural interpreter who lived in Alexandria from around 30 B.C. to around 40 of the Common Era. He tried to effect a synthesis between scripture and Platonic philosophy. For instance, in saying that the word of God that we encounter in scripture is the logos or the divine reason, by which he meant a combination of the ideas, Plato's ideas, which by that time were conceived by philosophers as being in the mind of God. And also at the same time the immanent rationality of the world, taking over a Stoic idea that reason constitutes the inner working of the world.

“Things like Platonic philosophy and Stoic philosophy at the level it was appropriated by a person like Philo, probably would not have had a direct impact on Jesus. Both of those strands of Hellenistic tradition as appropriated by Jewish philosophers like Philo, did, however, have an impact on Christians of a later generation who tried to make sense of Jesus and his teaching within the broader framework of Greek and Roman culture.

Roman Empire and Its Religions

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: ““By far the mightiest force at the time shaping life in Galilee was the Roman Empire, which had subjugated Palestine some 60 years before Jesus’ birth. Almost all Jews chafed under Rome’s iron fisted rule, with its oppressive taxes and idolatrous religion, and many scholars believe this social unrest set the stage for the Jewish agitator who burst onto the scene denouncing the rich and powerful and pronouncing blessings on the poor and marginalised. Others imagine the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture moulding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice.” [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

Roman-era Cybele priest

The Romans had their traditional ceremonies and they worshiped Roman gods as well as gods from other provinces and places. After Caesar and Augustus, emperor worship was also incorporated into the Roman religion.

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “Religious practices and beliefs within the Roman empire were diverse, and varied between regions and individuals. At their core, however, lay the state religion, which was the state-recognised and prescribed worship of traditional gods (like Jupiter and Mars), of the emperor (generally only when deceased), and of certain members of the imperial family ('the imperial cult'). This existed throughout the empire, but Roman religion was not exclusive. It co-existed with local pre-Roman cults, with empire-wide imported cults (eg Mithraism), and with individual superstitions and belief in magic. Roman authorities were tolerant of other religions if they didn't threaten public order or Roman control.”[Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, cynically observed: "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."

Judaism at the Time of Christ

At the time of Jesus the Jews were divided a number of different often rival sects. The countryside was filled with holy men who spoke in parables and guerrilla leaders who claimed they were messiahs. The religious faction that worshiped Jesus was one of many Jewish messiah cults that were active in the Holy Land during the time of Christ. When Jesus began preaching around 28 A.D. "shooting wars" were being fought in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem. The Dead Sea scrolls have offered many insights into what Palestine (present-day Israel) and Judaism was like in the time of Jesus.

Much of what we know about the Holy Land around the time of Jesus is based on accounts by Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100), the pro-Roman Jewish governor of Galilee, in his books “The Jewish War” and “Jewish Antiquities”. Josephus was born to an upper-class Jewish family. He became the governor of Galilee at the age of 31 in A.D. 68 and later led a Jewish liberation army against Rome. When he was Rome, he was spared when he told the Roman general Vespasian that he was a Jewish messiah and a future emperor of Rome. When Vespasian did in fact become emperor, Josephesus was give a generous pension and comfortable apartment. He spent the rest of his life writing books that attempted to explain whey the Jews revolted.

Jewish Sects and Aristocracy

Essenes ruins at Qumran
Over time the Jews divided into different sects such as the Essenes, an ascetic group that live in the desert; the Pharisees, conservative ritualized group that was perhaps the largest sect; the Zealots, the militants who did their last stand at Masada; Zadokites, the Hellinized group of priests that ruled the Temple; and the Sadducees, a priestly group described by the Jewish historian Josephus.

The different sects had different politics and different religious beliefs and takes on the scriptures. It can argued that the numerous sects were as much of reaction to the Jewish priestly aristocracy as to the Romans.

The priestly class was not very sympathetic to concerns of ordinary Jews. A high ranking rabbi in the Jewish aristocracy referred to Jewish peasants as "unclean animals" who were so worthless and inferior that it was alright to kill them on holy days when the butchering of clean animals is forbidden. Another rabbi said that it was acceptable to "tear a common person to pieces like a fish." Another rabbi, recognizing that the Jewish peasantry was not fond of their the Jewish leaders either, said, "the enmity of the common person towards a scholar is even more intense than that of the heathen toward the Israelites."

Pharisees and Sadducees

According to Frontline, PBS: “Among the other groups that would have circulated around the priesthood and around the Temple in Jerusalem, was an old group known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees are really also part of this old priestly aristocracy. They're the land holding group ... the descendants of the people who came back from the Babylonian exile. They were the old Jerusalem upper crust. And they were in charge of most of the political life of Jerusalem proper. They dominated the city council of Jerusalem, or what is called the Sanhedrin. But there were other groups as well. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The Pharisees were a Johnny-come-lately group that had joined the political ranks of Jerusalem life, probably, sometime in the later Hasmonean Period. That is, just before the Romans came on the scene. The Pharisees have a political interest, but they, in some ways, constitute a kind of outside political faction over against the landed aristocracy — the Sadducees. As a result, we see both political tensions and also religious interests between the groups showing up in different ways.

“One of the classic ways we differentiate the Sadducees from the Pharisees, is on the basis of religious beliefs and practices. The Sadducees are conservative. They only read the Torah, the five books of Moses. They don't read other things among the Scriptures as authoritative. And so as a result, they don't believe in certain ideas. For example, it's typically suggested that they do not believe in resurrection of the dead. Why? Because it's not in the Torah. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are, if anything, the religious liberals ... the progressives of their day. They want to reinterpret the Scriptures. They want to read more texts, all of which are the expression of this vibrant Judaism of the time. And as a result, they're willing to entertain new ideas, new beliefs, such as that of the resurrection of the dead.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except the last table Quora.com

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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