THE WORLD OF JESUS
No one grows up in a bubble. Everyone is influenced by the times in which they are born, the country in which they live, the family that raises them and the people who live around them. Jesus was truly and fully human, so He was no exception to this. To better understand Jesus, we should have some understanding of the world around Him.
Palestine at the time of Jesus was a land that sat at the foot of the Fertile Crescent, a thin strip of green in a wide swath of desert. Because of its fertile land and its location on the extreme eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Palestine served as a highway for people traveling back and forth from Egypt to the Middle East for trade, migration and war. Caravans and armies would travel through, bringing news and culture from faraway countries and peoples. As carpenters, Joseph and Jesus would have been craftsmen in great demand by those traveling through, as well as by the locals, so there is no reason to think that Jesus grew up in poverty. He was not rich, but neither was He poor. Jesus did not grow up in some isolated backwater, but in the heart of a bustling marketplace of people, products and ideas.
The topography of the land was as diverse as the people. The coastline was low and thin from south to north. Traveling east, away from the coast, one quickly comes to rolling hills and, farther east, to the Jordan Valley, through which the Jordan River flows, connecting the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. At 1300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. The Jordan Valley, in spite of the river, is dry and arid and there is little land for farming. Farther east still is the Transjordan, the “other side” of the Jordan River. This land was very fertile at the time of Jesus.
The Mediterranean world was controlled by the Roman Empire when Jesus lived. In the year 40 BC, the Romans gave control of Palestine to Herod the Great, a Jew from the southern region of Idumea. Herod was a tyrant, but he did start reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It was this Temple that Jesus would visit during His ministry. He would pray at this Temple, and out of this Temple He would throw the moneychangers. Herod died in 4 BC, and Palestine was divided among his sons. Philip ruled the northern regions of Iturea, Trachonitis and Batanea, Herod Antipas ruled the middle regions of Galilee and Perea and Archelaus ruled the middle and southern regions of Samaria, Judea and Idumea. Archelaus, however, became so unpopular that the Romans sent him into exile and took over direct control of these regions, placing Roman procurators in charge. One of these Roman procurators was Pontius Pilate.
Jesus would have come across a great variety of people during His life, both as a craftsman and as a faithful Jew. Jewish life for the most part revolved around the synagogue, a place of worship and of study. Men were often encouraged to stand before the assembly, read from the Scriptures, and offer words of reflection based on the reading. We see Jesus doing just this in The Gospel According to Luke, when He reads from the prophet Isaiah about the coming Messiah and announces that the prophecy is fulfilled (Luke 4:16-21). It would not have been unusual in Jesus’ day for a man to travel among the people of Palestine preaching a message from God and to gather a group of disciples. There were many such rabbis in Palestine. What made Jesus stand out, of course, was His teaching about God’s love, forgiveness and coming kingdom, His astounding claim to be the Son of God, His claim to do what only God can do (ie: forgive sins, work on the Sabbath) and the many miracles He performed that seemed to back up His claims. Most of the people of Jesus’ country worked hard for a meager living and were burdened by high taxes and the guilt of never quite measuring up to the standards of righteousness taught by their religious leaders. They were eager, then, to hear Jesus’ message of a God Who loves and is quick to forgive.
Jesus’ actions and His preaching caught the eyes and ears of some of the religious groups in the Judaism of His day, and they did not always like what they saw and heard. The Sadducees were the landed gentry. Many were members of the priesthood and the Sanhedrin, the council that represented the supreme religious authority for Jews living in Judea. They had great influence in the Temple. They insisted that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was the rule for religious Jews. Jesus often found Himself in conflict with the Sadducees because His teaching represented something new, and they were not about to accept new teaching that seemed to add to what they believed God had already revealed in the Torah. It was before the chief priest that Jesus was tried and condemned for blasphemy.
The Sadducees, with the rejection of anything new and their very strict interpretation of the Bible, made it almost impossible for ordinary people to ever hope to please God. The Pharisees, however, were much more willing to interpret God’s Word in a way that made it possible for everyday Jews to live their religion faithfully. Their greatest influence was not in the Temple, but in the synagogue, where the Jews met to worship God each Sabbath and reflected on how to apply the Word of God to their everyday lives. Though not as strict as the Sadducees, they were very devoted to the Law of Moses. The Pharisees, too, came into conflict with Jesus over an understanding of God’s eagerness to forgive and to heal. It was the Pharisees who plotted to kill Jesus after He healed a man’s hand on the Sabbath.
The Zealots were another group of Jews Jesus would have encountered in His day. Indeed, one of His own apostles was a Zealot: Simon the Zealot. The Zealots had more political aims than religious ones, though they certainly believed that God was on their side. They wanted to throw the Romans out of Palestine and re-establish a Jewish kingdom, much like the Maccabees before them. Not concerned that the odds overwhelmingly favored the Romans, the Zealots were convinced that God would fight for them and destroy the might of Rome. They had little in common with Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies or praying for those who persecute you.
It came as quite a surprise to His disciples that Jesus would have anything to do with this last group of Jews: the Samaritans. Samaria sits between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Going through Samaria would be the quickest route for Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, but they never went that way. Instead, they would travel down the Jordan Valley, following the river to Judea. This was because the anger between the Judeans and the Samaritans was old and fierce. Even though both groups were Jewish, they held little in common. When the Jews of Judea were forced into exile in Babylon (587-538 BC), the Samaritans were not forced to go with them. For many decades there was no contact between these two Jewish groups. Because of this, the Samaritans started worshipping God in a way that was different from their ancestors. They even started reading a different version of the Bible. When the Judean Jews returned, a great hostility grew between the two groups. The Judeans thought that the Samaritans had given up on the true faith, so they would no longer have anything to do with them. By the time of Jesus, this hatred between the two groups was entrenched. We can imagine how surprised and scandalized the Jews of Judea were when Jesus insisted that to receive eternal life one must love God and one’s neighbor, and offered the example of the Good Samaritan as one who had done just that!
Understanding the place, the culture, the politics and the people of Jesus’ time will help us to better understand Who Jesus was as a person, as One Who lived and breathed and walked this Earth just like us. We can also better appreciate the remarkable challenges He faced in preaching and acting in obedience to His Father’s will. We do, indeed, have a Savior Who is Emmanuel: “God-with-us.”
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.