Background to the life of Jesus

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The background to the life of Jesus

A vast store of lit. describes the historical background of the period of the life of Jesus. A true historical perspective cannot afford to neglect this information, which has been valuably reinforced in recent years by the Dead Sea area. Since only the briefest sketch can be given of the historical background, the developments within Judaism from a religious point of view and the political position leading to the time of the incarnation of Jesus will have to be largely by-passed. Our concern will be the conditions which obtained during the brief span of the life of Jesus, and to this end some account will be given of the political, social, cultural and religious situation.

The political situation

The Rom. occupation of Pal. had brought with it many benefits, but had incurred the implacable hatred of the Jewish people. The occupying forces were in their eyes a threat to their national heritage and aspirations. They accordingly objected most violently to the taxation system which had been introduced and which was the cause of constant irritation. Any Jew who stooped low enough to assist in the collection of any of these taxes was the object of contempt and was socially ostracized. Under the tax system a chief collector was responsible for a whole district and then farmed out the task of collecting the taxes to sub-collectors, a process which lent itself to considerable abuse and extortion.

One feature of the political situation was the considerable measure of self-government allowed to the Jews. Much of the government of Pal. was in the hands of the ruling religious party and was conducted in accordance with OT principles. There was a central council (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem and local councils in various other centers. Punishment, where possible, was administered as the Jewish Law decreed, the main method being flogging, of which there are several instances in the NT (note esp. the case of Jesus Himself). The fact that the Jewish accusers of Jesus required Pilate’s sanction for the execution of the death sentence suggests that this was the usual procedure, although in the case of Stephen it was not followed. No doubt there were many occurrences of the operation of a kind of mob law. The central Jewish council consisted of elders, chief priests and scribes, a grouping which is often mentioned in the gospels and Acts. Although there was officially only one high priest who presided over the ecclesiastical-political administration, others who had previously held office were included under the same term, as were also others who held high Temple offices (cf. J. Jeremias, Jerusalem II B, 17ff.).

Within the Rom. empire as a whole a fair degree of political stability had been achieved under the rule of Augustus. It was a period of great consolidation in the realm of administration and jurisdiction. The Romans found that the Jews were, however, among the most turbulent of their subjects, mainly because of their religious peculiarities and their strongly isolationist and nationalistic aspirations.

It was the policy of the occupying power to attempt to achieve some degree of adhesion among the various peoples of the provinces by absorbing their local deities into the Rom. pantheon, but this policy was impossible in the case of the Jews, who possessed no image for their God. No doubt the Romans had little real understanding of the Jewish people, which was reflected in their series of procurators sent to Pal. Pilate may be cited as an example, although he was worse than most, as is seen from the fact that the Rom. authorities recalled him because of his mishandling of the situation. He committed many atrocities against the Jews which bitterly antagonized them. He took no steps to avoid offending their religious scruples. It is no wonder that at the trial of Jesus they threatened to regard Pilate as illdisposed toward Caesar if he let Jesus go, a threat which had considerable thrust in view of the mounting tension between the procurator and the people, and in view of the former’s fear of incurring the emperor’s displeasure. On a previous occasion the Jews had appealed to Caesar who had overridden Pilate’s action. Such was the uneasy political situation into which Jesus Christ came and under which He died.

The social situation

The main points to be noted are the social structure of society generally and of the home in particular. The Jewish nation was still governed by the patriarchal concept of society. Moreover, there was considerable veneration for age, which placed the older men in a position of influence. Women and children were not favorably placed in the Jewish society. In this respect the Romans had advanced further toward their emancipation. There are incidents in the gospels which illustrate the inferior position of women, e.g. the Samaritan woman, for the Samaritans were on a level with the Jews in social structure. As far as the law was concerned, women were not obliged to be taught the law. Jewish education, which centered in the learning and interpretation of the law, was provided for boys but not for girls. It is one of the more surprising features of the ministry of Jesus, although it took place in an essentially Jewish setting, that women were numbered among His followers.

In the realm of marriage there were two divergent schools of thought among Jewish teachers regarding the permissibility of divorce. The school of Hillel was less stringent than that of Shammai, the former allowing divorce for a number of pretexts in which the wife displeased the husband, while the latter allowed it only in the case of infidelity. This illustrates the fluidity of social ethics even among the Pharisees. Generally speaking, the home was an important unit in the Jewish social structure. It was a matter of social honor for a man to marry. Moreover, among the Jews there was no sanction for the widespread heathen practice of exposing unwanted babies to the elements to die.

In the time of Jesus the Jewish society was roughly divided into two groups. The religious parties, the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes (particularly the two former) considered themselves apart from the ordinary people. There was considerable contempt for the “people of the land” (Ha’am ha ’ares), particularly among the Pharisees, a factor which will be commented on when the religious situation is outlined below. From a social point of view it is important to recognize this distinct division, because it explains many of the sayings of Jesus about His contemporaries.

The cultural situation

In the northern district of Pal. there were many Hel. cities, in which Gr. ideas and practices flourished. Not only was this true of the cities known as the Decapolis, but also of many other cities on the borders of Pal. Something of the impact of this could not fail to affect those sections of Jewish culture which were most open to outside influence. Previous to the discovery of the Qumran lit. it seemed most unlikely that Hel. ideas would have permeated into Jewish circles, but the Qumran community, although Jewish, was not impervious to Gr. and even Oriental influences. Whereas the major currents of Jewish thought, particularly that of the Pharisees, were still resistant to the inroads of Gr. culture, yet in the time of Jesus the narrowerer exclusiveness was beginning to break down. An interesting question arises regarding the possibility of Jesus using the Gr. language in Galilee, in addition to Aram. No certain answer can be given, but there is little doubt that many in Galilee used Gr. In all probability the area was bilingual, and the possibility certainly exists that Jesus was acquainted with Gr. His teaching was certainly in Aram., for not only have a few of the Aram. expressions been preserved in the Gr. gospels, but Aram. was the language of the common people, to whom Jesus mainly addressed Himself. It is not impossible, however, that Jesus was acquainted with Gr. modes of thought, and it need not be considered incredible that at times He expressed His teaching in forms which would have affinity with those modes (as appears at times to happen in the fourth gospel).

The religious situation

Worship among the Jews

In the Jewish religious outlook of the 1st cent. there were two major foci, the law and the Temple. The Jewish people may well be described as the people of the Torah, for the teaching of the law was normative for Jewish life. It was not just the written code of law, but a great body of oral tradition, which for them possessed equal validity. All Jewish boys were grounded in the teaching of the Pentateuch from their earliest schooling. The Book of Leviticus was, in fact, their first textbook. It was the parents’ responsibility to instruct their children in the minutiae of the ceremonial law as the various festivals came around. The synagogue services would serve the same purpose. These services comprised confession of faith, prayer, Scripture reading, address and benediction. The Scripture reading was in accordance with a lectionary, based on a three-year cycle, in which a passage from the books of the law was linked with a passage from the prophets. It is possible, however, that no fixed passages were set for the prophetical books in the time of Jesus, although such an arrangement is known to have been followed at a later date. The choice of reader and preacher was left to the ruler of the synagogue, who could invite anyone capable of doing it. This accounts for the number of occasions when Jesus addressed synagogue audiences. The ruler of the synagogue exercised a great deal of influence and was regarded with respect by the people. The local communities were essentially religious communities.

Although the synagogue was the center of community life, the Temple cultus exerted a powerful influence over the pious Jew for a number of reasons. The Jews of Pal. and the Jews of Diaspora (those in regions outside Pal.) were still considered a single unit, and one important unifying factor was a common allegiance to the Temple cultus. Every year pilgrims came to Jerusalem from other parts of Pal., and from Jewish settlements throughout the empire, to attend the various festivals and particularly at Passover time. The Temple worship was highly organized, with twenty-four divisions of priests, who worked on a rotation system to insure continuity and efficiency.

The sacrifices of burnt offerings were offered twice daily in the Temple, but there were many other kinds of offerings in addition. The burnt offering was significant for the people of Israel as a whole, but there were other types of offerings for individuals, whether offerings for unintentional sins, or votive offerings before some hazardous undertaking, or thank offerings for some deliverance. The Temple cultus had great relevance to the everyday life of the people. But it was at festival times that special focus was upon the Temple. Since the festivals play some part in the Gospel events, it is fitting for some description to be given, as John makes a feature of them in his account of the activity of Jesus.

There was a festival for the New Year, but this is not referred to in the gospels, nor in fact is the Day of Atonement, observed shortly afterward, in which the high priest alone was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. There are several references to the Passover, which assumes particular importance for the life of Jesus, for this festival was in progress at the time of the crucifixion. It was not long before the historical connection led to the recognition of a theological link. This was indeed implicit in the institution of the Last Supper. It was customary for the family group, in fact, to remain together over the Passover night. This throws light upon the group of disciples whom Jesus had with Him for the final Passover meal, and explains why He did not leave Jerusalem that night for Bethany. In close connection with the Passover was the feast of Unleavened Bread, also mentioned in the gospels. This was held as a festival of remembrance of the Exodus, although it originally commemorated the commencement of harvest.

The most joyful festival was Tabernacles, which was popular because it involved the worshipers in dwelling in booths constructed from foliage. In the Temple courts were special illuminations and a daily ritual involving the pouring out of water. Both of these features furnished Jesus with a teaching point when He was in Jerusalem at the time of the feast (John 7:1ff.). In John’s gospel the feast of Dedication is also mentioned, but no particular significance is attached to it. The feast of Pentecost, which was a thanksgiving festival for the grain harvest, is not mentioned in the gospels, but is prominent in Acts.

It is a fair deduction that since Jesus was a Jew the Temple cultus must have had great importance for Him, a fact which is borne out by two particular occasions: the first when He questioned the doctors of the law in the Temple at the age of twelve and regarded this as His Father’s business, and the second when He cleansed the Temple of unworthy elements by appealing to what Scripture said about His Father’s house.

There was one more feature which was shared by all Jews regardless of the party to which they belonged. This was their exclusiveness. In some ways this was a beneficial feature, but in other ways not. Those tenets which the Jewish people held to tenaciously were better preserved through an exclusive policy than would have been the case had they allowed themselves to become mixed up with Gentile ideas and practices. The Maccabaean wars had been sparked off by an attempt to do this, and in the time of Jesus the Jewish people could not forget the heroism which had preserved for them the uniqueness of their faith. There were two main areas in which the Jews were superior to their heathen neighbors—in their theology and in their ethics. Their concept of God was infinitely more exalted than the idolatry of the contemporary Gentile world and caused many of the finer minds among the Gentiles to seek satisfaction as Jewish proselytes. The same may be said of the ethical ideals of Judaism, which were in marked superiority to the debased morals of the heathen religions. This sense of superiority and the desire to hedge themselves around contributed in no small measure to the intense dislike for Jews noticeable among many Gentile peoples.

The Jewish parties

For a right evaluation of the religious atmosphere in the time of Jesus it is necessary to survey the four major groups—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. Of these the first is the most important for one’s purpose because of its more dominant religous influence and because of the frequent interchange which Jesus had with them. The Sadducees were more politically powerful, but Jesus did not find Himself so often taking up issues with them on religious matters. The Essenes are not mentioned in the gospels at all, but should not for that reason be ignored, for their very existence was a protest against the other parties, a protest with some aspects of which Jesus would find Himself in sympathy. The Zealots come into the gospel story only incidentally, although it should be noted that one of the apostles is named Simon the Zealot.


It will be valuable to make such a comparison before giving more detailed attention to the Pharisees. The Pharisaic party had its rise in the movement of the Hasidim, who were opposed to the Maccabaean militarism and were devoted to a campaign to bring about repentance and spiritual renewal. Among the Pharisees this developed into a legalistic approach, which is amply illustrated by many incidents recorded in the gospels. They spared nothing in their devotion to the law. They were committed to carry out what the scribes prescribed. It is not surprising, therefore, that at the time of Jesus the majority of scribes belonged to the Pharisees. The party was characterized by a deep religous zeal which extended not only toward the Torah, but also to the oral law. This was the same position that rabbinic Judaism maintained toward the Halakah, or traditional law. Pharisaism can be rightly assessed only against this sense of devotion to a tradition which was as binding as the written code. Some of the reasons for this legalistic approach will be discussed below, but for the present it is the purpose to compare Pharisaism in these features with Sadducean ideas.

The Sadducees adhered only to the teaching of the Pentateuch and strongly rejected the Pharisaic overloading of the law with tradition. Basically, the Sadducees were nearer to a purely Biblical approach, although it must be remembered that the Pharisees sincerely believed that oral tradition provided an adequate, indeed the most adequate, interpretation of the Mosaic law. They were basically agreed therefore on the importance of the Pentateuch as a foundation for Jewish society.

The difference in attitude toward the oral law led to some fundamental disagreements. The most notable controversies were over the Resurrection, which Pharisees maintained, but which Sadducees denied. The latter disputed supernaturalism generally, as is seen from their rejection of belief in angels. They were, in fact, hardheaded, with a tendency toward materialism.

In Pal. in the time of Jesus they were the land-owning class, whose main interests were political rather than religious. They regarded the Rom. subjugation as rather less obnoxious than their Pharisaic brethren. In matters of jurisdiction the Sadducees were inclined to greater severity of action than the Pharisees, who erred on the side of leniency for fear of unwittingly opposing truth. Gamaliel’s advice of caution (Acts 5:38f.) is typical of this approach. When the Sadducean Caiaphas was considering the threat of Jesus to the Jewish hierarchy, he displayed a devotion to political expediency which no Pharisee would have expressed so unequivocally (John 11:48). Compared with the Pharisees, the Sadducees had a lesser concept of God and a greater confidence in man, although still related to the Jewish law.

b. The Pharisees and their doctrines. (1) The schools of Shammai and Hillel. Mention has already been made of these two schools, but it is important to have a clear understanding of the difference between them when considering the attitude of Jesus toward Pharisaism as a whole. Hillel, who originally came from Babylon, maintained a liberal approach toward the law, whereas Shammai was more rigorous. The former was prob. a city man and the latter more in touch with agriculture, and this difference appears to have had some bearing on their general religious attitudes. It should be remembered that these two schools of thought virtually constituted the national Bar for local jurisdiction under the Rom. constitution. Their decisions were more than niceties of Jewish casuistry, but affected the everyday running of the country.

Some examples of the differences in their rulings may be given to illustrate the fact that judgments on some issues could differ considerably. It has already been pointed out that Shammai allowed divorce only for unchastity or gross immodesty, whereas Hillel admitted it for any cause which displeased the husband. The same tendency is seen in relation to debts outstandin in the Sabbatical year. Since the law specified that all debts must be forgiven during that year, it became impossible for poor people to obtain loans during the previous period, but Hillel found a way around this by inventing the device known as “prosbul,” which circumvented the requirement for all debts to be forgiven. This is an example of the liberalizing treatment of the law which went to such an extent that it virtually nullified the Mosaic requirement.

The Pharisees, particularly Hillel’s party, were making serious attempts to face new problems realistically. The Sadducees tended to take the view that where no law existed on any issue, none could be made. But the Pharisees were prepared to see how the law could be adapted to new issues. This arose from this conviction that the law must be normative in all situations. Some of the criticism of Jesus directed against this party were against the casuistry with which they were attempting to apply their chosen policies. It may assist in appreciating the tendency of Pharisaism to impose minute directions in all spheres of ethical conduct if it is realized that the restrictions themselves were regarded as safeguards. The common people, it was supposed, would too easily transgress the law if sufficient barriers were not erected to hedge it around. Their casuistry was thought to possess social implications, and whereas they despised the common people as an inferior breed, they prided themselves with having their welfare at heart.

Of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the former were the most popular with the people. They shared with them a common hatred of the Romans, as against the more compromising tendencies of the Sadducees. Moreover, their doctrines and practices were respected even when they were not acted upon. They had a studied policy to court popularity, as for instance, by street corner prayers, which were condemned by Jesus for ostentation. In the light of this popularity, it may seem strange that Jesus was so strongly critical of them, but reasons will later be given why His denunciations were so strong.

(2) The main tenets of Pharisaism. A brief account of these tenets is necessary because they formed the background for some of the teaching of Jesus. Pharisaism had a high concept of God. He was powerfully active in human history, particularly in the history of Israel. This exalted concept had been pushed so far that He had become transcendental. While there was still divine activity, it was through intermediaries. The Torah had indeed become the major agency of God in His dealings with men. It was against such a view of God that the teaching of Jesus about the fatherhood of God must be placed.

It was because the law was the expression of the eternal will of God that it became for the Pharisee the norm in all matters of behavior. Any action which contravened the law, as Pharisees understood it, was an act of impiety and must be condemned. It was not easy for a Pharisee to accept such authoritative pronouncements as those which fell from the lips of Jesus, which went beyond the precepts of the law. The national existence was so bound up with observation of and loyalty to the law that the Pharisees could not accept that any personal authority could abrogate or even modify the official understanding of the law.

It is not surprising to find that Pharisees were addicted to pride. Their theology centered not only in the superiority of Israel over other nations as special objects of God’s favor, but also in the additional favor shown to those whose piety was proved by exceptional devotion to legal observance. It is the very nature of legalism, with its emphasis on human achievement, to engender pride.

Another feature of Pharisaic belief was acceptance of the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body and future retribution. Those eligible for resurrection, according to Josephus, seem to have been restricted to the righteous. Since the Sadducees denied the Resurrection altogether, it is evident that in the realm of eschatology Jesus stood nearer to the Pharisees. For the latter the future world judgment was regarded as the consummation toward which all human history was moving. This accounts for the absence of the same materialistic and political considerations, on the part of the Pharisees, which were so dominant with the Sadducees. The idea of the end (eschaton) played no inconsiderable part in the teaching of Jesus.

When the Messianic beliefs of the Pharisees are examined, it is not easy to form a consistent picture. There was frequent use of both the titles, Messiah and Son of David. These show the expectancy that one would come to occupy the throne as King in Israel. This Messiah was to be anointed by God, raised up to lead the people in righteousness. It was as much a spiritual as a political concept; it had inevitable political overtones, since Israel was itself a theocratic nation. Various opinions existed concerning the nature of the Messiah to come. Some thought in terms of a heavenly being, others in terms of a warrior king. None ever supposed that the Messiah would be rejected by His people. It was for this reason that the notion of a suffering Messiah was a great stumbling block to the Jewish people. The bare idea of a suffering Messiah was not completely unknown, but where it existed it was in the sense of chastisements encountered through fidelity to the law, and in any case it did not belong to Jewish beliefs in the time of Jesus.

Many of the rigid ceremonial requirements imposed on the Pharisees were aimed at preserving ritual purity. The detailed requirements had obscured the original purpose of the law, which merited and received the severest condemnation of Jesus. Yet, it is important to note that at no time did He condemn their sincere desire to fulfill the law. He made it clear that He Himself had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

It will be seen that whereas there is much in the actions and teaching of Jesus which would not have conflicted with the Pharisaic ideals, the unique approach of Jesus would lead to a direct confrontation with cherished traditions, and the many controversies recorded in the gospels are therefore not surprising.

c. The essenes. Until the discovery of the DSS, knowledge of this group came mainly from Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. Most scholars are convinced that there is a close relationship between the Essenes and the men of Qumran, although there are some who seriously dispute this. The Qumran community may well have been a special sect within the Essene movement, which would account for the similarities and differences between the evidence from the scrolls and that from Josephus. The main divergences concern the regulations for admittance.

The Essenes were a separatist group who regarded the Jerusalem Temple worship as corrupt. Their monasticism was therefore essentially a protest. They were as devoted to the law as the Pharisees, but in a different way. They were, in fact, more stringent. There were rigorous rules for the government of the group, as the Rule of the Community or Manual of Discipline shows. There were severe penalties for any offense against the community. The organization was equally rigid, but the details need not be repeated. The purpose is to show what possible contribution the Qumran evidence can make to the understanding of the mission of Jesus, and the following considerations may be noted:

The absence from the Gospel records of any reference to contact between Jesus and the men of Qumran is not surprising. Qumran was essentially a monastic order to which men withdrew to escape involvement in the contemporary Jewish world. The ministry of Jesus, therefore, passed it by. Yet the movement points to a real dissatisfaction within Judaism with current religious life and enables a better understanding to be made of the protests of Jesus Himself against the Pharisees and Sadducees. Moreover, the teaching of Jesus in some aspects possessed greater affinity with Essenism than with the other groups. As far as the Essenic doctrine is concerned, an interesting factor was the belief in two Messiahs, a Messiah of Aaron and a Messiah of Israel. Since the Messiah of Aaron takes precedence, it no doubt arose from the conception of Qumran as a priestly community. In itself the Messianism of this community contributes little to the understanding of the Messianic claims of Jesus.

Of more importance is the place of the Covenant in the community. The members were men of the New Covenant, and each man had to signify annually his allegiance to it. It was really a reaffirmation of the Old Covenant which contrasts with the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus. His presentation of the Covenant was in line with the prediction of Jeremiah (Jer 31).

There has been much discussion regarding the Teacher of Righteousness who is often mentioned in the Qumran lit. He may well have been the founder of the community. He was certainly highly esteemed, esp. for his exposition of Scripture. Some scholars (such as J. L. Teicher), maintain that the title is describing Jesus, but this view is generally discounted. Unlike Jesus, the Teacher of Righteousness was not regarded as the subject of OT prophecies, nor was he regarded as the Messiah. Although no connection can be established, the striking parallel between this Teacher and Jesus the Teacher, who came to impart righteousness, cannot pass unnoticed. It shows that there were elements in Judaism which were reaching out toward greater purity.

The men of Qumran were deeply conscious of forces opposing the truth, as is seen particularly in the references to the Wicked Priest. It is also apparent in the strong antitheses which are found in the modes of thought. The community members are sons of light engaging in battle with the sons of darkness. Truth is in conflict with error. This is of special importance as a background against which to place the Johannine portrait of Jesus. No longer can the antitheses which are so characteristic of John’s gospel be ascribed to Hellenism, without taking fully into account the syncretism which before the time of Jesus had already taken place within the Essene branch of Judaism.

d. The Zealots. These belonged to a religious political movement which opposed payment of tribute to a heathen emperor on the grounds that allegiance was due only to God. The movement began as a revolt in a.d. 6 under Judas the Galilean and continued its activities until after the siege of Jerusalem. It played an important part in resistance against the Rom. occupation. Its last stonghold, Masada, fell in a.d. 73. One of the twelve apostles is named Simon the Zealot; whether the adjective was added simply to describe his zeal or as an indication of his association with the political party is not known. The theory that Jesus Himself was associated with the Zealots (so S. F. D. Brandon) may be discounted, not only because it lacks evidence, but because it is impossible to interpret the words of Jesus as the words of a political enthusiast. Jesus left Rome severely alone. His mission was spiritual, not national.