When Jesus was born, around the year 4 BCE, Roman rule in Palestine was relatively new and very controversial. While some Jews were content to live under Rome’s authority, there were many rural communities and the urban poor who were rebellious and hoping for the messiah: a divinely inspired leader who would establish a new, autonomous Jewish kingdom.
Revolts against Roman Rule
The urban elite, who had been Hellenized (that is, had adopted Greek language and customs) for generations, and who reaped the rewards of participation in the Roman economy and administration, were content to live under Rome’s authority. However, those who had been disadvantaged by Roman rule hoped for the messiah.
One extremist group, the Zealots, eventually led two armed revolts against the Roman rule. The first, between 66 and 70 CE (a generation after Jesus’s death), ended in the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple, as a punishment. The second rebellion, in 132–135 CE, caused the destruction of Jerusalem itself. The Romans expelled the entire Jewish population and razed the city to the ground. On its ruins, they built a military colony called Aelia Capitolina.
This tragic framework is essential to understanding the very different ways that the words and actions of Jesus were interpreted during his lifetime and for centuries after his death—especially since all the accounts of his life were written down after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and further influenced by later events.
Sadducees and Pharisees
There was a significant division of belief, practice, culture, and politics within the Jewish community. The Temple priesthood at Jerusalem was set apart from the rest of Jewish society, controlled by a hereditary sect called the Sadducees whose leaders were appointed by the Roman Senate.
The Pharisees, by contrast, were preachers who considered themselves heirs of the ancient prophetic tradition. As such, they were quite flexible in their interpretation of the Torah because they claimed to be the keepers of the oral teachings that determined how the written law should apply to daily life.
They also believed in an afterlife, a day of judgment, and the damnation or reward of individual souls. They actively sought out converts and looked forward to the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah. The Sadducees, by contrast, had a vested interest in maintaining their privileged political status, interpreting the Torah more strictly, and considering Judaism closed to anyone who had not been born a Jew.
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Countering both of these more dominant groups were the Essenes, a quasi-monastic faction that sought salvation through repentance and asceticism. Some Biblical scholars see Essene influence behind the career of Jesus; his Jewish contemporaries may also have seen him as some sort of Pharisee. For example, his emphasis on the ethical requirements of the law rather than its literal interpretation is reflected in many of his teachings, as they have come down to us in both canonical and noncanonical forms. Jesus’s teaching about a life after death and the imminent coming of the kingdom of God also fits within a Pharisaic framework, as does his willingness to reach out to people beyond the Jewish community.
But Jesus obviously carried these ideas much, much further. For most ordinary Jews, religious observance consisted of going to the temple on holy days; paying the annual temple tax; reciting the morning and evening prayers; and observing certain fundamental laws, such as circumcision (for men), ritual purity (especially for women), and prohibitions on the consumption of certain foods. Jesus appears to have de-emphasized the importance of such observances and may have wished to abolish them.
Jesus: The Messiah
What made Jesus most controversial was his followers’ claim that he was the Messiah sent to deliver Israel from its enemies. After Jesus’s death, these claims grew more assertive, yet they never persuaded more than a small minority of Jews to adopt a belief in Jesus’s salvific role.
But when his followers began to preach to non-Jewish (Gentile) audiences, they were able to represent Jesus in terms that made sense to Greek-speaking communities; Jesus was not merely a messiah for the Jews but the Christos (‘anointed one’ in Greek), the divine son of God who had suffered and died for the sins of all humanity. He had conquered death itself by rising from his tomb and, after appearing to his followers several times, ascended into heaven. He would soon return to judge all the world’s inhabitants, and those who believed in him would be given eternal life.
Followers of Jesus
Unlike Peter and Jesus’s other local disciples, the Hellenized (and initially hostile) Paul of Tarsus had never met Jesus but claimed instead to have received a direct revelation of his teachings and become an apostle—’one sent forth’ to the gentiles of the Roman Empire. This led to a number of major disputes. Initially, Peter and his companions believed that followers of Jesus had to be Jews or converts to Judaism. The Hellenized Paul, however, argued that Jewish law was now largely irrelevant; Jesus had made a new covenant possible between God and humanity and the old covenant between God and the Jews was no longer valid.
This position, which would continue to cause dispute for at least another century, was vehemently opposed by the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, led by Jesus’s brother, James. But after a series of contentious debates that took place around 49 of the Common Era, Paul’s position appears to have prevailed—at least, in the texts that have now been deemed canonical (which is to say, orthodox).
Although some early Christians would continue to obey Jewish law, most of the converts who swelled the movement were Gentiles. Paul began to call this new community of believers an ekklesiæ, the Greek word for ‘assembly’; the Latinized form of this word is translated into English as ‘church’.
Common Questions about Jesus and the Jewish Society
The Zealots led two armed revolts against Roman rule; the first was between 66 and 70 CE, and the second was between 132–135 CE.
The Temple priesthood at Jerusalem was controlled by a hereditary sect called the Sadducees, whose leaders were appointed by the Roman Senate. They had a vested interest in maintaining their privileged political status, interpreting the Torah strictly, and considering Judaism closed to anyone who had not been born a Jew.
The Pharisees were preachers who considered themselves heirs of the ancient prophetic tradition. They were quite flexible in their interpretation of the Torah. They believed in an afterlife, a day of judgment, and actively sought out converts and looked forward to the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah.