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Palestine at the Time of Jesus’ Birth

During their years of exile in Babylonia and Persia, the Jewish people had absorbed the idea that life is a battlefield between Good and Evil. Later on, back in Roman-occupied Judea, the line between Good and Evil seemed to have been clearly drawn between the Jews and the Romans. This divisiveness was further fueled by several conflicts that had been brewing for a very long time:

First, there was the growing anger and cynicism caused by the corruption and violence of their own rulers as well as their occupiers. Various new groups and ‘movements’ – particularly the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes – were shaped and motivated by these sentiments.

The Sadducees were mostly members of the wealthy conservative elite. They had opened their hearts to the secular world of Greek culture and commerce, while insisting that the only worthy form of Judaism was to be found in a rather spiritless, fundamentalist, “pure letter-of-the-law” reading of the Torah. Philosophically, they denied such concepts as resurrection, personal immortality, or other ideas that were only found in the oral tradition. Politically, they contented themselves with the way things were and resisted change, preferring instead to promote cordial relations with the Romans. Although they often held influential positions in society, they were unpopular with the masses who generally opposed all foreign influences.

The Pharisees, the largest group, were mostly middle-class Jews who emphasized the exact keeping of the law as it had been interpreted by sages, elders, and rabbis. Politically, they were ardent anti-Hellenists and anti-Romans. The Pharisees were admired by the majority of Jews, but they were never a very large group since most people had neither the education nor the time to join the party and follow all their stringent rules regarding prayer, fasting, festival observance, tithing, etc. Pharisees were greatly influenced by Persian ideas of Good and Evil, and they adhered to the growing belief in the resurrection of the body with an afterlife of rewards and punishments. Over time, many of the finer impulses of Pharisaism would weaken into an empty religious formalism (as is ever the case), focusing on outward actions rather than the inward experience of the soul. Although the group had initially been exceedingly tolerant, this began to devolve into a feeling of contempt toward those Jews who did not meet their standards of behavior.

From among the more politically radical of the Pharisees there came a new group called the Zealots, meaning ‘men of action’. These were revolutionary patriots, who sought to overthrow the Roman regime by whatever means necessary. They were strongest in Galilee. As the Romans committed one atrocity after another, the ranks of the Zealots grew. (By 66 CE their ranks would be swollen, and they would lead the charge against the Roman oppressors, initiating a long, costly, and bitter war, that finally ended with the inevitable Roman victory and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE).

At the other extreme were the Essenes. These were religious Jews who, in contrast with the Sadducees, now rejected the Temple and the Priesthood believing these had been defiled by corruption and murder. They also scorned what they felt was the spiritually empty and overly ‘comfortable’ life of the Pharisees. And unlike the Zealots, they had no taste for politics or violence. They chose, instead, to withdraw from secular activities and devote themselves entirely to spiritual purification and contemplation within austere religious communities. The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament, but Flavius Josephus, Philo, Pliny, and various others speak of them in their writings. According to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947, and the additional scrolls that were later excavated from a Jewish monastery in Qumran, the Essene communities worked and worshipped according to their own customs, studied and copied religious literature, practiced baptism and a communion meal, and lived an ascetic life devoted to spiritual growth and the perfection of the soul.

Another source of seething hostility in Palestine was a peculiar new experience of the times, the phenomenon called ‘religious persecution’. People had often wondered why God allowed good people to suffer despite their being good. But now, as the Jews found themselves being persecuted simply because of their religious practices, they began to wonder why it was that God would allow people to suffer BECAUSE they were good! Such persecution seemed the very essence of evil.

Fortunately, the belief in a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil carried with it a growing conviction that Good would ultimately triumph. Therefore, the experience of religious persecution, according to Julie Galambush in “The Reluctant Parting”, “proved to be the catalyst for a developing belief that those who died for their faith in this world would be rewarded in another world – life after death through resurrection.” Rather than being seen as unfortunate wretches who had been unaccountably forgotten by God, such people began to be seen as martyrs – religious heroes whom God would reward in the afterlife for their goodness and their faithfulness. The philosophical belief that God – and Good-would ultimately triumph over Evil, coupled with rising political tension with Rome and the anticipation of inevitable war, led to an increasingly ‘apocalyptic’ view of the world: in other words, many Jews in Palestine began to believe that the end of the world (at least as we know it) was rapidly approaching. God was about to triumph over Evil, He would judge the wicked, He would reward the just, and a New Order would dawn.

To lead God’s legions to victory against hopelessly adverse political conditions, and to establish a new kingdom of God, a leader with divine power would be necessary. And thus, a messianic hope was kindled in the heart of Judaism. God had promised Samuel that an anointed son of David would rule over the Israelites forever. Where was he? Now, after centuries of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman oppression, faith in God and hope for the future combined into the belief that God was finally going to send Moshiach, “the anointed one”, the Messiah, to rescue Israel and lead them to a new world. As Galambush writes: “Messianic expectations, cosmic dualism, martyrdom, and resurrection – an entire constellation of beliefs absent from ancient Israelite religion – suddenly took center stage. In some respects Jewish life continued as it had done for centuries: the rituals in the Jerusalem temple followed forms set down in Leviticus, and the rhythm of Sabbath and the festivals went on as always. But in the final centuries before the Common Era, Jewish popular imagination had come to occupy a far more colorful religious landscape, one in which history was fast approaching its end.” It was into this colorful, dangerous, and hopeful world that a child called Jesus, of the Tribe of Judah and the House of David, was born in Bethlehem.

Bible History

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