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Cultural and historical background of Jesus

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According to the Gospels, Jesus lived in Judea and the Galilee (modern day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan) around the first half of the first century CE. Some people, especially fundamentalist Christians, take the Gospels to be a literal and accurate account of Jesus' life; other people question whether Jesus ever existed (see Historicity of Jesus for an account of this debate). Many critical Bible scholars and historians, however, accept that Jesus lived, but reject the Gospels as a literal account of his life. They rely on the Gospels as historical sources, but reject supernatural elements including miracles; and argue that the Gospels were written from the point of view of, and in order to support, an orthodox Christianity that was emerging between the second and fourth centuries CE. Moreover, they claim that an account of Jesus' life must make sense in terms of his historical and cultural context, rather than Christian orthodoxy. The study of this context foregrounds Jewish culture, and tensions, trends, and changes in Jewish culture under the influence of Helenistic culture and Roman occupation.


The First Temple Era

In the 1st century CE, when Jesus was supposed to have lived, most Jews were poor, politically marginalized peasants. Nevertheless, various elites and social movements argued over the status of the Temple, laws and values embodied in sacred scriptures, and the restoration of a monarchy, Jewish sovereignty, and the kingdom of God. These institutions and issues all have their origins in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, around 1000-586 BCE.

The ancient land of Israel (also, called the land of Canaan and Palestine) is situated on the easternmost coast of the Mediterranean, the westernmost part of the Fertile Crescent. Historically a crossroads for intercontinental trade, it was situated between the ancient empires of Egypt to the south, Greece and later Rome to the northwest, and Assyria, Babylonia, and later Persia to the east. The settlement of this area by various groups, including Canaanites and Phoenecians, and the origins of the ancient Israelites is a complex and much-debated topic; see History of ancient Israel and Judah. Despite this cosmopolitan setting, the events described in this article take place within a relatively small and circumscribed area, perhaps 100 miles north to south and 40 or 50 miles east to west.

Priests and Kings

The religion of ancient Israel, like those of most ancient Near Eastern societies, centered on a Temple, served by a caste of priests, who sacrificed offerings to their god. Priests claimed descent from Aaron of the ancient tribe of Levi, and were believed to have been appointed by God to care for the Tabernacle.

In ancient Israel, as in most societies at that time, the priesthood was closely tied with the monarchy. The religious authority of the priests was formalized at the time the First Temple was constructed, around 950 BCE, when the high priest Zadok anointed Solomon king. At that time priestly power was legitimized and limited by the monarchy, who came from the House of David of the tribe of Judah. During the First Temple Era (from around 950 BCE to 586 BCE), the priests were limited to their work in the Temple; political power officially rested in the hands of a king who ruled, ideally, by divine right.


In most ancient Near Eastern societies sacrifice was the primary form of worship. Many such societies also had myths about gods, and laws which they believed were given to them by gods; the Children of Israel had similar sacred texts (which would later be redacted into the Torah), which they believed were written by prophets. Moreover, they had a class of prophets who often criticized the king, elites, or the masses and provided visions of a better life. During the First Temple Era, these prophets were a potent political force. In the south (the kingdom of Judah, or Judea), the tradition was epitomized by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who primarily addressed issues of collective (national or communal) concern. In the north (the kingdom of Israel), it was epitomized by Elijah and Elisha, who (according to the Tanakh) healed people and performed other miracles, and who primarily addressed issues of individual (private or personal) concern (Crossan 1992: 137-167).

Both the Temple and the Monarchy were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, when most Jews were forced into exile.

The Second Temple Era

The Persian Period

In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and in 537 BCE, inaugurated the Persian period of Jewish history. In 520 BCE Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple (completed 515 BCE). He appointed Zerubabbel (the grandson of the last Judean king, Jehoiachin) governor, but did not allow the restoration of the kingdom. Without the constraining power of the monarchy, the authority of the Temple was amplified, and priests became the dominant authority. However, the Second Temple had been constructed under the auspices of a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for various sects to develop within Judaism, each of which claimed to represent "Judaism," and most of which typically discouraged social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects.

The end of the Babylonian Exile saw not only the construction of the Second Temple, but, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, the redaction of the Torah as well. Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who would later come to be addressed as rabbi, "great one") monopolized the study of the Torah, which was read publicly on market-days, a practice which was institutionalized after the return from the Babylonian exile. These sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ, and identified with the prophets (Biblical political and religious reformers who came from various tribes).

The Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period of Jewish history began in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Upon his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. At first, Judea was ruled by the Egyptian-Hellenic Ptolemies, but in 198 BCE,the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire, under Antiochus III, seized control over Judea.

The Near East was cosmopolitan, especially during the Hellenistic period. Several languages were used, and the matter of the lingua franca is still subject of some debate. The Jews almost certainly spoke Aramaic among themselves. Greek was at least to some extent a trade language in the region, and indeed throughout the entire eastern portion of the Mediterranean. Thus, historian Chaye Cohen has observed that

All the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period, of both the diaspora and the land of Israel, were Hellenized, that is, were integral parts of the culture of the ancient world. Some varieties of Judaism were more hellenized than others, but none was an island unto itself. It is a mistake to imagine that the land of Palestine preserved a "pure" form of Judaism and that the diaspora was the home of adulterated or diluted forms of Judaism. The term "Hellensitic Judaism" makes sense, then, only as a chronological indicator for the period from Alexander the Great to the Macabees or perhaps to the Roman conquests of the first century BCE. As a descriptive term for a certain type of Judaism, however, it is meaningless because all the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period were "Hellenistic." (Cohen 1987: 37)

Cultural Struggles with Hellenism

Nevertheless, Jews had to grapple with the values of Hellenism and Hellenistic philosophy, which were often directly at odds with their own values and traditions. Bath houses were built in Jerusalem, for instance, and the gymnasion became a center of social, athletic, and intellectual life. Many Jews embraced these institutions; Jews who did so were often looked down upon due to their circumcision, which in hellenistic eyes was an aesthetic defacement of the body. Most Jews tended to accept the good that came from their various conquerors, but many yearned for freedom from foreign domination.

Moreover, many Jews lived in the Diaspora, and the Judean provinces of Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee were populated by many Gentiles (who often showed an interest in Judaism). Under such conditions, Jews had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their Torah laws applied only to them, but revealed universal truths. This situation led to new interpretations, some of which were influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism.

Political Struggles with Hellenism

Generally, the Jews accepted foreign rule when they were only required to pay tribute, and otherwise allowed to govern themselves internally. Nevertheless, Jews were divided between those who favored hellinization and those who opposed it, and were divided over allegiance to the Ptolemies or Seleucids. When the High Priest Simon II died in 175 BCE, conflict broke out between supporters of his son Onias III (who opposed hellenization, and favored the Ptolemies) and his son Jason (who favored hellinization, and favored the Seleucids). According to Maccabees (a partisan account), Jason bribed the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, who in turn appointed Jason High Priest. Jason and his supporters then began building a gymnaseum. When Antiochus IV demanded tribute from the Temple treasury in 171 BCE, however, Jason refused. Another priest, Menelaus, then bribed Antiochus, who then declared Menelaus the new High Priest. The result was a civil war.

When Menelaus had Onias III (who had accused Menelaus of stealing from the Temple treasurey) killed, huge numbers of Jews flocked to Jason's side. In 167 BCE Antiochus invaded Judea, entered the Temple, and stripped it of money and ceremonial objects. Jason fled to Egypt, and Antiochus imposed a program of forced hellenization, requiring Jews to abandon their own laws and customs. At this point Mattathias and his five sons, John, Eleazar, Simon, Jonathan, and Judah Maccabee, priests of the Hasmon family living in the rural village of Modein, assumed leadership of a bloody revolt against the Seleucids.

Judah liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE and restored the Temple. When Judah was killed in 161 BCE, his brother Jonathan assumed leadership of the rebellion. When Jonathan was killed in 143 BCE, his brother Simon assumed leadership, now fighting against Antiochus VII. In 141 BCE an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. When Simon was killed in 135 BCE, his son John Hyrcanus took his place as high priest and king.

The Hasmonean Period

After defeating the Seleucid forces, Judah's nephew John Hyrcanus established a new monarchy in the form of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BCE -- thus establishing priests as political as well as religious authorities. Although the Hasmoneans were heroes for resisting the Seleucids, their reign lacked the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty of the First Temple Era.

The Emergence of the Saducees, Essenes, and Pharisees

The rift between the priests and the sages grew during the Hellenistic period, when the Jews faced new political and cultural struggles. Around this time the Saducee party emerged as the party of the priests and allied elites (the name Sadducee comes from Zadok).

One of the earliest competing movements was the Essenes, who were originally led by a group of priests who either rejected the Seleucid appointed high priests, or the Hasmonean high priests, as illegitimate. Ultimately, they esentially rejected the Second Temple. They argued that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice. Although their lack of concern for the Second Temple alienated them from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared another competing group, the Pharisees ("separatists") which had its origins in the relatively new group of authorities of scribes and sages. The meaning of the name is unclear, it may refer to their rejection of Hellenic culture or to their objection to the Hasmonean monopoly on power.

During the Hasmonean period, the Saducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties. The political rift between the Saducees and the Pharisees became evident when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai choose between being king and being High Priest. This demand led to a brief civil war that ended with a bloody repression of the Pharisees, although at his deathbed the king called for a reconciliation between the two parties. Alexander was succeeded by his widow, whose brother was a leading Pharisee. Upon her death her elder son, Hyrcanus, sought Pharisee support, and her younger son, Aristobulus, sought the support of the Sadducees.

The Roman Period

The conflict between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus culminated in a civil war that ended when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE and inaugurated the Roman period of Jewish history. Pompey ended the monarchy and named Hyrcanus high priest and ethnarch (a lesser title than "king"). 6 years later Hyrcanus was deprived of the remainder of political authority and ultimate jurisdiction was given to the Proconsul of Syria, who ruled through Hyrcanus's Idumaean associate Antipater, and later Antipater's two sons Phasael (military governor of Judea) and Herod (military governor of the Galilee). In 40 BCE Aristobulus's son Antigonus overthrew Hyrcanus and named himself king and high priest, and Herod fled to Rome.

The Herodian Dynasty, the Procuratorship, and the Sanhedrin

In Rome, Herod sought the support of Marcus Antonius and Octavian, and secured recognition by the Roman Senate as king, confirming the termination of the Hasmonean dynasty. Herod was an unpopular ruler, perceived as a foreigner and a Roman puppet. Actions such as his notorious treatment of his family and of the last Hasmonaeans, and his plans to expand the Second Temple, made him more disliked.

After Herod's death in 4 BC, various radical Jewish elements rose in revolt: Judas in the Galilee, whose followers tore down the Roman Eagle that had adorned the Temple; Simon in Perea, a former slave of Herod, who burned down the royal palace at Jericho, and Athronges in Judea, a shephard who led a two-year rebellion. The Syrian legate Varus took command of Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee, and immediately put down the uprisings, killing thousands of Jews by crucifixion and selling many into slavery. Rome quickly re-established governance and divided Herod's kingdom among his sons: the southern part of the territory (Judea and Samaria) was given to Archelaus, Herod Antipas was named tetrarch of the Galilee and the southern Transjordan (Peraea ), and Philip received the northern Transjordan (Batanaea ).

Archelaus antagonized the Jews as his father had, and in 6 CE the emperor Augustus acceded to a delegation by placing Judea and Samaria under the indirect rule of a Roman procurator (or prefect), and the direct rule of a Roman-appointed high priest instead. The first procurator was Coponius (6 - 9); the procurator who ruled from 26 to 36 CE was Pontius Pilate. Annas was high priest from 7 to 14 CE, when he was succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas, who served until 36 CE. Jesus is commonly believed to have preached and died around the period 30 - 33 CE.

During this period Judea and Galilee were effectively semi-autonomous client-states under Roman tribute. For the most part, Jews were willing to pay tribute, although they complained when it was excessive, and absolutely refused to allow a graven image in their Temple although some emperors considered imposing one. The primary tasks of the tetrarch and high priest were to collect tribute, convince the Romans not to interfere with the Temple, and ensure that the Jews not rebel.

In 57 BCE the Proconsul Cabineus established five regional synhedria (Sanhedrins, or councils) to regulate the internal affairs of the Jews. The Sanhedrinae was a legislative council of 71 elders chaired by the high priest, that interpreted Jewish law and adjudicated appeals, especially in ritual matters. Their specific composure and powers actually varied depending on Roman policy.

Although the office of high priest was theoretically life-long, the Romans regularly deposed the high priests in favour of new appointees. Due to the manipulations of Annas, however, the temple remained in control of one family for most of the first century until it was destroyed. Annas was high priest from 7-11. His son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from 18-22 and 24-36. His sons Eleazar (23-24), Jonathas (37), Theophilos (38-42), Matthias (42-44) and Ananias (63) all became high priests. The Gospel of John reports a separate trial of Jesus before Annas (in addition to the Sanhedrin), and if this took place, it was perhaps because many considered him to be the legitimate high priest.

Religious and Cultural Life During the Roman Period

According to the Torah, Jews were required to travel to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices at the Temple three times a year: Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Although many Jews attempted to do so, many could not due to the large distances involved. Consequently, Jews developed new institutions to supplement the Temple. Within Roman Palestine, Jews established synagogues (Greek; in Hebrew, Bet Knesset, in English, House of Assembly). Outside of Roman Palestine, Jews established proseuchai (Greek; in Hebrew, Bet Tefillah; in English, house of prayer). Synagogues served primarily as local civic-centers, but people in synagogues and proseuchai developed practices based on and that paralleled practices in the Temple. For example, the "Shema" was recited twice daily in the Temple and people who lived far from the Temple assembled in proseuchai to recite the Shema twice daily.

During the Roman period, Aramaic and Greek continued to be the most important languages in the region. Procurators like Pontius Pilate (a Roman from Rome) would most likely have spoken Latin in private, but would probably have used Greek to handle day to day business in the province, though it is also possible that he used Aramaic for this. Scholars debate whether everyday people or Jesus himself spoke any other languages than Aramaic, perhaps some rudimentary Greek or Latin, and (as a Jew) Hebrew.

Saducees and Pharisees in the Roman period

There is a record of only one high priest (Ananus, in 62 CE) being a Saducee, although scholars generally assume that the Sanhedrin was dominated by Saducees. The Pharisees were politically quiescent, and studied, taught, and worshipped in their own way. Although popular, they had no power.

During this period serious theological differences emerged between the Saducees and Pharisees. Whereas Saducees favored a limited interpretation of the Torah, Pharisees debated new applications of the law and devised ways for all Jews to incorporate purity practices (hitherto limited to the Temple) in their everyday lives. Unlike the Saducees, the Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead in a future, messianic age.

New Prophets

During this time a variety of other religious movements and splinter groups developed. A number of individuals claimed to be new prophets, in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. The Talmud provides two examples of such Jewish miracle workers around the time of Jesus. Mishnah Ta'anit 3:8 tells of "Honi the Circledrawer" who, in the middle of the first century BCE, was famous for his ability to successfully pray for rain. On one occasion when God did not answer his prayer, he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. The rabbis of the Mishnah disapproved of Honi's impertinence, but respected his relationship with God.

Mishnah Berakot 5:5 tells of Hanina ben Dosa, who in the generation following Jesus cured Gamaliel's son by prayer (compare with Matthew 8: 5-13). A later story (In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 33a) tells of a lizard that used to injur passers-by. Hanina ben Dosa came and put his heel over the hole; the lizard bit him and the lizard died. Such men as Honi and Hanina were respected for their relationship with God but not considered especially saintly, and their abilities were seen as one more unknowable thing and not deemed a result of any ultra-strict observance of Jewish law. These men were sometimes doubted, often respected, but never considered "saviors" or "messiahs."

Messiahs and Millenial Prophets

The English word "messiah" is derived from the Hebrew word mashiyakh (משיח), meaning "anointed one." But this word has had other meanings, for different groups of people at different times. We cannot immediately assume that Jesus and his followers used the word the same way as Christians today.

For many Christians today, "messiah" refers to the personal savior of all humankind. Christians also rely on an apocalyptic notion of messiah, as one who who will usher in the end of history by resurrecting the dead and by executing God's judgement over humankind. This apocalyptic vision has its origins in Jewish culture during the Babylonian Exile and the Second Temple Period. Nevertheless, it existed alongside a nationalist notion of messiah, as one who will defend the Jews against foreign oppressors and rule the Jews justly, and by divine right. This nationalist vision has its origins in the Hebrew Bible, and endures among Jews today.

In the Hebrew Bible, "messiah" was originally used to refer to High Priests and kings, who were elevated to office by being anointed with oil. The Essenes and the Mishnah, edited in 200 CE, uses the term mainly to refer to the High Priest. By the time of the Roman occupation, however, many Jews also used the term to refer to a descendent of King David who would restore God's kingdom. Thus, although all Jewish kings were annointed, not all kings were considered messianic. The Hasmonean kings (162 BCE - 56 BCE) were not descended from David, and did not claim to have established God's Kingdom. After the Roman occupation and the fall of the Hasmoneans, many Jews hoped that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king. However, Jews were divided over how this might occur. Most Jews believed that their history was governed by God, meaning that even the conquest of Judea by the Romans was a divine act. Thus, the majority of Jews accepted Roman rule, and did not look for, or encourage, messiahs. They believed that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention.

During this period a new class of prophets emerged who hearkened back to Moses and Joshua as harbingers of national liberation. These men did not claim to be messiahs, and did not rely on physical force, but did lead large movements of people (from the hundreds to the thousands) to act in ways that, they believed, would lead God to restore his kingdom. For example, in 36 C.E. a Samaritan led a large group up Mount Gerizim, where they believed Moses had buried sacred vessels (echoing Moses' ascent up Mt. Sinai). Pilate blocked their route and killed their leaders. Josephus, who elsewhere expressed prejudice against Samaritans, suggested that they were armed. But the surviving Samaritans appealed to the Syrian Legate, Vitellius, that they were unarmed and that Pilate's actions were excessively cruel. As a result, Pilate was sent to Rome and ultimately dismissed from his post as procurator. Another such prophet was Theudas, who, sometime between 44 C.E. and 46 C.E. led a large group of people to the Jordan river, which he claimed he could part (echoing Moses at the Red Sea and Joshua at the Jordan river). Fadus, the procurator who succeeded Pilate, blocked their route and killed Theudas. An "Egyptian Prophet" (it is unclear if the prophet came from Egypt, or was invoking Moses' Egyptian origin) led thirty thousand around the mount of Olives and sought to enter Jerusalem until stopped by Felix, the procurator who succeeded Fadus.

Sicarii, Bandits, and Zealots

Various groups also resisted the status quo by force of arms. In many cases these groups did not have a clearly defined revolutionary program; in some cases they were opposed more to urban elites than to the Romans per se. These groups took on different forms, with different methods in the North than in the South.

The Sicarii, or "dagger-men" were urban terrorists who emerged in Jerusalem in the 50s CE, specifically stabbing to death Jews whom they believed to be supporters of the Romans.

in addition, bandits or brigands had been active in the region. After fleeing Saul and prior to assuming his kingship, David fought with and led a band of brigands. Social historians have suggested that bandits are common in peasant socities; they are poor men who identify with other peasants, but who seek to aquire wealth and political power. When Herod was still military governor in the Galilee, he spent a good deal of time fighting bandits under the leadership of Ezekias. These bandits are best understood as a peasant groups whose targets were local elites (both Hasmonean and Herodian) rather than with Rome. Ventidius Cumanus (procurator 48 to 52 CE) often retaliated against brigandry by punishing peasant communities he believed to be their base of support. When a Galillean pilgram on way to Jerusalem was murdered by a Samaritan, the bandit chief Eliezar organized Galilleans for a counter-attack, and Cumanus moved against the Jews. The Syrian legate Quadratus intervened and sent several Jewish and Samaritan officials to Rome. The Emporer Claudius took the Jewish side, and had the Samaritan leaders executed and exiled, and turned one named Veler over to the Jews who beheaded him. Thus, widespread peasant unrest of this period was not exclusively directed against Rome but also expressed discontent against urban elites and other groups; Roman policy sought to contain the power of the bandits while cultivating Jewish support.

During the Great Revolt in 66 CE, Josephus was sent to command the Galilee. He raised an army primarily of local bandits who pillaged nearby Greek and Roman cities (including ones occupied by Jewish elites), including the administrative centers of Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Gabara. This suggests that they were concerned primarily with gain or social insurrection against local elites, rather than a political revolution against Roman occupation. When Roman legions arrived from Syria, the bandit army melted away.

The Romans employed a scorched-earth policy in its fight in the north, driving thousands of peasants sourthwards towards Jerusalem. Between 67 and 68 CE, these peasants, perhaps led by bandits, formed a new political party called the Zealots, which believed that an independent kingdom should be restored immediately through force of arms. It is unclear whether their leaders made messianic claims. The Zealots imprisoned members of the Herodian family, killed the former high priests Ananus ben Artanus and Joshua ben Gamaliel, and put on trial the wealthiest citizens. It is possible that they believed they were purging elements who whom they believed would have surrendered to the Romans. But these purges also reveal the great social divide between Jewish peasants and aristocrats at this time. They formed part of a social revolution: although they ultimately lost to the Romans, elite groups like the Hasmoneans, Herodians, and Saducees would never again have power in Roman Palestine.

Jesus in this context

According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was the literal son of God; but these Gospels also provide genealogies establishing that Joseph was a descendent of David. Critical Bible scholars see evidence in the Gospels for alternative accounts. Some point out that the phrase "son of God" was often used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to an especially righteous person (see Names and titles of Jesus), and suggest that God adopted Jesus as His son when Jesus was baptized by John. Christians do not view these two accounts as irreconcilable, but most critical Bible scholars suggest that these accounts were developed after Jesus' death, in order to substantiate the Christian belief that Jesus was the messiah. The dominant account, including the Virgin Birth, substantiates the claim that Jesus is the Christian messiah. The suppressed account, that Jesus was the son of Joseph and a descendant of David, and anointed by John, would have substantiated the claim that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. Most of the material in the Gospels focus on the last year of Jesus' life, and most scholars focus on this period.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It is possible that this claim was made by later Christians who wanted to stress ways in which Jesus fulfilled Biblical propheses. Gospels agree that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, went to the River Jordan to meet and be baptised by the prophet Yohannan (John) the Baptist, and began healing and preaching to villagers and fishermen around the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinereth; in Greek, Gennesaret). Although there were many Phoenician, Macedonian, and Roman cities nearby (e.g. Gesara and Gadara; Sidon and Tyre; Sepphoris and Tiberias), there is no record of Jesus having spent any time in them. The center of his work was Capernaum, a small town (about 500 by 350 meters, with a population of 1,500-2,000) where, according to the Gospels he appeared at the town's synagogue (a non-sacred meeting house, where Jews would often gather on the Sabbath to study the Torah), healed a paralytic, and continued seeking disciples. Once Jesus established a following (although there are debates over the number of followers) he moved to the Davidic capital of Judea, Jerusalem, and began preaching in the wildernesses of the Negev and Jordan. He ended his career in Jerusalem (the synoptic Gospels suggest that his career lasted around one year and was spent mostly in the Galilee; John suggests that his career lasted something more than two years and was spent mostly in Judea).

Jesus seems not to have belonged to any particular party or movement; Jesus was special (perhaps even unique) in combining elements of many of these different – and for most Jews, opposing – positions. Most critical scholars see Jesus as working in the prophetic tradition, healing people and performing miracles in the prophetic tradition of the Galilee, and preaching God's desire for justice and righteousness in the prophetic tradition of Judea. However, many of his teachings echoed the beliefs of the Qumran community (which was probably a branch of the Essenes) and of some of the Pharisees; and his declarations that the kingdom was at hand echoed the Zealots. (see Names and titles of Jesus for a discussion of how Jesus identified himself, or was identified by others, in the Gospels.)

Many scholars argue that it is likely that, like most Jews, Jesus believed that the restoration of the monarchy would be accomplished by God, not by any movement of Jews. However, he did believe that this restoration was imminent. Jesus was enigmatic at best about his claim to actually be the presumptive monarch. That he speaks of twelve disciples is probably symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus a metaphor for "all Israel".

Talk of a restoration of the monarchy was seditious under Roman occupation, and Jesus entered Jerusalem at an especially risky time. Although most Jews did not have the means to travel to Jerusalem for every holiday, virtually all tried to comply with these laws as best they could. Thus, during these festivals, such as the Passover, when Jesus came to Jerusalem, the population swelled – and outbreaks of violence and riots were common. Critical scholars argue that the high priest feared that Jesus' talk of an imminent restoration of an independent Jewish state would likely spark a riot. As maintaining the peace was one of the primary jobs of the high priest, whom the Romans held personally responsible for any major outbreak of violence, he had Jesus arrested and turned him over to the Romans for execution.

The Great Revolt and the Destruction of the Temple

By 66 CE Jewish discontent with Rome had escalated. At first, the priests tried to suppress rebellion, even calling upon the Pharisees for help. After the Roman garrison failed to stop Hellenists from desecrating a synagogue in Caesarea, however, the high priest suspended payment of tribute, inaugurating the Great Jewish Revolt. In 70 CE the Temple was destroyed. The destruction of the Second Temple was a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews, who were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions:

  • How to achieve atonement without the Temple?
  • How to explain the disastrous outcome of the rebellion?
  • How to live in the post-Temple, Romanized world?
  • How to connect present and past traditions?

How people answered these questioned depended largely on their position prior to the revolt. But the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans not only put an end to the revolt, it marked the end of an era. Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility (the last Zealots died at Masada in 73 CE). Similarly, the Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared. The Essenes also vanished, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the concerns of the times. The destruction of the Second Temple was of no consequence to them; precisely for this reason, they were of little consequence to the vast majority of Jews. Two organized groups remained: Christians, and Pharisees (and some scholars suggest that it was at this time, when Christians and Pharisees were competing for leadership of the Jewish people, that accounts of debates between Jesus and the apostles, and Pharisees, and anti-Pharisaic passages, were written and incorporated into the New Testament).

The Emergence of Christianity

According to prevalent Jewish beliefs, Jesus' failure to establish the Kingdom of God, and his death at the hands of the Romans, invalidated any messianic claims. Paula Fredriksen, in From Jesus to Christ, has suggested that Jesus' impact on his followers was so great that they could not accept this failure. According to the New Testament, some Christians believed that they encountered Jesus after his crucifiction; they argued that he had been resurrected, and would soon return to usher in the kingdom of God. Others adapted Gnosticism as a way to maintain the vitality and validity of Jesus' teachings (see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels). According to Daniel Boyarin, in A Radical Jew, Paul used the figure of Jesus to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false). Judaism is a corporeal religion, in which membership is based not on belief but rather descent from Abraham, physically marked by circumcision. Paul saw in a resurrected Jesus the possibility of a spiritual rather than corporeal messiah. He used this notion of messiah to argue for a spiritual religion through which all people -- not just descendents of Abraham -- could worship the God of Abraham. Unlike Judaism, which holds that it is the proper religion only of the Jews, Pauline Christianity claimed to be the proper religion for all people.

Since Christians believed that Jesus had already replaced the Temple as the expression of a new covenant, they were relatively unconcerned with the destruction of the Temple. When Christians could no longer attract a large number of followers from among the Jews -- perhaps because, in the aftermath of the revolt, Jews were afraid that talk of a new king and a new kingdom would provoke Roman wrath, or because most Jews did not feel that the destruction of the Temple signified the abrogation of their covenant with God, or because Jesus' central teachings (to love one's neighbor, and to love God with all one's heart, soul, and might) were also fundamental to Jewish teaching -- they turned to Gentile converts, distanced themselves from the rebellious Jews, and emerged as a new religion.

The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism

Of all the major Second Temple sects, only the Pharisees remained (but see Karaite Judaism. Although they had accepted the importance of the Temple, their vision of Jewish law as a means by which ordinary people could engage with the sacred in their daily lives, provided them with a position from which to respond to all four challenges, in a way meaningful to the vast majority of Jews.

Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea through a Procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. Yohanan ben Zakkai, formerly a leading Pharisee, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince, or president), and he reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, the rabbis instructed Jews to give money to charities and study in local Synagogues.

When the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, in 132 CE, some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion (and, for a short time, an independent state) led by Simon bar Kozeba (also called Bar Kochba, or "son of a star"); some, such as Rabbi Akiba, believed Bar Kochbah to be messiah, or king. This revolt ended in 135 CE when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated. According to a midrash, in addition to Bar Kochba the Romans executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin: the high priest, R. Ishmael; the president of the Sanhedrin, R. Shimon ben Gamaliel; R. Akiba; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R.Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; the secretary of the Sanhedrin, R. Yeshevav; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba. The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiba was flayed, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death. This account also claims that the rabbis were executed to atone for the guilt of the ten brothers who kidnapped Joseph. It is possible that this account represents a Pharisaic response to the Christian account of Jesus' crucifixion; in both accounts the Romans brutally punish rebels, who accept their torture as atonement for the crimes of others.

After the suppression of the revolt the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile; shortly thereafter (around 200 CE), Judah haNasi edited together judgements and traditions into an authoritative code, the Mishna. This marks the transformation of Pharisaic Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism.

Although the Rabbis traced their origins to the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism nevertheless involved a radical repudiation of certain elements of Phariseism -- elements that were basic to Second Temple Judaism. The Pharisees had been partisan. During the Second Temple era, when Jews were divided into sects, Pharisees did not insist that all Jews follow their rules; each sect had its own interpretation of the law. Each sect claimed a monopoly on the truth, and discouraged marriage between members of different sects. Members of different sects did, however, argue with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, but there is no significant record of any such debates. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The Rabbis avoided the term "Pharisee," perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The Rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim, a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant," and which is understood as a rejection of sectarians and sectarianism. This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah; rather, it relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism.

The Pharisaic commitment to scholarly debate as a value in and of itself, rather than merely a byproduct of sectarianism, emerged as a defining feature of Judaism. Debating itself became a central value, and the Rabbis maintained scrupulous records of debates valuing minoirty opinions as much as majority opinions. This tradition of study and debate reached its fullest expression in the development of the Talmudim, elaborations of the Mishnah and records of Rabbinic debates and discussions, compiled around 400 CE in Palestine and around 500 CE in Babylon. The Rabbinic Era is thus divided into two periods, that of the Tannaim (from the Aramaic word for "repeat," also used to mean "learn"), who completed the canonization of the Hebrew Bible and wrote the Mishna, and that of the Amoraim (from the Aramaic word for "speaker"), who wrote the Talmuds. The Rabbis emphasized that there was one God who created and cared for all people. Unlike Christianity, which in its orthodox form held that no one could achieve salvation except through Christianity, Rabinnic Judaism stressed that only Jews had to follow Rabbinic teachings, and that other nations are free to find their own paths to God.


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Last updated: 05-03-2005 09:00:33