Living in the First Century World #2

While Rome ruled the world Jesus was born into his daily life–along with the Jews in Palestine–was a bit removed from that seat of power. Certainly the Roman influence was felt in Nazareth, Jerusalem and throughout Israel, but the Jewish culture and religion dominated locally. This often created culture wars between Rome and Jerusalem and Palestine became infamous as a place of insurrection. During both the life of Christ and the work of the apostles, the Herodian line of kings ruled the Palestine region.

Herod the Great

Perhaps the best starting point to understand Israel in the early first century is to understand the influence Herod had in that region. After a period of turmoil Pompey the Great finally took possession of Jerusalem for Rome in 63 B.C. This led to the rise of the Herodian dynasty. By the time of Christ’s birth Herod the Great had solidified power (at great cost of many lives including a wife, a mother-in-law and several sons) and was recognized as “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate. Originally he had been appointed governor of Galilee by his father, Antipater and used that position to expand his power by both brutal force and temporary alliances with such historical figures as Cleopatra, Antony and Octavian. After the former’s death he pledged loyalty to Caesar Octavian, which allowed him to have autonomous powers in ruling his region. (Rome preferred their territories to self-govern and to even maintain some independence as long as they paid taxes and kept Pax Romana. Once a region became officially recognized as a Roman province–it cost Rome more money to govern; more troops to garrison; etc.) So Herod was able to take full advantage of this.

At the same time, however, he was never fully trusted by the Jewish people over whom he ruled. He was an Idumean (descendent of Esau) and therefore not considered fully Jewish. He did marry into the royal Hasmonean family (the rulers of Israel during the Maccabean period) but even that became troublesome (to the point of having this wife, her mother killed). As a result during his reign he had to fight off many real and many other perceived threats to his rule. This created such a sense of paranoia in and around him that he would later react to the news from some visiting astrologists from the east of a newborn being called “king of the Jews” by slaughtering baby and toddler boys under two years of age in and around Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1-18).

Besides his brutality Herod was great at building. His building legacy includes numerous fortifications in Israel including Masada. He also built the fabulous man-made seaport at Caesarea and his crowning achievement–the temple in Jerusalem.

After his death his kingdom was divided between three sons– with Archelaus succeeding him as King of Judea (Jesus referred to him as “that fox” in Luke 13:32); Antipas becoming tetrarch over Galilee and Perea; and Philip being tetrarch over the remaining territory mainly composed of non Jews. Archelaus would eventually fail causing Rome to make Judea part of the Syrian province and bringing in a man named Pilate to govern. Antipas would later marry his brother Philip’s wife, be confronted as a result by a man named John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29), meet with Jesus (Luke 23:6-11) before his crucifixion and eventually be exiled by Emperor Caligula; and Philip reigned until his death around 34 A.D.

There are two other significant Herods in the New Testament. One is King Herod Agrippa I–grandson of Herod the Great and son of Aristobulus who was a half-brother of the three previously mentioned sons. He was appointed by Caligula as king of Judea. He is referenced in Acts 12 as being struck down by an angel of God and eaten by worms. The second is his son, Herod Agrippa II–the one Paul addressed in Acts 25-26.

The Ruling Class

The elite of Judea are more familiar to us as they were made up of the political/religious parties of Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians (followers of Herod).

The Pharisees were a nationalistic party with the focus of restoring Jerusalem and Israel to its former glory and might. They tended to be rather legalistic in their theology and clashed numerous times with Jesus over interpretation and practice of Torah. The Sadducees evolved from Hellenistic Jews; were more aristocratic than the Pharisees; had a much more liberal view of Scripture and sought to work more closely with other nations. The Herodians were simply an arm of Herod–dedicated to carrying out his agenda. All three were influential over segments of the population. In addition the scribes played a role politically as the trained theologians/lawyers whose interpretation of Scripture influenced the daily practice of religion. Also to this mix where the Essenes–while not necessarily the elite or ruling class did have influence through their monastic lifestyle and strict adherence to the Law (the Dead Sea Scrolls are their work).

Some from the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees formed a kind of Jewish Supreme Court–the Sanhedrin. It contained 71 members–the high priest (who by this point was a political appointee, no longer required to be from the linage of Aaron); twenty four “chief priests” representing all twenty four orders of the priesthood (1 Chronicles 24:4-6); twenty four elders representing the common people; and twenty two scribes who served as experts in interpreting the Law as it applied to civil and religious matters. Rome allowed this court to function and adjudicate local cases. Peter and John were to have a confrontation with this group (Acts 4).

On the other side of these recognized parties were the zealots–the group of Jews dedicated to overthrowing Roman oppression at any cost. Many now think this was a militarized branch of the Pharisee party. One of the twelve apostles–Simon–came to Jesus from this group.

The Common People

People like Joseph and Mary of Nazareth were by far the majority in Palestine–having no power or position they simply lived day-to-day. They not only dealt with the oppression of Roman taxes but also with the burden of Pharisee-led religion. The synagogue would have been a large part of their life–going there to receive instruction from the local rabbis and to worship. Work was hard and difficult and the Sabbath was welcomed. They would structure their lives around the Jewish calendar (including celebrating Passover, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread; First Fruits; Pentecost; the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement; and the Feast of Tabernacles).

So it was into all of this mix that Jesus came. The powerful saw him as threat and conspired to kill him while the common people received his message with faith and hope.

Luke 2:9-11
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