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In this series, we will uncover the social, economic, geographical, political, cultural and religious circumstances surrounding Jesus and the disciples that followed Him. As we discover the 1st century conditions existing during these men’s lives, families, careers, and life with Christ, we will also uncover their personalities, tendencies and strengths & weaknesses.
Let’s start by giving you a clear backdrop, lets build the stage on which these players will move about. Here we go!
First century Israel was a place of turmoil, wealth, and disparity. Located strategically at the crossroads of the major world trade routes coming from Africa to Europe and the East and from the East to Africa and Europe. The Canaanites that inhabited the land prior to Israel’s arrival were mostly destroyed and removed from power. The Assyrians ruled the region but allowed the Israelites to remain in place, putting them in a tribute system to the kings of Assyria. However, during the nation of Israel’s absence in their sojourn of exile into the Babylonian empire under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, it left a vacuum in the land. This was quickly filled in by the leftover Canaanite peoples, and those from Syria-Jordan, Mede-Arabia and Egypt. There was even a people group that was “from the sea”, likely a splinter cell of people from the Greece-Turkey area of the Mediterranean that skipped along the rim of the sea and arrived at the Israeli cost where they set up a few city-states. When the Babylonian empire fell and King Cyrus of the Persians took over, he allowed the Jews to return to their promised land of Israel. This return to the promised land lended itself to many conflicts and battles as other people were now living and residing in the land of Israel. After two centuries of peace under the Persians, after Alexander the Great’s Hellenic Macedonian empire ruled of the promised land and ushered in much Greek pantheonic worship, Hellenistic study and classical Greek architecture to the land of Israel, the Hebrew state found itself once more caught in the middle of power struggles between two great empires: the Seleucid state with its capital in Syria to the north and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt to the south…Between 319 and 302 BC, Jerusalem changed hands seven times. It is from these ashes that a family line of the Hasmoneans take on the throne and subsequently the High Priesthood over Israel. While not 100% Hebrew in blood, they sought to make peace within their country, develop it, and keep the people just content enough to not revolt. They also sought outside alliances and treaties, bringing about relative peace to Israel. However, because they sought out the assistance of the newly emerging world power, the Romans, they unwittingly cast themselves in with the ones who would be their undoing. As Rome continued to grow in reach and power, they began to exact tributes and taxes on the people of Israel, on top of that which the now Hasmonean puppet rulers had been exacting for years. This, along with the extortion of the tax collectors themselves, and the money changers in the temples and synagogues, left the people of Israel under extreme duress. When they tried to complain, or even push back in mini-revolts, they were ultimately crushed and snuffed out with extreme prejudice. Taxes were usually about 5% on daily goods and up to 12% on luxury items…if the tax collector didn’t require over and above that. They had the threat-of-force backing by both the Hasmoneans and the Romans.
The Greek culture remained even after the Romans took over the region. They simply added the Roman gods into the Greek pantheon and also placed Caesar as the man-god. This was strictly false god and idol worship. But many of the more liberal Jews at minimum tolerated this idol worship or in the worst case scenarios actually took part in some of it. This put a strain, religiously, between the different molds of Jews.
Furthermore, Jews would have been so completely familiar with the Tanakh, which includes the Bible’s Old Testament and the teachings of the Rabbis, that they would have also felt a spiritual dissonance with the Hasmoneans ruling. Genesis 27:37, after Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance and also their father Isaac’s blessing states: “Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants”. The lineage of Jacob goes on to become the 12 tribes of Israel, while the lineage of Esau, after reconciling with Jacob, move south of the Dead Sea and settle the land there, now called Edom, or Idumea. Based on Genesis 27:37, the lineage of Jacob was to be ruling over the lineage of Esau, and not the other way around. They would have known this. And now that we know this, it adds another level of intrigue to the 1st century Jews who were ruled by Herod. He was the last great King of the line of Hasmoneans, and also hailed from the land of Idumea. This means that as long as Herod was king over Israel, Genesis 27:37 was in discord and God would ultimately make it right.
All of this points to a people, God’s chosen people, in time of financial burden, politically dominated, religiously divided, and mentally separated. This is where and when Jesus enters onto the scene. For more about 1st Century Israel, click here
The Real Life Christians series is Continued here