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Many scholars of the Historical Jesus and early Christianity believe that the New Testament documents and life of Jesus must be viewed as firmly placed within within his historical and cultural context, rather than purely in terms of Christian orthodoxy. Such a study foregrounds the forces which were at play in the Jewish and Roman cultures at that time, and the tensions, trends, and changes in the region under the influence of Hellenism and Roman occupation.
By 63 BCE, the partially-Hellenized territory had come under Roman imperial rule as a valued crossroads to trading territories and buffer state against the Parthian Empire. The Roman Prefect’s first duty to Rome was to maintain order, through his political appointee the High Priest. In general, Roman Judea was peaceful and self-managed, although riots, sporadic rebellions, and violent resistance were an ongoing risk. The conflict between the Jews’ demand for religious independence and Rome's efforts to impose a common system of governance upon its entire empire (including in religious and cultural matters) meant there was a constant underlying tension alongside peaceful governance, with minor outbreaks common. Four decades after Jesus’ death the tensions culminated with the first Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which in turn catalysed the final stage in the birth and divergence of Early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.
Pre-Roman historical background
Jews living in 1st-century Judea struggled with issues of law, religion, tradition, history, and culture, many of which went back over a thousand years. While small, Judea had long been a crossroads of mighty ancient empires in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. The Jews partially adapted to the resulting cultural influences and partially resisted them. This section summarizes Jewish history from the First Temple Era, to the emergence of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, and the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in 63 BCE.
First temple era
The institutions and issues that influenced Roman Judea had their origins some centuries earlier, around 1000-586 BCE, in the so-called "First Temple Era". It was during this period that the main institutions of Israelite culture were established
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 (Kohens) claimed descent from Aaron of the tribe of Levi, who was believed to have been appointed by God to care for the Tabernacle and perform the priestly rituals. During the First Temple Era the priests were limited to their work in the Temple; political power officially rested in the hands of a king who was believed to rule by divine right. After David reigned over Judah seven years and six months, he became king of all the tribes of Israel. Although this kingdom fragmented after the death of David's son Solomon, the dominant narrative in the Hebrew Bible portrays the house of David as the legitimate royal lineage, chosen by God (II Sam 7:11-16). Psalms 2: 7 and 89: 26–27 refer to David as the son of God; most interpret the word "son" in these contexts metaphorically, in accordance with usual ancient Hebrew poetic style, to mean that God loved David; Geza Vermes has argued that the term "son of God" was often used to signify "a righteous man."
In most ancient Near Eastern societies sacrifice was the primary form of worship, and many such societies also had myths about gods as well as laws which they believed were given to them by gods. The Children of Israel similarly had sacred texts (which would later be redacted into the Torah), which they believed were written by prophets under divine inspiration, or dictated by God himself.
In addition to being lawgivers and social reformers, various prophets also forcefully criticized the king, elites, or the masses and provided visions of a better life (stories about, and writings purportedly by, these prophets were eventually redacted into the Tanakh in the Second Temple Era). 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 healed people and performed other miracles, and who primarily addressed issues of individual (private or personal) concern (Crossan 1992: 137-167). These prophets were a potent political force.
Second Temple Era
The Second Temple Era started with the rebuilding of the Temple (6th century BCE) and ends with its destruction (70 CE). This section covers the remainder of pre-Roman history.
The Persian Period
In 539 BCE the Persian Empire 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). 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 over the coming centuries, each of which claimed to represent "Judaism". Most of these 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 final redaction of the Torah as well. Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who later became the pharisees) monopolized the study of the Torah, which (starting from the time of Ezra) was read publicly on market-days. These sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ, and identified with the prophets. According to Geza Vermes, such scribes were often addressed using a basic term of respect, "lord."
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 (the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire) 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. Judaism was rapidly changing, reacting and adapting to a larger political, cultural, and intellectual world, and in turn drawing the interests of non-Jews. Historian Shaye Cohen observed:
- 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 "Hellenistic 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)
The Hellenistic Period saw the canonization of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), according to some theories, see Development of the Jewish Bible canon for details, and the emergence of extra-Biblical sacred traditions. At the same time that Jews were confronting the cultural differences at their door, they had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their Torah laws applied only to them (for the most part, but see also Rules for proselytes in the Torah), but their God, they believed, was the one and only God of all. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, some of which were influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism. It was in this period that many concepts from early Greek philosophy entered or influenced Judaism, as well as debates and sects within the religion and culture of the time.
The Hasmonean period
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 favoring hellenization and those opposing 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 hellenization, and favored the Seleucids). Judah Maccabee liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE and restored the Temple, and in 141 BCE an assembly of priests and others affirmed his brother Simon as high priest. When Simon was killed in 135 BCE, his son (and 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 popularly seen as heroes and leaders for resisting the Seleucids, their reign lacked the religious legitimacy conferred by descent from the Davidic dynasty of the First Temple Era.
The Emergence of the Sadducees, 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 Sadducee party emerged as the party of the priests and allied elites (the name Sadducee comes from Zadok, the high priest of the first Temple).
The Essenes were another early mystical-religious movement, who are believed to have rejected either the Seleucid appointed high priests, or the Hasmonean high priests, as illegitimate. Ultimately, they rejected the Second Temple, arguing 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 the Essenes from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared by another group, the Pharisees ("separatists"), based within the community 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 Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties (the Essenes not being as politically oriented). The political rift between the Sadducees and Pharisees became evident when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai choose between being king and being High Priest in the traditional manner. 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 resulting civil war ended with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.
The Roman Period
The conflict between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus culminated in a civil war that ended abruptly 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 (later known as Herod the Great), governor of the Galilee. Hyrcanus became a "client ruler" of a vassal state on behalf of the Romans. As with most Roman territories, the local ruler was obliged to provide support and tribute to Roman activities, and expected to ensure Rome was not troubled by the territory, in return for which he was otherwise allowed broad autonomy to rule as he chose. In 40 BCE Aristobulus's son Antigonus overthrew Hyrcanus and named himself king and high priest, and Herod fled to Rome.
From Jewish King to Roman Prefect
In Rome, Herod the Great sought the support of Mark Antony and Octavian, and secured recognition by the Roman Senate as King of the Jews, officially confirming the termination of the Hasmonean dynasty. Despite an attempt to appease the people by marrying Mariamme, a Hasmonean princess, Herod was an unpopular ruler, perceived by many as a Roman puppet.
After Herod's death in 4 BCE, 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 shepherd 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, Samaria and Idumea under the direct rule of a Roman prefect (or after about 44 CE a procurator), and a Roman-appointed high priest instead. See also Census of Quirinius. Both of these titles were administrative officers, rather than nobility. Other than Temple officers dealing with trespass within the bounds of the temple, the Prefect was the only person authorized to sentence anyone to death, seen as an essential power in maintaining rule and military discipline. As an autonomous local ruler, the prefect was not answerable to Rome for their exercise of this power, whether the person executed was Roman or Jew. They had access to limited military capability (a few thousand troops for the country, see also Legion (demon)), enough for most incidents but not enough for serious trouble, because Rome itself governed more by proxy rather than by day to day military might. In the event of a serious threat to peace, the Prefect or Procurator would request Rome's support; for Judea this would typically be provided by the Syrian legate.
The first prefect of Iudaea Province was Coponius (6 - 9 CE); the prefect who ruled from 26 to 36 CE was Pontius Pilate. Annas was high priest from 6 to 15 CE, his son-in-law Caiaphas served from 18 to 36 CE. Jesus is commonly believed to have preached and died around the period 29 - 36 CE.
Popular understanding says that the Jews under Rome were a highly oppressed people. Whilst there were oppressive taxes at times, brutal or ruthless rulers in regard to insurrection, and occasional friction over religious matters, for the most part it was a tried and tested system of rule that worked very well. For example, there was no official Roman presence in the Galilee at all, and in Judea the Roman administration and force was very limited, with one Roman of rank supported by what E.P. Sanders describes as "a handful of troops", stationed at the Antonia Fortress, who lived amongst the non-Jews in Caesarea Maritima. The area was not annexed by Rome in the sense that Gaul was, and was left to rule itself as far as was consistent with the Roman benefit and political needs. The importance of the area was not in Romanization, but in its location, as the route between regions such as Syria and Egypt where Rome primarily sought profit and as a buffer state against the Parthian Empire. Josephus identifies this as a period of increasing rebellion, but a contrasting view is that rebellions broke out at the point where rulers changed, famine or other crisis struck, or new rules (especially those affecting religion) were imposed. In part, it was peaceful at other times because of the understanding that certain lines could not be crossed with impunity by either side, without problems arising. Potential rebellion was one such line, so was excessively brutal rule or disruption of religious matters. However, the potential for war existed at every moment, because it might take only one officer or member of the public on either side reacting to some small incident which would cause a spark leading to a fire. Hence both Jewish leaders and Roman leaders, acutely aware of this, had strong motives to use the forces at their command to ensure no such small spark could arise and get out of hand.
According to historians, constant fear of insurrection or civil unrest was a critical factor in Rome's response to Jesus' call for a restoration of the kingdom.
During this period Judea and Galilee were effectively semi-autonomous client-states under Roman tribute. In 57 BCE the Proconsul Cabineus established five regional synhedria (Sanhedrins, a Hebrew form of the Greek word meaning, "to sit together") to regulate the internal affairs of the Jews. The Sanhedrinae were convened on a more or less ad hoc basis; Their specific composure and powers actually varied depending on Roman policy; according to the Gospels and Acts, the High Priest chaired a Sanhedrin that acted as a supreme judicial body or (in Hebrew) bet din.
According to Michael Cook, "Much confusion arises here because, later on, rabbinic literature uses "Sanhedrin as synonymous with bet din, but only well after the position of high priest became dissolved when the Temple fell. After the Great Rebellion ended in 70 CE the Jerusalem sanhedrin disappeared. Eventually, the High Priest was replaced by a Patriarch (in Greek; Nasi, meaning prince or president, in Hebrew) as leader of the Jewish community, and the Sanhendrin was reorganized as a legislative (as well as judicial) body chaired by two rabbis and described in detail in Rabbinic sources such as the Mishnah and the Gemmarah. (These institutions were not recognized by the Roman State until the latter half of the second century C.E.)
The High Priest
The High Priesthood was a hereditary office. Due to the manipulations of Annas, the temple remained in control of one family for most of the first century until it was destroyed. Annas was high priest from 6–15 CE. His son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from 18–36. His sons Eleazar (16–17), Jonathas (36–37 and 44), Theophilus ben Ananus (37–41), Matthias (43) and Ananias (63) all became high priests.
The Romans considered the high priesthood as a political office (ie, leader responsible for the conduct of the Jewish people), and regularly deposed the high priests in favour of their own choice of appointees. 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, maintain stability, and ensure that the Jews not rebel. This system of rule by proxy, whereby the ruler provided peace and support for Rome if needed, and gained autonomy in turn, was a delicate balance. For example, it was in the ruler's interest to collect as much tax as he could, without fomenting an unacceptable level of discontent. Likewise they could be harsh, but if they were seen as too bloody, the subjects might turn to Rome for help, and Rome (not wanting unnecessary rebellions and understanding that subject missions of this kind were not undertaken lightly) was often responsive to such pleas. Under the regional ruler would come his own administration, with individual villages, towns and subject populations usually being ruled by their own native elders and other leaders. Thus, with the exception of matters such as overall policy and tax, most of day to day life in the region was effectively self-governing by the subject population.
Jews however considered the High Priesthood to be a religious office. According to the Tanakh, the High Priest supervised the Temple, and Temple sacrifices. Although sacrifices were regularly offered, the Temple figured prominently in particular holidays. On Yom Kippur for example, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and utter God's true name. 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 (the three Pilgrimage Festivals, or Shalosh Regalim). The last supper is an example of the Seder celebrated by Jews at Passover.
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. Outside of Roman Judea, Jews established proseuchai (house of prayer). Within Roman Judea, Jews established synagogues (meeting houses). Synagogues served primarily as local civic-centers, but people in synagogues and proseuchai developed practices based on and paralleling practices in the Temple. For example, people in the proseuchai imitated the Temple practice of reciting the Shema twice daily.
Nevertheless, large numbers of Jews regularly swelled the population of Jerusalem during pilgramage holidays. Consequently, the High Priest's role as a political officer respondible to the Romans, and as a Jewish leader, came into conflict: the High Priest had to encourage Jews to come to Jerusalem even though increased numbers often led to civil unrest. E.P. Sanders comments on the large gatherings caused by the Jewish festivals, in his book "The Historical Figure of Jesus":
- "The Roman prefect and additional troops came to Jerusalem during the major festivals to ensure that the huge crowds did not get out of hand. Public assemblies were on the whole carefully watched in the ancient world, and the festivals in Jerusalem were known to be hazardous. During the 150 or so years before Jesus' death, we know of at least four substantial upheavals that began during a festival — this despite the fact that both Jewish and Roman rulers were prepared for trouble and had forces nearby."
It was in this context that Jesus' disturbance at the Temple was of great concern to the Romans — and thus, to the High Priest.
Factions, groups and cults in the Roman period
Historians seek to understand where Jesus and his followers fit among other Jewish factions at the time. According to the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, the three parties in contemporary Judaism were the Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes, the last of these three being apparently marginalized and in some cases retired to quasi-monastic communities.
Sadducees and Pharisees in the Roman period
There is a record of only one high priest (Ananus, in 62) being a Sadducee, although scholars generally assume that the Sanhedrin was dominated by Sadducees. The Pharisees, primarily scholars and educators, were politically quiescent, and studied, taught, and worshipped in their own way. Although popular and respected, they had no power.
During this period serious theological differences emerged between the Sadducees and Pharisees. Whereas Sadducees 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, see also Ministry of Jesus#Ritual cleanliness) in their everyday lives. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in (and introduced) the concept of the resurrection of the dead in a future, messianic age. These beliefs seem to have influenced Christians' belief in a resurrected Jesus.
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.
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 injure passers-by. Hanina ben Dosa came and put his heel over the hole; the lizard bit him and died.
Such men were respected for their relationship with God but not considered especially saintly; 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, and even (according to Geza Vermes) addressed by their followers as "lord" — but never considered "saviors" or "messiahs."
Messiahs and Millennial Prophets
The English word "messiah" is derived from the Hebrew word mashiyakh or moshiach (he: משיח), meaning "anointed one." But this word has had other meanings, for different groups of people at different times. We cannot immediately assume that when Jews, or indeed Jesus and his followers, used the word, they used it the same way as people do now.
For many Christians today, "messiah" refers to the personal and divine savior of all humankind, an apocalyptic notion of messiah, as one 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 formally appointed High Priests and kings. The Essenes and the Mishnah, edited in 200, 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 descendant of King David who would restore God's kingdom (see the passage from II Samuel quoted above . Thus, although all Jewish kings were anointed, 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 seeing these as the end of days, hoped that the Romans would somehow fall or be replaced by a Jewish king. They were divided as to 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 (there was no full scale majority revolt till 66), and did not look for, or encourage, messiahs. They believed that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention at a time of God's choosing. The word 'moshiach' came to be used for the one who would achieve these things.
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 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 and 46 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.
In addition, bandits or brigands had been active in the region. Social historians have suggested that bandits are common in peasant societies, often poor men who identify with other peasants, but who seek to acquire 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 group whose targets were local elites (both Hasmonean and Herodian) rather than 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 pilgrim 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 Emperor 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, 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, 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 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 Sadducees would never again have power in Roman Judea.
Towards a Historical Jesus
Analysis of the gospels
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Most historians view the Gospels not as an objective account of Jesus, but as the product of men writing at a particular period, and grappling with particular theological as well as political issues. Specifically, they assume that after Jesus's death, his sayings, and stories about him, circulated among his followers until, at some point — from the mid first entury — someone (or a group of people) wrote down his sayings in Greek (see Q document), and someone edited and organized stories about his life into a historical narrative, the Gospel of Mark. As these two documents circulated among Christians, other historical narratives were edited and organized. The four gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were regionally authoritative by proto=orthodoxy by the second century, see Development of the New Testament canon for details. Some historians have suggested that between Nero's persecution of Christians in 64 CE, and the Jewish revolt in 66 CE, Gentile Christians saw more sense in blaming Jews, rather than Romans, for Jesus' death.
Moreover, just as Rabbinic Judaism was in part the Pharisaic response to their acknowledgment that the Temple would not be rebuilt in their lifetimes, Christianity reflected the acknowledgment of early Christians that the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth was not to happen in their lifetimes. The critical analysis of the Gospels involves, at least in part, a consideration of how these concerns affected the Gospels' accounts of Jesus.
According to historian Paula Fredriksen (1988: 5), critical scholars rely on four basic criteria for extrapolating an "authentic" historical account of Jesus out of the New Testament sources:
- Dissimilarity: "if the earliest form of a saying or story differs in emphasis from a characteristic teaching or concern both of contemporary Judaism and of the early church, then it may be authentic."
- Coherence: "if material from the earlier strata of tradition is consonant with other material already established as probably authentic, then it too is probably authentic."
- Multiple attestation: if material appears in a number of different sources and literary contexts, then it may be authentic."
- Linguistic suitability: "material with a claim to authenticity should be susceptible of Aramaic rendering, since Jesus did not teach in Greek, the language of the documents."
As Fredriksen observes, these criteria do not guarantee an accurate historical reconstruction. Nevertheless, she argues,
- If something stands in the gospels that is clearly not in the interests of the late first-century church — disparaging remarks about Gentiles, for example, or explicit pronouncements about the imminent end of the world — then it has a stronger claim to authenticity than otherwise. Stated briefly, anything embarrassing is probably earlier. (1988: 6).
Even these criteria are not sufficient to recover "what really happened." They can, however, enable historians to suggest "with reasonable security what possibly happened, what probably happened, and what could not possibly have happened.
According to Fredriksen, two events in the Gospels probably happened: John's baptism and Pilate's crucifixion of Jesus. These events are mentioned in all four gospels. Moreover, they do not conform to Jewish tradition in which there are no baptized and crucified messiahs. They are also embarrassing to the early Church. John the Baptist's prominence in both the gospels and Josephus suggests that he may have been more popular than Jesus in his lifetime; also, Jesus' mission does not begin until after his baptism by John. Fredriksen suggests that it was only after Jesus' death that Jesus emerged as more influential than John. Accordingly, the gospels project Jesus' posthumous importance back to his lifetime. One way this was accomplished was by minimizing John's importance by having John resist baptizing Jesus (Matthew), by referring to the baptism in passing (Luke), or by asserting Jesus' superiority (John).
Given the historical context in which the Gospels took their final form and during which Christianity first emerged, historians have struggled to understand Jesus' ministry in terms of what is known about first century Judaism. According to scholars such as Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders, Jesus seems not to have belonged to any particular party or movement; Jesus was eclectic (and perhaps unique) in combining elements of many of these different—and for most Jews, opposing—positions. Most critical scholars see Jesus as 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. (According to Geza Vermes, that Jesus' followers addressed him as "lord" indicates that they likened him to notable miracle workers and scribes. See Names and titles of Jesus)
Historians also often note that as Jesus was Jewish, his life, words, and teachings must be understood in the context of 1st century Judaism, his native culture, see for example Aramaic of Jesus. Moreover, they highlight first and second century Judaism — especially after the destruction of the Temple — as being in a state of flux, consisting of a variety of sects.
As the Gospel accounts are generally held to have been composed in the period immediately following the revolt of 66-73, it has been suggested that Christians had to refashion their theological and apocalyptic claims given that Jesus did not immediately return to restore the Jewish kingdom. Moreover, as Christianity emerged as a new religion seeking converts among the gentiles, and eventually as the religion of the emperor himself, it needed to assure both Roman authorities and prospective Gentile audiences that it neither threatened nor challenged imperial sovereignty. Some historians have argued that these two conditions played a crucial role in the revision of accounts of Jesus' life and teachings into the form they ultimately took in the Gospels.
The divergence of early Christians and Rabbinic Jews
As with many religions, no precise date of founding is agreed by all parties. Christians traditionally believe that Christianity began with Jesus' ministry, and the appointment of the Twelve Apostles or the Seventy Disciples, see also Great Commission. Most historians agree that Jesus or his followers established a new Jewish sect, one that attracted both Jewish and Gentile converts. Historians continue to debate the precise moment when Christianity established itself as a new religion, apart and distinct from Judaism. Some Christians were still part of the Jewish community up until the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 130s, see also Jewish Christians. As late as the 300s, John Chrysostom strongly discouraged Christians from attending Jewish festivals in Antioch, which suggests at least some ongoing contact between the two groups in that city. Similarly for the Council of Laodicea around 365. See also Shabbat, Sabbath in Christianity, Quartodeciman, Constantine I and Christianity. According to historian Shaye J. D. Cohen,
- The separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in diferent ways in each local community where jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other, the Christians left of their own accord.
According to Cohen, this process ended in 70 CE, after the great revolt, when various Jewish sects disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity emerged as a distinct religion. Many historians argue that the Gospels took their final form after the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, although some scholars put the authorship of Mark in the 60s, and need to be understood in this context. They view Christians as much as Pharisees as being competing movements within Judaism that decisively broke only after the Bar Kokhba's revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, and – at least from the Jewish perspective – Christianity emerged as a new religion.
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 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). 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 issues of the times that 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: the Early Christians, and Pharisees. Some scholars, such as Daniel Boyarin and Paula Fredricksen, 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, debates with Pharisees, and anti-Pharisaic passages, were written and incorporated into the New Testament.
The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
Of all the major Second Temple sects, only the Pharisees remained (but see Karaite Judaism). 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. A former leading Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zakkai, 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, as well as to pay the Fiscus Iudaicus.
In 132, the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, called Aelia Capitolina. 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. Up until this time, a number of Christians were still part of the Jewish community. However, they did not support or take part in the revolt. Whether because they had no wish to fight, or because they could not support a second messiah in addition to Jesus, or because of their harsh treatment by Bar Kochba during his brief reign, these Christians also left the Jewish community around this time.
This revolt ended in 135 when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated. According to a midrash, in addition to Bar Kochba the Romans tortured and executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin. This account also claims this was belated repayment 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), 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. Members of different sects argued with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, see also Hillel and Shammai. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The term "Pharisee" was no longer used, 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 (see Council of Jamnia), 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 Emergence of Christianity
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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 crucifixion; they argued that he had been resurrected (the belief in the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age was a core Pharisaic doctrine), and would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God and fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Others adapted Gnosticism as a way to maintain the vitality and validity of Jesus' teachings (see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels). Since early 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, though it came to be viewed as symbolic to the doctrine of Supersessionism.
According to historians of Hellenistic Judaism, Jesus' failure to establish the Kingdom of God, and his death at the hands of the Romans, invalidated any messianic claims (see for comparison: prophet and false prophet). In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, and then the defeat of Bar Kozeba, more Jews were attracted to the Pharisaic rabbis than Christianity — perhaps because, in the aftermath of the revolt, many 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, see also The New Commandment) were also fundamental to Pharisaic teaching and therefore had no special appeal. (See also Rejection of Jesus.)
According to many historians, most of Jesus' teachings were intelligible and acceptable in terms of Second Temple Judaism; what set Christians apart from Jews was their faith in Christ as the resurrected messiah. The belief in a resurrected Messiah is unacceptable to Jews today and to Rabbinic Judaism, and Jewish authorities have long used this fact to explain the break between Judaism and Christianity. Recent work by historians paints a more complex portrait of late Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Some historians have suggested that, before his death, Jesus forged among his believers such certainty that the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead was at hand, that with few exceptions (John 20: 24-29) when they saw him shortly after his execution, they had no doubt that he had been resurrected, and that the restoration of the Kingdom and resurrecton of the dead was at hand. These specific beliefs were compatible with Second Temple Judaism. In the following years the restoration of the Kingdom as Jews expected it failed to occur. Some Christians believed instead that Christ, rather than being the Jewish messiah, was God made flesh, who died for the sins of humanity, and that faith in Jesus Christ offered everlasting life (see Christology).
The foundation for this new interpretation of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection are found in the epistles of Paul and in the book of Acts. Most Jews view Paul as the founder of Christianity, who is responsible for the break with Judaism. Recently, Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin has argued that Paul's theology of the spirit is more deeply rooted in Hellenistic Judaism than generally believed. In A Radical Jew, Boyarin argues that Paul of Tarsus combined the life of Jesus with Greek philosophy to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false); see also Paul of Tarsus and Judaism. Judaism is a corporeal religion, in which membership is based not on belief but rather descent from Abraham, physically marked by circumcision, and focusing on how to live this life properly. Paul saw in the symbol of a resurrected Jesus the possibility of a spiritual rather than corporeal messiah. He used this notion of messiah to argue for a religion through which all people — not just descendants of Abraham — could worship the God of Abraham. Unlike Judaism, which holds that it is the proper religion only of the Jews (except see Noahide Laws), Pauline Christianity claimed to be the proper religion for all people.
In other words, by appealing to the Platonic distinction between the material and the ideal, Paul showed how the spirit of Christ could provide all people a way to worship God — the God who had previously been worshipped only by Jews, and Jewish Proselytes, although Jews claimed that He was the one and only God of all (see, for example, Romans 8: 1-4; II Corinthians 3:3; Galatians 3: 14; Philippians 3:3). Boyarin roots Paul's work in Hellenistic Judaism and insists that Paul was thoroughly Jewish. But, Boyarin argues, Pauline theology made his version of Christianity so appealing to Gentiles. Nevertheless, Boyarin also sees this Platonic reworking of both Jesus's teachings and Pharisaic Judaism as essential to the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion, because it justified a Judaism without Jewish law (see also New Covenant).
The above events and trends lead to a gradual separation between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. According to historian Shaye J.D. Cohen, "Early Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect when it ceased to observe Jewish practices.
Among the Jewish practices abandoned by Proto-orthodox Christianity, Circumcision was rejected as a requirement at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50, though the decree of the council parallels Jewish Noahide Law. Sabbath observance was modified, perhaps as early as Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9.1. Quartodecimanism (observation of the Paschal feast on Nisan 14, the day of preparation for Passover, linked to Polycarp and thus to John the Apostle) was formally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea.
- ↑ Fredriksen, Paula (1988). From Jesus to Christ ISBN 0-300-04864-5 pp. ix-xii
- ↑ Sanders, E.P. (1987). Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press ISBN 0-8006-2061-5 pp. 1-9
- ↑ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, page 4: "The net result [of exposure to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Mycenaean culture] was the engendering on the soil of Palestine of a dynamic spiritual and material creativity that expressed itself in continual change and renewal and never lapsed into tranquil passivity."
- ↑ Jewish War 1.14.4: Mark Antony " ...then resolved to get him made king of the Jews ... told them that it was for their advantage in the Parthian war that Herod should be king; so they all gave their votes for it. And when the senate was separated, Antony and Caesar went out, with Herod between them; while the consul and the rest of the magistrates went before them, in order to offer sacrifices [to the Roman gods], and to lay the decree in the Capitol. Antony also made a feast for Herod on the first day of his reign." See also PDF (101 KiB)
- ↑ Antiquities 18
- ↑ E.P. Sanders (1996), The Historical Figure of Jesus. 22-27; the specific quote is from page 27.
- ↑ E.P. Sanders (1996), The Historical Figure of Jesus. 28-29.
- ↑ Antiquities of the Jews 14.5.4: "And when he had ordained five councils (συνέδρια), he distributed the nation into the same number of parts. So these councils governed the people; the first was at Jerusalem, the second at Gadara, the third at Amathus, the fourth at Jericho, and the fifth at Sepphoris in Galilee." Jewish Encyclopedia: Sanhedrin: "Josephus uses συνέδριον for the first time in connection with the decree of the Roman governor of Syria, Gabinius (57 B.C.), who abolished the constitution and the then existing form of government of Palestine and divided the country into five provinces, at the head of each of which a sanhedrin was placed ("Ant." xiv. 5, § 4)."
- ↑ Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament. Jewish Lights Publishing. 49
- ↑ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah The Westminster Press. 107-108
- ↑ E.P. Sanders (1996), The Historical Figure of Jesus.23.
- ↑ Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- ↑ Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Tetamnent Jewish Lights Press p. 128
- ↑ Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament Jewish Lights Press p. 128
- ↑ From the viewpoint expressed in the Gospels, Christianity could be said to have first emerged with a structure — a Church — when Jesus appointed "seventy" and sent them to the "harvest" (ie, missionary work) in Luke 10.
- ↑ Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1988). From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3 p. 228
- ↑ Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1988). From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3 pp. 224-225
- ↑ Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament Jewish Lights Press ISBN 978-1-58023-323-2 p. 19
- ↑ Fredriksen, Paula (1988. From Jesus to Christ ISBN 0-300-04864-5 p.5
- ↑ Meier, John (1991), A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historial Jesus Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person,. Doubleday Press. pp. 43–4
- ↑ Sanders, E.P. (1987). Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press ISBN 0-8006-2061-5 p.60
- ↑ Jacob Neusner 1984 Toah From our Sages Rossell Books. p. 175
- ↑ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 168
- ↑ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 167-168
- ↑ Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ Yale university Press. pp. 133-134
- ↑ Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ Yale university Press. pp. 136-142
- ↑ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 224-228
- ↑ Paula Fredriksen, 1988From Jesus to Christ, Yale University Press. 167-170
- ↑ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 168
- ↑ Ignatius to the Magnesians chapter 9 at ccel.org
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