One of the most important realities that sets the context for Jesus’ life and ministry is the fact that Jews in Palestine in the first century were living under foreign military rule. Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. The powerful presence of military forces and political rules closely tied it to Rome. Rome’s constant demand for more taxation was a feature of Jewish life that Jesus knew very well.
Historical reminder: 150 years out of 2,000 years of Old Testament history, the Jews were a marginalized, powerless people, often caught between hostile and aggressive empires in Egypt, Persia and Greece. The last books in the Old Testament dealt with this region as part of the Persian Empire. The New Testament, which picks up the story of the Jews 400 years later, presupposes the dominating presence of the Romans.
Here are some examples that highlight this Roman dominance in Jesus’ life and New Testament times:
- Luke tells us that Jesus’ birth was connected with the decree by Emperor Augustus “that all the world should be enrolled.”
- Jesus grew up in a land where the propriety of paying taxes to Rome was a live and contentious political and theological issue.
- It was a Roman magistrate who sentenced Jesus to death.
- Jesus’ execution was carried out in a brutal Roman style normally reserved for rebels and political enemies of Rome.
- Paul, a Roman citizen by birth, was a carrier of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, even to Rome itself, where he was executed.
- The early church faced terrible persecution from Rome, as the Apostle Paul warned would happen.
- Finally, Revelations — authored by John, one of Jesus’ disciples — presents an image of the Roman Empire as a seven-headed monster waging war against the people of God!
|Siege of Jerusalem by the Romans
The first major encounter Jews had with the Romans occurred in 63 B.C. when the Roman army, under the leadership of Pompey, besieged Jerusalem. After three months, they breached its massive walls, stormed the Temple grounds, slaughtered the priests who continued their worship in the Temple as if no war were underway, and then entered the sacred “Holy of Holies,” an event the Jews refer to as the “Abomination.”
Following the occupation of Palestine, Rome initially granted freedom of religion, but over time “the Imperial Cult of Rome” took over and “No God but Caesar” became the reality of the day.
We need to keep this in mind as we consider Jesus’ life and times. Because those of us in modern North America have never experienced foreign military rule like this, it is hard for us to imagine what it was like and what challenges it presented to people trying hard to eke out a living, pay burdensome taxes, and were now hearing the “gospel of peace (shalom)” from Jesus.
For the people who lived in Palestine, their land had been ruled for 650 years by the empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. There was a deep longing for liberation among the Jews, for a king who would break the chains of their oppression and end the occupation. When would God hear their prayers and give them freedom, like God did when their ancestors were slaves in Egypt? When would a new “King David” appear? In this context, how was Jesus’ message heard?
- As many of you know, I love history and politics – these were my undergraduate majors and I did a doctorate in this field as well. But that’s not why I am highlighting this facet of Jesus’ life. My concern is that we often read the Bible without seriously considering the context of the stories we read. Jesus was a Jew whose life unfolded in turbulent times and he was not oblivious to this reality. I will try to illustrate the importance of this in the weeks to come.
- It is a joy for me to see new dimensions of the biblical story when I learn more about the world in which Jesus lived. It’s amazing to see how it opens up new (to me) biblical truths in my own, very different context. I hope you have the same experience! I would love to have you share with me some of the insights you gain.