The Historical Jesus is the Christ of Faith, Part Three: What is the Background?

Jerusalem city infograph from Faithlife Study Bible

Jerusalem city infographic from Faithlife Study Bible


Now that the historiography, sources, and methodology are done, and before we are ready to begin our analysis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we have to understand the complete background of Palestine at the beginning of the century. This will give us all the understanding we need to read through the Gospels to find the historical Jesus. Understanding the Jews, their common and diverse society, their religion, and political hope, and the Greco-Roman world that overshadowed them will allow us to move closer to the historical Jesus. Most importantly, we have to keep in mind, always, that Jesus was Jewish, born a Jew, lived as one, and died as one. We are going to start with a narrative of the epoch known as the Intertestamental Period. Basically, this is the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. Then we break down the different cultures of the Romans and then move on to the Jewish one. After this, we will be ready to open our Bibles and study the life of Christ as depicted in the Gospels allowing us to find the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith.

From the Babylonian Exile to Roman Rule


Rome in the Mid-First Century Faithlife Study Bible Infograph

City of Rome infographic from Faithlife Study Bible

In 734 BC, the king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III, sacked a portion of the northern kingdom of Israel, also known as Samaria, and took them off into exile (2 Kg 15:29; 1 Chr 5:26 CSB). Then, in the year 722 BC Shalmaneser, as well as his successor Sargon II, finished the destruction and exile of Israel (2 Kg 17:5-6 CSB). It took the Assyrians three years to sack Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah, with the holy city of Jerusalem and God’s glorious Temple, were allowed to stand. In the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II then completely conquered Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carried off all of its treasures and most of the people (2 Kg 24:12-16; Jr 52:28-30 CSB). Then, something amazing happened, in the year 538 BC, the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild their kingdom and Temple (Ezra 1 CSB). Not only did Cyrus allow them to return to build their city and Temple, he also gave back the treasures stolen by the Babylonians (Ezra 1:7-11 CSB). There is only one unfortunate thing, the original ten tribes of Israel in the Northern Kingdom did not return, this is mainly because we do not know what happened to them. Israel proper has been lost to history. The second Temple construction began in the year 536 BC with the rebuilding of the altar (Ezra 3:1-6 CSB). Zerubbabel, the spiritual leader of the Jews at the time, finished his temple in 515 BC (Ezra 6:15 CSB). Under Nehemiah, the Jews rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, 445 BC (Neh 6:15 CSB). For the moment, Judea was still a part of the Persian Empire.

The Persians, however, would come into conflict with the Greeks, only this time not through the Athenians and Spartans, but a single ruler named Alexander the Great. This soon to be emperor was raised in Macedonia and trained under Aristotle, 342 BC. Alexander the Great became ruler of the Kingdom of Macedon in 336 BC. In 334 BC, Alexander took a unified Greece and began his conquest of the Persians (Bruce 1980, 2). Alexander completely defeated Persia within three years, 331 BC, and set up his new capital city in Babylon (Bruce 1980, 2; Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45).

Alexander the Great's Empire
The Empire of Alexander the Great at its height in 323 BC, image taken from

When Alexander died in 323 BC, his empire, which stretched from Greece, through the Middle East (including Egypt), portions of Northern India, and as far east as the Himalayas, was divided between his generals, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus Cyclops (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45). Ptolemy took Egypt and most of Northern Africa, Antigonus Cyclops took Asia Minor and Palestine, and Seleucus confiscated the largest portion from Mesopotamia to India (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45; Bruce 1980, 2). Between the years 322-301 BC, these generals battled each other over the boundaries of their dynasties (Ibid). Judea came under the Ptolemies in 301 BC, until the year 198 BC when Seleucids took it from them (Ibid). Then, there came a revolt in Palestine, known as the Maccabean Revolt, 166-160 BC. At the same time, the Romans defeated the Macedonians in the Fourth Macedonian War of 150-148 BC. During this time, Israel begins its Hasmonean Dynasty, 141-63 BC. In the year 31 BC, Egypt collapses to the mighty power of the Roman Republic at the Battle of Actium, bringing an end to Alexander’s successor kingdoms. In ca. 753 BC, the eternal city, Rome was founded. By 509 BC, Rome becomes a republic. From 59-53 BC, The great Triumvirate (rule by three), which consisted of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus rules over the Republic. In 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, which began a civil war where, in 44 BC he was named dictator for life, as well as assassinated. A second Triumvirate was created, in 43 BC, which consisted of Octavian—later taking on the title of Augustus, which means “revered,” “majestic,” or “worthy of honor”—Antony, and Lepidus (Wright 2011, 29). In 27 BC Octavian takes the title of Augustus, making himself the first Emperor of Rome. Interestingly enough, Octavian actual took on the same title as Julius Caesar, dictator for life, to defend the Republic; once he defeated his enemies, Octavian returned the title to the Senate and “restored” the Republic back to them, upon which they declared Augustus the emperor (Horsley 2003, 20). Finally, in AD 6, Judaea became a province, territory, of Rome.


Greco-Roman Culture

Once Alexander conquered the, then, known world in 331 BC he brought a certain culture with him (Wright 1992, 152-153). This culture is what scholars call Hellenism (Ibid). Along with this culture was a new language or one could argue a new lingua franca—Greek—one that would not be overcome till the Arab conquest in the seventh-century (Ibid). Two other things came with Hellenism, Platonism (a dualistic Greek philosophy) and their vast religious system (Ibid). In the year 63 BC, General Pompey (Latin name, Gnaeus Pompeius), entered the Temple in Jerusalem, walked all the way into the Holy of Holies (the area in the Temple where God’s presence resided), marking the Jews’ first, technical, interaction with the newest world power—Rome (Bruce 1980, 12; Horsley 2003, 20). Once Pompey stepped foot into Palestine, he brought with him a newer version of Hellenism, Greco-Romanism, Hellenism 2.0. What Rome offered, especially after Augustus became emperor, is known as the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome.


The Pax Romana was not that there was simply peace, there were still soldiers stationed in Syria, however, it was much more. N. T. Wright, in his first volume on the Christian Origins and the Question of God series, states:

It meant no extra war-levies, no troops marching through the land en route for somewhere else, no soldiers billeted on villages. It meant that trade and travel could thrive, that communications were as good as they had ever been in the ancient world…It meant that there was a unified system of justice which prided itself on its high standards, so that in theory at least one was not at the mercy of local officials who might or might not be open to inducements: a creaky system, perhaps, but it was at least de jure in place (Wright 1992, 153-154).

For Rome to have accomplished this expansion of communication, along with commerce, it needed good roads, as well as a clear maritime pathway. It was Pompey who cleaned the seas of their pirates (Bruce 1980, 9; Wright 1992, 153-154). Rome built massive highways all across her empire, of which brought commerce, literature, mail, philosophies, and religions of, and to, all of its dominions (White 2004, 41).

Ruins of Ancient Corinth Faihtlife Photos

Ruins of Ancient Corinth taken from Faithlife Study Bible


Rome’s peace was kept with military might (Wright 1992, 154). It was through the elimination of the pirates that Rome showed its use of peace (Horsley 2003,19). Though war had finished, after decades of two different civil wars, the newly formed Empire, kept most of her armies out of major cities and only stationed them on the borders as more of a deterrence (Ibid.,, 22). Basically, Rome was an empire of warriors, holding to conquest and victory as being highly lauded (Ibid., 26). Rome also brought about high taxes, which the people also had to pay their localities their shares too (Wright 1992, 154). Rome also imposed her religion upon everyone in the empire, except the Jews were able to get a pass by allowing themselves to be sacrificed for the worship of their God (Wright 1992, 154; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.8, 20-24; 18.3.1).


Rome’s religion was vast, even more so than under any of the Greek dynasties. Rome had those who worshipped the traditional pantheon of deities (ie., Zeus and the rest of the Greek mythical gods and goddesses), there was also the worship of various local deities (eg., Roma in Rome or Diana/Artemis in Ephesus), as well as the mystery cults of Isis and Mithras (Ibid). All throughout the Roman Empire, polytheistic belief was visible through temples, statutes that cluttered forums, various altars, and poets verbally citing mythological fairy tales, along with temple prostitution, and various festivals and rituals considered to be a virtue of a citizens’ civic and social responsibilities (Brown 1997, 85; Wright 1992, 154; White 2004, 49). Emperor worship was not very pronounced during Jesus’ life, mainly because Augustus began it, especially since Romans in the western portion of the empire did not believe it orthodox to call oneself a god while still alive (White 2004, 49-50; Brown 1997, 86; Horsley 2003, 22-24). What the normal citizen usually did, at least for the first few emperors, was to offer sacrifices to the statue of Roma, the goddess personification of Rome (Ibid). This form of worship was more of loyalty and fidelity to the empire than actual belief in the emperor being a god on earth (Ibid). Augustus, along with every emperor after him, was called the high priest —pontifex maximus (Wright 2011, 29). 

Second-Temple Judaism


Herod's Temple from Faithlife Infographics

Infographic of Herod’s Temple taken from Faithlife Study Bible

All throughout the Old Testament, God had promised His people (the Jews) that they were heading to a very specific goal (Wright 2011, 31-32). History had told them that, though they had made various mistakes, and a few setbacks, God was still in control and leading them along the way (Ibid). To an extent, there was a common Judaism, however, it should not be mistaken that it was still a very diverse belief system, with different groups that had their own take on the meaning of the story told from the Old Testament. Ever since Israel could remember, their God created the world, established a way out when Adam and Eve sinned, delivered them from the Egyptian enslavement, gave them their Temple, a king, and a possible future as the light to the nations (Ibid., 33-34). Then, suddenly, in one moment, all of it was gone. Babylon had come, destroyed their holy Temple and city, and taken into exile again. The author of Psalm 137 recalls the pain of remembering their great city of Zion in the foreign land of Babylon, crying when asked to sing to them of the city of Zion. However, and this is very important, Israel had been back, Zion and the Temple were rebuilt, yet they did not feel like they were actually back, they were still in an exile (Wright 2011, 35). This is the major part of the common Judaism that all the different sects held. There were a few other parts that made up shared belief in the Judaism of the Second-Temple period. According to E. P. Sanders (2011,19-23), in his article on common Judaism, states that all Jews gathered in fellowship in the synagogues, observed the Sabbath, kept dietary laws, and paid tributes to the Temple. Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz (2011, 2), in their article on common Judaism, states that the four beliefs all Jews held were: a belief in the God of Israel; an acceptance of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) “as revealing God’s will;” observance of the Mosaic law; and “they identified themselves with the history and fate of the Jewish people.” Again, Sanders (1993, 33-34) sums up the main beliefs of all the Jews during this period: belief and worship of God (monotheism), election of Israel (covenant nomism), observance of the Mosaic law, and (as he states) “repentance, punishment, and forgiveness” (ie., cult, or practice, of the Temple).


Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes


As we have seen, there is a commonness to the belief system in Second-Temple Judaism, however, there were various sects, or groups, at large in the world of Palestine under the Romans. Josephus (Antiquities 13.5.9; Wars of the Jews 2.8.2) tells us that there were three sects, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. He continues to tell us that the Sadducees do not believe in fate and are extremely more loyal to their own sect than to the others (Ibid). This sect did not believe in the resurrection, or any kind of afterlife, as well as disapproving in the traditions of the Pharisees (Sanders 1993, 47; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). Along with not believing in the resurrection, the Sadducees also rejected the belief of angels, demons, and did not actually accept the belief of a coming messiah (Limbaugh 2017, 24; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). It is likely that the Sadducees were from the line of the Zadokite Temple priests, which branched out during the time of the Maccabean revolt, 166-160 BC, eventually becoming compromised with the Hellenized rulers of Judea (Brown 1997, 76). After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Sadducees seem to disappear off the map of Judaism (Barrett 1987, 157-158).


Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed in fate, that it controlled all of humanity, that this fate was willed by God (Josephus Antiquities 13.5.9; Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). The Pharisees were known for their exceptional skill in interpreting the Scriptures, their traditions, and their belief in an afterlife—full of rewards and punishments (Sanders 1993, 44; Brown 1997, 77). The meaning of the word, Pharisee, means to separate (Limbaugh 2017, 23; Jeremias 1975, 246). They are believed to be descendants of the Hasidim, from the period of the Maccabean revolt, who wanted to separate from the corrupted, Hellenized, priests, and Hasmonean rulers (Limbaugh 2017, 23). Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees did believe in a coming messiah (Ibid). We can say, safely, that this group was part of the upper class during the Second-Temple era (Jeremias 1975, 246). Pharisaism eventually came out on top after the Jewish War of AD 66-70 and became the modern day Rabbinical Judaism.

Most scholars hold to a belief that the community at Qumran, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were Essenes (Sanders 1993, 46). This group was separated into two groups, laymen and priests (Ibid). When the Hasmoneans came into power, ca. 142 BC, they removed the original Zadokite priests, of which caused them to leave Jerusalem and form their own group (Ibid). The Essenes were just like the Pharisees, only one thing was different, aside from creating their own community and not giving into marriage, they had their own writings that were separate from the Bible, studied them vigorously, and were extremely more strict than the Pharisees (Sanders 1993, 46-47; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.2-13). The Essenes also rejected the authority of the Temple at Jerusalem, this is due to their view that it became corrupted (Limbaugh 2017, 25). The Essenes did believe in a coming messiah, however, they believed that there would be two separate ones, a kingly and a priestly one, of which they thought he would come for them only (Ibid).

Hope for the Messiah 

Most people have heard the word Messiah, or even its Greek counterpart Christ. Yet, not many really know what the word actually meant. Sure, today we understand the meaning of a messiah to be one who came to save, and for those of us who went to Church, or took some ancient and medieval survey courses in college, know the word to literally mean the anointed one. However, this word had much more meaning to it than just that. This word is thoroughly Jewish in context, as well as meaning. L. Michael White (2004, 14) states that the notion of the messiah was “a king like David of old, reborn to lead the nation of Israel.” It must be made mention that most Jews in the Second-Temple period did not believe the coming messiah to be divine (Wright 1999, 74). As N. T. Wright (1999, 75), in his book on the historical Jesus, states, Jews at the time of the Second-Temple did not have a single, unified vision of a messiah. We saw this earlier with the separate groups (ie., Pharisees sought a kingly and priestly messiah, the Sadducees had no belief in one, and the Essenes thought there would be two, a king and a priest). However, they did hold that God would be their King, that He would rule them in a Theocracy (Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43; Wright 1992, 302). To Israel, the choice of David, by God, to be King meant that He was truly in charge, working through David in favor of Israel (Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43; Wright 1992, 302). All of this led to one full understanding of the concept of a messiah for Israel. Essentially, the Jews believed that God would raise up a messiah, restore His kingdom, rebuild the Temple, and deal justice to the Gentiles who oppressed them (Limbaugh 2017, 28; Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43, Wright 1992, 302). This, in a nutshell, is what Israel had been expecting during the Second-Temple era. As we continue, in the next post, we will see how Jesus did not fit into the mold of Israel’s expectation of the messiah, nevertheless, He was the true Messiah. 


Reference List

Barret. C. K. 1987. New Testament Background: Selected Documents. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Brown. Raymond E. 1997. Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, F. F. 1980. New Testament History. New York: Galilee Book, Doubleday.

Elwell, Walter E. and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Horsley, Richard A. 2003. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Jeremias, Joachim. 1975. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Limbaugh, David. 2017. True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing.

McCready, Wayne O. and Adele Reinhartz. “Common Judaism and Diversity within Judaism.” In Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism, edited by Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz. 1-10. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  

Sanders, E. P. 2011. “Common Judaism.” In Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism, edited by Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz. 11-23. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  

_______. 1993. Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

White, L. Michael. 2004. From Jesus to Christianity. New York: Harper San Francisco.

Wright, N. T. 1999. Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

________. 1992. New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

________. 2011. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: Harper One.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s