Topic 2: Context of Jesus' World
Up Topic 1: Search for the Historical Jesus Topic 2: Context of Jesus' World TOPIC 3 THE HISTORICAL JESUS TOPIC 4:EARLY CHRISTIANITIES TOPIC 5 PATRISTIC AGE TOPIC 6


Study Exercise




THEME: Much of the scholarly effort to understand Jesus as an historical figure has been in clarifying the contexts of his life. The Jewish homeland in Palestine had passed into the hands of many different  rulers since the days of Exodus.  By the time Jesus lived, it had been a Roman colony for more than half a century (since 63 BCE).  For about a hundred years before that, the territory had been an independent Jewish state (following the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE).  And for almost 250 years before that, the area was under Greek rule, a legacy of the conquest of the territory from the Persians by Alexander the Great.  In the first century of the Common Era, all three of these cultures influenced the life of Jesus and his followers


Judaic Context: Torah and Temple 

Hereditary Homeland

Monotheistic Culture

Diverse Groups: Compare First-Century Jewish Diversity at the PBS site with this presentation provided by Ms. Janice Deutsch:

As a social unit, the Jews of Palestine had more in common with each other than with the Gentiles of the area.  They were not, however, a unified political or even religious group.  There was a variety of factions amongst them. 

 Some individuals had been influenced by the Hellenizing activities of the pagan world around them, while others viewed such Hellenized Jews as less pure than non-Hellenized Jews.   Some people favored armed rebellion against the Roman Imperial authority; others did not.  Some believed in a stricter and more widespread application of doctrinal (Toraic) principles than others, and there were even disputes about what principles were actually doctrinal. 

 There were four main ideological groups that appear in Christian Scripture, as well as a few social subgroups which bear defining:

Pharisees.  This is the most frequently cited Jewish group in the Gospel texts.  In its most basic function, this segment of the Jewish community was responsible for the interpretation of Jewish Law (Torah).  Its purview, however, went significantly beyond that function.  It was generally viewed as the authority in matters affecting the application of the Law to daily living.  It was generally believed by these individuals that the Law was a living document and needed to be constantly reassessed for practical applicability to each succeeding generation.  In this manner, they became the keepers of an oral tradition of continuous interpretations by prior “rabbinic” authorities.  

When Hellenizing influences appeared to be affecting the performance of Torah duties, the Pharisees were in the forefront of the movement to maintain the integrity of the Jewish practices which set them apart from the pagan Greeks.  They attempted to promote this separation by requiring stricter observance of the commandments of  Torah, not only by the priestly caste (whose ritual purity was governed by extensive rules), but by the general Jewish population as well.  In this manner, they came to be known as the most “orthodox” (in the modern sense, implying exacting adherence to the most comprehensive law) of Jewish practitioners.

Sadducees.  This group differed from the Pharisees in both religious beliefs and sphere of authority.  Whereas the Pharisees believed in the equal validity of the Oral Tradition and the Written Torah, the Sadducees rejected the idea that the oral traditions constituted Law.  They held that interpretations passed down through the generations (of how the written Law is to be practiced) were not sacred, and that Jews were not bound by any regulation that was not specifically delineated in the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses, which form the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures.)

Additionally, certain doctrines held by the Pharisees were rejected by the Sadducees.  Among these are the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels.

The Sadducees also championed priestly authority over the authority of Torah scholars and Talmud (oral tradition) keepers.  Many of the members of this group were priests themselves.

Priests.  Priesthood among the ancient Jews was hereditary.  Membership in this group was therefore biologically determined.  Descendants of Aaron (of the Tribe of Levi) conducted temple services and performed required sacrifices.  [Other members of the tribe of Levi (i.e. Levites not descended from Aaron) had lesser duties as temple functionaries, but were subservient to the priests.]  Priests could be pharisaical or sadducean in their doctrinal orientation, though most were sadducean, as this gave them more authority.

Priests engaged in no other work besides their priestly duties.  [This distinguishes them from the other groups who were merchants, craftsman, farmers, etc.  “Priest” is a professional designation, while “Pharisee” and “Sadducee” are more religious-party designations.]  They were supported by tithes and temple taxes. 

The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem also had a leadership role in the community at large.  In the early first century, the holder of this position would have been a member of the ruling body within the Jewish community (the Sanhedrin), and as such would have served as an intermediary of sorts between the Jewish populace and the Roman governor.

Scribes.  Strictly speaking, this too is a professional rather than a religious designation.  However, because of the New Testament association between this group and the Pharisees, its significance in the religious context must be explained. 

The scribes were originally a guild of professional writers whose function it was to keep official records, prepare dictated documents, and read public notices to the illiterate population.  Following the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE), the role of the scribes changed to a more religiously oriented function.  Scribes were increasingly concerned with recording the Law (Torah).  As a result, two things happened which may account for the association of scribes with the Pharisees. 

First, because scribes were called upon to copy the Torah and record many of its historical interpretations, they became legal scholars to a great extent.  They were not required to believe in the interpretations put forth by the Pharisees, but they acted in a pseudo-Pharisaical role of explicating the Law to others.

Additionally, because many scribes were Torah copyists, they were bound by ritual codes that regulated their fitness to produce appropriately kosher (fit) Torah scrolls.  As a consequence, they became very strict in their observance of the smallest details of ritual purity.  This meant following purity laws (commandments) previously required only of the priestly caste, which again associated them with the Pharisaical proposition that complete ritual purity should be observed by all Jews.

Zealots.  This group of first-century Jews is characterized more by its political leanings than its religious or social standing.  The zealots were the group most inclined toward open rebellion against imperial authority.  They advocated the use of military force to overthrow Roman rule.  They believed that the promised Messiah would be a secular-military leader, not a religious one.  This group functioned mostly as an underground political party by the time of Jesus’ ministry, possibly due to the violent suppression of then-recent rebel activity attributed to Judas of Galilee (ca. 6 CE). 

The push toward open rebellion was not simply a political approach for the zealots, however.  They believed that God favored those who demonstrated militant zeal for the keeping of the covenant, which observance was threatened by the acceptance of Roman imperial authority or submission to any earthly power.  Indeed, they believed that God historically led his chosen champions into battle against earthly authorities and rewarded their zeal with victory.  (The story of the Maccabean revolt only 150 years earlier was just one of legends which confirmed this view.) 

Samaritans.  While not frequently cited in New Testament texts, the Samaritans are a good example of division amongst the Jews of Jesus’ era.  The parable of the “Good” Samaritan is often seen as highlighting the prejudice of the time which held that Samaritans were inherently “bad,” or at least inferior to the supposedly purer Jews of Judea.

Samaritans are the descendants of Jews (from the northern kingdom of Israel) who had been captured by the Assyrians in (722 BCE).  For many, this biological factor alone was sufficient to make Samaritans less pure in the eyes of their fellow Jews.  There were, however, religious disputes which intensified the rejection of Samaritans by Jews of the southern kingdom, Judea.  The Samaritans did not acknowledge the preeminence of the Temple of Jerusalem, believing instead that the Scriptures proclaimed Mount Gerizim as God’s chosen place (the site of His covenant with Abraham, where Abraham brought his son to be sacrificed), and building their own temple there around the fourth century BCE.  Additionally, they believed only in the Written Torah (Pentateuch), every word of which they believed to have been written by Moses himself, whom they revered even more than the Judeans did.  This rejection of the Oral Tradition likened them to the Sadducees, but unlike the Sadducees, the Samaritans also believed in an afterlife.  These religious differences put them at odds with most other groups of Jews, and combined with their mixed heritage, resulted in their portrayal as an inherently lower order of Jew.

  Essenes: This  group is also referred to as the Qumran community; they are generally believed to be the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered in 1948.  Like the Pharisees, the Essenes rejected the Hellenic influence of the surrounding pagan communities.  Rather than separate themselves within those communities, however, they withdrew themselves to the desert to live in enclaves which might be called communes but which bear a significant resemblance to later monasteries.  Essenes did not marry; they shared property in common; they ate all meals together; and they lived a strictly regulated life of study and prayer; and they held themselves to a higher standard of virtue than others outside their community. They dedicated themselves to the practice of righteousness, that they may be perpetually ready for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of God.  The Essenes numbered only about 4000 at the time of Jesus’ ministry.


Apocalypticism was another element in Jewish culture. The PBS documentary illustrates it in the discussion of the Essenes. 


Unifying Institutions

Despite differences in approaches, all of the above groups identified themselves as Jews and formed a united community in the face of pagan culture.  Central to all Jewish groups were two underlying institutions which formed the foundation for this self-identification: Torah and Temple.

Torah.  The Torah is the body of Jewish Law which forms the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Together with the writings of the prophets and the wisdom writings (psalms and proverbs), these five books make up what we now usually call the Old Testament.  The Torah, according to Judaic tradition, was given by God to the Jewish people through Moses at Mt. Sinai following the exodus from Egypt (ca. 1250 BCE).  It was a codification of the laws by which the Jewish people should live in order to honor their covenant with God.  It was the guide to Jewish faith and practice.  As such, it was the defining code of Jewish life

Torah & Talmud  The term Torah generally refers to the “Written” Law, but it was not actually assembled in writing until the time of the “Babylonian Captivity” (586 – 538 BCE).  The descriptor “written” is simply used to distinguish these five “Books of Moses” from the “oral” traditions which followed.  The latter teachings fell into two categories: traditions which resulted from viewing the Mosaic text in light of subsequent prophetic revelations, and traditions which resulted from debates over the inherent meanings of the Mosaic texts themselves. 

As an example of the first kind, a pharisaical Jew might interpret or expand a precept found in a Mosaic text based on a passage from the prophecies of Isaiah, but a sadducean would not.  While the Isaiah scripture would have validity as prophecy for the sadducean, it would be grounds for influencing the Law; it is not part of the original “written” Torah. 

Most of the oral traditions, however, do not relate to sources outside the Pentateuch.  They deal with the inherent meaning(s) of the text itself.  For example, the commandment to “keep holy the Sabbath day” is explained in the written Torah, in part, as a proscription against doing “any manner of work.”  It was the Oral Tradition that  defined which activities actually constituted work.  [These definitions were and are continuously reviewed by rabbinic authorities through the centuries in light of developing culture.]

The oral traditions have also been assembled in written form.  They – and the rabbinic commentaries which accompany them – form the Judaic collection called the Talmud.  The Talmud is comprised of two parts: the Mishnah, which represents the oral traditions themselves, and the Gemara, which represents the commentaries.  Many modern Judaic scholars study both Torah and Talmud, but it is Torah which is central – and common – to all Jews.

Temple Worship.  Also central to all Jews of the early first century was the practice of temple worship.  For the Judean Jews, as opposed to the Samaritans, this took the form of prayer and ritual sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem.  All Jews paid tithes and taxes to the priests to perform these duties for them.  Several times a year, to  celebrate certain festivals or commemorate certain historical events, Jews might come themselves to Jerusalem to participate in Temple rites.  The feast of Passover, for example, which commemorates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt), was one of the most attended festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Temple vs. synagogue.  The Temple wasn’t simply a place for Jews to pray; it was the place to pray on behalf of all Jews.  This distinguished the Temple from the various synagogues, which were places of assembly and study, as well as individual prayer.  The Temple was literally viewed as “The House of God” (Beth El), the place where the spirit of God actually resided.  It was sometimes called “the navel of the world,” the place which connected creation to its Creator and the place of nourishment of humankind by God.

In many ways, Jerusalem was not a city with a Temple in it; it was a Temple around which a city grew.  From the days of the original Temple built on this site in the days of Solomon (ca. 961-922 BCE), pilgrims flocked to this holiest place in Judaism.  The expansion of commerce and building into the surrounding area was a by-product of the location of the Temple.  The original Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 BCE.  A Second Temple was built about 50 years later when the exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem (ca. 538 BCE).  This was the Temple that existed into the Christian apostolic age and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  Until that time, the Jerusalem Temple was a major pilgrimage site for Jews of Judea and the diaspora.

For more discussion look at Temple Culture   


Festivals were another powerful unifying factor in Jewish life. The calendar of  religious festivals was a major focus for Jewish identity, in Jesus' day as well as today.


Hellenism:  Be sure to check the discussion on the  Hellenistic Cultural Context at the PBS site, an elaboration on the material in the video documentary.

Alexander’s Legacy

Greek Language

Government and Citizenship


Values, Culture, and Philosophy

Hellenic Judaism

Resistance to Hellenization


MORE NOTES ON HELLENISM, contributed by Janice Deutsch

Hellenism (from the Greek word for “Greek”) was a legacy of the Alexandrian conquest of the Middle East in 332 BCE.  Greek occupation and rulership of these lands continued for a century and a half.  The influence of Greek culture, language, values, and education on life and government of the area was significant, and not limited solely to the pagan population.  Jews were also affected.  The process of Hellenization, whether deliberate or coincidental, created cultural identity issues for Jews of Judea (where they were in the majority) and the diaspora (where they were minorities).

 Greek Language

Greek became the language not only of government but of commerce and civil education.  The daily contact between Jews and Greeks required the former to develop a working knowledge of the Greek language, even where Aramaic had been the dominant (and common) language.

Government and Citizenship

 Conquest by a “foreign” people always results in tensions and disputes involving civil rights of the native population under the new government, especially when the now-subject populace represents a majority.  The policy that full citizenship rights belonged only to Greeks (by birth, by language, and by education) presented difficulties for the Jews who had lived in the conquered municipalities all their lives and wished to participate in their governance.  The Greeks would only accept them as citizens if they first became Greeks.  This did not mean that they had to give up their religious practice of monotheism, but they had to adopt the language and culture of the ruling class, and that meant having a gymnasium education.


 The gymnasium was the most extensive instrument of Hellenization.  It represented not only a place of academic education but of physical and mental conditioning.  It was the training ground for the municipal aristocracy and, as such, thoroughly inculcated Greek values, history, and philosophical thought in its students.  The literary emphasis was on the best of the “classical” tradition.  Intellectual conditioning, not merely in the substance of philosophic thought but in its process as well, was the main goal of a gymnasium education.  Athletic training was just as intense, with the competitive spirit extending from physical to intellectual pursuits.  Full courses of study in literature, mathematics, philosophy, oration, ethics, history, music, art, and athletics (among other subjects) made the gymnasium curriculum the most sophisticated and comprehensive education available in the known world.


Roman Context [Browse Jews and the Roman Empire at the PBS site]

Imperial Authority

Roman Religion and the Emperor Cult 

The Empire's Religions

Laws, Government, and Citizenship

Religious Tolerance

Values and Culture

Greco-Roman Cities 


Colonial Society: Roman Power since 63 BCE. Brought more taxes, increased Gentile presence and practices. There was turmoil and unrest from 63 BCE to 135 CE, with two major wars, 66-73 {Roman Jewish War], 117-138 [Bar Kochba Revolt]. 

Cosmopolitan Society


Galilee's pluralism and urbanism. Sepphoris had @ 40,000. Nazareth was a satellite village. Sepphoris was rebuilt during Jesus' life, good business for the building trades

 International Trade and an active economy

Use of Greek for commerce and culture. There was a theater in Sepphoris. The Greek word for an masked actor was  hypokrites .

Peasant Society: a two class system

Peasants.: 90% got about 1/3 of the income

Urban elites [10%] got 2/3 of income in form of taxes and rents from peasants

The Ruler and Governing class = %, got 50% of income

Rich merchants & the top group of the priesthood

Note that Jesus' final, fatal conflict was with these elites

Purity Society  organized around polarities

Pure/Impure [applies to persons, groups, places, things.]

Law observant/non-observant

These polarities can [but not necessarily] get attached to other polarities

Righteous/Sinner [in purity society sinners can become untouchables]




Social boundaries established in a purity society could play into a politics of purity useful in maintaining  essential identity in a the colonial society of 1st-century Palestine. [These social boundaries were challenged by Jesus' open table fellowship.]

Patriarchal Society: A hierarchical social system that sees the world through male eyes.

For example, the Book of Proverbs speaks of ideal or problem wives etc, but not of husbands.

Women are second class citizens, for example, they don't study Torah formally.

Study Exercises: Share your conclusions in the Forum for this topic.

Read Mark chap. 12 and make a list of every social group and organization mentioned or implied.

Read Mark, chap. 12:13-17. Explain what that incident shows about the life in a colonial society. How do you interpret Jesus' handling of the situation?