Israel at the time of Jesus

"Israel" is the name given to the Hebrew people who lived in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Old Testament tells the story of the beginnings and the long history of the Hebrews, especially after they settled in the land of Israel.

Situated between Lebanon and the Red Sea, a sort of crossroads where East and West meet, the land of Israel is none other than this "land of Canaan" evoked in the Bible, promised by God to his people who had been wandering in the desert in a long exodus, following the lead of Moses who helped them leave Egypt.

Nearly 600 miles away, in Chaldea (present-day Iraq), is where the history of the Salvation of the world was born, with the departure of Abraham from the city of Ur at God’s prompting, 4,000 years ago. The wait for the Messiah ended in that very land of Palestine, with the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem of Judea, who had traveled from Nazareth to Judea to answer a census ordered by Rome.

In the 1st century, Israel was under Roman rule

In the first century of our era, Palestine was controlled by the Roman Empire, who appointed a Jewish king to rule over it on its behalf. The reigning king at the birth of Jesus was Herod. He had authority over the greater part of Palestine, but after his death the kingdom was divided between his sons. The territory surrounding Jerusalem was under direct Roman rule.

Many Hebrews at the time were expecting the Messiah promised to Israel by God.

When Jesus died during the administration of Pontius Pilate (the Roman procurator of Judea, including the city of Jerusalem), Palestine had been in the tight grip of Rome for 90 years.

However, Latin wasn’t the official language of the land. In the eastern part of this immense Empire the most common administrative language was Greek.

The general population had been speaking Aramaic since the Hebrews’ deportation to Babylon. Hebrew was spoken only by priests and jurists; a few people near Jerusalem also spoke a lower form of Hebrew that had survived as a popular dialect.

If Palestine had been annexed by the Hellenistic kingdoms, Greece would have left only a slight cultural and architectural mark. Semitic environments always preserved their cultural identity, expressed through customs, a certain lifestyle, business practices, and religious life. These are well known to us through the Hebrew and Mesopotamian oriental traditions.

If we read the Gospel, it is clear that Palestine was a kind of cultural enclave at the edge of the Roman Empire, maintaining a fierce cultural distinctiveness that defied the ages and the dominant civilizations. The historian Josephus confirms that very few Hebrews could speak another language than Eastern Aramaic.

The Romans ruled their distant provinces through procurators, like Pilate, or tetrarchs like Herod. Circa 6 AD, Herod's eldest son, Archelaus (as cruel as his father), received the title of ethnarch from the emperor, and was given the charge to govern Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Palestine’s regions). This is why the Holy Family settled in Nazareth upon its return from Egypt.

There were, in fact, two types of provinces in the Roman Empire: those that had been pacified and could be administered by a member chosen by the Senate, as was the case in Asia; and those that, because they still presented problems, were administered directly by the emperor who chose the governor himself, as was the case with Judea and Samaria.

The Roman Procurator serving during the period of Jesus’ public life, whose name is mentioned several times in the Gospel (in the passages about the Passion in particular), was Pontius Pilate. He is the one who condemned Jesus to death. Historians didn’t know who he was until recently, when a newly discovered inscription confirmed his historicity.

In the same period, while Judea was a Roman province, Galilee was under the authority of a tetrarch (one of “four” joint rulers – following the testamentary distribution of Herod the Great). This title belonged to Archelaus’s brother, Antipas, who prefaced his name with that of his father.

The Procurator Pontius Pilate evoked in Luke  

The New Testament pays little attention to the procurators of Judea of this period, except Pontius Pilate, but it makes a particular note of the tetrarch Herod Antipas (Mt 14: 1; Lk 3: 1-20; 13:1), to say that the preaching of John the Baptist took place under his government. Luke (3: 1-2) states, in a quite solemn tone:

"In the year 15 of the government of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the country of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, under the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the Word of God was addressed to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness."

In staging Herod, the narrative of the Passion according to St Luke confirms the extent to which he was a threat to Jesus, as the rest of the Gospel continually suggests (Lk 13: 31-33).

Actually, it is Herod Antipas, in the Gospel as well as in the writings of Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 116-119), who is presented as the person responsible for the arrest and execution of John the Baptist (Mt 14: 1-12, Mk 6, 17-29, 3, 19-20).

John the Baptist denounced the dissolute life of this king, whom Jesus called a 'fox' in Luke 13:32. John spoke against the king’s second marriage contracted in 27 AD, with his sister-in-law Herodias, after he repudiated his first wife, the daughter of Nabatean king Aretas IV.

The arrest and execution of John the Baptist are actually related to the family complications characterizing Herod's family. According to the Gospels, it was Herodias, on the occasion of one of the many parties thrown by her husband to flatter the Roman authorities, who used her daughter’s seductive power over Herod to obtain the decapitation of the prophet.

The Romans generally respected the local religions and customs of the peoples they had conquered. Their respect for religions was based on the recognition of ancestor worship.

Because of this conviction, the Romans tolerated the Jewish religion in Judea, which they had encountered long before in other territories of the Empire, including in Rome. For some historians, this came more from political calculation than religious tolerance. But it did imply an acknowledgment of the legal value of the Torah for transgressions that did not challenge the Roman political supremacy.

From 6-66 A.D., with the exception of the period ranging from 41-44 A.D., the Jewish currency was replaced by that issued by the Roman governors, usually stamped with the effigy of the emperor. In Judea the Romans probably avoided coining the effigy of the emperor to avoid provoking the Jews, who condemned all human representation. Yet some coins struck with the effigy of the emperor must have been in circulation, as is evident in the discussion between Jesus and the Jews in Matthew 22: 15-22.

66 A.D.: The Jewish Revolt

While the Romans as a rule respected the Jewish customs, they would often be oblivious of Jewish sensibilities, even in the small matters of their daily lives.

Eventually it became a source of tension, which easily degenerated into riots followed by violent repression. An issue as mundane as Jerusalem’s water supply led to a massacre, because Pilate had drawn from the Treasury of the Temple (cf. Flavius Josephus). Another popular uprising occurred when Governor Florus took 17 talents from the treasury for the service of the Emperor.

It was not the amount that scandalized the Jews but the use of that money. This scandal triggered the Jewish revolt of 66. Clashes, riots, and attempts to revolt were constantly taking place because of religious grievances. The Romans respected Jewish law in appearance, but their actions, always interpreted by the Jews from a religious perspective, were often received as provocations. However, it was never Rome’s intention to annihilate the Jews as such.

For the Jews, the land where they dwelled had been set aside for them. They could only keep it by being faithful to the Covenant made with God for the people he had chosen among the nations. Whenever the Romans who occupied it were interfering with that Covenant, they embodied the enemy.

The Promised Land: the perpetual object at stake

Some Jews, like the Sadducees - the principal servants of the Temple – were ready to collaborate with the occupying force for their own advantage, at least until 50 AD. Thanks to the Roman peace, roads were safe and well-maintained and pilgrims could travel freely because of the presence of Roman soldiers. But some radical Jews, such as the Sicarii and Zealots, wanted to purify the land, either by expelling their unwanted occupants or by massacring the enemies, and becoming conquerors themselves. They formed the terrorist movement that gained momentum in the years around 50 AD.

As we can see, the land of Israel, promised by God to Moses for his chosen people, has never ceased to suffer in the course of its long history as a result of human passions and political divisions.  

It is as if the soil that Christ trod and the historical places where the proclamation of the Good News of God’s love for mankind, could tolerate no human lukewarmness:

"Let your yes mean yes," said the Lord in the Gospel.

And:

"I did not come to bring peace, but the sword."

Such a sword is none other than the Word of Truth, which does not suffer falsehood.

Today our world is still full of men’s violence. The prince of lies uses political passions to sow division, even where Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to earn the salvation of the world once and for all, with his own blood, on the Cross of Golgotha.

This salvation, God offers it to all men of good will, since Love has conquered hatred on the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem of Judea, and in the land of Israel, for all eternity, because God came to redeem the world, in His Son, Jesus Christ, who freely gave his life and died on the Cross, and rose on the Third Day.