Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month, however, we are doing things a bit differently. Rather than moving right into some of the Apocryphal New Testament books, we are planning to spend a few months looking at the early church in order to get a better sense for what life was like in the first century for Jesus and his disciples and Paul. This month we will focus on life in the first century during the years Jesus lived. We will look at some of the political elements, the social issues, and the religious concerns.
Next month we will look at the reactions of those closest to him – his disciples. Jesus surely turned their world upside down when he invited them to “follow me.” We will explore what that journey might have been like for them.
If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
The Bible Time-Line is another quick reference for locating individuals or specific books. We encourage readers to share their Bible study success stories on this site. Email us at email@example.com to be included on next month's site.
The Life and Times of Jesus
- Political Culture – Herod the Great
- Relations with Rome
- Prosperity of Herod’s Kingdom
- Herod’s Family
- Herod’s Relations with Jews
- Death and the Later Herods - Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip
- Coming Messiah
- Social Culture – Jesus and his Family
- Jesus’ Family
- Family and Individuality
- The Role of Women in Ancient Palestine and in Jesus’ Ministry
- Healing of Women
- Jesus’ Female Friends
- Women’s Role in Jesus’ Resurrection
- Inclusion of Women in Parables and Instruction
- Judaism and Jesus’ death
- Threat to Judaism?
- Prepared for Death
- The New Covenant
In order to better understand the world in which Jesus lived, one must consider the larger world of the first century.
Political Culture – Herod the Great
Around the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great died. He was the King of Israel, and his reign that lasted between 33 and 37 years (scholars don’t all agree on the dates). Most scholars think Herod was an effective leader, regardless of the intrigue that occurred at the time of his ascension to the throne. Still, his long reign ushered in decades of peace and prosperity. He was very pro-Roman at a time when Rome needed a loyal supporter on its eastern border.
Relations with Rome
Herod understood from the outset the importance of having Rome’s backing. He was able to ingratiate himself with the Roman emperors, and became a vassal king in 37 BCE.
Within a decade of assuming the throne, he wiped out and confiscated all the wealth of the Hasmonean family , who had ruled Israel before Herod. He brought in many fellow Idumeans and gave leadership positions to non-Jews. Idumeans were descendents of Jacob’s brother, Esau, who were not well liked by Jews.
The high priesthoodof the Temple, however, was a challenge for Herod. He had already changed the principle of heredity seccession, but he knew that he was not qualified to assume this role himself. So, he brought in various Jews from around the Diaspora hiring and firing them at will. He often used the post to consolidate his support, while stripping the high priesthood of any real power.
Prosperity of Herod’s Kingdom
Herod’s kingdom was at its height from about 30-12 BCE. It was a time of relative prosperity with no external wars. Things were going well with Rome, and Herod took great delight in honoring his Roman patrons. He built cities, buildings, and temples. Many of them were named in honor of Caesar – i.e. Caesarea Maritime. His building goals provided plenty of jobs, while showing the world that he was under the protection of Rome.
Everything he did, he did with aplomb, using the best materials and artisans. His choicest project, however, was Jerusalem. In 20-19 BCE he began work on restoring and enlarging the Temple. Rabbis and historians alike pronounced it to be “beyond magnificent.”
Despite all these successes, however, King Herod was still a very insecure ruler, and trouble was brewing within his own family. He was married ten times, and had at least fifteen children. When the emperor gave him permission to choose his own successor, needless to say, his sons engaged in a battle for the top. Various wives and sons were murdered (usually on Herod’s orders) as accusations of disloyalty were cast about. It all took its toll on the King, who suffered severe emotional and psychological decline.
Josephus, the famous first century historian, tells us that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn over him that he ordered a large group of men to be imprisoned. Upon his death, they were all to be killed immediately so there would be much weeping on the day he died. (To their credit, his successors decided not to follow these orders.)
Additionally, Matthew describes a slaughter of innocents around the time of Jesus’ birth. Though there are no extant documents verifying such an event, scholars believe Herod was certainly capable of doing something just as horrific.
Herod’s Relations with Jews
To the Jews, however, Herod was an enigma. As a devotee of Hellenization, he made many compromises, in order to court his Gentile subjects. He built theaters, baths, and gymnasiums. But at the same time, he was careful to follow many Jewish traditions.
He expanded the Temple, which brought many visitors and pilgrims to Jerusalem. He didn’t mint his own coins or build pagan temples in any Jewish areas, but Jews were quite upset over his treatment of the high priesthood. And let’s not forget that he was an Idumean by ancestry.
Death and The Later Herods – Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip
It is said that he died a grisly death in 4 BCE. Upon his death, chaos descended over the land. Scholars think the rebellions were driven by a peasant attempt at independence both from Rome and the Herodian family. The rebellions were eventually subdued, but casualties were high.
Herod left a will dividing his territory among three of his sons – Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. About half (Samaria and Judea) went to Archelaus, the eldest son of his Samaritan wife. About a quarter(Galilee) went to Antipas, the younger brother of Archelaus. The remaining land (northern territories) went to Philip, the younger son from a different wife.
Together, the brothers went to Rome to have their territories certified by the emperor. Archelaus was named “Ethnarch,” or national ruler, but was eventually removed from office in 6 CE for excessive cruelty. Pontius Pilate was one of several prefects, a low ranking official whose authority was rooted in Rome, who succeeded him. A prefect was a low ranking official whose authority was rooted in Rome. Their main responsibility was in civil administration and prison operations.
Both Antipas and Philip were given the title of Tetrarch (“ruler of a quarter”), but calling them kings is a bit of a misnomer. Antipas would serve for 43 years. One of his notable achievements is that he created a city by the sea -- Tiberias (after the emperor), but Jews avoided it like the plague since it was built on a burial ground. Those who lived there were either bribed or forced.
Although little is written about uprisings during his reign, it is safe to say that life for a peasant was tenuous at best. The rulers did little to improve the lot of their constituents. When the burdens were too much to bear, the peasant class would rise up, only to be crushed by the might of the Roman army. Unrest was not allowed.
It’s no wonder the villagers longed for a messiah, promised by God, to restore the Davidic monarchy. They were powerless. Any change would have to be divinely orchestrated.
Social Culture – Jesus and his Family
Jesus was from Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. In small villages, much like in small towns today, loyalty to the family, the clan, and the village was paramount. Even though he moved beyond the confines of his village, much of his work reflects the concerns and values from his upbringing. His parables are about farming and seeds and who gets to go to a banquet. His healings are for the disenfranchised, the outsiders, and the poor.
Jesus did not spend his time in large cities or hobnobbing with the ruling family. At one point, Herod Antipas asked to see Jesus, but it was only to see his miracles.
Jesus was the son of a carpenter, but little else is known about Joseph, his father. The Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters, though some religious traditions insist these were cousins in order to maintain the tradition that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth.
According to Mark and John, his family was not wild about Jesus’ ministry. Mark claims they “thought he was out of his mind” (See Mk 3:21, 31-35) and John states his brothers “did not believe in him” (See John 7:5-8). Yet, by the time of Acts, his brothers were quite involved.
James was active in Jerusalem and influential enough to be sought by Paul. Scholars now believe James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church within three years of Jesus’ ascension. There is no proof that he had been with Jesus all along, but to achieve that high standing within a few short years would be nothing short of a meteoric rise to the top if he had not spent a lot of time with Jesus. And since it took so long for the apostles to accept Paul, it seems illogical that they would have embraced James if he had opposed Jesus’ mission throughout his lifetime.
Ancient society revolved around principles of honor and shame. A great deal of value was placed upon honorable behavior. Honor is best likened to our credit rating system. The person who has good credit can get more things in life! They can buy more things, they can get better interest rates when they borrow, and doors will open for them. It wasn't so different in antiquity.
The person who had a good honor rating lived well. He had good status, a good social identity, and could easily establish good relationships. People wanted to do business with him. He had societal worth and was valued in his community, and this reflected upon his whole family.
Family and Individuality
This system may explain the tension between Jesus and his family. People rarely operated as individuals in antiquity. They were always part of a group- and no group was more important than one’s family. Hence, the family's urgent concern with Jesus’ behavior (Luke 8:19-21).
Jesus had been doing some wonderful healing work, but he was also preaching in many different places and crowds were hounding him wherever he went. He was upsetting the religious leaders, and he had just formed his own little group or society when his family approached him. Things were getting out of hand, and it was starting to reflect on the whole family. So they may have thought it was time to put a stop to it. Nonetheless, Jesus’ ministry went forward.
The Role of Women in Ancient Palestine and in Jesus’ Ministry
Considering the relative position of women in a patriarchal society such as ancient Palestine, it’s amazing how much of Jesus’ ministry involved women. Through Jesus’ encounters with women, we get glimpses of life that we didn’t know existed.
Healing of Women
Noteworthy is the story in Luke 13:10-17 in which Jesus healed a crippled woman in the synagogue. The fact that she was there caused no outrage among the men, nor did it require any explanation. Jesus saw her, called her, and touched her- immediately she was made straight.
Another phenomenal account is the story of the woman with the “issue of blood,” or hemorrhage, lasting twelve years (Luke 8:43). She was ritually unclean, and intolerable as a leper but Jesus heals her instantaneously. Unfortunately, she disappears from the gospel traditions only to later appear in an apocryphal story as a witness for Jesus at his trial in Jerusalem. The judges refused to hear her testimony, but the fact that she was willing to give it suggested she had been telling her story far and wide. A significant result of her efforts was that her story made it into all three gospels.
In another instance, Jesus conversed with a Samaritan woman and revealed himself as the Messiah to her. She returned to her city and told her fellow citizens about Jesus, while he had a conversation with his disciples about the need for more laborers. Immediately following this conversation, a crowd from her city came back seeking Jesus, based on her testimony. He remained there for two days, and "many more believed because of his word" (John 4:41).
In another story, Mary and Martha appear as unmarried homeowners (Luke 10:38), a situation made ever more interesting by the fact that they have a brother (John 11:2). It is traditionally believed that women could not own property. From a strict technical view of Jewish law and according to what has been suggested by traditional understandings of first century life, there should have been no married or unmarried women around Jesus.
Jesus’ Female Friends
Jesus' entourage, however, did include a number of women who were at least somewhat independent of men. The Gospel of Luke mentions some of them in Luke 8:2-3 – Mary, the woman from Magdala; some women who had been healed; Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza; Susanna; and many others who provided for them out of their means. The passage gives no additional information about Herod’s steward Chuza– whether he approved, whether he was also a follower, or how influential he was. The text does suggest, however, that Joanna and Chuza were still married. The fact that she was still around on the morning of the resurrection attests to her longevity and commitment (Luke 24:10).
Women’s Role in Jesus’ Resurrection
When trying tounderstand the role of women in the gospels, it is important to consider the key role they played in the events surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection. The women did not flee as the male disciples had, but remained at the cross. They returned to anoint his body for burial and were first to discover the empty tomb. Luke reported that the male disciples did not believe the women’s initial accounts. (24:1ff)
Inclusion of Women in Parables and Instruction
It was not only Jesus' direct contact with women that is noteworthy. He also included them in his parables and teachings. The poor widow's gift was worth more than that of the rich, for she gave all that she had (Mark 12:44). When "a man sowed seed" to illustrate faith, Jesus followed with the story of the woman who hid leaven in bread (Luke 13:21). Five wise maidens illustrated true believers (Mt. 25:1-13). Jesus used metaphors of giving birth (John 16:20) and finding lost coins (Luke 15) to illustrate his mission. This is not to suggest, however, that male leadership was displaced. Rather, it is important to note that the presence of women at all in these stories was an important challenge to the traditional understanding of the patriarchy of the times.
Judaism and Jesus’ death
The death of Jesus was, no doubt, inevitable. And crucifixion was a singularly horrible way to die. The Romans deliberately placed those who were crucified along the busiest roads so all would see and think twice about promulgating any further unrest. Ultimately, the goal of every Roman administrator was to maintain the peace – at any cost. Pilate was interested in Jesus because “he stirs up the people” (Luke 23:5). When Jesus hung on the cross under the placard that read: “King of the Jews,” he was marked as a pretender to the throne. He was killed so others would not follow.
Threat to Judaism?
From the Jewish perspective, however, Jesus posed a real danger. His followers were increasing, and rumors that he was the messiah were rampant. If the Romans got wind of it, they would attack the Temple and the city (which they did 40 years later anyway).
Throughout his ministry, Jesus defied many of the Jewish traditions. Although, he did attend synagogue regularly and read from the scrolls and quoted scripture often,. he also healed on the Sabbath, touched dead people and lepers, and did not fast or subscribe to any ritual purification. He also ate with the wrong people and blessed little children. Jesus repeatedly crossed the boundaries between what was believed to be ritually clean and unclean.
There is also no mention of Jesus ever offering any sacrifices at the Temple. When he went there, he taught – and no doubt said many things that convicted the religious authorities that might have been listening. Indeed, he said that the day would come when not a stone of the Temple would be left standing (Mark 13:2). It is not too hard to see why the religious authorities had to get rid of him. They believed he was a false prophet leading Israel astray.
Prepared for Death
These same religious authorities collaborated with the Romans to put Jesus to death. But Jesus had already predicted his death multiple times, so it’'s hard to imagine he didn’t know it was coming. Indeed, most theologians believe he was prepared and ready, and many even believe that Jesus was fully in control of events. They believe that because he was in control, Jesus was able to imbue his death with its proper significance.
The New Covenant
Jesus reached back into Israel’s history and installed a new covenant. He was the new deliverer. The old order was over; the new order was instituted. This was all part of the divine plan and he was not willing to put the new wine of his ministry into the old wineskins of ritualistic Judaism. Instead, his wine went into new wineskins.