Many people will argue that it is not necessary to understand the world and time in which the Bible was created in order to understand the Bible’s message and teachings. On one hand, it is true that the basic ethics and morals written in the Bible do not need context for a person to be able to follow them. On the other hand, there are layers of meaning to each verse that are lost when a person does not have any sort of cultural context. Even the very words used in the Bible sometimes mean something entirely different when examined through the lens of the time. This, of course, can be more than enough to completely alter a verse’s meaning.
Context is important to the stories of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the gospels’ accounts of the life of Jesus are no different. When He spoke, Christ was teaching a group of people from a specific time. To make sure they grasped His meaning, He had to put things in terms they would understand. This means that some of His actions or words may not have the same effect on a modern reader because modern readers lack the cultural background. Sometimes, this is irritating but harmless. Other times, the context is everything. With that in mind, here are five things about Judea every Christian needs to know to understand Jesus and His life.
Clear Demographic DivisionsFirst century Judea had very clear lines drawn through its population. There were men and women. There were Roman citizens and non-citizens. There were Pharisees and Sadducees. There were Jews and gentiles. Those groups did not mix. Roman citizens had many extra rights and privileges denied to non-citizens. Pharisees and Sadducees saw each other as traitors. Men and women had rigidly defined spheres of influence that did not overlap. Jews and gentiles had separate cultures, laws and religions. Jews thought gentiles were unclean. Gentiles thought Jews were either insane or atheists. Then, there was Jesus. Despite the clear divisions that He grew up surrounded by, Jesus included everyone in His ministry. He had citizens and non-citizens, Jews and gentiles, men and women, rich and poor and even tax collectors who were loathed by absolutely everyone. During His time, Jesus’ ministry would have been so radically progressive that people would have been equal parts baffled and terrified.
Rome Ruled UtterlyThe word of the Roman emperor was, quite literally, law in ancient Judea. There was no arguing it. There was no appealing it. There was no disagreeing with it. What the emperor wanted, happened. As such, Roman citizens and soldiers enjoyed a position of power over the Israelites. Jews could be scourged and crucified without a trial for charges that might only earn a Roman citizen a slap on the wrist. Roman soldiers were everywhere, and they were as well-trained as they were ruthless. This backdrop of constant oppression and resentment made Jesus’ teachings all the more radical. “Forgive your enemy,” that enemy being the same people who scourged your neighbor until bone showed through his back for complaining about Rome’s increased taxes. “Go an extra mile” meant, very literally, carrying a Roman soldier’s bags an extra mile after you were forced by law to carry their things one mile. People would have looked at Jesus like He was insane for even suggesting that Jews could coexist with Romans.
Judea the Powder KegNeither the ancient Israelites nor the modern Israelis take well to being threatened or oppressed. As such, Judea could not go more than a handful of years without some sort of revolt flaring up. Rome was constantly putting out the fires of rebellion, and they grew more and more cruel the longer they were forced to deal with this backwater filled with strange people who thought they could throw off the yoke of Rome. By the time Jesus entered Jerusalem to cheers and praise, Rome was so very, very done with Judea’s troublemaking. Less than 40 years after Jesus’ death, the Jews and Romans would be locked in a full-fledged war that would end with the destruction of the Second Temple. During Jesus’ life, Rome was constantly on the alert for any signs of rebellion, and a man walking around preaching about any kingdom but Rome was going to draw the ire of every soldier for miles.
Messiah the WarriorWhen the Jews of the first century talked about the Messiah, they were expecting a person who would lead them not only to spiritual salvation but to political freedom as well. They were expecting a great leader and warrior who would overthrow Rome and reestablish Judea as a free kingdom inhabited by Jews. They were, essentially, expecting David. Jesus did not fit the bill in the slightest to the Jews, but to the Romans, He was a massive threat. The Romans did not know that the majority people were so wedded to the idea of a warrior Messiah that they dismissed Jesus. Rome was more concerned about the people who did believe in Him and that His followers were going around declaring Him to be the one to bring about an end to the Roman Empire. Rome did not understand that Jesus was the Son of God, but His charismatic personality and radical teachings scared them senseless.
Passover SeditionThe simple fact that the Jews continued to celebrate Passover can be said to be a seditious act. The entire holiday, after all, is based on the liberation of the Jews from oppression. While the Jews were technically free people under Rome’s authority and were allowed to continue practicing their traditional way of life, more than a few Jews likely drew unpleasant comparisons between Caesar and Pharaoh.
In addition to being a holiday with dangerous roots in Rome’s eyes, Passover was the time of year when Jews would travel from all over the country to make sacrifices in Jerusalem. So, every year, Roman soldiers had to deal with a holy city in a rebellious country overflowing with zealous people celebrating a seditious holiday. Every Roman soldier had to be practically twitching in place. Into this complete mess marches Jesus who is hailed as the Messiah. Small wonder it only took a week for Him to be arrested. The soldiers must have wanted to grab Him as soon as He set foot in the city.
Despite what some people say, context is important when reading the Bible. It is important to have the context of surrounding verses or chapters when reading a specific segment of Scripture, and it is important to have the cultural context in mind when examining familiar stories. Do both of these and an entire world will open up from beneath the dust of time that has obscured it.