The State of Judaism at the Dawn of Christianity

The State of Judaism at the Dawn of Christianity

* References coming soon *

Modern Christianity seems to have a tendency to paint a picture of Jews around the time of Jesus being organized, in control, and in charge.  In fact, during and quite a bit before the time of Martin Luther (and unfortunately for a while after), it was commonplace for Christians to paint the Jews as a dedicated group of evildoers who had been hell-bent on the murder of our Savior.  However, the state of the Jewish people between 70 BCE and 70 CE tells us a very different story.

"The Conquest of Judea"

Scholarship tells us that the Jews had been defeated by Rome at Jerusalem about a hundred years prior (ca. 63 BCE), during a time when Jewish factions were warring against each other.  The nation of Israel was subjugated under Roman rule, with excessive taxation and harsh decrees which prevented them from practicing their religion.  The authority of the Sanhedrin, the Judges who had final and ultimate authority over the citizens of the nation of Israel, was dissolved.

Within Judea, resistances and rebellions were attempted, and some were even successful, albeit temporarily.  Antigonus II Mattathias, son of King Aristobulus II, led a rebellion in 42 BCE, which failed but rallied a great deal of support from disenfranchised Jews (and others who opposed the Romans) in Jerusalem, finally managing to re-capture the city by 40 BCE, where he was proclaimed "King and High Priest".

Over the following three years, Antigonus was constantly defending against Roman insurgents and plots, eventually ending in his surrender at Jerusalem in 37 BCE, and subsequent beheading in Antioch, thus ending the life of the last Hasmonean King and a 103-year-long Dynasty.

Meanwhile, by 46 BCE Julius Caesar was the dictator of Rome, and it was he who finally allowed Jews to practice their religion within it's borders (which included Judea), as well as removing or reducing the harsh taxation practices which preceded him.  However, his death in 44 BCE left many of the Jewish people worried and afraid.  Their legal status would fluctuate during the civil wars in Rome until the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE, who then upheld the decisions of Caesar until his death in 14 CE. However, the rise of Herod the Great was spelling trouble for the still-recovering Jews, and the death of Julius Caesar led to open civil war and mass unrest throughout the Roman provinces which would last for over 20 years.

"King of the Jews"

Appointed as Governor of Galilee in 47 BCE by Rome, Herod immediately shows his brutality by invading Judea by force to quell rebellion against his sovereignty.  Armed with Roman soldiers, Herod mercilessly slaughters everyone in his way.  Even after their clear victory, his soldiers continue killing, looting, pillaging, and raping, and Herod is forced to bribe them as the only means of putting it to an end.

Of course, after asserting his sovereignty over Judea, his brutality did not seem to lessen.  From
"By his first act Herod showed that he intended to please the Romans at any cost. Contrary to the Jewish law, which granted to the vilest criminal the right of trial by the Sanhedrin, to which tribunal alone belonged the authority to pass sentence of death, Herod executed a band of fanatics who had attacked heathen towns and robbed caravans."
Herod would repeat this pattern throughout his reign, only appealing to the Jews when he needed to garner favor, but he also regularly appealed to the pagans, usually Romans, which was not looked upon favorably by either the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish people in general.

It was during civil wars in Rome between 44 and 31 BCE that Herod played his secret trump card, switching sides and helping to flip the odds from his betrayed former compatriot, Marcus Antony, in favor of Octavian, and to help deliver the final blow using Jewish soldiers.  Octavian becomes Augustus, the First Emperor of Rome, and grants Herod the title "King of the Jews", ensuring Herod's continued tyranny for decades to come.

After re-building the great Temple of Jerusalem in 20 - 19 BCE (ironically, in a bid to appease the Jews), Herod installs a golden eagle statue at the main entrance as a tribute to Rome and Roman paganism.  This is seen as sacrilegious by the Jews, and, as the story goes, a group of Torah students smash the idol and flee.  Herod has them hunted down, one by one, and then has them burned alive in Jericho.

In order to maintain order in Jerusalem and prevent any further such outbursts, Herod installs a High Priest of his own choosing, something which he does over and over again during his reign, usually right after executing the Rabbi who held the position.

Overall, Herod seems to have had a fairly tumultuous relationship with the Jews, and by his death in 4 BCE he had managed to alienate a large number of people in Judea, further adding to tensions between the Judeans and the Romans.  Adding to this was the fact that Rome was now an Empire proper, ruled by an Emperor with practically limitless power, and an uncomfortable populace would be an understatement.

For those living in Judea, there seemed no end to their suffering.  Herod's rule was followed by his sons' for several decades, and by 6 CE, parts of what used to be Judea were cut out and separated from the rest of the Kingdom.

By this time, relations between the people of Judea and the Roman Empire were under heavy strain, especially given the repeated insults and massive waste of the Herodian Dynasty.  The Jews were no longer in control of their own Temple, they were not allowed to make legal decisions for themselves, and the majority were malnourished due to the extreme amounts of resources which had been diverted to Herodian projects, or sent to other provinces which Herod or his sons wanted to improve relations with.

Many of the Jews had been forced out of their homeland during the various campaigns against them; the ones who were left were barely able to stay alive, a tactic which Rome no doubt made use of deliberately, due to the reputation that Judea had throughout the Mediterranean for being "impossible to govern".

They had lost Jerusalem several times, and they only had it back in the loosest possible sense of the word.   They had been told stories, from birth, about how their ancestors had triumphantly conquered the Promised Land, aided by Yahweh and with righteousness on their side.  They had been told stories of how, time and time again, when the Jewish people seemed to have lost all hope, they were miraculously saved by their beloved Yahweh and delivered from their tribulations.  They had been divided by wars, political changes, Roman interference, and, quite possibly, the creeping belief that maybe, just maybe, they had gotten a few things wrong along the way; a problem which they would later try to resolve using Midrash (but that's a story for another time).

It is hardly surprising, then, to find that it is around this time that Jewish Messiahs begin to appear by the bushelful.

"From Josephus it appears that in the first century before the destruction of the Temple a number of Messiahs arose promising relief from the Roman yoke, and finding ready followers. Josephus speaks of them thus: "Another body of wicked men also sprung up, cleaner in their hands, but more wicked in their intentions, who destroyedthe peace of the city no less than did these murderers [the Sicarii]. For they were deceivers and deluders of the people, and, under pretense of divine illumination, were for innovations and changes, and prevailed on the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them in the wilderness, pretending that God would there show them signs of liberty" (Josephus, "B. J." ii. 13, §; 4; idem, "Ant." xx. 8, §; 6). Matt. xxiv. 24, warning against "false Christs and false prophets," gives testimony to the same effect. Thus about 44, Josephus reports, a certain impostor, Theudas, who claimed to be a prophet, appeared and urged the people to follow him with their belongings to the Jordan, which he would divide for them. According to Acts v. 36 (which seems to refer to a different date), he secured about 400 followers. Cuspius Fadus sent a troop of horsemen after him and his band, slew many of them, and took captive others, together with their leader, beheading the latter ("Ant." xx. 5, § 1)."

If Josephus is to be believed, and many of his accounts have been independently verified, the state of the Jewish People at the time which Jesus was allegedly beginning his Ministry, was a state of distrust, despair, and paranoia; and I think that we have to assume that, with every charlatan Messiah coming through the streets of Jerusalem, people were only made to feel worse, and guilty, for placing their hopes in a false prophet.

This makes complete sense in the context of what they had been through.  The Jews in the early first century CE were fractured, frustrated, uncertain, and close to giving up entirely.  It is for that reason that many Jews followed these false Messiahs, not necessarily because they were convinced that they were legitimate, but because any kind of change had to be better than this.

As the first century progressed, conditions began to improve, but the damage was clearly done - the Jews could not bear being subjected to Roman rule, and in 66 CE, open rebellions began which signaled the beginning of the first Jewish-Roman War.

Summary and Conclusion

It is for all of the reasons above (and many, many more) that I find it difficult to reconcile many of the events depicted in the Synoptic Gospels.  Furthermore, it seems to me that it sufficiently explains why Jews at the time were so resistant to the Christian 'Messiah', regardless of his legitimacy status.  I am not declaring that this 'proves' anything whatsoever, nor am I truly advancing an argument against the Gospels.  I am simply trying to illuminate the probable state of affairs at that time, and encourage the reader to make comparisons of your own and see what makes sense to you.

My personal off-the-cuff-and-probably-crass opinion on the matter, is that the Jews had more than enough problems to deal with and shouldn't have had to bother with yet another quasi-Rabbi with a Messiah complex (assuming, of course, that the man depicted in the Gospels existed at all).

It seems clear to me that the state of the Jewish people during the early first century CE has been forgotten by many, probably by most, and I hope that I have helped to encourage you to read more on the topic!

- Chris Dunigan


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