Now that we’ve created a decent sketch of the life of the Historical Jesus, it’s time to examine the social and political background of 1st-century Palestine in order to make better sense of the words and deeds we find in the Gospels.
Although Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it’s far more likely that he was born in the city of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. The Christmas stories, aside from contradicting each other too much to both be true, are both historically unfeasible. They were intended as metaphorical or parabolic narratives expressing convictions about Jesus as the Messiah. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan provide more details about this understanding in their book The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth.
Jesus’s ministry was primarily based in Galilee, the Gospels say he grew up in Nazareth, and he is known historically as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Occam’s Razor applies here: Jesus was almost certainly born in Nazareth, a tiny village in the north of modern-day Israel.
Jesus is said to have been a tekton, which is sometimes mistranslated as “carpenter,” implying artisanal craftsmanship. In actuality, it describes basic manual labor, perhaps in construction, and was a lower occupation than farmer. Tektons were people who had lost their ancestral land and were considered among the lowest of the low-classes.
Jesus was born near the time of the death of Herod the Great, who ruled over all of Palestine on Rome’s behalf. Upon his death in 4 BCE, many Jews revolted and were brutally suppressed by Roman legions. Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, was razed to the ground and rebuilt.
Sepphoris, importantly, was located only four miles from Nazareth. No village that close to a Roman siege could possibly have been spared; Nazareth would have certainly been affected in some way by this event. Jesus would have grown up hearing about it from relatives and older neighbors.
After the revolts were squashed, Palestine was fractured. Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas (“that fox”), son of Herod the Great, while Judea (which contained Jerusalem) would come to be administered directly by a Roman governor (Pontius Pilate is obviously the most famous of these). Whether ruled by a Roman governor or a native collaborator, many Jews felt that God’s lordship over the land was being challenged.
Though not directly occupied, Galilee’s inhabitants had a reputation for being particularly infuriated by Roman influence over the Holy Land. Many Jews throughout Palestine hoped for a Messiah that would deliver them from foreign power, and violent resistance was common. Simon Dubnow, the seminal Jewish historian, wrote, “From Galilee stemmed all the revolutionary movements which so disturbed the Romans” (History of the Jews, Volume I).
That “Messianic expectation,” as it is sometimes called, is a key point in understanding the background of Jesus. Christians are familiar with Jesus as Messiah (Christ is the Greek equivalent), but many are not familiar with the fact that Messiah meant something very different to 1st-century Jews than it has come to mean to Christians.
Messiah means “anointed,” and there were actually different “types” of messiahs: prophets, priests, and kings (Cyrus the Great, head of the Persian Empire, was actually labeled Messiah by some for letting the Jews return home from the Babylonian Captivity). The Gospels portray Jesus as the Davidic Messiah; that is, a kingly Messiah who would be descended from David, liberate the Jewish people from foreign oppression, and bring about the final age of human history.
It is doubtful that Jesus claimed the mantle of Messiah for himself, but it’s clear that his followers claimed it for him after his death. What did Jesus do that would lead them to believe this, and what did the term Messiah mean to them?
Many Jews who did not openly take up arms against Rome nevertheless fervently hoped that God would send a Messiah to do it for them. This anti-imperialist (in this case anti-Roman) sentiment fits in perfectly with what we know of Jesus’s death. He was crucified by Rome, which meant Rome viewed him as a threat to its authority.
Some might say that the Romans were mistaken; after all, Jesus supposedly said to Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world.” That quote, however, is from the Gospel of John, and so is almost certainly not historical. In all likelihood, it was the political and anti-Roman aspects of Jesus’s message that resulted in his execution.
Next we will consider the nature of Jesus’s “kingdom,” which amounts to the most significant disagreement among historical Jesus scholars…