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Background

HISTORY shows us exactly how God set the table for the revelation of His Son, and the further mobilization of His Body, the Church. Although the world in which Jesus grew up differs radically from today, there are also essential similarities.

As we study the salvation history of the Bible, it is interesting to see how God positions His covenant people Israel right in the midst of world powers’ operations: first Joseph in Egypt, then Daniel in Babylon, Nehemiah and the Persian kingdom, and then Jesus in the middle of Roman domination.But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, bornof a woman, born under the law.” (Gal. 4:4).

336 BC – Alexander The Great

A 16-year-old young man is trained by the famous philosopher Aristotle as king in Macedonia Greece – Alexander. Later he would add the title “the Great” to his name. He united the warring Greek city-states and within nine years conquered the Persian Empire (Persia) and Ancient Egypt as far as the borders of India.

Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, historiography, political science, scientific and mathematical principles, Western drama, as well as the Olympic Games.

The ancient Greeks began early to establish and trade colonies around both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Early cultural centers include Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, Smyrna and Constantinople.

The Greeks are known for their contributions to the world language of the time and the translation of the Hebrew Biblical OT into Greek, the Septuagint. Furthermore, the aggravation of the world takes place through culture, art, exploration, literature, philosophy, politics, architecture, music, mathematics, science and technology, business, cooking and sports. Greek mythology is one of the most famous and strongly influenced later Roman mythology.

In Alexander’s march to conquer the world, he comes to face Jerusalem one day. According to Josephus, the high priest of the day, Jaddua, who was God-fearing and wise, met Alexander outside the city with a group of priests. The previous night apparently Alexander saw the faces of priests dressed in white who met with him. The high priest then presented to him the Scriptures from Daniel (Dan. 7). “My nocturnal vision continued and when I saw it again, there was a fourth animal ~ it is not an ordinary animal. It has extraordinary properties.” This represents the Greek Empire, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC). When Alexander saw himself in the ancient scriptures, he left Jerusalem in peace. After his death, his empire was divided among his four generals.

203 BC – Antiochus the Great

He becomes King over Syria, north of Palestine. His brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, takes over and is widely regarded as the antichrist of the Old Testament.

The Jews suffered greatly under him. He forced the Jews to worship him and his gods. He once invaded the city, slaughtered a pig on the altar and sprinkled the whole temple with the pig’s blood. It was a terrible thing for the Jews. The actions of Antiochus are repeated in ascending order of his arrogance to place the emphasis on it: the daily sacrifice in the temple by Gentiles; the horrible sin of slaughtering a forbidden animal; and the “abomination of desolation” (in Dan. 11:31; 12:11), namely the image of Zeus.

Daniel declares that the sanctuary will be restored after two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings, in other words, cultically cleansed. (Dan. 7:25).

The Maccabean Uprising

According to one of the apocryphal books of that time (1 Maccabees 1:54), the desecration of the temple at 15 Kislev, that is, in December 168 B.C., and the restoration at 25 Kislev or December 165 B.C. (1 Maccabees 4:52) took place.

This was the main purpose of the Maccabean uprising, which up to this point was briefly as follows: One day a Syrian in the village of Modin, in the mountains of Ephraim, forced a Jew to offer a sacrifice on a pagan altar. Mattathias, a priest, became so angry that he killed the Syrian. Thus began the revolt of the Jews against the Seleucids.

Mattathias, his five sons, and other law-abiding Jews marched through the land and overturned the pagan altars. Judas succeeded his father, Mattathias, after his death. Judas’ nickname was Makkah, which means “hammer”.

He then entered Jerusalem, removed the Zeus cult from the temple, and completed the temple service in 165 B.C. repair. (This event is commemorated annually by the Jews at their Ganukkah feast. In John 10:22 it is called the Feast of Dedication to the Temple.)

Now the Jews again enjoyed religious freedom. During this time, Israel prospered by building a synagogue in almost every town. The Jews have only one temple in Jerusalem where all the sacrifices were brought. The synagogue was erected for prayer, gathering, poverty alleviation, and teaching in the law.

The freedom of religion lasted almost 130 years until the political freedom was taken away by the Romans and the Roman emperor in 27 B.C. took control of the area.[1]

The Greek Jews

Although they experienced religious freedom, Greek influence was so strong that, by the beginning of the 2nd century BC, Greek Jews came under the control of the priesthood. They were also the richest among the Jews, especially the Onias family from which the high priests came. They controlled the temple service and even operated a bank in the temple.

The Roman Empire

The city of Rome, was founded by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. Romulus killed his brother. In 218 B.C. Hannibal invades Italy. Roman history can be divided into three periods: The King / Monarch period, then the Republic, and then Empire. In the beginning the priests offered sacrifices to their gods on behalf of the inhabitants. By 50 B.C. Rome was conquered by the Etruscans. However, the king of Etruria was later expelled from Rome by the Romans. The Romans then decided never to have a king again, and Rome became a REPUBLIC. Two consuls were elected annually to govern. They were assisted by a senate of older, wiser men. Rome expanded tremendously. One group after another was conquered and a mighty empire was built to the west and east and in North Africa. Generals, such as Julius Caesar, controlled the provinces. The consul eventually lost control of the generals. Uprisings and wars followed.

When Julius Caesar attacked Rome and wanted to become king over the Empire himself, his opponents defeated him in 44BC by stabbing him to death in the senate hall. So the Republic collapsed. By 31BC Octavian (called Augustus) became the first emperor of the great Roman Empire. It was one of the largest empires in world history and the population has grown to an estimated 50 to 90 million.

Areas that were part of the empire stretched from Britain to Egypt and included many nations and cultures. The Roman Empire, regardless of the diversity of its peoples, languages, and religions, developed into a common state, way of life, and universal state idea, defined as an empire sine fine (“an empire without borders”).

Trade, arts and culture experienced a first period of prosperity in many of its territories during the Roman Empire, and the quality of life, levels of literacy and population figures in Europe remained unmatched for centuries. The Romans especially focused on developing trade routes, roads and ports, which of course greatly facilitated movement at that time. This was essential for the expansion of the church and Paul and others’ missionary journeys.

One money-trading unit is established, although the temple in Judea levied taxes according to the Jewish currency of the time. The Jews were not allowed to make images of people, so the temple was taxed in a Jewish-recognized currency. Jesus drove these money changers out of the temple.

Herod The Great

Herod the Great was king of Judea from 73 B.C. to 4 B.C. In 40 B.C. the Parthers attacked Palestine. Herod retreated to Mount Masada and asked Marcus Antonius for help. The Romans recognized him as the new king of Judea. After a three-year power struggle against Antigonus, he became king with the help of Marcus Antonius.

Cleopatra asked the Romans to give Judea to her, but they refused. After the deaths of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, Herod – himself a Roman citizen – tried to convince Octavian that he is a reliable ally. The new emperor gave him an even larger territory and gave him the copper mines of Cyprus, a rich source of income. He was a rich man who was also known abroad for his philanthropic gifts. Rhodes’ shipping industry and the Olympic Games, for example, supported him.

The Jews were not satisfied with this, because it gave Herod’s kingdom an even more Hellenistic character, although Herod himself was a Jew and he followed the laws and rituals of his faith to some extent to maintain prestige in Judea.

In 20 B.C. Herod decided to rebuild and expand the second temple of Jerusalem (the temple of Zerubbabel). This temple was possibly completed only a few years ago when it was destroyed in 70 AD. under Emperor Titus.

King Herod is best known for the Christmas story in the Bible (Matt. 2), the visit of the Three Kings and the infanticide that followed. It has inspired many artists to portray it. However, Herod the Great is not the only king with this name mentioned in the Bible. After Herod’s death, the kingdom was divided among three of his sons, of whom Herod Antipas and Archelaus acquired the principal territories. Philip was the third, subordinate heir. Archelaus is removed in 6 AD from his throne by the Roman emperor Augustus and Judea and Samaria came under the direct control of Rome and were ruled by procurators. Among the best known of these procurators was Pontius Pilate, who heard Jesus:

• Matthew 2:22 mentions Herod Archelaus, a son and successor of Herod the Great who was king when Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned from Egypt to Judea.

• The Herod during the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 23:7-13) was another son, Herod Antipas.

• In Acts 12:1-23 Herod Agrippa I is mentioned. He was a grandson of Herod the Great.

• In Acts 25 and 26 we read of his son, Herod Agrippa II, the great-grandson of Herod the Great.

The Jewish Counsel

The Jewish Council, in the NT, is a version of the Greek word sunhedrion, hence “sanhedrin“, a general term for all kinds of councils: administrative, legal, political, religious.

Very little is known from the New Testament about the nature and purpose of a sanhedrin, while extra-biblical sources are also not very clear. The Mishnah, a Jewish writing on the rules and regulations of the Rabbis, states in the Sanhedrin treatise on the courts (cf. Matt. 10:17; Mark 13: 9, basic text “sanhedrins”) that the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem has 71 members, 23 smaller ones in the countryside, and that their members consist of the most influential of the area concerned.

In the NT, the members of the Council refer to several overlapping terms: chief priests, scribes, heads of families (Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66). Cf. “Chief priests and the whole Jewish council” (Matt. 26:59; Mark 14:55; Acts 22:30) which can also be understood as “chief priests and all the others”. Cf. also Acts 4:5, “the councilors, the chief fathers, and the scribes” where the former includes the last two. Cf. Acts 5:21 where “the leaders of Israel for a full assembly of the Jewish council” is a version of “the sanhedrin and all the leaders of the Israelites” in the original text. Acts 5:34; 23:6 mentions Pharisees and Sadducees Priests and Pharisees as members of the Council (John 11:47).

Among the Jews, the Council in Jerusalem was the real authority over Jewish affairs, but from the Roman point of view they probably also had to maintain order by being accountable to the Romans. Therefore, Caiaphas proposed that Jesus be executed so that the people could not be suspected of rebellion by the Romans (Luke 23: 2, 5; John 18:14; cf. Matt. 26:66; Mark 14:63-64).

In Acts 4:15 “chamber of counsel” is a version of “sanhedrin” in the basic text. Pharisees is the name of the members of a Jewish religious party that played an important role during the time of the NT and also before and after. The Pharisees were characterized by a strict obedience to all religious precepts and adherence to the ancestral traditions, was called “the tradition of the ancestors” (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3). In their quest to apply the precepts of the law to the whole of Jewish society, they themselves also made numerous precepts which were to give a careful interpretation of the law of Moses and were to ensure that the law was not transgressed (cf. Matt. 23:13-28).

They place particular emphasis on the observance of the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:2) and on cultic purity (Matt. 23:25-28). Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection from the dead and in angels (Matt. 22:23; Acts 23: 8). They also expected a future time on earth in which the kingdom of David would be restored. The Christ would, according to them, be from the line of David and would become king of a free and independent nation of Israel (Matt. 22:42).

Sadducees are the name of the members of a Jewish party that played an important role in the time of the NT. The members of the party came mainly from prominent priestly families and from the influential strata of society. They involved themselves much more than the Pharisees in political affairs and, wherever they could, tried to exert their influence on the authorities. They differed from the Pharisees on important points. They do not believe in the existence of spirits and angels or in the resurrection (cf. Matt. 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8) because the law of Moses according to their conviction say nothing about this.

Scripture is the name given to influential religious leaders of the Jewish people. On the basis of their careful and dedicated study of Scripture, especially of the law of Moses, and of the handed down religious practices of the ancestors, they were regarded as authoritative interpreters of Scripture who had to determine the precepts for the religious life of the people. .

Ezra is the first person in the Bible to be called a scribe (Neh. 8:14). In Ezra 7: 6 he is called “a learned man, knowledgeable in the law of Moses”. In New Testament times, some of the scribes were also members of the Pharisees’ party (Mark 2:16; Acts 23: 9; but cf. Matt. 5:20; 12:38; 23:2; Mark 7:1; Luke 5:21).[2]

Economic Background

What did the world look like in the time of Jesus? Who were the people who sat in His audiences?

The Romans ruled the world, through military takeover. Contemporary countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia were also experiencing a high military presence. The Romans introduced one currency, banks, and high taxes. They were developing infrastructure, roads, ports, impressive gates, and colonnades, arenas, market squares of which there are still visible remains from England to Europe today. With around 50 – 70 Million people around the Mediterranean Sea, Rome was the capital, Galilee and Judea had around 600,000 inhabitants and was one of the provinces ruled by Herod.

The world was ruled by rich and powerful families. If you were not born into that family, it’s your destiny, you cannot work yourself up. The common man has no voice or influence. Decisions were not voted on. The small Jewish group lost their right to self-determination when Julius Caesar in 40AC by Military authority gaining the upper hand. Julius was assassinated by his own senate, and Augustus became the new proconsul, who ruled the world with a fine balance of military and economic power.

The atrocity or Hellenism of the World was at its peak, through which Greek philosophy, language, art, mathematics and science determined the culture and worldview of the world.

The economic demographics of the people of Galilee were as follows.

1. Imperial Elite: made up 0.04% of the population.

2. Regional-or-District elite: 1%: Some Military Governors, and retired officers. Like the Roman officer (Luke 7:1-10).

3. Municipal Elite 1.76%: Wealthy chiefs and managers of royal houses, such as Johanna the wife of Gusa, a high official of Herod. These women took care of Jesus and the twelve by their own means (Luke 8:3).

Traders and artisans, tax collectors, soldiers: about 7% of the population.

5. Regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, fishermen: estimated 22% of the population.

6. Smallholding families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (especially those employed by others), wage laborers. Below survival poverty mark: 40% of the population.

7. Poor: 28% of society. Unmarried widows, orphans, beggars, the disabled, unskilled day laborers, and prisoners.

According to estimates, 9 out of 10 people lived near or below the subsistence level. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor. The ability to improve one’s social status was based on who you associate with. No person could change class on their own and move up in social learning. Hence Herod’s position to support the Emperor in Rome, and at all times maintain his power base through military force, internal partnerships with the Sanhedrin, and spiritual leaders of the time.

From a socio-economic point of view, there were actually only two “classes” of people: the small group of aristocrats (about 2 to 3 percent of the total population) and the large mass of peasants (about 80-85 percent of the population). We can describe a small group of people (± 8 percent) as the “supporter class” – these were priests, scribes, merchants, tax collectors, army officers, and so on.

The biggest dilemma, however, was that smallholder farmers were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of labor, taxes and debt. The aristocratic and hierarchical value system of the cultures of the time (and specifically of the situation in Roman Palestine) necessarily caused small farmers to be exploited – often to the limit of their abilities. These people were predominantly tired and hungry, and all too aware of the inevitability of guilt, of the constant pressure to work for the benefit of others. The overall mood of the people was one of powerlessness, and fear.

The first-century Galilee was thus mainly agricultural, with a small fishing industry, and its population was economically largely dependent on the wealthy elite. The majority lived in the only three cities Jerusalem, Sepphoris and Tiberias, of which Jerusalem was the largest, the religious and legislative capital. Jesus spends most of his time in the smaller towns, avoiding cities like Tiberius and Sepphoris. He even used to stay over during his visits to Jerusalem in Bethany, a small town outside Jerusalem.

In contrast, the elite lived in remote distance, without a direct connection to the common people. Their agents recovered taxes. Sometimes the residents had the opportunity to handle smaller legal matters themselves in the local congregations, the synagogues.

Traders were recognizable by the symbols they carried. Carpenters pinned wood chips behind their ears, fastened needles in their tunics, and tailors wore colored rags. Word-of-mouth was the primary way artisans marketed themselves.

The poverty in Galilee was also reflected in the fact that almost no remnants of grain storage facilities or other products were found at archeological excavations in Galilee and there were no shops at all. The Galileans apparently consumed everything they produced. After rent, tax, loan exemption and interest, there was simply nothing to deal with.

Contemporary countries with a GDP per capita equivalent to the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day include Chad, Haiti, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

So Jesus’ message is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.

There are 500 text verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith, but 2350 verses on money and possessions. In the four Gospels, one in ten verses (288) deals directly with money; 16 of the 38 parables Jesus told are about the proper use of money and possessions. Besides the Kingdom of God, the “subject” that Jesus talked about most is that of money and possessions. In the Bible, money and its proper use are very important.

The greatest frustration of the people was that the spiritual leaders of their time, were hand-in-glove with the government of the day. The Pharisees who tried to bring the people back to their biblical legalistic origin proposed and enforced even more laws and rules, in the name of deliverance! They believed that by faithfully obeying all these laws, the Lord would deliver the people.

One of the aspects that distinguishes the Gospel of Jesus Christ from all other faiths and spirituality is the way Jesus deals with the realities of life: He does not preach an escapist philosophy, but rather a message of an internal change of heart as the starting point of community development.


[1] The 400 Years between the Old and New Testaments – Ray C. Stedman 

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.html

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