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A Look at Israel's Mixed Culture During The Era of Jesus

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The Culture of Jesus’ Time

As humanity grows and we attempt to satiate our constant need for conquest, distinct cultures blend together as manifest destiny pushes us ever westward. America is the current melting pot of ethnicity and religion. Long ago, around the year 30 B.C.E, the region of Palestine served as the place of fusion between cultures, namely Greek, Roman, and Jewish. When the Romans invaded Greek territory, much of Greek and Roman culture combined to create a hybrid that became the dominant social and political belief-system of the day. Religious beliefs were more varied, and many religious groups, including the Jews, were persecuted by Romans in Palestine. According to Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus Christ was born between the years 2 and 7 B.C, which means that the diversity of social, political, and religious philosophies in Palestine must have impacted the way Jesus taught and acted (Murray).

Over the course of hundreds of years, the Romans expanded their domain from a small village to a sprawling empire. Conquering every town and city they came across, soon most of the Mediterranean belonged to Rome. While gruesome tales about brutal Roman rule do exist, historians say that, “. . .wherever the legionaries went, they established order and the rule of Roman law. . .The conquerors taxed their subjects heavily, but once tax money was collected, they usually respected local customs and local traditions,” (Kotker 12). Thus, most of the conquered nations accepted Roman rule. In fact, only the regions of Palestine with the greatest population of Jews, Judaea and Galilee, adamantly resisted their new subjugators, who, “found it intolerable that Roman law should take precedence over the laws of the Torah. . .which they believed had been given to them by God Himself,” (Kotker 12). Regardless of the Jews’ discontent, the Romans chose to put a man named Herod in power in Jerusalem to rule over the Jews. Herod’s family underwent a forced conversion to Judaism, and Roman officials believed that the Jewish population would be more receptive to his ascension to the throne. In order to achieve this, Herod had to smite rebellions in all the major cities of Palestine, eventually destroying the sacred Temple in Jerusalem that was built by King Solomon hundreds of years before. The Romans used Herod as a puppet, and he tried to infuse the current Jewish culture with the secular culture of the time. The Jews resisted though, and, “Herod’s introduction of Greco-Roman sports to the Holy Land horrified some Jews,” (Kotker 41). After Herod gained the throne, he was plagued by intense paranoia for the rest of his life, placing spies throughout Jerusalem and killing citizens that he believed were plotting against him. His paranoia only caused more political and social tension, and his death in 4 BC was almost a relief. Ever since the Romans conquered Jerusalem, the relations between them and the Jewish population were strained at best.

During the first years of Roman occupation, the Jewish religion began to solidify as Jews stood by their beliefs in defiance against the Roman and Greek views that the Roman empire brought with it. After Herod destroyed the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, he tried to gain the favor of the Jews by rebuilding an even grander version of it, but his gesture did not have the same impact that he hoped it would have, because the Jews believed that, “Their God was invisible, and they were forbidden by their law to try to depict Him. . .He was so vast and powerful that no man could ever fully understand Him, much less represent Him,” (Kotker 32). The Jews believed that anyone who did not worship their God was unclean, and they refused to even speak to people who worshipped idols and practiced polytheism for fear of tainting themselves. Because Greek and Roman culture worships both gods and goddesses, Jews could not fully accept Roman rule or beliefs.

By the time Jesus was born, the Romans had already invaded Palestine and were well-established within the region. The Jewish struggle against Roman rule and Greco-Roman culture would have colored the way Jesus, a Jew, was brought up to view the empire. He no doubt encountered a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment stemming from the differences in culture and religious customs. He would have been taught that there is only God, and that those who worship idols and multiple gods and goddesses are inferior and unclean. This is interesting because Jesus was known to have had meals with all types of people, both Jews and nonJews, an activity that is the exact opposite of how he was taught to behave.

When Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus was either a baby or had not been born yet. After Herod’s death, he was succeeded by his son, Herod Antipas, whom the people of Palestine viewed as more cruel than Herod. Around the time that Herod Antipas gained the throne, a great religious figure, John the Baptist, was rapidly gaining fame throughout the region. Hundreds of Jews looked to John as a great religious teacher, seeking him out on the shores of a river so that he might baptize him. John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University, believes that Jesus himself looked to John the Baptist as a mentor, saying, “Jesus was baptized by John, and therefore he had to accept John’s message.” Threatened that John the Baptist might incite a rebellion among the Jews against the Romans, Herod Antipas had John executed. Because Jesus’ own journey gained momentum at this time, he was seen as another John the Baptist and threatened Herod Antipas as well.

Despite the growing danger surrounding Jesus’ mission, he continued to travel through all of Palestine, performing miracles and preaching parables. The interactions he had with the people he met incorporated aspects of both Jewish and Roman social norms. In the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus and his disciples are met by a Canaanite woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. When Jesus says that he was sent to help only the Jews, reflecting the Jewish belief that those who aren’t Jews are inferior, the woman replies, “‘Yes, Lord…yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,’” (HCSB, Matt. 15.27). Jesus then changes his mind and heals the woman’s daughter. In other stories, Jesus encounters two women, Mary and Martha, who are referred to in the Bible as Jesus’ close friends. Historians believe that Mary and Martha owned their house, and that Jesus treated them as equals. This emulates a more Roman social ideal, since the Romans allowed the women to own houses whereas Jewish beliefs dictated that women were inferior to men.

Greco-Roman culture is especially present in the trial and execution of Jesus. The concept of a trial is a Roman one, and while Jesus’ trial was not a typical jury trial like the ones we have in modern days, “the mode of judging in criminal cases, seems to have resembled it,” (“Roman Law”). However, Jesus’ trial was not a fair one, and many bore false testimony against him. His death sentence, crucifixion, was a sentence given to thieves and traitors. Even this though shows Roman influence on Jesus’ life, as only the Romans, known for their violence and love of gladiator battles, could devise such a cruel and brutal death.

For years both before and after Jesus’ life, Greco-Roman culture struggled to fuse with Jewish customs. Jesus’ teachings of acceptance and equality related heavily to the Jewish doctrine of charity, yet they differed from Jewish beliefs of superiority as exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped a hurt Jewish man when other Jews left him alone. While the Roman empire was fairly lenient with local customs and traditions, the Jewish population of Palestine still felt oppressed as they believed that only God could rule them, not a human king. It was in this environment of tension and conflict that Jesus preached forgiveness and taught parables that could be related to by anyone. Often people take what the Bible says verbatim, but in order to truly understand what Jesus taught, one must know the background of his time. In a time of Roman violence and Jewish beliefs of inequality among different religious groups, Jesus taught a doctrine of unconditional love that was tailored to combat the flaws in both cultures.

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