Most of my personal knowledge of the culture of Palestine at the time of Jesus has come by way of the limited and somewhat culturally filtered perspective of Western Christianity. Our early church arose from Judaism, a somewhat sequestered religion in the Greco-Roman world. This is a world culture of power, politics, military might, superb intellectualism, and a very religious culture dominated by Hellenism and the worship of many gods, pantheism.
But, Judaism is not a single concept: temple worship or synagogue, priest or rabbi. It is a fabric composed of threads of at least four sects: each aligned with, or opposed to, distinctly different entities:
- Sadducees– who believe only in the first five books of the Torah, the Pentateuch. They have no interest in a life after death. They are aristocrats and rulers in Palestine. They compromise their beliefs enough to maintain power with the Roman authorities.
- Zealots- these Jews are looking for a return of a Davidic king. They direct their programs against the established powers, Gentile and Jew, and periodically foster armed rebellion.
- Pharisees- these are the keepers of the law. They form brotherhoods and study Jewish writings, even those beyond the Pentateuch. They believe in a life after death. They oppose much of Jesus ministry in our gospels, but they are the 1st century CE equivalent of faithful mainstream Protestants! They become the basis for the present rabbinic system of Judaism today.
- Essenes– these Jews are largely ascetics, who firmly believe that the entire land of Israel and the temple are contaminated. They oppose Roman Rule, the ruling Hasmodean puppet kings, such as Herod. They isolate themselves in the cities and in rural communities. The most famous is the Qumran community near the Dead Sea, the location of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The vast majority of the people of Palestine have a subsistence existence as peasants, and attend the festivals of Judaism where and when they can. They participate in family worship and the worship and life of the synagogue in their communities.
Keep in mind, also that the Jews at this time are spread throughout the Mediterranean world, from Spain to Persia to Africa.
Interestingly, historic writers, such as Josephus, identify all of these groups and even identifies John the Baptizer as a significant 1st century prophet. However, he does not mention Jesus of Nazareth in his writings.
Jews faced significant pressure to conform to the secular world. Those who did were known as Hellinists, and thought a little compromise of religious principles was acceptable, especially if one could get ahead. Tax collectors, like Matthew the disciple of Jesus, are examples of this, dealing with the Roman authorities for their own financial gain, at the expense of their fellow Jews.
Of those Jewish groups which opposed Roman authority, none survived much past the 2nd century. Chrisitianity and the Pharisees, which did not oppose Rome, both survive, and even prosper.
I’m afraid that we carry a rather idealized view that Christianity was the dominant religion throughout Roman times, maintaining that Judaism was isolated and corrupt. Our video lecturer in this adult Sunday school class, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University, feels that Judaism was alive and thriving.
There is a modern comparison for us as Christians today. The Jewish believers in Jesus time struggled to assert themselves within a culture which ran counter to their own beliefs. This is all too similar to the Christians’ struggle today, to fit into a consumer and profit driven secular society today without being totally transformed.