The Backstory of the Gospels
The world in which Jesus was born was marked by exile. The Jewish people had returned to their land after the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE but remained under foreign rule (Yoder Neufield 85). In a context of foreign domination, a distinctly Jewish identity centered on the Temple and the Hebrew Scriptures and fostered the hope that Yahweh would be faithful to his promises and restore the nation of Israel (84). Over the centuries bookended by the Babylonian exile and the time of Jesus, a parade of empires ruled over Judea. Looming large amongst them was Alexander the Great who brought to Judea the culture of Greece including its commerce, ideas, and a common language which would allow the Jewish faith, and later Christianity, create a home for itself within the Greco-Roman world (85-86). Yet Jewish identity was maintained, centered on the Temple and the Scriptures. In 142 BCE, the Jewish people successfully gained their independence for the first time in centuries after a war with the Hellenistic Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, led by Judas Maccabeus (86). The century of Jewish independence under the Maccabees was not without controversy. Many in the Jewish community believed the Maccabean priesthood was illegitimate, instead favoring the line of Zadok as the God-given priesthood (86). The brief period of independence proved to be less than the idyllic hope which had long defined the Jewish people. Their independence came to a close in 63 BCE with the Roman conquest of General Pompey, resuming the foreign domination which had become all-too familiar in Judea (86-87). The nation was ruled over by Roman governors and vassal kings, known for their brutality and oppressive taxes (87). While many struggled under Rome’s oppressive rule, others learned to collaborate with the empire and gained wealth and power (88). When Jesus stepped onto the scene, the hope for a messiah to restore Israel was at a fever-pitch, driven by Roman oppression, memory of the Maccabean revolt, and tension within the Jewish community between Rome’s collaborators and Rome’s victims. Several important groups existed during this time period which played a vital role in Jesus’ life. The first was the Pharisees, a sect of Jewish religious leaders who saw their task as “hedging the Torah” (91) and preserving Jewish religious life. It was amongst the Pharisees that the greatest hopes for divine intervention were born (91). Jesus and the Pharisees faced increasing tension over their divergent interpretations of Torah until the Pharisees lobbied for Jesus’ death. A second group was the rural poor who had fallen victim to wealthy land-owners and the oppression of Roman rule. It was to these people Jesus ministered and related to (96). A group living under the oppression of foreign domination quickly took hold of this traveling rabbi announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. A third group Jesus related to in surprising ways was the tax collectors. They were Jews who collaborated with Rome, collecting taxes on behalf of the empire and exhorting the people to procure wealth for themselves (98). These lightning-rods of Judean anger received special attention from Jesus. One was even included amongst the number of his disciples while others, namely Zacchaeus, repented of their extortion after an encounter with Jesus.
Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R. Recovering Jesus: the Witness of the New Testament. Society for Promoting Christian, 2007.