The Historical Situation
1. When Tacitus, the Roman historian, records the attempt of Nero to charge the Christians with the burning of Rome, he has patience for no more than the cursory remark that the sect originated with a Jew who had been put to death in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. This province was small and despised, and Tacitus could account for the influence of the sect which sprang thence only by the fact that all that was infamous and abominable flowed into Rome. The Roman's scornful judgment failed to grasp the nature and power of the movement whose unpopularity invited Nero's lying accusation, yet it emphasizes the significance of him who did "not strive, nor cry, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street," whose influence, nevertheless, was working as leaven throughout the empire.

2. Palestine was not under immediate Roman rule when Jesus was born. Herod the Great was drawing near the close of the long reign during which, owing to his skill in securing Roman favor, he had tyrannized over his unwilling people. His claim was that of an adventurer who had power to succeed, even as his method had been that of a suspicious tyrant, who murdered right and left, lest one of the many with better right than he should rise to dispute with him his throne. When Herod died, his kingdom was divided into three parts, and Rome asserted a fuller sovereignty, allowing none of his sons to take his royal title. Herod's successors ruled with a measure of independence, however, and followed many of their father's ways, though none of them had his ability. The best of them was Philip, who had the territory farthest from Jerusalem, and least related to Jewish life. He ruled over Iturea and Trachonitis, the country to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee, having his capital at Caesarea Philippi, a city built and named by him on the site of an older town near the sources of the Jordan. He also rebuilt the city of Bethsaida, at the point where the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee, calling it Julias, after the daughter of Augustus. Philip enters the story of the life of Jesus only as the ruler of these towns and the intervening region, and as husband of Salome, the daughter of Herodias. Living far from Jerusalem and the Jewish people, he abandoned even the show of Judaism which characterized his father, and lived as a frank heathen in his heathen capital.

3. The other two who inherited Herod's dominion were brothers, Archelaus and Antipas, sons of Malthace, one of Herod's many wives. Archelaus had been designated king by Herod, with Judea, Samaria, and Idumea as his kingdom; but the emperor allowed him only the territory, with the title ethnarch. Antipas was named a tetrarch by Herod, and his territory was Galilee and the land east of the Jordan to the southward of the Sea of Galilee, called Perea. Antipas was the Herod under whose sway Jesus lived in Galilee, and who executed John the Baptist. He was a man of passionate temper, with the pride and love of luxury of his father. Having Jews to govern, he held, as his father had done, to a show of Judaism, though at heart he was as much of a pagan as Philip. He, too, loved building, and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee was built by him for his capital. His unscrupulous tyranny and his gross disregard of common righteousness appear in his relations with John the Baptist and with Herodias, his paramour. Jesus described him well as "that fox" (Luke xiii.32), for he was sly, and worked often by indirection. While his father had energy and ability which command a sort of admiration, Antipas was not only bad but weak.

4. Both Philip and Antipas reigned until after the death of Jesus, Philip dying in A.D.34, and Antipas being deposed several years later, probably in 39. Archelaus had a much shorter rule, for he was deposed in A.D.6, having been accused by the Jews of unbearable barbarity and tyranny, -- a charge in which Antipas and Philip joined. The territory of Archelaus was then made an imperial province of the second grade, ruled by a procurator appointed from among the Roman knights. In provinces under an imperial legate (propraetor) the procurator was an officer for the administration of the revenues; in provinces of the rank of Judea he was, however, the representative of the emperor in all the prerogatives of government, having command of the army, and being the final resort in legal procedure, as well as supervising the collection of the customs and taxes. Very little is known of the procurators appointed after the deposition of Archelaus, until Tiberius sent Pontius Pilate in A.D.26. He held office until he was deposed in 36. Josephus gives several examples of his wanton disregard of Jewish prejudice, and of his extreme cruelty. His conduct at the trial of Jesus was remarkably gentle and judicial in comparison with other acts recorded of his government; yet the fear of trial at Rome, which finally induced him to give Jesus over to be crucified, was thoroughly characteristic; in fact, his downfall resulted from a complaint lodged against him by certain Samaritans whom he had cruelly punished for a Messianic uprising.

5. There were two sorts of Roman taxes in Judea: direct, which were collected by salaried officials; and customs, which were farmed out to the highest bidder. The direct taxes consisted of a land tax and a poll tax, in the collection of which the procurator made use of the local Jewish courts; the customs consisted of various duties assessed on exports, and they were gathered by representatives of men who had bought the right to collect these dues. The chiefs as well as their underlings are called publicans in our New Testament, although the name strictly applies only to the chiefs. These tax-gatherers, small and great, were everywhere despised and execrated, because, in addition to their subserviency to a hated government, they had a reputation, usually deserved, for all sorts of extortion. Because of this evil repute they were commonly drawn from the unscrupulous among the people, so that the frequent coupling of publicans and sinners in the gospels probably rested on fact as much as on prejudice.

6. In Samaria and Judea soldiers were under the command of the procurator; they took orders from the tetrarch, in Galilee and Perea. The garrison of Jerusalem consisted of one Roman cohort -- from five to six hundred men -- which was reinforced at the time of the principal feasts. These and the other forces at the disposal of the procurator were probably recruited from the country itself, largely from among the Samaritans. The centurion of Capernaum (Matt. viii.5; Luke vii.2-5) was an officer in the army of Antipas, who, however, doubtless organized his army on the Roman pattern, with officers who had had their training with the imperial forces.

7. The administration of justice in Samaria and Judea was theoretically in the hands of the procurator; practically, however, it was left with the Jewish courts, either the local councils or the great sanhedrin at Jerusalem. This last body consisted of seventy-one "elders." Its president was the high-priest, and its members were drawn in large degree from the most prominent representatives of the priestly aristocracy. The scribes, however, had a controlling influence because of the reverence in which the multitude held them. The sanhedrin of Jerusalem had jurisdiction only within the province of Judea, where it tried all kinds of offences; its judgment was final, except in capital cases, when it had to yield to the procurator, who alone could sentence to death. It had great influence also in Galilee, and among Jews everywhere, but this was due to the regard all Jews had for the holy city. It was, in fact, a sort of Jewish senate, which took cognizance of everything that seemed to affect the Jewish interests. In Galilee and Perea, Antipas held in his hands the judicial as well as the military and financial administration.

8. To the majority of the priests religion had become chiefly a form. They represented the worldly party among the Jews. Since the days of the priest-princes who ruled in Jerusalem after the return from the exile, they had constituted the Jewish aristocracy, and held most of the wealth of the people. It was to their interest to maintain the ritual and the traditional customs, and they were proud of their Jewish heritage; of genuine interest in religion, however, they had little. This secular priestly party was called the Sadducees, probably from Zadok, the high-priest in Solomon's time. What theology the Sadducees had was for the most part reactionary and negative. They were opposed to the more earnest spirit and new thought of the scribes, and naturally produced some champions who argued for their theological position; but the mass of them cared for other things.

9. The leaders of the popular thought, on the other hand, were chiefly noted for their religious zeal and theological acumen. They represented the outgrowth of that spirit which in the Maccabean time had risked all to defend the sanctity of the temple and the right of God's people to worship him according to his law. They were known as Pharisees, because, as the name ("separated") indicates, they insisted on the separation of the people of God from all the defilements and snares of the heathen life round about them. The Pharisees constituted a fraternity devoted to the scrupulous observance of law and tradition in all the concerns of daily life. They were specialists in religion, and were the ideal representatives of Judaism. Their distinguishing characteristic was reverence for the law; their religion was the religion of a book. By punctilious obedience of the law man might hope to gain a record of merit which should stand to his credit and secure his reward when God should finally judge the world. Because life furnished many situations not dealt with in the written law, there was need of its authoritative interpretation, in order that ignorance might not cause a man to transgress. These interpretations constituted an oral law which practically superseded the written code, and they were handed down from generation to generation as "the traditions of the fathers." The existence of this oral law made necessary a company of scribes and lawyers whose business it was to know the traditions and transmit them to their pupils. These scribes were the teachers of Israel, the leaders of the Pharisees, and the most highly revered class in the community. Pharisaism at its beginning was intensely earnest, but in the time of Jesus the earnest spirit had died out in zealous formalism. This was the inevitable result of their virtual substitution of the written law for the living God. Their excessive reverence had banished God from practical relation to the daily life. They held that he had declared his will once for all in the law. His name was scrupulously revered, his worship was cultivated with minutest care, his judgment was anticipated with dread; but he himself, like an Oriental monarch, was kept far from common life in an isolation suitable to his awful holiness. By a natural consequence conscience gave place to scrupulous regard for tradition in the religion of the scribes. The chief question with them was not, Is this right? but, What say the elders? The soul's sensitiveness of response to God's will and God's truth was lost in a maze of traditions which awoke no spontaneous Amen in the moral nature, consequently there was frequent substitution of reputation for character. The Pharisees could make void the command, Honor thy father, by an ingenious application of the principle of dedication of property to God (Mark vii.8-13), and thus under the guise of scrupulous regard for law discovered ways for legal disregard of law. Their theory of religion gave abundant room for a piety which made broad its phylacteries and lengthened its prayers, while neglecting judgment, mercy, and the love of God.

10. Yet the earnest and true development in Jewish thinking was found among the Pharisees. The early hope of Israel was almost exclusively national. In the later books of the Old Testament, in connection with an enlarged sense of the importance of the individual, the doctrine of a personal resurrection to share the blessings of the Messiah's kingdom began to appear. It had its clear development and definite adoption as part of the faith of Judaism, however, under the influence of the Pharisees. Along with this increased emphasis on the worth of the individual came a large development of the doctrine of angels and spirits. Towards both of these doctrines the Sadducees took a reactionary position. Politically the Pharisees were theocratic in theory, but opportunists in practice, accommodating themselves to the existing state of things so long as the de facto government did not interfere with the religious life of the people. They looked for a kingdom in which God should be evidently the king of his people; but they believed that his sovereignty was to be realized through the law, hence their sole interest was in the obedience of God's people to that law as interpreted by the traditions.

11. The theocratic spirit was more aggressive in a party which originated in the later years of Herod the Great, and found a reckless leader in Judas of Galilee, who started a revolt when the governor of Syria undertook to make a census of the Jews after the deposition of Archelaus. This party bore the name Cananeans or Zealots. They regarded with passionate resentment the subjection of God's people to a foreign power, and waited eagerly for an opportune time to take the sword and set up the kingdom of God; it was with them that the final war against Rome began. They were found in largest numbers in Galilee, where the scholasticism of the scribes was not so dominating an influence as in Judea. Dr. Edersheim has called them the nationalist party. In matters belonging strictly to the religious life they followed the Pharisees, only holding a more material conception of the hope of Israel.

12. Another development in Jewish religious life carried separatist doctrines to the extreme. Its representatives were called Essenes, though what the significance of the name was is no longer clear. Although they were allied with the Pharisees in doctrine, they show in some particulars the influence of Hellenistic Judaism. This is suggested not only by the attention which Philo and Josephus give to them, but also by certain of their views, which were very like the doctrines of the Pythagoreans. They carried the pharisaic demand for separateness to the extreme of asceticism. While they were found in nearly every town in Palestine, some of them even practising marriage, the largest group of them lived a celibate, monastic life near the shores of the Dead Sea. This community was recruited by the initiation of converts, who only after a novitiate of three years were admitted to full membership in the order. They were characterized by an extreme scrupulousness concerning ceremonial purity, their meals were regarded as sacrifices, and were prepared by members of the order, who were looked upon as priests, nor were any allowed to partake of the food until they had first bathed themselves. Their regular garments were all white, and were regarded as vestments for use at the sacrificial meals, -- other clothing being assumed as they went out to their work. They were industrious agriculturists, their life was communistic, and they were renowned for their uprightness. They revered Moses as highly as did the scribes; yet they were opposed to animal sacrifices, and, although they sent gifts to the temple, were apparently excluded from its worship. Their kinship with the Pythagoreans appears in that they addressed an invocation to the sun at its rising, and conducted all their natural functions with scrupulous modesty, "that they might not offend the brightness of God" (Jos. Wars, ii.8, 9). Their rejection of bloody sacrifices, and their view that the soul is imprisoned in the body and at death is freed for a better life, besides many features of their life that are genuinely Jewish, such as their regard for ceremonial purity, also show similarity to the Pythagoreans. It has always been a matter of perplexity that these ascetics find no mention in the New Testament. They seem to have lived a life too much apart, and to have had little sympathy with the ideals of Jesus, or even of John the Baptist.

13. The common people followed the lead of the Pharisees, though afar off. They accepted the teaching concerning tradition, as well as that concerning the resurrection, conforming their lives to the prescriptions of the scribes more or less strictly, according as they were more or loss ruled by religious considerations. It was in consequence of their hold on the people that the scribes in the sanhedrin were able often to dictate a policy to the Sadducean majority. Jesus voiced the popular opinion when he said that "the scribes sit in Moses' seat" (Matt, xxiii.2). Their leaders despised "this multitude which knoweth not the law" (John vii.49), yet delighted to legislate for them, binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne. Many of the people were doubtless too intent on work and gain to be very regardful of the minutiae of conduct as ordained by the scribes; many more were too simple-minded to follow the theories of the rabbis concerning the aloofness of God from the life of men. These last reverenced the scribes, followed their directions, in the main, for the conduct of life, yet lived in fellowship with God as their fathers had, trusting in his faithfulness, and hoping in his mercy. They are represented in the New Testament by such as Simeon and Anna, Zachariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and the majority of those who heard and heeded John's call to repentance. They were Israel's remnant of pure and undefiled religion, and constituted what there was of good soil among the people for the reception of the seed sown by John's successor. They had no name, for they did not constitute a party; for convenience they may be called the Devout.

14. Two other classes among the people are mentioned in the gospels, -- the Herodians and the Samaritans. The Herodians do not appear outside the New Testament, and seem to have been hardly more than a group of men in whom the secular spirit was dominant, who thought it best for their interests and for the people's to champion the claims of the Herodian family. They were probably more akin to the Pharisees than to the Sadducees, for the latter were hostile to the Herodian claims, from the first; yet in spirit they seem more like to the worldly aristocracy than to the pious scribes. The Samaritans lived in the land, a people despising and despised. Their territory separated Galilee from Judea, and they were a constant source of irritation to the Jews. The hatred was inherited from the days of Ezra, when the zealous Jews refused to allow any intercourse with the inhabitants of Samaria. These Samaritans were spurned as of impure blood and mixed religion (II. Kings xvii.24-41). The severe attitude adopted towards them by Ezra and Nehemiah led to the building of a temple on Mount Gerizim, and the establishment of a worship which sought to rival that of Jerusalem in all particulars. Very little is known of the tenets of the Samaritans in the time of Jesus beyond their belief that Gerizim was the place which, according to the law, God chose for his temple, and that a Messiah should come to settle all questions of dispute (John iv.25).

15. Although the religious life of the Jews centred ideally in the temple, it found its practical expression in the synagogue. This in itself is evidence of the relative influence of priests and scribes. There was no confessed rivalry. The Pharisee was most insistent on the sanctity of the temple and the importance of its ritual. Yet with the growing sense of the religious significance of the individual as distinct from the nation, there arose of necessity a practical need for a system of worship possible for the great majority of the people, who could at best visit Jerusalem but once or twice a year. The synagogue seems to have been a development of the exile, when there was no temple and no sacrifice. It was the characteristic institution of Judaism as a religion of the law, furnishing in every place opportunity for prayer and study. The elders of each community seem ordinarily to have been in control of its synagogue, and to have had authority to exclude from its fellowship persons who had come under the ban. In addition to these officials there was a ruler of the synagogue, who had the direction of all that concerned the worship; a chazzan, or minister, who had the care of the sacred books, administered discipline, and instructed the children in reading the scripture; and two or more receivers of alms. The Sabbath services consisted of prayers, and reading of the scriptures -- both law and prophets, -- and an address or sermon. It was in the sermon that the people learned to know the "traditions of the elders," whether as applications of the law to the daily life, or as legendary embellishments of Hebrew history and prophecy. The preacher might be any one whom the ruler of the synagague recognized as worthy to address the congregation.

16. The religious life which centred in the synagogue found daily expression in the observance of the law and the traditions. In the measure of its control by the scribes it was concerned chiefly with the Sabbath, with the various ablutions needful to the maintenance of ceremonial purity, with the distinctions between clean and unclean food, with the times and ways of fasting, and with the wearing of fringes and phylacteries. These lifeless ceremonies seem to our day wearisome and petty in the extreme. It is probable, however, that the growth of the various traditions had been so gradual that, as has been aptly said, the whole usage seemed no more unreasonable to the Jews than the etiquette of polite society does to its devotees. The evil was not so much in the minuteness of the regulations as in the external and superficial notion of religion which they induced.

17. Optimism was the mood of Israel's prophets from the earliest times. Every generation looked for the dawning of a day which should banish all ill and realize the dreams inspired by the covenant in which God had chosen Israel for his own. In proportion as the rabbinic formalism held control of the hearts of the people, the Messianic hope lost its warmth and vigor. Yet the scribes did not abandon the prophetic optimism; they held to the letter of the hope, but as its fulfilment was for them dependent on perfect obedience to the law, oral and written, their interest was diverted to the traditions, and their strength was given to legal disputations. Of the rest of the people, the Sadducees naturally gave little thought to the promise of future deliverance, they were too absorbed with regard for present concerns. Nor is there any evidence that the Essenes, with all their reputed knowledge of the future, cherished the hope of a Messiah. The other elements among the people who owned the general leadership of the scribes looked eagerly for the coming time when God should bring to pass what he had promised through the prophets. While some expected God himself to come in judgment, and gave no thought to an Anointed one who should represent the Most High to the people, the majority looked for a Son of David to sit upon his father's throne. Even so, however, there were wide differences in the nature of the hope which was set on the coming of this Son of David. The Zealots were looking for a victory, which should set Israel on high over all his foes. To the rest of the people, however, the method of the consummation was not so clear, and they were ready to leave God to work out his purpose in his own way, longing meanwhile for the fulfilment of his promise. One class in particular gave themselves to visionary representations of the promised redemption. They differed from the Zealots in that they saw with unwelcome clearness the futility of physical attack upon their enemies; but their faith was strong, and at the moment when outward conditions seemed most disheartening they looked for a revelation of God's power from heaven, destroying all sinners in his wrath, and delivering and comforting his people, giving them their lot in a veritable Canaan situated in a renewed earth. Such visions are recorded in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John. They are found in many other apocalypses not included in our Bible, and indicate how persistently the minds of the people turned towards the promises spoken by the prophets, and meditated on their fulfilment. The Devout were midway between the Zealots and the Apocalyptists. The songs of Zachariah and Mary and the thanksgiving of Simeon express their faith. They hoped for a kingdom as tangible as the Zealots sought, yet they preferred to wait for the consolation of Israel. They believed that God was still in his heaven, that he was not disregardful of his people, and that in his own time he would raise up unto them their king. They looked for a Son of David, yet his reign was to be as remarkable for its purification of his own people as for its victories over their foes. These victories indeed were to be largely spiritual, for their Messiah was to conquer in the strength of the Spirit of God and "by the word of his mouth." Such as these were ready for a ministry like John's, and not unready for the new ideal which Jesus was about to offer them, though their highest spiritualization of the Messianic hope was but a shadow of the reality which Jesus asked them to accept.

18. This last conception of the Messiah is found in a group of psalms written in the first century before Christ, during the early days of the Roman interference in Judea. These Psalms of Solomon, as they are called, are pharisaic in point of view, yet they are not rabbinic in their ideas. Their feeling is too deep, and their reliance on God too immediate; they fitly follow the psalms of the Old Testament, though afar off. Of another type of contemporary literature, Apocalypse, at least two representatives besides the Book of Daniel have come down to us from the time of Jesus or earlier, -- the so-called Book of Enoch, and the fragment known as the Assumption of Moses. These writings have peculiar interest, because they are probably the source of quotations found in the Epistle of Jude; moreover, some sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and in particular his chosen title, The Son of Man, are strikingly similar to expressions found in Enoch. Can Jesus have read these books? The psalms of the Devout were the kind of literature to pass rapidly from heart to heart, until all who sympathized with their hope and faith had heard or seen them. The case was different with the apocalypses. They are more elaborate and enigmatical, and may have been only slightly known. Yet, as Jesus was familiar with the canonical Book of Daniel, although it was not read in the synagogue service in his time, it is possible that he may also have read or heard other books which had not won recognition as canonical. If, however, he knew nothing of them, the similarity between the apocalypses and some of Jesus' ideas and expressions becomes all the more significant; for it shows that these writings gave utterance to thoughts and feelings shared by men who never read them, which were, therefore, no isolated fancies, but characteristic of the religion of many of the people. With these ideas Jesus was familiar; whether he ever read the books must remain a question.

19. This literature exists for us only in translations made in the days of the early church. Most of these books were originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, or in Aramaic, the language of Palestine in the time of Jesus. Traces of this language as spoken by Jesus have been preserved in the gospels, -- the name Rabbi; Abba, translated Father; Talitha cumi, addressed to the daughter of Jairus; Ephphatha, to the deaf man of Bethsaida; and the cry from the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (John i.38; Mark xiv.36; v.41; vii.34; xv.34). It is altogether probable that in his common dealings with men and in his teachings Jesus used this language. Greek was the language of the government and of trade, and in a measure the Jews were a bilingual people. Jesus may thus have had some knowledge of Greek, but it is unlikely that he ever used it to any extent either in Galilee, or Judea, or in the regions of Tyre and Sidon.

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