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1.6 Palestine at the Time of Jesus

At that time the Greek and Roman influence were very strong all over Palestine. Imposing buildings in Greek style towered over the mud-brick houses of the Jews. The construction of the Jewish Temple, Grecian in style, was started around 50 BC by Herod who liked Hellenistic culture. It was built on a thirty-five acre piece of land and its construction took forty years. King Herod died of a painful stomach illness about thirty years before Jesus started his ministry and a few days after he killed his third son who threatened his throne. He had almost total power over his province by delegation from the Roman Emperor whom he took care to honour in every possible way. He tried not to offend the modesty, nor the religious conviction, of the Jews, but this was not always possible. For instance, he had a big sport centre built near the Temple where wrestling was performed in the nude. He added also a theatre that presented plays offensive to the Jews. However he also authorised the construction of many synagogues, in addition to the Temple. Palestine was divided in Tetrarchies as part of a province under the control of Syria. However Judea, that included Jerusalem, was too important, so a more important man was in charge, a Procurator or Governor, although he did not live in Jerusalem. A viaduct was constructed by the Romans over the Kidron Valley; it went to the Temple and to Herod’s Palace. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD nothing remained from the Temple or the surrounding walls of the City except the Western walls known at the present time as the “Wailing Wall”. It was part of Herod’s Palace. The Roman procurator, the Roman official in charge of administration, would sit in judgement to those brought before him in front of the Tower of Antonia. Sometime he was called Governor and was bound to be a Roman. The Governor didn’t normally live there but on special occasions, when it was thought that the Jews would create problems, he would move in with his troops to put down or prevent civil disturbances. Thousand of people could be crucified as a result and the corpses were left there to rot, unless somebody from the family brought them back to be buried. The best view of Jerusalem over the Temple, the Tower of Antonia and Herod’s Palace, was from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the East of the Temple. The camp of the legionnaires was across a moat not far from the Palace. They stayed out of sight as they were not well accepted by the local people who attacked them very often. Wealth and poverty were visible side by side.

Rich Jews may have beautiful houses but most houses had dirt floors. They were simple with very often a terrace and very few windows. The roads were narrow and filled with wastes. The city walls and a moat that surrounded Jerusalem prevented easy approach or attack. Water brought by the viaduct was stored in many cisterns against siege. King David, ten centuries before, had taken Jerusalem from the Jebusites entering through a tunnel as the walls were already too strong. Jerusalem became his capital and he conquered all the land promised by God to Abraham. Outside the city walls the Judean hills were full of bandits as the poor of the land had taken to crime as an alternative to poverty. Even King Herod had not been able to eliminate them although they attacked Gentiles and Jews alike. Wild dogs and vultures lived from the flesh of the crucified men. Near the water sources there were small Jewish villages. For the slightest reason the Roman soldiers would sell the whole population to slave traders. This was not a very nice world to live in and the splendour of the Temple, the palaces and other beautiful buildings could not hide the extreme poverty of the poor Jews. However the majority of them still believed in God’ saying that they were a special people, chosen by Him for a special task. Some Jews followed the Greek way of life and, for instance, cut their hair and their beard, but the majority followed the tradition and faith. They still believed that a Messiah would come one day preceded by somebody to prepare the way. Of course, they did not know who the Messiah would be, when he would come, and who would prepare the way. (30)

According to the Christian Gospels, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Luke, as we know, was a Gentile who wrote for other cultivated Gentiles. He wanted to state clearly the exact date of Jesus’ emergence from the eighteen missing years. This was not easy and, if he made a mistake, his credibility would suffer. Luke said that the events he was reporting started in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign. That was when Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judea and Herod Antipas was Tetrarch of Galilee. According to Luke it was at that time that John, son of Zacharias, an elderly high priest and his elderly wife, received the word of God and started to preach baptism as a repentance for sins (Luke 3:1-3). John’s birth was the result of an Angel’s promise. The Angel also imposed his name and said to his parents that he had been chosen by God for a special mission, that is, to prepare Jesus’ way (Luke 1:17). John received his orders from God in the wilderness where he lived as a recluse (Luke 3:2; 1:15). Many came to the Jordan river to be baptised by John and to repent for their sins.

Some priests came and asked him who he was. This was a question that the Pharisees would have asked. The Pharisees considered themselves the Elects, the Puritans of that day. They kept to the letter of the Law to get closer to God. The second sect, the Sadducees, would also want to know. They disagree with the Pharisees on the afterlife and the Angels, but they both believed in the Messiah. John was perhaps closer to the third main sect, the Essenes. These believers withdrew from life and formed their communities near the Qumrân Caves. They are not mentioned in the New Testament but their writings, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, came to life recently and they bring a new light on Jerusalem before its destruction.

John told the priests that he was not the Messiah, and neither Elijah, one of the two men of the Old Testament who never died and who was supposed to come back before the Messiah (Mal. 4:5). He also said that he was not the Prophet mentioned by God on Mount Sinai (Deut.18:15). The priests then asked him directly who he was (John 1:22) and John said that he was preparing the way for the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3). On these words the priests went back to Jerusalem.

The next day, in the long queue of people confessing their sins before being baptised, John noticed the presence of Jesus who asked to be baptised (Matt.3:14-15). After some hesitations, John baptised Him. A dove came down from the sky and John recognised the Spirit of God as the dove settled on Jesus’ shoulder. A voice came from heaven saying that this was the Lord’ Beloved Son (Matt.3:17).
Soon afterwards John was sent to prison as he had condemned the wedding of Herod Antipas to Herodias (Matt.14:4), Herod’s granddaughter and the daughter of a son he had assassinated. She had divorced Herod Philip and was marrying his half-brother, Antipas. As she was Antipas’ niece the marriage was incestuous according to Jewish law. Moreover she had a child by Philip and this too prevented that wedding. More that Antipas it was Herodias who was angry and she was not satisfied with John being sent to prison; she wanted him executed. According to the New Testament she asked her daughter to dance for Antipas who was so pleased that he promised to give her anything she wanted as a reward. She asked John’s Head (Matt.14:8-9-10). The historian Josephus said that Antipas put John to death because he feared that he may start a revolt. Herod Antipas’ army was later destroyed by his former father-in law, Areta, King of Arabia, who did like the way Antipas divorced his daughter to marry Herodias. Always according to Josephus, the dancer who asked for John’s head was Salome who later married her uncle Philip II, her father having been Herod Philip. Josephus also confirmed the existence of John the Baptist.

Tiberius Caesar succeeded Caesar Augustus in 14 AD. Tiberius was Augustus’ adopted son and he had been co-regent for ten years. This would mean that Luke’ story started in 29 AD. This is in agreement with the historical data available. Pilate, the fifth Procurator or Governor of Judea, Samaria and Idumea started his command in 26 AD. Herod Antipas the present Tetrarch of Galilee was the brother of Archelaus who had succeeded his infamous father, King Herod now dead for many years. Archelaus had been exiled by the Emperor in 6 AD. Herod Antipas was not a bloodthirsty tyrant as his father and brother had been. Luke mentions also the Tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis Philip, half brother of Herod Antipas and Lysanias, Tetrarch of Abilene. He also introduces two high priests, Annas, the honorary high priest, and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, the actual high priest at the time (from 18 to 36 AD).

According to Matthew, Jesus started his ministry after John the Baptist was imprisoned. He was about thirty years old and, according to that Gospel, when Jesus heard the news of John’s death he left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum in Galilee (Matt.4:12-13). This confirmed the prophecy from Isaiah that Christ would come from over the Jordan, the Galilee of the Gentiles (Matt.4:15). Jesus carried on John’s work but he went much further healing, preaching, teaching, doing miracles, and entering into conflict with the authorities of the land. (30)