Jesus was born in a beautiful land but in a period of political instability. His language was Aramaic. Herod, a Jew, reigned from 37 to 4 BC and is remembered as a tyrant hated by his subjects. Although he had the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt to his former splendour, the Jews thought that he had sold out to the Romans, allowing his people to be over-taxed and restricted in their religious practice.
It was a difficult time in the Jewish history. People still remembered the heroic wars of Judas Maccabeus in the second century BC when the Jewish religion had been abolished, and an image of Zeus was placed in the Temple. In 63 BC Pompey had profaned the holiest part of the Temple. He was impressioned by its magnificence, the gold, the treasure and the money, but also by the absence of religious symbols. The Temple, of course, was dedicated to the Unseen and Invisible God. The Jews were more interested in religion that in politics; religion for them was their whole life and it was indestructible, since one cannot destroy an idea of God.
When Herod died in 4 BC nobody replaced him for some time. He had in fact killed his heir just before dying, and nobody else had the competence, or appeal, to replace him. There were riots and reprisals and the Romans crucified about 2,000 Jews considered as criminals in Jerusalem alone. The Ethnarch Archelaus who presided over these horrors was recalled by Rome and exiled to Gaul, after that the Jews complained to the Emperor. Judea became again a Roman province with Coponius as its first Prefect from 6 to 9 AD. Pontius Pilate became one of his successors in 26 AD. Batanaea and Gaulonitis, at the North-East of the sea of Galilee, were not part of Judea and were ruled by the Tetrarch Philip, a son of Herod the Great. Galilee was also a quasi-independent Kingdom ruled by Philip’s half-brother, Antipas. For the Romans, these independent kingdoms on the borders of their Judean province were a source of discomfort, as the Judean rebels were able to hide there to avoid arrest. All these rebellions against the Roman Empire failed and many Jews were killed as a result.
Many Jewish communities were active at the time of Jesus. The scrolls unearthed at Qumrân, near the Dead Sea, allowed the historians to study the ideas and doctrine of the Essenes who lived there. They were members of a sect of monkish Jews who considered themselves the Elects; they abstained from fleshy pursuits and prepared themselves for the imminent End. They were obsessed by the Jewish calendar and by the correct observance of the Feasts and fasts of the liturgical year. The Essenes, a priestly sect, were ascetics. Many of the documents found at Qumrân did not originate with this sect, but came from other apocalyptic movements. At that time there were many such small dissident groups (with a few thousand members) within the Jewish movement, all of which thought that they knew the truth, that they were the authentic voice of Judaism, and waiting for the end of the world.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees shared the same expectations, but not exactly the same beliefs. The Sadducees, a priestly sect based on Jerusalem, did not believe in the survival of the soul after death. Their relation with God had to be worked out during their lifetime. They did not either believe in the resurrection, nor in the everlasting life. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that there would be a day of reckoning after death, in which the bad ones would be set aside, and the good one would rise up to the heavenly Jerusalem.
All these sects believed that God was unhappy with the state of things in Israel and that, soon or later, a Messiah from the line of David would come to clarify the situation. They also believed that he would be preceded by the Prophet Ellijah.
According to the Arabs there has been at least 40,000 Prophets of which a few hundred are on record in the West. Most of them were born in cities but they spent some time in meditation in the desert before coming back to begin, or resume, their preaching. John-the Baptist, and Jesus after him, did not think of creating a new Judaism. They saw themselves, and were seen by their disciples, as prophets, that is men with a message that can be described simply as “Be Better Jews”. However Jesus had some disturbing questions about what it meant to be a Jew, and what it meant to be “Good”. The New Testament was written by men who thought Jesus was the Messiah and, if only for this reason, it is not astonishing that they do not record that John believed he was too. Jesus does not seem to have made this claim anyway. In fact, to the priests and the Levites who asked him if he was the Christ, he denied it (“I am a voice that cries in the wilderness”). When in prison, John requested his followers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah. This question must imply that John was not convinced, or had some doubts, that Jesus was the Christ. John’s disciples came back with a list of Jesus’ miracles, but this must not have been the answer he waited for. These miracles told him that Jesus was a Prophet, but they did not tell him that Jesus was something more. So John disclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and also that he, John, was the prophet who should precede the Messiah. However he never said in a positive way who he was. Later on Jesus make many allusions to John in order to annoy the Authorities, or to confuse his followers. According to Luke, John came from a priestly family, his father was from the Abijah section of the Temple priesthood, and his mother, Elisabeth, was the cousin of the Virgin Mary. John and Jesus were then second cousins.
The Synoptic Gospels say that John and Jesus had distinct ministry, whereas the fourth Gospel says that Jesus met his first disciples when they all were John’s followers in the desert. In the desert Jesus had to resist three temptations: the first one to turn the desert stone into bread, the second to test God by hoping to be saved if he threw himself down from a high mountain and, finally, the offer of the Devil to make him a King in exchange for worshipping him. He rejected all of them. In addition he never thought of creating a new religion since, for Him, there was only the religion of Israel
The desert was a training ground for John the Baptist and his disciples, one of whom, he thought, as told in the fourth Gospel, should be the Messiah. The Pharisees came to ask him who he was, if he was not the Prophet who foretold the Messiah, or the Messiah himself. His answer was that he was here only to baptise and that one of his follower would be the Messiah. John and some of his disciples thought, at that time, that Jesus was the Messiah. Andrew, a fisherman from Galilee, and his brother Peter also known as Simon, were the first to believe it, while others, such as Nathanael, had doubt. Even to-day most Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he did not behave as foreseen in the Prophesies. John baptised Jesus and, as we are told, the spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a Voice confirmed his divinity. While in prison John heard about Jesus’ miracles, but he was not impressed as there were many preachers and miracle-workers in these days in Palestine. It is strange that John, while waiting to be executed in prison, had some messengers sent to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah, although he had heard the Voice proclaiming it. Why did he need other signs of Jesus’ divinity? While praising John as the greatest child born to a woman, Jesus also announced to him the inauguration of a new “Kingdom” of his own, that a new age was beginning although not the Messianic Age that the Jews expected. Jesus’ message was not apocalyptic but of inner virtue, there was not going to be any Messiah but a man teaching sinners how to repent. John was not pleased by what he heard.
John was killed by Herod Antipas, not for anything to do with the Messiah, but because he criticised Antipas for marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Antipas was fearful of John, and listened to him, but his wife, through her daughter Salome, asked for his head and Antipas had him killed.