Rome & Jerusalem: The Historical Context of Jesus Christ

Roman-controlled Judea was subject to many internal political disputes between competing sects. It was in this climate that Jesus Christ emerged amongst other radical preachers as a potentially dangerous rebel.

Feb 10, 2021By Alice Bennett, MSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient History
jesus christ paintings
Details from The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus by James Tissot, 1886-94; The Meal in the House of the Pharisee by John Tissot, 1886-96; and The Merchants Chased from  the Temple by James Tissot, 1886-94


Jesus Christ was probably born sometime between 4-6 BC, slightly earlier than the date set by the Church. He lived in Galilee for most of his life and was killed after visiting Jerusalem


In the first century AD, Roman-controlled Judea was a politically and philosophically divided place with many competing sects. It is against this background of debate and rebellion that Jesus was arrested and ultimately crucified.


Political Powder Keg: Jesus Christ In Rome And Jerusalem

birds eye view forum james tissot
Bird’s-Eye View of the Forum: Jesus Hears His Death Sentence by James Tissot, 1886-94 via the Brooklyn Museum 


Roman-occupied Judea was often a politically explosive place. Prior to Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great had been made client king of Judea by the Roman Emperor Augustus in the aftermath of a complex civil war


Herod was not always popular. Judea consisted of many non-Jewish groups, and Herod himself was actually from a region called Idumea and was therefore not considered fully Jewish by the local population.  


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Jewish independence was still within living memory for those living under his rule, and Herod would eventually become extremely paranoid and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of law and order. He employed secret police and regularly cracked down on the local population to keep the peace. He even had three of his own sons executed. 

Although Herod was cruel, he was an effective ruler over a fractious and rebellious nation. While Herod was a client king, Rome had not really made its presence felt; the empire left Herod to handle his own people.

But Herod would die in 4 BC, which left a politically fractured nation with a strong sense of self in the hands of his weaker sons and the Roman Prefect. 


coin from pilate's judea
Coin from Pilate’s Judea, 30-31 (year 17), via the British Museum, London


Shortly after Jesus Christ’s birth, Judea was divided into smaller regions, and Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, would rule over Jesus’ home of Galilee until after Jesus’ death. 


Another of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, failed to control Jerusalem and its surroundings, Judea proper, so Augustus handed control of the area to the Roman Prefect. 


The Roman governor from then on would control Judea proper in conjunction with the Jewish high priest of the Temple. The Temple itself was central to the Jewish religion, and high priests had often been kings in the past. The High Priest was in charge of the day to day governing of the populace, and the Prefect would interfere only when necessary or when trouble was brewing. 


While the head of the Temple was now pre-approved by the Romans, they always came from one of the aristocratic priestly families whose lineage could be traced back to the early days of the Old Testament. Roman governance was characteristically hands-off in order to prevent conflict, and Jewish customs and local laws were respected in this early period. 


Regular riots at festivals, small protests, and occasional open revolts would frequently occur in this tiny province throughout its history, but serious organized resistance against the Romans would quieten down between the handover of AD 6 and Jesus’ death. 


However, tensions within Judea were always bubbling under the surface. 


Divided Against Itself: Pharisees, Sadducees, And Essenes

the meal in the house of the pharisee
The Meal in the House of the Pharisee by John Tissot, 1886-96, via the Brooklyn Museum 


Jesus’ Jerusalem was divided against itself, as well as against the Romans.


The Jewish Historian Josephus tells us that Jewish philosophy at this time was divided into three important sects: The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. But which sect did Jesus Christ belong to, if any, and how did they understand each other?


The Sadducees were an elite aristocratic and priestly cast who appear to have controlled the Jewish Temple during this period. They were also closely aligned to the now-defunct monarchy from the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence. 


The priests of the temple were effectively collaborators with the Romans and did what they could to keep the local population under control. 


The Pharisees, on the other hand, appear to have acted as a form of popular opposition to Sadducees and were highly critical of this aristocratic faction. They weren’t necessarily critical of the Romans themselves, but they were critical of how the Temple was run.


the pharisees and the sadduccees james tissot
The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus by James Tissot, 1886-94, via the Brooklyn Museum 


The Pharisees and the Sadducees had large philosophical differences between them, with the Sadducees representing an older tradition. The Pharisees were concerned with newer scribal law while the Sadducees were preoccupied with the Torah and the ancient priesthood, which gave them power. 


Although the Pharisees were a form of opposition to the status quo, it was a quiet and philosophical one — they were not radical as a group. They were a large part of the population who probably represented the views of ordinary Jews, and they would be foundational to rabbinic Judaism after the Temple’s destruction.


We know of at least some of the philosophical debates that brought these two groups into conflict. For example, the Sadducees did not believe in life after death, and the Pharisees did. There was little mention of an afterlife in early Jewish scripture, but it is mentioned in newer texts, like the relatively recent Book of Daniel, and it was becoming a popular idea amongst ordinary Jews. 


Jesus is actually portrayed arguing with the Sadducees about this very issue, which appears to have been a subject of intense debate in first-century Judea.


Some biblical historians argue that Jesus was a Pharisee, but Jesus is shown repeatedly criticizing the Pharisees in the Bible as well. If he was a Pharisee, he was unpopular with his own brethren.


hebrew coin minted jewish revolt
A Hebrew Coin minted during the Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66-67 (year 1), via the British Museum, London 


The third major sect Josephus mentions were the Essenes


They were a slightly mysterious but nonetheless extremely interesting group, who lived a life of poverty, believed in charity, and were mostly celibate. The Essenes were radicals in many respects. They lived in communes around the desert and held their property in common. They were not interested in the Temple at all as a place of worship, which was a huge departure from the rest of Jewish history. 


Josephus compares them to the followers of Pythagoras in the Greco-Roman world, who were a group of ascetic mystics.


We also know that they made a careful study of biblical scripture. The Essenes lived around the Dead Sea and were most likely the people who once collated the Dead Sea Scrolls


Some Essenes were heavily involved in the later revolt against Roman rule, and their community in Qumran would be enveloped in the fighting during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66-73.


Jesus’ life seems to have a lot of parallels with Essene habits, but Jesus Christ was not part of an Essene community. Nevertheless, their radical lifestyle and teachings may have impacted Jesus’ primary influence, John the Baptist.


Apocalypse Now: John The Baptist


Many Jews believed that one day the world’s earthly kingdoms would be uprooted and replaced by a kingdom of heaven. The Book of Daniel from the Old Testament prophesied a series of corrupt empires followed by a glorious restoration by a messiah, descended from King David.


Political tensions in the Jewish world tended to manifest themselves in the form of self-styled prophets, who preached about an imminent upending of the earthly order.


the great day of his wrath
The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin, 1851-51, via Tate, London 


The most famous of these preachers during Jesus Christ’s time was John the Baptist, a major figure in the New Testament. Some scholars believe John had contact with the Essenes, as John also lived a similarly ascetic lifestyle and wore a hair shirt. 


John’s primary message was that the Apocalypse was at hand.


This type of preaching cannot be separated from the politics of the time because it was essentially a demand for the overturn of a corrupt establishment through supernatural means. For the Jewish people, God’s interference in their history was a major part of their identity, and many in this period expected divine intervention once again. 


John’s preaching presented a serious challenge to the central authority, and in the New Testament, he attacks the mainstream Judaism of both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.


John would eventually be arrested and executed by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. According to our secular source, Josephus, John’s arrest was primarily political; Herod was concerned that John might stir up a rebellion. According to the Bible, he also criticized Herod personally.


The New Testament claims that while Jesus was preaching in Perea, he is told that Herod Antipas was thinking of killing him as well.


This is hardly surprising as John had baptized Jesus and appears to have influenced his ministry. Jesus’ association with John strongly suggests an affinity with his apocalyptic radicalism.


Waiting For The Messiah

salome head john the baptist
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Andre Solario, ca. 1507-09, via the Met Museum, New York 


The trend towards apocalyptic prophets would continue long after Jesus’ death. 


The Essenes, who may have inspired John the Baptist and who shunned the Temple in Jerusalem, wrote their fair share of heavy apocalyptic literature.


Shortly after Jesus’ death, a man named Theudas would attract a cult following until it was violently put down by the Roman Procurator. Theudas had claimed to be able to part the waters of the River Jordan just like Moses.


Another preacher, known to history only as “the Egyptian,” gathered followers in the desert and appears to have claimed that the walls of Jerusalem would collapse when he and his followers surrounded it. When the Romans heard about his activities, they engaged his followers in a battle and killed them.


The historian Josephus tells us, in the lead up to the Jewish revolt of 66, there were many other men who claimed to be divinely inspired in the hopes of influencing the government.


Even after the destruction of the Jewish Temple, military leader Simon Bar Kokhba would lead another Jewish revolt against Rome and was hailed by his followers as the messiah.


Prophetic rebels were a constant in Jewish history, and they challenged the establishment in whatever shape or form it took at the time.


Jesus Christ, The Rebel

james tissot merchants chased from temple
The Merchants Chased from  the Temple by James Tissot, 1886-94, via the Brooklyn Museum 


Many Christians do not wish to see Jesus Christ in this context and believe him to be a world apart from contemporaries. In some ways, philosophically, he was. 


Nevertheless, he, too, prophesized the collapse of the Jewish Temple, and he would repeatedly make prophecies about the inevitable intervention of God in the earthly affairs of the Jews in the days to come.


Modern readers tend not to focus on these passages of the New Testament anymore, but it was central to Jesus’ message at the time; he would repeatedly spread the word that the Kingdom of God was at hand


It is hard to know how much trouble Jesus Christ intended to cause, but at least some of his statements seem quite inflammatory; for instance, speaking to his disciples, he says: 


Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. [Matthew 10:34]


jesus christ on cross
A Late Roman Depiction of Jesus on the Cross, ca. 420-30 AD, via the British Museum, London 


More cynical scholars see Jesus Christ as deliberately setting out to fulfill Jewish prophecies to get a reaction. For example, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was apparently foretold and fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah about the arrival of the king of kings.


Later in life, Jesus’ decision to walk into the temple of Jerusalem and throw the tables over and declare the Temple corrupt was an extremely potent act of rebellion. For the Temple, the seat of the high priest was not just the central religious authority, and it was the political center of the Jewish world. Like John before him, Jesus’ behavior was too radical for most. 


Even worse, it is apparent from the accounts in the New Testament that the authorities knew Jesus was believed to be the messiah by his followers. In one of the four gospels, he actually says he is when cross-examined. 


Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem looked like political sedition from every angle.


To the High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus Christ would have been yet another dangerous troublemaker, who may have political designs, and who was challenging the stability of the realm. Pontius Pilate would ultimately agree to crucify Jesus after the Jews insisted he was dangerous. 


Whatever Jesus’ true intentions, to his contemporaries, he did not seem like the peacemaker we see him as today. Ultimately Jesus’ behavior in the Temple had caused outrage and led to his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. To the people of first-century Judea, Jesus Christ was a rebel.

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By Alice BennettMSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient HistoryAlice has a BA in Ancient History and an MSt in Late Antique and Byzantine studies from the University of Oxford. She is a contributing writer and editor and is particularly passionate about the promotion and protection of historical and archaeological knowledge. In her spare time, she can be found wandering the woods or lurking around ancient monuments, taking photographs.