The World of Jesus
We are going to start with Jesus as a young man of age 30 as he stepped into the public side of his life. Prior to this time, he had grown up in a small town and trained as an apprentice to his father in the family construction business. He grew up doing hard manual labor.
There is much background information about Jesus’ birth recorded by two writers in the New Testament: Matthew (one of Jesus’ earliest followers) and Luke (a physician turned follower of Jesus and later a historian writing about Jesus’ life and the early church). We will leave that information for another time and focus on Jesus as an adult.
I think it is helpful to understand Jesus’ world and the circumstances he was facing as a young Jewish man. While Jesus grew up in a Jewish family and culture, it was certainly a world dominated by the great Roman Empire. The Jewish nation like many other nations around the Mediterranean world had been assimilated into the Roman Empire—usually by force. They were accustomed to hearing the Roman messages of “Caesar is Lord” (their primary religious belief) and “the Good News of Rome” (what we would think of today as a political slogan.) They were forced to submit to a Roman governor exercising authority by military force and pay taxes to support that authority.
In Jesus’ time, Tiberius Caesar was the Roman emperor. Rome had changed from being a republic to being led by Caesar. But practically, it was an exceptionally large governing machine that extended around the world.
The Jewish people were led by several religious factions—all with different motives. The Pharisee sect was profoundly serious about their faith. They probably would remind of us religious conservatives today. The Sadducees were men of significant influence and power. These two were often at odds with each other—particularly when discussing certain religious ideas. And then there were the Zealots who were radical in their commitment to rid their country of the Roman Empire; today we would probably think of them as terrorists.
For the average person in Jesus’ world, life was a challenge. There was much poverty and very little government help in solving the problems poverty created for their society. If you had work, it was usually very hard work with no protection from the hardships that inevitably come in life. There was no welfare system, no social security, no food stamps, etc. There were a few rich people, but they were very small in number.
The political systems were ruthless whether we are talking about Rome or Galilee. Many rulers came to power by killing their predecessor and maintained power by spilling the blood of anyone perceived to be a rival–even their own family! Taxes sucked the life blood out of so many people. It was bad enough to pay a foreign army to control you, but, to add insult to injury, the taxes were often extracted by their own countrymen who used the occasion to pad their own pockets. Tax collectors were thought of as being as vile as the prostitutes and were viewed as being the very worst of sinners.
There was no such thing as individual rights and freedoms. Slavery was a normal part of life–both forced and indentured. In many cases a woman was considered just one of a man’s many possessions.
Over the previous 400 years, there had been several Jewish rebellions arise to Rome’s rule. They were all quickly and brutally dispatched. Even as the Jews retreated to the Scriptures to find hope for someone to deliver them from Rome, they had to face the apparent reality that no one was coming to save them despite the apparent promises of God.
From Jesus’ Plan For A New World by Richard Rohr:
“And remember, from the beginning Jesus proclaimed this Kingdom–the Real–in a world where 98 percent of the people were poor. They were all except for the Romans and occupied people. The vast majority of them were enslaved. Religion was highly corrupt.”
This is the world that Jesus entered into as a young man of 30.