Christ in the World: The Social and Political Aspects of the Life and Death of Jesus of Nazareth
Just as with every great figure in history, it is easy to view the events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life in a vacuum – a series of actions and events with little more purpose than to drive the protagonist’s arc. But by considering the political and social realities of his time, we can better understand Jesus’ life and death. In the same way, studying Jesus of Nazareth’s life and death grant us a singular picture of how the political machinations of emperors, kings, and governors can shape or even be shaped by the most unlikely of men.
He was named Yeshu’a (Joshua - “The help of Yahweh”), which through the Greek and Latin comes to us as Iesus – Jesus – perhaps to distinguish him from others of the same name (Yeshu’a was a common name among Jews)1 Though given a common name and born into the family of a carpenter, the one we call Jesus would soon change the course of history.
Jesus and Herod the Great
Although the exact date is a subject of some debate, Jesus of Nazareth was likely born sometime between the years of 8-4 B.C. in Bethlehem (about seven miles south of Jerusalem) while Herod I was still king over Judea*.
Herod I was a cunning politician. He craftily navigated the great Roman civil war between Marc Antony and Octavius (the future Augustus Caesar) and managed to procure an appointment as King of Judea in B.C. 37. This was a difficult post; the king of Judea was both subject to the Roman Emperor while obligated to serve the interests of his Jewish subjects. Palestine at the turn of the millennium was still alive with a desire for political and religious revival. Jewish faith was unified by an expectant anticipation of Israel’s restoration and liberation from its oppressors under a promised “messiah3” and both the secular and religious Jew remembered the not-so-distant Maccabean revolt which had given them a taste of that liberation they craved. Governing such a region required making concessions to a people who detested Roman rule while always maintaining the good will of the highest Roman authority. As if this were not challenge enough, Herod I had another important concern – his own lineage.
Herod I was not a native to Judea, a land defined by its inhabitants’ lineage as descendants of Abraham. This would have made his right to reign over the Jews questionable from the start in the eyes of his subjects, and it greatly affected him. He responded to even the merest perceived threat with ruthless brutality, ordering the execution of potential rivals in the fading Hasmonean line and even putting several of his own sons to death. The great irony of Herod’s life is that, as a whole, he was a very able ruler and served his subjects well, even earning the title “Herod the Great” for posterity, but as Herod aged, his insecurities only worsened.
Insecure about his right to rule, and steadily deteriorating into deepening paranoia, Herod was greatly troubled when he learned that some had begun calling a child among his subjects the “King of the Jews.” In an attempt to protect himself against this perceived threat, he ordered the death of every male child in Bethlehem two years and younger**. Jesus’ family was forced to flee to Egypt where they remained until sometime after Herod’s death in 4B.C. at which time they returned. They chose to live in the town of Nazareth2 in Galilee under the authority of Herod Antipas instead of Archelaus who became tetrarch over Judea, Samaris, and Idumea after Herod the Great’s death.
Of Jews and Romans
It is easy to understand why Jesus’ family was afraid to remain under Archelaus2a. As Herod the Great’s principle heir, doubtless they feared Archelaus might follow his father’s policy of political executions, but there were likely other reasons as well. Archelaus lacked the ability to balance policies between Jewish subjects and Roman overlords possessed by his father. (Who himself was forced to suppress an uprising when he placed a Roman eagle in the entrance of the Temple of Jerusalem). When Jesus was a child, an uprising occurred against Archelaus, instigated by a faction of Jews who militantly opposed Roman rule – the Zealots. This uprising was apparently not contained to Archelaus’ territory, as when Roman forces were called in, they destroyed a city in Galilee (Antipas’ territory) not far from Nazareth and executed two thousand Jews by crucifixion3. Archelaus’ troubles only worsened, as did his reputation, and a joint petition of Jews and Samaritans procured his deposition in 6A.D4a whereon he was exiled. This combination of brutal suppression and political appeasement would characterize the relationship of Roman authorities with their oft-rebellious Jewish subjects and would later feature heavily in Governor Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed in order to appease the furious Jewish leadership.
Jesus and John the Baptist
Pontius Pilate was appointed Procurator over Judea in 26A.D. and held that position until A.D. 364b. Both Jesus and John the Baptist began their respective ministries shortly after Pilate’s appointment c. 28 A.D.. The writer of Luke’s gospel places John’s calling in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign and Jesus’ when he was “about 30”5. (Additionally, John’s gospel indicates Jesus’ ministry beginning around the 46th year of the Jerusalem Temple’s improvement, which began in 19B.C.) John the Baptist’s ministry was cut very short when he was executed by order of Herod Antipas. Despite the brevity of his ministry, John the Baptist was well respected among Herod’s Jewish subjects and the decision to have him executed drew a great deal of condemnation4c. It was perhaps this very criticism that drove Herod to hand Jesus back over to Pilate upon the latter’s arrest rather than dealing with the matter himself.
After John was arrested, Jesus’ ministry began in earnest, starting in the more remote regions and steadily growing in scope and influence. John’s ministry had indeed prepared the way for Jesus. Some of Johns’ disciples and many who admired him found a new and better hope in Jesus of Nazareth and were among the first and closest of his supporters. Others even went so far as to claim Jesus was John himself returned from the dead after his execution!
The Jewish Sects
Judean Jews in the first century were divided into a number of sects, most notably the Zealots, who we have addressed earlier, the Essenes, a group of ascetics who withdrew from the world in monastic fashion (John the Baptist was similar though distinct from this sect), the Sadducees, and the Pharisees.
The Sadducees were chiefly drawn from among the Jewish aristocracy and were favored by the Romans for their pragmatic cooperation with authorities. They were religiously more skeptical, and considered such concepts as a future resurrection and life after death to be human innovations. The Pharisees on the other hand embraced the resurrection and the afterlife. They were the sect of the common man, and endeavored to apply their Jewish faith to every aspect of life in a world assailed by foreign influences. Although Jesus at times broke bread with the rich and powerful of Jewish society, he lived and ministered most often among the common man, the poor, and downtrodden. Among the common people, the group he most often encountered, and therefore was most challenged by, was the Pharisees. Because of this, the four gospels leave us with an unintentional impression that Jesus was more harshly disposed toward the Pharisees than any other group. Indeed, the term Pharisee has become synonymous with legalism. Just as this condemnation may be in many ways (at least for a portion of the Pharisees), it should be noted that Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees than the Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots. If he had hobnobbed with the rich rather than the poor, perhaps we would feel more inclined to despise the Sadducees.3
Furthering this point, it was not the Pharisees alone who orchestrated Jesus’ arrest and death, but rather the Pharisees with the necessary aid of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the temple class, the ruling elite, and when it came time to arrest Jesus, it was the temple guards, under the authority of the chief priests – Sadducees – who carried out the orders. The Sadducees certainly had their religious motivations for condemning Jesus, just as the Pharisees did, but there was another factor involved. The Sadducees, much like the Herodian ethnarcs (LINK – learn more about the Herodian line), held their power only at the will of the Roman authorities. When it became clear to them that this upstart, Jesus of Nazareth, was beginning to stir up the lower classes and cause a furor in an already dangerously unstable region, they decided it was better to have this man removed than to see the whole nation embroiled in another bloody and futile war like the one that ended so terribly in the early years of Jesus’ life. As John recounted in his gospel, the representatives of the Pharisees gathered along with Sadducees (the chief priests and the high priest) and agreed “It is better…that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”6
Jesus was executed perhaps around 30 A.D.1, though the exact length of Jesus’ ministry remains debatable and some will place the date of Christ’s death as late as 33/34 A.D.. Even (or perhaps especially) in his last hours we see the politics of the day at play.
Having been arrested, Jesus was brought first to Annas, who was called the high priest, though this position was officially held by the Roman-appointed Caiaphas. Only after bringing him to their own Jewish-recognized high priest did the Jews then take Jesus to Caiaphas. From Caiaphas Jesus was brought to Pilate, the Roman authority, who in turn sent him to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch. As noted before, Herod returned Jesus to Pilate without passing any sentence, perhaps in order to avoid suffering the same criticism cause by the execution of John the Baptist. Pilate remained reluctant to have Jesus of Nazareth executed but he feared a revolt from those Jews opposed to Jesus more than Jesus’ supporters. Finally he acquiesced and Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion – a punishment which itself reveals the political nature of the sentence, as crucifixion was usually reserved for political dissidents1. The sentence was carried out quickly, leaving no time for dissent, and although the authorities allowed followers of Jesus to bury him properly as they saw fit, guards were posted at the tomb to see to it that the matter remained forever closed.
The Pharisees, the Sadducees, Herod Antipas, and Pilate all surely hoped crucifying Jesus would end the political nightmare this man had stirred, but as we see in the words of Tacitus:
“Christ…was executed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Stopped for a moment, this evil superstition reappeared, not only in Judea, where was the root of the evil, but also in Rome, where all things sordid and abominable from every corner of the world come together.”7
* The commonly accepted date for Herod's death is 4/3 B.C., though an alternative date has been argued as B.C. 2/1. - Once again we see that we are only as certain about our history as we are credulous.
** Many skeptics regard this “murder of the innocents” as a Christian fabrication. Josephus records an event at the end of Herod’s life in which he ordered prominent men of his kingdom to be rounded up and held until his death at which point they were all to be executed in order to insure that all of his subjects mourned when their king died. Although the executions were never carried out, it grants some further insight into the state of Herod’s mind. Combining this with his liberal use of execution for any he perceived as a potential threat, including his wife and two of his sons, we must acknowledge that, heinous as the murder of the innocents was, it was not out of character at this point in time. – cited from Eusebius, p 58-59
1. Durant, Caesar and Christ, 553-574
2. The Gospel According to Matthew, chapters 1-2
The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 2
3. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, p. 16-17
4. Josephus, cited from Eusebius, The History of The Church, Williamson translation
5. The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 3 (1-3, 23)
6. The Gospel According to John, chapter 11 (45-53), (somewhat paraphrased)
7. Tacitus, sighted from Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, p. 45