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Understanding the Gospels: Part 2

This is my second installment to my “Understanding the Gospels” series of posts. I have not written in over a month, so  just in case you missed the original post or forgot what was covered you can find it here. This post focuses on the historical backdrop of the New Testament. There were a number of events that shaped the people of Israel leading up to the New Testament. Those events had an affect on the religious, political, economic, and spiritual climate of the day. Understanding the climate of the New Testament illuminates the potency of some of Jesus’ teachings and interactions in the gospels. 

Historical Background

During the time of Jesus, hopes for a Messiah were high. Israel had once again come under the rule of a foreign nation. The Jewish people were under the rule of the Roman Empire. Contrary to most conquered peoples, the Jewish people refused to adopt the Greco-Roman Culture. Most conquered nations did not have a problem with Hellenization (imposed Greek Culture) but for the Jew, it was a bitter reminder of a time prior to the Roman Empire when the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to force Greek culture upon the Jewish people.

Over three centuries before Jesus’ birth, most of the known world had come under the rule of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s untimely death, his empire was up for grabs and fought over by four of his generals. Two dynasties prevailed in the aftermath: the Ptolemaic Dynasty which ruled from 311 – 398 BC and the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled from 198 – 164 BC. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Seleucid King who ruled over Palestine from 175 -163 BC.

In an effort to homogenize his kingdom and with absolute disdain for the Jewish culture, he outlawed circumcision, Sabbath observance, Jewish festivals, and Jewish temple rituals. The ultimate disgrace came after Antiochus invaded the Most Holy Place of the temple and sacrificed an unclean pig to the Greek god, Zeus (December 167 BC). This act pushed the Jewish people over the edge, and the Maccabean revolt ensued. “On the twenty-fifth of December, 164 BC, three years to the day from Antiochus’s desecration of the temple, Judah Maccabee rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna’ and the waiving of palm branches. He cleansed the temple, removing from it the images of Greek gods, the foreign altars, and the other despised trappings of pagan worship, and rededicated the whole of the temple to the Lord.”[1] For almost a century, the Jewish people held off the Greek armies and established their independence. During this time, the forerunners to the Pharisees focused on preserving the Law and their religious traditions.[2]

In 63 BC, Pompey the Great expanded the Roman Empire to Palestine. Now, under the Roman Empire, the Jewish people were ruled by client kings and governors who were ultimately subject to Rome. Against Rome’s desired outcome, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion, but they were under strict watch. There was peace in Palestine, but it was a very fragile peace. Any sign of an uprising could result in the invasion of Roman Legions and the sure massacre of those intending to rebel. By the time of Jesus, racial hatred and Messianic anticipation was high. There were also a number of social, political, and religious groups that had evolved by the time of Jesus: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

Pharisees: The Pharisees believed in the written Law and the oral tradition of the Law. They desired to extend Temple worship into all aspects of life. The Pharisees felt that their laxity in Torah observance and disobedience brought on the exile. Likewise, the Pharisees believed that strict and faithful Torah observance would elicit God’s response and usher in the Messiah. They believed in life after death, angels, demons, and resurrection of the dead.

Essenes: The Essenes were a group of extreme ascetics who removed themselves from public life altogether. They set up communal life near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea at Qumran. They devoted themselves to purity and to the study and preservation of the Scriptures. Most of what we know about them comes as a result of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Based on the New Testaments description of John the Baptist, some have speculated that John may have been and Essene.

Zealots: On the other extreme were the Zealots. They were political activists who favored armed revolt against Rome. Some extreme groups of Zealots participated in political acts of terrorism against Rome. They were called “Zealots” because they believed they were “zealous” for God’s Law and for social justice and national liberation. People of the day would have noted that among Jesus’ disciples was Simon the “Zealot.”

Sadducees: The Sadducees were an aristocratic group belonging to the priestly line, who would have also been known for collaborating with the Romans. “Because they depended on the favor of the Romans to get and to keep their influential position sin society…the Sadducees certainly did not have the revolutionary spirit of the Pharisees and Essenes…Their own power had been established precisely because they collaborated with the romans, and so they had every reason to maintain the status quo,”[3] They rejected the rabbinic traditions and any religious ideas not found in the Torah, which included concepts such as resurrection, angels, demons, future reward, and apocalyptic thought.


Philip Yancy (1995), in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, concludes that if he lived in first century Palestine he would have likely belonged to the sect of the Pharisees. He writes, “Radicals like the Essenes and Zealots would have made me nervous; the Sadducees I would have scorned as opportunists. Thus as a sympathizer of the Pharisees, I would have stood on the edge of Jesus’ audience, watching him deal with the burning issues of the day.” He writes a question that really struck me, “Would Jesus have won me over?”[4] So, I want to challenge you to ask yourself: If Jesus were to invade our culture and our time in history, would we, his people, recognize him or even accept him as the Messiah? Or like the Pharisees and many other Jewish people of the day, would we be cautious and even skeptical of this Jesus guy?


  1. How would you feel if your home country was occupied and ruled by foreign invaders who were hostile to your religious beliefs?

  2. What kind of climate would that create in our culture among people of the Christian faith?

  3. Which group do you think you would have gravitated towards: Essenes, Zealots, Pharisees, or Sadducees?

  4. How might understanding the background of these groups shape your understanding of the gospels?

[1] Bartholomew, C. G. & Goheen, M. W. (2004. The Drama of Scripture. Baker Academic. (p. 127)

[2] Bartholomew, C. G. & Goheen, M. W. (2004. The Drama of Scripture. Baker Academic. (p. 127-129)

[3] Bartholomew, C. G. & Goheen, M. W. (2004. The Drama of Scripture. Baker Academic. (p. 133)

[4] Yancey, P. (). The Jesus I Never Knew. Zondervan (p. 64)


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