Passion Week – The Intractable Conflicts that Sent Jesus to Calvary

Political tension, jealously, misunderstanding, fear, laziness, and all of the natural human sins and frailties led Jesus to Calvary. 

Jerusalem in the 1st century AD was an uneasy place.  A thin veneer of calm covered a seething cauldron of oppression, resistance, hatred, racial and religious conflict, and murder.  Palestine, known to all conquerors since antiquity as a hot bed of revolution, had by 30 AD been under Roman domination for nearly 100 years since Pompey conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in 63 BC.

The political arrangement was simple.  The Roman conquerors wanted peace and taxes, the first to limit the expense in blood and treasure of holding Palestine, and the second to get as much as possible out of the province to finance their Imperial tastes and adventures.  Lacking a natural port like Greece, resources like Asia Minor, or major wheat harvests like Egypt, Palestine had little to offer their conquerors except for being an eastern outpost against the Parthians and a land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa.  Many troops and lots of money were necessary to hold the land, so the Romans wanted the Jews to be quiet.

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Jesus’ Birth, Childhood, and Family Tree

What was Jesus’ background? Did God the Father arrange the Old Testament to prepare the way for Jesus as the Messiah? 

It is interesting that the one part of Jesus’ life that is most recognized in mainstream American society is His birth.  We celebrate Christmas, and despite the concerted and oftentimes angry effort to take Him out of Christmas, He remains an important part, even for many who may not believe much else about Him.  Both Matthew and Luke provide valid historical accounts.

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The Synoptic “Problem”

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three, and they are similar to each other. Is that a problem?

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways. They cover much of the same material, have the same general historical arrangement, and use many of the same words. Bible scholar JJ Griesbach named these gospels “synoptic” because they seem to “see together”. However, there are notable differences between these gospels. The presence of such striking similarities and curious differences causes Christians to ask “how can this be” and “where did these gospels come from”? This is the Synoptic Problem.

There are many possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. First, it is possible that the Synoptics were all drawn from one source, possibly an original in Hebrew or Aramaic. This is a little hard to believe, though. If one gospel existed already, why write more, changing some of the material in the process? Who wrote it, and what was their relationship to Jesus? Why would such a source not be mentioned anywhere in Early Christian literature?

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Proselytes, God-fearers, and Relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Bible

Relations between Jews and Gentiles have been problematic for most of the history of the Jewish people.  Abraham seems to have been humble about his special relationship with God, and Isaac and Jacob as well.  They all seem to have integrated well into the world around them, while staying faithful to YHWH.  The Patriarchs, while flawed, knew the Lord, and were honored for it.

Slavery in Egypt was a defining period in the Jewish nation, and they understandably hated the Gentile Egyptians.  The Passover highlighted the distinctiveness of the Hebrews as God’s people, and on Mt. Sinai the tribes received the Law which separated them in many ways from those around.  Psychologically, such distinctiveness sometimes leads to short term feelings of inferiority and long term feelings of superiority.

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The Messiah, Who Did the Jews Expect Him to Be?

The Messiah was supposed to deliver Israel from all oppressors and lead them into a new golden age. A rabbi from Galilee was not what they had in mind. 

“Messiah”, “Anointed One” and “Christ” are some of the most common names used by Christians (“Christ followers”).  We understand that Jesus (the) Christ is the anointed Son of God, Creator, and Lord of the Universe who came to earth once to suffer, die and be raised again to save us from our sins.  One day He will come again to establish His perfect kingdom in the Universe.  We see Him as a suffering servant, and a conquering hero.  Given the full text of the Bible and our knowledge of what Jesus actually did, this is entirely reasonable.  But the picture of the Messiah was far different to Jews in the first century.

Like America in 2011, Palestine in the first century AD was a diverse place, with Jews, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Africans, and a host of others.  Religions were aplenty, especially in Galilee, Samaria and Perea, and political intrigue and violence was the norm.  Many Jews longed for a return to the glorious days of King David, when Israel was the greatest power in the Near East.  They also chafed under Roman domination, oppressive taxes, and the rule of an outsider, Herod.  Spiritually, the Jews had been bereft of the prophetic voice of God for 400 years, and they hoped for another prophet to show the way.

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The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

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Daily Life in First Century Israel and the Roman Empire

One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible as a 21st century American Christian is the vast chasm of language, culture, and geography that separates us from people of the Bible times.  Even considering only first century Palestine, the differences are enormous.  Nonetheless, the better we understand them, the better we will understand Him, and so studying daily life in that era is vital.

New Testament Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society.  Lacking good ports, it could not be a maritime power and benefit from high levels of seaborne trade, but being on the Europe-Asia-Africa land bridge, Israel did benefit from overland trade.   Lacking natural resources such as iron, gold and precious stones, it could not make large amounts in exports.  So the average Jew was a farmer, holding a small plot of land and obeying the timeless rhythms of the seasons and the weather for his daily life.  The early Jew rose before the sun, dressed in a simple woolen or linen tunic and leather sandals, and tilled the fields for several hours before returning home for his morning meal of vegetables and bread.   His home was no more than a few rooms, with walls of stone and mud and a roof of beams/branches and mud.  After eating he returned to the fields, using hand tools and perhaps an ox.  Occasionally he went to market to buy the items needed for his farm and family.  After his toil, the New Testament Jew would return home to his wife and children for an evening meal, a little teaching of the Scriptures and perhaps singing and dancing, and an early bedtime.  The man’s neighbors in the same village, or perhaps even sharing the same courtyard, had similar schedules.  Taxes were exorbitant, up to 50% of a farmer’s salary, and the cause of financial destitution in many and brigandry in some.

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