Book 1: What was the World of Jesus: A Journey for Curious Pilgrims.

Bloomington, Indiana: True Directions, 2014.

Available at and Barnes & Noble

1. A Journey 

 In What was the World of Jesus you will set out on a journey with me.  I will be your guide as we make our way back in time through the ancient world.  It will be a personal journey for as I began this study it sparked questions in my mind along the way which led me down various paths and side roads. The wisdom of other scholars, has aided me immeasurably on the way and have helped me understand this often strange and sometimes baffling world.

Our expedition into the past will familiarize you with the nature of the ancient Mediterranean world in general.  Our journey will take us through the Hellenistic world (that is, the Mediterranean world as it came under the influence of Greek culture) as it developed after Alexander’s conquest and then make our way slowly through Jewish history as it unwound through these tumultuous and traumatic times. We will become familiar with the Roman Empire as it developed before and up to the time of Jesus. Our journey will be full of details which are often left out of these excursions into this history.  I’ve done this because the secondary literature always presents only summaries and skips over the intervening details.  So I found myself asking what else is there and what is being left out?  That’s why I’ve included the details that the sources provide to give us a fulsome look into the dynamics of these people and their stories.

These times were indeed extraordinarily traumatic for Judaism and the Jewish people since all the great verities of faith were called into question.  How could this people and their unique monotheistic faith and their distinctive and exceptional way of life survive as it met the adversities in an often hostile and uncomprehending world?

2. Understanding Ancient Israel’s Politics

We start our journey by appreciating that there were three “models” of leadership and social and political organization the people had at their disposal which developed over the centuries of their existence beginning with Moses and culminating in the exile (that’s a period of almost 700 years!).  These models emerged from the circumstances in which the Israelites lived to meet the challenges to their corporate existence in the constantly shifting realities of life in the world. Without an understanding of these models and what I call “universes of meaning” it is not possible to fully grasp how the various renewal movements of the first century, including Jesus and his ministry, understood themselves and their interpretation of events and the will of God in their circumstances.

During the early settlement period the so-called “Judges” arose to meet the leadership needs of the people.  That proving inadequate to the Philistine threat, prophet and king provided the necessary resolution to the survival of the people.  After the destruction of the state and the exile, what I call, “the dependent hieratic state,” that is, a priestly government centered in the temple, emerged under Persian hegemony.

3. Universes of Meaning

But the people could not survive by political organization alone whatever it may be.  They required “universes of meaning.” A people need a vision and a way of understanding life’s meaning in the world and their place within it. Undergirding the life of the people in whatever circumstances they found themselves was the Torah, or law and instruction of God, and the wisdom tradition.  Later, in the face of the horror of persecution, a new way of looking at history arose producing a new genre of literature called “apocalyptic.”  This new outlook gave the people a way of grasping what God’s purposes were in a world that seemed to threaten the faith and the very possibility of Jewish survival.  These “universes of meaning” informed and shaped the models that in turn sculpted the shape and form of the national existence of God’s people in the world; it molded every endeavor to bring about the renewal of Jewish society in the Holy Land of the first century and Jesus’ own ministry and self-identity.

4. A Long Trek in Nine Excursions

Our journey then takes us on a long historical trek beginning with the Maccabean revolt in 166 B.C. and ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in 70 A.D.  Alexander’s conquest of the ancient near east sets the stage for this trek which brought about the Hellenization of the Mediterranean. One of his successors, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, quixotically pursued the extermination of Judaism in the Holy Land initiating the first religious persecution in world history!   You will read of the Maccabean exploits and the details of their heroically fought battles that liberated their nation and the practically miraculous establishment of the Maccabean state, its decline, and its ensuing melancholy demise orchestrated by the clever and ever resilient Herod the Great.

We’ll live in this ancient despot’s palace and become onlookers of all the intrigue and machinations that went on in his rather messy, chaotic household that led to the horrific decision to execute his wife and sons. You’ll encounter this client Roman king’s police state policies and his great building projects and trace his dynasty as it died away ruling eventually side by side with Roman procurators but lasting less than a century subsequent to his death. 

An imposing share of this history is devoted to the horrendous events of the Jewish War starting with Rome’s pacification of the Galilee and the woeful and terrible denouement of the war as Jerusalem is “surrounded on every side” (Luke 21:20) and devastated with “not one stone left on another” (Mark 13:2).

Model of the Temple Mount and the Temple in the first century A.D.

This history is utterly important for an understanding of the time of Jesus’ ministry.  The Gospels are rife with a bewildering array of references to various rulers, places and kingdoms: the “Herods,”  “Herodians,” Roman procurators; various political entities such as Samaria, Idumea, the Decapolis, and with Jewish territories and places such as the Galilee, Judea, Caesarea, Capernaum, and Jericho; foreign lands and cities such as Syria, Tyre, Sidon.  How do they all hang together?   As we continue, our tour will clarify questions such as these so that when you read the Gospels you will understand the history that has unfolded in various places, the relationship between various Herodian rulers and why they act the way they do. Most importantly you will be privy to the historical memory that lies in the background of not only the persons of that time but also shimmers constantly in the background of the Gospel stories themselves. Without awareness of this historical background which held the consciousness of every Jewish person in the first century you cannot deeply appreciate how a first century Jew understood those references and how fraught with meaning and emotion they were.

This historical journey will make clear the crisis into which Jewish society was cast. The Roman procurators aggravated the friction with Rome. They despised the Jews and deliberately violated Jewish sensibilities and provoked a sense of alienation. There was a widespread disquiet that incited a feeling among the people that though living in their own land they were in exile.

5. History on the Ground

Ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum. This village was the center from which Jesus pursued his ministry.


We’ve followed “history at the top,” that is, the story of the machinations of the elites and how they move and “make” history. Having set the historical stage in this way we take a deep dive into the concrete factors on the ground which produced the social unrest in Israel’s society of the first century and the responses to it. We learn the stories of the so-called “little people,” the everyday people, who live under the political systems and social realities that the elites create. These responses of the people you’ll discover take up the models that Jewish society had developed as acceptable ways for living its corporate life in the world. They were coordinated with the Jewish understanding of how life was to be lived coram Deo, “before the face of God.” They are arrayed against Roman oppression. They work and promise liberation and promise to establish an independent nation once again as in days of old.

Many scholars who analyze Jewish society from a social systems point of view refer to “social banditry” when they talk about the bandit groups that emerged around the time of Jesus. In a Jewish context, however, I discover them to be taking up the model of “judges” who provided political leadership in ancient Israel.  Secondly, prophets rise up from the heart of the people like the prophets of old who understand themselves to bring a “Word of the Lord” and his promised intervention to save the nation and restore to the people what they long for: a just society as the people of God.  Thirdly, there are the messiahs who, patterning themselves after the great royal messianic figure of David, bring together small armies who hope to liberate the nation as David did of old in his successful venture to free God’s people from Philistine tyranny.  Alongside of these are the Zealots and the so-called Sicarii (“dagger men”) who are no less motivated by the yearning for liberty but who do not explicitly embody one of these models but who draw their inspiration from zeal for the Torah and living life faithfully according to its precepts.

After visiting these revolutionary groups we’ll continue our exploration on the ground as to the religious groups.  One factor, to which I’ve already referred, was the new theology of “apocalyptic.” It constituted an important context that determined the general world view of the times. This powerful and compelling theology inspired every revolutionary group and the religious movements because they all, except for the Sadducees (the high priestly and noble elites), participated in that thought world in various degrees of intensity. 

We’ll be like newcomers to the land and insinuate ourselves into the membership of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes.  Each of these groups, like the explicitly revolutionary ones, had a program for the salvation of the nation.  The Pharisees, although they accepted the apocalyptic outlook of the ultimate intervention of God’s kingdom in history, a coming messiah, and the final resurrection, pointed their revolution in other directions.  They developed the written and oral Torah so that the people could observe the law in ever changing circumstances and make of the people an egalitarian “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” 

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the more or less rigid conservatives who had not accepted the growth in theology associated with the consolidation of the biblical canon beyond the Pentateuch nor the new apocalyptic theology. So they did not develop the law and legal precedents.  They were the accommodationists who fostered the maintenance of the status quo and maintaining good relations with Rome.

 The Essenes, whose literature exploded on the world in 1947 after their chance discovery in a cave near the Dead Sea (hence the expression the “Dead Sea Scrolls”), apparently consisted of both a monastic group living in community at Qumran and cells of married members living in the towns all over Judea.  They were thoroughly apocalyptic waiting for the right moment to strike when God was ready to inaugurate his ultimate reign.

6. Walking the Land

Now, the ground will literally engage our attention as we travel the land and discover the physical world of the Holy Land.  We’ll enter several towns in the Galilee and, of course, Jerusalem in Judea.  In these places we will engage in the life of the people, their homes and communities.  Then we’ll have a chance to observe how people interacted with one another as we enter their society and get to understand why they behave in the way they do as we discuss their social values and dynamics, their language, and one of their most important institutions, the synagogue.  As we approach the end of our journey, we do not want to ignore a group of people often forgotten because they were usually not given a voice and did not serve as political leaders or writers. I’m speaking here of women.  Here we will listen, observe and, while we’ll appreciate the contemporary opportunities available to both men and women, we will simultaneously understand the worth which was placed on the family and women in ancient Jewish society.



7. Walking the Empire

The Roman Empire in the first century.

We’ll then look once more out at the broader world.  We need to glance once more in that direction to appreciate the revolution in thought that Greece brought to the ancient near east, an environment in which Israel was intimately embedded.  Besides the abstract and scientific thinking that Greece introduced, it also struggled with the challenges of how the individual could find meaning and purpose in this complex world of the new Graeco-Roman reality.  Three philosophies had great appeal and won adherents: the Cynic, the Stoic, and the Epicurean.  We’ll enter those philosophical schools and briefly sit at the feet of their founders. 

Finally, we will enter the strange universe of ancient near eastern thought, a thought world that is pre-philosophical and pre-scientific.  This is the thought world that understood the universe in concrete, rather than abstract, terms, a thought world in which biblical thought and the thought world of the people of the Book were embedded.

8. In Conclusion

That will bring our journey to a conclusion.  But it really is only the beginning. The volumes which follow will place Jesus within the context of the world we have visited and imagined so that what he said and did will be illumined by the real world in which he lived and moved.  We will encounter Jesus as his contemporaries did.

I know you’ll enjoy the journey that lies before you when you take up this book in your own hand. It will open your eyes to a deeper understanding of Jesus and his world.

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