In the following I will briefly describe the parameters of the crisis within the land in Jesus’ time and the competing movements that reacted to it adding to the turmoil which vexed Jewish society. That crisis involved the Roman occupation and the negative attitudes and actions that it triggered.

The crisis was focused on and brought about by the mismanagement and feckless Roman rule. The procurators, who governed Judea from 6 B.C. to 37 A.D. and the whole land from 41 A.D. to the beginning of the war in 66 A.D., had little understanding or appreciation of Jewish sensitivities. The procurators held their subjects in contempt. It is little wonder then that the “Fourth Philosophy” developed that interpreted Roman rule as illegitimate and a usurpation of God’s royal rule of the nation. This “philosophy” infected the whole country and created the vexatious atmosphere that agitated the whole of the people. The vacillation between Roman rule and Jewish kings prevented the development of a strong center of authority which could elicit the loyalty of the nation. During this time the country was rife with competing ideologies and movements that sought liberation from the hated Roman occupation and the crisis which it engendered which I will now briefly describe.

There were “bandits,” those Robin Hoods of the first century, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor adding to their proliferation. However, they had a political ideology based on the ancient Israelite political structure of the tribal confederation which was highlighted by egalitarianism, free association, social justice and the understanding that Israel was a theocracy whose king was God. In this initial “ideal” form of Israel’s polity so-called “judges” formed the political leadership. They rose to these positions by what was conceived as a God-given “charism” and functioned only so long as whatever crisis Israel faced was allayed. Thus these so-called “bandits” would be better characterized as “judges.” They were advocating for and endeavoring to return Israel to that ancient form of tribal confederation polity in which was embedded the promise of a divine redemption from Israel’s enemies by means of armed resistance. So they rejected kingship, any kind of hierarchy, and the secularism represented by Hellenization.

Competing with them were the prophetic movements that also arose during this time. They embodied the ancient liberations of Israel in symbolic forms and promised by divine intervention God’s that would remove Rome and inaugurate the reign of justice and righteousness. Since prophetism of old was related to the rise of kingship so also at this time there were a number of messianic movements, that is, those who claimed to be Israel’s king and who, by the pursuit of military action and gathering an army would launch a Holy War against Rome that promised God’s victory once again over the pagan forces of the world. David was the historical archetype which these movements tried to recapitulate.

On the other side of these activist movements were the Pharisees and Essences. The former were artisans and tradesmen who involved themselves with the deep study of Torah and who added to the written Torah the oral Torah, that is, the practices, customs, and traditions of the people. For them both were absolutely authoritative. Because of this they were very popular among the people who regarded them as ideals of a faithful Jew. They sought to interpret the law in such ways that its prescriptions could be obeyed in whatever new circumstances in which Israel found itself. They put “a fence” around Torah, that is, they expanded its application so that by observing the fence one could be absolutely certain they were not breaking the commandment. So Israel’s redemption could be achieved by being faithful to Torah.

The Pharisees and their successor the Rabbis were emphasizing the way to salvation for Israel was to live out their election as God’s people by being faithful to the covenant which was given to them by God by his love for them. They sought the renewal of the individual and the nation. They were the liberals of the time because they accepted the developments of theology which had taken place in Judaism including the concepts of resurrection, judgment, and the eschatological renewal, a new heaven and a new earth. This meant, of course, that they were advocating for Israel’s exclusive concentration on its traditions, customs, mores, and conventions. That focus was meant to keep Israel faithful to God by the careful observance of Torah which was Israel’s side of the covenant. They were called to be God’s people so they must then live as God’s people.

However, the “Fourth Philosophy,” so-called by Josephus, seems to have also infected the Pharisees. Judas, a revolutionary, teamed up with a Pharisee by the name of Sadduc. This Pharisee no doubt provided a legitimating legal support for the idea that this revolutionary propounded that paying taxes to Rome was tantamount to idolatry because it, in effect, was recognizing Caesar’s claim to divinity. Josephus indicates that this doctrine contaminated the whole nation and even led its adherents to attack their fellow Jews who disagreed with them. It added significantly to the unrest and disruption of the society and contributed to initiating the war with Rome which brought total disaster to the nation. This whole “philosophy” flew in the face of Israel’s life under the Persian Empire from 539 B.C. to Alexander’s conquest. In those three hundred years Israel lived peaceably and comfortably within the empire. In fact, the time was so tranquil that Israel allowed the influence of Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, on Judaism. This occurred because both faiths were monotheistic. Contributing to this overwhelming impression of serenity is the fact that little was written during those years. In fact, the first Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, who allowed the return of deported peoples to their homelands and the rebuilding of their temples and the respect he showed for their religions was regarded by Israel with such reverence that he is named the LORD’s messiah.

The Essenes’ answer to the crisis in Israel was to withdraw apart from society and live in the wilderness next to the Dead Sea at Qumran and live strictly by the Torah.[viii] They were a true sect, that is, they thought of themselves as the true Israel and all others, gentiles and the Jews who had not joined them were the “sons of darkness” and would have no part in the coming age with them who were the “sons of light.” They regarded the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem as illegitimate, totally rejecting their leadership and judged that their conduct of the Temple worship was completely unfaithful and under judgment. There in the wilderness they practiced communalism, self-sufficiency, and egalitarianism. However, the priests among them were their leaders. All members lived in priestly purity as Torah prescribed. They expected the coming of two messiahs, one priestly and one royal and celebrated meals of bread and wine with empty places reserved for these coming ones. They believed that there would be a great eschatological battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness” but the assured victory would go to the former.

There were also Essenes living in the towns who were not celibate but who practiced the ideals of the Qumran community within everyday society.

The ruling class in the land of Israel in the first century consisted of the Herodian kings (Herod Antipas in the Galilee from 6 A.D. to 37 A.D. and the brief reign of Herod Agrippa over both Judea and the Galilee from 37 A.D. to 41 A.D.) and the Sadducees. The latter consisted of the high priestly class, the nobles, and the aristocratic landowners along with the retainer class of these elites. They lived off the work of the peasants for whom they had little concern. They were basically alienated from the difficult life lived by the peasants. They were the conservatives both theologically and politically. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as Scripture interpreting it literally and with no development of case law. They also rejected the theological developments regarding the after-life, resurrection, and eschatology. They were, by necessity, dedicated to maintaining the status quo, peace, pacification, and, of course, maintaining their power and the delicate political balance with the Roman overlord. The kings gave pragmatic respect to the Torah but, outside their realms, cultivated Hellenism.

This is the setting into which Jesus was cast when he began and conducted his kingdom ministry.