The Political Context of Jesus

I’ve now wrapped up my broad overview of social justice themes in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. To start to delve into themes in the New Testament, let’s take a look at Jesus’ political context which isn’t all given to us directly in the biblical texts simply because it was assumed by the writers. If we aren’t aware of it, however, we will end up missing a lot of the radical social statements that Jesus made.

Here’s a quick recap of Israelite/Judean political history in the Old Testament, some of which we’ve touched on already:

  • God calls Abraham, telling him he’ll be the father of a great nation owning really good land
  • Two generations later, that nation has already given up the land to move to Egypt
  • An untold number of years later, that nation is completely in slavery to Egypt
  • God frees them from slavery
  • The time of the Judges saw various leaders step up as God called them, but the people kept returning to doing “what seemed right in their own eyes”
  • The people call for a King, thinking it will be better, but after the golden years of Saul, David, and Solomon – years that still had plenty of social issues – the nation splits in two and never recovers (approx. 11th-9th Centuries BCE)
  • Each nation is conquered by other Empires, first the 10 tribes of Israel conquered by Assyria and scattered (722 BCE) and then the 2 tribes of Judah to Babylon who sent them into exile (587 BCE)
  • After Persia conquered Babylon (539 BCE), they let some Israelites return home to rebuild, but they were still a vassal state ultimately under Empire control

That’s basically where we left off in the Old Testament story. The majority of the books in the Protestant and Jewish canons end not too long after this, with the biggest exception being the second half of the book of Daniel that is usually thought to have been written under Greek rule (see timeline below).

In some of the books included in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox canons as well as in other sources for the time period, we know that the timeline continued like this:

  • Alexander the Great spread his Greek Empire by conquering the Persians (333 BCE), which included Israel
  • When Alexander died, the Empire was split into 3 pieces, with 2 fighting over control of Israel. Ptolemy was originally assigned it, but Seleucus also wanted it. Ptolemy took control in 320 BCE after several military campaigns.
  • In 198 BCE, Antiochus III (Seleucid dynasty) defeated Ptolemy V and took control. Antiochus III was welcomed and generally left Jewish religion alone.
  • Antiochus IV (175-162 BCE) did not follow in the same footsteps, attempting to force Greek religion instead. Along with raiding Temple gold, in 167 he sacrificed a pig – considered a unholy animal in Judaism – on the Temple altar, which is referred to in Daniel as the “abomination of desolation.”
  • The Jews then violently revolted, led by the family known as the Hasmoneans (descendants of the priest Hashmon) or later named the Maccabeeans (translating to something like “the hammer”) because of their guerrila warfare tactics.
  • They ruled briefly until Antiochius VII put the city under seige and forced a surrender, but then they regained independence after Antiochus was killed.
  • The Hasmonean dynasty became corrupt, causing some infighting between Jews.
  • Pompey claimed the region for Rome after a 3 month siege. Rome remained in control until they demolished most of the area in response to revolt in 66-73 CE, a catastrophic event often foreshadowed or looked back on in New Testament texts.
  • They would not have their own nation again until after World War II.

Let’s summarize that this way: approximately 1300-2000 years after God promised a great nation on that land, they hadn’t even lived there for a large portion of it, they didn’t have independence for the majority of it, and most of the time they did have independence their leaders were just as corrupt and unjust as the foreign empires.

The political context of Jesus, then, is understandably one with a lot of tension. They’re tired of being under the boot of others more powerful. They were mostly allowed to practice their own religion, but Rome ultimately held the power over taxes and over life and death of every Jewish person along with laws like a soldier being allowed to force anybody to carry his gear for 1 mile.

On top of the general frustration, they had the promises from God that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were ready for God to establish his Kingdom in Israel, assuming that this Kingdom is like every earthly Kingdom. For example, this would mean payback time – no longer would they be the ones under constant violence as they could exert their control instead. The Messiah (or Christ) was to be some combination of military conqueror who also restored the religious system. This still tends to be the default way of thinking today: keep the same framework for how to govern and live, just put better people in charge, typically with the assumption that the better people are the ones who are like us.

What nobody really expected was for God as Jesus to show up teaching and modelling something completely different. This Kingdom not only flipped the Roman concept of Empire on its head, it did the same with many Jewish concepts. As we delve into the texts of the Gospels and then the epistles, we’ll see some of just how radical this was and even still is today.

If you want to read more about the history above, here’s one more pretty comprehensive look: http://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/history-israel

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.