It is interesting that these tenuous times was when God decided to fulfill his promise to Adam and Eve (Gn 3:15). There was always potential war between Rome and Parthia. If war had broken out, then Jesus would not have been able to accomplish what he did. Also there was much tension between Rome and the Jews in Judaea. The prefect in Jerusalem had to be on high alert during Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) as there was a large influx of Jews during these feast times. This was a time when Jewish Zealots would often try to instigate the crowds against Rome. Then there was the clash between the Greek/Roman and Jewish cultures which were like mixing oil and water – they did not mix well. The Jewish culture was very conservative, modest and would display no images as that was considered against the Law of Moses (Lv 26:1). However, the Roman and Greek cultures had no issues with public displays of nudity at athletic events and believed their gods wanted public displays of images to show their devotion. Therefore, the Romans had a very tough time keeping peace and order in such an environment.
By New Testament times, there were congregated Jews not only in Judaea but also in Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome and other prominent cities throughout the Roman Empire. Their religion was protected by Roman law but they usually formed tight-knit groups because they did not blend in well with the surrounding cultures. Also, because an orthodox Jew could only travel certain distances on the Sabbath, they had to be close to their synagogue which almost invariably created “Jewish Quarters” in whatever city they lived. Many of the synagogues were treated as colleges in order to get around the Roman law that forbade secret societies. Unless in large cities, many Jews probably did not see Roman soldiers that often, yet the presence of Roman authority was known and ever present. This was especially true at the time of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when many Jews and Jewish proselytes would attend in person in Jerusalem for these pilgrimage feasts. Then it was quite clear. Rome made it quite clear who was in charge.
Although Herod the Great had his flaws and his agendas, he probably was one of the last rulers who really understood the Jews’ actions and thinking process. It was very apparent that his son Archelaus did not since the Jews in both Judea and Samaria demanded he be removed from office. The prefects who ruled Judaea were also not often sympathetic to the Jews and considered them irritating. Most of the prefects did not reside in Jerusalem but in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast in northern Samaria which had more of a Roman atmosphere. They would usually come to Jerusalem only during feasts times as they knew they would need an extra vigilant watch for the potential of a Jewish insurrection. There were often anti-Semitic attitudes that prevailed. Some of them were the following:
• Worshipping one God was often held against the Jews. Because the Jews worshipped only one God and not the pantheon of gods as did the Greeks and Romans, they were often considered responsible for any disasters that befell a community. However, at the same time, many Greeks and Romans were fascinated by the radical idea of monotheism which they found philosophically elegant.
• The privacy of the temple was held against the Jews. Because what went on inside the temple in Jerusalem could only be observed by the priests, rumors started that the Jews sacrificed human beings. For example, it was widely believed that when the Roman general Pompey took the city and entered the temple, he liberated a Greek prisoner who was being fattened for the sacrifice.
• Keeping the Sabbath was held against the Jews. Because the Jews maintained that no work was to be done on the Sabbath, Jews were considered to be lazy by many Greeks and Romans. This thought can be found in the Fourteenth satire of the Roman poet Juvenal (c.67-c.145).
• Jewish customs were held against the Jews. The customs, laws and dietary restrictions of the Jews were regarded as strange and often led many Greeks and Romans to make jokes, sometimes good-natured, but usually not.
• Keeping the Law of Moses was held against the Jews. Many considered them to be ignoring the laws of the state in which they resided. Of all accusations against the Jews, this one is the oldest; this is what Haman accused the Jews of in the story of Esther (Es 3:8).
• Jewish society was held against the Jews. Jews were believed to be antisocial. Most Jews lived in close proximity to each other and to their synagogue. However, orthodox Jews could only travel certain distances on the Sabbath and so they had to be sure they were in walking distance to their synagogue. This did not mean they were antisocial, but likely became so when received with anti-Semitic attitudes from the surrounding peoples.
• The practice of circumcision was held against the Jews. It was considered “mutilation of genitals” and barbarous. The Greeks and Romans thought the Jews circumcised their boys to prevent them from assimilating into society. Greek philosophy considered the body the vehicle of the soul and so many Greeks and Romans could not understand this “lack of integrity” of one’s body.
Pontius Pilate was one such prefect who had these views. He was appointed prefect of Judaea about the same time that Tiberius Caesar let Lucius Aelius Sejanus rule as his regent. Sejanus was very anti-Semitic in his policies. Pontius Pilate ruled with the same attitude. No previous prefect had brought images into Jerusalem because of the Jews’ beliefs. However, Pilate brought effigies of Tiberius Caesar on ensigns into the city of Jerusalem under the cover of darkness and created quite an uproar of opposition. Pilate threatened to have all the complainers killed, but rather than back down they bared their throats and stated they would gladly die for the cause. This caused Pilate to rethink the situation and he backed down instead.
On another occasion, Pilate had votive shields bearing the emperor’s image on them attached to his palace in Jerusalem. After much complaining, the Jews finally appealed to Tiberius Caesar in Rome who then requested Pilate to remove them and take them to his palace in Caesarea.
A third occasion was when Pilate used money from the temple to fund the construction of an aqueduct. Many Jews were again outraged about this. However, this time, Pilate had his soldiers dress like, and scatter throughout, the thousands of protestors who had gathered to complain to him. At his signal, the soldiers drew knives and killed as many as they could before the others fled. These may have been the ones killed whose blood Pilate had mingled with the temple sacrifices (Lk 13:1-2) to further infuriate the Jews.
So, this was the world into which Christ came. Seems strange doesn’t it? But, isn’t that when we need him the most? Don’t we need someone in the midst of our confusion, chaos, and turmoil to bring perspective and right thinking? Isn’t that why we still need him today?
Jewish Mindset in New Testament
Why is Israel so Important?