The World of Jesus of Nazareth

[This is a new kind of presentation for me and I hope I get this right]

A local church asked me to give a lecture series on the world that Jesus was a part of.  I had two purposes.  The first was to give historical background to the Gospels (especially the three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  This will help Christians reading their scripture a clearer sense of the reality of the people, time, and place of these books.  The second is to dispel the anti-Jewish aspects of these Gospels and to explain how such passages became official Christian scriptures.  My talks were about Jesus the human person, not the theological figure.  Christian doctrine about Jesus is that he was both human and divine.  I spoke only of the human side.  I do not see this as affecting the theology at all.


There were four lectures.  For each of the lectures I used, for the first time, Power Point slide shows.  Each audio file is followed by the slide series for each lecture.









The first lecture is a survey of Jewish history from the death of Alexander The Great until the takeover of Judea by the Romans.   From beginning to end it was a period of conflict among Jews.  There was the matter of how much of Hellenism to adopt.  At one extreme were the wealthy and aristocratic (including the Kohanim/Priests) who went to great lengths to acculturate to Greek ways.  At the other were the Hasidim (not those Hasidim) who wanted to preserve the old traditions and rejected this newfangled civilization that now surrounded them.  This is what the famous revolt of the Maccabees was about.  Because the Seleucid emperor wanted everyone under his rule to assimilate, he suppressed local traditions.  The Jewish revolt succeeded and the priestly family that led it, the Hasmoneans, became the High Priest (who served as a national leader) and then also the king.  These kings were all tyrants, except for their one queen Salome Alexandra.  There was a party, known as the Scribes, who protested the Hasmoneans and suffered horribly at their hands for it.  Eventually a series of civil wars between Hasmonean rivals created an opening for Rome which took Judea as part of its empire.

The second lecture is about the four schools or four parties that arose during the period of the first lecture and into the lifetime of Jesus.  They were

1 – The Saducees (from the Hebrew TZadokim) who were the priests and aristocracy.  They maintained the Temple in Jerusalem as the focal point of Jewish tradition and they claimed to represent tradition.  They believed only in the written law, i.e., the Torah, and denied the existence of an Oral Torah.

2 – The Pharisees (Protesters or even protestants) who believed and taught that when Moses received the Torah he also received the Oral Torah which is the actual set of rules and principles by which Jews should live.  They taught that there is a life after death in which reward and punishment are meted out.  This was a new idea which is not found in the Jewish scriptures. They argued and taught about the rules by which Jews should live according to the Oral Torah.

3 – The Zealots – This was a party of violent revolutionaries who fought the Romans and those Jews who collaborated with the Romans (the Saducees).  The theives (or robbers or bandits depending on the translation) of the Gospels were Zealots not common criminals.  This party had its origins in the Galilee.

4 – The Essenes – We know very little about this group except from the reports of Josephus and Philo Judaeus.  It is not certain that the Qumran community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were or were not Essenes.  What we know of them is that they believed the Apocalypse (the End of Days) was coming soon and they had to separate themselves from the other three groups and the Romans to prepare.

So where did Jesus fit into this picture?  That was the subject of the third lecture.  It seems to me that Jesus had to be a Pharisee.  In the third lecture I presented sayings of Jesus from the Gospels and also parallel rabbinic texts (the Scribes became the Pharisees and they became the Rabbis after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem).  Jesus argued with the Pharisees but my reading is that he argued with them as one of them about subjects that often were not settled for some time afterwards.

Part of this lecture was about the Good Samaritan.  Who were the Samaritans?  The short version is they were a people who believed they were the real Jews (they still do) and they were looked down upon by the Jews of the time.  The slide show gives the Jewish context of the story.  Making the Samaritan the good guy in the story and the priest and Levite the bad guys was very significant.  This is an example of Jesus going against the Saducees and saying even the Samaritans were better than they.  I also included the quote about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesars because that has very great significance in this reading of the Gospels.

The fourth lecture was one I was nervous about.  In it I was to show that the trial of Jesus was not a real trial and that Caiphas, the High Priest, was basically a Roman official.  Jesus’ behavior in Jerusalem at Passover time was frightening to the Romans and the Saducees, especially overturning the money-changers’ tables.  In the slide show you will see the context.  The depiction of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels is utterly opposite the character of the historical person.  Pilate is presented as reasonable and forgiving.  He actually crucified thousands of Jews during his ten years as Procurator (Governor).  Claiming messiahship was tantamount to declaring oneself king and only the Emperor had that authority.  The penalty was crucifixion, a torturous death reserved for enemies of the Empire.  I note that who was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion has no bearing on the theological meaning of the crucifixion.

I hope posting all of this on my blog will be of interest to my readers.

I will try to remember to post more often…






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