Jesus’ Renewal of Israel vs the Roman New World Order

Jerusalem_P1040192_RECADREDetermining who Jesus was must involve an assessment of the political, economic, and social milieu of Galilee in the first century CE where he lived and preached. Roman control of Galilee and neighboring areas altered the life of the indigenous Israelite villages to such a degree that it becomes clear how Jesus’ ministry was a response and offer of hope for the renewal of Israelite traditions.

Imagine trying to understand Martin Luther King as if he were merely a preacher in the Black church, and not a leader of the civil rights movement that organized people and faced continuing opposition from the entrenched social and political order. Most recent books still pretend that the “historical Jesus” was merely a religious teacher whose wisdom differed from that of the established religious authorities. In ancient Galilee and Judea and in most of world history, however, religion is not separable from the political-economic aspects of life. The Temple in Jerusalem was not simply the main center of worship for the religion of “Judaism,” but also the political-economic center of Judean society. Even in the modern United States, with its institutionalized separation of church and state, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King illustrates how religious and political-economic life are not easily separable. In ancient Palestine, however, religion was utterly inseparable from political-economic affairs. King was indeed a Baptist preacher who stepped into a more political role. Only in retrospect can Jesus be classified as merely a religious figure. According to both the Gospels and Paul (1 Cor 2, 6-8), he was executed as a political rebel by the Roman imperial rulers, using brutally torturous crucifixion , the Roman’s standard method of executing rebels among subject peoples.

Imagine, then, attempting to understand Martin Luther King separate from decades of discrimination against and institutionalized segregation of African-Americans in the United States. Many recent books on the “historical Jesus”, however, pay little or no attention to the fundamental (structural) conflict between the Galilean and Judean villagers and their Jerusalem high priestly, Herodian, and Roman rulers.

Or imagine attempting to understand King separate from the tradition of Black churches in the United States. Yet recent studies of Jesus still ignore how deeply Jesus and his movement were embedded in traditional Israelite society and cultural (biblical) tradition. Imagine further attempting to understand Martin Luther King only as an individual person and not in relationship to local communities of AfricanAmericans involved in the civil rights movement.

Most recent books in the “growth industry” of “historical Jesus studies”, however, still treat Jesus in a modern Western individualistic manner, as if he had no relationship with the fundamental social form in ancient Galilean and Judean society, the local village communities. Finally, imagine treating King without considering the traditional role of the preacher in the Black Church in America; or imagine writing a book about Abraham Lincoln without considering the traditional role of the presidency of the United States. Most recent books about Jesus, however, do not even ask about how Jesus may have been building on traditional leadership roles and patterns familiar in traditional Israelite society.

Because most of those writing about Jesus these days were trained in Christian theology and make little effort to move beyond modern Western individualism, they do not even consider what may be the most important aspects of Jesus as an historical figure. I want to focus on three or four examples, building on recent historical and archaeological studies of ancient Galilean and Judean society, some of them my own.

Jesus was Responding to the Transformation of Galilee by the new Roman Imperial Order

It is not by accident that Jesus and the movement that formed in response to his preaching and manifestation of the “kingdom of God” emerged in Galilee in the mid-1st century CE. During the lifetime of Jesus, Galilee was virtually transformed. The ancient equivalents of urbanization and Westernization impacted the area quite suddenly. After the Romans installed Herod the Great as “king of the Judeans” yet left the high priestly rulers of the Jerusalem temple-state intact, there were in effect three layers of rulers making demands on the Judean, Samaritan, and Galilean peasantry – the economic base that supported the rulers in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Herod transformed Jerusalem and several sites in Samaria and “greater Judea” with massive building projects – Roman-style theaters, amphitheaters, hippodromes, great new cities in honor of Augustus, and the massively rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, which became the largest urban temple complex in the Roman world. The impact on traditionallife escalated when the Romans appointed Herod’s sixteen-year-old son Antipas, who had just been raised and educated at the imperial court in Rome along with the sons and nephews of Caesar, as Tetrarch of Galilee (and Perea). For the first time in history, the Galilean villagers were ruled not from a distant city, but by a regime directly on the scene, far more “efficient” in the collection of the tax revenues that provided its “income.” In the course of only twenty years, which coincided with the time during which Jesus grew to adulthood, Antipas constructed the fortress-city of Septhephoris as the “ornament of all Galilee” and named it Autocratoris (“Imperial City”). Then he built a second capital city on the Sea of Galilee, named Tiberias after the new emperor. This new urban foundation violated Jewish law and local sensitivities by being built over a burial ground. Moreover, in order to provide the people needed to run a newly-built royal city replete with palace and stadium, Antipas apparently displaced nearby villagers.

Within the course of a generation, that of Jesus, Galilee had undergone “rapid urbanization”. Two capital cities with a Greek-speaking administration and Roman-style buildings now dominated the landscape and were visible to most of the Aramaicspeaking villages under their rule. With the regime now directly on the scene, collection of the taxrevenue that supported this massive new “development” was rigorously efficient. It was now far more difficult for the villagers to engage in the usual peasant strategies of sequestering some of their grain before the regime’s tax collectors arrived on the threshing floors. Such “development”, funded on the backs of the only productive force in a traditional agrarian society, the village farmers and fishermen, placed serious economic pressure on the peasantry. These pressures, which forced peasant families into hunger and debt, had a disintegrating effect on families and village communities, the fundamental social forms of such a society. It is precisely in response to such conditions of disintegrating household and village communities that social movements emerge. Such conditions appear to underlie the popular prophetic movements led by Theudas and the “Egyptian” Jewish prophet in Judea in the mid-1st century CE, a short time after Jesus and his movement emerged. Even more clearly, the stories about and sayings of Jesus respond to precisely such conditions: “blessed are you poor; blessed are you hungry … ;” “Give us our daily bread, and cancel out debts, as we herewith cancel those of our debtors.”

Galilean Village Communities as the Context and Concern of Jesus’ Ministry

In New Testament courses in theological school, we heard our teachers talking about “the synagogue down the street from the local church” in their lectures on how early Christianity was breaking away from Judaism. But what were the “synagogues” in the Gospels and in 1st century Galilee and Judea? The synagogue buildings found by archaeologists are largely from late antiquity, with only a handful securely dated to the lind or IIlrd century. The only structures claimed as “synagogues” dating from the 1st century are not in villages, but on Herodian fortresses such as Masada and Herodion. The word synagoge in Greek, like the term knesset in the Mishnah, moreover, refers not to a religious building but to an assembly of people. Besides, as Jewish historians are pointing out, the Pharisees were not members, much less leaders, of local village or town synagogues until centuries after the time of Jesus. So it is becoming apparent that the “synagogues” in Galilee and in the Gospels at the time of Jesus were local village assemblies. Assuming, moreover, that not much had changed .by the time of the rabbis, the village assemblies were apparently the form of local governance and coherence of the village community. They met apparently in the village square or at the “gate”, and their activities ranged from prayers, to the appointment of a local court to adjudicate disputes, to maintenance of the local water supply. A synagogue at the time of Jesus was, in traditional New England terms, a combination of the town meeting and the local Congregational church.

The fundamental social form (organization) of the village and its assemblies provided the fundamental social base of Jesus’ “ministry”. The Gospels portray Jesus as repeatedly proclaiming the kingdom of God and performing healings and exorcisms in village assemblies. That can no longer be dismissed as simply Mark’s narrative fiction, followed by both Matthew and Luke. Both Mark and “Q” (the set of non-Markan speeches of Jesus used by both Matthew and Luke) have a “mission discourse”, in which Jesus sends out envoys to preach and heal and/or exorcise in villages and towns. These two apparently independent “mission discourses”, while differing in wording, have virtually the same structure, including instructions for staying and eating in local households while carrying out their preaching and healing in the village communities. Moreover, if we look closely at the context indicated in the content of Jesus teachings, such as the “love your enemies” set of sayings (Lk 6,26-38; e.g., “do good and lend”, “do not judge”), we see that he was addressing local socialeconomic interaction in the village communities -typical matters such as borrowing and lending and petty disputes. It is becoming evident that, as presented in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ “ministry” focused not on individual “salvation” or “lifestyle” but on the renewal of village communities, which formed the basic social form in the traditional agrarian life of ancient Galilee and Judea.

Renewal of the Mosaic Covenant

Jesus’ admonitions cited just above provide prime illustrations of the utterly inappropriate way in which “Jesus-scholars” treat the “sayings” or “aphorisms” of Jesus. They proceed like museum curators who exhibit ancient cultural artifacts completely out of original context in museum cases: one case for lamps, another for figurines, another for cooking pots. Thus they assign each individual “saying” of Jesus, isolated from any literary or rhetorical context in which it might have aided some broader communication between Jesus and his followers, to a category, either by “type” (“wisdom saying”, “apocalyptic saying”, etc.) or by “topic” (“son of man saying”, etc.). But no one speaks in isolated aphorisms -except perhaps on the Boston Common or in Trafalgar Square in London. Certainly no one ever communicated intelligibly in isolated aphorisms. People use age-old proverbs in particular contexts of meaning, and give the proverbs particular twists dependent on those contexts. In the Gospels, except for the “Gnostic” Gospel of Thomas where one is invited to ponder the meaning of particular sayings, Jesus’ sayings all comprise parts of larger units of communication, shorter or longer speeches or discourses, debates with the Pharisees, answers to questions posed by disciples. We must imagine that behind these units of communication lay earlier similar units of communication between Jesus or Jesus’ representatives and their listeners. Communication also involves a common language and cultural tradition shared by both speaker and listeners, out of which the meaning resonates.

When we look for the larger units of communication and the cultural tradition with which they resonate, whole new possibilities emerge for the speeches of Jesus. Those sayings in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain mentioned above (“love your enemies, do good, and lend”, etc.; Lk 6,27-38) that Jesus-scholars categorize as “wisdom sayings” are rather covenantal admonitions. They stand in a long Israelite cultural tradition that can be seen in Mosaic covenantal laws and teachings in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ex 21-23; Lv 19). Laws such as the one about returning the neighbor’s cloak taken in pawn (Ex 22,26-27) or admonitions such as loving your neighbor and being holy as God is holy (Lv 19,2,18), guided social relations in Israelite village communities. Jesus is renewing just such covenantal teachings when he exhorts Galileans to end their local disputes and restore their cooperation and mutual aid in their village communities, encouraged by the pronouncement that God was finally giving the kingdom of justice to the poor and hungry peasantry. The insight that Jesus is renewing the long and central Mosaic covenant tradition of Israelite society is confirmed when we note how the structure of the whole Sermon parallels the outline of the Community Rule in the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran community. Their common structures reveal that both Jesus’ Sermon and the Community Rule are renewals of the overall Mosaic covenant. Far from standing in opposition to “Jewish” culture, Jesus was engaged in the renewal of the people of Israel in their fundamental social form, village communities, on the basis of the Mosaic covenantal tradition on which social relations in the society were traditionally based.


Renewal of Israel in Opposition to the Jerusalem and Roman Rulers

Of course, Jesus stood in and drew upon the more popular village-based Galilean version of Israelite tradition, which differed .in emphasis from the official Jerusalem version written on scrolls and cultivated by scribes and Pharisees. Christian theologians, particularly in the Lutheran tradition, projected their critique of the “Jewish Law” as the means of salvation back into Jesus* teachings, particularly his disputes with the Pharisees, understood as representatives of “normative Judaism”. This whole line of interpretation, and its residue in current Gospel-studies and Jesus-scholarship, is rooted in the misunderstanding of Jesus as a merely “religious” teacher in opposition to “Judaism” understood as a “religion”. Once the perspective and approach are broadened, Jesus appears rather to be deeply rooted in and attempting to renew Israelite tradition. The conflict manifested in Jesus* speech and actions is one between the prophet of a popular movement and the Roman-sponsored Judean rulers and their representatives. But that merely parallels the principal structural conflict in ancient Roman-dominated Palestine between the rulers and the ruled. This dominant conflict, moreover, was festering under Herod the Great and escalated dramatically during the 1st century CE under the Roman governors in Judea and Herodian rulers in Galilee until it erupted on a massive scale in the great revolt of 66-70. Besides the vocal criticism of rulers by the oracular prophets John the Baptist and Jesus son of Hanaiah, several popular movements led by prophets posing as the new Moses or new Joshua emerged in mid-century. Even among the priests and scribal “retainers” of the high priestly regime, dissident groups sprang up, sharply criticizing the “wicked” priestly incumbents, who were considered illegitimate holders of power, as illustrated in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another scribal faction, the “Fourth Philosophy”, agitated against the Roman tribute early in 〕the first century, and a closely related faction, the Sicarioi (Dagger-men), went so far as to assassinate high priestly figures whom they thought were collaborating too closely with the Romans. Thus Jesus* prophecies and prophetic demonstration against the Temple and high priestly rulers in Jerusalem fits a broader pattern of popular (and even scribal) resistance to the broader Roman order. Just as they scourged, crucified, or militarily slaughtered other popular prophetic or messianic leaders, the high priestly and Roman rulers executed Jesus in a way that would have maximum terrorizing effect on the populace. His direct and explicit opposition to the Temple and high priests and his crucifixion in Jerusalem are perhaps the most telling evidence that Jesus and his movement, while based in the villages of Galilee, was programmatically engaged in the renewal of Israel as a whole. When we consider the particular history of Galilee in relation to that of Judea during late Second Temple times, it should be surprising that Jesus marched up to Jerusalem at all. Galilee had been independent of Jerusalem rule and/or under separate imperial provincial rule for eight centuries before the Hasmonean high priests took control about a hundred years before Jesus was born. Then, after a mere hundred years under Jerusalem rule, Galilee was released from Jeru­salem*s political control when Rome assigned its rule and revenues to Antipas. Apparently, however, the hundred years under Jerusalem*s rule from 104-4 BCE had reawakened a sense of belonging together with other descendants of Israel, perhaps precisely because they were under imperial Roman and semi-foreign Herodian rule. Galileans such as Jesus and his followers may have had an extreme-ly ambivalent feeling about Jerusalem rule, but Jerusalem was the symbolic center and “capital” of Israel. And, as would have been clear from age-bid Israelite prophetic ~radition focused on figures such as Elijah or Jeremiah, a renewal of Israel in its basic village communities also entailed pronouncement or even enactment of God’s condemnation of un-just rulers who were using the apparatus of royal or temple rule against the people. As is evident also in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Community Rule or Pesher (interpretation) of Habakkuk, so in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ speech and actions, cer-tain prophetic “scripts” were deeply embedded in Israelite tradition that informed prophetic leaders such as Jesus and his followers. If we can refocus our lenses for wider-angle views of broader patterns and more complete units of communication in the Gospels and other ancient Jewish sources, we may be able to discern how Jesus and his movement adapted those “scripts” in their attempt at a renewal of the people of Israel.


By Richard A. Horsley
Professor of Classics and Religion,
University of Massachusetts,



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