Discussion One: Against All Odds

Israel at the time of Christ’s earthly presence was a land at the crossroads of empires and religions. One of the world’s major trade routes between Mesopotamia and Egypt snaked through the region, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas.

While its population numbered perhaps close to a million, it boasted a remarkable diversity. Primarily Jewish, the land also included Samaritans, a related ethnoreligious group, as well as pockets of Hellenized Jews and Roman citizens residing in the larger towns. This diversity reflected a turbulent history punctuated by centuries of foreign rule.

Roman legions first marched into Israel in 63 BCE, led by general Pompey the Great. This conquest marked a turning point, ending a brief period of Jewish independence under the Hasmonean dynasty and ushering in centuries of foreign rule. Initially, Rome’s Caesars Augustus and Tiberius allowed a degree of autonomy, installing client kings like Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, and Herod Agrippa II to maintain order and Collect taxes.

In 26 CE, Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate prefect of the Roman provinces of Judaea, Samaria and Idumæa. Pilate was to hold his post as the fifth Roman procurator for 10 years. As a Roman prefect, he had the power of a supreme judge, which meant that he had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution. His most crucial responsibility was maintaining law and order by any means necessary, including brute military force.

Jewish resentment against their pagan oppressors, fueled by heavy taxation and religious insensitivity, often boiled over into sporadic revolts. The magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, was the religious and symbolic heart of Israel.  Thousands of pilgrims from across the Jewish diaspora traveled to the city on festivals such as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Pesach (Passover), increasing the possibility of violence against the Roman overlords.    These tensions shaped the landscape of Judaism and the wider world for centuries to come.

Early Christianity had a profound impact on the development of Western civilization. Understanding its Jewish origins helps us trace the evolution of religious thought, social structures, and cultural beliefs that continue to shape our world.

Jewish Society in First Century CE

The Torah places the Jewish occupation of Caanan from the second millennium BCE following an Exodus from Egypt and a 40-year period of wandering. The Father of Judaism, i.e., the initial “Jew,” is considered to be Abraham, born around 1813 BCE in the city of Ur ins Southern Mesopotamia.   Details about his life prior to age 48 are found in the Jewish Talmud and Midrash.   The first mention of him in the Old Testament is Genesis 11:26. The verses of Genesis 12, he is told to take his family and leave his home. In Genesis 15:17-21, Abram and his offspring are promised the land of Caanan (the Abrahamic Covenant).  Jews believe that God gave the land to the Jews forever according to this covenant.

By 1 CE, most estimates place the population of the combined regions of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (roughly equivalent to modern Israel) somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants. The vast majority of the population lived in villages and rural areas. Agriculture was the dominant economic activity, either through ownership or employment.

Jerusalem was the largest city, likely holding tens of thousands of people. It was the site of Herod’s Second Temple. Other significant, but smaller, towns included Sepphoris, Caesarea Maritima, and Jericho. Population density varied significantly with more fertile regions (like Galilee) supporting denser populations than arid areas (like portions of Judea).

The Roman military presence in Palestine was minimal compared to the total population. While the number and types of Roman soldiers and citizens in Israel is unknown, but likely consisted of one or more legions with 5,000 Roman citizen soldiers supplemented by similar amounts of auxiliary non-Roman troops.  Additional legions were scattered throughout the empire, available to reinforce domestic legions if necessary.

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Jewish Culture in First Century CE

In the year 1 CE, Israel (then known as Judea) was a land caught between tradition and change. The Israelites held fast to their tribal associations. Deuteronomy 27:12–13 lists the twelve tribes as Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, Benjamin, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. Such tribal loyalties often came into conflict with the interests of the state. Within the tribal structure, the family served as the core of Israelite life.

While firmly rooted in Jewish religious heritage, the region found itself heavily influenced by the expanding power of the Roman Empire. This interplay of cultures shaped a complex and fascinating society.

The Heart of Jewish Life: Synagogue and Temple

At the core of Jewish culture in 1 CE stood the synagogue. More than a simple place of worship, synagogues served as vibrant community centers. Here, Jews would gather not only for prayer but for education, legal discussions, and social events. The Temple in Jerusalem remained the holiest site for Judaism, the center of major festivals and pilgrimages. However, synagogues provided the essential network for the practice of the Jewish faith on a local, day-to-day level.

A synagogue is a place dedicated to Jewish worship and instruction. These buildings became the primary place of Jewish worship after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.  Beginning with the rabbis of the first century, however, there were efforts to have boys as young as five and six taught in the synagogue.  Early lessons focused on the Hebrew Bible, and as the boys got older, they progressed unto Mishnah and Talmud.

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