We have all watched the embarrassment of TV commentators when a crisis breaks out in some parts of the world with which they are not familiar. The conflicting of reports is quite nauseating. It could also be observed that lessons learned years ago in geography class fails as names of countries, boundaries, and alliances shift with the turmoil of world events. Again, the sixteenth century Shakespearean language which can no longer be identified with our modern day language, speaks volume to the fact that language is evolving. If we can barely keep up with the world we live in, it is hardly surprising to find confusion with the world in which Jesus lived. Nevertheless, we shall, to the best of our credibility, try to analyze the environment of Jesus, more than 2,000 years ago.
This analysis has been necessary in order to know the environmental influences of the man called Jesus, his interpretation, cultural diversity, personal history/origin, his language and context of reasoning. As the apostle of gentiles, St. Paul rightly noted, “the son of God was born of a woman under the law to redeem those who were under the law, to receive adoption as sons of God (Gal 3:4). This passage of the scripture reveals a historical movement of the coming of the son of God and consequently testify that there were human beings centuries before and centuries after the time of Jesus. More still, the gospel of Jesus was preached in a particular period of time and in a particular geographical area. So, it is necessary to know the people, not just their language, but also their social-political life, their ideals, views and religious traditions, their expectations about life, as well as their overall aspirations.
The environment of Jesus was full of diversity. It was a period of Hellenism (the colonization of Jews by the Greeks). There was also emergence of two cultures that seem to be conflicting; Roman and Jewish culture; although one (the former) was superior to the other (the later). During and even before this period, there were wars and powerful neighbors around the ancient Israel. By implication, the Jews and their neighboring people were under the control of the ruling power; for instance, they were under Assyria (around 722BC), Babylon (587 BC), Persia (539 BC), Greeks (370 BC) and then Rome (70 BC) who were in charge during the time of Jesus’ earthly life. It is also worthy to note that some of these foreign powers intruded mercilessly into their religious affairs, for example, Assyria and Babylon, while others respected their cultural and religious values, for example, Greek and Rome.
As a result of Jewish encounter with other nations (as mentioned above) and the internal conflict among them, the Jewish society at the time of Jesus had five currents of thoughts, whose adherents were in continuous struggle for supremacy. They include: the Pharisees, the Essene, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Scribes. These currents of thought had no common view about Realities; Messiah, Life, Life after death and even Worship. This possibly explains why the society in which Jesus lived was not a homogenous one. The Pharisees for instance were mostly common people who were keeping the Torah as the highest revelation of God. The Sadducees comprise of the priestly Jews, small in number but very powerful. Their purpose was on ritual purity at the Jerusalem temple, but they do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. The zealots were very nationalistic and wanted to be independent of the Roman government with violence. The Essene considered themselves as guardians of the divine teaching, who had in their possession a great number of very ancient manuscripts. Finally, the scribes in ancient Israel were learned men whose business was to study the law, transcribe it and write commentaries on it.
An underlying factor about these various groups in the world of Jesus was their quest for recognition; which necessitated their struggle for supremacy. It was against the backdrop of these underlying factors that they saw Jesus as a rival who has come to gain popularity over them. Hence, the need to accuse him from their various area of concern. The scribes and the Pharisees said that the young man (Jesus) disobeyed the law of the Sabbath, the Sadducce accused him of saying that he will destroy the Jerusalem temple, the Essene saw him as a threat for teaching with divine authority. In fact all the groups accused him of being blasphemous by saying that he is the son of God. Thus, “he must be crucified” they insisted.
One thing interestingly significant among all these groups was that they ignorantly set their efforts on top gear in order to kill Jesus and please “God” who has promised them the coming of the “Messiah” which for them cannot be Christ. This is because their picture of a Messiah had a socioeconomic and political concept. That is to say, they were in urgent need of someone who can rescue them from the Roman government and offer them independence. A messiah who, like Moses will assist them to conquer their neighboring nations. Unfortunate for them, the qualities of Christ was very far from their expectations. In fact the life of Christ did not only contradict their worldview, it also betrayed their hopes. Nevertheless, Jesus was not unaware of their culpable ignorance when they were making every possible effort to eliminate him. And at last he had to give the most celebrated response in the history of man. This is a response that is not human but divine; “father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”