Understanding the first century setting is one of the more important tools in understanding the scriptures. Some folks who are interested in more in-depth Bible study might invest in various tools to do word studies. The thought is that if we can understand the original languages better, we can understand the scriptures better. While this is true, understanding the context is probably even more important.
Let me give you a little example. Suppose you pick up a copy of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” and you randomly pick out a sentence that talks about Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry leaving the shire. You could dissect every word in that sentence. You might be able to figure out certain things like the speed they were walking, etc. After all your work, you might say, “Big deal, they left home.” However, if you attempted to get a bigger picture by looking at the whole story, you would reach a different conclusion. When you understood what a Hobbit was and the great troubles of the day, you might say something like, “They left the shire! Wow!”
One of the most important players in the first century drama was the Romans. In 63 BC the conquering Roman general Pompey marched into Jerusalem. His first stop was the Jew’s most sacred building, the temple. He walked straight into the second court which was forbidden to gentiles and into the Holiest of Holies which was forbidden to all but the High Priest. He stood there and laughed at Israel’s God. This was a harbinger of things to come for the people of Palestine.
The gentiles had once again put their foot on the neck of the Jewish people. Except for a period of around one hundred years after the Maccabean revolt, such had been the condition of God's chosen for over four hundred years. First, came the Babylonians then the Persians and the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and now the Romans.
When the Romans came, they brought with them high taxes, paganism, and an almost unimagined brutality. The burden and humiliation Rome placed upon the common man made life virtually unbearable.
Perhaps you have heard the Latin phrase “Pax Romana” which could be translated “peace through Rome” or “Roman peace.” This was part of the Roman PR of the day. Rome’s promise was if the nations would just submit to Caesar, Rome would bring peace and prosperity to the whole world.
However, Roman peace came through brute force and absolute domination. Rome brought peace by absolutely destroying its enemies. They had a military force so well trained and equipped that it struck fear into the hearts of other nations. Yet, Rome’s most feared instrument of intimidation was probably not the sword. It most likely was the Roman cross. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they perfected it and used it often.
Crucifixion was the most painful and humiliating death possible. It would often take five or more days for a person on a cross to die. Every minute of those days was filled with unimaginable pain. Yet, the cross was also humiliating. The victim was stripped bare—no nice loin cloth like in the movies. Then all who hated the condemned could parade in front of the cross and hurl insults upon their enemy. The gospels tell us they insulted Jesus in such a manner. It was not uncommon for the Romans to line the roads into a city with crosses bearing those who dared to oppose Caesar.
The first century historian Josephus mentions that the Romans crucified almost 10,000 people in Jerusalem alone during the many rebellions prior to AD 70, and many more in peace time. Some estimate the number of Jews that faced the cross in all of Palestine was as high as 200,000.
Roman brutality was a part of life in Jesus’ day. For example, the average Roman soldier had the right to conscript any individual to carry whatever needed moving for the distance of one mile. Failure to comply with any Roman demand was often met with a backhand across the face.
Roman brutality was not the greatest burden a common man in Palestine had to bear. Excessive taxes destroyed far more lives than the Roman sword. Even without a huge tax burden the average family in Palestine existed only slightly above the poverty level. Add high taxes, and many people went from making it to desperation.
The people faced not only Roman taxes and tributes but also religious taxes and taxes imposed by Herod the Great and later his sons. Among the taxes paid were tributes and direct taxes such as land taxes and a head tax. There were also duties, sales taxes, and extra taxes on items such as salt. In addition there were taxes for the building and upkeep of the temple and various tithes.
It is estimated that the tax burden on the common man was 30% or more. Not bad we might say, but these were sustenance farmers and the like. They were barely keeping their families fed and sheltered. Add to that a 30% tax load, and you have a recipe for disaster. Many of the small land owners could not pay their taxes. Fortunately, there were wealthy land owners who out of the goodness of their hearts would gladly pay the poor man’s taxes. However, the poor had to give up the title to their land and become indentured servants.
Land was everything to the people of Israel. The land they owned was the land of their fathers. It was God's promise to His people. Yet, many had to sell what amounted to their very identity to pay their debts. In the worst cases the progression was from land owner, to tenant or day laborer, and finally to indebted slavery or debtor's prison.
The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Land was increasingly held by a wealthy few. For example, there is one account of over 60 peasant families sharing what amounted to about one half of an acre in Jerusalem. Sixteen people often occupied a small room. A very large percentage of the population lived in poverty. Many were undernourished, and some poor families had to feed themselves with grass and roots when all resources became exhausted. Compare that to the fact that in Jesus’ day six men owned almost all of North Africa. The disparity between the rich and the poor was far greater than it is today. It is no wonder that in the final Jewish revolt one of the rebel’s first acts was to burn the debtor's records in Jerusalem.
The Romans did not collect taxes directly. They sold the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder. We read often of the tax collectors in the gospels. They were folks who actually paid the Romans for the right to cheat their own people.
Failure to pay tributes and taxes often led to devastating consequences. The Romans would sometimes destroy an entire village for late payment either enslaving or killing all its inhabitants. When an individual could not pay his debts, he was often tortured. We have accounts of tax collectors first torturing the head of the household for non-payment. If he still did not pay, they would torture the man’s family while he watched. It is easy to understand why tax collectors were considered the worst sinners of the day.
The Romans brought with them not only excessive taxes and violence, but also paganism. The fact that the Romans worshipped multiple gods and even Caesar himself was an intolerable offence to the devout Jews of the day. Temples to foreign gods and to Caesar now inhabited the Promised Land. Although the Romans allowed the Jews to practice Judaism, they were forever encroaching upon the Jewish beliefs and practices. For instance, in AD 37 Caligula tried to erect a giant statue of himself in the temple-- an amazing exercise in not getting it!
Foreign occupation brought great pain and suffering to the Jews. Yet, the Romans were not the only ones troubling the inhabitants of Palestine. To learn more about the first century setting of the New Testament, see our series on life in the time of Christ.
Sources used in this series on first century history:
Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Horsley, Richard. Bandits Prophets, and Messiahs. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
____. The Message and the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Maier, Paul. Josephus The Essential Works. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Martin, Ernest. The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot. Portland: ASK Publications.
Stegemann, Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Jesus Movement. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
The Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, Vol. 1. Canada: Christian Millennial History Project, Inc., 2002.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
____. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
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