Whenever Easter is approaching, Christian preachers will frequently suggest 'Jesus suffered for our sins' and 'Jesus died that we might be saved' but in those proclamations there is never any mention of the historical context for the First Century CE when Jesus was crucified by the Romans.
Some years after the armies of Alexander the Great had rolled through the Middle East, the Jews staged an armed revolt and were able to overthrow their foreign rules to create a Jewish state. The successful Maccabean Revolt (164-63 BCE) served as the inspiration for later attempts to overthrow the foreign rulers, though those involved the Roman Empire not the remnants of the Greek Empire.
Later the armies of the Roman Empire, led by Pompey, pushed East to conquer this Jewish state, with the turning point being the Siege of Jerusalem (63 BCE).
After Herod became the assigned King of the area including Palestine, he even married Mariamme, a Maccabean princess, in an attempt to gain support from the occupied people. When Herod died, the Herodian Kingdom was split among his sons, with Herod Antipas taking the rule over much of Palestine.
Given the Jewish people wished to be free from their foreign rulers and given they knew their recent history contained a successful uprising (that driven by the Maccabees), talk of a new Messiah who would restore the Jewish Kingdom was certainly common. Many of these insurgents were also quite aware of what happened during that earlier uprising, when some Jews including a number of religious leaders had sided with their Greek occupiers as friends of those in power. Therefore religious leaders were subject to scrutiny, to see whether they sided with those in power to the benefit of themselves (those leaders) or whether they sided with the common people.
Flavius Josephus published a history of the Jewish People that found wide distribution among the Roman Empire in the first century of the current era. Though obviously written with a pro-Roman perspective, the written history contains several notable people and many events in Palestine over the span of several hundred hears.
John the Baptist was killed by order of Herod (sometime in 30-36 CE), to suppress a latent tendency at an uprising among the Jews.
Roughly 30 years after the death of John the Baptist, the first significant military conflicts arose in the First Jewish Roman War, with later conflicts another 60 years later leading the dispersion of most remaining Jews out of Palestine. These conflicts have been called the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE), the Second Jewish Revolt (115-117 CE), and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE).
The Josephus History of the Jews was available online (original links are broken), including the time of the Maccabees and the time of Herod.
According to the history provided by Josephus, James the brother of Jesus died in the year 62 CE, only four years before the start of the First Jewish Revolt. The mention of James by Josephus provides a link to the book The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, where some interactions between Paul the Apostle and James are also recorded. However Origen, historian of the Third Century, and Eusebius, historian of the Fourth Century, insisted their copy of the Josephus work Jewish War indicated the immediate cause of the siege and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem was the death of James. (this claim is from page 524 in Robert Eisenman's New Testament Code).
The first book of the gospel of Matthew has the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham, so Jesus could lay claim to be the hereditary King of the Jews. Jesus was crucified by the Romans in their continuing attempts at maintaining a pacified local population, just as done by the earlier murder of John the Baptist. The local Roman occupation force would have considered the rise of a new King of the Jews to be an insurrection and so it certainly must be suppressed. (See Matthew 27:11, 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:3, John 18:37.)
The death of Jesus required later mythical stories to arise, when the life and teachings of Jesus would be manipulated by Paul for his teaching to non-Jews. This is certainly apparent when considering the four Gospels do not agree on the final words of Jesus when he died on the cross (see Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 23:46, John 18:30), implying at least some descriptions (if not all) were not first hand accounts of the event.
The events after the death of Jesus are certainly confusing in the Gospels. In Matthew 28:13 there is the suggestion the body of Jesus might have been removed by his disciples, so the soldiers on guard were given large sums of money. In Mark 16:12, Jesus 'appeared in another form' suggesting a ghost story. In Luke 24:16, Jesus supposedly walked and talked with two disciples but their eyes were prevented from knowing the person was Jesus, again an apparent story written later to describe earlier events into a more helpful Biblical myth. In Luke 20:14, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she talks with him but supposedly does not know it is him at first, thinking he is a gardener. When Mary supposedly realizes this person is Jesus, he tells her in 20:17 she is not to touch him. In 20:30, the suggestion there are more signs provided by Jesus but they are not recorded implies this is again a mythical story, written much later when trying to convey something about the life of Jesus but without any firsthand knowledge of the actual events.
James, who died in roughly 62, would have also been able to have that hereditary claim as the brother of Jesus. This hereditary linkage means the popular search for a new Messiah could involve those having this claim to be the King of the Jews.
Paul the apostle, the critical writer in the New Testament whose teachings directly lead to a religion based on stories of the life of Jesus, the Roman Catholic Church, was a Roman citizen. Saul was also actively involved in the suppression of Jewish dissidents, as mentioned in Acts 8:2, 9:1-2, 9:21, before his conversion into a person teaching about the life of Jesus, whom he had never met.
Some authors have suggested Paul was a Herodian (he certainly was a Roman not a Jew), so his perspective on religion would have been based on his upbringing with the Roman occupiers rather than that of the Jewish insurgents.
There is apparently a very basic conflict between James and Paul. James stresses 'doing' (according to Jewish law) is critical to salvation whereas Paul stresses 'faith' is critical. James as the brother of Jesus would have been the religious leader of the Jews who would have been followers of Jesus so the Jewish religion was very important to him/them, whereas Paul was a Roman who since he was repelled by James to teach outside of Palestine implied the Jews were in slavery to the Jewish religion, rather than slaves to the occupation by the Romans (as a Roman, Paul appeared reluctant to speak/write badly of the Romans). By Paul stressing faith rather than actions according to Jewish law (the stance of James), Paul set the foundation for the early Church to be based on a mythical story of Jesus for non-Jews. This new religion was based on faith rather than on submitting to any specific rigid religious practices or traditions, though it still laid claim to a religious lineage through the works of the Bible available at the time.
James and Paul are both important people in early Church history. Ignoring James while emphasizing Paul enables a particular explanation of New Testament events, away from stringently following Jewish law (James view, stressing the importance of action) but instead more toward faith (diminishing the importance of action, since Paul would avoid attaching any importance to following any actions based Jewish religious laws or tradition) and following Paul's interpretation of the life of Jesus.
According to the descriptions recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls, those living in the middle of the First Century CE were witness to an interesting exchange of religious teachings between the 'Righteous Teacher' (James the religious leader of the Jews) and the 'Liar' (Paul teaching to the Gentiles by twisting the Jewish faith and the teachings of James and other apostles).
Easter is a pivotal event in the Christian holidays but still it is based on mythical stories written after the death of Jesus rather than the current historical understanding of the events 2000 years ago.
created - Oct. 2012
last change - 06/15/2013
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