Anno Domini XXVI
In 26 A.D., as Judea approached its ninetieth year of Roman occupation, Pontius Pilate was appointed prefect of Judea, a part of the Roman Province of Syria, by Tiberius Caesar. (A prefect was a high military or civil official, who served as a magistrate or an administrator in ancient Rome. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 3:1-2) and the Gospel of John (John 2:20) seem to date the beginning of Christ's ministry to 26-28 A.D. However, different scholars have worked out these dates differently.) In 63 BC, the Romans used an internal conflict in Israel over succession of the king and high priest as a pretense for a hostile takeover of the country. It often seemed that Pilate would go to great lengths to offend the religious sensitivities of his Jewish subjects. Despite this fact, it seems that he had a close relationship with the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas. (They were probably both corrupt and used their power working together to enrich themselves at the peoples' expense.) Throughout his entire rule Pilate would provoke and offend his Jewish subjects. Pilate tried to put Roman standards and eagles in the Jewish Temple when he first took office in Jerusalem. The Jewish people looked upon these symbols as idols and pagan images and took great offense at them. When Pilate realized that he would have to slaughter thousands of people over the standards and banners if he didn't remove them, he was forced to back down. Later, however, he did not hesitate either to massacre Jews or offend their religious beliefs.
The Jewish people were poor and exploited. Unlike most people in the eastern Roman Empire, the Jews did not speak Greek, they spoke Aramaic and to a lesser extent Hebrew. (In the eastern regions of the Roman Empire most people spoke Greek rather than Latin. Aramaic was spoken in Judea, Samaria, Arabian Nabatea, Mesopotamia and in parts of Syria.) Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar languages and both of these languages are closely related to Arabic.
When Jesus was born Herod the Great was "King of the Jews." Herod was an Idumean, and was not Jewish by nationality. Idumeans were Edomites, close relatives of the Jews and descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Esau. Esau was the son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob. Jacob was re-named Israel. Jews and Edomites were historic adversaries. Herod's ancestors had fairly recently been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans. Herod managed to ingratiate himself with Mark Anthony and Augustus Caesar and arranged for Rome to grant him the title of King of Judea. Herod established a dynasty. One of Herod's sons was Herod Antipatros, known as Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was granted the title of Tetrarch and ruled over Galilee and Perea. (A "tetrarch" is a subordinate ruler. Herod Antipas ruled as a king under Roman authority. He could be addressed as "king" but was not allowed to use that title himself without permission from the Roman authorities. If he did so, it could be considered an act of sedition.) Other members of the Herodian family, such as King Herod Agrippa, are mentioned in the New Testament. (Herod Agrippa the First was bequeathed the title of "King" by the Emperor. He killed the Apostle James the brother of John and tried to kill Peter. Paul of Tarsus preached before Herod Agrippa the Second.) Pilate ruled over Judea to the south but Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee. Perea was also part of Herod Antipas's domain. It was to the southwest of the Jordan River and extended southward along the Dead Sea. Perea was also called Gilead. Herod's fortress of Machareus was located in Perea. It was here that John the Baptizer was imprisoned and beheaded. There was a political party that supported Herod. They were called the Herodians. Jesus spoke out against this political party.
Nazareth and Galilee
After living for centuries as subsistence farmers, families like Jesus' were forced into poverty by the taxes levied by Herod and various Roman overlords. As a result, greedy oligarchs bought up foreclosed lands, turning former landholders into indentured servants. Rulers laid claim to a third of the harvest of grain and half of all fruit from trees (1 Maccabees 10:30). The people were forced into indebtedness and were basically enslaved economically. The brutal system of economic bondage in which the Romans and King Herod choked the very life out of the lower class people resulted in economic repression, peasant rebellion, and the wholesale displacement of the Galilean peasantry.
Jesus was a carpenter who lived in Nazareth, a small rural community of about 1,000 people. He lived about five miles from a Greek city called Sepphoris. As a "carpenter" Jesus probably would occasionally go to Sepphoris to find work. (The Greek word for "carpenter" is "tekton" which can mean builder. It can mean stone mason and construction worker as well as carpenter.) The people in Galilee lived in grinding poverty. Most people were hopelessly in debt and struggled to survive. The majority were subsistence farmers who lived on the verge of starvation. Jesus settled in the town of Capernaum during his ministry. Capernaum served as Jesus' headquarters. (Until, perhaps, he was banished from the city. Jesus pronounced "woes" upon Capernaum because the city rejected his prophetic message (Matthew 11:23-24). It is possible it was a formal rejection brought by the city elders.) Capernaum was a fishing city on the coast of the "Sea" (more accurately "Lake") of Galilee. Magdala, the hometown of Jesus' disciple Mary of Magdala, was also a fishing town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, which is also called Lake Chinnereth. Since most people were poor subsistence farmers, few learned to read and write. The literacy rate among the Jews may have been higher than it was among non-Jews, however probably over 60 percent of men were illiterate. (Virtually all women were illiterate.) Galileans were looked upon as backwards and uncouth by the people in Judea. Judeans thought that many Galileans were too lax in their observance of Jewish religious practices. Galileans also had a strong country accent to their Aramaic. This accent is noted in the Gospels and in the Talmud. In the account in the Talmud a Galilean came to the market in Jerusalem to buy something he called "amar," "They said to him, "You stupid Galilean. Do you want a donkey (ham-r) to ride on, wine to drink (hamar), wool ('amar) to wear, or a lamb (immar) to kill." (b. Erub 53b). (Apparently, Galileans dropped their gutturals and the hard "h.") When Peter denied Jesus, Peter was identified as a Galilean by his accent (Matthew 26:73).
Jerusalem and Judea
About one thousand years before the birth of Jesus, King David established Jerusalem as his capital and centralized worship there. Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for three annual feasts, Passover, Shavout, (the Festival of Weeks, also known as Pentecost), and Sukkot, (known as the Feast of Tabernacles) (Exodus 23:14-19). Jerusalem probably had a population of 40,000. However, during major Jewish Festivals such as the Passover, this number swelled to over 200,000. The Temple of the Lord was built in Jerusalem.
Originally, the Jews worshipped in a tent of worship. One of these tents was called the Tabernacle. King David moved the Tabernacle to Jerusalem. Before worship was centralized in Jerusalem by David, there was a sanctuary in Shiloh. Based on the way it is described in Samuel and Jeremiah this may have been an actual temple. (In Samuel it is spoken of as the temple of the Lord (1 Samuel 1:9). Jeremiah speaks of its destruction (Jeremiah 7:12).) The Philistines destroyed the sanctuary of Shiloh and stole the Ark of the Covenant, a golden chest that contained the Ten Commandments (1 Samuel 4). (Actually, the Ark was a throne that sat upon a box containing the Ten Commandments. The throne, which was made of beaten gold sculpted to look like winged sphinxes, was called the "Mercy Seat" and represented God's throne to the Jewish people.) After being smitten by the wrath of God, the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites (1 Samuel 5-6). The remains of a temple of Yahweh, probably built by King Solomon, have been discovered at Arad in Israel. The region of Arad is described in the Bible as a settlement of the Kenite Arabs (Judges 1:16). The Kenites were allies of Israel and worshiped God by the name "Yahweh" before the Israelites did. (Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was a Kenite Arab and worshiped God by the name "Yahweh" before he met Moses.) The Jews also built two Temples of Yahweh in Egypt. One in Elephantine and the other in Leontopolis. The Jewish people came to believe that the only valid temple was the one in Jerusalem. So, these temples of Yahweh in Arad and Egypt, or in other places such as Mount Gerizem, are viewed as "profane."
The Temple standing at the time of Jesus is often called (incorrectly) the "Second Temple." What the Jews commonly call the "Second Temple" is in reality the third Temple. The first Temple of Jerusalem had been built by King Solomon, the son of David. This Temple was later destroyed by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:8-9). After destroying the temple, the Babylonians exiled the Jews to Babylonia from 586 B.C. until 539 B.C (2 Kings 25:11-12). This period is often called the "Babylonian Captivity." After the return from exile, Prince Zerubbabel built a second Temple (Haggai 1:9-12). King Herod the Great totally demolished this structure in order to built a third Temple, larger and more glorious than any that had preceded it. The courtyard of the new temple built by King Herod the Great was large enough to hold over fifteen football fields. It was 1,550 feet by 1,000 feet or about five football fields long and three wide. (During the "Cleansing of the Temple" Jesus seized this entire area. Jesus held this entire area, probably for several hours, and was able to halt all traffic through it.) The large outer court is where the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animal set up their business.
Archeologists have found some inscribed stones from the Temple. The language is Greek, the dominant language of the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. The letters are large, deeply engraved and were colored red. The inscription reads, "No non-Jew is allowed to enter within the balustrade and enclosure around the Temple area. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which will immediately follow." Observant Jews were forbidden to enter the house of a gentile, lest they become ritually impure by being in close contact with a heathen (John 18:28). The Temple was made up of a series of exclusive courts. Gentiles were excluded from going beyond the Court of Gentiles. Gentiles were not allowed to bring a sin offering or a guilt offering for the atonement of sins according to Jewish Law (M. Sheqalim 1:5). (They were, however, allowed to bring a burnt offering, or rather sponsor such a sacrifice as they were not allowed to enter the inner courts of the Temple.) Women were excluded from passing beyond the Court of Women. Jewish men who were not priests were not allowed to go beyond the Court of Israel. Only priests were allowed to go into the Court of Priests and only the High Priest could enter into the inner sanctum, the "Holy of Holies."
Herod began his rebuilding of the Temple around 20 BC. In John's account of the "purging of the Temple" it is mentioned that it had taken 46 years to build the temple. This means that the purging of the temple took place in around 26 or 27 A.D. Actually, the temple complex was still being built and wasn't completed until 63 A.D. So, while Jesus was teaching and ministering, the Temple compound was still under construction. (The main Temple building itself was probably quickly built. The courtyard and the rest of the complex took decades to complete. During the construction the Temple services and animal sacrifices were not interrupted.)
Among the Israelites there was a priestly class called the tribe of Levi. Only Israelites born to this caste were allowed to serve in the Temple. The High Priest had to be a Levite who was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The office of High Priest was conferred by Rome. At the time of Jesus, the House of Hannan ruled. In the time of the Christ the dominant priestly families were not of pure "Zadokite" blood. (Zadok served as a high priest under King Solomon. The high priest was supposed to be a direct descendant of Zadok. However, the Zadokite high priest, the Oniad, was deposed and fled to Egypt where he built a temple of Yahweh at Leontopolis.) The clans of Boethus, Annas, Phiabi and Kamith supplied the high priests of the temple during the first century. The clan of Annas (also called Hannan) was especially powerful. Annas had been high priest from 6-15 A.D., and five of his sons, his son-in-law Caiaphas and his grandson Jonathon all reigned as High Priests. Caiaphas, who presided over Jesus' trial, held office as High Priest for eighteen years; from 18-36 A.D. This dynasty of high priests killed Jesus and James the Just, the Brother of Jesus. While the ruling priests were very wealthy, not all those who were of priestly descent were rich. There were too many priests for the duties of the Temple so priests took turns in performing them. Duties were often assigned by lot, as we see when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was selected to offer incense in the Temple (M. Yoma 2:2, To. Yoma 1:12, TB Yoma 23a, Luke 1:8-9). Many priests lived in poverty and were denied their right to perform rites in the Temple by the wealthy priests. Offerings that were collected by the people to assist poor priests were seized by the High Priest and used for his own personal purposes. Poor priests actually starved to death while certain clans, such as the "House of Hannan" gorged and enriched themselves.
Animals were sacrificed to God at the Temple. The animals sacrificed were bulls, goats and sheep. Pigeons were also sacrificed. Hundreds of animals were sacrificed every day and hundreds of thousands every year. A drainage system was built in the temple so the blood would drain into a sewer. Animals were sacrificed by having their throats cut. They were then bled out. The blood was collected into containers. While in the containers the priests would shake the blood, stirring it, to keep it from congealing. The blood was then taken and splashed on the sides of the altar. A stream of blood was constantly flowing in torrents from the Temple. The priests taught the Jewish people to believe that the only way to atone, or to be forgiven, for their sins was through blood sacrifices of animals. (Another way to atone for sins was to pay a "temple tax" in silver coinage.) The Jewish people were required to purchase animals for sacrifice and could only purchase them from venders authorized by the priests. These animals were for sale in a court of the temple called the Court of the Gentiles (also called the Court of All Nations). Theoretically, they should have been able to bring their own animals for sacrifice. If they did they would have to be inspected by the priests to see if the animal was "without blemish." The inspecting priest would declare the animal unfit for sacrifice if he wasn't given a high fee for the inspection service. Since most people couldn't get their animals through the inspectors, they were forced to buy animals that had already been declared "kosher" for sacrifice for sale at a very high cost. Participating in temple worship was very expensive, especially for people living in stark poverty. The sacrificial system of the Temple was extremely expensive in that it consumed huge quantities of unblemished animals, oil, grain and incense. Pigeons were available for sale for offerings of sacrifice for the poor. John's Gospel states that Jesus directly attacked and preached against those selling doves for sacrifice in the temple (John 2:16). Many people were too poor to buy even a dove for a sacrifice. There is a concession in the Torah for the very poor to make a grain offering as an atonement for sin (Leviticus 5:11-13). The people were exploited and cheated by the temple system that operated in the Courtyard of Nations that had been transformed to a large market place. The Court of the Gentiles was the place where gentiles (non-Jews) were to be able to come and worship God. The priests had changed this area to a large bazaar. In this courtyard, the sound of prayer was drowned out by the shouts of venders and people loudly haggling over purchases. The privileged venders in the Temple courts were given a monopoly on Temple commerce by Annas and they paid the High Priest rich dividends. The exorbitant rates charged for the "approved" sacrificial animals filled the treasure chests of the priestly aristocracy. The temple courts had become a virtual stockyard. At the same time it was also a trading floor, crowded with bickering business men. It was a crowded trading center much like our modern New York Stock Exchange. The Jewish teaching of the time, enunciated by Simon the Just, was that the existence of the world depended upon the sacrifice of animals in the Temple (M. Abot 1:2). When he seized the Temple, Jesus released all animals in the temple that were to be sacrificed. While he occupied the temple he stopped all the animal blood sacrifices. John the Baptist preached forgiveness of sins apart from the animal blood sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus often proclaimed the forgiveness of sins based on his own authority alone. Jesus, like John the Baptist, taught forgiveness of sins apart from the Temple system.
The Money-changers and the Half Shekel Tax
The Law of Moses required every adult Jewish male to pay a half-shekel to the Temple every year. The Temple Establishment required this religious tax to be paid with a Tyrian silver shekel. It bore an image of a pagan god named Melqart, who was similar to Hercules. The temple required that it be paid with this coin because of the purity of its silver, despite its bearing the image of a pagan god. Jewish men had to exchange their own currency for a Tyrian silver shekel and pay the temple tax with this specific coinage. The moneychangers collected this tax in the large court of the Temple, called the Court of All Nations. They charged very high exchange rates that the people were forced to pay. People would bring in money to the temple and exchange this money for a Tyrian shekel which they would then pay to the Temple Establishment. Paying this half-shekel tax was a religious obligation, yet many Jews were so poor that they were on the verge of starvation. Since the Jewish community at that time was large and had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond the amount of money collected was immense. The High Priest became extremely wealthy. (The Tyrian shekel was the coinage used by the Jews according to the Talmud (TB Baba Qamma 36b). It weighed about seven grams and the sacred shekel that was used for meeting biblical requirements was a double Tyrian shekel of about 14 grams (see the Talmud TB Berekot 50a and Josephus "Antiquities of the Jews" iii 8.2.194). A shekel equaled four drachmas which equaled two staters. Until around 400 B.C. coinage had not yet been invented. A "shekel" originally referred to a weight of silver.)
The Law of Moses describes the "Holy" Half Shekel tax as having a redemptive function. The Bible says, "And Yahweh spoke unto Moses, saying, "When you take the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you number them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto Yahweh. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls. And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls." (Exodus 30:11-16). This religious tax had a redemptive function. Salvation terminology such as "a ransom" and "atonement for the soul" is used in describing this tax. It was the people who were collecting this tax that Jesus threw out of the Temple, along with the money they had collected; the half-shekel Temple tax that they had a religious obligation to pay. While in the Temple Jesus spoke out about poor people who willingly gave to the Temple priests the little they had, which was all they had to live on (Luke 21:1-2), all the while the wealthy rich made an ostentatious display of their giving, with was in reality only a pittance compared to all they possessed. There are various small copper coins that were the "widow's mite." These coins were called leptons and were smaller than quadrans; the smallest Roman coin. See Mark 12:42-44 and Luke 21:2-4. Many believe "Widows mite" coins to be the bronze lepta and prutot of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmonean King of Judea who ruled from 103 until 76 B.C. The lepton is the very smallest denomination. Although these coins were minted long before Christ's lifetime, they were still in circulation during the first century A.D. The lepton is probably the lowest denomination coin ever struck by any nation in all of history. Imagine only having two coins of the smallest value in all of history and having that as all you have to live on! Lepton and prutah were carelessly and crudely struck, usually off center. Because they circulated over a long period, they are often very worn. The legends upon these coins are almost always illegible. The actual size of a prutah is less than 1/2 inch wide. A lepton is usually had the same diameter as a pencil eraser. There was also a small coin minted by Pontius Pilate that could also have been used as the "widows mite." If the "widow's mite" was all that some people had to live off of, imagine how difficult it would be for the poor to come by silver coinage! The Temple Establishment claimed ownership of funds from the moment a person made a mental decision to give an offering (TB Qiddushin 28b). Thus, once a man so consecrated his money, it then irrevocably belonged to the Temple authorities. Jesus condemned the Temple authorities for their religious law that requiring the giving of offerings to the Temple to take precedence over providing for one's family (Mark 7:9-13).
In the second century before Christ, the city of Tyre boasted the most important mints in the Seleucid kingdom. After gaining autonomy in 127 BC, Tyre continued to mint the silver shekel and the half shekel. (They were probably continually minted for the Jewish community.) The dates appearing on these coins begin in that historic year. The Tyrian shekel was the most important and widespread coin in the land of Israel in this period. Although it bore the head of Melqart, the chief god of the city of Tyre, who was identified with Hercules, this coin was adopted by the Jewish population of the Holy Land as their main currency. The Tyrian shekel and half shekel were used to pay the taxes to the Jewish Temple during the so-called "Second Temple Period" and brought large revenues into its treasury. (The period of Jesus Christ is often incorrectly called the "Second Temple" period by certain Jewish scholars. The Temple Jesus knew was the third temple of Yahweh that was built in Jerusalem. Certain scholars illogically consider Zerubbabel's Temple the same Temple as the one built by Herod although Herod demolished Zerubbabel's Temple in order to build a new Temple. The "logic" behind this "Second Temple Period" terminology is that the animal sacrifices were not interrupted while the Temple of Zerubbabel was demolished and the Temple of Herod's was being built. Because the animal sacrifices were not interrupted, these two completely different buildings are considered one and the same building. This is foolish, and this "Second Temple Period" terminology needs to be abandoned.) The reason the priests demanded payment in the Tyrian Silver Shekel is that they wanted the purest silver. (In the Aramaic of Christ's day the word for debt and the word for sin were the same word, "khobein." In Aramaic, but not in Hebrew of this period, the words for 'debt' , 'debtor', are frequently used in the sense or 'sin', 'sinner.' Jesus proclaimed a release from sin or debt and proclaimed a jubilee in fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. As we are forgiven so to must we forgive others. As Jesus said in his prayer, "forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us." In the Lord's Prayer there is a prayer for bread since many were on the verge of starvation. Many were hopelessly in debt. Jesus proclaimed freedom from indebtedness.)
The word "synagogue" comes from a Greek word, which means "assembly." There is no biblical mandate for synagogue worship, it is a Jewish tradition that developed rather late, at the earliest during the "Babylonian Captivity." In the New Testament it states that it was Jesus' custom to regularly attend synagogue services (Luke 4:16). Reciting the Targum was an important part of the synagogue service. The masses of the common Jewish people in the Holy Land could not read nor could they understand Hebrew. Therefore, the practice of giving an oral translation of the Bible in Aramaic was established as part of the synagogue service. These Aramaic renderings are called the Targum. They are not word for word translations but are rather free translations or paraphrases. Many "Targumim" have survived to today. While we have some Targums ("Targumim") from the time of Jesus, many of the Targumim that we now have were written later than the time of Jesus but may reflect oral traditions that go back to the time of Christ. The synagogue service at the time of Jesus opened with the Sh'ma, a Hebrew statement of faith. (The Sh'ma is "Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eleheinu, Adonai Echad," which means, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God, the Lord is One!")The Bible was read in Hebrew which was then followed by the Aramaic translation. Then a sermon was given in Aramaic and the service was closed with an Aramaic prayer called the Kaddish. (Today, Jewish people pray the Kaddish during times of mourning. At the time of Jesus it was a benediction prayer. It is not a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer magnifying the name of God and beseeching Him to establish His kingdom on earth. It has strong similarities with the Lord's Prayer.) The synagogue became the center of Jewish village life.