What was the historical climate surrounding the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? This man born to die, not just in the normal sense, but in some special sense, entered Jerusalem amidst a torrent of political, social and economic turbulence. The events in Palestine at this time are rarely linked to the larger context which controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the culmination of Jesus’ career was really a tale of two cities – Jerusalem and Rome. In these historical notes we will examine this climate. Some of the subjects we will examine include:
- Pilate: who was he, what were the pressures he faced, did he fly a plane?
- Herod: the “fox”, was he as clever as his father, Herod the Great?
- Pharisees & Sadducees: how were they related, which held the greater power, and how were their names spelled?
- The Sanhedrin & the High Priests: what was the makeup and jurisdiction of the council. Who was the current High Priest, Annas or Caiaphus, the New Testament calls them both High Priest?
- Palm Sunday: what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?
- The Trial: what took place during the trials, what laws were involved?
- The Crucifixion: what was involved on Good Friday?
- The Resurrection: what do we know about it?
Our story begins during the last week of March, A.D. 33. The relationship between the Jews and Rome went back at least 100 years. In 63 B.C. a dispute arose between two factions of the high priestly family. One of the factions appealed to Rome for assistance. The result of this was that General Pompey arrived in Palestine during his reorganization of the East and made Judea a Roman client kingdom. Herod the Great was appointed king (remember him from the Christmas story?). Upon his death in 4 B.C. the kingdom was divided into 4 tetrarchies among his sons. His son Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him again) was given Galilee and Pereae. Archelaus received Judah, Idumea, and Samaria which he ruled so poorly that he was banished and replaced by a succession of Roman governors or prefects. Judea was neither one of the more important, nor more illustrious provinces and for that reason was not ruled over by a member of the more noble ‘senatorial‘ class. Instead, a member of the equestrian class (equus=horse, Latin for ‘knight’ or official), the middle class which made up an important part of the Roman bureaucracy and military. The sixth of these governors was Pontius Pilate.
For centuries the Jewish people had awaited the coming of a Messiah, “the anointed one” of God who would rule on the throne of King David and deliver them from their oppressors. This expectation ran throughout the Old Testament, with a number of themes attached: God’s vice-regent on earth, a deliverer from political oppression, a suffering servant who would deliver the people from their sins, an eternal ruler. During the period between the Old and New Testaments, ca 400 B.C to A.D. 65, a large amount of literature surfaced, called apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, repeating and embellishing the concept of the Messiah. (The Greek word of the Hebrew Messiah is christos, or “anointed one”, from which we get the word Christ. Christ was not Jesus’ last name, but rather a title, Jesus the Christ.) Before the Romans, the Jewish people had suffered under a number of occupying oppressors, including the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Medeo-Persians. After almost a hundred years under the Romans the expectation for the Messiah had reached almost a fever pitch. This was the condition when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time