As Passion Week begins this coming weekend, what was the historical climate of Easter Week almost 2,000 years ago surrounding the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? If he was a man “born to die,” not just in the usual sense but also in some unique sense, then what was the torrent of turbulence — religious, political, military, social, and economic — as he entered Jerusalem?
The events at that time in ancient Palestine are rarely linked to the larger context that controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Jesus’ career culminated in a “tale of two cities” — Jerusalem and Rome. In this series on Easter, we’ll discuss:
The Events of Easter Week
- Palm Sunday: what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?
- The Trial: what occurred during the trials, and 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 when the relationship between the Jews and Rome was already 100 years old. In 63 B.C., a dispute arose between two factions of the High Priestly family. One of these factions appealed to Rome for assistance.
The result was that the Roman General Pompey arrived in Palestine during his reorganization of the East and settled the dispute by making Judea a Roman client kingdom. Israel lost its independence, and Herod the Great was appointed king over the territory (remember him from the Christmas story?).
The kingdom was divided into four tetrarchies after Herod’s death in 4 B.C. among his sons:
- Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him later) was given Galilee and Perea in the north.
- Philip received Ituraea and Trachonitis.
- Lysanias received Abilene.
- 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 the more illustrious provinces. Therefore, it was not ruled over by a member of the nobler “senatorial” class of Romans. Instead, it was governed by a member of the equestrian class (equus=horse, Latin for “knight” or “official”), the middle class that made up a significant part of the Roman administrative bureaucracy and military. The sixth of these governors was Pontius Pilate.
Anticipation of Messiah
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 Hebrew Bible, with several themes attached:
- God’s vice-regent on earth
- An eternal ruler
- Son of God
- A deliverer from political oppression
- A suffering servant who would deliver the people from their sins
…but how would he appear?
Pseudepigrapha on Messiah
Between the Old and New Testaments, circa 400 B.C. to A.D. 65, a large amount of non-Biblical literature surfaced, called apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, repeating and embellishing the concept of the Messiah. Much of this was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other pseudepigraphical literature written during the inter-testamental period. Pseudepigrapha are falsely-attributed documents that claim authorship by Abraham, Elijah, Job, Solomon, etc., to imbue authority to writings. These writings depicted the Messiah as:
- Son of King David
- Son of Man
- A battling warrior
- God’s agent for cleansing Israel
- Provider of nourishment, healer
- Holy One
- Raiser of the dead
The Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah” is Christos, or “anointed one,” from which we get the word “Christ.” This means that Christ was not Jesus’ last name but rather a title, Jesus the Christ. Before the Romans, the Jewish people had suffered under several occupying oppressors; up until 165 B.C., it was the Greek successors to Alexander The Great‘s generals. Before that, Israel had been under the dominance of the Medeo-Persians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. After almost a hundred years under the Romans, the expectation for the Messiah had reached nearly 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