History of Easter: Historical Climate

Historical Climate of EasterHISTORICAL CLIMATE OF EASTER

As we begin Passion Week next 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? This was a man born to die, not just in the normal sense but also in some special sense. Jesus entered Jerusalem amidst a torrent of turbulence: religious, political, military, social, and economical.

At that time, the events in ancient Palestine are rarely linked to the larger context that controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the culmination of Jesus’ career was a tale of two cities – both Jerusalem and Rome. In this series on Easter, we’ll discuss:

The Events of Easter

Easter Backstory

PereaOur story begins during the last week of March, A.D. 33 when the relationship between the Jews and Rome was already at least 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 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 Herod’s death, in 4 B.C., the kingdom was divided into four tetrarchies among his sons. His son Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him again) was given Galilee and Perea in the north. 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. For that reason, it was not ruled over by a member of the nobler “senatorial” class of Romans. Instead, a member of the equestrian class (equus=horse, Latin for “knight” or “official”), the middle class which made up a significant part of the Roman administrative 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 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?

During the period 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 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 “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, most recently the Greeks, and before that, 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

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About billpetro

Bill Petro is a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Dina on March 23, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Thanks for the nice clear explanation.
    That older photo of the Old City is an unusual and wonderful perspective.

    • Bill Petro on March 23, 2010 at 8:26 am

      Thanks Dina.

      This was my first view of Jerusalem, as I drove up the road in the foreground to approach the Western Wall.


  2. egunjobi lawrrence on September 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    that for the artcle more grrace,sir what is the meaning of easter?

    • Bill Petro on September 26, 2014 at 3:30 pm

      Thanks for the question. I define that in my first article in the series History of Easter.

      The German word “Oster” reveals the association of many Easter customs with those of the Teutonic tribes of central Europe. When Christianity reached these people it incorporated many of their “heathen” (of the heath) rites into the great Christian feast day. Easter month, corresponding to our April, was dedicated to Eostre, or Ostara, goddess of the spring.

  3. Tom Lewis on March 27, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Good reading. Thanks for posting the historical aspect of the time. After reading this I want to do more research on Jewish culture and Roman culture too.

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