As Passion Week begins 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? He 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
- Palm Sunday: what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?
- The Trial: what took place 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 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 settled the dispute by making Judea a Roman client kingdom. Herod the Great was appointed king over the territory (remember him from the Christmas story?).
Upon Herod’s death, in 4 B.C., the kingdom was divided into four tetrarchies. His sons:
- Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him later) 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 that 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 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 “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 Greek successors to Alexander The Great‘s generals, and before that, the Medeo-Persians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. 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