The Religious and Social Environment in which
Jesus Christ was Raised

[Author unknown to me]

When studying the life and teachings of Jesus Christ it is impossible to do so without taking into account the religious and social milieu in which He lived, and the influence this had on Him, and subsequently, the early church. The intertestamental period of Jewish history, which preceded the life of Jesus, had a profound effect on the way the Jews viewed and practised their religion. The conquests of Alexander the Great had Hellenised the known world, and to a great extent, homogenised ancient society. This was further exacerbated by the advent of the Roman Empire and its institutions. The diaspora of the Jewish people, which had taken them away from their traditional Temple worship, had caused them to develop new modes of worship centred around the Synagogue. Living in a Gentile society also caused them to absorb many of its ideas and customs. The occupation of Palestine, and the despair this engendered, also gave rise, not only to revolutionary movements, but these, in turn, spawned new religious sects, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and others.

Not only this, but it originated a new genre of apocalyptic writings which were extremely influential in Jesus' time and beyond. Such was the religious environment in which Jesus was raised.

The first point which should be made is that Jesus lived in a culture in which religion was taught in the home from an early age. In spite of the historical instability of the region, the home continued to be a stable part of Jewish life.[1]

Being brought up in Galilee, Jesus and his family would rarely have gone to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. According to Luke's gospel, they only went annually for the Passover feast (Luke 2: 41). Consequently, their religious observance would have centred around the local Synagogue. Luke's Gospel states that it was Jesus' custom to go to the Synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4: 16)(see also: Mt. 12: 9, 13: 54, Mk. 1:21, 3:1, Luke 4, John 6:59) . According to Walker, "the Temple, though highly regarded, became less and less important for the religious life of the people as the time of Christ is approached".[2] The Synagogue was the social, educational and religious centre in each district, and Synagogue worship would form the basis of Christian worship in the first century.[3] However, Jesus himself says in John 18:20, that he "always taught in the Synagogues and the Temple". In fact, in his last week He spent considerable time in the Temple, arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees and physically 'cleansing' it of the money-changers (Mt. 21,22, Mk. 11,12, Luke 20). These passages also highlight the influence of the Scriptures in Jesus' life. Luke 4: 16,17 speaks of Jesus reading in the Synagogue at Nazareth, and in his contentions with the Pharisees and Sadducees his breadth of knowledge can clearly be seen (Mt. 21:42, 22:29-33, Mk. 12:10-11, 26, 32-37, Luke 20:17, 37, 42,43). Not only this, but Jesus' followers, the Christians, have preserved the Jewish Bible as their sacred book.[4]

It should also be noted that Galilee had, up until 103 BCE, been a largely pagan area and its inhabitants had intermarried with Gentiles.[5]

In fact, in the time of Jesus, the Decapolis region, near the sea of Galilee, contained a considerable foreign population, who would have brought with them a Western style civilisation, with its language, customs, and Graeco-Roman religious practises and philosophies.[6] This could not have failed to impact on the life of Jesus as he was growing up.

One can also clearly see the influence of John the Baptist in Jesus life. According to the gospels he appeared in the wilderness preaching, and that he wore the clothes, and had the diet of an ascetic (Mt. 3:1-4, Mk. 1:1-7, Luke 3: 3-6). As we have no writings from John or his disciples, we only have the perspective of the disciples of Jesus, which portrays him as a herald and precursor to Jesus (Mt. 3: 11). But it could also be that Jesus was one of John's disciples. John baptised him (Mk. 1: 9) and Jesus used similar language when addressing the Pharisees (Mt. 3: 7). John's disciples also questioned Jesus about his failure to fast (Mt. 9: 14) and later had to ask if He was the "one" (Luke 7: 19,20), which indicates that John was not superseded by Jesus, but had a profound influence on Him.

As previously stated, the intertestamental period gave rise to an apocalyptic tradition in Jewish religious literature. Beginning with the book of Daniel, which was written during the period of the Maccabbees, through to the early church, there was a yearning for the promised Messiah, which seems to have had its roots in the political distress of the time. Daniel, and those who followed, saw world history, according to Lietzmann, "as a great unity which moves towards a final goal according to a divine plan".[7] Its intention was to encourage the faithfulness of the people towards God in time of despair. However, much of the symbolism was influenced by Persian mythology, in which the world is in the throes of a struggle of good against evil, which will continue until the good God defeats the evil God and ushers in a time of peace.[8] Jesus is said by the New Testament writers to be the fulfillment of these traditions. He came into the world when "the fullness of time was come" (Gal 4:4, Mk 1:14). John the Baptist came "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17) preaching an imminent end and a call to repentance, and was said to be the forerunner of the Messiah. Jesus himself is also attributed with apocalyptic pronouncements in the Gospels. He speaks of the Son of man coming in glory to judge the Earth (Matt 24:30, Luke 21:27), and even refers to the "abomination of desolation" spoken of by Daniel (Matt 24: 15, Dan 11:31). In these examples the influence and pervasiveness of the apocalyptic tradition can clearly be seen.

The period into which Jesus was born was also marked by the influence of a number of Jewish sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and others. The Pharisees and the Essenes are traditionally thought to have been offshoots of the Hasideans, a group mentioned in the Maccabees.[9]

The traditional meaning of the word Pharisee is "separated". Most writers think this meant keeping themselves apart from the am ha-aretz , or 'people of the land'; those who didn't follow the law as they saw it. [10]

The main contemporary source we have for the Pharisees, outside of the New Testament, is Josephus. Both must be taken in the context of their respective biases. Josephus relates that the Pharisees numbered some 6000 and were distinguished by their piety and strict adherence to the law, added to which they had an extensive oral tradition of sayings explaining the law. They believed in the resurrection of souls and rewards and punishments in the after-life depending on one's deeds in this life. (Josephus Ant. 18.1.3, Jewish War 2.162).

They also believed in angels and spirits (Acts 23:6-10), and they are believed by most scholars to have been of middle class extraction[11]

The Sadducees, in contrast, are believed to have been of the aristocratic, priestly class, and unlike the Pharisees, stuck strictly to the written law, and according to Josephus, believed that the soul perished with the body (Ant. 18. 1.4). Josephus' comments must, of course, be taken in the context of his having been a Pharisee himself, and in light of his involvement in Roman politics.[12]

However, having disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem, the only accounts we have of the Sadducees are those of Josephus and the New Testament. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees are mentioned extensively in the Gospels, and came under criticism from Jesus; the Pharisees for their concentration on the minutiae of the law at the expense of "weightier" matters, such as "justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matt 23: 23), and the Sadducees over their disbelief in the resurrection (Mk 12: 18-27). Jesus' death can almost certainly be partly attributed to his contact with these groups, particularly his contention with the Priests (Sadducees) over the commercialisation of the Temple (Mt. 21: 45,46, Mk. 11: 15-18, Luke 19: 45-48, 20:19). It must also be said that the Gospels show little interest in the Pharisees and Sadducees except, as Neusner puts it, "as a convenient basis for polemic...".[13]

Another group which is mentioned in the New Testament are the Zealots. One of Jesus' disciples belonged to this group; Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15). According to Josephus they agreed with the Pharisees in everything except to say that "God is to be their only ruler and Lord" (Ant. 18.1.6). They were a patriotic militant group who were also deeply religious.[14] Josephus and Acts 5 also mention other dissidents who were Zealots, Theudas and Judas of Galilee in particular, who had reasonably large followings, but which both ended in death and a scattering of the adherents (Acts 5: 35-37, Josephus Ant. 18. 1. 6).

The last group that Josephus mentions are the Essenes, who are thought to have sprung from the same source as the Pharisees, but who took a more severe and austere outlook on life. The community at Qumran, who wrote the Dead sea scrolls, are thought, by most commentators, to have been the Essenes described by Josephus. According to Grant, their mode of life and discipline, as described by Josephus is "almost exactly paralleled in the Dead Sea Manual of Discipline". [15]

Josephus describes their piety, celibacy (not all practised this), community of goods and strict discipline, as well as their initiation regulations (Ant. '18.1.5, Jewish War 2.119-61). Pliny the Elder also describes the sect and says that " they lived west of the Dead Sea".[16] They also had a strong apocalyptic tradition. Their community was destroyed in 68 CE. It is not known, however, if Jesus had contact with them, but it seems unlikely that He would not have had contact with such a large group. In fact, there are parallels to their teaching in the new Testament; for example, their injunction against swearing (Josephus Jewish War. 2.134., Mt.6: 34, 23: 16, James 5:12). Some have also conjectured that Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes, but there is no clear-cut documentary evidence for this, apart from John's obvious asceticism.[17]

It seems clear that Jesus and His teaching owed much to the prevailing religious environment of His day. Coming as He did from a community which was shunned by the traditional religious sects and the Judean Jews, He was able, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, to relate to the ordinary people by giving them a simple religion devoid of the numerous restrictions of the Pharisees. He was also able to give them hope by drawing on the apocalyptic tradition of the resurrection and the coming age of peace.

Author unknown to me. Article taken years ago from a site that now isa dead link. Searched for the article using Goodle, Yahoo and MSN search engines to no avail.


1. Donald E . Gowan, Bridge Between the Testaments (Pittsburgh, 1980), 245.

2. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (Edinburgh, 1949), 12.

3. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey (London, 1953), 93, 94.

4. Charles Guignebert, The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus (New York, 1959), 1.

5. J.W.C. Wand, A History of the Early Church to AD 500 (London, 1937), 4.

6. Tenney, 214.

7. Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church (London, 1961), 25.

8. Eduard Lohse, The New Testament Environment (London, 1974), 105

9. George W .E. Nicklesburg & Michael E . Stone (ed s), Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents (Philadelphia, 1983), 19, 25.

10. Robert Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (London, 1963), 275.

11.Grant, 258.

12. Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity London, 1984), 46.

13 Ibid.

14. D.S. Russell, Between the Testaments (London, 1960), 54

15. Grant, 263

16. In Grant, 261

17. Guignebert, 189

Primary sources

Bible, New American Standard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Josephus, Flavius. "Antiquities of the Jews" in Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://ccel.wheaton'.edu/j/josephus/ant-18.htm

Josephus, Flavius. "The Wars of the Jews" in Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Nicklesburg, George W.E. and Stone, Michael E. Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Secondary Sources

Baus, Karl. From the Apostolic Community to Constantine. New York: The Seabury Press, 1980.

Gowan, Donald E. Bridge Between the Testaments. Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1980.

Grant, Robert. A Historical Introduction to the New Testament. London: Fontana, 1963.

Guignebert, Charles. The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus. New York: University Books, 1959.

Lietzmann, Hans. A History of the Early Church. London: Lutterworth Press, 1961.

Lohse, Eduard. The New Testament Environment. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1974.

Neusner, Jacob. Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity. London: SPCK, 1984.

Russell, D.S. Between the Testaments. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1960.

Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1961.

Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1949.

Wand, J.W.C. A History of the Early Church. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1937.

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