Christians today foundationally believe that Jesus is the central figure who contributed to the development of the Church as we know it today. Any ideological movement spanning thousands of years must have had a significant origin story. Christianity is the most popular religious identification today, much more than Judaism, where it draws its roots. When we research the origins of the Christian movement, one particular fact stands out:
Jesus was Jewish, through and through.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke place emphasis on Jesus’ Jewish (and especially royal) origins through genealogies. The accounts of Jesus’ life portray Him as one firmly within turn-of-the-century Judaism. He visited the temple, studied the Torah, engaged in moral discussion, and celebrated Passover. So the questions arise:
did Jesus intend to create a brand-new movement?
Or was His message simply an amendment of Judaism?
Was His goal to start an institution that would dominate the known world within 400 years?
These questions are difficult to answer, but to even begin to do so, we must understand the mindsets of competing players in the Palestinian society of the time.
Jesus was born in Palestine during a time of political unrest. Since the first century BCE, this area had been under Roman control, and was quite unstable until Herod the Great took control in 37 BCE and rebuilt the temple. Herod firmly ruled the area as an ambassador of the Roman empire, yet the people of the region still held on to their Jewish faith. In 4 BCE, Herod the Great died, and Palestine was split among Herod’s sons. According to Cristian Violatti,
“Galilee in the north and Perea in the southeast were entrusted to Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE – c. 39 CE), whose reign (4 BCE – 39 CE) covered the entire life of Jesus. Philip the Tetrarch was appointed ruler over northern Transjordania. Herod Archelaus was made ruler of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea…”
For those who are familiar with the gospel accounts, these names and locations may sound familiar. It’s important to recognize that the region known as “Israel” or “Canaan” in the Old Testament was no longer a unified political entity, but rather, a collection of nation-states under the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Rome.
The Jews of the day had put their trust in Yahweh’s promises to conquer their enemies and give them their own kingdom under the rule of a meshiah, or “anointed one,” yet the interpretation of this promise and the level of trust varied from person to person.
Jesus shared his message among a few key philosophical and religious parties. These groups often disputed on matters such as the intersection of religion and politics, the implication of Old Testament prophecy, the interpretation of the Torah (especially the Law), and response to the Roman authorities. Jewish scholar Josephus notes four primary categories:
The Pharisees emphasized Jewish traditions and practices which set them apart from the pagan culture that enveloped the Roman empire. They prided themselves on strict observance of the Law of Moses, and condemned those who they considered unclean. The Pharisees were largely respected for their piety and perceived righteousness, but they were often aloof from the problems of common people, creating relational distance between cultural groups. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ respect for Hebrew scripture, but He was often in conflict with their legalism, contrasting it with His own philosophy of “the spirit of the Law” (Matthew 5).
The Sadducees represented those Jews who found Roman rule a political advantage. They were not eager to preserve Jewish identity, but rather “embraced the sophisticated manners and fashions of Greco-Roman culture” (Shelley, Church History). During Jesus’ ministry, the Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin (Jewish high council), but were largely disconnected from common people. Their outlook was political, while the Pharisees were more religious, but both groups found common ground in seeking to quench the Jesus movement, which centered around a priest-king.
The Zealots were a militant group positioned against the Sadducees, determined to resist Roman rule and restore Jewish independence politically. They looked back to the Maccabean period (chronologically between Malachi and the New Testament) where religious and political zeal united to combat the Greeks.
The Essenes were a group with no political agenda, who instead retreated to the wilderness and studied the Scriptures in monastic communities (similar to John the Baptist). According to Cristian Violatti,
“The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practised exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus.”
Jesus’s teaching, while sharing some similarities with many of the movements, was distinctly unique. A look at the twelve disciples reveals some internal conflicts of interest. Matthew/Levi was formerly a tax collector, loyal to the empire, and part of a class often accused of extortion and greed. Simon was a Zealot, and may have seen the Jesus movement as an avenue to the destruction of empirical rule. This combination of followers from competing backgrounds seems to indicate that Jesus’ message was something that attracted people from different classes and ideologies and unified them to a brand-new movement.
Jesus may have been born into a Jewish context, but His message transcended what anyone understood Judaism to be. As Peter Enns puts it,
“a crucified and resurrected messiah
was a surprise ending to Israel’s story.”
The authors of the gospels and epistles had to reformulate their understanding of the Torah and Prophets to comprehend Jesus’ radical new movement. Jesus fully intended to shake things up; in fact, He commanded His disciples to spread His message not only among Jewish people, but to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).
Jesus was not an individual who fought for or against particular existing ideologies. Rather, He drew people from a variety of belief systems together to follow God in a revolutionary way, establishing a pattern for His Church to follow.