Jesus—His Life and Message: The Setting

By Peter Amsterdam

November 18, 2014

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Familiarizing ourselves with the world Jesus was born into can shed light on some of the events of His life and the ways in which people responded to Him; why some loved Him and became believers, followers, and disciples; and why others didn’t accept His teaching and even vehemently fought Him and His message.

In order to understand the world of Jesus’ day, it’s helpful to be informed about some of the history of the Jewish people. To set the stage, following is a brief overview, starting from the time of the first Jewish king.

200–350 years after the Hebrew people entered the land of Israel, they demanded to be ruled by a king instead of through prophets and judges, as had been the means thus far. God instructed the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as their first king. He was followed by David, who was succeeded by his son, Solomon.

During both David’s and Solomon’s reigns, the Kingdom of Israel reached its zenith. After Solomon’s death, ten of Israel’s tribes rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam, who had ascended to the throne. The kingdom was divided in two. Ten tribes followed Jeroboam, who was not of royal blood but had been loyal to Solomon. These tribes became the northern Kingdom of Israel.1 The two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, followed Rehoboam and became known as the Kingdom of Judah.

Two hundred years later, in 722 BC, the Assyrian army defeated the army of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and basically depopulated the land by exiling the Israelites throughout the Assyrian Empire. From that point onward, these ten tribes of Israel ceased to exist as either a kingdom or as ten tribes, and are often referred to as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

The southern Kingdom of Judah lingered for another 125 years, until it was completely destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians invaded and defeated Judah three times during a period of 19 years.

The first invasion resulted in the king and many members of his court, along with the top echelon of society, being taken captive to live in exile in Babylon. A second invasion resulted in further destruction of the land and more of its people being taken. Most significantly, the temple—originally built by Solomon—was destroyed. The third invasion resulted in the city of Jerusalem being completely destroyed. Only the very poorest were left in Israel, while the Babylonians carried off the rest of the population.

Roughly 70 years after the last invasion, the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Jewish people—who by this time had lived in Babylon for approximately three generations—to return to Israel to rebuild the Temple and eventually also the wall around Jerusalem.

Around 200 years later, in 331 BC, Alexander the Great and his army defeated the Persians and took control of an empire that spanned from Greece to India to Egypt, including the land of Israel. Upon Alexander's death in 323 BC, his generals carved up his empire, setting up various kingdoms. Over the decades, control of Israel changed hands a few times and eventually came under the control of the Seleucid (Syrian) Empire. In 175 BC, Antiochus IV became ruler of the Seleucid Empire. He worked to Hellenize his territory, including Israel, by importing all things Greek, including the worship of the Greek gods. This eventually included placing an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs in the Temple. Jewish outrage eventually led to rebellion in an uprising known as the Maccabean revolt.

This revolt ushered in self-rule in Israel for just over 100 years, from 166 to 63 BC. During this period, the borders of Israel were extended almost to their previous dimensions under King Solomon. In 63 BC the Romans captured Jerusalem, and from that time forward, throughout the life of Jesus and beyond, Rome held dominance over the area. While Rome ultimately ruled the land of Israel, they sometimes did so through client kings and rulers, such as the Herod family, as well as directly through Roman officials, such as Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ lifetime.

Faith and Politics

The religious importance the Jews have always placed upon ruling their own land stems from the promise God made to their ancestor Abraham around 2,000 years before Jesus’ birth:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.2

Later, in the land of Canaan, God said to Abraham:

Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.3

These two promises were later renewed to both Isaac and Jacob and have always been at the heart of the Jewish faith. The Hebrew people were to be a great nation, blessed by God, and they were to have the land which Abraham was looking at—the land of Israel—forever. After four centuries of living in Egypt, Abraham’s descendants, led by Joshua, conquered Canaan, which became known as Israel. Abraham’s descendants finally had land of their own. The Hebrew people had received the fulfillment of God’s promise to make them a great nation and give them the land Abraham lived in. Possessing the Promised Land in a political sense was (and still is) a foundational aspect of the Jewish faith.

They possessed the land for centuries, until their defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. Though they returned under Cyrus, from that point on until the Maccabean revolt, they lived on the land but didn’t control it politically. While they did gain political control for a century after revolting against the Seleucids, they lost it when the Romans gained dominance in 63 BC, and never regained it. By the time Jesus began His ministry, Israel had been under the control of Rome for about 90 years.

In the years following the Roman occupation, there were a variety of revolts by various segments of the Jewish people. A number of the leaders of these revolts claimed messiahship, saying that they were chosen by God to defeat the foreigners and drive them from the land. It is estimated that in the thirty years from the Roman occupation until Herod the Great was installed as king, no less than 150,000 Jewish men died in uprisings, or an average of 5,000 per year.4

The Jews longed for the messiah, whom they expected to be a strong military leader or king who would defeat the Roman oppressors and rid them from the land so that the people of Israel could once again truly possess their country. There was desperation as well as hope, and many Jews would rally behind those who came forward to lead them. But all of these revolts were violently crushed. The Roman rulers in Israel were always watching for any hint of an uprising or anyone claiming to be the messiah; to them, any messiah spelled serious trouble and represented a political threat to their sovereignty that needed to be destroyed. It was in this milieu that Jesus entered the world.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah Vols 1,2. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Charlesworth, James H. (editor). Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2007.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1997.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2010.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Once when Jeroboam was away from Jerusalem, in the open country, the prophet Ahijah, who was dressed in a new garment, found him there. Ahijah tore the garment into twelve pieces and told Jeroboam to take ten of them, as God was going to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and would give him ten of the tribes to rule. Upon hearing this, Solomon sought to kill Jeroboam, who fled to Egypt, where he remained until Solomon’s death, after which time he returned and led the rebellion against Rehoboam. See 1 Kings 11:28–40 for the full story.

2 Genesis 12:2–3.

3 Genesis 13:14–15.

4 Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 57.


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