A short essay I wrote for an undergraduate class called “Jesus the Jew” about a year ago.
Understanding who Jesus was is dependent on understanding the social context he was born into. What were the problems the Jewish people faced? What was the religious composition of the country? Was Jesus unique? Or were there others like him? After decades of Roman occupation, would Jesus’ message have been viewed favorably by his contemporaries?
When Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Romans. The invasion of the Romans was the last of many such occupations of Jewish lands by foreign powers that gradually diminished Jewish territorial control and sovereignty. Rome’s involvement with Judea began as an opportunistic intervention into a struggle over succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Pompey the Great, a Roman proconsul, backed Hyrcanus and restored him to the throne because he believed that Hyrcanus would be more likely to comply with Roman desires. The illusion of self-rule came to an end in 6 CE, when Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Iudea and placed under direct Roman rule. By the time Jesus was born, there was widespread belief that the appearance of a messiah who would destroy the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty was imminent. There were, in fact, many people wandering the desert claiming to be just such a person, and most of them were crucified by the Roman government.
Contemporary Jewish religion was very diverse, from established denominations to temporary movements built around charismatic individuals. The vast majority of the Jewish people were what today might be called mainstream practitioners. They were not heavily invested in the finer points of theology, but rather followed tradition and relied on instruction from those in their community with religious authority. This figure was usually a Pharisee. In contrast to the Sadducees, a group of priests who performed the required sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were accessible to the people. Sadducees were educated, but status as a Sadducee was inherited and could only be inherited. Pharisees were also educated, but could be anyone: your neighbor, your son, or your uncle, and they lived nearby and could answer your questions. Another popular denomination was the Essene community, which lived a celibate and missionary lifestyle. There were also Zealots, or Fourth Philosophy groups, and groups like the one at Qumran, which may have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were also charismatic individuals, typically wandering the country or living in the desert. They usually inspired followers or students, like Bannus, a hermit that Josephus sought wisdom from, and John the Baptist. There was no sense of normative Judaism. Jewish religion covered a broad spectrum of beliefs centered on the acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.
Jesus, as a man that preached a messianic message about the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, would not likely have been a surprise to his contemporaries, since he was but one of many such men traveling the country preaching a similar message. He also would not have been seen as a heretic, necessarily. Years later, Josephus defended the Christians because they were viewed as another group of Jews. There is no contemporary record of Jesus’ life, so it is impossible to know for sure how he was received, but he would have been seen as acting within the limits of Jewishness and, chafing under Roman rule, a message that advocated the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty probably would have been welcomed by the average person, or at least not a surprise.