Although many modern Christians do not realize it, an understanding of Jesus' historical context is extremely helpful, perhaps even essential to true understanding of Christianity. After all, it is only once one understands the geographical, political, religious, and social environment of Jesus' time period that one can truly understand the impact of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons that a historical perspective is important is because many modern-day Christians are separated from their Jewish roots. However, one must always bear in mind that Jesus was not a Christian; Jesus was a Jew and his life and death had been foretold in Jewish prophecies for hundreds of years. In addition:
Jesus addressed his gospel- his message of God's imminent kingdom and of judgment, of God's fatherly providence, of repentance, holiness, and love- to his fellow countrymen. He preached only to Jews. Not a syllable shows that he detached this message from its national soil, or set aside the traditional religion as of no value. Upon the contrary, his preaching could be taken as the most powerful corroboration of that religion. (Harnack, 31).
Therefore, in order to understand how Jesus impacted the Jews of his time and how his life and death required the creation of a new church, one must understand what it meant to be a Jew in the time of Jesus. Furthermore, in order to understand how Judaism transformed into early Christianity, it is essential to understand the central role of forgiveness in Christianity.
One of the most significant things about Jews during the time of Jesus and, in fact, throughout the Old Testament, is that Jews had a tremendous attachment to the physical land of Palestine. In fact, "among the outward means by which the religion of Israel was preserved, one of the most important was the centralization and localisation of its worship in Jerusalem." (Edersheim, Life and Times, i.3). Unlike other religions of that time, which were not tied to a certain location, Jews were inextricably linked to Palestine:
He had only one Temple, that in Jerusalem; only one God, Him Who had once throned there between the Cherubim, and Who was still King over Zion. That Temple was the only place where a God-appointed, purse priesthood could offer acceptable sacrifices, whether for forgiveness of sin, or for fellowship with God. (Edersheim, Life and Times, i.3).
Therefore, the geography of Palestine did not merely indicate physical borders, but was also the physical manifestation of God's promise to the Jews.
This distinction is important because the Palestine of antiquity bore little physical resemblance to the modern Middle East. On the contrary, ancient Palestine was both beautiful and prosperous, with abundant sources of fruit, grain, produce, fish, animals, and birds. (Edersheim, Sketches). Furthermore, Palestine had a climate that ranged from tropical to snowy. Likewise, it had a varied terrain, which included plains, pastures, hills, forests, and a coastline. Its beauty gave truth to the promise of a land of milk and honey.
Of course, the political makeup of ancient Palestine played an important role in the story of Jesus. First, it is important to understand that the Jewish tribes that originally dispersed during the Diaspora had returned to Palestine, and the Jewish community was fractured over the controversy of the ten tribes. However, no Jewish faction had political control during that time period. On the contrary, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. When Christ was born, the ruler of Palestine was Herod the Great. After Herod's death, Rome appointed Archelaus as Herod's successor. After Archelaus was deposed, Palestine was arranged into four territories: Galilee, Samaria, Judaea, and Peraea.
Of these areas, Judaea and Galilee contained the largest Jewish populations. However, it is important to remember that the Palestine of Jesus' time was not a strictly Jewish area. On the contrary, there were a substantial number of Gentiles in Palestine. Furthermore, Palestine was divided into areas of holiness, with Israel considered the most holy. The Gentile influence could be seen in everyday activities. For example, the predominant spoken language was Aramaic. Although religious and cultural isolation were hallmarks of the Jewish community of Jesus' time, the high level of assimilation is understandable when one considers that the Jews were a conquered people and had to assimilate in order to survive.
Despite this high-level of assimilation, Jews maintained a distinct cultural…