Jesus in Context | What were the Prejudices and Expectations of the First Century?

Academic Articles | Theology

Published on August 05, 2021

Jesus is often as enigmatic and mysterious as the invisible God He incarnates, and rightly so. For two millennia he has perplexed and captivated the hearts of many a wanderer. Richard Nixon is said to have called the day Apollo astronauts landed on the moon in 1969 “the greatest day since Creation.” To which Rev. Billy Graham reminded him of Christmas and Easter, and within the scope of history, he was right.[1] It is said that you can tell the size of a ship by the wake it leaves behind in its path. This obscure small-town Jewish carpenter-rabbi has changed the face of history more than any other figure and we still feel the waves of his wake. We would do well to seek to further understand him in his context.

Talladega or Galilean Jesus?

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However, beholding him to some has been both elusive and subjective. This is humorously portrayed in the movie Talladega Nights, where Ricky Bobby only prays to him as a tiny 8lb 6 ounce baby Jesus. Many today even in Christian circles, to varying degrees, have bought into their own Jesus of tradition—the images of flannel graph Jesus perhaps indelibly marked on their consciousness. Or perhaps it is the Hollywood Jesus, with his long flowing hair which should be in a L’Oreal ad, blue eyes and British accent that has been etched on our memories. But repeatedly, as people are confronted with the Jesus of the scriptures, understood in his context, there is a certain freshness and stark confrontation which brings us back to the question He posed to Peter; “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus stands uniquely in history as the only person who could have chosen where and when to be born. Though he was born in Bethlehem, it must be significant that he chose the backwater town of Nazareth in Galilee to be the place and time of his early childhood and later life. Not many Christians today have considered what impact his Galilean context would have had on Jesus. However, to try to understand Jesus apart from his Jewish roots would be akin to trying to understand Ghandi apart from his ‘Indianness’.[2] Furthermore, we must ask how his Galilean roots, the cultural understanding of the people and the historical climate of that time affected his contemporaries’ perception of him and his message. His was a time of many varied expectations and tensions and it is impossible to discuss them all fully here. However, by considering some of the factors surrounding his life we will see if Jesus was the type of Messiah people expected in the first century and some of the prejudices he would have struggled against.

Galilean Roots

Jesus was raised in Galilee and undoubtedly would have borne the traits of a typical Galilean. The majority of his ministry and public life were in Galilee with only short Judean stays which corresponded to Temple pilgrimages that are mandatory to the Jews. Though he was from a poor or lower-middle-class family, Jesus lived in a prosperous and mainly agricultural area.[3] The Jews in Galilee seem to have been in the area for a little more than a century before Jesus’ time and were made up of recently transplanted Judean settlers or forced converts under John Hyrcanus. Galilee was considered one of the furthest removed provinces geographically, politically and spiritually.[4] Despite this, Galileans were proud of their Jewishness and independence. They were also brave and tough rebels, praised by Josephus—the commander-in-chief of the region during the Jewish War—for being courageous in battle.[5] “Galileans were admired as staunch fighters by those who sympathized with their rebellious aims; those who did not think of them as dangerous hot-heads.”[6]

There was a fair bit of stigma attached to Galileans by the rest of Jews and they found themselves the butt of ethnic jokes in Rabbinic literature. “In rabbinic parlance, a Galilean is usually referred to as Gelili shoteh, stupid Galilean. He is presented as a typical ‘peasant’, a boor, a ‘am ha-arez, a religiously uneducated person.”[7] Shabbat 16:7 of the Talmud records the first-century sage, Yohanan ben Zakkai, lamenting the Galilean’s lack of religious zeal after being asked only two questions about Jewish law during his 18-year stay with them.[8]

First-Century Redneck Accents

The Galilean Aramaic accent was ridiculed by other Jews for their pronunciation.[9] “There are several anecdotes in the Talmud Bavli (the ‘Babylonian Talmud’) where Galileans are mocked due to how they didn’t distinguish between certain consonants and vowels.”[10] Even the Galileans who learned Hebrew were reported to have not been allowed to read the Torah in other synagogues for fear that they might offend God by mispronouncing something.[11]

[The Talmud (תַּלְמוּד) is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It is also traditionally referred to as Shas (ש״ס), the “six orders”. The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is the written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah (Torah meaning “Instruction” or “Teaching”). The second part is the Gemara, an elucidation of the Mishnah that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term Talmud can be used to mean either the Gemara alone or the Mishnah and Gemara as printed together.]

We see an example of how easily distinguishable the Galilean accent is when Peter is recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples just by his accent:

After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” (Matthew 26:73 ESV)

Jesus most likely spoke with that northern dialect which would have probably increased the skepticism about him. With this in mind, we can understand why reactions—such as Nathanael’s in John 1:46 would be expected: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[12] This is a far cry from the British Jesus of the silver screens we often have etched in our memories. Have you ever thought of Jesus having an accent that would have been scorned? It might be akin to how some in North America scorn “redneck” accents.

Since Galileans were considered inexpert in religious legal matters, coupled with the well-known Galilean chauvinism that would have likely have been automatically attached to him, we can understand the Pharisees’ reactions of prejudice against Jesus in the Gospels.[13] Even Jesus’ name—which derives from Joshua—meaning “he shall save”, may have added to the scandal. Zealous Jews had such high respect for the name of God that they would not even dare utter it for fear of mispronouncing it. How scandalous would it be then for an unsophisticated, redneck peasant with a common name like Jesus to make himself equal with the Almighty?[14]

Revolt and Messianic Expectations

From the inter-testamental period, we can see how the culture of Messianic expectations was shaped through the Maccabean revolt and other would-be messiah-figures that arose. In reaction to anti-Torah policies by the Seleucid Empire in 167-160 BCE, Judas “The Hammer” Maccabeus—son of the priest, Mattathias—led a violent revolt with the uncouth Northerners which resulted in the Zealot movement and eventually recaptured the temple and established the Hasmonean dynasty.[15] The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is in commemoration of the restoration of worship at the temple in Jerusalem as a result of this in 164 BCE. Judas and his brothers became the prototype for political messiahs and would become important again with the rise of the Roman empire.[16]

[The Inter-testamental period – also known as the Second Temple Period (530 BCE-70CE) – is the time period between the writing of the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi (c. 420 BCE), until the opening of the New Testament. Protestants refer to it sometimes as the “400 silent years” since no Scripture was written then. However, many of the Apocryphal, Pseudopigraphal or Deuterocanonical books were written then and some are used by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.]

This violent ‘zeal for Torah’ (see 1 Macc 2:15-28), by which Judas ‘turned away wrath from Israel’ (1 Macc 3:8), sometimes involved violently forcing apostate Jews to return to the covenant. This may have served as a model for “zealots” such as Paul later on as well.[17] Some, such as Dr. Mark R. Fairchild, have cited Acts 22:3 and Galatians 1:14 as possible illusions to Paul being a Zealot which might have been a driving force behind his persecution of the early church.[18] The word ζηλωτὴς used is a noun which could mean a zealot or simply one who is eagerly devoted to a cause. However, most translations render it as an adjective “zealous for God” as it is coupled with the word for God (Θεοῦ) in the genitive case (literally – God’s zealous one). Paul does seem to make this connection of enacting zeal for Torah in Philippians 3:6, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” So while it may not be conclusively asserted that Paul was a zealot, he is referred to as a Pharisee in Scriptures, and it is reasonable to postulate that the zealot movement would have had some influence on him and his contemporaries.

[The Books of the Maccabees (Hebrew: מכבים or מקבים‎, Greek: Μακκαβαῖοι) are deuterocanonical books concerned with the Maccabees, the leaders of the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid dynasty, or related subjects written in the inter-testamental period.]

“Throughout the period of Roman domination, Jewish resistance movements continued (sporadically) to emerge, rallying together supporters with promises of God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel through the hand of the latest would-be ‘anointed.'”[19]

This pattern of revolt continued to the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 CE and the last would-be messiah was Simeon ben-Kosiba in 132 CE. As with previous revolts, he and his followers were dealt with mercilessly by the Romans.[20] This hope for political independence and restoration for Israel was a widely shared mode of thinking which Jesus’ own disciples seem to continually slip into, even after his resurrection (Acts 1:6).[21]

The Jewish Leaders’ Fear of Revolutionaries

Understanding the repeated failures of past revolutions and the Hasmonean dynasty to bring about God’s restoration is important to set the mood of the culture in which Jesus arrived.[22] Especially after the desecration of the temple by Pompey, which showed them that even the Temple was not safe under oppressive Gentile rule, much of the messianic expectations were for a powerful general-king to free them and to establish a very real throne of Israel.[23] (See the Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18.)

[The Hasmonean dynasty ( חשמונאים) was the ruling dynasty of Judea and surrounding regions established by the Maccabean Revolt. Between c. 140 BC and c. 116 BC, the dynasty ruled semi-autonomously from the Seleucids in the region of Judea. In 63 BC, the kingdom was conquered by the Roman Republic.]

Jesus had to counter the expectations of a messiah who would bring political restoration to the Davidic monarchy. This is possibly seen in his discourse with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-46. In John 11:45-50 and Mark 15:1-26 is it clear that this was the perception of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities and was part of what lead to “his execution as a leader of sedition.”[24] The code “the kingdom of God” was used by Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah for revolution, and devotion to Torah was opted for as a safer alternative to political revolution.[25] Thus, it is understandable that Jesus’ proclamation of the coming “Kingdom of Heaven” provoked nervousness with the recent memory of failed revolutions fresh in their minds. However, “there is no evidence that Jesus had any political intentions or could justifiably be regarded as an insurrectionist” and Jesus spent a great deal of effort in countering these expectations that were projected on him—redefining what the arrival of the Kingdom actually looked like.[26]

The perception of Jesus as possibly another emerging Galilean revolutionary posed a significant threat to Herod and the Jewish leaders’ goal to maintain law and order. “Every time there was a possible candidate for the Messiah, it was standard procedure to dispatch a group of Pharisees to interview the person and check him out.”[27] This assumed perception of Jesus as a Galilean, with the backdrop of a history of violent revolutionaries coming from that area and prejudices against them can help explain why his uprising would have been seen as a threat which needed to be extinguished—not just for religious reasons but also for political ones. Another crazy revolutionary may just be the push that Rome needed to bring them to exterminate the pesky group of Jews living in their empire. The Jewish leaders may have been acting for what they believed to be the benefit of the continuance of their people under Roman rule. Consider John 11:49-52 where the high priest says that it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed, fearing a genocide from ruthless Roman reaction to another failed revolutionary.[28] This same saying is also linked by John as prophesy—that is, in another, more profound way, Jesus would be the one man dying for all.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees and religious leaders are often painted in an overly simplistic and harsh light. However, they were not just narrow-minded religious grouches, there were other traditions which factored into their messianic expectations. One such tradition espoused that Messiah would come if all of Israel repented for an entire day or kept two Sabbaths perfectly.[29] Since the present misfortunes of Israel were interpreted as owing to their departure from the covenant, careful observance of Torah was viewed as the road to God’s redemption.[30] So when Jesus seemed to relax the observance of these Laws, it was ironically seen as a threat to the messianic hope of Israel, not realizing that he was that hope. Their opposition to Jesus may have well stemmed from a misguided but genuine concern for the redemption of the nation.

Sometimes there seems to be a false conflict in the minds of modern Christians between Jesus and the Pharisees, that his teachings were diametrically opposed to theirs. However, they may have agreed much more than some would think. In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus tells his followers to do what the Pharisees teach. He condemns their hypocrisy not their teachings. The Gospels depict Jesus as a good Jew who obeyed and encouraged adherence to the Law, tithing, and the imitation of God. His teaching had a distinctive rabbinical flavour, echoing the sentiment of many of the Old Testament prophets such as seen in Isaiah 58, calling people back to true religion known as the Hebrew virtue of emunah.[31]

Rather than abolishing the Law, he refocused it on the purity of intention and the ultimate purpose of moral acts.[32] Through his life of befriending tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, Jesus embodied this model, the God-Man descending and showing the way to his own.[33] Jesus also took his fair share of the stigma of Galilean chauvinism and religious ignorance which would have automatically been attached to him. This puts into perspective the Pharisees prejudice against him: “in his lack of expertise, and perhaps even interest in halakhic matters, common to Galileans in general…”[34] Thus, in some instances his quarrels with the Pharisees may be viewed, not as two opposing religions, but a conflict between different expressions of the same faith.

[Halakha (הֲלָכָה) is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah. It includes the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”), subsequent talmudic and rabbinic law and the customs and traditions.]

Inter-Testamental and Apocryphal Writings

The apocryphal writings from the inter-testamental period also set the stage for Jesus’ arrival. While these writings are not inspired Scripture, they do give us insight into the cultural context of Jesus’s day and the religious expectations. “The Christ was not invented to explain Jesus’ life and death . . . Jesus entered into a role that existed prior to his birth, and this is why so many Jews were prepared to accept him as the Christ.”[35] The expectation of a Messiah that would be called the Son of Man and be both divine and human was not simply a “Christian” invention. The book of Enoch contains five sub-books which are purported to have been written by the antediluvian Enoch of Genesis. They were gathered together probably sometime around the late first century C.E. However, fragments of them have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest of which are estimated to the third century B.C.E. and the earliest of the Similitudes dating from the mid-first century C.E.[36]

A passage in the 46th chapter of the Similitudes of Enoch closely resembles what we see in Daniel 7. Both passages depict two figures—one obviously recognized as the Ancient One and one resembling the Son of Man. The Similitudes of Enoch provide explicit extra-biblical evidence that the idea of the Son of Man as a divine-human Redeemer arose by the time of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems that there was a controversy among the Jews about the Son of Man phrase long before the Gospels were written.[37] 1 Enoch 48:2-5 describes the Son of Man as the pre-existent “Anointed One”, and explains that he will be worshipped by the whole earth.

“And at that hour that Son of Man was named In the presence of the Lord of Spirits, And his name before the Head of Days. Yea, before the sun and the signs were created, Before the stars of the heaven were made, His name was named before the Lord of Spirits. He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall, And he shall be the light of the Gentiles, And the hope of those who are troubled of heart. All who dwell on earth shall fall down and worship before him, And will praise and bless and celebrate with song the Lord of Spirits.” (1 Enoch 48:2-5)

This text helps to illuminate the Christology of the NT and even its Jewishness.[38] Fourth Ezra, another Jewish text outside of the Gospels also similarly identifies the Son of Man as the Messiah based on Daniel 7.[39] In Chapter 69 of the Similitudes, it describes the Son of Man sitting on the throne of glory at the right hand of the Ancient of Days.[40] Furthermore, 1 Enoch 1:9 is quoted in Jude 1:14, so this book obviously had its influence both on Jews and early Christians.

“And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones To execute judgment upon all, And to destroy all the ungodly: And to convict all flesh Of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed, And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (1 Enoch 1:9)

Studying these materials and history demonstrates that Jesus lived in a complex web of Galilean prejudice, messianic expectation and Jewish doctrines which he affirmed, challenged or refocused. We cannot fully appreciate the scope of his ministry or make sense of the various reactions it provoked until we understand these and other factors that would have influenced him and his contemporaries. “Ignorance of the precise context in which sayings were formulated often prevents the recovery of precision and nuance in interpreting Jesus’ teaching. Meaning is determined by context, and sayings whose context is unknown cannot be pressed too hard in the quest of original meaning.”[41] Studying the religious writings and cultural context of the time brings a greater depth to Scripture and presents a more complete picture of Jesus and his ministry which may otherwise be lost by many modern Western readers.

Jesus In Context

He taught in a period of cultural transition and religious flux, and though he took advantage of this liberty of interpretation of Torah, he remained thoroughly Jewish.[42] If Jesus was authentically Jewish, then can Christianity be properly understood apart from Judaism? We tend to think of Christianity and Judaism as totally distinct and different entities, but perhaps was this instead the by-product of the expansion of the Gospel to the gentiles? Does the Christian church perhaps need to think about recovering their ‘Jewishness’ and understanding the culture and traditions of the first century Jews? The answers to these questions may be helpful in deepening our understanding of the “Jewishness” of Christianity and also perhaps impact our methods of taking the Gospel to the Jews. After all, the earliest Christians did not see themselves as a separate religion—to them, it was a continuation and culmination of their Jewish faith—the consummation of their hope for Messiah.

Jesus did not see the Kingdom of heaven as a religious-political reality with himself as King. As Ed Sanders points out, the apostles were not persecuted by Pilate since they weren’t at that time perceived as a revolutionary faction. The concept of the ‘Kingdom’ was the holy Jewish nation leading the Gentiles to God via humble submission to the Divine Ruler. The regal imagery which might have been in the minds of the people of the time is replaced instead by Jesus with the Kingdom being like a field, a vineyard, a mustard seed, the fish, the net, the catch, the woman looking for a coin or kneading dough. All quite common and plain imagery, showing that the Kingdom of God is entered in—as through Jesus the humble Messiah—by those who would come to the Father through childlike, simple faith.[43] However, this should not surprise us, as God has an M.O. which tends to use the simple and weak to confound the wise and strong. Jesus was telling them that though the kingdom was breaking in, it did not look like what they were expecting.[44] This was not a political revolution, but rather it was seen as a spiritual return from exile to God, the defeat of evil at the Cross, and God making ‘tabernacle’ in the hearts of men – though these would not be fully recognized until after his ascension.

While we believe that God had orchestrated and planned the coming of His Messiah in every detail, this does not negate the real influences, people and history that set the stage for the central drama of Redemption to unfold. When we begin to understand the context of Jesus’ time—Hellenization, Galilean stigmas, the Maccabean Revolt, Roman imperial rule, messianic expectations and Jewish traditions—we begin to see that they combine to form major influences that motivate real behaviour and responses in real people in the Gospel narratives. It is then that the Gospels can come alive more and with “these backgrounds in mind [it] will also help us understand why some opposed, some misunderstood and some warmly welcomed Jesus and the movement that spread in his name, proclaiming Jesus as a very distinctive embodiment of hope.”[45]

In many ways, Jesus was not at all what the people of his day were expecting of the Messiah, but he turned their wayward thinking on its head. However, in many more ways, He was exactly who they should have been expecting had they dared to see beyond their meagre hopes. Where they only ventured to dream of political and physical liberation, Jesus came announcing the infiltration of a Kingdom without end, without borders, and the liberation of their hearts and minds to a restored relationship with their LORD. His is a hope that will not put us to shame, a treasure that will never wear out which no moth or rust can corrupt. Today this is still true, the Jesus of reality—the risen Christ who comes to dwell in the hearts of men—continues to exceed and surprise our meagre expectations should we be so graced as to have our eyes and hearts opened to Him.

Perhaps there is no more appropriate way to end than to be reminded of the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke 1:32-33 which echo those written some 680-700 years before in Isaiah:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV)

There in the little town of Bethlehem, growing up in the dusty streets of Galilee, the Eternal Logos entered humbly and quietly into history. The humility of our God in Christ cannot be overstated.


[1] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 16 [2] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 50 [3] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 4 [4] Hoffman, Who were the “Galileans”, online [5] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 4 [6] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 5 [7] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 5 [8] Hoffman, Who were the “Galileans”, online [9] Taylor, 7 Differences Between Galilee, online [10] Caruso, What is Galilean Aramaic?, online [11] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 60; Caruso, What is Galilean Aramaic?, online [12] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 60; John 1:46b ESV [13] Vermes, Jesus in the Jewish World, 8 [14] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 51 [15] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 4 [16] DeSilva, An Introduction, 46 [17] DeSilva, An Introduction, 46-47; see Phil 3:6 [18] Fairchild, Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot, 514-532 [19] DeSilva, An Introduction, 53-54 [20] DeSilva, An Introduction, 54; Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 33 [21] DeSilva, An Introduction, 54 [22] DeSilva, An Introduction, 49-50 [23] DeSilva, An Introduction, 53 [24] DeSilva, An Introduction, 54 [25] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 34 [26] Jonge, Christology in Context, 210 [27] Amaral, Understanding Jesus, 8 [28] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 12 [29] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 64 [30] DeSilva, An Introduction, 39 [31] Vermes, Jesus in the Jewish World, 8-9 [32] Vermes, Jesus in the Jewish World, 8 [33] Vermes, Jesus in the Jewish World, 9 [34] Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism , 11-12 [35] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 72-73 [36] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 74 [37] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 75-77 [38] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 80 [39] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 95 [40] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 80-81 [41] Sanders, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, 188 [42] Fischer, Jesus Through Jewish Eyes, online [43] Vermes, Jesus in the Jewish World, 5-6 [44] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 34-35 [45] DeSilva, An Introduction, 54-55


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