February 13, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Conditions in Palestine at the time of Christ

John F. FinkTo understand some portions of the New Testament, you have to know about the conditions in Palestine when Jesus began his public mission. It was a country ruled by Rome, usually to the displeasure of the Jews.

The Roman system of taxation angered the Jews. This is why tax collectors were looked down on. The Jews had to pay a census tax, a town or village tax, income taxes up to 50 percent, and a frontier tax that was collected every time someone went from one district to another.

There were five such taxes collected between Capernaum and Jerusalem. Two tax collectors along that route were Levi, or Matthew, stationed on the Via Maris near Capernaum, and Zacchaeus in Jericho.

Sometimes the Jews were able to get Rome to make changes. For example, when Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., he divided his kingdom among three of his sons. Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria and Idumea; Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea; and Philip the area to the north and east of Galilee—the Golan Heights.

Archelaus tried to be as ruthless as his father. During the funeral for Herod, some of the people were expressing their anger at the dead king. Archelaus sent troops to control the crowds. When the Jews threw stones at the soldiers, Archelaus called out the rest of his army and 3,000 people were massacred.

Still, Archelaus survived on the throne for 10 years before a delegation of both Jews and Samaritans went to Rome to complain about him. Caesar Augustus stripped Archelaus of his title and banished him. Judea then came under direct Roman rule, governed by a Roman prefect who lived most of the time in Caesarea. Pontius Pilate was the fifth such prefect.

There was trouble up in Galilee, too, where Herod Antipas continued to rule as a puppet of Rome. This is where the Zealot movement was founded by Jehuda of Gamla, a city near the Sea of Galilee, and a Rabbi Tzadok. Jehuda preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel, not the Roman Emperor, and, therefore, one ought not to pay him taxes.

It’s probable that most of Jesus’s Apostles sympathized with the Zealots, although only one is identified as “Simon who was called a Zealot” (Lk 6:15). They were hoping for a Messiah who would free Israel from the Romans. Eventually, the Zealots instigated the revolt against Rome from 66 to 70 that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

To completely understand some of Christ’s healings, we must know that the Jews had precise laws concerning ritual impurity. A Jew had to be careful to avoid coming into contact with something, or someone, contaminated. Examples include mildew in houses or on pots and cups, and touching a dead animal or human.

A menstruating woman was considered contaminated, as was a new mother. A leper was unclean and could not be touched. Once contaminated, a Jew had to be cleansed, with different sorts of methods for cleansing depending upon the nature of the contamination. Most Jewish homes had a pool, known as a mikvah, with running water, for ritual cleansing. †

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