Background of the Reports

What of the community background to this figure from 2,000 years ago, now mysteriously alive and reigning?

A very ancient synagogue site
Luke 4:15-21 (see also Mark 3) gives a glimpse of this topic:
He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
 because he has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(... continued, into that never to be forgotten Sabbath!)

We observe Jesus (and Paul, etc) attending and interacting on sabbaths in local synagogues (meetings). The name 'synagogue' in time became attached to buildings constructed for the purpose. Illustrations look to me to bear resemblance to temples. Synagogues also served as schools and for community purposes. Hearing the stored Bible (Old Testament, or, OT), as interpreted, was the focus. These male-dominated bodies were well-established in the culture.

There is no record of God instituting the synagogue phenomenon, which possibly arose spontaneously somewhere in dispersed Judaism. Synagogues had spread widely prior to Jesus' day. I wonder if there was some connection to the 597 BCE, etc, exile experience, when the 'LORD's song' was invoked in a 'strange land' (Psalm 137)? (Then an observant but displaced Israelite was denied any access to the temple and its offerings; years later Rome imposed the same consequence even more thoroughly.) Exiles, or their descendants, did not always 'return home' (compare the involuntary transportees in 'Australia' from the British Isles). So some scattered communities may have originated at various moments in violent periods.

The oldest synagogue site in Israel itself may be the one at Gamala (see above), between the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Could Jesus have visited here? 

Addendum: From further interest reading*
  • Clear archaeological evidence supporting the existence in Jesus' day of such constructions as above is scarce.
  • Synagogues may have been simply a large room in a house.
  • I see no impediment to simply accepting the incidental first century synagogue evidence of the New Testament, shorn of presuppositions and unsupported anachronisms, ie, not imagining something like the above site!
We encounter the officials of the synagogue: The 'attendant' and the 'ruler'.

HousesMany houses were 'boxy' structures with flat roofs. Some (many? most? not all) synagogues in Palestine may have been in such structures.
A Jewish Messiah: The ‘Jews’ of Judea saw themselves as inheritors of anciently invaded territory, possessed under God by their forebears. “He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today.” (Deuteronomy 4:37-38). They had the account in their ‘Sacred Writings’, what we call the OT, which was the Bible of Jesus’ own day. Their Jewish identity was bound up in the religion (Judaism), with a focus on the Jerusalem "sole" Temple. The OT books were central and were available in community languages other than the original Hebrew.

It is more of a challenge to read the OT collection to get the cultural background to the events of the first century. Acts chapter 7 has a quick summary of the first part of the story of God’s ancient people, ie, Israel, or the ‘Hebrews’ of Palestine.

I think a reading of the OT books called Samuel and those called Kings gives windows on ancestral political, social, economic and religious aspects.

Then perhaps try:  Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and Micah 
More briefly, Psalms (ie, song lyrics) 78, 105 and 106 give the ‘flavour’ of the history.
Therein lies the story that shaped how Jesus and his contemporaries saw themselves.


Old map located in Library of Congress. Dated 1912, so, I take it, no longer copyright. May be outdated but shows enough.

The vast, astounding and disparate Empire serving the appetites of  the Republic of Rome, with its turbulence and shifting power structures, was dominant in the region in the time of Jesus. From 63 BCE, apart from short gaps, Rome was overlord over Judea (Israel) and demolished resistance, with Emperor Hadrian completing its obliteration after 136 AD (CE). The Hebrews (Jews) had their own competing figures finding roles under Roman power.  The background focus is the period from Augustus. Interested readers might look up a history of Rome for the period from (say) 66 BCE, (for example Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, etc), and review events until Domitian (81-96 CE). I do not think Roman emperors usually died in their beds. Some rules were short! 

A glimpse of prior 'Judean' independence struggles from Greek dominance during a slightly earlier period than Jesus is found in the books of Maccabees, especially I & II. These are accessible on the internet. (Prior to the Greek [Selucid] period the dominant powers of the area had been Persia and Egypt.)

The experienced realities of power and control formed part of the background in the culture of Judaea - the name by which Rome knew these folk. This was true even as the activists resisted to a greater or lesser extent.

Earlier names are found in the OT. Israel at first, later separated into Judah (capital Jerusalem), and Israel (capital Samaria). Before the time of Jesus, Samaria was a separate entity, seen very unfavourably by those aligned with Jerusalem. Different land divisions and groupings were used across various regimes. Reading north to south, names included Galilee, Decapolis, Perea and Idumea.

As you open the Gospels and Acts you encounter members of 'parties' or groups under the labels of Pharisees, Scribes, Priests, Sadducees, and Herodians. These groupings were not the only ones in the land (see for example, the Essenes). The groups are taken for granted by the writers of the text.

The 'great throng' often stand in contrast to the religious/political authorities. Close to the final hours of Jesus' public ministry Mark records this observation (chapter 12: 35-37, NRSV):
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, inspired by[c] the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.’
David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.

Jesus spoke with many such people, much of his time. Although not stated, I think many, many folk were glad to hear him.

The power-brokers were another matter, and humanly speaking, they were the ones to shape the events. After a certain time they sought direct confrontation with Jesus.

Priests were successors of an ancient hereditary cohort who took turns in the temple. They get a poor press but the lower orders scarcely appear. More powerful members were called 'chief priests'. There was an hereditary 'High Priest' who had a unique role in the sacrificial system. That position had become complicated by irregular appointments made by rulers. I presume a priest could fit in to one of the following groups.

Scribes inherited the traditions of an ancient writing profession but by Jesus' day were 'lawyers'. They interpreted the ancient OT laws and collected case-law to shape their meticulous legal system. 

Pharisees arose in the period prior to Jesus. We see they were concerned with punctilious observance. They group with the scribes. 

Sadducees also arose before Jesus' birth. They were opposed to the views of the Pharisees and focussed on the first five OT books.

Herodians were the strongly political, aligning with the ruler, Herod.

Also appearing in the record are various 'roles' or functions, usually with essentially self-explanatory names, such as helper, elder, evangelist, disciple ("learner"), apostle ("sent one"), prophet. I am not taking up technical discussions about these terms. (Some are translated differently according to the version examined; comparing renditions may be useful.) Some will think me controversial, but I think it a mistake to see direct modern equivalence of the NT roles. With the exception of the military officers (centurion and tribune) I also imagine the situation was dynamic and fluid or, 'as needed', rather than life-long office bearers.

Jerusalem's Temple: Jerusalem had been the seat of Hebrew government and still had prominence under Rome. The major installation was the Temple, the place of the required sacrificial offerings. Jesus' generation had inherited the 2nd Temple with the continuing extensive re-development work implemented by King Herod, e.g., using 1,000 trained priests. (The fact that the original (Solomon's) Temple then no longer stood might have held salutary meaning to those of the day.)

How many visits did Jesus make to the Temple? We read of a few occasions. I imagine his birth family were faithful in attending. He would doubtless have continued to participate; similarly for the synagogue.

Ultimately the Second Temple was demolished by Rome. There remain buried foundations of Herod's retaining wall, from his extension to the Temple Mount (see internet for "Wailing Wall" or Western Wall, especially "Little Western Wall". 

*Reference: B. Chilton & E. Yamauchi, "Synagogues" in Dictionary of NT Background, ed. C.A. Evans & S.E. Porter (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press USA, 2000)

Scripture quotations above taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.     

Copyright image from; used by permission of Holy Land Photos.
At the website you can see many images of the above Gamala site, perched as it is on that hillside - perhaps deliberately out of the way? I wonder.

AL 25/04/2024

No comments: