New Testament Commentary



In the time of Jesus the social, religious and political conditions of Israel were vastly different from those of Old Testament times. Many of the changes came about during the period between the close of the Old Testament era and the beginning of the New. The origins of the changes, however, go back into the national life of Israel during the time of the Old Testament monarchy. A brief survey of events and developments in Israel will help towards a better understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus.

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Hebrews, Israelites or Jews

About a thousand years before the time of Christ, David established in Jerusalem a dynasty through which God promised to bring the universal king, the Messiah (2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 2:6-9; Isa 9:6-7; 11:1- 9). David was followed by Solomon, but after Solomon the kingdom divided into two. The northern section broke away from the dynasty of David, but it still called itself Israel. The city that eventually became its capital was Samaria. The southern kingdom became known as Judah, after its leading tribe. It remained loyal to the dynasty of David, whose kings continued to reign in Jerusalem, but now over only the southern kingdom.

When the people of the northern kingdom were conquered by Assyria and taken into foreign captivity (722 BC), they became absorbed into the countries of their exile and largely lost their national identity. But when the people of the southern kingdom were conquered and taken captive to Babylon (605-587 BC), they largely remained in one region and retained their national identity. The people of Judah were called Judeans, and this was later shortened to ‘Jew’ (Jer 34:9).

After Persia’s conquest of Babylon (539 BC), captives from Babylon returned to their Israelite homeland. This meant that those who rebuilt Israel were largely Judeans, or Jews. But they were also Israelites according to the name’s original meaning

(for they were descended from the man whose name was Israel, Jacob). There was no longer a division in the nation between north and south, and the names ‘Israelite’ and ‘Jew’, along with the ancient name ‘Hebrew’, were used interchangeably (John 1:19,47; 2 Cor 11:22; Gal 2:14).

Jews and Samaritans

The Samaritans were a race of people that emerged after the Assyrians’ conquest of the northern kingdom in 722 BC. The Assyrians’ policy was to move conquered peoples into other countries.

Therefore, after they had taken the Israelites into foreign captivity, they resettled people from other parts of their empire into the cities of the former northern kingdom, mainly in the region around Samaria

(2 Kings 17:6,24).

These settlers tried to avoid punishment from Israel’s God, Yahweh, by combining the worship of Yahweh with their own religious practices (2 Kings 17:25-33). They also intermarried with the Israelite people left in the land, resulting in the emergence of a new racial group, the Samaritans. By the time the Jews had returned to Jerusalem (after Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC), the Samaritans were well established in the land.

When the Jews began to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, the Samaritans offered to help, but the Jewish leaders rejected them. They saw the Samaritans as a people of mixed blood and mixed religion, and feared they would introduce corrupt ideas into Israel’s religion. The Samaritans reacted bitterly and opposed the Jews throughout their building program (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 4:1-9). Although the Jews eventually completed the building program, some of the leading Samaritans, through cunning and deceit, gained influence in Jerusalem. They introduced corrupt religious and social practices, but within a few years were driven from the city in disgrace (Neh 13:1-9,23-28).


Sacred places and sacred writings

As a result of the Jews’ constant rejection of them, the Samaritans turned their attention to organizing their own religion, to make it more distinct from the religion of the Jews. One development was the building of a temple of their own on Mt Gerizim, a place of religious significance located not far from Samaria (cf. Deut 11:29; 27:12; Josh 8:33). This only increased the hatred between Jews and Samaritans, and this hatred continued into New Testament times (Luke 9:52-54; John 4:9).

In defending their actions, the Samaritans used selected parts of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), but they became so extreme that they almost treated the remaining Old Testament books as being of no importance. Their chief beliefs were that there was only one God, Moses was his only prophet, the law of Moses was the only authoritative teaching, and Mt Gerizim was the only true place of worship (cf. Deut 27:12; John 4:20).

The Jews, by contrast, had so many sacred writings that they were forced, by the arguments of the Samaritans, to consider which were the Word of God and which were not. This led, in time, to the acceptance of the thirty-nine books that form our Old Testament. This might be called the Jewish Bible, though the arrangement of books differs from that of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible.

The Jewish synagogue

With the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, sacrificial rituals again became part of the Jewish religion. These had not been possible when the people were in exile in Babylon, with the result that greater emphasis was placed on teaching and obeying the moral teachings of the law. Although sacrificial rituals were now restored, the emphasis on teaching the law was maintained. This is clearly seen in the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, who gathered the people together in Jerusalem to read them the law and explain its meaning (Neh 8:1-4,7-8; 9:1-3). In the years that followed, such teaching activity was partly the reason for erecting local meeting places known as synagogues (from a Greek word meaning ‘to gather or bring together’).

Wherever the Jews settled they built themselves synagogues (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16; John 6:59; Acts 13:5,14). These were centres for prayer, worship, teaching, fellowship and administration of local Jewish affairs. The synagogue leaders became the acknowledged leaders of the Jewish community and were called elders (Matt 21:23; Luke 7:3-5). The chief elder was known as the ruler (Mark 5:22; Acts 22:19). Elders had power to punish wrongdoers, even to the extent of flogging them or expelling them from the synagogue community (Matt 10:17; 23:34; John 9:22).

A synagogue was a simple building, consisting of a main meeting room entered through a porch, with an open court outside. It had no altar and no sacrifices were offered there. Women and men sat on opposite sides of the room, and the leaders sat in the chief seats, facing the audience (Matt 23:6).

Synagogue services were conducted at least every Sabbath and were under the control of leaders (Mark 1:21; Acts 13:14-15). The service opened with prayers, followed by readings from Old Testament scrolls that were kept in a special box and handed to the reader by an attendant (Luke 4:16-17,20; Acts 15:21). Either a local leader or an invited person then delivered an address based on one of the readings (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 13:15; 17:10-11), after which the service was closed with prayers.

In the everyday functions of the Jewish religion, synagogues became more important than the temple in Jerusalem. But later teachers were far removed in spirit from Ezra and Nehemiah, and by the time of Jesus the synagogues were more a hindrance than a help to God’s purposes. The Jewish religion had changed so much that it is commonly referred to as Judaism, to distinguish it from the religion set out in the law of Moses.

Teachers of the law (scribes)

Chiefly to blame for the development of Judaism were the scribes, or teachers of the law. In the days before mechanical printing, scribes were those who made written copies of the sacred writings. Theirs was a specialized job, and because of their skill in copying details of the law exactly, people regarded them as experts on matters of the law (Ezra 7:6,10).

Although the priests were supposed to be the teachers in Israel (Deut 33:10; Mal. 2:7), people now went rather to the scribes to have problems of the law explained. During the four to five hundred years


between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus, the scribes grew in power and prestige. They became known as teachers of the law, lawyers and rabbis (Matt 22:35; 23:2-7).

There was a great difference between the explanations of the law given by Ezra and those given by the scribes of Jesus’ time. Over the years the scribes had developed their own system, which consisted of countless laws to surround the central law of Moses. Some of these new laws grew out of legal cases that the scribes had judged; others grew out of traditions that had been handed down. The scribes forced their laws upon the Jewish people, till the whole lawkeeping system became a heavy burden (Matt 15:1-9; 23:2-4).

Being leaders and teachers in the synagogues, the scribes enjoyed prestige and power in the Jewish community (Matt 23:6-7). They taught in the temple in Jerusalem, and established schools where they trained disciples (Luke 2:46; Acts 22:3). They then sent these disciples to spread their teaching far and wide (Matt 23:15). Most of the scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, one of the two major groups that developed within Judaism (Matt 5:20; 23:2; Acts 5:34).

The Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)

As early as the time of Ezra, groups of elders and judges had been appointed to administer the law in Jewish affairs (Ezra 7:25-26; 10:14). This practice was followed in the local synagogue committees, but as these committees grew in power a more rigid system of Jewish rule developed. Although any local Jewish council could be called a Sanhedrin, the word was most commonly used for the supreme Jewish Council in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Sanhedrin consisted of a maximum of seventy members, not counting the high priest, who occupied the position of president. Its composition changed from time to time, but in New Testament times it consisted of scribes, elders, priests and other respected citizens. It included people from both main Jewish parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matt 26:3,57-59; Acts 5:17,34; 23:1,6).

Rome gave the Sanhedrin authority to arrest, judge and punish Jewish people in relation to certain religious and civil matters (Acts 5:17-21,40; 9:2). The Sanhedrin could condemn a person to death, though according to its own law it could not pass such a sentence at night (Luke 22:66), and according to Roman law it could not carry out the sentence (John 18:31). The Jewish authorities had to convince the Roman authorities that the person deserved death, after which the Romans themselves carried out the execution (Luke 23:1-4,24). However, the Romans knew the difficulties of governing the Jews, and they sometimes feared to deny the Jews their wishes or even to intervene when there was mob violence (Matt 27:24-26; cf. Acts 7:57-58).


Although the Jews were ruled by Rome in the time of Jesus, many features of the Jewish way of life were the result of political events in the pre-Roman period. The Persians, who had conquered Babylon in 539 BC and helped the Jews to rebuild their ancient homeland, remained the Jews’ overlord for the next two hundred years. But rapid changes occurred

with the dramatic conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Greek Empire.

Greek rule and influence

Alexander was from Macedonia, the northern part of present-day Greece. In little more than a year he overran Asia Minor and took control of much of the eastern Mediterranean region

(333 BC). His conquests spread rapidly through parts of northern Africa and western Asia, then continued over what remained of the Persian Empire till they reached India.

Wherever they went the Greeks planted Greek culture. The Greek language became commonly

spoken throughout the region, and remained so into the New Testament era in spite of the rise of Roman power. People in local regions continued to speak their own languages (the Jews of Palestine spoke


Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew), but they usually spoke Greek as well (cf. Mark 5:41; 15:34; John 19:20; Acts 14:11; 22:2). The New Testament was written in Greek.

Greek architecture spread through the building of magnificent new cities, and Greek philosophy changed the thinking of people everywhere (1 Cor. 1:20-22). The Greeks brought some help to the people they governed, by providing a standard of education, sport, entertainment and social welfare that most people had never known before. Those who absorbed this Greek culture were regarded as civilized; all others were regarded as barbarians (Rom 1:14).

Alexander died while at the height of his power (323 BC) and his vast empire was divided among his generals. In the early days after the break-up there were four dominant leaders, but power struggles among them (and others) continued for many years. By 301 BC there were three main sectors in the divided empire: one in the west centred on Macedonia, and two in the east centred respectively on Egypt to the south and Syria to the north.

At first Palestine was within the Egyptian sector, where each of the Greek rulers took the name Ptolemy. Under the Ptolemies the Jews had a reasonably peaceful existence. During this time, in the recently built city of Alexandria in Egypt, a group of about seventy Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint (meaning ‘seventy’ and usually abbreviated as LXX). In New Testament times both Jews and Christians used the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament. When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they usually used the Septuagint rather than make their own translation from the Hebrew.

Changes in Israel

Some of the later Ptolemies became hostile to the Jews, but conditions worsened when the Syrian sector conquered the Egyptian sector and so brought Palestine under its control (198 BC). The Greek kings who ruled Syria were known as the Seleucids, after the king who founded the dynasty. Most of the kings gave themselves the name Antiochus, after Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid kingdom that the founder of the dynasty built in 300 BC (cf. Acts 11:20; 13:1,4).

Israel had now been under Greek rule for more than a hundred years, and Greek customs and ideas were having an influence on the Jews’ religion and way of life. Divisions began to appear among the Jewish people. Some Jews not only tolerated this Greek influence but actively encouraged it. In doing so they won favours from the Greek rulers and had themselves appointed to important positions in the Jewish system. Others firmly opposed all Greek influence, particularly the influence of Greek rulers in Jewish religious affairs.

When fighting broke out in Jerusalem between rival Jewish factions, the Seleucid king of the time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, mistakenly thought that the people were rebelling against him. He invaded Jerusalem, killed Jews in thousands, made others slaves, burnt the Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat forbidden food and compelled them to work on the Sabbath day. He set up a Greek altar in the Jewish temple, then, using animals that the Jews considered unclean, offered sacrifices to the Greek gods. To the Jews this was ‘the awful horror’ (GNB), ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ (RSV) (Dan 11:31). But Antiochus failed to realize that the Jews were zealous for their religion and would not stand idly by and allow him to destroy it.

Jewish resistance led by the Maccabees

The Jews’ fight for religious freedom began through a priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons (known as the Maccabees, after Judas Maccabeus, his son and the leader of the group) escaped from Jerusalem, put together a small army and began to carry out surprise attacks against the forces of Antiochus. The attacks were so successful that after about three years the Maccabees had overthrown the pro-Greek party of Jewish priests in Jerusalem and cleansed and rededicated the temple (165 BC). From that time on, the Jewish people celebrated the great event in the annual Feast of Dedication (John 10:22).

Encouraged by their remarkable victory, the Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans, after their old family name) decided to keep fighting till they had won political freedom as well. But the religiously strict Jews, who had previously opposed Greek political interference in their religion, also opposed the Maccabees’ drive for political power. They believed that the Maccabees had done their job by restoring the temple and regaining religious freedom for the Jews. They should not have any part in politics.


These opposing viewpoints eventually produced the two main parties that divided the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees wanted political power, whereas the Pharisees were content to have religious freedom. The Maccabees carried on the war in spite of the Jewish opposition, and after twenty years won political independence (143 BC).

Sadducees and Pharisees

After four and a half centuries under Babylon, Persia, and then Greece, the Jews were free again. However, they were now clearly divided, under the domination of two major parties. On the one side were the pro-political priests and leaders (the later Sadducees) who were wealthy, powerful and favoured by the Hasmonean rulers. On the other side were the anti-political traditionalists (the later Pharisees), who were poor, powerless and favoured by the common people. The differences between the two parties increased as each developed its own beliefs and practices.

The Pharisees’ chief aim was to keep the law in all its details; not so much the law of Moses as the countless laws developed and taught by the teachers of the law, the scribes. They were particularly strict in keeping rules relating to religious observances such as fasting (Luke 18:11-12), tithing (Matt 23:23), Sabbath-keeping (Matt 12:1-2), the taking of oaths (Matt 23:16-22) and ritual cleanliness (Mark 7:1-9). The name ‘Pharisees’ meant ‘the separated ones’, and many were so convinced they were God’s only true people that they kept themselves apart from others (Acts 26:5; Gal 2:12).

If the Pharisees were the party of the scribes, the Sadducees were the party of the priests (Acts 5:17). (Their name possibly comes from Zadok, a priest of Solomon’s time whose descendants were regarded as the only legitimate priests; 1 Kings 1:38-39; Ezek 44:15-16). The Sadducees’ strategy was to use the religious and political structures of Jewish society to gain power for themselves. Since they controlled the priesthood, one of the main channels of power, it suited them to emphasize the temple rituals. However, they had little interest in the traditions of the scribes. The only Jewish law they acknowledged was the written law of Moses (Luke 20:27-28).

Sadducees and Pharisees had several other well known differences, chiefly in matters of their beliefs.

The Sadducees did not believe in the continued existence of the soul after death, the resurrection of the body, the directing will of God in life’s events, or the existence of angelic beings, all of which were important beliefs to the Pharisees (Matt 22:23; Acts 4:1-2; 23:7-8).

End of Jewish independence

The Hasmoneans ruled for almost one hundred years. Under them political, religious and military power joined together, so that the Hasmonean ruler was at the same time governor, high priest and commander-in-chief of the army.

During the period of Hasmonean rule the Pharisees were often the ones who suffered. They welcomed the chance to reverse the situation when a later queen showed herself favourable to them. But when she died, fighting broke out between her two sons, one of whom favoured the Pharisees, the other the Sadducees. At that time Rome’s power was spreading towards Palestine, and as General Pompey had his army nearby in Syria, both sides asked for his help. Pompey settled the dispute by leading his army into Jerusalem and taking control himself. Thus, in 63 BC, Jewish independence came to an end.

Herod the Great

One of the two brothers who sought Rome’s support was appointed by the Roman administration as political head and high priest of Judea. He proved to be a weak leader. He was very much under the influence of an Idumean friend Antipater, who was cunningly planning to gain control himself. (Idumea was a region in the south of Judea that was inhabited by a mixture of Jews, Arabs and the remains of the nation once known as Edom.) In the end Antipater was appointed governor of Judea, with his two sons in the top two positions under him.


At that time Judea, and in fact the whole of the eastern Mediterranean region, was troubled by a succession of power struggles, divisions and wars. Antipater was eventually murdered and his sons overthrown. But one of the sons, who had developed even greater cunning than his father, escaped to Rome, from where he had himself appointed the new governor of Judea and given the title of king. This person we know as Herod the Great.

Through treachery and murder, Herod removed all possible rivals. Then, having made his position safe, he began to develop and expand his kingdom. He ruled Judea for thirty-three years (37-4 BC). He carried out impressive building programs, two of his most notable achievements being the rebuilding of Samaria and the construction of Caesarea as a Mediterranean port. In Jerusalem he built a military fortress, government buildings, a palace for himself and a magnificent temple for the Jews (Matt 27:27; Mark 13:1; John 2:20; Acts 23:10,35).

In spite of the benefits Herod brought them, the Jews hated him. This was partly because of his mixed blood (though he was Jewish by religion) and partly because of his ruthlessness in murdering any he thought a threat to his position. His butchery was well demonstrated in his massacre of the Bethlehem babies at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt 2:13,16).

Family of Herod

Before he died, Herod divided his kingdom between three of his sons, though they, like their father, could rule only within the authority Rome gave them. The southern and central parts of Palestine (Judea and Samaria) went to Archelaus, a man as cruel as his father but without his father’s ability (Matt 2:22).

The northern part of Palestine (Galilee) and the area east of Jordan (Decapolis and Perea) went to Herod Antipas, the man who later killed John the Baptist and who agreed to the killing of Jesus (Mark 6:14-29; Luke 3:1; 23:6-12). The areas north-east of the Sea of Galilee (Iturea and Trachonitis) went to Herod Philip, a man of milder nature than the rest of his family (Luke 3:1).

Direct Roman rule

Archelaus was so cruel and unjust that in AD 6 the people of Judea and Samaria asked Rome to remove him and govern them directly. From that time on, Judea and Samaria were ruled by Roman governors, or procurators, with headquarters at Caesarea. The procurators of Judea and Samaria mentioned in the Bible are Pilate, Felix and Festus (Matt 27:2; Acts 23:24,33; 25:1).

The only exception to this rule by procurators was the brief ‘reign’ of Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great (Acts 12:1-4,20-23). Through winning favour with Rome, he gained the former territories of Herod Philip (in AD 37) and Herod Antipas (in AD 39). In AD 41 he gained Judea and Samaria, and for three years he ruled almost the entire ‘kingdom’ of Herod the Great.

Upon his death in AD 44, Judea and Samaria returned to the rule of Roman governors.

Earlier, when a governor from Rome replaced Archelaus (AD 6), the Jews for the first time had to pay taxes to the Romans direct instead of through the Herodian ruler. When Rome conducted a census to assess this tax, a group of Jews led by a man called Judas the Galilean rebelled, claiming that it was wrong for the people of God to pay tax to a pagan emperor (Acts 5:37). Because of their


zeal in trying to free Israel from pagan influence, they became known as Zealots, or Patriots, and formed a minor political-religious party in Israel (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

The zealots were so opposed to Roman rule that they were prepared to fight against it. Rome’s mismanagement of Jewish affairs increased their determination, and in AD 66 they revolted openly by taking control of Jerusalem. There was much turmoil and bloodshed during the next four years, but the Romans gradually reasserted their control, first in Galilee then throughout Judea. Finally, in a series of brutal and devastating attacks, they conquered Jerusalem, massacred the people, burnt the temple and left the city in ruins (AD 70). So far as Rome was concerned, the Jewish nation was finished.



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