You will name him Yeshu. (Luke 1:31)
a time of rebellion
Jesus was born in a time of rebellion. The Jews were a conquered people. For over five hundred years they had been the victims of empires. First it was Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks. One great power after another had imposed its will over them. For some sixty years now it had been Rome.
The Romans colonized Palestine in 63 BCE. In accordance with their policy of appointing native rulers in their colonies, the Roman Senate named Herod, the most powerful claimant, as king of Judea in 37 BCE. Due to the major building programs he initiated, including the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, Herod became known as known as Herod the Great. He ruled with political shrewdness and ruthless cruelty. In 4 BCE, Herod died after 33 years on the throne. His kingdom was divided up among his three sons. Herod Archelaus was given Judea and Samaria, Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea, and Herod Philip took possession of the northerly regions.
the death of Herod
The death of Herod the Great caused massive social and political rebellion in all regions of his territories. Three lower class leaders arose to lead revolts in the regions of Judea, Perea and Galilee. Each leader challenged the kingship of Herod’s sons as legitimate rulers of the people. Like Saul, David, Jeroboam, and Jehu—all popular leaders of Israel’s history—these revolutionaries were acclaimed by their followers as anointed or messiah kings.
In Judea, a shepherd named Athronges and his four brothers led an armed band of guerrilla fighters against Herod Archelaus and the Roman forces. Athronges declared himself king and successfully waged war against the Romans for a long period.
In Perea, a former royal servant named Simon was proclaimed king by his followers and led a revolt against the royal palaces and estates of the wealthy.
In Galilee, the rebellion was led by a tall, handsome man named Judas. He was the son of Ezekias, a popular bandit hero who had been executed by Herod the Great forty years earlier. The revolt in Galilee centered on Sepphoris, a walled city of about 30,000 people which served as the center of Roman government in Galilee. Judas and his followers attacked the city, armed themselves from Herod’s arsenal, and looted the royal palace. A Pharisee named Zadok joined forces with Judas to create a revolutionary party known as the Zealots.
The Roman garrison at Caesaria in Galilee could not put down the uprising. The governor of Syria, which lay to the north of Galilee, brought three Roman legions (18,000 troops) to quell the rebellion. He marched south through the country, methodically subduing the revolutionaries. Finally, outside the walls of Jerusalem he crucified 2,000 of the rebels as a warning.
Crucifixion was the method of capital punishment that the Romans reserved for worthless people. The bodies were left on the crosses to rot and be scavenged by birds and dogs. The 2,000 crosses were a sign to the populace of the awesome power of Rome. But, in spite of the massive defeat, the revolutionary movement continued for three-quarters of a century. The Zealots made their final stand against Rome at Masada in 73 CE.
In Galilee, the Romans burned the capital city of Sepphoris and took all of its inhabitants into slavery.
Four miles to the south of Sepphoris lay the small village of Nazareth. There, in the midst of this conflict, a child was born to a poor peasant family.
a first-century Galilean peasant
We do not know exactly when Jesus was born. Scholars can’t specifically place the month or year. He was most likely born just before the spring of 4 BCE when Herod the Great died.
Jesus was probably born in Nazareth (Natzeret), not in Bethlehem (Beit-Lechem) as Matthew and Luke contend. Located in the northern province of Galilee, Nazareth was a small village nestled in a hollow in the hills at the site of an ancient spring. It was surrounded by olive orchards and cypress trees. Archeological evidence suggests that the village was less than 200 years old in the first century. It stood at an elevation of about 1,200 feet and commanded a panoramic view of its corner of the world. Its population was just over 200 people.
The region of Galilee was a small area about fifty miles long and thirty-five miles across. The town of Nazareth was located about twenty miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, fifteen miles from the Lake of Galilee to the east, and roughly one hundred miles north of Jerusalem.
Jesus spent most of his life in Nazareth. A backwater village, in an insignificant outpost of the vast Roman Empire, Nazareth was not much of a place to grow up in. It was never mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Talmud, or in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” people would later ask. (John 1:46)
Yet Nazareth was only four miles south of Sepphoris, which stood along one of the busiest trade routes in ancient Palestine. In 3 BCE, Herod Antipas began rebuilding the city as his capital. Even though Jesus spoke in largely rural terms about the reign of God, reflecting the background of his listeners, he grew up an hour’s walk from one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the Mideast. In Sepphoris, Jesus could observe a typical Hellenistic city with its baths, temples, theaters, statues and festivals. Growing up in Galilee, he could observe a culture in which ancient Jewish traditions and contemporary Greco-Roman urban values collided.
Nazareth was located in a beautiful and fertile area. Its favorable location would have attracted absentee landlords, who owned nearby fields, flocks, vineyards, orchards and gardens. These wealthy landowners may have built secondary residences in Nazareth. Their primary residences would most likely have been in the neighboring cities of Sepphoris, Tiberius, Ptolamais, or even distant Jerusalem.
Jesus was probably the first child of a construction worker named Yosep (Joseph) and his wife Myriam (Mary). When Yosep had Jesus circumcised, eight days after birth, he named his child after Moses’ successor, Joshua. In Hebrew the name is Yehoshua (“Yahweh helps” or “Yahweh saves” or “Yahew is salvation”), and in those days the name was usually shortened to Yeshua or even to Yeshu, which is how Jesus was popularly known. Yeshu was a common name in those days. To the Jews, the name meant freedom.
Most of Yeshu’s neighbors would have been farmers who lived in the village and worked the fields nearby, or workers in the relatively small number of trades necessary to support agricultural life.
Yosep is identified in Matthew’s gospel as a carpenter. The Greek word is tekton which can be translated in the broad sense as “builder.” In Palestine that would mean a construction craftsman skilled in both carpentry and masonry. Because stones were plentiful and wood was scarce, a tekton would have worked primarily with stone. Because a father normally taught his trade to his sons, Yeshu probably followed his father’s building and woodworking trade. Yeshu is identified as “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3) and “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55). Yosep, as a builder, was probably an itinerant workman, going wherever there was construction work to be done.
Nazareth could probably not provide enough business for a builder to support his family, and Joseph may have worked in other towns and villages. Joseph and Jesus could possibly have worked on the construction projects in Sepphoris, four miles to the north, where the city was being reconstructed by Herod Antipas after being destroyed by the Roman army. In 19 CE, when Jesus was about 23 years old, Herod Antipas built a new capital city, Tiberius, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 25 miles from Nazareth.
Yeshu was probably joined in Yosep’s construction trade by his brothers Ya'akov (Jacob/James), Yosef (Joses), Yehudah (Judas), and Shemon (Simon). He had at least two sisters whose names are not recorded in the gospels. It was a large family—at least seven children—and not particularly well off.
As members of the artisan class, Yosep and his family were on the lower end of the economic and social scale. Although a construction worker would be considered middle class today, there was no middle class in antiquity. In this period these itinerant workers were generally peasants who had lost their land. Thus, on both the social and economic scales, they ranked below the peasants who still worked their own land.
Life was hard. The effects of poverty, disease, and violence were probably similar to that of the poor urban and rural areas in Third World countries today. The average life expectancy for a Jewish male in Jewish Palestine was 29 years.
Like other Jews of his day, Yeshu spoke Aramaic, presumably with a distinctive Galilean accent. He probably also spoke some Greek, which was the language of the urban areas of Galilee. Any Jewish artisan or merchant wanting to do business with the Gentile majority in Galilee needed to converse in the common dialect of Greek known as Koine.
Somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of the population was illiterate. The gospels indicate that Jesus could read, but it is very unlikely.
While growing up, Yeshu would have attended the synagogue every Shabbat (Sabbath) which ran from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. In Nazareth, the synagogue (meaning “gathering” or “assembly”) may have met in a building dedicated to that purpose, but more likely they probably gathered in an open village meeting place where at other times disputes were settled by village elders.
There he would participate in the services of scripture recitations and prayer. He would have heard the stories and words of the prophets—of Elijah, Samuel, Isaiah, and Amos. Perhaps he sang the poetic verses of the Psalms. He may have known portions or all of them by memory, a feat not uncommon among learned illiterates. In an oral culture, most people knew the basic stories and foundational narratives of their tradition. An intellectual prodigy, Jesus developed a very strong command of his religious heritage.
He would have recited the Shema every morning and evening, which affirmed: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Yeshua would have participated in the five major Jewish festivals and presumably went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Three of the major festivals are agricultural and are tied to the seasons of the land in Palestine. Pesach (Passover), the spring festival, marks the beginning of the barley season. Shabouth (Weeks or Pentecost) marks its conclusion 50 days later. Sukkoth (Tabernacles) celebrates the autumn harvest and is a time of thanksgiving. It is preceded by a ten-day period of communal purification. From an early date these agricultural festivals came to be associated with formative events in Israel’s historic memory. Pesach commemorated the Passover by the angel of death in Egypt with the eating of unleavened bread.
The other two major festivals were in the fall. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, commemorates creation. Ten days later the people fasted on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
It was a superstitious world. Magic and witchcraft, demons and angels, possession and exorcism, miracles and prophecies, divination and astrology were taken for granted everywhere. Wonder workers toured the towns, performing miracles.
the road to destiny
This is about all we can know or suppose about Jesus, prior to his adult ministry. He appeared on the world stage when he was a young man, about 32 or 33 years old. That was when he met the wilderness preacher, who set him on the road to his destiny.
© 2007 Kurt Struckmeyer