While the Jewish biblical prophetic tradition ended in the years following Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, the Christian tradition recognizes John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth as continuing to invoke God’s voice in first-century Palestine. This essay describes the socio-political context during the emergence of John and Jesus during this time.

There had not been a prophet in Israel for five hundred years when John the Baptist emerged from the desert, dressed in clothing made of camels’ hair and eating locusts and wild honey for his sustenance. John’s presence invoked the memory of Elijah whom the Jewish people believed would return to judge Israel before the messiah’s entrance into history (2 Kgs 1:8). John proclaimed an imminent condemnation of the people of Israel by God that could only be avoided through baptism by John himself as a sign of inner repentance and the outer transformation of one’s life to renewed covenant relationship with God.

Like many Jews of his time, Jesus of Nazareth likely wondered during his formative years about his own role in a society that suffered greatly under the occupation and oppression of the Roman Empire. The Zealots had preached violent confrontation with those who lorded over them, while the Essenes escaped to the desert to live apart from a sinful world. It was in this context that Jesus traveled from Nazareth of Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River in Judea to hear John preach (Mk 1:9). Then, like so many before him, he was baptized by John in humble solidarity with sinful humanity.

The evangelist, Mark, describes an epiphany (Mk 1:10-11), God’s sudden irruption into history, as Jesus emerged from the waters of his baptism. Whatever actually occurred, it was a deeply personal experience that would soon manifest itself in Jesus’ public ministry. The once unknown Galilean carpenter would now realize his calling as a Spirit-filled prophet proclaiming God’s reign over all of creation.

When Herod Antipas, the Roman Tetrarch of Galilee, arrested and beheaded John the Baptist for denouncing Herod after he unlawfully took his brother’s wife, Jesus left Judea for Galilee. There, he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God. It was a message of hope that reached to the utopian depths of human existence in its call for the liberation of people from everything that alienated them from true relationship with God and one another. Unlike other prophets who spoke of God’s intervention at a future time in history, Jesus proclaimed it had already arrived.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;

repent and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

Jesus’ message was one of unparalleled good news, especially for the poor, oppressed and marginalized of Galilee, a major locus of unjust suffering and oppression in first-century Palestine. José A. Pagola describes Galilee as a land set apart from the elite of Jerusalem and Israel’s wealthy cities.

“In these Galilean villages lived the poorest and most marginalized people, dispossessed of their right to enjoy the land God had given them; here more than anywhere else, Jesus found the sick and suffering Israel, abused by the powerful; here is where Israel felt the harshest effects of oppression. The powerful lived in the cities, along with their diverse collaborators: managers, large landowners, and tax collectors. They did not represent the people of God, rather the oppressors, the cause of the misery and hunger of these families. The coming of the kingdom of God must begin among the most humiliated people. These poor, hungry, afflicted people were the ‘lost sheep’ who represented all the dispirited people of Israel. Jesus was very clear about this. The reign of God could only be proclaimed out of a close, direct contact with the people who most needed breathing space and liberation. The good news of God could not come from the splendid palace of Antipas in Tiberius, or from the sumptuous villas in Sepphoris, or from the wealthy neighborhood where the priestly elites lived in Jerusalem. The seeds of the God’s reign would only find fertile soil among the poor of Galilee.”[i]

Jesus went on to call disciples to accompany him in his work on behalf of God’s people, especially the most vulnerable. The first among these were several fishermen whom Jesus eventually named apostles, a symbolic gesture that conveyed the regathering of the tribes of Israel. Ultimately, they would also include a tax collector, Zealots and even one who would eventually betray him.

Jesus’ call to discipleship was intrusive and disruptive of the lives of those he chose. It was offered with a sense of urgency that demanded an immediate response, an all-or-none commitment to him and his mission. In its deepest sense, though, it was an invitation to participate with him in the liberating and salvific presence of the kingdom of God in this world.

Jesus’ prophetic words and actions cost him his life at the hands of Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman Empire in Judea, and the Jewish high priests and lay aristocracy of Jerusalem. He was charged as a blasphemer and a threat to the Pax Romana. The sentence was death by crucifixion, the most horrific and painful form of execution in the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ crucifixion resulted from multiple tensions. He had defended the weakest and most vulnerable of society in the name of the kingdom of God. The temple authorities invoked the same God to defend the interests of the temple. Pilate’s interest was more political. In condemning Jesus to death, he avoided the potential threat of being labeled unfaithful to Caesar, while at the same time satisfying the interests of Jerusalem’s Jewish aristocracy.

Jesus had been a poor and charismatic leader who claimed his authority came from God alone, while the temple priests and Pharisees saw their God-given role as protectors of the temple, its practices, and the many laws that had been ingrained into Jewish culture over centuries. Jesus was also an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the reign of God had entered human history in order to transform it, while the Sadducees had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for having profited greatly from the commercial transactions of the temple and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, Jesus was a pious layman who threatened the power of an entrenched priestly order.[ii]

It is the Christian belief that God raised Jesus from the dead because of how he had lived, teaching humanity what it means to be a human being. Believers, for their part, claim he lives on in history never to die again. Moreover, they, profess their faith in him as one person with human and divine natures, acknowledge the ongoing presence of his Spirit in this world, and claim him as a full participant in a Triune Godhead.

The next essay will focus on the kingdom of God, a call to accept God’s offer of salvation and new life as new human beings in a new world order. This was the core message of Jesus’ preaching, one that led him into conflict with the religious authorities of his day and ultimately to his death.

[i] J.A. Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, (Miami, FL: Convivium Press, 2015), 98.

[ii] J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, (New York, NY: Doubleday ABRL, 1991), vol 1, 347.