The next great power to make the Chosen People its slave was the Roman Empire. The Romans may have brought better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths, and public order, as stated in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But Roman peace came at a price, extracted by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. As the prefect of Judea, he commanded Roman military units, authorized construction projects, decided on civil and criminal cases, and arranged to collect imperial taxes.
The Jews – as the Hebrews were now known – suffered under the weight of incredible taxation, both from Rome itself and also from Herod Antipas, set up in a puppet monarchy by the Romans but essentially a sort of regional governor, who taxed them heavily to build new cities. No one likes being taxed, but it became an even more vexing issue under Roman rule. Roman governors were responsible for collecting tax revenue in what was now called Palestine, but they wouldn’t merely accumulate what was due to the Empire; they’d hike up the amount and pocket the surplus. Consequently, tax dues were often exorbitantly high. The people could appeal to Roman law, but it allowed this behavior. And so, the rich became more well-to-do, and the poor more destitute.
On a religious front, nominally, the majority of the Romans were polytheistic, meaning they worshiped more than one god; it’s in the general nature of polytheists to show relative tolerance towards other cults since there’s not a single jealous god who could feel threatened by a new one, as long as those religions or practices were not treasonous or detrimental to the Empire in some way. Of course, having a loose definition of “treasonous” and “detrimental to the Empire” had previously allowed Rome to wipe out local tradition elsewhere. If one was lucky, the Romans might let them continue business as usual from a local religious standpoint, atypical for their governing style, so long as they also observed Roman practices. However, the Jews stood their ground and refused to do so, which was the kind of unrest that could – and did – occasion uprisings and rebellions in Israel and throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The Romans mostly handled their primary conflict by allowing the Jews to keep their religion. That said, they rigidly controlled its administration.
The Jews had always picked their High Priest, who served in the Temple and represented the Jewish people on their holiest of days; in fact, tradition mandated that priests could only hail from a specific tribe. The High Priest was the chief religious authority in the land, tasked with crucial responsibilities such as controlling the Temple treasury, managing the Temple police and other personnel, performing religious rituals, and serving as president of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council/court. To this, Rome said, “Yeah, like we weren’t going to pick up on the fact that the members of the last priestly clan doubled as Israel’s rulers. They can still be Jews, but to ensure loyalty, we pick the head Jew in charge.” Namely, the HJIC had to work well with Roman authority, even if it wasn’t a close relationship, which likely included a standing arrangement for how to deal with subversive persons. And so it was that the highest position in the community often went to those trusted least by the Jewish people, respected for their role but despised for their behavior.
By the time of Jesus, the High Priest was typically someone who conspired with Rome, was suspected of accepting bribes or other forms of corruption (such as taking a piece of the action from the moneylenders changing “unclean” outside money for Temple-approved coinage, and the merchants selling sacrificial animals), and tended to live in Jerusalem’s Upper City, a wealthy section inhabited by the city’s powers-that-be. The priests oozed great success – their position in the Temple brought with it not only substantial wealth but also political power. And if they got on well enough with the authorities, they often developed an informal “hold” on the position. For example, Annas was a High Priest for ten years and passed the role to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who served for eighteen. (As it happens, Annas was the head of a family that would control the high priesthood for most of the first century.)
Beneath them was a priesthood – collectively, the Sanhedrin – that had essentially become a sharply divided two-party system: the Pharisees (at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought) and the Sadducees. The Pharisees mostly received the backing and goodwill of the everyday people in contrast to their more elite brethren (who, it’s worth noting, derided those they called the am ha’aretz – “people of the land” – as uneducated peasants and wrote them off as likely to be negligent in their observance of the Commandments due to their ignorance). They broke with their wealthy colleagues over the class conflict between the haves and the have-nots (the Sadducees were mainly priestly and aristocratic families), the cultural clash between those who favored Hellenization (the Sadducees assimilated into Greek culture rather than holding to their heritage in the centuries before the Romans came) and those who resisted it, the juridical-religious conflict between those who said: “the Temple and the services are the most important part” (the Sadducees) and those who said “well, yes, but Moses wrote more laws than that and the prophets stressed things like mercy and not sacrifice?” (the Pharisees), and strictly religious conflict involving a difference of belief between the Sadducees (written Torah only, the dead stay dead) and the Pharisees (written Torah is holy, but the oral teachings are cardinal too, and if there’s no resurrection of the dead, what’s the point of living?).
So, we’ve got an iron-fisted overlord, a local functionary lining his pockets, and a divided, corrupt religious authority… what can we add to this smoldering political and religious tinderbox? Ah, yes – rebellion. For all the stifling of public discontent, there was still plenty of that. It was arduous to control around feast time. Jerusalem at Passover would be strained under the weight of thousands of pilgrims (many equally unhappy with the Roman Empire) coming to the Temple to celebrate, often leading to violent political uprisings.
A secret faction of Jews known as the Zealots (their name came from a term meaning “one who is zealous on God’s behalf”) became active. They believed any action was justified if it enabled the Jews to gain political and religious freedom. For them, this meant never hesitating to use violence and seeking to incite the people of Judea to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from Israel by force of arms. Call them whatever you want (and many did) – vigilantes, insurgents, revolutionaries, guerrilla warriors – but there’s no mistaking what they did: rise to protest their oppression by Rome and its surrogates. Even worse was when a “holy man” would get into the act. At that time, seizing on the popularity of the super-hero image, dozens of men constantly claimed to be the messiah, each with devout followers who believed utterly in their leader.
A common cause and a figurehead – bad for business as usual. Several Jewish insurgencies were put down in the time of Jesus, and thousands were executed by the state and crucified as violators of Roman law, echoing an ominous warning of what would happen to radical prophets who preached against the Roman status quo. Herod stifled every inkling of public discontent, keeping his masters happy, and where he couldn’t step in, Pilate brought the hammer down. (Frequently. During his ten years as prefect, Pilate’s tenure was associated with “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.”)
To sum up, welcome to Palestine (formerly Israel) in the first century, an occupied nation under the tyranny of Rome. You’ve got a cross-section of disaffected low-income citizens who were mad as hell about social and economic inequality, didn’t feel represented by their leadership, and were not going to take it anymore; people who reacted violently in their protesting that the powers that be controlled their world in a way that disproportionately benefited a minority; people whose primary goal was to make the economic structure and power relations in society fairer, but could only go so far working within the system; and so on.
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication, true, but still, a child was born…