Stripping away the myth from the man and leaving what scholarship suggests are the bare facts of what happened, Yeshua ha-Notzri (or, if you prefer, Jesus of Nazareth) was born into a medium-sized Jewish family in turbulent ancient Galilee, where Jews and Greek and Roman pagans lived side by side. As a young man, he left Galilee and traveled south to Judea, seeking the holy man John the Baptist, who preached about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the new messiah.
John wasn’t unique. Many scholars now theorize that he was part of a group called the Essenes, which lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to piety, asceticism, voluntary poverty (absence of personal property and money), abstinence from worldly pleasures (including, for some groups, celibacy). They ritually immersed themselves in water every morning (a precursor of baptism), ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, and studied the books of the elders. (If all of this sounds familiar, let’s say I think there’s a lot more than archaic spelling behind the early Church ‘fathers’ who once referred to them as “Jessians” rather than “Essenes.”) But regardless of whence it came, John’s message appealed to those who didn’t feel represented by the Jewish leadership, which – not surprisingly – was many.
Like numerous young idealists before him, Jesus plunged full force into his newfound cause and became John’s disciple. But like every other leader before him, talk of a new king frightened the powers that be, who feared John stirring his followers into a revolt against them and Rome, which meant they’d lose what little religious freedom they had, and the Roman army would be instigated into re-pacifying the entire countryside at the point of a sword. The die was cast – John was arrested and eventually executed.
Someone had to fill the “holy man” space, and eventually, the lot fell to Jesus, who’d grown into a spellbinding preacher in his own right. He became a visionary with a radical spiritual mission. Possessed by a strong sense of purpose, he soon began building quite a following like John the Baptist before him, from strangers bound to him by their faith. He was hailed as a faith healer. His key talking points involved having a personal relationship with God, redistribution of wealth, turning the other cheek, and a message of peace, morality, and fairness. In addition to uniting members of most of the various groups described above, he also managed to snare a massive demographic that earlier didn’t have a voice: women. Jesus was different from other men. He and his followers treated women as nearly full equals – they ate together, discussed politics together, his women disciples performed their poetry at feasts, and in the most radical departure from the norm, the women were welcomed alongside men as serious students worthy of an education. No wonder many women found themselves amongst Jesus’ closest followers, and there were always several rich women around to finance the movement. This was a movement worth financing.
It was an attractive message, to be sure, but also one of complete social upheaval. If one didn’t need the middle man (the priest and the process that makes the priest money) to get square with God, that meant the hoi polloi would stop listening to the priests, and the priests would lose followers, power, and money, and social order would collapse. So, they kept an eye on the young activist, their attention sparked by a phenomenon typical of any political movement.
You see, the crowds didn’t always fully understand Jesus’ teachings. The apostles were a motley crew, uneducated, unskilled laborers, men and women so average in intelligence that Jesus had to create parables (simple stories with morals) to communicate his complex ideas. (And yes, Jesus did have women apostles, and he had more than twelve.) As in any movement, when they didn’t understand the message well enough, they started ignoring the teaching and bowing to the teacher and would misquote and exaggerate the stories of their leader.
Any person with half a brain could see the issue: these hysterical crowds and their behavior could set off a backlash from the Romans, who could make life very dangerous for all the people of Jerusalem. If high Jewish officials requested the powers that be deal harshly with anyone who proclaimed himself “King of the Jews,” given what was known about Rome’s concern with crowd control and considering the history of civil unrest related to past messianic claims, the governor was likely to accede, eager to end the potential threat to the existing order presented by Jesus’ subversive theology.
Knowing that, one might be concerned for everyone’s welfare, maybe even try to get Jesus of Nazareth to change his ways… which is where we find Judas. It’s getting hot in the kitchen, and he can’t take the heat…