Sometimes because we have it so good, we quickly lose sight of just how bad things were throughout history. I don’t intend to lessen or invalidate the pain that any of us in the modern West have gone through, but the threat of famine or of violent hordes coming to destroy our villages is not something that ever crosses our minds. Such is a testament to the progress that we human beings have made in the modern world. Because we have it so good, I often wonder if that means our tolerance for pain and tragedy is greatly lacking. Rather than growing up in a world that is enchanted and full of tragedy, we grow up in a disenchanted world where we expect life to “work out” well. I witness this in the various conversations I have in my role as pastor and teacher. I recognize, too, that I am not somehow the exception to this thinking. It is within me, too.
I write this because of the research I have done concerning the life and background of Jesus of Nazareth. When thinking about the early life of Jesus, we tend to conjure up images of baby Jesus in a manger and of him getting lost in the Temple. His father is a carpenter, his mother a dutiful wife, life is seemingly uneventful for them once they settle down in Nazareth. That may not have been the case, though. Instead, plenty of evidence would suggest that Jesus grew up amid a serious traumatized people constantly under threat. He may have been very familiar with the darker side of humanity because of the unjust treatment of the Roman Empire. In other words, there would have been plenty of reason to doubt God, to forsake him, and to curse him, but somehow, Jesus of Nazareth comes out of that darkness to do amazing things. Here’s that world…
An Empire on the Rise
The Roman Empire’s ascendancy was well underway around the time of Jesus’ birth. Some consider having taken place around 4 B.C.E. Geopolitically speaking, Jewish Palestine was of considerable import to the Empire as it was on its eastern edges. Such concern was due to the Parthian Empire, which was to the east. In essence, Jewish Palestine was a buffer zone, and Rome wanted to maintain a firm grip on the area in light of the Parthian’s potential threat. What is more, given the Jewish people’s history and the Maccabean revolt, it was known for being a challenging area to rule. Thus, Rome spared no expense in maintaining control and dominance in that area of the Empire (Myers 2008, 56). Nonetheless, Roman imperial rule was not looked upon favorably by most Jewish Palestinians for many factors, from harsh military rule to oppressive taxation.
Rome’s dominance over the area would be made quite clear in 4 B.C.E. After Herod the Great’s death, his son Antipas went to Rome to have his father’s will ratified by Caesar Augustus and the Senate (Batey 2001, 40). While gone, a widespread rebellion broke out in Galilee and Judea led by a rebel named Judas. In retaliation, the Roman general Varus burned down and destroyed towns throughout the countryside and crucified about two thousand men believed to be rebels. Going further, Varus would burn down the city of Sepphoris and the surrounding area enslaving thousands of its inhabitants (Horsley 2003, 29). Bear in mind that Nazareth was four miles north. Such a response was not simply physical warfare but also psychological warfare. Rome knew that such brutality would serve to intimidate “the surviving populace into acquiescence in the reestablished Roman imperial order” (Horsley 2003, 28). We can only imagine the traumatic impact Rome’s actions must have had on the people as they saw relatives, friends, and fellow villagers suffering under such brutality (Horsley 2003, 28). When Herod Antipas finally returned in 3 B.C.E. he found Sepphoris mostly destroyed and decided to make it his capital city. As a result, he embarked on a large building project that lasted for decades and employed many laborers and artisans from the surrounding villages like Nazareth (Batey 2001, 403). Certainly, the child Jesus grew up in such trauma residue, hearing the pain and mourning of relatives and villagers. Such would not have been quickly forgotten, especially considering that Roman military forces repeatedly enslaved the people and destroyed the villages around Nazareth (Horsley 2003, 34). One wonders what kind of impact this had on the human subject Jesus of Nazareth. Is this in part why in the face of constant calls to revolutionary activity Jesus develops his teaching on nonviolence? After all, he would have understood quite well the futility of fighting the Romans on violent grounds. Is this also why the cross is so central to his public teaching? Growing up, the roads he traveled most likely had the rotting corpses of those crucified on them. Jesus would have understood firsthand the brutality of the Roman Empire.
We know from the gospel accounts that Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a carpenter or laborer (teknon). Based on the evidence, he likely worked in Sepphoris, given the proximity of Nazareth to the city. Instead of growing up in a small secluded village, Jesus grew up in what today we would call a suburb of a city. Jesus probably traveled with his father to Sepphoris as he got older to learn their family’s trade. This is significant because, by all accounts, Sepphoris was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city since it was connected to a central road system. There Jesus would have encountered all kinds of people from the surrounding Gentile territories and Greek cities (Batey 2001, 406). Did Jesus’ experiences in this city have a strong influence on his later public ministry? Shirley Jackson Case seems to think so writing,
“The unconventionality of Jesus mingling freely with the common people, his generosity towards the stranger and the outcast, and his conviction of the equality of all classes before God, perhaps owe their origin in no slight degree to the proximity of Nazareth to Sepphoris” (1929, 19).
Such was the world that Jesus of Nazareth grew up in…
Batey, Richard A. 2001. “Sepphoris and the Jesus Movement.” New Testament Studies 47 no. 3 (June): 402–9.
Case, Shirley Jackson. 1926. “Jesus and Sepphoris.” Journal of Biblical Literature 45, no. 1-2 (January): 14-22.
Horsley, Richard A. 2003. Jesus and Empire : The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Fortress Press.
Myers, Ched. 2008. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis.