What was Israel like at the time of Jesus?
During the life of Jesus, Judea (Israel) was occupied by Roman forces.
The Romans let the peoples they had conquered more or less practice
their own customs, as long as they paid taxes to Caesar and
acknowledged Caesar as ruler.
The Jewish people were
split in opinion over whether they should submit to their Roman rulers
or rebel. Most, including the Jewish ruling body called the Sanhedrin
and made up of Pharisees and Sadducees, acknowledged Rome's
overlordship of their country.
The Jewish people,
however, also believed that a Messiah was coming who would liberate
them. The belief of a Messiah came from a number of prophecies in their
Scriptures (or Old Testament). The common understanding of "Messiah" at
the time of Jesus was a Political Deliverer, someone who would throw
off the shackles of Rome and restore Israel and Jerusalem to their
Not even the magnificent Temple that Herod the Great built was enough
to pacify the Jews who deeply resented the Roman yoke. They wanted to
be a sovereign nation. Predictably, every now and then a Jew would rise
up, claim to be the messiah, and call for all Jews to take up arms and
throw off the Romans. He was always quickly suppressed and horribly
executed. Rome would brook no opposition to its sovereignty.
During the life of Jesus, many Jews traveled each year to Jerusalem to
celebrate the Passover. This was always a worrisome time for the Roman
authorities, since so many Jews together, with the high feelings of
Jewish unity as they celebrated the remembrance of liberation from
Egypt, could easily lead to riots.