The history of this region of the world goes back some 5,000 years. The Canaanites were the earliest known inhabitants of Palestine, about 3,000 B.C. They became urbanized and lived in city-states, one of which was Jericho. Moses leads the Jews, wandering in the desert for 40 years, on the Exodus from Egypt in the 12th century B.C. In 1,230 B.C., Joshua conquered parts of Palestine. In 1,000 B.C. King David, defeated the Philistines, and eventually assimilated with the Canaanites. The unity of Israel allowed David to build a large independent state, with Jerusalem its capitol. In 333 B.C. the Persian domination of Palestine was replaced by Greek rule when Alexander the Great of Macedonia took the region. Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria, continued to rule the country. The Seleucids tried to impose Hellenistic (Greek) culture and religion on the population. In 132-35 BC Jewish revolts erupted, numerous Jews were killed, many were sold into slavery, and the rest were not allowed to visit Jerusalem. Judea was renamed Syria Palaistina. It was into this social unrest that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Many theologians and religious historians believe that the approximate birth date of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus) was in the Fall season, although some scholars propose that it was during the Springtime. His birth is speculated to be sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. during the rule of King Herod, although we have seen estimates as late as 4 A.D. and as early as the second century B.C. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judea. His mother is commonly thought to have conceived him through the “immaculate conception,” meaning that his mother was given Jesus not through sexual intercourse, but rather by God itself. However, this is actually a misconception. The Doctine of Ineffabilis Deus, presented by Pius IX, and accepted by the Catholic Church on December 8th, 1854, which asserts that Mary was exempt from original sin (the sin committed at her conception), making her a pure receptacle for Christ, is largely responsible for this belief. Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ parents, lived in Nazareth, a Roman province of Galilee. Years after, Jesus began his teaching mission. His attempts to call people back to pure teachings were judged subversive by the authorities. He was tried as a heretic and sentenced to death on the cross (a common sentence for prisoners).
After the death of Jesus many Christian groups were formed. By the end of the 1st century, three main movements remained in Christianity. One group was the Pauline Christians: a group of mainline congregations, largely of non-Jewish Christians. Some had been converted by Paul and his colleges. They evolved to become the established Church. Another group was the Gnostic Christians, who claimed salvation through special, otherwise secret, gnosis (knowledge). They were declared heretics and were gradually suppressed. A third group was the Jewish Christians, a group originally headed by James, the brother of Yeshua, and Jesus’ disciples. They were scattered throughout the Roman Empire after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and gradually disappeared. By 400 A.D., The Bishop of Rome was recognized as the most senior of all bishops. Siricius (384-399 CE) became the first bishop to be called Pope. Pauline Christianity became a bonafide religion.
Looking back at the life of Jesus we can see the traditional roots of his upbringing. He learned Jewish history and scriptures from his father and synagogue leaders. According to Floyd Ross and Tynette Hills in their book The Great Religions by which Men Live (1961), “He knew well the ever present Jewish hope for a brighter, better future, when God would help the Jews to regain their freedom and prestige among the nations. This hope flamed high in their hearts, as they lived under Roman conquerors.”
Many of the Jews felt hopeless, that their individual actions were not important. They believed that God was going to create a miracle, bringing into being a new age, when Judea Palestine would be “powerful, independent, and respected among nations. There would be no accompanying armies or foreign governors. The Jewish people would live in the same prosperous way they had lived under King David of long ago,” (Ross and Hills).
Jesus did not believe that God sent his blessings to some and withheld them from others. Ross and Hills continue by saying that God’s blessings came to a person, “The Kingdom of God is not a condition that we get in some undisclosed future. No, [the kingdom of God is a present possibility of goodness that is hidden, like a seed, inside every person.] You have only to let it grow naturally, feeding its development by loving attitudes and kind deeds. And behold, it grows gradually until you yourself are part of the Kingdom of God.”
Hearing the stories of the prophets, knowing many of the Psalms describing God’s love and mercy, we are told most importantly that Jesus developed a “close personal relationship with God. Prayer and meditation made him feel at home with God.”
Jesus comforted those who had ears to hear. He taught, “God expected something of man…to behave toward [one another] with loving concern, forgiveness and patience just as He [would]. This was the righteousness God’s Kingdom required, not a righteousness bound up with many rules and practices. This righteousness went much deeper, as deep as thoughts…and desires.” From these roots flowed correct speech, acts, and efforts.
We further learn in The Worlds Religions (1958) by Huston Smith that the stories of the prophets and visionaries in the Hebrew history stretch back more than 5000 years. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry with a quote from Isaiah saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” Smith shares a quote from William James found in his Varieties of Religious Experience. “In its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” Smith emphasizes that the biblical tradition in which Jesus stood should really be understood as a continuum, “a sustained and demanding dialogue of the Hebrew people with the unseen order.”