Like people throughout history, we are inclined to think of the challenges of our time as unique. Certainly, they are immense, ranging from the brutality of Islamist terrorists to the economic turmoil wracking much of the world.
Yet careful reflection on preceding eras demonstrates how throughout the saga of human experience, life has always been fraught with political intrigue, military adventurism and economic uncertainty.
Just take, say, Palestine in the first century A.D. The area we now know as the State of Israel was, in Jesus’s time, a Roman province. Herod, the non-Jewish “king” (under Roman auspices, of course), was the founder of a dynasty that lasted for about 100 years. He launched his rule by murdering 45 of the 70 members of the Sanhedrin. Over time, he murdered his wife, Mariamne, her brother and grandfather, and two of their sons. He murdered another son, Antipater, after learning that out of fear for his life Antipater was planning to have Herod assassinated. Like father, like son.
Of course, we read in Matthew 2 that a then-elderly Herod, his idolatry of power and willingness to use the blood of others to sustain it unabated by age, ordered the slaughter of all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem and its surrounding area upon learning that a King had been born in the city of David.
Immediately after the death of Herod in 4 B.C., Rome divided the province between his three sons. Falling not far from their ancestral tree, these men were harsh, immoral and extravagant. The one who figures most prominently in the New Testament, Herod Antipas, was called “that fox” by Jesus (Luke 13:32) and is perhaps most commonly recalled for ordering the beheading of John the Baptist after watching his step-daughter dance. Another, Herod Agrippa, rejoiced in being called a god by the people at public games in Caesarea, only to be stricken by an angel of the Lord and dying a few days later (Acts 12:20-23).
This complex political situation was made somewhat coherent through the governance of a Roman prefect, essentially the final authority in all civil matters, yet the overlapping jurisdictions are evidenced by the way the Gospels describe Jesus being marched around from one governor to the next in the hours before His crucifixion.
Palestine was not considered an active threat to Roman rule in the region; while there were Roman soldiers there to enforce Roman law, they amounted to less than a single full legion.
Life generally was hard. Estimates of tax rates range from 30 to 50 percent. They involved “Roman taxes and tributes but also religious taxes and taxes imposed by Herod the Great and later his sons. Among the taxes paid were tributes and direct taxes such as land taxes and a head tax. There were also duties, sales taxes, and extra taxes on items such as salt. In addition there were taxes for the building and upkeep of the temple and various tithes.”
Tax collection itself involved the selling, by the Romans, of the franchise for tax regions to influential men who, in turn, recruited tax collectors to squeeze the people. “The result was a system of robbery which left nothing to be desired for thoroughness,” wrote the late historian Paul Kretzmann. “Unjust valuation, extortion, blackmail, was the order of the day, and the people had to suffer.
Interestingly, we read in Luke 3 that John the Baptist told the soldiers who asked him how they could demonstrate their repentance of sin not to leave the military but to quit “shaking-down” the people — to quit extorting money from them.
As to Galilee, Jesus’s home region, it was small but politically significant. It was home to the Roman resort city of Sephoris, just a few miles from Nazareth; Sephoris was constructed during Jesus’s youth and it is very possible He worked there.
The region itself “was relatively prosperous, since the land and climate permitted abundant harvests and supported many sheep,” write Jaroslav Pelikan and E.P. Sanders in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “There were, of course, landless people, but the Herodian dynasty was careful to organize large public works projects that employed thousands of men. Desperate poverty was present too but never reached a socially dangerous level.”
However, Galilee suffered from a reputation for contention and insurrection. A man called Judas the Galilean led a revolt in 6 B.C. against the Roman taxation recorded in Luke 2. Arguably the founder of the Zealots, Acts 5 tells us that “Judas was killed and his followers scattered.” Perhaps it was this background of violence that prompted Nathaniel to say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” when urged to come and meet Jesus, Nazareth being Jesus’s hometown in Galilee (John 1:46).
High taxation, Roman domination, cruel political machinations, and a faux Jewish ruling family made for a troubled existence in Jesus’s day for the people of Israel. Much like the world of our time, the Palestine of the first century was riven by human sin in all its debauched aspects. It was politically unstable, economically tenuous, and characterized by oppression.
Jesus came into a tumultuous world in a time of uncertainty, of sword and fist, of paganism and pride. Many of the political rulers of His age clung to power at the expense of others’ blood, and some even claiming to be gods. Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea, has nothing on them. And even in the everyday-ness of life in Palestine, there was loss and disappointment, impermanence and hard striving.
Our world is no different, and He comes to us still today, not as an infant but as a Savior Who took into Himself the punishment for all of our sin as He died, suspended on a Roman cross at the behest of some of the Jewish religious leaders of His day. But in rising from the grave, He proclaimed His Lordship of all men, of all human history, and heralded a day in which a new earth will resonate with His justice and righteousness, with the glorious liberty of the children of God.
There is no national or international crisis, and no personal or family need, into which He still does not come and offer life and hope to all who will receive it. If His gift is unknown to you this Christmas, take it. It’s free. It’s real. It’s eternal. (For more from the author of “Jesus Came During a Time of Crisis. He Still Does” please click HERE)