In the Bible, as in many other historical and archaeological records, we find valuable information that sheds light on the religious, political, and social contexts of first century A.D. Palestine. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only New Testament books that share details about the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s in this context that we find the beautiful story of the Nativity, in both its Jewish and Greco-Roman settings.
The Gospel of Luke reveals details about Joseph’s and Mary’s travel just before Jesus’ birth. Nazareth, located in the region of Galilee, is located 95 miles north of Bethlehem. The journey between these two small towns could easily take two or three days; by some estimates 33 hours of walking—and perhaps even longer when traveling with a pregnant wife in her last trimester. Such lengthy trips were especially common during the time of the Passover feast (Luke 2:41). On this occasion, however, travel was directly related to the empire-wide census decreed by Caesar Augustus (verse 1).
Historians tell us that Rome expanded its domain from the Italic peninsula southward, toward Carthage (264-146 B.C.). Its soldiers and vessels went eastward toward Macedonia and the Greek city-states (214-168 B.C.). They also conquered what the Bible identifies as “the beautiful land,” Israel (63 B.C.). By the first century A.D., Rome had expanded its power to all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Roman laws and customs were respected and followed.
Jews were granted religious freedom to worship God as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. The temple in Jerusalem was vital to the faithful believers, and they directed their worship service and prayers toward this magnificent building, which God had prescribed as His dwelling place. It was in the temple where the nation awaited the Messiah’s appearance (Zech. 6:12, 13) and ultimate deliverance from its oppressors.
King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, was a Roman-appointed Jewish king of doubtful pedigree. He was keenly aware of the significance of the temple and ensured that renovations took place, along with an expansion of the temple mount toward the north. He was known for the massive building projects he undertook, such as the fortress at Masada and the seaport of Caesarea Maritima, which he named in honor of his benefactor, Augustus Caesar. Even today, the ruins of his projects are admired for their architectural design and technical ingenuity.
Despite what seemed to be strong political ties with Rome, Herod’s fears about his relationship with Rome were well documented in the Gospels, and also by contemporary historians. His fears were manifested in his rulership. Matthew tells of the fear under which both the ordinary citizen and the elite found themselves when Herod was troubled (Matt. 2:3). He is depicted as one capable of killing relatives, innocent children, or anyone who posed a threat to his hold on power. His Roman-granted judicial powers gave him authority to imprison and even execute those that threatened or embarrassed him (see verse 16). Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, manifested very similar characteristics (Matt. 14:3; Luke 23:6-12).
Because of the ruler’s regional power, various religious factions within Judaism aligned themselves, as far as was convenient, with King Herod. This often led to disregarding Scripture in favor of tradition or their own comfort. Matthew points to the priestly class, most of whom associated with the sect of the Sadducees, who had ample knowledge regarding the birthplace of the Messiah yet were unwilling to join the Wise Men in their search for the newborn King (Matt. 2:4-6). We are also introduced to the Pharisees, a group of experts concerning the law of Moses, who were more focused on tradition and the appearance of piety than living justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). Additionally, there were the scribes, professionals who dedicated their lives to recording and transmitting biblical knowledge by analyzing varying interpretations of Scripture. They were familiar with the Talmud and the Mishnah (the oral law) and associated with both Sadducees and Pharisees. Unfortunately, they, too, appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the Messiah was in their midst.
The arrival of the Messiah came amid spiritual darkness and apathy. Despite their vast knowledge, all these experts failed to recognize the event at hand. The role of the religious teachers is best understood when one takes into account that the Hebrew language had been mostly replaced by Aramaic and Greek. It was the Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes who were trained to interpret the Hebrew Bible and teach the truth of Scripture. By the time of Jesus’ birth the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, resulting in what is now known as the Septuagint (LXX). The translation, however, was not generally available to the average person. Jesus would later condemn the religious leaders for their neglect in preparing the people to welcome the Messiah. It was their failure to instruct the people that led to Jesus’ holding them as accountable as their fathers for killing the prophets in years past (verse 37). There were other religious and political groups, such as the Zealots and the Essenes, but they were much smaller in size and influence. The time when Jesus entered this world was a time of social and religious division.
At the time of Jesus’ birth Aramaic and Greek were the primary languages for commerce, diplomacy, education, and religion. The use of these languages connected nations and cultures that were geographically distant. The result was the expansion of commercial trade, which brought construction of roads and harbors, and relative financial prosperity to the region. The Greco-Roman culture of prosperity influenced architecture, art, education, and technology. This process, also known as Hellenization, would impact all areas of life. The technological, sociological, and economic developments of the time would serve to carry the good news to a world that was desperately needing to know about God’s kingdom and the plan of salvation.
Despite recording significant political tensions, social clashes, and religious division, the Gospels are careful to inform the reader that God always has faithful followers who are eager to do His will. It is in this historical, social, and religious context that Matthew and Luke inform us of Zechariah, a Levite priest, who had an encounter with an angel of the Lord when it was his turn to burn incense in the temple (Luke 1:11). During the reign of Herod the king, the shepherds who camped out in the fields, keeping faithful watch over their flock at night, are invited by the angelic host to visit the Child (Luke 2:8). On the roads of commerce and trade, the Wise Men from the East traveled a long distance to worship the newborn King of the Jews. They saw a star in the sky and followed it, recognizing that it was a special sign from God to the entire world (Matt. 2:1, 2). Regardless of the power struggles and the real social, religious, and political challenges, there were people who faithfully followed the truth to the best of their ability and believed that the time of promised fulfillment was at hand.
They continue to inspire us as we read their stories in Scripture.