The background

By the end of the topic, learners should be able to:
  1. List the regions in Palestine.
  2. Explain the nature of the rulers.
  3. Describe the Sanhedrin council.
  4. Outline the characteristics of the Jewish sects.

1.0 The land of Palestine and the rulers

  • The land of Palestine we shall look at is the Palestine during the time of Jesus. This is the Palestine which is situated at the corner of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • During the time of Jesus the land of Palestine did not have a highly developed industry. The only industries which were present were the ones for production of oil and wine along with the pottery industry.
  • Some products were also produced for export purposes. These products include dried fish. Being near the sea made it possible for them to export using the sea as the medium for transportation.
  • The nation of Palestine was governed by a colonial rule of Rome. There were clashes between the rulers and the people of Palestine on issues of custom.
  • During the ancient times the land was undeveloped. During the time of Jesus wheat was the principal cereal but barley was also grown.
  • Palestine had major regions which included Jerusalem, Samaria, Galilee and Jordan valley. Palestine is the place where many of Jesus’ activities took place.
  • It is important to note that the names of some of these regions have been changed.
  • Jesus spent some of his time in these major regions preaching, teaching and healing.

1.1 The regions of Palestine

1.1.1 Galilee

  • Jesus lived in this region and his home town was Nazareth.
  • Jesus’ main area of activity was in this region. It is believed that the first disciples chosen by Jesus were chosen in Galilee.
  • The Lake of Gennesaret was found in this region and this was the fishing area for many fishermen.
  • The area was inhabited by Jews but it was surrounded by Greeks. Inside Galilee there were ten towns inhabited by Greeks, these are famously known as the Decapolis.

1.1.2 Judaea

  • This region became entirely a Roman province in 6 AD.
  • The name Judaea was generally the territory of the tribe of Judah.
  • It was inhabited by Jews only.

1.1.3 Samaria

  • This is the region were Samaritans lived.
  • It was situated to the south of Galilee.
  • The area had a mixed population due to the fact that people transferred to it, seeking political refuge.

1.2 The rulers

Palestine had different rulers who were appointed by Rome to look over the affairs of the land. The main rulers were the Herods which dealt with the political issues of the land and the Sanhedrin council which dealt with the religious affairs of the land.

1.2.1 Herod the Great

  • He was a great builder who restored the Jerusalem temple making it more beautiful than it ever was. He equipped Jerusalem with a theater, gymnasia and a circus for horse-racing. He was supervised by Syria but was directly under Rome because Rome was the super power.
  • The Jews hated him because he had Roman influence and cared little for the Jewish religion. He appointed and removed the High Priests at will. He was ruthless with people he suspected of being hostile towards him.
  • He was surnamed the Great because he gave the land peace and a certain degree of independence.
  • Other sources say he was always at loggerheads with the Pharisees because he had married ten wives, his favorite being Marianne. When his jealousy raged he murdered her and his two sons on the suspicion that they were seeking his life. In Matthew 2 verse 16, tells how he tried to kill Jesus while he was a baby.
  • After the death of Herod the Great, the land of Palestine was divided and ruled by three tetrarchs. These tetrarchs were the sons of Herod the Great. Tetrarchs ruled the land but had less power than that of the king. The tetrarchs were Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus and Herod Philip.

1.2.2 Herod Antipas

  • He was arrogant, slothful, and unsympathetic and craft as referred in Luke 13 verse 32 that fox. He founded cities and built the city of Sepphoris near Nazareth.
  • After marrying the daughter of the Nabatean king he disowned her in favor of Herodias the wife of his half-brother Philip. John denounced Herod Antipas publicly and was then executed over this issue (Luke 3 verse 19, Matthew 14 verses 3-12, Mark 6 verses 17-29).
  • He ruled Galilee and Peraea where Jesus ministered most of the time.

1.2.3 Herod Archelaus

  • He ruled Judea and Samaria.
  • The Jews protested to Herod Archelaus as his rule was so bad and in AD6, he was dismissed from leadership. The Emperor from Rome appointed the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the place of Herod Archelaus.
  • Jesus’ parents were in Egypt seeking refuge from Herod the Great. After the death of Herod the Great, instead of going to Bethlehem they went to Galilee in fear of Herod Archelaus (Matthew 2 verse 22).

1.2.4 Herod Philip

  • He ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis. Ituraea was a heathen territory that was then named Caesarea Philippi after Caesar Augustus (The Emperor) and Herod Philip (The Tetrarch). This was a way of respecting the Emperor.

1.2.5 Pontius Pilate

  • He was the governor of Judaea and a member of the Roman nobility. An ambitious, ruthless man who was indifferent to Jewish religion and determined to make his province completely Roman.
  • He clashed with Jews because his soldiers brought medallions of the emperor. The Jews resented his bringing graven images into their holy city.
  • Historians portray him as a stubborn man who did not care about how the Jews felt.

1.3 Sanhedrin Council.

  • The name for the council was derived from the Greek word synedrion which means an assembly.
  • It was a Jewish supreme council which consisted of 70 members. The president was the High Priest from the Jewish sect of Sadducees. The High Priest held office for a short time until another person was elected as High Priest. According to Luke 3 verse 2, Joseph Caiaphas and Annas were High Priests during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
  • The Sanhedrin was expected to pursue a policy of cooperation with the Romans.
  • It was the governing board but was limited to religious affairs; it controlled the temple and supervised the synagogues.
  • It acted as court of law and dealt with offences such as blasphemy and could only impose lighter punishments which were not the death penalty. It only dealt with issues that did not clash with the Roman rule.
  • The council had power to collect temple tax as well as fixing the religious events of the year.


2.0 Introduction

Palestine had four main religious groups or tribes. These groups or tribes were the Jews, Samaritans, Greeks and Romans. The group with the greatest number of people was the Jews, whose total population was about half a million.

2.1 Religious groups in Palestine

2.1.1 Romans

  • This was the ruling elite in the land of Palestine during the time of Jesus. The Romans comprised a small number of people in the land.
  • The Romans were mainly the governor, high-ranking army officers, financial officials and big businessmen who had little contact with the local populace.

2.1.2 Greeks

  • This group is sometimes referred to as the Hellenists.
  • Greeks are considered residents of Syria and Phoenicia.
  • Greek men were part of The Roman army.
  1. 2.1.3 The Samaritans

    • This group is a descendent of the Israelites. Their name is taken from the city’s name, Samaria. The name Samaria was derived from the Hebrew word Shomron which means watch-mountain.
    • Samaria was the capital city of Ancient Palestine. It was situated in the central province of Ancient Palestine, with Judea to its south and Galilee to its north.
    • The Jews regarded the Samaritans as racially impure so they denied them the access to worship in the temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans had their own temple on Mount Gerizim.
    • It is reported that during Jesus’ childhood some Samaritans defiled the Jewish temple by scattering human bones in it, during the Passover time and this caused clashes between the Samaritans and Jews.
    • The Jews feared that the Samaritans would defile them, so when the Jews were going to Jerusalem they preferred to travel by the way of Jordan Valley rather than passing through Samaria. (Luke 9 verses 51-56, 17 verses 11-19).
    • Just like the Sadducees, the Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament that is the Torah and they did not believe in life after death.
    • Some refer to them as religious conservatives who are very strict about the Sabbath and ritual purity.
  2.  2.2 The Jews
    • The Jews divided themselves into two main groups. These are namely Judeans from the south and the Galileans from the north.
    • The Jews were the majority people of the land though there were some non- Jews.

2.2.1 Galileans

  • The name Galilee comes from the Greek word Galilaia which means district (Matthew 4 verse 15).
  • The Galileans were noted for their fanatical nationalism.
  • The original tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali had intermarried with Gentiles hence it is referred to as “Galilee of Gentiles.”
  • Other Galileans were engaged in trade with Gentile cities such as Caesarea and Decapolis which were occupied by Greeks.

2.2.2 Judeans

  • These are the members of Judah’s tribe.
  • They were the inhabitants of Judea.

2.3 Jewish Sects

Jewish sects

2.3.1 Sadducees

  • This Jewish religious sect appeared early in the first century BC under the Maccabean Kings.
  • Their name is derived from Zadok, who was the first High Priest to serve and work in the temple, during the days of David and Solomon.
  • The sect honored the first five books of the Old Testament (Torah) and they were not worried about the unwritten traditions.
  • They did not believe in the resurrection, angels and spirits as can be noted in the following verses; Luke 20 verses 27-28 and Matthew 22 verses 23-33.
  • The majority of Sadducees were in the Sanhedrin Council. They were very rich and many of them were priests while others were layman, for example, Caiaphas the High Priest was a Sadducee. (Luke 3 verse 2)
  • The sect favored cooperation with the Roman government in order to preserve their temple worship.
  • They were responsible for Jesus’ condemnation (Matthew 3 verse 7, 16 verse1, 22 verse23).
  • They often clashed with the Pharisees and Jesus on matters concerning life after death.

2.3.2 Pharisees

  • Pharisees appeared earliest under the Maccabean kings and were severely persecuted by King Herod.
  • Their behavior and physical characteristics gave them the name Pharisees which means the “The Separated Ones”.
  • They strictly observed the Law of Moses and the Old Testament as a whole.
  • They increased in number under the Roman rule and became the most influential party in Palestine; however they were a minority in the Sanhedrin Council.
  • They fasted twice a week and observed the law of fasting as may be observed in Luke 18 verse 12 and Matthew 9 verse 14.
  • The Pharisees also observed hours of prayer.
  • The Pharisees never become High Priests.
  • In Luke 12 verse 1, Jesus suggests that the Pharisees were hypocrites.
  • They observed the paying tithes very strictly, for that reason, the Pharisees avoided eating in the house of a non-Pharisee for fear that food was not tithed properly.
  • They were poor and ill-educated.
  • They believed in spirits, angels and resurrection.
  • Pharisees believed in the tradition of their elders as well as the scriptures, for example their strict observance of the Sabbath was in line with the scriptures. Their zeal for tradition made them add a number of unwritten traditions to the written laws, for example, eating with unwashed hands was forbidden in Matthew 15 verses 1 and 2 but before this there is no mention of such a tradition.
  • They often clashed with Jesus on matters concerning the laws of the Sabbath and tradition of the elders (Luke 16 verse 18).
  • They believed in the coming of the Messiah who would be a perfect Pharisee and were offended when Jesus rejected their tradition (Matthew 15 verse 11).They regarded Jesus as a prophet that is why he was invited in their houses (Luke 11 verse 37, 14 verse 1).

2.3.3 Essenes

  • This sect is not mentioned in the synoptic gospels but it was very influential.
  • The Essenes are the ones that opposed the rich and corrupt temple priesthood.
  • They worked in bands which consisted of twelve people. This made them to have common meals, prayers and ritual washing.
  • This was a group of peacekeepers who were communists (they believed property was owned by the society not by individuals), and were generally involved in the fight against the evil world.
  • Like Pharisees they strictly observed the Sabbath but did not recognize the authority of the Holy Spirit.
  • In order to observe the law perfectly they withdraw into monasteries in the desert.
  • John the Baptist may have joined them at one time when he was in the wilderness. (Luke 1verse80)

2.3.4 Scribes

  • Their name was derived from the Hebrew word Sopher which means secretary or writer.
  • Scribes were highly educated in the scriptures.
  • In some instances they were given the title Rabbi, teacher or master.
  • They were consulted on legal matters by the Sanhedrin Council and they used to debate on the laws of Moses so they became very good at interpreting the law.
  • They made decisions on issues concerning the Jewish Law because of this, they were called lawyers.
  • To become a Scribe one had to undergo a long course of study under a recognized scribe in the school of the temple court.

2.3.5 Zealots

  • This group was founded during the time of the census by Judas the Galilean (who was also known as Judas of Gamala).
  • The Zealot movement was so named after their zeal for God and Judaism.
  • Barabbas was one of the Zealots.(Luke 23 verses 18 and 19)
  • This group later grew in strength and influence.
  • It became the militant wing of the Jews in their struggle with Rome.