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Growth of the Jesus movement

The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World
Authors: Richard A Horsley & Neil Asher Silberman

NEW TESTAMENT scholars are piecing together the findings of a number of archaeological sites in the Middle East to construct a picture of the origins of early Christianity. They are also drawing upon recent studies of the ancient Roman social and political scene.

The New Testament has indicated the historical context in which Jesus and His followers find themselves. It was written from the viewpoint of the religious minority of Christians in a largely pagan society. Other sources like the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the secular historians like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger have given us the accounts seen from their peculiar perspectives. Scholars try to interpret both the Christian and secular historical narratives to get a clearer understanding of the history of the people at the time of the rise of the Jesus movement.

The Jesus movement must be placed in its unique historical context. It was not just a religious movement apart from the history of the people then. What happened to the movement was a result of its interaction with the larger society beyond the religious community. We have to read the New Testament in the light of our understanding of the life and times of the people.

The early Roman Empire was sharply divided between the rich urban aristocrats and the poor rural folks.

Recent excavations revealed the humble villages and homes of where the followers of Jesus lived and struggled for survival. They have recovered the remains of the boats used by the fishermen. They have unearthed the cities and palaces of the Roman rulers and the tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas. Archaeological findings reveal the economic and political conditions to which Jesus and early Christianity had to make a response.


‘The Jesus movement must be placed in its unique historical context. It was not just a religious movement apart from the history of the people then. What happened to the movement was a result of its interaction with the larger society beyond the religious community.’

Recent excavations showed the extensive urban development and building of cities like Sepphoris with impressive structures and monuments, maze of streets, squares and water aqueducts. They were constructed by the villagers who had flocked to the larger towns and cities in Galilee.

Fishing became an industry in the salting and pickling of fish and supplying of fish sauces. At the same time the common people had to support the religious hierarchy. They had to make their priestly tithes and sacred donations to the Temple. The people of the land who were disrupted and impoverished must be reflecting on their spiritual condition as to why God permitted such misery. They looked to their religious leaders for counsel and guidance. John the Baptist and Jesus and His followers had to respond to their questions.

We now know that the members of the Qumran community who handed down to us the Dead Sea Scrolls withdrew from Judean society to protest against the rule of the wicked priests and idolatrous political leaders. Other groups must have been organised too.

Galilee, the birthplace of Christianity, was under the domination of the Roman Empire and profound changes were made to the life of the peasants and their villages. Unfair tax burdens were imposed upon the people who already lived in remote and poverty-stricken regions. People living under such domination looked for deliverance and yearned for a new kingdom. Protest movements arose and people began to rebel against the harsh Roman rule. They challenged Roman authority and power.

At the beginning the Christian community appeared to be docile. The people were exploited and suffered under Roman rule and Jesus must have responded in order to draw a crowd to follow Him. Certainly His followers were later persecuted throughout the region and were crucified like common criminals who were regarded as political subversives.

“Jesus’ healings and teachings must be therefore seen in this context, not as abstract spiritual truths spoken before stunning miracles but as a programme of community action and practical resistance to a system that efficiently transformed close-knit villages into badly fragmented communities of alienated, frightened individuals.”

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and the independence of the Israel in their village communities. It was a sweeping programme of village community renewal. It was an agrarian movement for change reminding the rural people of God’s promises of redemption if they were true to their covenant. To the Roman rulers this was sedition of the highest order which led to His crucifixion.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple and speaking of the destruction of the Temple were calculated acts of defiance.

NOTE: Richard A Horsley, Professor of Religion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, is a noted scholar of the historical Jesus. Neil Asher Silberman is a historian and has written about the archaeology of the ancient Near East, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.