Historical background to the Life of Jesus
The patriarch Abraham’s covenant with God made the Jewish people a called people, destined to receive spiritual tidings and spread it among the Gentiles. All that they had to do was to upkeep the Laws of God. This upkeep guaranteed continued earthly and spiritual success. Through a succession of prophets, they were always reminded of their great destiny: among them a Messiah was to be born who would free the world.
The sufferings engendered by the captivity in Egypt kept the flame of the longing for God pure and allowed the Jewish people to outstrip all other races in their spiritual development and recognitions. Through Moses, and when the time was right, they were given the Ten Commandments and eventually led into the Promised Land by Joshua.There, they were meant to put into effect the full workings of the Laws of God as revealed in the Ten Commandments. They hardly kept these Commandments, however, and disaster followed.
First came leadership through the Judges followed by King David, and by his son Solomon. The moral fibre of the society deteriorated with the reign of Solomon with his concubines and the infusion of foreign customs through them. The worship of foreign idols made an appearance during this time and the consequences of this was not only the spiritual but also the earthly decline of the nation.
With Solomon’s death, the decline of the nation of Israel which had already begun was finally completed. The kingdom was split in 928BC and divided between his two sons: the kingdom of Israel itself and that of Judah. This split, with the inevitable weaknesses made both kingdoms open to attack and plunder by foreign powers.
As is often the fate of weak nations in those times, Israel was attacked and defeated by the Assyrians in 722BC, whereas Judah had since become a vassal state to the same Assyrians. The status of Judah did not last for long as it came under the dominion of the Babylonians in 587BC. This conquer was followed by extensive depopulations, deportations and exile in what has become popularly known as the Babylonian exile and captivity. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed and thus ended the so-called First Temple period of Jewish history.
The Israelites were kept in Babylon for about 50 years until their captors were themselves defeated by the Persians in 539BC. The Persian king Cyrus the Great was very benevolent and allowed the Jews to return to their country. Thus started the first wave of returnees from exile. They were also allowed religious autonomy and in the space of a few years, the first returnees, in concert with those who had stayed behind in Israel rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, thereby marking the beginning of the Second Temple period.
First under the leadership of Ezra, and then Nehemiah, the Pentateuch was canonised, several religious reforms were introduced and the lives of the Israelites were rededicated to the worship of God. The office of High Priest was created, which office came to play a pivotal role in the lives of Israelites until the Romans came. The occupier of this office was the de-facto head of state of Israel. It could be argued that the creation of this office, while it was very crucial that it be created, led directly to the further moral decline of the Israelite leadership, as we shall see.