Study the Church Resources for studying the Bible and Church History

The Jewish World

Why study the Jewish World of Jesus' day? Jesus was born into a Jewish family and lived his life mainly among Jews, plus the faith of the NT (Christianity) is rooted in the Jewish faith, and so knowledge of the Old Testament and the Jewish world of the First Century is vital to understanding the NT.

You will see a lot of dates below. The only ones important for this class are underlined.


  1. Old Testament History
  2. Jewish History between the OT and the NT (known as the Intertestamental Period)
  3. Jewish History during the NT Period
  4. Critical thinking: Jesus lived at the perfect time: He could not have been born 50 years later
  5. 4 Different Jewish Religious Groups

1. Old Testament (OT) History

This link covers the main points in OT history: click here.  Do not be overwhelmed:   just scan over it: the parts you need to know for this course are underlined.

The OT contains:

  • Two Cornerstones: the Covenant with Abraham and the Law with Moses
  • Physical structures: The Tabernacle, the Temples (there were two), and Synagogues

The Covenant: around 1950 BC

God and Abraham entered into a covenant that created the people of God, known as the Jews in the OT. You can read the Covenant here in verses 1-11.

A covenant, like any contract, is between two parties. In this case, the following promises were made:

  • God:
    • Will make Abraham’s descendants into a large nation.
    • Will give Abraham’s descendants the land where Abraham lived to be theirs forever (today called Israel).
  • Abraham:
    • all male descendants will be circumcised at 8 days of age.

This Covenant is the basis of Judaism and the OT. Jesus, as a Jew, was circumcised at 8 days of age. Please note that Jews use the OT as their holy book, although they do not call it the Old Testament. Instead, Jews call it the Tanak or Torah.

The Law: either 1450 BC or 1250 BC (scholars have divided opinions)

The OT story link descibed how the Jews escaped from Egypt and began to cross the desert: at that point God gave them the Law (through Moses). In this way, God told the Jews how to live and “run” their Jewish faith. In the OT, this is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. You can think of the Law as a nation-building tool for the Jews. They escaped from Egypt but had no rules to govern themselves or even instructions on how to please God. So God put all those rules and instructions into the Law.

Many people think the Law only contains the 10 Commandments, but it contains the following:

  • 10 Commandments
  • When to sacrifice
  • What to sacrifice
  • How to build the Tabernacle
  • Describes the different religious festivals (but not Hanukah; more on that below)
  • Which foods to eat
  • Plus much, much more: 613 laws in all!

The Covenant and the Law

Put these two together and you have the complete Jewish religious system as found in the OT and used up to the days of Jesus (and used by Jews today). You can think of these two parts this way:

  • Covenant: established the people of God (this means it started the People of God and described who they were, God's people)
  • Law: told the People of God how to live

Please note: This becomes the basis of the Christian faith. (Much more on this in the discussion of the book of Acts and Paul's theology.)

The Tabernacle

In the Law of Moses, God told the Jews to build a large tent, called a Tabernacle, where the priests could offer sacrifices. After they conquered Israel, they set up the Tabernacle and did not move it again. Once the Temple (discussed below) was built they no longer used the Tabernacle; scholars do not know what happened to it. For a picture of a life-size model of the Tabernacle and the fence go here.

The Temples

This gets a little bit complicated because there were two diferent Temples at the same spot at two different times.

  • The first Temple was built around 950 BC when Solomon was king and it replaced the Tabernacle. It is known as the First Temple, and it was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians.
  • A replacement Temple was completed around the year 519 BC. It is known as the Second Temple; this is the Temple that Jesus visited. It was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans and has not been rebuilt. You can see a picture of it here.


Remember back to the OT story: The Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom of Judah in the year 586 BC and the First Temple was destroyed. Most of the Jews were taken to Babylonia to live as prisoners. While there, the Jews wanted to continue to worship God but they had a problem: the Temple had been destroyed. Therefore, they decided to develop an alternative: Synagogues. Synagogues can be compared with churches in that there was not one synagogue but many synagogues.

This worked so well for the Jews that, after they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple in 519 BC, they also continued meeting in synagogues. By the time of Jesus, the Jews could worship in the Temple (which was the Second Temple) or in synagogues. But they could only sacrifice in the Temple.

2. Jewish History between the OT and NT

Timeline (all dates are approximate)(You don't have to remember any of these dates or know any of this information except the ones that are underlined.)

  • 540 BC: The Persians controlled the land of Isreal.
  • 323 BC: Alexander the Great died. He conquered Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Israel, Egypt, and as far east as present-day Pakistan.
  • 323 BC: Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his generals; Egypt took control of Israel.
  • 200 BC: The Seleucid Empire took control of Israel from Egypt. This empire was based in present-day Iran.
  • 167 BC: The Jews rebelled and regained parts of Israel including Jerusalem. The Jews gained more land over the next fifty years and formed the kingdom of Israel.
  • 63 BC: The Roman Empire took over Israel. No battles were fought. The Roman Empire dominated the region and the Jews surrendered.
  • 40 BC: The Roman Empire made Herod the Great king of Israel. He was neither a real Jew nor a real king.
    • Not a real Jew: His family were Idumeans who lived south of Israel. (This is the same as Edom mentioned in the OT.) They had converted to Judaism 100 years earlier either by being forced by the Jews (who were powerful at that point in time) or for political reasons.
    • Not a real king: Herod’s father, Antipater, with 3000 soldiers under his command, had rescued Julius Caesar when Caesar was surrounded while fighting a battle in Egypt. Caesar made him a citizen of Rome. In 40 BC, the Romans made his son, Herod, king of Israel. This is the same Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus.
  • 4 BC: Herod the Great died.

3. Jewish History during the NT period


  • 4 BC: Herod the Great died. The kingdom of the Jews was divided and given to Herod’s three sons:
    • The northern part, north of Nazareth, went to Herod Philip.
    • The middle part, north of Jerusalem but where Nazareth was located, went to Herod Agrippa.
    • The southern part, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem was located, went to Herod Archelaus.
      • Remember from the lesson about Pax Romana that some of the Jews were happy the Romans were in control because of Pax Romana. Other Jews didn’t care about Pax Romana but instead were more concerned with the promises of the Covenant, especially the part about the Jews controlling the land forever. Therefore some of the Jews began to wait for God to raise up a military leader like Moses and David to lead them in battle against the Romans and regain the land.
  • AD 6: Archelaus was removed due to complaints from the Jews: he was cruel (he killed over 3000 Jews) and entered into a marriage that went against the Law of Moses. He was sent to France and died in AD 18.
  • From AD 6 until after Jesus: The Romans did not choose another of Herod’s descendants to control southern Jerusalem but instead sent Roman governors.
  • 26-36: The Roman governor in charge of southern Israel was Pilate.
  • 66: Some of the Jews attempted to end Roman rule and killed many Roman soldiers. The Jews fought other battles and took back the land of Israel. For in-depth information go here.
  • 66-70: The Romans counter-attacked. The Romans lost one battle, but won the war.
  • 70: The Romans captured Jerusalem. They then sacked the city and burned the Second Temple.

4. Critical thinking: Jesus lived at the perfect time: He could not have been born 50 years later

The last date on the timeline, 70, indicates that Israel was under hostile occupation by the Romans. Therefore, if Jesus had lived 50 years later, he would have been thirty years old in the year 80, when Israel was still under Roman “martial law,” and he would not have been able to travel around and gain followers.

5. 4 Different Jewish Religious Groups mentioned in the New Testment

  1. Pharisees
  2. Sadducees
  3. Herodians
  4. Zealots

The simplest way to divide these four groups is in two categories: what did they think about the Romans, and what did they think about new ideas that developed in the time period in between the OT and the NT?

Jewish Group Liked Romans? Liked new ideas?
Pharisees no yes
Sadducees yes no
Herodians yes *
Zealots no *

* = These groups didn't care about the new ideas

Liked Romans?

Remember back to the discussion of Pax Romana. Some of the people the Romans conquered wanted the Romans to be in charge because theyended wars, brought peace, and made travel and commerce much easier. Within Judaism, the groups that wanted the Romans to be in charge were the Sadducees and the Herodians. Both those groups were willing to accept the Romans because the Romans brought Pax Romana.

On the other hand, the Pharisees did want to see the Covenant fulfilled and the land returned to the Jews, and so did not want the Romans to be there.

Also, the Zealots hated the Romans. They were enthusiastic and zealous for the land God promised them in the Covenant; they were extreme Jewish nationalists. Some scholars believe the Zealots led the revolt against the Romans in 66 and led the subsequent battles with the Romans until Jerusalem was destroyed in 70.

  • One of Jesus’ followers was a Zealot: Simon the Zealot, listed in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13.
  • A smaller group of Zealots were the Sicarii. They were known as assassins and particularly targeted Jews who worked for the Romans, such as Jewish tax collectors.
    • Judas, the Apostle who betrayed Jesus, might have been a Sicarii. Judas was also known as Judas Iscariot, and some scholars believe that "Iscariott" is a form of "Sicarii":
      •     S i c a r i   i
      • I   s   c a r i   o t

Like New Ideas?

A span of around 450 years exists between the last book of the OT, Malachi, and Jesus. During that time period, different ideas developed within Judaism. Some Jews accepted them and others did not. The Herodians were more interested in the Romans remaining in power, and the Zealots were more interested in getting the land of Israel back from the Romans, and so neither group was concerned about the new ideas. But the Pharisees and the Sadducees were very interested in the religious aspect of Judaism.

For example, the OT does not clearly indicate what happens to someone after they die. During the Intertestamental period (the period in between the OT and NT), the idea developed that people can go to heaven and live with God. [Note: Jesus taught this, and so it is true.] The Pharisees accepted new ideas, and so accepted this idea. The Sadducees only accepting the authority of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT that contained the Law of Moses) and so did not accept this idea. You can see an example of this in one conversation between Jesus and some Sadducees in Luke 20:27: “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.”


Year Event
63 B.C. Romans conquer Israel.
27 B.C. Pax Romana began and lasted until 180.
All dates after this are A.D. ["c." means "about"]
64 Fire in Rome and Christians persecuted by Emperor Nero; Peter crucified upside down and Paul beheaded.
66 The Jews in Israel rebelled against the Romans and won
70 Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by Romans (it has not been rebuilt).
95 Persecution by Emperor Domitian; Apostle John exiled on island of Patmos where he wrote Revelation.
96 Emperor Domitian died; Apostle John probably moved to Ephesus.
c.100 Apostle John died; he was the last Apostle to die.

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