Say the phrase “In 1492 …” and most people can finish it with “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Yes, we all know when this historical event took place, but why did he begin the voyage? What were his benefactors’ motives for financing the journey? What economic and social conventions drove him and his men during the many hard months at sea? Parroting a simple fact does not an accurate grasp of history make. The same applies to what we know about Jesus.
Perhaps it’s because this subject is taught in neat units, segmented into centuries and divided by tidy, nonexistent geographical borders. But the fact remains that history is holistic, and understanding the past requires careful study. Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the Bible.
Jesus stepped into space and time—Jewish Palestine in the first century, to be exact, and His homeland was part of the Roman empire. To understand the full impact of His message, it’s essential to appreciate the time and place in which He delivered it. There were three spheres of influence in Jesus’ era, and His message was at complete loggerheads with each.
In the first century, the Middle East was decidedly pre-industrial. Most people raised crops or livestock, and a few—like Jesus and His family—made a living as craftspeople. There was an enormous gap between peasants, who made up 90% of the population, and the ruling class.
Life in this era was completely male-dominated and hierarchical, and it closely matched the traditional family structure. Women and children had few, if any, rights and were viewed as second-class citizens.
Purity was at the center of Jewish life, and under this system, it broadened from an individual virtue to a cultural one. That meant there was a “pure” group as well as an “impure” one. Consequently, Jews saw themselves as superior to Gentiles and, within their own society, ranked the healthy above the ill.
These systems created sharp social boundaries, and elites (such as the Pharisees) in one sphere of society were also considered at the top of others. This is why Jesus’ message rubbed so many the wrong way.
“As long as you are proud you cannot know God ... As long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
So, too, did Jesus’ emphasis on women and children and His stubborn insistence on their intrinsic worth. He addressed women directly in public, including the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and others.
Little ones also had the Lord’s full attention. Jesus told His chiding male disciples, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Luke 18:17). And with those words, the man-made hierarchy lost some of its hold.
Jesus took the rule book and set it aside in favor of face-to-face compassion. He touched the unclean and dined with outcasts and sinners. To a culture obsessed with purity, the idea of being “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8) was truly revolutionary—as it is today.