Based on the documentary “Bible Mysteries - The Disciples,” describe in detail what life was like for first-century Jews. How did their life under Roman occupation shape their expectations of who the Messiah was going to be and how he would act?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is an interesting assignment. There are many things to consider when writing an essay on this topic. It is important to remember that life was difficult for first-century Jews living under Roman occupation. The Romans controlled the Jews’ lives, their livelihoods, and their ability to worship as they wanted. For this reason, Jews formed groups or sects, banding together in order to make it easier for the collective, or even to formulate a way to rebel against the Romans if they could be led by a strong leader or Messiah.

For example, the Romans imposed severe and hefty taxes on the Jewish population. This meant that Jews had to pay the Romans a great part—or sometimes even the best part—of what they earned. Specifically, the fishermen had to pay the Romans the better fish that they caught and, in exchange, were given inferior and often processed fish for themselves and their families and to sell for other items.

The farmers were required to pay significant portions of their harvest to their Roman oppressors. The documentary shows that many rebelled in covert ways by adding rocks and other heavy objects to the baskets due to the Romans in order to create the illusion that the basket contained the required amount of wheat the Roman conquerors demanded when, in reality, the farmers were keeping more of the wheat for their own families than the Romans would have allowed. The onerous Roman tax requirements created tensions within the Jewish community and also made it difficult and possibly dangerous for tax collectors, such as the disciple Matthew, to do their job. The documentary notes that Jewish law also required that a farmer leave ten percent of the crops unharvested so that the poor could have the harvest from those portions of the land for their own consumption. This was a mandate to be charitable so that others who did not own land could share in the bounty of the farmers’ lands. Leviticus 23:22 commands,

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.

The need to leave some of the harvest for the poor and, on top of that, pay so much to the Romans made life particularly difficult for the Jews living under Roman oppression. They resented the extreme taxation and sought ways to avoid paying as much as they were required to pay. In turn, this created resentment among the Jewish population. We can think of it as being somewhat analogous to the American colonies’ growing resentment of the rising taxes they were required to pay to the British monarch.

Moreover, there was a Jewish commandment to be hospitable to the traveler who approached one’s home or tent. We see an example of this in Genesis, when three strangers approach Abraham’s tent and Abraham asks Sarah to bring food and drink to quench their thirst and hunger. What Abraham does not realize is that the strangers are angels.

The need to be charitable and hospitable, and particularly to pay the Romans their onerous tax requirements, would have diminished the food and drink that people were able to retain for themselves and increased their resentment toward Roman rule.

In turn, the resentment toward their treatment by the Romans shaped the Jews’ expectations of who the Messiah was going to be and how that person would act. They needed someone who would be a leader and who would allow them to escape or undo the oppressive conditions under which they lived.

Moreover, because they needed to travel from village to village to spread the Gospel, Jesus and the disciples faced harsh and often dangerous conditions. The danger came from animals who might view the group as potential prey and from people who might rob and perhaps harm them. Therefore, the disciples needed to be armed in order to protect themselves. Moreover, the disciples and Jesus also had a reputation for their ability to heal people. This was particularly important in a society where the mortality rate meant that people generally died when they were in their forties or fifties and where a simple infection often led to death because there were no antibiotics to fight the infection. Faith-based healing, therefore, was an important skill that the people expected from the Messiah.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team