I am not a historian or Biblical scholar. I am curious and have done some study in seminary and on my own. The following is my memory of the context of the life of Jesus and Holy Week, from various studies I have done. Much of it from the book, “Jesus and Empire,” by Richard Horsley.
In the edarly 2nd century B.C., the land now called Israel, for ages called Palestine, was under Greek control and had been since 333 B.C. There were various factions of the Hellenic empire and Israel fell between two warring factions: the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. The Seleucid Empire had control in the beginning of the 2nd century B.C., and eventually made Judaism illegal. That was not a difficult action to enforce since the Jewish priest of the period had become thoroughly Hellenized and offered little resistance. When the Seleucid Empire was threatened by their old rivals in Egypt and a new threat (Parthians, I think) in the east, they abandoned their military presence in Israel. The rural priests, the Maccabees, threw out the old priests, the descendants of David, and became the new dynasty in Israel – the Hasmonean dynasty. They managed to control the upper kingdom of Israel: Galilee and Samaria (the 10 lost tribes), as well as Judea, with its capital, Jerusalem. Later, around 104 B.C., they added a southern territory, Idumea. The Hasmonean rulers were as ruthless as previous rulers. Around 65 B.C., two brothers ruled and one of them, John Hyrcanus, invited the Roman army to take over and insure that he was the sole ruler of Israel, as a vassal state of the Roman Empire. Herod was the son of a Hasmonean mother and an Idumean father, Antipater, who was John Hyrcanus’ chief advisor. Herod was trained in the court in Rome, but was Jewish – whose mother was of the same family as the priests and high priests. Herod was the first ruler of Israel in centuries to have the title of “king.” This caused a major revolt in Israel around 40 B.C. He when he began his reign and around 4 B.C. when he died. The people did not want a “king.” Herod ruled from Jerusalem. He raised taxes enough to do major building projects, including a new Greek style temple.
So back to Holy Week. Jesus was from Galilee. We have four books about his life, written from various perspectives. Mark describes Jesus as living and teaching in Galilee and Syria. I once went through the book of Mark and looked up every town mentioned and traced it on a map. It was mainly around the Sea of Galilee and west and north into Syria. It was only in the last week of his life that he went south into Judea and Jerusalem. At the time there was no one thing known as Judaism. The Bible, the Old Testament, represents the southern tradition – the Temple Tradition – what is called “The Great Tradition.” It was assembled and written down by the priests and scribes of the second temple tradition, the descendants of David who returned to Judea after the Babylonian captivity. The people in the northern ten tribes – Samaria and Galilee, were from the “Lesser Tradition.” They had the books of Mosses – the first five books of the Bible, and the words of the prophets, most of whom were from the north, but had no religious association with Jerusalem and the Temple, or the priests of this tradition. Jesus talks about the “law and the prophets” – that is the lesser tradition. I believe his message is about renewing a covenantal community – a way of living with each other as guided by all of the wisdom of the Pentateuch – the history of the trial and error of the people of Israel trying to live in covenantal community with each other and with God.
The Jewish priests – the Hasmoneans – were the rulers of Israel. Rome was the muscle that enforced their rule. First, John the Baptist condemned the priests as a “brood of vipers,” then Jesus deliberately came to Jerusalem to condemn these rulers. For Jesus, Jerusalem was not the religious center of Judaism, it was the center of oppressive power. The Temple, a Greek temple built with exorbitant taxation off the backs of the people, was not a holy place of worship, but the symbol of all that was wrong with the Jewish tradition.
Holy Week was a time when Jesus presented the contradiction between his vision of a renewal of the covenantal community, living peacefully with each other, respecting the sacred nature of life – and the hierarchical rulers, using enslavement and torture to keep the people supporting the rich rulers of their own country as well as sending large tributes to Rome, both to the emperor and to the population of Rome that required their “bread and circus,” – all of which was paid for by the outlying territories of the empire, like Israel.
Jesus’ presence and message was sufficiently strong as to present a threat to the Jewish leaders – so he was killed. There was no separation between religion and politics. The Sanhedrin – the court of the high priest and colleagues – was the ruling junta. Rome was simply the enforcer – the army.
To me, Holy Week is the condemnation of the Temple Tradition – the idea that God relates to people through a hierarchical system. Jesus is my hero. Jesus felt his power to confront the rulers came from God. I seek to feel that as well. I don’t think I am a martyr as Jesus was. But I do know the conflict. At times I have been close to presenting myself as a presence with a message that was sufficiently clear and strong enough to be a threat to the rulers of our world, but it has never been so clear or strong to have any dramatic effect. – just little effects.
I don’t mean to minimize Jesus’ relation to God. Clearly he was thoroughly at one with God, and his message and ministry was not all confrontational. He healed the people, he taught the people, he loved the people and demonstrated God’s love for the people. But when it came time for Holy Week, he confronted the powers that prevented the people from living out their lives the way God intended – in covenantal community.