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Context: Social/Cultural World of Jesus

Jesus lived in Jewish Palestine in the first century. This is the

historical/cultural/social context in which he must be understood.

At that time, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, under the domination of
a foreign empire.

Rome ruled indirectly:


In the north
Ruled by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great)
Herod owed his appointment to Rome


In the south
Ruled by a circle of the Jewish aristocratic elite
These elite collaborated with the Roman government

Jewish Caste System

Jesus lived in a Jewish society that operated under a domination system.

This domination system applied to the economic, social and spiritual order of society:

Peasant Society (economic)

Purity Society (spiritual and social)
Patriarchal Society (social and spiritual))

Peasant Society

Peasant society refers to a pre-industrial agrarian society where:

Peasant agricultural production is the only real source of

There is no manufacturing
There is no industry except small scale handcrafts

Peasant societies are marked by an enormous gulf between rural

peasants and urban ruling elites.

The urban ruling elites (king, aristocratic families, high government officials)
and retainers (servants, army, lower government officials, religious officials):

Comprise 10% of population

Extract 66% of the value of rural production through:
← Taxation: civil and religious (tithes are taxes on
agricultural produce to be paid to the temple
← Land rent: direct payment or sharecropping
Are enormously wealthy in the standards of the day
Don’t produce anything and hardly provide any services except an
army for warfare

Peasant society was politically oppressive, economically

exploitative, and religiously legitimated.

Purity System

The central social structure of the society was organized with purity as the core value.
Purity systems generate a class of untouchables and outcasts.

Purity was the core value structuring the society:

Purity was not an individual virtue

Purity was political
It was the ideology of the temple elites
The Jerusalem temple was geographically and symbolically the center
of the purity system

In general the pure/impure or clean/unclean social structure got attached to other central

Pure Impure

clean unclean

righteous outcasts, sinners

(sin is a matter of being unclean, not behavior)

male female
(generally but not automatically (automatically impure)
rich poor
(generally but not automatically (conventional wisdom said the poor hadn't lived right)

Jew gentile
(generally but not automatically (impure by definition)

well/healthy/whole ill/maimed/diseased
(social meaning of being impure)

agricultural produce on which agricultural produce on which taxes were not paid
taxes were paid (declared unclean, boycotted by the righteous)

The purity system creates a society with very sharp social boundaries.

The temple elites were also the economic elites and the purity elites.

Patriarchal Society

Patriarchal society is:

← Male dominated
← Hierarchical
← Mirrored in the family structure

It is crucial to see the centrality of the temple and the temple aristocracy in
the whole system because of the centrality of the temple in the world of
Jesus’ life.
Jesus advocates for change:
Jesus not only challenged the politics of purity, but advocated the
politics of compassion. ~ Marcus Borg

Evidence that Jesus wanted enact positive change to the existing Jewish
domination system is found in Bible texts reporting:

Conflicts with Pharisees committed to the purity system

Anti-temple sayings and actions
Anti-purity sayings and actions
Forgiveness of sins apart from the temple and purity system

Jesus challenges the peasant, purity, and

patriarchal domination systems (read some
examples below)
Purity sayings
“It’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it’s
what comes out of the person that defiles.” (Mark 7:15, SV)

To say purity is what’s on the inside is a profoundly politically subversive


“Blessed are the pure in heart...” (Mat. 5:8, NRSV)

To say purity is a matter of the heart is to deny that purity is a matter of

observing the purity system.
“As the sun was setting, all those who had people sick with various diseases
brought them to him. He would lay his hands on each one of them and cure
them.” (Luke 4:40, SV)

Jesus violated the purity system in his healings by touching those the purity
system considered unclean.

“Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (from Luke 5:17-25, NRSV)

He subverted the boundaries, healed and forgave sins outside the purity

Relationships with women

Jesus subverts some of the most sacred taboos of his time by:

Speaking with women

Affirming Mary’s role as a disciple when questioned by Martha
Defending the woman who entered an all-male banquet and washed
Jesus’ feet
Welcoming women as members of his itinerant group

Temple sayings and action

“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive
out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he
overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold
doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the
temple....” (Mark 11:15-16, NRSV)
Jesus’ action in the temple is an anti-purity act
Money changers and sellers were serving the ruling elites,
facilitating payment of taxes and system of purity through sacrifice
Jesus’ action protested against the temple as the center of an
economically and politically oppressive domination system
Common table fellowship
Jesus is accused of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”

In purity society, eating was a political act, who you ate with mattered.

Jesus’ open table fellowship was subversive and illustrated an alternative


Jesus challenged social/political understandings of his society system and

advocated an alternative social vision.

Jesus taught the politics of ‘Compassion’

“Be compassionate in the way your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36, SV)

Jesus’ alternative vision echoes and subverts the purity system:

Echoes the ideological justification of the purity system

“Be holy as God is holy” - holiness was understood to mean purity
“Be pure as God is pure” - dominant cultural paradigm of the time
“Be compassionate as God is compassionate” - echoes that paradigm
with a radical substitution of terms
“Compassion” comes from the word meaning “womb” - life-giving,
encompassing, embracing

The Good Samaritan parable illustrates the politics of compassion:

← The priest and the Levite passed by the wounded man because of
purity boundaries: death was unclean
← The practice of purity interfered with the practice of compassion
← The Samaritan, considered impure by the purity system, was the
one who acted with compassion

A politics of purity creates radical sharp social boundaries.

A politics of compassion dissolves sharp boundaries, is egalitarian
and inclusive.

Jesus’ invitation to see differently

Seeing is central to the wisdom teaching of Jesus. There are many sayings and
healing stories about seeing. How you see makes all the difference.

What does Jesus invite people to see?

What is this new or different way of seeing like?
What is the different vision of life to which Jesus points and to
which he invites his hearers?

Jesus’ alternative wisdom teaching undermines and subverts the social

boundaries generated by the conventional wisdom of his day and ours.

Jesus’ wisdom teaching points to the world of conventional wisdom as a world of

blindness. His aphorisms and parables invite us to see differently.

Conventional wisdom Jesus’ alternative wisdom

God is punitive lawgiver and judge God is gracious
A person’s worth is determined by All persons have infinite worth as a
measuring up to social standards children of God
Sinners and outcasts are to be Everyone is welcome around the table
avoided and rejected and in the kingdom of God
Identity comes from centering in the
Identity comes from social tradition
sacred, from relationship with God
The first shall be last...; those who
Strive to be first
exalt themselves will be emptied...
The path of dying to self and being
Preserve one’s own life above all
reborn leads to life abundant
Fruit of striving is reward Fruit of centering in God is compassion