by miriam berg
Chapter I

There was once a man named Yeshua ben Yosef, who lived and taught in Palestine about the year 28 C.E. I shall tell the story of his life as it is found in the gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew, which are called the "synoptic" gospels because they tell similar stories about Yeshua. The gospel of John tells a completely different story of Yeshua and his life.

His name was a shortened form of Yehoshua, which is Hebrew for Yahweh is salvation, Yahweh being the Hebrew name for their deity. But he is better known to us by the Greek form of his name, which is Jesus. The Greeks did not have the sound "sh" in their language, and they ended all proper names with an "s"; thus Yeshua became "Jesus". But I shall call him Yeshua in this story.

His father's name was Yosef, or Joseph, an old Hebrew name meaning "enlargement (of my family)". Despite the belief of later ages that Yosef was not his biological father, the gospels are unanimous in their report that the people of Yeshua's time considered him to be the son of Yosef: when he visited his hometown, the people asked, "Isn't this the son of Yosef?" When he was teaching in Jerusalem, the gospel of John reports that the people asked the same thing: "Isn't this Yeshua, the son of Yosef, whose mother and father we know?" Therefore I am calling him by the surname of ben Yosef, which is Hebrew for "the son of Yosef". His mother's name was Miryam, which is a name of Egyptian origin, of uncertain meaning; she is known as Mary, the mother of Yeshua.

The year 28 C.E. was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who had succeeded Octavius Caesar, known as Augustus, as ruler over the entire Roman Empire. The Romans had conquered Palestine in 63 B.C.E., and had placed Herod, an Idumean from southern Palestine, on the throne of the region. When Herod died in 4 B.C.E., Palestine was divided among his sons: Archelaus became tetrarch of Judea and Samaria in southern Palestine; Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee in the central part and Perea to the east of the Jordan river; and Philip became tetrarch of the northern section bordering upon Syria. A fourth part, which was within Syria, called Abilene, was assigned to Lysanias, who was not a son of Herod.

The region of Palestine had a long history. It is mentioned as "Canaan" in Egyptian inscriptions dating from 1800 B.C.E., and there were cities built there as early as 3000 B.C.E. It was first unified under David, a Judean, who became king over Judah and Israel about 1000 B.C.E. and extended his empire from the border of Egypt to the upper reaches of the Euphrates. It included Syria, Moab, Edom, and parts of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea ruled by the Pilishtim, or Philistines, from whom the name "Palestine" comes.

David died about 970 B.C.E., and was succeeded by his son Solomon, who died in 931 B.C.E. The northern tribes of Israel broke away after Solomon's death, led by Jeroboam I; but two centuries later the nation of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians under Sargon II, in 722 B.C.E. Sargon II deported the Israelites to other parts of the Assyrian empire and they disappeared from history. They are called the "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel".

Solomon had built a temple in Jerusalem during his reign, which had become the center for the religious life of the Jews. The books of the Kings and Chronicles report that Solomon had given twenty cities to Hiram, king of Tyre, in exchange for building the temple. Jerusalem itself was on the border between Israel and Judah, and David had made it his capital city in order to help unify the two kingdoms. The name of the city is very old, and its meaning unknown; it is mentioned as "Urusalim" in the Tell A'Marna tablets dating from the eighteenth century B.C.E. But the people of the northern kingdom had never considered it as the shrine for their worship, and when they broke away they made the city of Shechem their religious center, and later a city several miles to the northeast named Tirzah.

The descendants of David continued to rule over Judah until 586 B.C.E., when the nation was conquered by Babylonia under king Nabu-kudurri-usur; his name, which means "Nabu protect our boundary", has come down to us as Nebuchadnezzar. Nabu- kudurri-usur deported most of the Jews to Babylonia. This was an old practice in the Middle East: to deport conquered peoples so that they would lose their nationality. This period is known in Jewish history as the Exile. Nabu-kudurri-usur also transported other peoples into Judah who learned a primitive form of the religion of the Jews. These other peoples were called the Samaritans, and the region in which they lived is now known as Samaria, after another city which had been capital of ancient Israel.

Babylonia itself was conquered in 538 B.C.E. by Cyrus the Persian, and the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. This was a policy of Cyrus who thereby hoped to keep the former conquered peoples contented subjects of his empire. Not all of the Jews returned; those who did found the Samaritans living there practicing a different form of their religion, and they have looked down upon each other ever since.

Alexander the Macedonian conquered the Persians in 333 B.C.E., and became the next ruler over Palestine. His kingdom broke up on his death, however, and the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Persia fought over Judea back and forth for decades. The Jews had remained fiercely nationalistic from the fall of the nation, however, and regained their freedom temporarily in 165 B.C.E. under Judah, son of a priest named Mattathiah, and his brother Simon who assumed the kingship in 142 B.C.E. They were called the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word maqqabah meaning “hammer”, because of their successful overthrow of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. Their family, called the Hasmoneans after Mattathiah's grandfather, ruled for several generations; but a century after Judah the Maccabee the Romans took over the region and appointed as king a foreigner named Herod, the son of Antipater, and once again the Jews were under the domination of a foreign power.

The tribes of Israel and Judah always regarded themselves as the special chosen people of Yahweh, because of a legendary compact between their ancient ancestor named Abraham and their deity Yahweh. During the period of national independence even as their concept of Yahweh as the only and universal God grew, so did their concept of themselves as the favored and preferred people of Yahweh.

After the exile the Jews hoped for a coming king who would restore their national identity and forever subdue all of the other nations who kept conquering them. The title for this king was messiah, meaning "anointed", since the kings of Israel and Judah had always been crowned by being anointed with oil by the chief priests. Many of the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures refer to the coming of this king, the best known being the second part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, which must have been written after 538 B.C.E. since it refers to Cyrus the Persian by name. Judah and Simon Maccabee were both hailed as messiah. The hope for a messiah continued on, and continues to this day.

Herod was not liked by the Jews; he was not Jewish, although he professed Judaism and enlarged and remodeled the temple out of the public treasury; and he was a tyrant, executing many Jews for suspected plots against his throne, including his own wife and two of his sons. When he died in 4 B.C.E., there were uprisings all over Palestine; a man named Judah from the region of Galilee led a rebellion which nearly succeeded before it was finally put down by the Romans and the rebels crucified. A former slave named Simon also gathered followers in the land to the east of the Jordan river and called himself king until he, too, was killed by the Romans. Two of Herod's sons vied for the kingship against Jewish hopes for a Jewish king; the Roman emperor divided the region between the two, Archelaus and Antipas, and also Philip, the third son.

Ten years later, in 6 C.E., Archelaus was removed as tetrarch after protests by the Jews against his tyrannical rule, and a Roman named Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, with authority over Judea. There was another bitter revolt in the region of Galilee at this time led by a Jew named Judah of Gamala, who was the son of a rebel named Hezekiah who had been executed by Herod. For a while it looked like this rebellion might succeed, but it was finally put down by Quirinius, and it is said that two thousand Jews were crucified. There continued to be outbursts from followers of Judah of Gamala, who were called Zealots after a saying of Mattathiah recorded in the first book of the Maccabees: "Be ye zealous for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers." They taught that the Jews should acknowledge Yahweh alone as their king, and should not pay any tribute to Rome. For many years they roamed the hill country of Palestine and fought against the Romans, and against Jews who collaborated with the Romans. They were what we today would call "guerrilla" fighters, from a Spanish word for "little war."

Then in 28 C.E., during the period when Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Pontius Pilate the prefect of Judea, word spread throughout Palestine that a new prophet had appeared in the desert to the east of Jerusalem, round about the Jordan river, called the "wilderness of Judea". This prophet's name was Yohanan, or Yehohanan, which means "Yahweh is gracious"; his name has come down over the centuries as John, called the Baptizer.

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