THE STORY OF YESHUA
by miriam berg
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
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.