New scholarship over the past 65 years has enormously benefited contemporary understanding of first-century biblical history and how Jews lived in Jesus' time. The ecumenical movement that emerged after World War II (1939-1945) resulted in a new appreciation that no religious text can stand apart from its historical context. Particularly in regard to Judaism and Christianity, scholars have come to realize that in order to understand the biblical history of this era fully, it's necessary to study scriptures' contexts within Christianity within Judaism within the Roman Empire, as biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have written.
Religious Diversity of the Jews in Jesus' Time
A main source for information about the lives of first-century Jews is the historian Flavius Josephus, author of The Antiquities of the Jews, an account of a century of Jewish revolts against Rome. Josephus claimed there were five sects of Jews at the time of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Sicarii.
However, contemporary scholars writing for Religious Tolerance.org report at least two dozen competing belief systems among Jews in the first century: "Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, followers of Yeshua of Nazareth (Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Latin, Jesus in English), followers of other charismatic leaders, etc." Each group had a particular way of interpreting the Hebrew scriptures and applying them to the present.
Today scholars argue that what kept followers of these diverse philosophical and religious groups together as one people were common Jewish practices, such as following dietary restrictions known as kashrut, holding weekly Sabbaths and worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem, among others.
For example, the laws of kashrut, or keeping kosher as it's known today, had control of Jewish food culture (as it does today for observant Jews around the world). Among these laws were such things as keeping milk and dairy products separated from meat products and of eating only animals that had been killed in humane ways, which was the responsibility of trained butchers approved by rabbis. In addition, Jews were instructed by their religious laws to avoid eating so-called "unclean foods" such as shellfish and pork.
Today we might view these practices more as health and safety issues. After all, the climate in Israel isn't conducive to storing milk or meat for long. Likewise, it's understandable from a scientific viewpoint that Jews would not want to eat the flesh of shellfish and pigs, both of which maintained the local ecology by eating human refuse. However, for Jews these rules weren't merely sensible; they were acts of faith.
Daily Living Was an Act of Faith
As the Oxford Bible Commentary observes, the Jews didn't compartmentalize their religious faith and their daily lives. In fact, much of the daily effort of Jews in Jesus' time went into fulfilling minute details of the Law. For Jews, the Law comprised not only the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, but the highly detailed instructions of the biblical books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy as well.
Jewish life and culture in the first 70 years of the first century centered in the Second Temple, one of the many massive public works projects of Herod the Great. Crowds of people thronged in and out of the Temple every day, making ritual animal sacrifices to atone for particular sins, another common practice of the era.
Understanding the centrality of Temple worship to first-century Jewish life makes it more plausible that Jesus' family would have made a pilgrimage to the Temple to offer the prescribed animal sacrifice of thanksgiving for his birth, as described in Luke 2:25-40.
It also would have been logical for Joseph and Mary to take their son to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover around the time of his rite of passage into religious adulthood when Jesus was 12, as described in Luke 2:41-51. It would have been important for a boy coming of age to understand the Jews' faith story of their liberation from slavery in Egypt and resettlement in Israel, the land they claimed that God promised to their ancestors.
The Roman Shadow Over Jews in Jesus' Time
Despite these common practices, the Roman Empire overshadowed the Jews' daily lives, whether sophisticated urban dwellers or country peasants, from 63 B.C. through 70 A.D.
From 37 to 4 B.C., the region known as Judea was a vassal state of the Roman Empire ruled by Herod the Great. After Herod's death, the territory was divided among his sons as titular rulers, but was actually under Roman authority as the Iudaea Prefecture of Syria Province. This occupation led to waves of revolt, often led by two of the sects mentioned by Josephus: the Zealots who sought Jewish independence and the Sicarii (pronounced "sic-ar-ee-eye"), an extremist Zealot group whose name means assassin (from the Latin for "dagger" [sica]).
Everything about Roman occupation was hateful to the Jews, from oppressive taxes to physical abuse by Roman soldiers to the repugnant idea that the Roman leader was a god. Repeated efforts at gaining political independence ensued to no avail. Finally, first-century Jewish society was devastated in 70 A.D. when Roman legions under Titus sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The loss of their religious center crushed the spirits of first-century Jews, and their descendants have never forgotten it.
The Oxford Bible Commentary, editors John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford University Press).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press).
The First Christmas: What the Gospel Accounts Really Teach About Jesus's Birth, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (HarperOne).
"Inner-biblical Interpretation," by Benjamin D. Sommer, The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press).