The ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus did not happen in a vacuum, but rather they were set in various historical and political contexts.
The primary time period which helped develop the context in which John the Baptist and Jesus lived was the period between the 5th Century BC – this period saw many developments that would influence their lives and the world in which they lived.
Return from Exile
One of the great events which helped develop this context was the return from exile of the Jewish people in the 5th Century BC, an exile that they had been put into by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. With Babylon’s defeat to Persia, they were allowed to return, which meant that John the Baptist and Jesus were ministering to a Jewish population in the Jewish homeland.
The Jews having been allowed to return to their homeland introduces a variety of factors that would have influenced and provided context for these ministries. For one, when the Jews had been taken by Babylon, the Babylonians had destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. With the return from exile the Jews are able to begin rebuilding their temple, around which the pre-exile Jewish religion was based.
The rebuilding of this temple meant that the Jewish religion once again had a center, a center which gave Jesus could then use as a place of teaching; this rebuilding also brought back the symbolic sacrifice which foreshadowed Christ.
Apart from the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, other great influences on the context include the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world, which was followed by the Roman period.
Both of these helped to move the worldview of the time from a more communal view to a more individualistic view (something also accomplished by the lack of temple sacrifice during the exile period, when the Jewish people gathered in synagogues rather than the temple and had to turn to study and prayer as a way of exercising their piety).
This ‘modernization’ of the world introduced the Jewish world to new peoples and ideas and to languages which were widespread (something that would in turn allow for the message of accepting Gentiles to be more practical). As interpreted by G.K. Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man, this meeting of ideas between the Jewish people and the Greek/Roman people saw the bringing together of the pinnacle of human religion – Judaism – and the pinnacle of human philosophy – the Greeks – in order to set the perfect stage for the pinnacle of history: Christ, who would complete and surpass both.
Finally, the Jewish revolts – such as that under the Mattathias during the 160s BC (which wold come to be called the Maccabean revolt) – strengthened the Jewish expectation of a political messiah, an expectation which Jesus would be able to then subvert.
John the Baptist and Jesus entered a world which was filled with turmoil on the one hand, but which finally had regained some of the structure of the older Judaism, and which had begun to be exposed to the greatest human philosophies of the time – all of which worked together to create the context into which the messiah would enter.
As has been noted, the political turmoil – and especially the Maccabean revolts and the ideas of the Zealots (a Jewish group which wished to rebel against the Roman empire) – caused many within the Jewish community to believe that the Messiah was to be a political leader; indeed, the titles ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ signifies the ‘anointed one’, which can refer to the Jewish offices of a prophet, priest, and king.
Along with this kingly aspect, one may also look to the title ‘Son of God’ and compare it to the way in which the heir to the Roman ruler was referred to in the same way, also giving some political undertones.
Yet Jesus was meant to be much more than a political figure, and ultimately his mission was not a political one.
Jesus did not promote any rebellion against the government of his day, indeed, quite the opposite (Matthew 22:20-22 – “render unto Caesar what is Caesars”).
Rather, Jesus’ message was spiritual and incarnational, that of God entering the world to save his people – not from the evils of mundane rulers, but from the evils of the spiritual rulers (Satan) and from the evils within their own hearts.