Session #1


For centuries, the Christian Church has referred to the suffering of Christ as his “passion.”  Webster’s Dictionary says that “passion” is an intense and overwhelming feeling or emotion, but it also says it refers to Christ’s suffering!  Why?

There’s a simple reason:  The New Testament, written in Greek, speaks of Christ’s “suffering.”  The Greek word for suffering (πασχω) is pronounced “pasko.” (The “Paschal Lamb” is a reference to this Greek word.)   When Jerome translated the Greek New Testament into Latin in the 4th century, he referred to Jesus’ suffering with the proper Latin word passionem (“suffering”).  In Latin, passio is the noun for “suffer.”   

            Since Jerome’s translation, the Vulgate, became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and was used exclusively for centuries (it is still the “official Bible” of the Roman see), Christ’s suffering became his “passion” in many languages, including English.  

You can be “passionate” about a lot of things, but when “passion” and “Christ” are in the same sentence, the English word “passion” means “suffering.”  Thank you, Saint Jerome!

INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD (The 400 years between the Old & New Testaments)

What was the political and religious climate of the Holy Land at the time of the coming of our Savior?  This plays an enormous role in the details of the Crucifixion.  So, before we begin our study of the Gospels, we need to “set the table” to understand what was happening in the Holy Land during those days Jesus visibly walked the earth.

First, let’s ask ourselves what was going on between the last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) which was written in about 400 B.C. and the first century when Jesus was born and grew up into manhood.  This will help us understand what the Jewish people of the day were hoping to see in a Messiah!

This is the time of Alexander the Great.  Remember him?  He took over Greece from his dad, Philip II, in 320 B.C., and at only 20 years of age he conquered the entire world, all the way to India after destroying Darius I and the Persian Empire.  He did this all in just 13 years before dying at the age of 33. “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”—Plutarch

At his unexpected death, the Greek Empire was divided up among his Generals.  Ptolemy received Egypt, a prize plumb because of the fertile Nile River.  (Cleopatra was a Ptolemy—she was not Egyptian!)  Another, Seleucus, received what is today Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Israel, etc.  These post-Alexander empires fought with each other and weakened each other until the new kid on the block, Rome, flexed its growing muscles and said “You answer to us now!”  Thus, the birth of the Roman Empire was looming.

During the Intertestamental period, the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem answered to whomever was in power at the time—whether Persia, the Ptolemies, Seleucids or Romans.  Jews suspected (often correctly) that the High Priest was the servant of a foreign power and not the servant of the Jewish people.  The High Priest was the most powerful and often the richest man in Jerusalem.  “Money and power corrupt?”  Absolutely!  He was often the most ruthless and crooked man in town as well, padding his pockets at the expense of the Jewish people.

It was also a period during which the Jews were abused by their conquerors.  As the Seleucid Empire was in decline (and before Rome took over), the Jews successfully revolted against the Seleucids and became independent.  Josephus, the 1st Century Jewish Historian, called it the “Jewish War” but it is more commonly known as the “Maccabean Revolt” or the “Maccabean Uprising” in 167 B.C.  (Perhaps you have heard of the apocryphal books I and II Maccabees!  These are included in some Bibles and the books tell the story of the war against the Seleucid empire.)

Some of the Seleucid kings were unkind monarchs, but the man who caused full scale rebellion was Antiochus Epiphanes.  Antiochus IV—called “Epiphanes”—was the ruler of the Seleucid empire.  He was also a persecutor of the Jews, having sacked Jerusalem,  desecrated the temple, and demanded the worship of heathen gods. The Maccabean Revolt, led by Judas Maccabee, overthrew the Seleucids and created a new dynasty called the Hasmonean.  These rulers were Jewish for a change, but often not much better than the foreign rulers!

Rome was finally forced to intervene in Judea in 63 B.C.  After Julius Caesar died, Rome had internal problems (civil war!), and this allowed the Hasmonean dynasty to continue without too much trouble until 37 B.C. when Herod the Great began the Herodian dynasty.  

Herod was a half-Jew, an Idumean from Transjordan (an Edomite).  He solidified his  rule by marrying a reportedly beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamne.  He also was highly cooperative with Rome, making Judea, Samaria, Galilee and much of the Transjordan into a client state of Rome.  Herod the Great (“King Herod” of the Bible—who had all the babies in Bethlehem killed) was the only person ever to hold the title “King” anywhere within the Roman Empire!

Herod had a love of all things Rome, and he engaged in colossal building projects.  These included a massive new port called “Caesarea” and a horse-racing track in Jerusalem where Greek games were performed in the nude, much to the outrage of the Jews.  

To placate the population (those who were not pleased with the “bread and circuses” approach), he began the construction of an enormous new Temple in Jerusalem, one which would put the Jewish state on the map.  This magnificent Temple is mentioned many times in our New Testament, and the project was begun with the approval of Rome itself.

Why would Rome approve of such a Temple?  It seemed to placate the Jews, and a peaceful Judea was a huge plus in Herod’s favor!  The last thing Rome wanted was more trouble from the Jewish state.  Caesar Augustus (Octavian) was content to keep things peaceful.

It was into this political turmoil that Jesus Christ was born—about 4 or 5 B.C.