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Jerusalem was a monoculture, comparable to Washington or Redmond, Wash. (It remains so today, although it is now tourism rather than religion that is the city's dominant business.) Unlike many company towns, however, the city in Jesus' time had a cosmopolitan feel. Its material needs drew caravans from Samaria, Syria, Egypt, Nabatea, Arabia and Persia. Two-thirds of its population were Jews (roughly the same percentage as today), practicing a religion that counted millions of adherents in the Roman Empire and a large group of "God fearers," Gentiles who observed some key precepts without full conversion. At the same time, the city was in its 15th generation of Greco-Roman influence (since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.). Parents gave their children Greek names; intellectuals were conversant in classical philosophy. Greek had become along with Hebrew and Aramaic one of the area's main languages, and one of the most commonly used versions of the Torah was in Greek. (Jesus presumably spoke all three languages.) The interaction of Jewish and classical thought would lend the Christian Bible much of its strength.
This Greco-Roman "modernism" was conflicted, however. A building full of soldiers loomed over the Temple courtyards like a watchtower over a prison. As Jesus and the other pilgrims performed the most sacred rites of their faith, they would never be beyond surveillance. After Herod's initial rise, the Roman yoke was relatively light, consisting mostly of tribute. But the Jews had been independent for a century before the imperial conquest, and many hoped to return to that state. In recognition of this, above the Temple's northwestern corner stood the city's great Roman garrison, the Antonia, named after Herod's patron Mark Antony and housing between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers.
Their presence in the city's very soul posed a painful conundrum. Beneath its prosperous surface, says Neil Asher Silberman, director of the Ename Center for Public Archaeology in Brussels, Jerusalem was actually "extremely turbulent." To some, "the beautiful Temple of Herod was a horrible betrayal of Israelite tradition. Herod obliterated the original Temple and replaced it with a Roman one." Even the most prosperous citizens must have had some major identity issues.
This led, Silberman suggests, to "movements of desperation where people harked back to a purity of faith and looked for signs of messianic redemption." The city's dominant religious authorities, skewered in the Gospels, were the Sadducees, who made up most of the Temple elite, and the Pharisees, respected for their ongoing explorations of the correct interpretation of religious law. But the city also played host to groups like the Zealots, a militant nationalist group, and the Essenes. The Essenes detested the Temple priests, lived in monastic communities and may have been authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the treasure trove of texts uncovered in the Judean desert in 1947. Josephus assigns the Essenes a membership of 4,000, only 2,000 fewer than his count of Pharisees.