Jesus and his times
An in-depth look at the challenges which the Master Jesus faced from the environment into which he was placed.
There are few studies in the world as fraught with intangibles as are those of the career and thought of Jesus Christ. Even though He is the most studied personage in Western civilization, scholars are still plagued with questions about practically every aspect of His life. Each new book portrays Him in a different light. Some see Him as God and some as man. Some paint Him as a political revolutionary, some as a meek and beneficent teacher. Still others claim He was purely mythical and question His very physical existence.
The purpose of this article is to look into His times and investigate the challenges which He faced as a highly evolved human being living in a world on the verge of vast and tumultuous change. His era was one of the bloodiest, most greed-filled epochs of recorded history, His own Jewish people a fragmented society. As a man of intense power and charisma, He became a focal point for both raging hatred and intense love.
In contrast to the highest divinity with which He is endowed by the Christian churches, this article will emphasize His humanity, because, as a third-degree Initiate approaching the fourth initiation of renunciation, He was not yet totally free of earthly conflict. Statements from Maitreya and the Master Djwhal Khul, as well as certain biblical myths, will illuminate specific obstacles that lay before Him as He approached the fourth initiation.
Temptation in the wilderness
Maitreya says of Jesus: "... temptations of mind, spirit and body force the self to do something against the will of the real Self.... Jesus passed through these stages" (Share International October 1988, p3).
In the Gospel of Luke we find recounted the story of the temptations of Jesus. We read that, after His baptism, He went out into the wilderness to fast and pray. There, in the stark silence of the Judean desert, appeared to him a devil who tempted Him in three ways. First he offered Him food to break His 40-day fast. Then he tempted Him with worldly riches and power. Lastly he took Him to Jerusalem and set Him on the parapet of the temple, telling Him to throw Himself down, and demonstrate His spiritual powers for all to see by calling on the angels of God to raise Him up again. Despite the long and strenuous deprivation of His desert fast, Jesus withstood each temptation. In the end, we read, "the devil departed, biding his time" (Lk 4:13).
What does this story mean in relation to the earthly mission of Jesus Christ? Was it purely symbolic, or was it a true presage of things to come, an omen of the difficulties before Him in the completion of His mission? If we view it as the latter then we can see why the devil bided his time, for the temptations in the desert followed Him throughout His life.
With this thought in mind, let us look into His era and see what Jesus faced as a man of flesh and blood, an Elder Brother on the path of life.
The philosophic ideas which laid the groundwork for the Piscean era were born in 500 BC, during the golden days of Greece. There its great philosophers - Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates - taught equality, world federation and the brotherhood of man. There developed the arts, architecture, science and philosophy; there lived a leisure society, liberal in outlook, with a taste for elegant living and admiration for daring feats of physical prowess. This influence, called Hellenistic, was said to have spread widely throughout the Mediterranean world in the centuries before Christ.
But over time the Grecian love of refinement became degraded into a coarse desire for luxurious living, its liberal ways degenerating into pure licentiousness. Athletic games were adopted by the later Roman Empire, but evolved into gladiatorial contests which uselessly took the lives of many slaves and Christian martyrs.
In some societies, the Greek influence was welcomed, but in others it was considered abhorrent and sacrilegious. Nevertheless, the common language and culture it brought acted as a unifying factor throughout the Mediterranean. It greatly facilitated both the expansion of the Roman Empire and the later spread of Christianity.
The Roman Empire
In the 1st century AD the Roman Empire was at its height of political power. It covered a territory larger than half the continental USA and had a population of 50-60 million, one-fifth of the world's population. Its geographic boundaries stretched from the north of England to the banks of the Euphrates and from the River Danube to the entire northern coast of Africa. It was an early example of federation, showing that a large population with an internal diversity of cultures could coexist under one government. It persisted as a single political system for six centuries (200 BC-AD 400), a feat ranking as one of the greatest political achievements in history.
This achievement was bought, though, at great and bloody cost to the nations which were conquered. The Roman wars of conquest are famous for their tenacity, and did not end until every country surrounding the Mediterranean was under its power.
Rome itself had one million inhabitants, and although it had no industry, nor even relied on trade, it was the wealthiest city of the empire because into its coffers was accumulated vast and continuous treasure - the booty of war from conquered lands. Into its provinces were brought thousands of slaves, another spoil of war. In AD 100 Italy had 2-3 million slaves, comprising 35-40 per cent of the population.
Because of this steady inflow of wealth and because it was the political center of the empire, Rome attracted a constant stream of ambitious entrepreneurs. The key to wealth lay in politics, and stories of the excesses of the ruling class are almost as gruesome as the Roman wars. Politics had its price, however, as the political arena was fraught with wholesale competition, and placed little value on human life. Rome's history is studded with dozens of assassinations. Popular support for any ruler was as fleeting as any other pleasure of Roman life.
Sexual liberty, prostitution and homosexuality were accepted almost without question. Divorce was easily obtained; unwanted children were exposed to the elements and allowed to die. In time, family life began to deteriorate so badly that the population itself began to decline.
The peasantry were the losers in this game of power and fortune. In the provinces, their small landholdings were amalgamated into large country estates run by wealthy Romans. Thousands of peasants were evicted, their numbers replaced by slave labor. These homeless peasants became in time a dispossessed population. Many of them flocked to Rome where they lived, restless and out of work, on state subsidies of grain.
When its wars of conquest ended, Rome turned to ever-increasing taxation to maintain its former standard of living. The lower classes were particularly affected. What great bitterness they must have felt, knowing of the colossal works of architecture, the lavish spending of the leaders, the expensive gladiatorial contests that so thoughtlessly consumed their hard-won earnings.
Rome's religion included a polyglot of deities. Most honored were Jupiter and Mars, the gods of war. Sacrifice was offered to the gods to obtain favor or prevent catastrophe. Emphasis was often on material and personal gain. Such a religion offered little to the lower classes, often unable to secure the mere minimum for survival, or to the earnest seeker of spiritual truth. Many worshippers were drawn to other religions which could be found in the vast Roman state.
Mithraism, imported from Persia and India, taught a doctrine of the Sun-God, a god of light and righteousness. The Isis religion from Egypt emphasized wisdom and knowledge. The mystery religions from Greece offered initiation ceremonies of ritual purification. All of these countered the Roman emphasis on worldly material achievement by offering the promise of salvation and the hope of immortality.
Cosmic evil in Roman times
The Master DK speaks of the advent on our planet of cosmic evil, describing it as that which is not indigenous to the planet but which, because of the extreme decadence of the times found an entry in Roman days (The Rays & The Initiations, p752). It was a resurgence of the ancient evil of Atlantis, whose major sin was theft, widespread and general. He says: "Heights of luxury were reached in Atlantis of which we, with all our boasted civilisation, know nothing and have never achieved." Likewise in Rome: "Life became tainted by the miasma of unadulterated selfishness and the very springs of life itself became polluted. Men only lived and breathed in order to be in possession of the utmost luxury and of a very plethora of things and of material goods. They were smothered by desire and plagued by the dream of never dying but of living on and on, acquiring more and more of all that they desired" (Esoteric Healing, p232).
The Master DK also comments: "The entrance for what might be regarded as 'cosmic evil' was first opened in the decadent days of the Roman Empire (which was one reason why the Christ chose to manifest in those days), was opened wider under the corrupt regime of the Kings of France, and, in our own day, has been opened still wider by evil men in every land" (R&I, p753).
The most physically outstanding fact of Jesus' life, one overlooked by many Christians, is that He was a Jew. He had a long and illustrious association with the Jewish race. In the Old Testament, His past lifetimes are mentioned - as Joshua, Son of Nun, successor to Moses, as Jeshua in the book of Ezra, and again as Joshua in the book of Zechariah (Initiation, Human and Solar, p56).
During His life as Jesus, most of His followers were Jews and the early Christian church was simply another branch of Judaism. Its members had to submit to Jewish laws of diet and circumcision before joining. This is important to comprehend because the cultural background of this period of Judaism gives us a matrix in which to understand many of Jesus' statements and actions.
When Jesus was born, Judaism was at a crossroads. Its membership was split into various competing groups, some of them in bitter contention. Hellenistic influences were adopted by the more liberal Jews, but were considered an abomination to the orthodox. A lust for wealth and power brought by Roman influence seeped into the upper echelons of Jewish society, whose aristocratic members were called the Sadducees. They lived in splendor amidst the general poverty of the peasant classes.
Even the High Priests, who offered the temple sacrifices, had become thoroughly corrupt, pawns of whatever political regime was in power. This became a grievous offense to the orthodox who believed in an orderly line of succession and a priesthood free from outside corruption. Groups such as the Essenes made an almost complete break with mainstream Judaism and established their own colonies and rituals, though still holding closely to the Mosaic code.
Judaism's great contributions to the world of thought lie first in its monotheism, its total adherence to the God it knew as Yahweh, and second in its code of laws, the bedrock of the faith. The Pharisees and the scribes were the groups that studied and interpreted the Mosaic code. They held the real influence in the religion and were often known for their great sanctity.
However, Blavatsky says, by Jesus' time empty external ritual had become a substitute for true morality and those who kept alive the true esoteric teachings of Judaism were persecuted by the Pharisees. This group's true conflict with Jesus was that He was willing to open the secret tradition to the masses and establish a religion based on knowledge of the sacred laws of being (Isis Unveiled II, p561).
The chosen people
Because they considered their relationship with Yahweh so personal and sacred the Jewish people developed an idea of themselves as a chosen people, uniquely picked by God as His favorites, destined eventually to rule His kingdom, the whole of humanity. For many centuries their prophets had been speaking of this messianic kingdom to come, warning the people to repent and prepare themselves.
Interpretations of the prophecies of Enoch, a mystical patriarch of unknown origin, had led to a widespread belief that the world was entering its last 1,000 years of history, out of a total of 4,900. The date to begin the last millennium was 41 BC, and the final era would be ushered in by a great war between the nations. A Messianic King, sent by Yahweh Himself, would lead the Jews to triumph over their enemies. A New Israel would spread over the world, and the Kingdom of the Jews would become the greatest empire ever known. This idea, pervasive in Palestinian times casts much light on the interplay between the Jews, Romans and early Christians.
When Judea came under Roman rule in 63 BC, Judaism was thrown into a continuous state of agitation. New, politically motivated, groups formed. The Zealots, outspoken, charismatic, and often militaristic, were bitterly opposed to Rome and to any Jews who curried its favor. The Sicarii (daggermen) were even more radical. With hidden weapons they mingled in crowds and assassinated traitors who sided with the Romans.
From the ranks of these radical groups issued a succession of leaders, many of them claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah. Gathering followers they agitated in the cities, or worked underground in the wilderness areas, where they would lead guerrilla actions against passing imperial troops. The Romans kept a close watch on these political rebels and became increasingly wary of all such activity in the Jewish lands.
In the light of this situation, it is obvious why Jesus made so little historical impact on His day, as He was probably seen as a mere political agitator. Already the Romans had crucified or otherwise slaughtered thousands of such rebels. Before the final Jewish protests would be over in AD 135 the slain Jews would number well over a million. Jesus was just one more.
The Jerusalem Temple was the center of devout worship for millions of Jews, considered to be the dwelling place of Yahweh, the Living God. On its altars every day over 700 clergy offered sacrifice. A yearly succession of festivals attracted Jews from many lands.
As an institution, however, it had strayed far from its spiritual purpose, for in addition to being a house of worship, it had become, in effect, a bank. A widespread system of proselytization collected offerings from new converts. A temple tax was levied on all Jews. Sacrificial offerings prescribed by the priests involved the purchase of animals and payment of currency exchange fees. The lower classes, already cruelly overtaxed by the Roman overlords, were burdened even further.
All of this money was in turn reinvested or lent out. Since interest rates in Roman times were high, sometimes 50 per cent, a constant flow of income daily swelled the temple treasures. The temple grounds included dozens of outbuildings and administration offices. Its staff numbered 20,000; a Roman garrison of 600 soldiers guarded the gates, and temple police guarded the interior.
Jerusalem, city of peace, city of pain
When Jesus "set His face resolutely towards Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51), the city He entered was a conflagration of religious and political tensions. Here we see played out the dualities of His life - entering as a king, He was subsequently executed as the lowest criminal. On every side, he could undoubtedly see signs of the poverty of His people and their great longing for freedom, for the coming of God's kingdom. Likewise He knew that the heart of His opposition presided here, in the center of power. The Bible says He knew beforehand that death awaited Him.
It is generally believed that His attack on the money-changers in the Temple of Jerusalem is the action which crystallized the opposition to His work. Seen in view of the political realities of temple life, it was an act of pure courage, aimed at an institution symbolizing the height of both Roman and Jewish decadence. It was Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jerusalem temple, we are told, who led the resistance to Jesus, and Caiaphas had been elected by a Roman governor. In order to insure continuing patronage, Caiaphas would have countered any Jewish Zealots stirring up opposition to Roman rule. Jesus' attack would have been viewed as dangerous and seditious, considering His large number of followers. It could not help but bring severe repercussions.
Many are the choices that He could have made in Jerusalem. He could have used His powers to lead an uprising of the people, thereby following the way of so many of His co-religionists. He could have courted favor with the Romans and become a temporal leader of wealth and repute. Or he could simply have returned to Galilee and lived out his life as a quiet Jewish rabbi.
Ultimately, He chose a way that confounded nearly everyone. His action in the temple angered not only the temple priests and the Romans, but surely alienated many of His followers. The orthodox among them may have been scandalized by His attack on an institution they considered sacred, the Zealots by His failure to follow through with even more radical dissent.
When arrested, His meek submission to the Roman authorities may have confused the apostles. We are told by Blavatsky that He had considerable magical powers and had instructed the apostles in their use (IU II, p148). They knew that He could simply escape His captors and had done so on other occasions. That He chose not to may have been one of His greatest tests, a total renunciation of the life of the world.
Jesus' path of renunciation
The path that leads to the cross of the fourth initiation of renunciation is marked by conflict. On every side the initiate finds discord, duality, and contradiction. The true course lies somewhere between, in an approach which expresses a new and wholly different quality. Only by a finely developed discrimination can the proper way be found. Jesus resolved the dualities He faced in forgiveness and an awareness of the unity of all beings.
Maitreya tells us: "The experiences the Lord gave Jesus are being given to certain disciples today. But in the case of Jesus, his mind initially became possessive of those experiences. The mind tried to use these spiritual powers to achieve certain goals. He began to preach. ... Jesus was concerned about disparities between rich and poor...." and He became "... attached to that which he wanted to achieve (parity ... justice)."
Therefore, "... his teaching was relative (because it was submerged in opposites)." Maitreya says that: "In the eyes of the Lord, no one is rich or poor." Jesus should have taught at that time: "Be not attached to riches or poverty"; "When you try to preach, you create nothing but limitation." The true teaching is, "I am with you if you are honest, sincere, detached" (SI September 1988, p9).
In these statements we see some of the challenges confronting Jesus, a testing of the wise use of His spiritual powers, analogous to the third temptation in the desert. They tell us that He was subject to the influences around Him and could temporarily be diverted by His own emotions and goals. He was limited, as is every entity which takes physical incarnation, from the smallest molecule to the Logos of a planet.
At our level we cannot hope to understand the vast parameters of the challenges He faced. The most telling evidence we have is His passion in the Garden of Gethsemane. The agony experienced there testifies to the dreadful import of the decisions He made, when He achieved the subjugation of His own lower will and acquiesced to a higher will, that of the Monad, which He had always called His Father in Heaven.
"Father, forgive them ..."
Maitreya says that Jesus had doubts until His final hours, but when He cried: "My Lord, My Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me,' He was given a vision. He understood then that the mind should not run after spiritual forces" (SI September 1988, p9). "When Jesus was on the cross, I was by the side of both crucified and crucifier... When Jesus saw this He said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (SI September 1988, p9). In this way He realized, in mind, spirit, and body "... that the relative and the absolute are the two sides of Light. Jesus realized that all beings are created by God and that we are all reacting to the laws of nature. Then silence prevailed. He was satisfied" (SI September 1988, p10).
That He succeeded in His mission is certain. He anchored on the earth certain energies of Love and Will which have opened the door to vast possibilities for human accomplishment. In addition He left a legacy for all who would follow - His life and work is a promise that we too, though we stumble and fall, can ultimately achieve the greatest of goals. We can aspire to His powers, overcome death, and find resurrection.
Perhaps that is exactly what He meant to give us, the true Light He cast upon the path, "In truth, in very truth I tell you, he who has faith in me will do what I am doing; and he will do greater things still because I am going to the Father" (Jn 14:12). Therein lies our hope, our future, and the possibility of our true at-one-ment with God.
200 years of light
In an article in the July/August 1997 issue of Share International (p17), we explored a group of seekers, the Christian Gnostics, who were vivified by this legacy. The Master DK tells us that the first two centuries of the Christian era were marked by radiatory activity, which stimulated in many souls an intense striving for a higher expression of spirituality (Treatise on Cosmic Fire, p1,079). In all such times highly evolved individuals are born to hasten the thrust of the evolutionary impulse.
This is what happened in Jesus' day. Beginning with the apostles, there can be traced, for 200 years, a line of teachers who promulgated His ideas, in a more or less clear form. Their documents are the most ardent of testimonies to the work He accomplished. Their single-mindedness and courage in the face of opposition insured that a thread of His teaching would be left for the future world.
Sources: IU II - Isis Unveiled II, Helena Blavatsky; SI - Share International magazine; from Alice A. Bailey; EH - Esoteric Healing; IHS - Initiation Human and Solar; R&I - The Rays and The Initiations; TCF - A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (Lucis Publishing Company)