This should really have been a series put up earlier as a guide to providing background to Gospel stories. Some of these explanations should be given to the children before the reading so that they could understand the reading within the proper context.
This post will focus on the various groups of people that Jesus encountered in the Gospel stories, not the individual personalities themselves.
Among the twelve sons of Jacob (the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel), the third-born was Levi. The tribe of Levi was the one which opposed the Golden Calf that the Israelites idolatrously made in the desert. For that they were rewarded with the priestly status when the Temple were built.
Only the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses were priests. The other Levites (generally the ones Jesus refers to as Levites in the Gospel) are assistants to priests, a bit like our deacons.
Today, there are still Jews who trace their lineage as descendants of Levi and some synagogues accorded them special roles. And yes, Levi-Strauss (of denim fame) was a Levite.
the Jewish Law of Moses, priests are all descendants of Aaron, the
brother of Moses. Priests are, therefore all of the tribe of Levi, with Moses and Aaron being great grandsons of Levi. As priests, they minister at the Temple in Jerusalem
by offering sacrifices.
Today, there are no more Jewish priests as the Temple has been destroyed about 40 years after Jesus' time. Sacrifices can only be offered in the Temple and only priests can offer sacrifices (same in Christianity: Catholics have priests but those Protestants churches that only have pastors are those that do not believe that the mass is a sacrifice). So, if there is no Temple, there will be no need for priests.
Today, Jews worship in synagogues, led by rabbis. Still, there are Jews who trace their lineage to Aaron, and like the other Levites, are accorded special roles in some synagogues.
Every year, one priest is chosen to be the High Priest, whose role is to offer the special sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. This was the little room in the innermost part of the Temple with enough space for one person and forbidden to any one else. When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of this room was torn in two: a message that God's sanctuary is now open to everyone.
In Jesus' days, the position of the high priest was retained within a small circle of powerful families. The most powerful of these was the family of Annas, whose five sons were also high priests. At the time of Jesus' crucifixion, the High Priest was Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas. In effect, Annas was the power behind the High Priest, which is why Luke referred to "the highpriesthood of Annas and Caiaphas".
Saducees are a Jewish sect of high-ranking priests and aristocrats. They were very much the elites of the day and controlled much of the political power (well, whatever power the Romans allowed them to have) in Palestine. After the destruction of the Temple, the Saducees as a group also disappeared.
Saducees do not believe in angels or the
resurrection of dead. In fact, they do not even believe in the afterlife or spirits. They are a much smaller group compared with Pharisees, but are in the position of power in Jesus' times.
The Saducees were not well-liked by the people because they cooperated with the Greek and Roman conquerors. They were especially hated by the Pharisees, with whom they often argued.
Scribes, Pharisees and Rabbis
To the Jews, the Law that was handed down from Moses is very central to their lives. There are people who studied the Law day and night. These people are called scribes. They were called scribes because they spent a lot of time copying out the Torah by hand. The Torah is the Jewish Bible, which comprises the first five books of our Old Testament.
From their studies, the scribes will explain the Law to the people. Most scribes believe in an Oral Tradition, similar to the Catholic belief in teachings handed down by Traditions (in addition to Scriptures). Many, but not all were Pharisees (and most but not all Pharisees were scribes), hence the Bible used to refer to them together as 'scribes and Pharisees'.
The Pharisee (the word mean set apart)
are a sect of scribes whose interpretation tend to be rather strict. Jesus
often condemned them for teaching adherence to the Law that had no
concept of mercy for fellow human beings.
Scribes were often given the title Rabbi, which means teachers. Until today, rabbis continue lead synagogue services, in the absence of priests in a Temple. They kept the Jewish faith alive through the centuries, as teachers to Jewish children and communities.
The Sanhedrin is the highest religious court for the Jews. They comprise the high priests, elders (senior people in the Jewish communities) and scribes. It often end up as an arguing chamber as can be seen in the Bible because the first two groups are normally Saducees whereas most scribes are Pharisees.
Israelites have a king in Jerusalem, the real power lies with the
Romans, whose Empire stretches all around much of the Mediterranean
world. Israel was a client kingdom of the Empire, headed by the Jewish
king. The Emperor in Rome, however, appoints the governor as his representative, with command of a military force to keep the peace and enforce Roman rule.
Tax collectors are also people very much hated by the Jews, for two reasons. First, they work for the Romans who occupied their country. Secondly, tax collectors had a reputation for collecting more than was due and pocketing the difference. So, tax collectors were seen to be collaborators and cheats.
Some Bibles translate tax collectors as publicans. No, these are not pub owners as in term used in England but refers to tax collectors' role as public contractors.
claim to be the true remnants of Israel, who pray at Mount Gerizim
where the true Temple is. They were descendants of the Israelites who
were left behind when the other Israelites were deported to Babylon by
the Assyrians. When the Jews in exile returned to Israel after the
Assyrians were defeated, the Jews found the Samaritans who remained
The two groups, unfortuantely,
did not accept each other as true believers. To the Samaritans, the
practices and the scriptures of the Jews were distorted by their captors
in Babylon while the Jews considered the Samaritans as corrupted by the
non-Jews in the land of Israel who inter-married with the Samaritans.
During the days of Jesus, the Jews hated
the Samaritans because of this history. The hatred was so great that
both sides did not talk to each other or even travelled through the
other's territory. Jews normally make a long detour when travelling
from Galilee to Jerusalem rather than enter Samaria as a more direct
route would. This makes the journey of the man rescued by Samaritans in
the parable all the more surprising.
Samaritans also came to be depicted as the bogeymen in Jewish stories.
Every time the Samaritan is mentioned, the Jews identified him as an
evil person, a bit like how Hollywood identified villains - you are
always clear who the bad people in the movie is.
Just a few hundred Samaritans remained in Israel today,
as against a million during Jesus' time. They still continued to offer
sacrifices according to their law on Mount Gerizim. This is the only
sacrifice still celebrated after the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (where
the mainstream Jews have their sacrifices) was destroyed.
Leprosy is a terrible disease and an incurable one during the time of Jesus. It eats away the flesh and people who suffers from it often have their fingers fallen away, missing noses and the such. People are terrified of lepers because they believe that they will get the disease if they come in contact with a leper.
Lepers often must live out of town, sometimes in cave. Relatives, if lepers are lucky to still have one who is willing, will bring them food and leave it at the entrance of the cave and then run away so that they will not get infected. Those who do not have people to help them sometimes go into town and beg for food. When they do go into town, they have to ring a bell and shout "Leper, leper" so that everyone knows that a leper is coming and can then ran away.