A continuing exile?
Would most Jews contemporary with Jesus have considered themselves still in exile?
Points that need to be considered:
- Some of Judah returned from exile after the Babylonian exile. A temple was built and the name 'Israel' adopted by many for just the southern tribes, even though the kingdom of Israel was still, as tribes – not just individuals, assimilated into Assyria. Under John Hyrcanus, Judaean territory began to increase.
- But, the Assyrian exile of Israel did not end with the return a minority of Judah from Babylon
- After domination by one foreign power after another, in Jesus' generation Judah (or 'Israel') found itself under yet another foreign power - Rome.
- The Prophets foresaw a restoration of Israel, and this event came with a complex of associated promises: a new heart, a new covenant, new creation, the gift of the Spirit etc. There is no evidence, as far as I know, of a fulfilment of this complex of associated promises before Jesus (correct me if I am wrong)
But did most Jews accept this as true of Israel in Jesus' generation? The evidence is sparse.
For Jesus (or Matthew, Mark or Luke) to have proclaimed a message implying or even explicitly stating the return from exile, it is not necessary to argue that all believed they were still in an exile. To have spoken of a restoration would have implied that Israel and Judah was still in exile, but this could have been an implicit critique of the Temple, and of the sort of confident righteousness with which the synoptics charge the Pharisees.
To make their critique a powerful one, the synoptic authors, and Jesus, would have been able to cite the Prophets for their case (point 4 above – regularly throughout the synoptics, culminating in the Luke 22:20 and the 'new covenant in my blood', the breathing of the Holy Spirit on the disciples in John etc.), as well as point to Diaspora regions (Acts 2 and Pentecost), point to Rome's domination, critique the Temple (as many did, not just Jesus) or mention the lost northern tribes (parable of the Prodigal Son? The mention of Anna in Luke 2?).
So did most Jews contemporary with Jesus have considered themselves still in exile? Perhaps it doesn't matter all that much. The message of a return from exile could have functioned as well as a critique of a supposed 'restored' self-identification, perhaps even more poignantly than as a restatement of an agreed fact. That said, the synoptics would have had the Prophets, the present political situation and the fact of lost northern tribes on their side. Perhaps that is one reason why so many were open to listen to the likes of John the Baptist and Jesus proclaiming Isaiah's 'good news' of the promised restoration?
There is much more to explore here, but it is getting late and I need to head to bed!