Your class is narrowly concentrated on scripture, but unfortunately academics that study religions have to approach the subject objectively and with the knowledge that during the time of Jesus, there were many other personalities, events, and political squabbles. In the scheme of things, during the 1st Century, Jesus was but a trifle in the life of Pontius Pilate, an unpleasant distraction from his job of keeping Judea in line. Actually, he could not have cared less about an intra-Jewish dispute, except to the extent that it disturbed the peace in his province.
Jesus was not the center of the universe in ancient Palestine, in fact, in 40 C.E., ten years after Jesus’ death there were fewer than one thousand followers of his teaching amid millions of others who had never heard of him. To Pontius Pilate he was considered to be simply an outside agitator from the little known town of Nazareth, in Galilee, an area, by the way, that was known for its ruffians and illiterates. Jesus is barely mentioned as a player in Roman life. Outside the Bible, He is only mentioned briefly by the historian, Tacitus, Philo a Philosopher and by Josephus (a Jewish historian) who lived during the time of Jesus. The only way anyone outside Jesus’ circle of acquaintances’ would have known about Him would be be by word of mouth. Ninety percent of the population in and around Jerusalem were illiterate, and the number was even higher in Galilee.
In any event, crucifixion was no biggy during Pilate’s reign, in fact, it was an everyday occurrence. The death of a rebel peasant for alleged insurrection would have gone relatively unnoticed. So to think that the world revolved around Jesus or that he was the most important figure in the first century is just not the case. He was but a small voice; a voice that became magnified by the New Testament writers (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) some 50 to 80 years after Jesus’ death. The reality is that we view Jesus through 21st century eyes and not through the eyes of a 1st century resident of Palestine. As previously stated, the majority of the population during Jesus’ ministry was unaware of his teachings, did not know of any crucifixion nor have any knowledge of any resurrection. These facts were supplied many, many years later by chroniclers of Jesus’ life, who, in fact, were not eye witnesses to his life, or death..
In the first century, there were gods for every occasion; god of love, god of sky, god of moon, stars, etc. Remember Apollo, Zeus, Aphrodite and others? It was not unusual to believe that gods and angels interacted physically and spiritually and that stories of virgin births were commonplace in Greco-Roman myth and folklore. The peasantry (mostly Jews) were always on the lookout for a deliverer, a messiah, someone to free them from the Roman occupiers in Palestine and Jesus fit the bill…initially. But when he was crucified, His Jewish followers turned away from (and against) Him, simply because they believed that no true Messiah could possibly be crucified. Then, of course, came the empty tomb story. Twenty years after Jesus’ death, St. Paul, in his efforts to convert as many as he could to Christianity, seized upon the resurrection story and used it to his advantage to show that a risen Jesus proved he was the Messiah. Remember also that Paul’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus was written (by Paul) some thirty years prior to the first version of the resurrection story in the Bible written by Mark of the New Testament (appx. 80 C.E.). Paul knew that in order to rehabilitate the non-believers in Jesus as the Messiah, there had to be a resurrection. Resurrection was, in the first century, as it is in the 21st century, foundational to the Christian faith.
As an aside, John the Baptist was not killed for his religion; he was killed for meddling in Herod’s marital affairs. In closing, let me say that I believe that ancient religious history should be viewed from the perspective of historical investigation and not from doctrinal evolution. But faith is your key and I respect and admire you for that.