In first century Palestine there was no separation between church and state. The priests at the temple in Jerusalem not only officiated over the religious life of the Jews, they were also rulers and judges.
Herod, who was himself a pawn of Rome, had his own pawns installed in the Jewish priesthood. By the first century the election of the High Priest was more political than religious. The Romans wanted the priesthood to support their occupation, and the Herods made sure their desire was carried out. However, it would be unfair to categorize all of the priesthood as sympathetic to Rome. Some did support rebellion against Rome, but those at the highest levels were undoubtedly in Rome's back pocket.
We see evidence of this loyalty to and fear of Rome in the Gospels:
“Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did.
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs.
If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.’”(John 11:45-48)
“But they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!’
Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’
Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. Then they took Jesus and led Him away.” (John 19:15-16)
Josephus recorded that the priesthood went so far as to authorize a daily sacrifice for Caesar in the temple. This was a source of continual angst for the Jews. In the final Roman/Jewish conflict the cessation of the daily sacrifice for Caesar was considered an act of war that helped lead to the destruction of Jerusalem.
The priesthood lived in luxury well beyond that of the average man. They supported their lavish lifestyles with a temple tax which every Jew was required to pay. Richard Horsley in his book “The Message and the Kingdom” describes what archeologists have discovered about the living conditions of the priesthood.
“…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their life style had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions” by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.”
The priests lived lavish lifestyles while the average Jewish peasant struggled to survive. The temple taxes combined with taxes imposed by Herod and Rome were literally threatening the existence of the Jewish people. The people of the land were carrying a burden they could scarcely bear or tolerate. Palestine had become a powder keg waiting to ignite.
The priesthood was undoubtedly jealous of Jesus’ popularity, but their main motivation for seeking to kill Jesus was fear. When a new king came to power, he would set his version of the priesthood in place. All this talk of Jesus becoming the new king undoubtedly unnerved the priests in Jerusalem. If Jesus came to power, they thought they would be out of a job or killed. And the Romans did not take too kindly to unauthorized kings. In their opinion, Jesus was inviting the wrath of Rome. They did not understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and his priesthood was not according to flesh and blood.
The Pharisees rose to prominence in what scholars call the second temple period. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 587 BC. The time after the Jew’s return from exile is known as the second temple period. It was a time when the gentiles were constantly encroaching upon the Jewish people, their customs, and religion. The Pharisees were a group that set out to preserve the Jews from this perceived threat. The very name “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew word that means “to separate.”
The Pharisees were very zealous for the Law of Moses, but they also considered themselves the guardians of the oral traditions that scholars developed over generations. The oral traditions interpreted the Law of Moses. For example, the Law said to keep the Sabbath. They were not to work on God’s holy day. Yet, what was work and what was not? The oral traditions filled in the details that Moses left out. For instance, how far could a person walk on the Sabbath without it being work? The interpreters decided that the distance was 2000 cubits which is about 2/3 of a mile. This was known as a Sabbath’s day journey. Where did they get that number? When the Hebrews carried the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness, God commanded them to walk 2000 cubits behind the ark. They decided that was God’s way of telling them how far one could walk on the Sabbath.
It is interesting that Jesus deliberately broke the Pharisee’s oral traditions every chance He got. In John chapter nine Jesus healed a blind man by spiting on the ground, making mud, and then rubbing it in the man’s eyes. He then told the fellow to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. According to the Pharisees, Jesus broke the Sabbath not once but three times in healing this man. First, it was considered unlawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus broke this tradition often. In fact, if we read the gospels, we will see that His favorite day to heal was the Sabbath. Second, making the little bit of clay that Jesus put in the man’s eyes would have been considered work. (No, I am not joking.) Third, making the man walk to the pool of Siloam and back would be considered illegal as well. If we read John chapter eight, we see that Jesus was probably in the vicinity of the temple when he performed this miracle. A quick look at a map shows that the journey to the pool and back was well over 2000 cubits.
In this we see one of the great ironies of the scriptures. The Pharisees had great zeal for God. The average Pharisee fasted two days a week and paid his tithes to the penny. Yet, their zeal for God did not lead them to God but away from God. They examined the Law to the smallest detail, but they entirely missed what the Law was saying. John tells us that Jesus was God’s word made manifest. In other words He was Torah in the flesh. Yet, the Pharisees stood in the presence of the perfect revelation of Torah, and they did not know Him. In fact, they wanted to kill Him. (To be fair, we cannot say this is true of all the Pharisees. In fact, some later became Jesus’ followers.)
The Law was meant to lead people to love God and their neighbor. Most of all it was meant to lead to Jesus. It is ironic that because the Pharisees came to none of these things, they were the most impure of all. Jesus said that if the people’s righteousness did not exceed that of the Pharisees, they could not enter the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees should be a lesson to us all. If our zeal for God has led us to contempt for our brother, we aren’t following God at all.
The Sadducees were of the wealthy ruling class in Jesus’ day. Many of them comprised the priesthood that controlled the temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish legal council called the Sanhedrin. They were in some ways more conservative than the Pharisees. They only recognized the Torah as the inspired word of God. They acknowledged neither the prophets nor the oral traditions that came after the first five books of the Bible. Consequently, they did not believe in the resurrection or any life after death. They were often at odds with the Pharisees over this matter.
People had different ways of reacting to Roman occupation. The Sadducees thought it was best to try to get along with Rome. Why not? They were well off, and as long as they kept on Rome’s good side, they could live comfortable lives. The Sadducees opposed Jesus because they feared the people, and they feared Rome. The vast majority of the Jews did not share the Sadducees acceptance of Roman rule. They believed the Messiah would come, sword in hand, and drive the gentiles out of the Promised Land. Even though Jesus never spoke against Rome or advocated rebellion, the Sadducees shared the popular view of what the Messiah would be. Thus, in their minds, any messiah figure was a threat to their power.
In the second half of the first century rebellion against Rome led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. During the final siege against Jerusalem the rebels killed many of the Sadducees. In an effort to save their lives some of the Sadducees came over to the rebel’s side only to die at the hands of the Romans. This was the end of the Sadducees power. However, the Pharisees continued to shape Judaism in a post temple world.
In Jesus’ day some people wanted to fight Rome. Others wanted to live with Rome. The Essenes chose isolation as their response to the crazy first century world. They formed a community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. There the Essenes thought they could live as the true people of God. They rejected the Herods, the temple, and even the Pharisees as corrupt. In their mind, only they were true Israel. They would create a pure community from which the Messiah would come forth to redeem Israel (They actually believed God would send two messiahs, one a priest and the other a king). They, the sons of light, would be the ones he would use to reestablish Israel. The impure Jews as well as the gentiles were bound for destruction.
The gospels do not mention the Essenes. The Romans destroyed the Essene community before converging on Jerusalem. Many scholars believe the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Sources used in this series on first century history:
Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Horsley, Richard. Bandits Prophets, and Messiahs. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
____. The Message and the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Maier, Paul. Josephus The Essential Works. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Martin, Ernest. The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot. Portland: ASK Publications.
Stegemann, Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Jesus Movement. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
The Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, Vol. 1. Canada: Christian Millennial History Project, Inc., 2002.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
____. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
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