Judaism, the Jewish Jesus, and the politics of Judea

A workshop presented by Jeff Zolitor offering a look into the political and social settings, surrounding the life of Jesus from a Jewish perspective.

In 168 BCE the family of Matthais Hasmon, known as the Hasmoneans, or the Maccabbees, had enough of the liberal accomodations that the religious administration had made towards Antiochus IV, and killed a Jewish man as he was making a burnt offering in accordance with the decrees of the Greek Syrian king. The action spawned a fundamentalist revolt in Judea. It was short lived. There was also a struggle taking place that had its roots in the repatriation after the Babylonian exile. It was around that time that the dynasty of the office of High Priest was shifting between two priestly families - that of the decendents of Aaron, and those of Zadok, a High Priest during the rule of David.

The Maccabees were successful on the battlefield, but their success was due, in part, to their ability to fan the flames of anti-Greek sentiment in order to gain more Jewish supporters for their cause, a doctrine they were soon to abandon. But those sentiments didn’t just fade away. Around the beginning of the Roman period, they evolved into a political group called the Pharisees.

In their battle with Greek education, the hasidim, or pious ones, began to develop a national system of Jewish education. Local schools, where all Jewish boys could learn Torah, began springing up around the city, and then around the country. This development became the forerunner of the synagogue . The Pharisaic movement, was rooted in popular education.

After the Maccabean revolt, the Temple cult, and therefore the realpolitik of Judea, was controlled by the Zadokites. While all of the political movements of the day could count members of the priestly families in their midst, decendents of Aaron or Zadok, the High Priests of the Temple at this time were Zadokites.

The collection of tithes and taxes came under the jurisdiction of the Temple, and the High Priest was appointed by the political ruler of Judea. In 152BCE, that ruler was Antiochus V, the son of Antiochus IV. Within 10 years, local political control would be conveyed upon the current leader of the dynasty of Matthais Hasmon, Simon , the last of the brothers Maccabbee. He came to power, first as High Priest, and was then appointed Ethnarch - political ruler of Judea, by Antiochus V. This was the first time in Jewish history that the office of High Priest, and political ruler, were held by one person.

The Maccabees, far from being anti-Greek, held political sway over the region because of their close association with Antiochus V.

Simon now controlled taxes, tithes and the treasury of government from his dual position as High Priest and Ethnarch, giving the Temple cult, and the Zadokites, incredible power. They comprised the wealthy and political elite of Judea, and their continued success was tied to the Temple. The rule of the Hasmoneans and the Zadokites would continue until the destruction of the Temple in 70CE.

The Zadokites, later, during the Roman period called the Sadduccees, were religious reformers to an extent, but also strict constructionists. They were not opposed to offering sacrifices in honor of the foreign rulers, or other compromises with Hellenism, but when it came to the Temple cult, there was no room for moderation. The temple had become the center of a "church-state" compromise in which the Greeks, and then the Romans, treated the temple with an exceptional respect. History had taught them that anything less could lead to public chaos or worse. Any tampering with the Temple cult was met with mobs of religious extremists, and those mobs were now part of the Jerusalem scene, making the city and Judea as a whole, difficult to govern.

Tampering with the Temple cult, is how they saw the movement to incorporate the Oral and Prophetic Traditions, into Jewish doctrine. They believed in the written tradition of the Torah, only! Themes like resurection, angels and demons, and eschatological thought were rejected as heresy.

The Pharisees were populists. They were teachers and preachers, as well as healers. They comprised the middle classes of Judean politics. Their roots in popular education brought them in line with the Oral and Prophetic Traditions, and their religious beliefs included a form of transendental monothiesm. Since they were followers of the Prophetic Traditions, it was not unusual for them to adopt a belief in angels and demons, as well as eschatology, a theme that was abundant in Prophetic literature. While they still followed the Temple cult, they began to see it as polluted. They were uncompromising with outside influences, and were sometimes hostile to foreign rule.

Two other political groups of the time, and there were many, were the Essenes, aesthetic hasidim who were seperatist and monastic, and saw the future of Judea in apocalyptic terms, and the Zealots, political revolutionaries who shared the theology of the Pharisees, but were hostile to all foreign influence.

All of these political groups were vying for power and influence, and undermined the status quo of the Sadduccees. While the Pharisees, Essenes and the Zealots challenged the religious authority of the Sadduccees, the Zealots also challenged the political authority of the entire theocracy, a movement that was to have a good number of followers in Galilee.

In the Pharisaic tradition of a transendental monotheism, various teachers and preachers sought to bring God closer to the lives of the people, bypassing the Temple. John the Baptist was one of those itinerant preachers, in the Pharisaic tradition. Jesus was another. Baptism was a path to Transcendental Monotheism whereby the individual was purified or cleansed of sin and thereby forgiven – without the need of sin offerings or sacrifices at the Temple.

If the Temple was the only place one could be absolved of sin; if the Temple were the only way to make sacrifices to God, the Temple would be, and was, the very center of Jewish monotheism. But if the Temple cult had become corrupt with money and power, it seems quite logical that preachers would attempt to teach a theology that would bypass that corruption, and would, in turn, incur the wrath of the Sadduccees. And if the status quo of the Sadduccees was challenged, so was the rule of Rome.

Rome had gone to great lengths in its areas of influence, to allow the local populations autonomy of religious thought and practice. Augustus even went so far as to grant Jews full citizenship. It was Rome who allowed the Jews of Alenandria to build there own Temple, for sacrifice to their God. This policy was allowed, only so long as the staus quo was upheld, which to Rome meant the orderly collection of taxes and pursuit of trade. If that were jeopardized, Rome would not hesitate to use the full force of its military to regain control.

Rome allowed the Jews to govern themselves to a large extent, and allowed Jewish courts to enforce Jewish law and to adjudicate most disputes. When those disputes would threaten the status quo that Rome required, the Roman governor would become involved. Of course, this involvement would be at the pleasure of the Roman governor, so depending on the person holding that office, there were varying degrees of corruption. But for the most part, Jews were allowed legal autonomy.

While the ultimate legal authority was Rome, the High Priest / Ethnarch had all of the trappings of legal authority, having been appointed or sanctioned directly by Rome. His religious and legal duties were performed by a committee of elders, called the Sanhedrin. One of the best known members of the Sanhedrin in Jewish tradition, was Hillel.

Hillel was born in Babylon, and emigrated to Judea, according to Talmud. For almost 300 years, the tradition of the Sanhedrin was to have two men interpret Jewish law and set Jewish tradition. This pair was known as the Zugot - pair, and one of the last and best known Zugot were Hillel and Shammai. Their disputes were legendary. It is most likely that the Sanhedrin consisted of men from both the Sadduccee and Pharisee traditions. Since Hillel is so prominently quoted in the Talmud, and since the Talmud is largely a Rabbinic or Pharisaic tradition, it can be assumed that Hillel followed the Pharisaic traditions. Perhaps Shammai represented the perspective of the Sadduccees. Still, the Sanhedrin had to walk the line between service to Rome, and Jewish autonomy.

This is the religious and political world into which Jesus stepped. Tradition has Jesus being born in the Galilee, a hotbed of political activity and radicalism. It could be assumed that those who followed Jesus out of Galilee were also familiar with the political activism and radicalism of the region. He became educated in Jewish law and tradition, and as part of his education process, he became familiar with the many parties and sects of Judea at the time, and took great pains to understand their differing philosophies. He was also acutely aware of the social and political concerns of the time - Temple corruption being just one.

Christian tradition also shows Jesus as a charismatic leader, as one might find at the head of any political movement. He was a populist, in political terms, and he and his followers developed strategm that would allow his message to have its greatest impact.

While Christian tradition shows Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, his methods, philosophy, and traditions are most definitely Pharisaic in nature. He preached in the Prophetic Tradition, stressed ethics as a political and social tool, believed in a Transcendental Monotheism, and saw his world in eschatological terms. He was most likely a product of the local schools started by the Pharisees.

His political activism was manifested in his work as an itinerate preacher, and as a preacher, was expected to perform healings, as was the tradition. His activism was most certainly, “goal oriented”. If he saw, as many did, the corruption of the Temple and it’s administration, he sought to make Judaism more accesible to the people, by circumventing the Temple. Isaiah tells of God’s contempt for Temple ritual, if not performed in conjunction with fair and just treatment of His people. Jesus took this a step further, by inferring that the Temple was corrupt, and had lost it’s moral authority as an intermediary to God. Jesus preached that God could be interacted with directly, without the Temple as intermediary, by self-atonement, prayer and ethical behavior. His message hit home with the the people of the countryside; perhaps even with many Pharisees.

As an itinerate preacher in the countryside, his influence on the political structure was minimal. The strategy of taking his message to Jerusalem, directly challenged the Sadduccees and their administration. Given the power that the Sadducces excercized, and the challenge to their rule, it was certain that they would eventually attempt to stifle the dissent. And stifle they did.

There were two ways the Sadduccees could address the leader of a subversive movement; they could have brought him up on charges on religious grounds, or on grounds of sedition. If, as indicated, there were Pharisees on the Sanhedrin, and therefore possibly supporters of Jesus in that body, justice of the sort that the Sadduccees required may not be served. If, however, the charge was sedition, the Roman governor could step in and weigh the threat against Rome’s interests.

Tradition holds that Caiaphas, High Priest and head of the Sanhedrin, asked Jesus, "Are you the Messiah?”. The question was not a theological one. The Jews believed the Messiah would be a political leader, one that would lead the tiny state to political independence from foreign rule, and bring about a fair and just society. The tradition of the Messiah is a Pharisaic one, and Prophetic in nature. Jesus, or some of his followers, may have wished to imply that theirs was a Messianic movement, and certainly attempted to identify with several of the prophetic imperatives that would signal the coming of the Messiah. By answering, “yes”, to the question, Jesus could have been brought directly to the Roman governor on grounds of sedition. If the answer was, “no”, the Sanhedrin may well have simply labled Jesus as a false teacher, the punishment for which could have been public stoning. Christian tradition has Jesus giving no direct answer to the question, and being brought to Pontious Pilate, the Roman governor, for adjudication.

Brutal execution was the sentence passed, but it would take another few decades for his dream to be realized. The Temple was eventually destroyed, and both Jewish and Christian theology eventually canonized a Transcendental Monotheism. It was the idea that Jesus had died for, and one that the Pharisees and their Rabbinic descendents follow to this day.

There can be no doubt that the evolution of modern Judaism, and the birth of Christianity were both by-products of the politics of Judea, roughly 2000 years ago.