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The Political Climate of Jesus’ Time

Photo: Ricci, Sebastiano. Heads of Two Men (A Scribe or a Pharisee and an Apostle). c. 1730, Wikimedia Commons.

he Bible, or the Old and New Testaments, are a collection of historical accounts and records, laws, biographies, poetry and prose, prophecies, and cultural wisdom of several societies and individuals within the mediterranean region of Northern Africa and Southern Europe, and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. It’s considered to be a product of divine inspiration for those that hold it, or its parts, religiously sacred as a living record of the relationship between God and mankind. In what one might recognize as the Bible today, there are 66 books in total (81 when including the Apocrypha), written by 40 different authors, and spanning over a period of approximately 1,000 years.

Originally written in Greek, the New Testament comprises 27 of those books: The 4 Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Acts of the Apostles, the 14 Epistles of Paul (Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews), the 7 General Epistles (James, I and II Peter, I and II and III John, Jude), and the Book of Revelation. These books collectively contain the biography of Jesus, the history of the early church, and the revelations of John.

The Gospel of Mark is the shortest and the earliest book among the Gospels. Written in approximately A.D. 66, Mark (cousin to Paul’s companion, Barnabas) acts as Peter’s interpreter by penning the disciple’s account of Jesus for him. Unlike the other Gospels, Mark offers an action-packed synopsis of Jesus’ life rather than focusing upon his teachings. Within this framework, the material tends to be grouped by subject, which includes a detailed account of Jesus’ interactions with Jewish religious authorities.

The four political parties

There were four major political parties that were active at the time: The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees were one of many sects of Judaism. They emphasized the truth of the “traditions of the fathers” over the Torah itself. As proponents of the sanctity of both the Written and Oral Law (the Torah, or teachings of the prophets, and the oral traditions of the Jewish people) the Pharisees emerged as a distinct group concerned with the preservation of such. The Pharisees were a society of scholars and scribes rather than a true political party. With such a large social following, oftentimes they appeared as spokesmen for the Jewish people in the New Testament. They believed that the Law was fluid by interpreting it according to tradition, rather than its context.

The Sadducces

The Sadducces, on the other hand, asserted that the Torah was the only source of revelation. They were the high priesthood, the descendants of Levi who had traditionally provided the sole leadership of the Jewish people. While the Pharisees were concerned with people’s performance of the Law, the Sadducces were, effectively, the stewards of the Law as stewards of the Temple. The Law was static and literal. They understood worship to be solely in the form of sacrifice. While the Pharisees sought to include the study of the Torah as a form of worship, and ultimately, mend the Law with the cultural customs of their day, the Sadducees preferred that all matters of the God of their ancestors be kept within the walls of the Temple. However, it is because of the Pharisees’ efforts to incorporate Jewish faith with Jewish culture that their teachings are the face of what we now recognize as Judaism today.

The Essenes

Meanwhile, the Essenes were another Jewish sect whose ideology was more evident in society than it was recorded. “Essentially, pre-Christian in nature… The Essenes believed in an imminent eschatology with emphasis on the coming Messiah,” (Gold, 1989, p.54). They rejected the practices of both the Pharisees and Sadducees, and therefore, were pushed to the fringes of society where they lived in communes. Their own practices, which included hospitality, poverty, pacifism, social equality, and celibacy may be recognized as reflective of later Christian monks. Currently, the Essenes are regarded as the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Zealots

The Zealots’ practices may be likened to the opposite of the Essenes. While both sects sought Jewish autonomy and the promised Messiah, the Zealots differed in their approach by implementing fanatic and violent acts of terrorism to achieve their patriotic goals. Anything that they perceived as a threat to theocracy, they targeted. As revolutionaries, they presented a threat not only to the Roman government and other sects of Judaism, but even to their own people.

A political scapegoat

Jesus was a devout Jew, as were all his followers. However, despite growing up in the Temple, the Pharisees and Saduccees perceived him as a threat to their order. After many disputes about fasting (Mark 2:18), Sabbath observance (Mark 2:24), and divorce (Mark 10:2), coupled with Jesus’ claims that “not one stone will be standing upon another”, and that he would “destroy the Temple, and rebuild it in three days”, Jewish religious authorities regarded him as a Zealot by interpreting his words literally, rather than figuratively, like his parables. Jesus was “a Pharisee by tradition, a Sadducee by exception (his rejection of the Oral Law), an Essene by inclination, Jesus is charged, tried and dies a Zealot,” (Gold, 1989, p.196). In other words, Jesus didn’t belong to any one particular political party. After all, in the Gospel of Matthew, he states, “give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” (Matthew 22:21, NRSV).

“The wages of sin is death,” (Romans 6:23, NRSV) Paul pens. This was understood by all sects of Judaism, especially those who were proponents of the Law such as he was, a former Pharisee himself. Sin was, and is today, recognized as anything that isn’t of God, rather than simply a list of rules that must be followed within Christianity. Due to Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, and effectively separate themselves from him, the Levite priests carefully kept Moses’ instructions for the offering of sacrifices to God. Because something had to die in their place for their sins, the early Levite priests poured the blood of a blemish-free scapegoat upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark, so that when God “looked down” upon his Law (the fragmented Ten Commandments that were contained within the Ark), knowing that they had been broken, he would see the blood of the innocent (in this case, the spotless scapegoat) covering it, and be able to extend mercy upon them, for their sins had been “paid” for. The Jewish people knew that this served as an example of what the coming Messiah was to spiritually fulfill. However, because Jesus didn’t arrive as a military commander touting a sword, but rather, on a donkey with a message that would prove to be just as sharp and divisive, Jewish religious authorities found him guilty of failing to be what they expected. Ironically, much like the Levite priests that offered up the sacrificial scapegoat for slaughter, it was the Sanhedren (the elder council of Sadducees) that offered up “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) to Pontius Pilate for much the same.

Was Jesus a Pharisee?

Because of the exterior similarity between Phariseetical teachings and Jesus’ own teachings, as well as his personal relationship with the sect, some scholars argue that Jesus himself was a Pharisee. As much as it’s fascinating to analyze the influence that Phariseetic teachings had on the formation of Jesus’ ministry, it may be argued that despite those influences however, Jesus himself cannot be assigned to this sect of Judaism.

According to the Hebrew definition of “pharisee”, the word roughly translates to “separate ones”. While it is unclear of whom they separated from (whether from another sect or Levitical Law), this definition quickly evolved to denote “removed” rather than its literal interpretation. According to Merriam-Webster, the word carries the connotation of self-righteousness, or hypocrisy, due to the commonly held accusation of their pretensions to superior sanctity. Overall, the Pharisees are often associated with “morality policing” because of their albeit sincere efforts to pursue holiness (or separateness — not perfection as the word is commonly confused for). Matthew 23 offers ample documentation for their emphasis on observing the legalistic minutia of the law, as well as their concern for outward recognition and honor.

All four of the Gospels illustrate Jesus’ complicated relationship with them. Apart from Jesus’ familiarity with them, having grown up in the synagogue, they are recorded to have warned him of Herod (Luke 13:31), were at times attracted to his teachings (John 3:1; 7:45–53; 9:13–38), and even invited him to dinner (Luke 7:36–50 ;14:1). The Gospels also record their arguments with him, where Jesus eventually condemns them, saying, “but woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them,” (Matthew 23:13, NRSV).

While the foundation of their doctrine may appear similar, because of his methodology of teaching, and who Jesus took his teachings to, he cannot be a Pharisee. One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry is who he chose to affiliate himself with. Instead of pursuing a career being a formal teacher of the Law, he focused on those deemed to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy: the poor, the handicapped, and women and children. And he was often berated for it (Matthew 11:16–19; John 8:1–11). Jesus railed against religion that focused more on rules than people, or rather, more on obedience than love (Matthew 5:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 17:39–52). Quite arguably, one could even say not only was Jesus not a Pharisee, but perhaps he was more of a true “Pharisee” than the Pharisees themselves. According to Jesus, the catalyst for the transformation of one’s behavior was the heart, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, an all-too familiar example of this kind of relationship can be seen by analyzing modern (Protestant) Christian culture. In some communities, legalism is a tenant of such. Some churches will even go as far as to focus an entire Sunday sermon on what a woman should be wearing, rather than on the teachings of Jesus. While those unfamiliar with Christian culture would deem legalistic Christians and spiritual Christians to be one in the same, that assumption couldn’t be farther than the truth. It is in this way that it may be argued that Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees and their teachings reflect a similar dynamic, and therefore, should be understood within that context.

In conclusion, the Gospel of Mark, offers a concise, yet detailed account of Jesus’ ministry, his trial, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. While it is only one perspective of one man, when paired with the other Gospels and following records of the church, it proves to be one of the best biographies of classic antiquity. Overall, the Bible is a complicated piece of literature, but nonetheless beautiful. And like an impressionist painting that may appear incongruent and messy at one angle, a broader one reveals the fine symmetry of it as a single and coherent work of art.

Gold, Judith Taylor. Monsters & Madonnas: The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism. Syracuse University Press, 1989. pp. 52–57, 194–197.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Psychology | Philosophy | Faith

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