by D.P. Brooks
[The Gospel of] John says of Jesus that "he came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (1:11). Why did his people reject their own Messiah, the one for whom they were praying night and day? What were the roots of their opposition to Jesus? Why did the leaders go to such extreme lengths to have Jesus put to death?
Before plunging into the conflict Jesus encountered with the established order among the Jews, it is necessary to set the stage. There were historical reasons for the conditions existing in the religious and political life of the Jewish nation. The better we understand these conditions, the more easily we can understand the events recorded in the four Gospels.
Remember that four centuries had passed since the close of the Old Testament period. History had not stood still during these turbulent centuries. Alexander the Great had marched his all-conquering armies across the known world, bringing an end to the great Persian empire.
Wherever his armies went, Alexander took along scholars to help export the Greek language and culture. Thus, the world came into contact with the most advanced culture in all ancient history and came to speak a common language. This process of modernization was called a Hellenizing process (from the word "Hellas," another word for Greece). Old dogmas and social customs were rudely broken up by this dynamic process. Isolation gave way to the exchange of goods and ideas across national boundaries.
After the death of Alexander, one of his generals took over that part of his empire which included Palestine. One of the rulers of this empire, Antiochus Epiphanes, was very zealous in trying to break down the old ways among the Jews so that they might adopt the Greek style of life. Many of the Jews embraced the new ideas and customs, turning away from the ancient customs of the fathers.
Just as the Hebrews had almost lost their uniqueness during the first centuries in Palestine, so they were now threatened with the loss of their distinctiveness as the covenant people of God. When the heathen king tried to force the Jews to worship pagan gods, there was a rebellion. Years of bitter fighting ended with the Jewish people gaining their freedom. For about a century the small nation remained free, but warring factions turned to the Romans for help in gaining control of the government. About 63 B.C., the Roman legions came in and took possession of the divided nation and turned it into a province of the empire.
It was during the bitter struggle over whether to adopt Greek ways of life that the parties found in the New Testament arose. The Pharisees represented those who were violently opposed to abandoning the old ways and drifting into pagan customs. They believed that disobedience to the Law had brought on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Also, they believed that God would send the Messiah whenever the people kept the law properly. Therefore, they stressed obedience to the law, including the interpretations of the law that had grown up across the centuries. These interpretations were honest attempts to find out how the commandments in their Scriptures applied to everyday life.
The Pharisees were intensely patriotic and resented the presence of foreign troops and influences. They were honored as the best and most loyal group in the nation. They spent many hours studying the Scriptures, fasting, praying, and teaching the people. They were the guardians of the faith,and undoubtedly they helped to save the nation from becoming pagan.
All biblical scholars agree that the picture we get of the Pharisees from reading the New Testament tends to put them in a worse light than the group as a whole deserves. They undoubtedly produced some remarkably able and dedicated men. Two reasons help to account for the bad showing of the Pharisees in the New Testament: (1) The most reactionary and hardhearted ones led the opposition to Jesus and to the early church, and (2) some of the New Testament books were written at a time when the tension between Christians and Jews was at a fever pitch. Naturally the writers reflected some of this tension in their description of the Pharisees.
The Sadducees constituted another significant group in the Jewish establishment, and they played a prominent role in the conflict with Jesus and with the early Christian leaders. Who were they and what was their role?
The Sadducees were the severely conservative priestly group that had charge of the Temple in Jerusalem. They had worked out a very profitable arrangement with the Roman authorities. In return for their cooperation with the occupying forces, they were allowed to run the Temple apparatus under the watchful eyes of the Romans. As guardians of the status quo they were careful to avoid anything that would suggest rebellion against Rome. Such an upheaval would bring the wrath of Rome down on the nation and might end the Sadducees' lucrative operation.
Theologically, the Sadducees rejected all of the Old Testament except the first five books, the Law. Furthermore, they rejected the doctrine of angels and the belief in resurrection and a future life. They refused to budge from the view that had been held generally by the Hebrews before the Babylonian Exile.
The people resented the ruthless profiteering of the Sadducees in their dealings with the Jews who came to Jerusalem to sacrifice. Only the Temple coin was acceptable as a money offering, and the Sadducees charged exorbitant fees to convert the people's money into the Temple coin. Also, these profiteers took in large sums from their selling of sacrificial animals. You will remember that Jesus drove out the money changers in the court of the Gentiles. He declared that God had intended the Temple as a "house of prayer for all nations," but the Sadducees and their followers had turned it into a den of robbers.
While the people held the Temple in high esteem, they resented the Sadducees' activities. In their theology, their collaboration with Rome, and their unconcern for the people, they had alienated the people. Their one concern in religion was to keep the Temple sacrifices and ceremonies going according to the instructions in the first five books of the Old Testament.
A third group appears in the gospel story of Jesus' conflict with the established order. Scholars believe that the Herodians were a political group who favored the rule of the Herods. At the time, Palestine had been divided up into administrative units by the Romans. Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee and Perea. Judea was under the direct supervision of the emperor and was ruled by a procurator. During Jesus ministry Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. In spite of the bad record of the Herods, some of the people were strongly committed to the goal of restoring a Herod to the throne of a unified nation. These people were called Herodians.
The scribes made up another group with which Jesus clashed. They were the interpreters of both the sacred Scriptures and the meaning of the written law. They stood strongly against the attempt to import Greek ways and were highly honored by the people who called them rabbi, "my master." Many of the scribes, apparently, were Pharisees, but some may have been Sadducees.
The final group involved in the conflict with Jesus was the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of elders in Jerusalem. Composed of seventy-one rich and influential men, the Sanhedrin was extremely powerful in both religious and criminal cases. It included Pharisees and Sadducees. It could pass the death penalty, but at certain periods was not allowed to carry it out except with the consent of the Roman governor. Both Jesus and some of his disciples were to face this august body, presided over by the high priest.
(From D.P. Brooks, The Bible—How to Understand and Teach It [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969], 57–61.)
Recommended further reading:
Christopher Hall: Learning Theology with the Church Fathers
James Freeman: Manners and Customs of the Bible
E.C. Wines: Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews
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