Any time I write about political parties I do so with incredible nervousness and hopefully humility. We tend to hold our alliances with a lot of passion, and that can be a good thing. My intent in this series of blog posts is not to criticize either of the major parties in our two party system, or push people toward one or the other. My goal is to help us think critically about how the Kingdom of our God and the kingdoms of this world have different agendas, and as a result, every party will end up in a place of conflict with our Gospel mission. So in this post I want to take us to First Century Israel and talk about the politics and the socio-political-religious groups that had formed in that moment and talk about how these groups interacted with Jesus and His claims declaring, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 3:2)”
For the most part, all of the groups we encounter in the New Testament were formed out of a response to the major political issue of their day. For hundreds of years Israel was governed by external rule, being under the thumb of the sitting empire that ruled the Middle East. These included Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greek, and Roman Empires who at some point conquered and governed God’s people. But things took a big change with the conquest of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Greek Empire. Other empires ruled primarily for power, wealth, and honor. But Alexander had different goals. Greece had an explosion of thought, art, and culture that rose around the philosophy coming from Athens. His goal was not only to conquer, but also to spread Greek culture to all the peoples ruled. This meant opening schools, developing the arts, providing technology, and even spreading the polytheistic religion of the Greek people to all. This phenomena is called hellenism. The goal was so much more than governing large swaths of land and large groups of people. It was to make all people Greek thinking and believing peoples. When the Roman Empire replaced the Greeks around 100 years before Jesus’ ministry, they continued in this goal as well. When Octavius (who became known as Caesar Augustus) consolidated the Empire under one ruler at the Battle of Actium, defeating the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Middle Eastern and European world was governed by Rome. Their power and ruthlessness left no willing enemies and led to a period in history known as the Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome. Since there were no more battles, the manpower of the vast Roman armies was turned from war to a sort of Corp of Engineers who began great building project in the lands of these peoples. This included the building of roads, aqueducts, and structures in these places, including the place we know as Israel. The roads built in Israel were so amazing, that they functionally lasted and were used in the land until they were replaced with roads for cars. But it also came with a price, the price of Hellenism, of embracing Greco-Roman philosophy, ideas, education, and even religion. For example, during this period the local king aligned with Rome, Herod the Great, began a Temple renovation project that would last over 30 years and reform the Temple into a magnificent complex filled with gold and marble. Yet, on the corner of the complex was a great tower that became the base camp for Roman rule in the city and a temple to the god Zeus was built nearby. This created a major problem for the people who had a covenant with the One True God and believed their well-being as a people depended on their rejection of any other culture and spirituality.
As a result, by the First Century AD (time of Jesus), Hellenism was the single most significant issue and every group we meet in the ministry of Jesus had formed around a response to it. The Jewish people had a distinct history and heritage that called them to have allegiance to Yahweh alone and to long for His rule among them. Furthermore, they had the promises of the Messiah, a king from the line of David who would bring glory to Israel. Because of this, the people were filled with a hope in the midst of their oppression that this king would overthrow Rome and make Israel the new dominant world empire. On the other hand, there were some who saw the value of the Roman efforts and rule that greatly benefited the daily life of people. Imagine being a woman in the culture, and part of your daily work was to walk to the nearest water hole with a huge jar to fill (often carried on your head) so your family would have water for the day. The walk may have been miles to and from the river, lake, or spring. Then, in comes Rome and they build an aqueduct that pulls that water and drops it into the middle of your town. Not bad, right? So groups formed in response to Roman rule and Hellenism. Some were completely against it, seeking a Messianic King would would overthrow Rome. Others were more centrist longing for a Jewish nation who would work alongside Rome. Others supported Rome’s work and effort. But the point is that all the groups we meet were shaped by this one political issue and question. Furthermore, these groups were often seeking to be faithful to God and the Torah, which led them to values that were represented by the different groups.
As we read the stories in the Gospels the reader will be introduced to many of the groups that existed in First Century Israel. While several of these groups also had theological ideals and beliefs that shaped their world view, the issues in the New Testament were almost always also political, an interaction and response to the rule that was over them. Often these groups had sharp disagreements with each other on multiple levels and they sought to influence the masses to approve of their vision for the nation. These disagreements would also turn violent at times. The Gospels have stories where most of these groups at one time or another approach Jesus to inquire of Him. Many of the questions posed to Jesus in the New Testament seek to put him at odds with one group or the other. These groups included the Pharisees who sought religious purity and faithfulness to the Law as their primary goal. They rejected Hellenism and longed for a Messianic Kingdom who would overthrow Rome. The Sadducees were centrists, made up of much of the aristocracy and the priestly leaders in Jerusalem. They entered into an alliance with Rome that gave them rule in the Temple and in the religious life of the people in the key city. The Zealots were crazy anti-Hellenists who were willing to use violence and force to terrorize the people. This group had a sub-group known as the Sicarii who would assassinate Roman sympathizers among the Jews as an act of terrorism. The Essenes were separatists who pulled completely away from society protecting themselves and their families from the secularism of Rome. The Hellenists were Jews who had embraced Rome’s rule and appreciated the benefits they brought. Some went so far as siding with the Romans serving in key positions such as tax collectors. Another group threw their political allegiance to a group of local kings known as the Herods. We meet several people named Herod in the Gospels and Acts. This was a family of Middle Easter rulers with some Jewish heritage who had been empowered by Rome. The Herodians sympathized with Hellenism while supporting these kings because they know that it was better to have a leader who better understood their own culture rather than a Roman leader who knew nothing about them.
Early in Jesus’ ministry representatives from several of these groups show up to find out about this new potential Messiah. During His Galilean ministry Jesus drew large crowds and taught them about the Kingdom of God, and even identified Himself as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies. As Jesus heals people and teaches, at several points the people seek to force Jesus’ hand making Him king by force. They believe that Jesus is the Messiah, yet will only embrace Him if He will be the Messiah they want, a political ruler for their time. There is great hope and expectation that God’s Messiah would come in their lifetime. But they had decided that the Messiah they needed was a political King who would ride in on a white horse, gather an army, cast off Rome as the oppressor, and usher in the reign of God through the nation of Israel. They believed they would then become the new world power, displacing Rome and ruling the entire world under the Kingdom of the God through His Messiah. Each of the political groups longed for this type of Messiah and believed that when he came he would represent their values and lead the nation to embrace their way of seeing the world. In fact, it seems that early in His ministry, their appearance may be an attempt to see if Jesus could fill the role of their candidate for rule of Israel. Of course, we know that the mission of the True Messiah was something different. But early in His ministry the crowds were ready, and many of these groups could hear aspects of their own values and message in the rhetoric of Christ’s Kingdom message. So they approached Jesus, I believe, thinking he may be actually be the Messiah, and as the Messiah He would represent their cause and political values. But it is at this point where Jesus virtually goes out of His way to offend these groups, especially the Pharisees. In doing so Jesus pointed out the idolatry and injustice perpetuated in each groups view of the world and hope for salvation. As Jesus’ ministry becomes more popular each group is confronted with the stark reality that Jesus’ ministry not only rejected aspects of their view of the world, He was also impacting their popularity and power. Furthermore, the massive crowds gathering around a person who is making overtures of being Israel’s King is gaining the notice of the Roman authorities, threatening each party’s hopes for power. So each group moves from curiosity about Jesus to outright antagonism against him, and then they join the plot.
Like most political moments, these groups disagreed about most everything from theology, to how to govern people, to whether or not to pay taxes. Generally it is almost impossible to find a single issue which all political groups can agree and everyone would join the cause. Yet, there is one such unifying issue in the political moment of First Century Palestine, and that issue is that Jesus had to be dealt with in a way that publicly shamed Him and destroyed any notion that He was the True Messiah. Each of these groups, or at the very least, people holding the political ideals represented by each group conspired together in the plot to try and execute Jesus. Zealots were sent to arrest Him, Pharisees and Sadducees participated in a completely illegal according to Old Testament Law arrest and trial to convict Jesus. He was taken to the Roman governor with the expectation that Jesus would be publicly executed by crucifixion. Pilate examines Jesus, holding his phase of the trial. Yet, this story cannot be understood apart from Pilate’s history. His political hopes were being crushed by the unrest in Jerusalem, and there had been warnings he would lose all of his political hopes the next time there was an uprising in the city. Pilate literally finds Jesus “Not guilty” (John 19:38). But this does not appease the crowd that has gathered, a group representative of the nation. The crowd of Jewish people begin to cry “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Hoping to avoid the situation, Pilate craftily offers to honor the tradition of releasing a condemned prisoner, offering either Jesus or Bar abbas. Bar abbas was basically a terrorist and probably part of the Zealot party. But the crowd won’t let Pilate off the hook, and they ask that a murderer and insurrectionist be set free and Jesus be crucified. So Pilate sends Jesus to the cross, even though He had already been declared innocent, but does so to protect his political power. Those who support Hellenism and Roman rule are complicit by giving their support to this kind of injustice in their city.
So, what we discover is that Christ’s ministry and claims as the Messiah exposed idols and the quest for power for each group. In the end, all of them are involved in and guilty of the execution of the Son of God. So, as mentioned earlier, each of these groups were in some way formed around the hot political issue of their day, that of Hellenism, and the political fault lines it produced. The politics of First Century Israel was volatile and full of passion. And each of the groups or at least the political views they represent had a role in the death of Jesus. This is the main point I seek to make here. There was nothing inherently wrong in being involved in any of these groups. They all had good points and had done good things for the nation. And in many cases, their values flowed from a desire to honor God. But for many, their allegiance to the political/religious group caused them to completely miss the Messiah when He was in their midst or even participate in the plot to kill Jesus. They missed the eternal and universal purpose of His Kingdom, replacing that with the longing of a merely human kingdom that would solve earthly problems. And they missed salvation as a result.
But none of them could keep Jesus dead! He was the True King that was promised and prophesied! What was true then is still true now. We must be careful to know that no political group will be able to faithfully represent the purposes and the values of Christ’s Kingdom wholly. And that the values and mission of His Kingdom will align itself against any idolatry, sin, and injustice that exists in every human group. Mere association and involvement in a political party does not mean that a person is standing in opposition to Jesus (that is the theme of the next post). But we must be careful to make sure our hope is in the right Kingdom, our perspective stays eternal rather than worldly, and our goals are driven by the advance of the Gospel, the glory of God, and love of neighbor. When we do this, our beliefs may lead us to a party, but let us never let the party determine our beliefs. God bless.