The religious and political environment of Jesus from Nazareth
As a former evangelical, I spent much of my religious life believeing that Jesus died solely and exclusively for my sins. When I surveyed the cross as a conservative evangelical, I did so in a way that completely stripped this brutal execution from any historical context. In fact, I scarcely connected any of Jesus’ teachings or interactions to the possibility that he could be crucified for them. I believed that the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion that are recorded in the gospels are but teachings from heaven that Jesus passed to us so that we could be better Christians. My assumptions were rooted in a highly individiualistic theology that taught me to take persoanl responsibility for my sin as I worked on my personal reltionship with God, a reltionship made possible only through Jesus’ blood on the cross. To compliment this theology, many Christians explain that the crucifixion’s historical context is rooted in the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the Jews, who wanted him dead for blasphemy only because they didn’t understand he was god in the flesh. These theological assumptions, however, depend on a very basic reading of the gospels that are translated through very specific theolgoical lenses — devoid of historical, literary and cultural context.
While Christians emphasize that salvation is the cornerstone for Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross, many scholars point to the fact that execution on a Roman cross was a punishment reserved for rebellious non-citizens who threatened Rome’s imperial dominance — and that the historical context of the gospels gives us a Jesus who did the latter. Scholars look at the historically probable events in Jesus’ ministry in light of the fact that such behaviour would inevitably result in the death penalty. And while the gospels reveal a Jesus who had his own populist following, there are two outside groups who Jesus interacts with on a regular basis — namely, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In order to fully understand the motives behind Jesus’ execution, one must understand who the Pharisees and the Sadducees were, how they were ideological, political and religious enemies, and how only the Sadducees had the power and influence to push Jesus’ execution through — despite the fact that many Christians erroneously believe that both groups were historically responsible for having Jesus killed.
First, it’s important for readers to understand that the gospels, like the entire New Testament and Torah, are not history books that are meant to provide a clear historical record, but rather oral traditions passed down to the gospel writers that disclose how Jesus was redifining whom and what is important to God. Regarding historical accuracy, the gospels contain contradictions and theological underpinnings that muddle historical facts. For instance, Mark’s Jesus speaks a vulgar Greek, while the Jesus in Luke speaks the refined Greek of the educated author, and Matthew’s Jesus is rooted in Jewish traditions. The gospel according to John, the last gospel to be written, has Jesus being crucified the day of Passover preparations while the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have Jesus being crucufied the day after Passover preparations. It is noteworthy that the gospel according to John is also the only gospel that refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”. Perhaps John wanted people to understand that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that was required to atone for sins in Jewish tradition, and that’s why Jesus (the Lamb of God) was sacrificed on the day of Passover. Conservative estimates have the gospel of John being written roughly 70 years after Jesus’ execution (approx. 100 C.E.). The earliest gospel committed to writing was the gospel of Mark, which is estimated to have been written in about 70 C.E, still came roughly 40 years after Jesus’ execution. Rather one reads the crucifixion accounts in the New Testament as being 100% historically accurate or not, they nevertheless help us understand that Pontius Pilate either capitulated to the Judean demands to kill Jesus, or that Pilate himself had a deeply profound motive to see Jesus’ punishment through — or both.
Historians understand that Pontius Pilate’s primary responsibility was the military dominance over a region that was a hotbed of political turmoil. Pilate’s power brokers were the Judean elite — namely, the Herodians and the Saduccean priests — who were supposed to mitigate between the Empire Pilate represented and the Judean people he policed. Herod Antipas was one of 4 Judean client-kings who inherited a region of Judea from his father, Herod the Great. Antipas was assigned to reign over Galilee, where Nazareth is located, and that assignement was given by the Roman Empire whom he was answerable to. That is to say that Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas were colleagues who worked together to keep a potentially rebellious Judean state pacified. This is how Rome governed its far reaching provinces — instead uprooting their local giovernments and customs, Rome subjugated local rulers with the threat of a massive and powerful military. For the most religiously austere Jews, it was unthinkable for God’s people and His land to be subjugated by a pagan empire; for the elites, it was a pragmatic decision of choosing life over death in acquiescing to Rome. Shortly before Jesus enters the Judean scene, the Empire had trusted the Herodians to govern Judea exclusively. It wasnt until 23 C.E. that Rome sent Pontius Pilate to oversee a region that was becoming increasingly unsettled politically.
The understanding that Pontius Pilate and the Herodian family were political collaborators may shed new light on Pilate’s motives and his political savvy in handling Jesus’ accusers. As previously mentioned, the Empire worked with, and even depended upon, the local aristocracy to mitigate the problems that were prevalent in the far reaches of the Empire’s control. Judea, being on the southeastern reaches of the empire, was governed by military generals like (Pontius Pilate) and the local aristocracy (the Herodian tetrarchs and their Sadducean temple priests).
How did the Herodians feel about Jesus? According to Luke 13:31, Herod Antipas wanted him dead. It’s important to note that John the Baptizer had suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Herodians when he was decapitated per the request of one of Herod’s mistresses. Jesus responded by calling the tetrarch a “fox”. As John’s example displayed full well, peasants who publicly dishonored client-kings of a military dictatorship were executed. It is no surprise that Jesus predicted his execution in the gospels many times. Ancient empires have a record of making fatal examples out of prophets who spoke the truth to their powerful leaders.
Additionally, it is noteworthy that it was the Pharisees in Luke 13:31–32 who warned Jesus of Herod’s fatal plans to kill Jesus, when a basic reading of the New Testament might lead one to believe that the Pharisees positioned themselves as Jesus’ enemies and betrayers. The synoptic gospels — the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke — are saturated with interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus ate inside of the homes of prominent Pharisees and fellowshipped around their dinner tables — an honor that the Pharisees did not normally extend to the ritually impure. Jesus interacted with the Pharisees often because, like Jesus, they were the commoners of ancient Judea, unlike the priestly Sadduccean elite who avoided interactions with the socially inferior and vulgar masses. Also, the Pharisees are mentioned in the synoptic gospels over 70 times, but they disappear during the betrayal and crucifixion accounts — with the exception of the Pharisee Nicodemus, who is mentioned as one of two who provided Jesus with a proper burial.
The Pharisees were religio-political oponents of the Sadducees. Because they were critical of the political motives of the wealthy Sadduccean priests whom controlled the temple, the Pharisees worshipped in synagogues because the temple had been corrupted by these aristocratic insiders who rubbed elbows with their Roman overlords. The average Pharisee saw himself as the priest of his home and of his community as opposed to the Sadducean aristocrats who controlled the temple. The temple was the economic and political center of Judea, and while the Sadduccees certainly had a difficult job balancing subserviernce to the Empire with God’s sovereignty, the critical perception was that it was controlled by upper class priests who cared more about their privileged position under Rome’s tutleage and less about the well-being of their countrymen.
The Pharisees sought to extract the power and influence of the Temple and to redirect it to their countrymen. For if the men throughout Judea were to become as ritually pure as priests, God would be so pleased that he would send a messiah to deliver them from Roman imperial dominance. And while Jesus directed many of his harshest rebukes at the Pharisees, he also held convictions that were in line with the Pharasaic belief that the Temple had been corrupted by the elites of his time. That is not to say that the Pharisees (or Jesus) disagreed with Temple practices as it pertained to ritual purity and the Mosaic Law, but rather that the purposes of the Temple had been perverted with Roman politics — as it was, the Suddacean priests were required to make a daily sacrifice on behalf of the Roman Emperor. This context muddles the dominant stereotype that the Pharisees were religious hypocrites who worked with the Sadducees to crucify Jesus.
Regarding the wealth and prestige of the Sadducean priests, archaeology reveals that the Sadduccees lived in the upper city of Jerusalem in mansions fashioned after Greek villas — many including spa baths. The Sadducees had underground passageways to the Temple so that their ritual purity would not be contaminated by the vulgar masses in Jerusalem. These Judean villas indicate a love for Hellenistic culture and the pristige of upper-class society. These privileged lifestyles quickly became something the Sadducees may have wanted to conserve, as power and privilege was perceived to be in limited supply. It’s important to note that upward mobility in the ancient world was not possible unless one was born into prestige. Most of the ancient world — with estimates as high as 95% — were illiterate peasant farmers and/or artisans. In towns like Nazareth, where land wasn’t highly cultivatable, and where land had been taken by the Empire when taxes were not paid, day laborers would travel into Sepphoris to work on the Greco-Roman building projects the countryside was being taxed to fund. Meanwhile, many resorted to destitute lifestyles of scavenging and begging.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus takes on a new meaning with this context in mind. Consider that Jesus gives the poor beggar in the parable a name — Lazarus — while depriving the antagonist of the story of a name, only calling him a rich man. Jesus props the rich man up as an example of someone whose wealth was achieved by a system that oppressed God’s people. Poor beggars like Lazarus had been deprived of their humanity in first century Judea, while others shuddered at the name of their rulers. Jesus makes it abundantly clear who the Rich man was — he was a Sadducee, a ruler, a member of the privileged elite who fraternized with their Roman superiors. Instead of using their influence to work on behalf of the people of Judea, they used it to entrench their own honor, power and prestige.
As previously mentioned, first century Judea was a hotbed of political tensions. Roman imperial rule over God’s chosen people did not sit well with many Judeans — some among which were Pharisees — who desired a strong messiah to deliver them from imperial Rome. And if Judea was a hotbed for political tensions, Jerusalem was the epicenter, and Passover was just the holiday for those tensions to spill over. Scores of Judeans made their pilgrimage into Jerusalem to celebrate their history as God’s chosen people who were delivered from slavery, and whose Egyptian oppressors were destroyed. Pontius Pilate naturally made his way into Jerusalem from Caesarea with his military so as to quell any potential uprisings during the Passover celebration.
Roman military governors made a spectacle about how they entered their conquered and subservient territories. Pilate likely rode in on a noble steed outfitted in a full Roman military uniform with a procession of soldiers behind him. It was to serve as a pompous reminder of who was in control and the method by which they control things. When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem going into the Passover celebration with a small group of peasants in tow, the gospel according to Matthew states, “the whole city [of Jerusalem] was stirred.” It is likely that the people of Jerusalem understood the significance of a peasant rabbi and rumored messiah entering the city in such a way that almost mocked the power and pomp of the Roman military. Jesus’ ironic specatacle drew crowds who knew precisely who he was because his reputation preceded him, and one could almost hear their concern and curiosity: “The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Jesus entered Jerusalem with a reputation, like the prophets before him, as one who came in the tradition of speaking-truth-to-power; a tradition of using the prophet’s influence and of risking his own life for the sake of keeping the powerful accountable and of being a voice for the suffering.
Directly after entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus enters the Temple courts and begins driving people out with whips, overturning tables, and branding it a “den of robbers.” Given the social and political context discussed above, Jesus’ rebuke was clear: the Temple had become a den robbers as is conveyed in Jeremiah 7:11, where the rulers plunder people like bandits then seek refuge inside the Temple. The Temple, according to Jesus, had become a safehouse for injustice. Jesus and the Pharisees appear to have grievances with a common antagonist.
So, the question begs to be asked: if Jesus and the Pharisees shared similar ideas about the Temple, why was Jesus so harsh in some of his rebukes to the Pharisees? First, we must understand that the economic conservatives (those who wanted to maintain the economic status quo) of Jesus’ time were the Herodians and the Saduccean priestly aristocracy who controlled the land and the temple. The Pharisees, being astute teachers, understood that the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians and the Second Temple (their current temple) had been defiled by Antiochus IV — who sacrificed a pig on the alter just before raping and pillaging the countryside on his way back to Assyria. Thus, the Temple was no longer a safe representation of God’s sovereignty. Moreover, the Pharisees likely perceived that the Temple was being defiled with the interests of the Roman Empire, who allowed the Temple to exist only because the priests would make a sacrifice on Rome’s behalf. The Pharisees perceived that the Judean holy land and holy Temple were not safe from imperial control and/or desecration. Torah, however, their divine scriptures, were timeless and indestructable. In effect, the Pharisees sought to extract the power from the Temple priests and reorganize it in such a way that any man who was willing to join the Pharasaic program could be a priest as well.
As progressive as the Pharisaic religious ideas were in context, there is no evidence that they were successful at converting very many Judeans. First we must consider that the average Judean was likely not ready to give up the idea that the Temple was no longer the religious center of their faith. Their entire religious tradition had been rooted in the Temple’s authority and symbolic meaning. There was spiritual history to the Temple that many Judeans were not likely ready to give up. King Herod had invested decades worth of resources to upgrade the Temple that even the Roman’s were impressed with it’s beauty and grandeur, which likely added to Herod’s popularity amongst the Judeans in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside. The Temple was the nationalistic and religious representation of God’s authority in Judea and a symbolic reminder of their place as God’s chosen people. The Herodian elites and priestly aristocracy benefitted from such religious nationalism, yet cared very little for the poor and impoverished among them. Moreover, it was taught that the status quo and power hierarchies were put in place by God, and challenging those systems was akin to disobeying God’s commands. Religious subservience was one of many ways the elite retained their power in the ancient world, and first century Judea was no different. Many peasants believed they were born into abject poverty because God wanted them there. Many were taught that their plight was their punishment for past sins or the sins on of their forefathers. Conversely, many peasants believed the wealthy rulers of their time were similarly placed in their positions by God. Their luxurious lifestyles were a testament to God’s favor, demarcated by public rituals and a social pecking order.
While the Pharisees sought to transfer the power of the priesthood inside the temple to everyday Judeans, they retained the very ritualistic purity laws that were meant to create a social barrier to begin with. The Pharasaic program utilized the rituals and purity laws of the oppressor — as a result they failed to include the impoverished and suffering among them. The Pharisees focused more on teaching the men (and men only) among them to become little preists. Such a ritualistically cumbersome program was destined to fail among an illierate farming peasantry. The Pharasaic program retained purity laws that excluded women, lepers, foreigners, traitors, the mentally ill and others, because of a strict adherence to their ancient purity laws and priestly precepts. Moreover, peasant farmers who woked long days in the fields did not have the time nor the ability to study and implement such a rigorous program.
In short, the Pharisee’s radical redefinition of who can be a priest was coupled with burdensome ritualistic purity laws that were not reasonably acquirable. Their pool of potential converts was too small because they coupled their ministerial program with hierarchy and a patriarchal religious nationalism that excluded women, foreigners, the sick and the religiously impure.
Jesus had a different ministry. His response to the religious among him who were dividing each other up was radical inclusivity. Jesus’ ministry was built on the idea that women, foreigners, the religious outcasts, prostitutes, peasants, the mentally ill, the physically sick and deformed — the marginalized and fearful — were going to be the ones who prevail in God’s new kingdom. His disciples were instructed to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Given Jesus’ example, that prayer was not necessarily a submission to an otherworldly will, but a reminder of the responsibility that God’s people are responsisble for building such a kingdom.
When Jesus spoke to the Sadducees and their representatives (scribes and teachers of the law), he did so confidently with the assumption that he deserved equal honor. The Sadducean elite would have scoffed at the idea that a peasant was even capable of asserting himself, much less put up with one who ventured to speak at them with authority. Jesus’ love and exaltation of the poor and suffering as being superior to God than the wealthy and privileged was a direct threat to their power. Jesus’ teachings, parables and interactions are saturated with political meaning. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey and calling the Temple a safehouse for injustice were political protests. Jesus turned the religous hierarchy that shielded the wealthy priests and gave stability to Rome’s Empire upside down, and thousands followed him according to the gospels. Jesus was a voice for the marginalized in first century Judea, and that voice threatened the powerful the most because that power depended on the very oppression of those Jesus exalted. This is likely why the Pharisees disappear from the betrayal and crucifixion accounts in the synoptic gospels — they had no real motive to see Jesus crucified because they didn’t have political power. The Sadducees, however, likely sent their “scribes and teachers of the law” to question Jesus, who then reported that Jesus asserted himself as an equal amongst the social elite. They reported that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple (and rebuild it), they witnessed his populist following. If it were only religious blasphemy that Jesus was guilty of, then he would have likely been stoned to death like Stephen in Acts 7.
While it’s possible that the gospel stories tell the whole truth behind Rome’s influence in Jesus’ crucifixion; however, it is also possible that the gospel writers felt the need to pacify Pontius Pilate as a way to make Christianity more palatable to the Roman people who Paul was already evangelizing when the earliest gospels were being written. The historical record reveals a Pilate who ruled with an iron fist and had executed people for less, so it’s likely that the gospels were not giving the whole picture. In context, it was Pilate and Rome who made Jesus’ execution legal, and it was the local Judean aristocracy who had the connections to make it possible. Jesus’ message of love and inclusivity was then far too dangerous because far too many people benefitted from it. Jesus’ legacy ought to be viewed in light of the ancient struggle to keep the powerful among us accountable. Societies commit sin while the elite pull the necessary levers that will conserve their power. Perhaps that’s why modern democracies aren’t even immune from such power struggles, as religion and race are still being used to keep the impoverished divided.