An Amazing Life: Jesus
and the Nozerim
Appendix XXI – Politics and Power in Judea
There can be little debate that the politics of first century (BCE and CE) Judaism were very complex – even by modern standards. But when you attempt to factor in the complexities of international involvement, royalty, and a highly diversified political scene, the whole matter becomes a confusing mess. As just one common example, trying to ascertain the division of power between the High Priest and the “King” is generally impossible – and it changed frequently. If we took a “snapshot” of the political scene in the year 30 BCE, we wouldn’t have a meaningful grasp of the major political forces in Judea unless we knew the following:
1. The “Ruler” was Herod, but he was a “puppet
king” of the Roman Empire.
His power originated from his friendly relationship with Mark Anthony – who
was about to die in a power struggle with Octavian (who would become Emperor a
couple of years later). Thus, Herod was very anxious to secure his power by
gaining the favor of Octavian with promises of loyalty and payment of taxes.
Herod’s political position was weakened by his lack of royal blood, his not
being fully Jewish, his being Idumaean (instead of Judean)
and his poor standing with neighboring Kings (especially with King Malichus
II of Nabatene and Queen Cleopatra VII - who had died with Anthony, but held
rights to major areas and products of Judea). Thus, Herod had no idea whether
Octavian would affirm his position or have him executed (as a friend of
Octavian’s enemy – Mark Anthony).
Meanwhile, Herod’s brother Pheroras and sister Salome plotted for their own
advantage and against the two sons of Mariamne.
“Rulers” of Judea had been the Hasmoneans and Herod attempted to bring their
power under his control by marrying a prominent Hasmonean Princess (Mariamne I,
his 2nd wife) and bringing the former King and High Priest, John
Hyrcanus II, into his Court. Unfortunately for Herod, his new mother-in-law
(Alexandra II) was powerful and conniving, as well as a close friend of
Cleopatra VII. A multi-decade feud between Herod’s family and the Hasmoneans
would wreak havoc on his Court, his marriages, and his successors. (In 36 BCE,
Alexandra had caused Herod to appoint her son Antigonus III as High Priest and
then to have Herod tried for the murder of Antigonus a year later).
“Anointed Rulers” of the Jews were the Davidic descendants – the family
line chosen by God to hold the throne. So even though a Davidic descendant had
not sat on the throne for many generations, it was almost universally accepted
among the Jews that anyone lacking Davidic lineage could not be a rightful ruler
of the Jews. It was very difficult to determine which of the many Davidic
descendants was the rightful heir to the throne, so Herod actively sought to
eliminate, exile, or control all possible male heirs while incorporating female
heirs into his family by marriage. (See Appendix VIII).
Since most of the possible Davidic heirs were competing for supremacy,
there was plenty of “behind the scenes” power-grabbing and back-stabbing –
all tempered by the fact that there was great risk in being the
“front-runner”. In the year 30 BCE, Herod was still encouraging the Davidic
princes to accept token positions in the government, but would soon begin their
“Religious Rulers” of the Jews were the priests, led by the designated High
Priest (“Kohen Gadol”). Since the Jews gave much more weight to their
religious leader than their political leaders, the designated High Priest was
very powerful and very carefully controlled by Herod. The ability of the High
Priest to stir the masses into revolt was evident from history and the
priesthood had its own small army (for policing and Temple security). In 30 BCE,
the High Priest was Jesus ben Phabi (Yehoshua
III), a person about whom we
know very little and this indicates how good a choice Herod had made.
served several purposes for Herod: it appeased many of the Jews who would have
viewed the appointment as a return of the rightful lineage to the High
Priesthood, it gave Herod great control over the priesthood since Jesus was
beholding to him, and it served as the basis for an alliance between the
Herodians and the Oniads (a wealthy family aligned with the Zaddokites – a
major religious faction sometimes confused with the Sadducees).
Judicial and Legislative Rulers of the Jews were the members (bouleutaí
/judges/senators/elders) of the
Great Sanhedrin (aka “synedrion”, “gerousía”, or “Beth-Din”),
a sixty-nine member body
(not including the two leaders) led by a Prince or (“Nasi”) – a position
sometimes held by the the High Priest). The “court” also had a powerful vice
chief (“Av Beit Din” = head of the house of law) who assumed even greater
prominence when the Nasi was the High Priest (and sometimes also “King”).
The Av Beit Din presided over the Sanhedrin when it met as a criminal court and
when it convened as a 23-member panel (the “Lesser Sanhedrin”) for
control over the Great Sanhedrin is clear – one of his first actions as king
was to kill almost all (45) of the opposition members and appoint replacements.
However, Herod was a master of knowing his limitations and he had allowed the
highly respected (and opposing) Shammai to remain a member (note below). In 30
BCE, Herod had appointed Yaakov
(Jacob) ben Mattat (a Davidic in
the Abuidite line) as “Nasi”
even though Jacob’s brothers were prominent Zealots (Hizkiah and Judas
"of Gamala"). Jacob’s oldest son was the Joseph (Yosef) who was
betrothed to Miriam, the orphaned grand-daughter of the High Priest Jesus III
about the year 8 BCE.
Intellectual (Rabbinical) leaders of the Jews held a special prominence during
this time. The Jews had a long history of favoring intellectuals and with so
much political turmoil and the spoiling of their religious leadership, they
turned to their academic community with even greater respect and for trusted
guidance. The intellectual community of Judaism during 30 BCE was dominated by
the Zugot (“pairs”) – a two century old tradition of having two opposing
views paired to debate religious issues.
The Zugot of Shemaiah and Abṭalion
ended with the reign of Herod and the emergence of a new prodigy named Hillel.
and Pharisees were the two major religious/political “parties” of the time
and the Sadducees were given control of the Sanhedrin by Herod. Their
divisiveness contributed to the atmosphere of “senseless hatred” which
prevailed and undermined the unity of the Jewish people. Many scholars
recognized the deteriorating effects of this divisiveness along with the yeridot
hadorot (“decline of the generations”) associated with Hellenization and a
justified distrust of the religious leaders. The Pharisees asked Hillel to
return from Babylon and become their leader. His scholarship was so highly
respected that he soon became Nasi (replacing Judah
ben-Bathyra) with Menehem
the Essene as his first Av Beit Din. The Sadducees subsequently appointed
Shammia as their leader (he became Av Beit Din) and the most famous (and last)
Zugot of Hillel-Shammai began.
purposes, the most significant results of this change were rabbinical – the
Pharisees were behind the movement to broaden Jewish scholarship outside the
priesthood and that movement was led by a cadre of teachers, sages, and judges
known as Rabbis and “scribes”.
This movement would have profound influence over the future of Judaism and
Christianity. (See Appendix XXII).
non-ruling political leaders of Judea were largely divided into two types -
economic leaders (aristocracy) and “party” or sect leaders. Wealth
translates into power (and often vice-versa), so the situation in Judea at 30
BCE was not much different than today – people with money had great influence
and power. The major differences between then and now have to do with the
closeness between wealth and ruling: the wealthiest people were necessarily
closer to the rulers and rulers simply had to be rich. Because markets were
closely regulated (or even assigned) and taxation was both a privilege and a
business, wealth was largely a negotiated balance and competition of favoritism,
nepotism, cronyism, and pragmatism (someone has to actually grow food and make
Romans “ruling the world”, great wealth was available to those who could
supply the Romans with things wanted or needed and the Judeans were masters of
this art. It is not surprising that the Jews of the time were skilled
entrepreneurs and arbitrageurs, as well as artisans, builders, and growers.
“Merchants” who were granted trade rights or monopolies by the Romans were
often as powerful as puppet kings (and in some cases were how people became
such). The Jewish aristocracy in Judea was comprised mostly of royalty, royal
friends, and Roman friends. Among the most powerful royal “friends” were
those given the tax franchises – a business dominated by the Tobiad family.
leaders existed within a full range of types: there were religious-political
type parties sanctioned or tolerated by Herod (such as the Sadducees and
Pharisees), political parties that were focused upon special interests and
accepted persuasive roles (Hellenists, Hasidæans, and Hasmoneans), and
political parties that were revolutionary (Zealots and Qumranians). There were
non-political parties that were focused upon religious matters (although those
interests often collided with political matters) such as the Essenes and
Nazoreans. There were quasi-political factions and sects that had historical,
economic, social or regional focus such as the Therapeutae, Samaritans,
Exilarchs, Alexandrians, and Rechobites. And, there were significant groups that
we have no names for, but which Josephus generally termed brigands (rebels,
robbers, and revolutionaries). In a few cases we know the names of leaders of
such groups and that they had profound economic and political effects.
power and politics were unquestionably more complex then than now – an era
where “might made right”. Two major differences during that period were the
ability of small armies to make big differences in the power structure and the
ability to put together a meaningful army from the general populace. Political
leaders were compelled to carefully control their military leadership (by
assuming direct control and dividing them up)
and most reached their position through military action. (Herod was both soldier
and general – taking an active role in military operations).
Even the great
Roman army had difficulty overcoming the major logistical difficulty of distance
and transportation (as indicated by their substantial investment in road
building). Thus, legions of Roman soldiers were quartered regionally in the hope
that such distribution would allow the squelching of revolts while they were
small. The leaders of these remote Roman units were carefully selected and quite
was a regional extension of the Roman army and Herod chose his military leaders
from Romans, relatives (such as his cousin Achiabus) and fellow Idumaeans. Thus,
although his army was comprised mostly of Jews, they were led by foreigners.
This was another major area of contention between Herod and his subjects and a
reason why Jewish soldiers remained “loyal” to the unpopular King. (Upon
Herod’s death, many of these Jewish soldiers joined the revolt which arose
from the masses).
Roman occupation coupled with the unpopular rule of Herod fueled the
“resistance movement” and we know that there were powerful militant groups
centered in Galilee throughout the period. Such groups could not have survived
without local assistance – whether voluntary or forced – and potent leaders.
From the time he assumed the throne until his death, Herod would battle these
insurgents and upon his death, they emerged with enough strength to capture the
armory at Sepphoris and require Roman intervention. At least four prominent
rebel leaders are recorded: Hezekiah, his son “Judas of Gamala”, Simon bar
Giora, and Eleazor ben Simon.
Interestingly, Hezekiah was the brother of Jacob bar Mattat (the grandfather of
Jesus), mentioned above, and therefore an uncle of Jesus.
bureaucratic structure of the time would probably seem all too familiar –
there were numerous officials and semi-official bureaucrats to deal with and, in
sum, they probably ruled more of the everyday lives of the Judeans than the
Romans, Herod, or the priests – especially in Jerusalem. Judea , Galilee and
other regions had their own governor and Jerusalem its own mayor (or mayors).
The Temple precincts had a strong Roman presence (mostly along the upper walls),
Herod’s army (roving patrols), the Temple guards (stationed at strategic
points and in roving patrols), and Temple priests charged with maintaining
order. The city had its own Sanhedrin to issue rulings, make judgments, and
settle disputes. There were numerous major building projects underway within the
city and there was a concerted effort to modernize the infrastructure (better
water access and systematic dung removal). Such things were expensive and
taxation and tithing provided the funds. Thus, there was an elaborate
infrastructure for assessing and collecting taxes.
was a franchise either given to cronies or sold to the highest bidder. One
family had established a partial monopoly on the business of tax collection –
the Tobiads. They made their profit in whatever taxes they could collect beyond
what they had bid to (or promised) the rulers and were wise to not appear overly
affluent. Nevertheless, they wielded great power at all levels. Another
“tax” came in the form of tithing (a part of which was paid to Herod). This
tax was made even more onerous because it had to be paid with special coins
purchased with an added exchange rate (the coin changers that Jesus opposed in
there were people with powerful ideas. While most are familiar with John the
and Jesus, they were not all that unique – we are aware of several other
persons who were highly influential because of their ideas.
Indeed, there were other messianic contenders,
other prominent teachers,
philosophers, healers, and rebels, and other social leaders who gained power
because of popularity or self-promotion.
 The Roman hierarchy placed Judea in the control ("jus gladii”) of the Syrian Legate, but since Herod had the title “Basileus” (Greek Βασιλεύς), he answered directly to the Imperator (Emperor).
 In a significant historical irony, Herod was probably saved because he was so busy meeting the demands of Cleopatra that he wasn’t able to assist Mark Anthony at the battle of Actium (31 BCE) where Octavian prevailed.
 Jesus ben Phabi succeeded Hananeel the Egyptian, Herod’s first and third appointee to the office. It is likely that the two were related – Phabi may have been the brother of Hananeel and served as his
 The Great Sanhedrin was a tribunal body consisting of three chambers: the Chamber of the Chief Priests; the Chamber of the Scribes; and the Chamber of the Elders (sometimes called counsellors). These three chambers were divided into 23 members each, which when combined constituted a body of 69 members.
 Jacob had represented Herod before Octavian (before he was made Emperor Augustus) at Rhodes and was credited with convincing the new Emperor to keep Herod as king even though he had supported Octavian’s rival Mark Antony until his death.
 Until Herod, the tradition had become that of having the Zugot stand at the at the head of the Sanhedrin – one as Nasi and the other as Av Beit Din. Since Herod’s restructuring of the Sanhedrin, the Zugot were still prominent as “schools”.
 The term scribe (skrīb) was used in different ways: earlier as a specific reference to the sopherin (counters of the Torah) and later to mean any quasi-official interpreter of the law. Scribes could be Sadducees, Pharisees, or belong to any group. We should not mistake the NT translations/interpretations in this regard as many do (Jesus referred to his followers who would go to proclaim the truth as "scribes" (Matt 23:34). Hillel, Nicodemus, and Gamaliel were scribes as was the young “ruler” who Jesus told "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God," (Mark 12:32-34).
 The Roman army had an incredibly “flat” hierarchy - the legion commanders (“legati”) reported directly to the head of the civil administration, usually a provincial governor or “legatus Augusti pro praetor”, who reported directly to the Emperor (there was no army general staff).
 Herod distrusted his family enough that he formed his royal bodyguard from German, Celtic, and Thracian mercenaries – one explanation for his longevity.
 While he was governor of Galilee (49-43 BCE), Herod had killed Hezekiah. Judas (Judah) of Gamala, also called Theudas was one of the many insurgent leaders who arose in Palestine shortly after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. He marched on Sepphoris with over 2,000 rebels, seized its arsenal and triumphed until Varus, the Roman legate, defeated him, burned Sepphoris to the ground, and sold its inhabitants into slavery.
 He denounced the Sadducees and Pharisees as a "generation of vipers," and warned them not to assume their heritage gave them special privilege. He warned tax collectors and soldiers against extortion and plunder. His doctrine and manner of life stirred interest, bringing people from all parts to see him on the banks of the Jordan River. (Luke 3:8).
 Such as Philo Judeaus of Alexandria.
 Such as Gamaliel the Elder, the grandson of Hillel and Simon Magnus.
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