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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[1]. 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)[2]. Meanwhile, Herod’s brother Pheroras and sister Salome plotted for their own advantage and against the two sons of Mariamne.

2. The “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).

3. The “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 systematic elimination.

4. The “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.

This appointment[3] 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).

5. The 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[4] (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 day-to-day operation.

Herod’s 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”[5] 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. 

6. The 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[6]. The Zugot of Shemaiah and Abalion ended with the reign of Herod and the emergence of a new prodigy named Hillel.

The Sadducees 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.

For our 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”[7]. This movement would have profound influence over the future of Judaism and Christianity. (See Appendix XXII).

7. The 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 things).

With the 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.

Party (sect) 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.

8. Military 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)[8] 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 powerful.

Herod’s army 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[9]. 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).

The hated 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[10]. Interestingly, Hezekiah was the brother of Jacob bar Mattat (the grandfather of Jesus), mentioned above, and therefore an uncle of Jesus.

9. The 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.

Tax collection 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 the Temple).

10. Finally, there were people with powerful ideas. While most are familiar with John the Baptist[11] and Jesus, they were not all that unique – we are aware of several other persons who were highly influential because of their ideas[12]. Indeed, there were other messianic contenders[13], other prominent teachers[14], philosophers, healers, and rebels, and other social leaders who gained power because of popularity or self-promotion.








[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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”.

[7] 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).

[8] 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).

[9] Herod distrusted his family enough that he formed his royal bodyguard from German, Celtic, and Thracian mercenaries – one explanation for his longevity.

[10] 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.

[11] 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).

[12] Such as Philo Judeaus of Alexandria.

[13] Simon of Peraea (aka Simon bar Joseph) – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_of_Peraea and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_messianic_claimants.

[14] Such as Gamaliel the Elder, the grandson of Hillel and Simon Magnus.


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