Jesus Among the Religious and Political Groups of His Time


This is a companion piece to the last article I wrote and published: Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees So Much? The former article was inspired by 40 years of observation that Jesus was harshly critical of the Pharisees. His treatment of them virtually jumped off the pages at me when I first read the Gospels in college.

The Pharisees, though, were only one of the influential groups of Jews in First Century Judea. We see some evidence of Jesus rubbing shoulders with the other groups, but not nearly as much as Jesus engaged the Pharisees.

We might be tempted to assume that the Pharisees were particularly wicked and sinful – far more, perhaps, than the other groups Jesus encountered, but that isn’t so. Jesus was most like the Pharisees, and they were most like him, in their theological leanings and in the social circles in which they operated.

For that reason, I focused in my last article on the question: why was he so harsh towards them? I could have asked: why didn’t he pick on the other groups more?

In this article, I will explore the other groups and the difference between them and the Pharisees. I will send a little time pondering Jesus and the twelve apostles in relation to these groups and, perhaps, provide some insight as it strikes me.

First Century Judea was broadly possessed by two groups: the Jews, of course, and the Romans. The Jews had long lived in this land that God promised their ancestor, Abraham, and the Romans were the newcomers, the recent conquerors in a long line of challengers to the Jewish occupation of the land.

The five Jewish groups represent a spectrum of relational attitudes towards the Romans and each other in their religious and not-so-religious observances, lifestyles and attitudes. I will tackle them in order of their relationship to the Romans and their religious orientation.

Of all the groups, the Herodians were most politically aligned with Rome, and culturally absorbed into Hellenistic, Greco-Roman culture. The were wealthy, and powerful and only marginally religious. King Herod the Great had mikvehs in all his palaces (Jewish ritual cleansing baths), but he was a brutal and cruel man who was not likely a regular visitor at the Temple.

King Herod the Great was massively wealthy. He was the secular king of the Jews who partnered with Rome in control of the region. The Herodians were embedded in the commerce and political structure of Judean politics and commerce. Unlike the Pharisees and Zealots, who opposed Roman rule and longed for restoration of the kingdom of David, the Herodians were in bed with Rome and Greco-Roman culture.

The most prominent stories of the Herodians in the Gospels involved the interaction of King Herod the Great with the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem (prompting Herod to kill the adult babies in Bethlehem) and John the Baptist, who was critical of Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod, the Great for divorcing his wife.

Jesus did speak against the Herodians, but Jesus mostly lumped the Herodians in with the Pharisees. The Herodians aligned with the Pharisees against Jesus (an unlikely alignment), but the Herodians were more distant from Jesus and interacted with him on the shirttails of the Pharisees. We don’t see much direct interaction, and we don’t see Jesus addressing them separately from the Pharisees.

This is probably a result of the fact that Jesus and the Pharisees did not circulate in the social and political sphere of the Herodians. Jesus and the Pharisees lived and operated among the common people of Judea.

The Sadducees were also associated politically with Rome. They were high priests and religious elites in First Century Judea who ascended to their priestly positions in the previous century.

They were the descendants of the priestly order. They were in control of the Temple and Temple worship. The Sadducees were an elite, wealthy and influential group that blended in with Roman rule. They were the religious leaders officially recognized by Rome.

The Sadducees were religiously conservative. They rejected the authority of the Prophets and writings outside the Torah. They rejected the idea of a resurrection. They did not believe in the afterlife, and supernatural forces and demons. The religious views of the Sadducees were opposed to the more “progressive” views of the Pharisees, but they also aligned with the Pharisees in opposition to Jesus.

Jesus engaged with them, and they engaged with Jesus, but the Sadducees are mentioned by name only 8 times in the Gospels. John the Baptist mentions them (with the Pharisees) at the baptism of Jesus. (Matt. 3:7-10 & Luke 3:7-9) The Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge him on the issue of resurrection. (Matt. 22:23-34; Mark 12:18-27; & Luke 20:27-40) Jesus mentioned the Sadducees (with the Pharisees) when he warned his followers to beware of their leaven. (Matt. 16:1-12).

These are the only times the Sadducees are mentioned by name in the Gospels (though they are referenced in other passages that don’t identify them by name). We only see the Sadducees engaging Jesus alone (without the Pharisees) in one encounter. Jesus only engaged with the Sadducees twice: once alone and once in a combined reference to the Sadducees with the Pharisees. The only other time the Sadducees are mentioned in the Gospels is by John the Baptist.

It makes sense that Jesus didn’t engage more with the Sadducees, or they with Jesus, because Jesus engaged mostly with common people. He recruited common people. Common people flocked to him, but the elite, wealthy, and influential people generally kept their distance. They little use for Jesus or interest him, other than the potential threat of his popularity with the crowds.

The Pharisees would come next on the spectrum. More religious than political, and more aligned against the Romans than with them, I focused on them in the previous article pondering the question: Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees So Much?

Thus, I won’t address them other than to observe that they were more focused on their religious devotion than political engagement. Though they didn’t like the Romans, they didn’t openly oppose them. They focused, instead, on their ritual devotion to God and popular influence on the daily spiritual life in local Judean communities.

The Zealots are are next on the spectrum. The Zealots, of course, were a militant group of agitators who openly engaged the Romans in violent conflict. Their aim was to restore Jewish rule over the promised land and to drive the Roman imposters out. The Zealots were more political than religious.

The only reference to Zealots in the Gospels is to distinguish Simon (the Zealot) from Simon (Peter). The only other place we find references to Zealots in the New Testament is in the Book of Acts. We don’t see Jesus engaging with the Zealots or the Zealots engaging by name with him.

The Essenes are the last group. Though some people speculate that Jesus was influenced by the Essenes, or spent time with the Essenes, or even influenced the Essenes, Scripture provides us no record of that.

The Gospels reveal no express link to the Essenes, and we see no engagement by Jesus with the Essenes. The Essenes are not even mentioned by name in the Gospels.

Some people speculate that John the Baptist was an Essene and was raised in the Essene community. The Gospels, however, reveal no such connection. The Essenes lived an austere life out in desert among the caves of Qumran, far from the hustle and bustle of First Century life. Their separatist existence seems to have separated them from the activity and ministry of Jesus, which was lived out among the people in the communities of Judea.

As I researched the various groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century, I began to think about also the apostles, and their connections to these groups. That topic, however, will have to wait for a future article.

My point in getting more familiar with the five main groups of Jewish leaders in the time of Jesus is to focus on the one group with which Jesus interacted most – the Pharisees. I wanted to gain more insight into why it was that Jesus interacted most with them, and why he focused most of his criticism on them.

The two groups engaged most were the Sadducees and Pharisees, two of the three religiously orientated groups. The Essenes being the third, but Jesus didn’t engage with the Essenes at all (at least not as recorded in the New Testament).

These facts remind of the way Jesus described himself and his followers: not of the world, but sent into it. Jesus didn’t remove Himself from the hustle and bustle of every day life. He didn’t go out to the Qumran caves; he engaged the crowds, and he engaged the religious community in the midst of the community.

The one group we haven’t yet focused on is the Romans. Jesus really didn’t engage with the Romans as a group, but he did engage with individuals as they engaged with him. Jesus had next to nothing to say about the Romans (unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees), but he didn’t avoid them when Roman individuals came to him.

Jesus also didn’t engage the Zealots whose focus was political opposition to the Romans. Jesus really didn’t engage the Herodians either. Jesus didn’t engage the secular or political groups, though he may have engaged individuals in all groups.

Jesus engaged the religious community most. As John says, God became incarnate and came to “his own”. (John 1: 11) Though they largely didn’t receive him, and he engaged those who did receive him. (John 1:12)

What does all this mean?

If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be like him, we should consider ourselves not of this world, but sent into it to engage whoever is willing to receive what we have to give – the word of God, the Gospel.

We do not see Jesus engaged much in the political, economic, or secular components of First Century Palestinian life, other to engage the individuals he met along the way. Jesus was highly social, but he wasn’t highly political. He was highly engaged with the religious people of his day, but he didn’t appear to be highly “religious”.

What do you see? What do you make of the way Jesus interacted with the different groups? Some more and some much less. In my next article, if I can keep my focus on this train of thought, will be to focus on the apostles and followers of Jesus to see what other insight can be gained thereby.

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