Wandering the savage garden…

Political structures of Judea, around the time of Christ

This is something I wrote up to summarize four of the political groups that were in Judea at the time of Christ.


Herod the Great took power in roughly 40 BCE, promoted by the Romans after he killed his father’s murderer. An Idumean, he was a practicing Jew, but Judaism looked down on proselytes in the first place (as can be seen in the constant admonitions to treat the proselyte as a Jew and not “as a convert”), and Herod’s tendency to brutality would have earned enmity in any case. Further, he cooperated with the Romans, seen as a foreign invader in Judea.

The Zadokim (Sadducees)

The Zadokim (Sadducees; Zadok was the high priest during the time of King David, and they traced their organization from that time, for a reason I will get to in a few paragraphs) were the priestly organization, made up primarily of Levites.

Their role in society was to maintain the Temple and sacrifices, those things required by Torah.

Their religious movement is marked by extreme conservatism; they believed literally in what the Torah said, with no additions and no subtractions except where required by clear circumstances. For example, the tabernacle was no longer maintained, nor was manna supplied by God, therefore the laws pertaining specifically to the tabernacle or the gathering of manna had no bearing.

The reason their conservatism was so strict? Josiah.

The biblical transmission loses a “chain of custody,” if you like, after King Mannasseh. The Torah was recognized but canon was fluid; there were competing traditions and canons, especially after the “evil kings.” When Josiah (“Yoshe-yahu,” another modern form would be “Joshua” or “Y’shua”) was made king at eight, the scriptures were found by priests behind the throne, if memory serves, along with the sword of Golyat (“Goliath,” which in English is “go-LIE-ath,” but in Hebrew “GOL-yat”); the Torah was canonized at this time, as were parts of the Nevi’im and Ketuvim (“Prophets” and “Writings,” respectively).

With the loss of this chain of custody, the Zadokim saw the Torah as a valid axiomatic base for their religion, but everything post-Mosaic was questionable (written and formed by man). The Deuteronomic code was acceptable, therefore, but everything else was Aggadah (“telling”), or pilpul (“foolish talk,” as you might describe the more fanciful of the prophets, even where such talk was beneficial to the Zadokim.)

I do not know why they took this reasoning, to be honest. If you applied this logically, you’d be stuck going back to Nechemyah, not Zadok; perhaps they felt Nechemyah was too recent, and needed more historical basis than the more contemporary rebuilder of Yerushalmi.

Perushim (Pharisees) and the Sanhedrin

The Perushim were “pure ones,” Hasids (not in the modern sense of Hasidism, but Hasid means “separated one”). They were a religious sect in Judaism, originally formed as a response to the Zadokim and the Roman occupation; in this sense, they were inheritors of the roles of the prophets in the life of Judea, and they took this role seriously (as well as accepting the prophets’ writings.)

Politically, they were seen as the people’s representatives, the “congress,” if you will, to the Zadokim “executive branch.” They weren’t populists, not in the sense that they catered to the will of the people, but they represented the people where the Zadokim and Herodians represented and preferred structures that preserved their position.

As a result, they were far more respected by the people than Herod or the Zadokim.

They formed a school, referred to as a synod; the school was headed by two rabbis, the “tannaim,” who were voted into position and could be deposed (which happened to even well-respected rabbis; it was a political position.) The school’s role was to interpret Jewish law; it could sentence men to death but not execute them, although they far preferred to avoid the death sentence (“if there is any reason to preserve life, one should take it,” which was a corollary of another law, itself derived from “thou shalt not lie in wait to murder,” or – if you like – “thou shalt not kill.”)

As the school gained respect and writings, it became more and more important as a governing body, and went from “a synod” to “the synodrion,” or “Sanhedrin.”

The Sanhedrin was not limited to the Perushim, although they dominated it; I’m not sure how many Zadokim would have been part of it, but it would have been a low number given the extreme conservatism of the Zadokim and the role of the Sanhedrin in applying Torah to new circumstances (i.e., “changing the law” by reinterpreting it in modern lights.) Zadokim were priests, not rabbis. “Rabbi” was a title whose beginnings were in the Perushim.

Religiously, as stated, they accepted the writings and prophets as canonical. As a result, their belief systems and writings were far more productive than the Zadokim; they believed in the resurrection of the dead, they believed that the people were chosen and made the Temple valuable to God. (This was a reaction to the Temple having been destroyed, after all; if the Temple was the point, why would Judaism not have ceased when the Temple was destroyed?)

The problems the Pharisees had were political and temporal.

The Romans had the power to shut down the processes of Judaism (which had happened more than once); this was acceptable to the Zadokim as appeasers, but not to the Pharisees, for whom God was sovereign and not Caesar. Politically, then, their goal was to restore autonomy to the region.

Temporally, they survived too long without actually inculcating their philosophy to the laity. As reformers, they had a credibility problem, therefore they were pressured into proving their validity; this was external validation, so they had to “practice what they preached,” and practiced it until the practice was all that they preached. Thus you saw the Perushim graduate from emphasizing personal worship of God to external worship of God, to the point where it was more important to appear worshipful than it was to actually be worshipful. “Practice what you preach” turned into “preach what you practice,” a curious inversion.

Jesus was a Hasid. He echoed very much what some of the influential Tannaim said; “do for others what you would have them do for you,” for example, is a positive form of Gamaliel’s “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” (This isn’t to diminish Jesus at all. It’s merely to illustrate how closely aligned early Christian social attitude was with early Pharisaic attitudes. The positive form, by the way, was an entirely new thing as far as I am able to determine.)

As I understand it, Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees was almost exactly what their problem was with the Zadokim; they felt the Zadokim had abandoned what Judaism was supposed to mean, and emphasized true reform. As they calcified, Jesus came and told them they, too, were abandoning what Judaism was meant to be.

Since they always had a credibility problem (and did until the Temple was destroyed), this was a severe blow to them, on a personal level.

Politically, remember, they wanted autonomy for Judah. Jesus, as a valid son of David, fit the requirements for the moschiach; however, they saw the political issue as the primary issue from which Israel needed salvation, so naturally they couldn’t understand a reformer who was telling them to reform, and in addition wasn’t willing to go along with their political goals.

What’s more, a reformer with popularity was asserting that political reform was not even the point! This would have been very much a threat to them, “from the inside,” if you will.

Where are the scribes?

Oh, yeah. The scribes. The scribes were historians, people who could write, duh. They were concerned primarily with the Sanhedrin (recording the Sanhedrin’s decisions and rulings, eventually forming the Talmud.) With Judaism having such an emphasis on history, one who recorded history was abnormally relevant. The scribes would have been mindful of anything that drastically changed history; their basis for conflict with Jesus would have been identical to the Pharisees. Their basis for discussion with Jesus would have been historical in nature (“what happened?”) as opposed to philosophical (“what does it mean?,” as the Sanhedrin would have asked.)

So what happened?

Much of this is well-known; the Pharisees and Sadducees turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, a bloody-minded governor much in line with Herod (Pilate was eventually relieved of duty over his fondness for crucifixions). The Sadducees did it because he threatened the Temple; the Pharisees did it because he didn’t threaten the Romans.

Eventually, revolts and rumors of revolts happened. Bar Kochba was proclaimed Moschiach by Rabbi Akiva (one of the Tannaim of the Sanhedrin, who had been deposed and restored into position; Akiva was martyred by the Romans, reciting the Sh’ma ecstatically as he was flayed to death, which creeped out the Romans quite a bit.) They threw out the Romans; Vespasian and his army came down to restore Judea to Rome (as a valuable trade route, in addition to the political aspect that says “you can’t leave us, we own you”). Vespasian was recalled to Rome to become Caesar, Titus took over his army and sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE, dispersing the people and destroying the Temple.

The Sanhedrin was destroyed as well; one Rabbi escaped (Yochanan ben Zakkai) in a coffin, and rebuilt religious Judaism in Jamnia. With the destruction of the Sadducees’ raison d’etre, as a religious body they had no purpose, and as a political body their tendency toward appeasement had obviously failed (which might be blamed on the Zealots, of course, but that doesn’t change the failure.) The Sadducees effectively disappeared from the face of Judaism at this point.

Modern Judaism owes almost everything it is today to the Perushim, from flexible interpretation of Torah to emphasis on personal religion, all the way to encoded behavior (which is why you can have practicing Jews who are atheists, for example.)


Originally published on January 17, 2012.

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