Politics in the Time of Jesus
“The greatest sin of political imagination: Thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today.” (Shane Claiborne)
To begin with, Jesus was a Jew. That part gets overlooked more often than it should. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and that had an effect on how he behaved. He knew he was operating in a Jewish political milieu. So, I'd like to help us figure out what that political situation looked like, and how it affected Jesus' message and behavior.
The Jewish people had been under foreign occupation for centuries by the time Jesus arrived. Beginning in 586BC, the nation of Israel had been passed around like a hot potato -- from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Medo-Persians to the Greeks and, finally, to the Romans. It was a highly strategically-placed piece of real estate -- with two major trade routes running through the land. Anyone who wanted to get anywhere had to travel through Israel.
I believe this is why God placed them there. It's certainly why foreign powers were interested in that particular spot. More on that another time.
The Jewish people wanted to be free, to live in their own land without foreign interference. No one likes to be occupied and dominated, but this was something more. Jewish people considered it some kind of affront that Gentile nations ruled over people who believed in the one, true God. They couldn't figure out why this was allowed. That question grew more and more intense as Romans attached to their Emperors titles like "The Divine Augustus Caesar".
There was never a concept like the "separation of church and state" for them, but they couldn't imagine why their God would allow their "state" to be fused with the wrong "church".
Various groups forged various answers. The Zealots, for example, suggested that they were being oppressed because they had grown passive and lazy. Perhaps if the people could shake off their fear and apathy, if they would rebel against their oppressors, God would grant them victory -- like he had given the little shepherd boy David against the mighty giant Goliath. Then the whole world would know that there is a God in Israel!
On the other hand, Herodians and Sadducees thought this was naive at best and suicidal at worst. They figured there was some other lesson to be learned -- perhaps about how to cooperate with your captors. Go along to get along. Make the best of the situation. Play the game and figure out the politics.
The Essenes thought both of those solutions were too focused on the material world. They believed that geo-political systems were inherently and irretrievably corrupt and should be shunned altogether. Their solution was to withdraw from the world as they knew it and build an alternative communal society out in the wilderness.
The Pharisees disagreed with all of the above. They believed this was all some sort of divine punishment. They believed that if everyone would just obey the law meticulously enough, God would send them a Deliverer -- a Messiah -- who would liberate his people. There were actually some who taught that if everyone in Israel would keep the law in its entirety for one day -- if they could go one day with no one committing a single sin -- the Messiah would appear and set things right. This is why they detested sinners -- hookers, drunks, Roman collaborators -- so much. These lowlifes were the reason everyone else is suffering under an oppressive and ungodly government.
These were the major groups vying for political power in the time of Jesus. Much like the political parties of our day, they argued and pointed fingers at one another. They spoke past one another. They were committed not only to forwarding their own agenda but defeating the agenda of their opponents. Alliances were formed. Promises were made. Talks would break down. Bonds would dissolve.
The Zealots would carry out an act of terrorism. The Herodians would denounce it immediately, vowing their allegiance to Rome and saying, "These are the actions of a fringe group of radical fundamentalists. They do not represent the majority of peace-loving, law-abiding Jewish people everywhere." The Essenes would use this as a justification to retreat and withdraw further into themselves. The Pharisees would scold everyone and say this is God's punishment for tolerating the sexually promiscuous in our midst, "We need stricter laws about what goes on in people's bedrooms. And on the Sabbath -- maybe we should forbid the sale of wine before noon on the Sabbath!"
The question that nagged at the hearts and minds of the general population of Israel was this: "Which of these groups is correct? We're in a political and social mess, but which solution is the best? How do we get free from the oppression of the Roman empire?"
These are political questions. And it's into this mix that a carpenter's son named Jesus begins preaching -- first to just a few but soon to thousands of people.
Now...what's he going to say?
Photo Credit: Louis Moncouyoux