The Religious and Political Challanges to Jesus: What is Their Background?

Posted: February 12, 2014 in History, Theology

pharisees2 Have you ever wondered why Jesus had the disputes he had with the Pharisees? Who were these guys? What about the Sadducees? Was it the Romans that crucified Jesus? Or was it the Jews? What did the high priest have to do with it? Why did Jewish culture of Jesus’ life look so different from that which we read in the Old Testament?

So many of these important questions are answered by the history that precedes the life of Christ. Yet so many of us have no understanding of that history; therefore, we are somewhat ignorant of Jesus’ interactions with the Jews. If we can’t understand what was going on during the 1st century BC & AD, we will be limited in our understanding of Jesus’ life. So here is a brief history lesson.

To begin, Palestine (inclusive of the regions traveled by Jesus) was heavily influenced by Greek culture. This was due primarily to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 330’s B.C throughout the Middle East. In a period of thee and one half years, Alexander conquered the whole of the Middle East, including places such as Troy, Persia, and Egypt, bringing with him the Hellenistic (another word for Greek) way of life. However, this Greek way of life – with its polytheism and secular philosophy – was opposed to much of Judaism. Fortunately for the Jews, Alexander did not impose this way of life on them and allowed them to practice their religion freely. Despite his lack of force in imposing Greek culture upon the Jews, Hellenistic culture still permeated Palestine, creating two distinct Jewish parties – those who assimilated into Hellenistic culture (Sadducees) and those who resisted it (Pharisees).

After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., the Ptolomies of Egypt ruled Palestine until 198 B.C., at which time the Seleucids of Syria took control, imposing Greek culture upon the Jews with a heavy hand. This suppression led to the Maccabean revolt of 167 B.C., which resulted in the cleansing of the temple from pagan influence and the driving out of the Seleucids, restoring local authority to the Jews. Having regained some political power, yet being without a king since 586 B.C., the Jews thrust the High Priest into a position of political authority, turning a once sacred religious office into a corrupt political one. In 63 B.C., the Romans took control of Palestine to stabilize that region of the Middle East. They gave power to the Sanhedrin, a ruling body of mostly Sadducees, and placed the High Priest as chairman over the group. It is precisely at this point of history that the Lord Jesus was born into the region of Palestine.

So who were these groups referred to as Pharisees and Sadducees? How did they form? Who were they comprised of?

As in any culture, local religious and political tensions abounded in Palestine during the life of Christ. The most prominent of these tensions began during the Seleucid control of the region. As mentioned above, the Seleucids sought to impose Hellenistic culture upon the Jews, leaving the Jews with only two options: resist or assimilate. These two options led to the two dominate parties of Palestine, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees, comprised of mostly middle class laymen, took a separatist stance toward Hellenism. Given their lack of control in the temple, they instituted the synagogue system throughout the region, preaching a very legalistic interpretation of the Torah. The exercised control over the masses of people – especially those outside Jerusalem – by centering religious life around their teachings in the synagogue (think very small country church). Consequently, this is why you see Jesus often teaching in synagogues, of which there were over 1000 in the region.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, took an accommodating stance toward Hellenism. After the assimilation of Greek religious and philosophical thought, the Sadducees cared more for political power than religious purity. Controlling the temple, they viewed the priesthood as a means to power more than a means to God. And after Rome took control of the region and placed the Sadducees at the top of the local political food chain, they got their stamp of approval for power. When your service to God becomes a means to power, corruptions quickly ensues, and this is exactly what happened.

Both groups ultimately felt threatened by Jesus. The Pharisees feared losing religious control, as Jesus was claiming authority over their man-made interpretations and application of the law. The Sadducees feared losing political control because Jesus claimed he was God and Lord over all. From the perspective of human events, these tensions ultimately led to the death of Christ.

It is amazing how a brief and simple understanding of history can greatly enrich your understanding of the life and times of our Lord.


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