If you aren’t careful, you might think Jesus never had anything to say about politics. Make a list of all the hot issues in American politics. Guns, immigration, minimum wage, LGBTQ, abortion, voter fraud/voter suppression, inflation, and on and on. Jesus didn’t say a word about any of them.
But that should be no surprise, because Jewish politics in the first century had nothing to do with any of those things. Jewish politics in the first century was concerned with exactly one thing—the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of Caesar
The issue was that Rome began its occupation of Palestine in 63 BC. When possible, it ruled through Jewish client kings and tetrarchs such as Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Herod Agrippa I. The rest of the time, it installed a Roman governor who ruled with the help of a few Jewish oligarchical families. That was the Kingdom of Caesar.
This sat badly with first-century Jews. The Roman governors were generally inept and brutal. The Jewish oligarchs who ran the Sanhedrin and the Temple were corrupt and used their power to enrich themselves and impoverish the regular people.
Messiah and the Kingdom of God
Most Jews looked to God for help. They believed the prophets had predicted a coming Kingdom of God, to be ruled over by an anointed king, a Messiah. This king would be a son of David, and he would drive out the foreigners. He would install himself as king, the visible representative on earth of God. In the Hebrew Bible, the Davidic king was sometimes called (metaphorically) a “son of God.”
This was not meant as a biological statement. It just meant the anointed king was God’s agent on earth to do his will. The Messiah would (with the help of God) establish justice for his people and punishment for the cruel foreigners.
Salvation From the Enemy
There was a word Jews had used for many hundreds of words to describe this happy event. The word they used was “salvation.” Salvation meant that their enemies were defeated. Salvation might come by military power. It might come through an act of God. But salvation always meant political and military victory for the people of God. This word runs all through the Hebrew Bible.
Salvation was not a purely personal event. It was a national event. The people of God were to be saved as a group. (Of course, not everyone would be saved. Only those who were part of the people of God would be saved, and so it was important to be part of the people of God. That was how any individual person could ensure they would ultimately be saved.)
Those Political Sadducees
The small group of oligarchs who collaborated with Rome were known as Sadducees. These were a few families of aristocratic priests. We know them from the Talmud and Josephus and the New Testament—five families who lived high on the hog while grinding their fellow Jews in the dirt under an iron boot.
In case you’re interested, the five families were these:
- The House of Boetus
- The House of Hanan
- The House of Qatros
- The House of Ishmael ben Phiabi
- The House of Hananyah
(If you’ve read my City of God series, you’re already familiar with several of these families.)
The trial of Jesus of Nazareth was run by two men from the House of Hanan: Hanan ben Set, and his son-in-law, Yoseph Qayaph. We know them by their English names, Annas the son of Seth, and Joseph Caiaphas.
And why were Sadducees running this trial? Why did they hand Jesus over to the Roman governor Pilate? Because that was their job. Rome ran all their unruly provinces by appointing oligarchs to keep the peace and report to the Roman governor. That was standard policy for Rome.
Those Political Pharisees
The main Jewish resistance to Rome came from a broad coalition known as the Pharisees. If you’ve read the New Testament, you’re familiar with them. The Pharisees were split into two main groups:
- The School of Hillel, who favored waiting for God to destroy Rome. He would soon send an angelic warrior, the Son of Man/Angel of the Lord, who would supernaturally defeat the enemies and establish the Kingdom of God.
- The School of Shammai, who favored an armed revolt against Rome now. A Messiah would call up an army and crush the enemies of God’s people (with help from God to strengthen the human hands holding the sword, of course.)
Ultimately, a splinter group of the School of Shammai broke off and became the Zealot faction that actually started the revolt against Rome in AD 66. This led to a brutal and bitter four-year war, which ended with Jerusalem crushed and the Temple burned.
After the Jewish Revolt, the Sadducees became irrelevant. The School of Shammai was blamed for the revolt and lost influence. The School of Hillel regrouped and created what we now call rabbinic Judaism, which has endured for nearly twenty centuries.
Following the policies of the School of Hillel, rabbinic Judaism has been non-militaristic ever since.
But in the first century, the School of Shammai held the upper hand, which is why the Jewish Revolt began in the first place.
Enter Jesus the Wild Card
Jesus walked into this explosive political matrix using words that every Jew of his time would have understood as political:
- The Kingdom of God
- Son of David
- Son of Man
- Son of God
Naturally, the Pharisees and Sadducees were interested, and they engaged with Jesus to see what he was about. It’s easy to read their debates with Jesus as solely about “religious stuff.” Yes, they talked about religious stuff, but religion and politics were thoroughly mixed together. Beneath all the “religious stuff” is a political subtext.
A basic thing the Pharisees wanted to know from Jesus was whether he meant to be the military deliverer they looked for—the Messiah (that is, the Son of God). Or alternatively, if he might call down the angelic warrior, the Son of Man. In either case, the Messiah or the Son of Man would bring salvation and establish the Kingdom of God. Because if that’s what Jesus was, then the Pharisees were all in with him. Religious quibbles are no big deal if a guy can deliver the political power.
The Sadducees were just as keenly interested to know if Jesus was the feared military deliverer who would wreck their cozy situation as oligarchs and collaborators. You can imagine their horror to hear Jesus castigate “the rich.” In all Judea, there were only a few dozen rich people. Virtually all of them were Sadducees. If Jesus was the Messiah, then the Sadducees were against him. Because religious questions are no big deal when money is at stake.
So the big question of the day was whether Jesus was the military guy that people desperately wanted (or desperately feared).
Jesus the Non-Political Messiah
But Jesus had no interest in being that military guy. His idea of conquering the enemy was by turning the enemy into a friend. Using nonviolent resistance tactics. Like loving your enemy. Going the second mile. Turning the cheek. Handing over all your clothes to your oppressor and walking away naked. Nobody had ever heard of such crazy ideas.
This was not good news for the Pharisees. A guy with supernatural power should use it to destroy the enemy, not turn the other cheek.
But the Sadducees didn’t much like Jesus either. Because he made it clear that the wealthy and powerful had no place in the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus said that judgment was coming for those who failed to feed the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.
The Wrong Sort of Politics and Economics
In a nutshell, Jesus had the wrong sort of politics and the wrong sort of economics. He was against violence and war and retribution, and that alienated the pro-war people. He was against massive economic inequality, and that alienated the wealthy oligarchs who controlled the system.
There was only way this story could end, and we all know how it fell out. Jesus saw it coming, but he took no steps to avoid it. He had options. He was popular with the people. He had power to do amazing things. He told his disciples he could call down legions of angelic warriors to fight on his behalf.
But he didn’t use his options. He did nothing to defend himself. He didn’t fight back. He responded to cruelty with kindness and love.
And that’s how he won.
PS: I’ve done a couple of recent TikTok videos on this which you might enjoy:
[…] Naturally, many people thought Jesus fit definition 10 quite well—a zealous Jewish nationalist intent on the overthrow of Rome. Most Pharisees probably fit this definition, but probably also a large number of non-Pharisees. (For more on politics in the time of Jesus, see my blog post Jesus and Politics.) […]