When I was a kid listening to the stories about Jesus, a mysterious group of “bad guys” kept cropping up. They went by various labels. Here’s a list, which I’m sure you’ll find familiar:
- The council
- Chief priests
- Teachers of the law
Some Synonyms and Definitions
The New Testament doesn’t define any of these terms. The authors expected people to know what they meant. The terms have a lot of overlap, and some of them are essentially synonyms. Here’s my best attempt to explain what these terms meant and which are synonyms:
- Elders = The Council = Rulers. This group is sometimes called the Sanhedrin, and you’ve probably heard there were exactly 70 of these and they had very strict rules. I don’t know of any evidence from the first century that the Sanhedrin had exactly 70 members. I don’t know of any first-century sources that spell out the rules of the organization. Rabbinic writings from the second to sixth centuries give a lot of details about the Sanhedrin that probably aren’t historical. You may have heard preachers say that the night trial of Jesus violated many of the rules of the Sanhedrin as spelled out in the Talmud. This is irrelevant, because the Talmud dates to hundreds of years after the time of Jesus, and we have no idea what the rules of the actual ruling council might have been.
- Chief priests = Sadducees. This is almost exact, but not quite. To be more precise, there were certain high offices in the Temple (the high priest, the Captain of the Temple, etc.) who were drawn from a small number of aristocratic priestly families. It appears that all or most of these families belonged to an ultra-conservative religious sect called the Sadducees. So the more accurate statement is that the chief priests were a subset of the Sadducees. It’s very likely that the ruling council was dominated by men from the chief priestly families, but it also included some men who were not priests but were merely wealthy.
- Teachers of the law = Scribes. This is not an exact equation either, but it’s a useful rule of thumb. Technically, a scribe was somebody who could read and write. The teachers of the law were a subset of this group who were experts in the Torah and were remembered in later centuries as rabbis. When the New Testament talks about scribes, it probably means the teachers of the law. Note that in the first century, a rabbi was an informal term, not a technical term—there was no ordination ceremony to become a rabbi. The lines were fuzzy. Some people considered Jesus of Nazareth a rabbi and a teacher, but it looks like some did not.
- Pharisees were people who held to more liberal religious beliefs than the Sadducees. They were known for their small groups who met together to eat in careful observance of Torah. Not all Pharisees were educated, but some of them were, and these were the natural leaders. It appears that most of the rabbis/scribes/teachers-of-the-law considered themselves Pharisees, but the great majority of the Pharisees were not well-educated.
- Herodians were people within or close to the family of Herod the Great, who ruled as king of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Perea, Idumea, and Batanea for the last several decades leading up to the birth of Jesus. Herod died in the year 4 BC, and some of his descendants continued to rule over various domains for a good 70 years after his death. Some of these are mentioned in the New Testament—his sons Archelaus and Antipas and Philip, his grandson Agrippa I, and his great-grandson Agrippa II. These men and their court were called Herodians, and some of them were extremely wealthy and held enormous power.
Money, Power, and Religion
What these groups have in common is that almost all of them were elites in some way—either they were wealthy, or they held political power, or they were religious leaders. (The only exceptions were the Pharisees; most of them were ordinary people. But a few of them were wealthy or powerful or religious leaders, and those are the ones who play a role in the New Testament stories.)
It’s useful to remember that, in the Roman empire, money and political power usually went together. In Rome, most of the political power was in the hands of the Senate, and senators were exclusively wealthy men. And Rome ruled most of its Empire by assigning political power to local rich people.
So when Rome added Judea to the Empire in the year 63 BC, they assigned local wealthy Jews to manage Judea internally. But they did that in two different ways.
Jewish Client Kings or Roman Governors
One way that Rome used to manage Judea was by appointing “client kings”. Herod the Great was a Jewish client king. He ruled Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, Batanea, and Perea from his throne in Jerusalem. But all his authority came from Rome. Herod chose the chief priests who managed the Temple. These were all from a small number of wealthy priestly families.
Client kings worked well when they worked, but they had a bad habit of dying. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, the Roman emperor Augustus broke up his kingdom into three parts and handed off each part to one of Herod’s sons. Two of them managed well enough for the next few decades, but the son who managed Judea (which included Jerusalem) botched things badly.
This forced the Romans to go to Plan B for Judea—Roman governors. Typically, these were somewhat wealthy Roman men who were put in office for a few years. They did NOT rule from Jerusalem. Instead, they lived in Caesarea, on the coast, and chose chief priests to manage the Temple.
For a few years, from AD 37 to 44, the Romans appointed a new client king to rule over Jerusalem again. This was Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. Agrippa was popular, but he died suddenly (he may have been poisoned) in the year AD 44. After that, Rome again reverted to plan B by appointing Roman governors. And a number of these were incompetent.
The Ruling Council
The net result was that during the first century, Jerusalem was managed mostly by the ruling council—chief priests and other wealthy Jewish men living in Jerusalem.
And who were these men? What do we know about them? How many of them were there? Do we know their names?
We can estimate their number roughly by a simple math trick. Most societies on earth have wealth distributed by the 80/20 rule—80% of the wealth is in the hands of 20% of the population. And the 80/20 rule applies to the top 20%, so that 64% of the wealth is in the hands of the top 4%. And the same rule applies to the top 4%, so that roughly 50% of the wealth is in the hands of the top 1%.
The population of Jerusalem in the first century was about 30,000 people at any given time. If we estimate that half were adults, and half of that half were men, then Jerusalem was home to about 7500 men. And 1% of 7500 is 75. This is a rough estimate, but it’s safe to say that the ruling class in Jerusalem was between 50 and 100 wealthy men at any given time. So it’s actually plausible to say that the Sanhedrin had about 70 members. It would be a mistake to claim that this number is anywhere close to exact.
Names, Names, Names
And do these weathy rulers have names? Yes, they do. We have two main first-century sources of information for Jerusalem—the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, and the New Testament. We also have the rabbinic writings from later centuries—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmud. All of these provide us with some names, but not very many.
I have a document on my hard drive that lists most of the elites who lived in Jerusalem in the first century. In this document, I count the following number of names for these groups:
- Chief Priests/Sadducees: 27 men
- Rulers/elders who were not priests: 18 men
- Herodians: 9 men and 1 woman
- Teachers of the law/scribes: 20 men
My lists are not complete, but I think I got most of the elites named in our sources.
And the very strange fact is that the names we have are only a small fraction of the total number of aristocrats who lived in Jerusalem in the first century.
The Nameless Aristocrats
A little math is in order here. I estimated above that at any given time, there were 50 to 100 adult members of the wealthy ruling class living in Jerusalem. But life expectancy was short in those days, so the older generation tended to die off and younger men stepped in to fill their shoes.
A reasonable turnover time would be about 25 years. So in the 70 years of the first century leading up to the end of the Jewish Revolt, there were about three distinct generations. That amounts to 150 to 300 rich men eligible to serve as either chief priests or rulers. But my list contains only 27 chief priests and 18 other rulers, for a total of 45.
This means that there were somewhere between 100 and 250 aristocrats in first-century Jerusalem whose names are lost to us. To put it another way, somewhere between 65% and 85% of all the chief priests and rulers in first-century Jerusalem are unknown to us.
It’s harder to estimate the total number of Herodians there might have been, or the number of teachers of the law, but I would think there must have been at least 50 Herodians and 100 teachers of the law. Yet my list contains only 10 Herodians and 20 teachers of the law. So it looks like at least 80% of both groups are unknown.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
When reading the New Testament or Josephus or the rabbinic writings, it’s helpful to remember that there are huge gaps in our knowledge.
We don’t know most of the major players. We know hardly any of the minor players. We have stretches of several years at a time where we don’t have much idea what actually happened in Jerusalem or Galilee. The historical record is thin, and the archaeological record is thinner.
We don’t know much, and we definitely don’t know what we don’t know. So a little humility is in order when reading these ancient texts.