history What Was The Political Situation In Jerusalem Like When Jesus Arrived?  

Christopher Myers
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Let's face facts: Jesus was, and continues to be one of the most influential people in history. Seriously, just look at these Jesus-based memes. We're still talking about the dude some 2,000 years later! Unfortunately, if you are going to make an impact like that, you are bound to piss off a lot of powerful people during your time here on Earth. The Son of God was no exception to the age old rule, "Haters gonna hate."

Crucifixion was not a one-time sort of thing for the Romans. Like many other governments throughout history, publicly displaying bodies was their way of saying, "Shut up and obey me."

So what exactly was going on in the Roman Empire that a guy who pretty much went around preaching, "Don't be a dick to each other" wound up executed in the most brutal of fashions? It turns out, there was more to it that most of us realize.

The politics in biblical times are a bit complicated, and are too frequently glossed over when people talk about Jesus. People are in it for the miracles and forgiveness, but sort of forget that Jesus was actually a pretty radical guy.

Middle Eastern political history has typically been mired in conflict, and there is a reason people there always seem to be fighting over something. In order to understand the meaning of the Bible, it is important to understand the history behind it. So here is the breakdown of what was going on in Jerusalem when Jesus rode in for the last, fateful time.

Jews Were Excited For A Messiah, They Just Weren't Hyped On Jesus

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When the Jews thought of a Messiah, they were kind of hoping for a second King David. That is, someone who would ride in on a raptor brandishing a flaming sword and give the Romans the boot. Though Rome allowed some autonomy for local rulers like Herod Antipas, ultimately the provinces of Israel belonged to the Romans. The Jews fiercely hoped for a military messiah, a vengeful Old Testament lion who could free them from their literal and symbolic subjugation to Caesar.

These local rulers would also have a Roman counterpart: enter Pontius Pilate. So, in preparation for the masses arriving for the Passover feast, Pontius Pilate rode in with some extra muscle to keep the rowdy Jews in line, which the locals definitely didn't appreciate.

So right when the Jews were primed for a God-given military to act as a geopolitical lion, they instead got a lamb preaching forgiveness riding in on an ass, healing people, and telling them to love each other. Jesus was nice and all, but that wasn't exactly the fire and brimstone they were hoping for.

Eighty Years Of Jewish Independence Ended Less Than 100 Years Earlier

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From the successful Maccabean Revolt up until the conquest of the Romans in 63 BC, the Jewish people enjoyed the last period of independence they would see until the establishment of Israel after WWII. They were pretty stoked on it, and over those 80 years they really developed a taste for the whole thing.

Thus, when the Romans rolled through and took the place over it really bummed everyone out. By the time Christ came along, there were many apocryphal cults developing within the Jewish community expecting a Messiah to rise up and kick the Romans to the curb.

This period of independence, called the Hasmonean Dynasty, was not all roses and sunshine, however. Relations between the Samaritans and the Jews deteriorated. The Samaritans were basically permanent resident aliens in Israel. They considered themselves followers of "the God of Israel," but their religion was a bit different from traditional Judaism.

The Jews weren't supposed to intermarry with them, but they did. Think of it as similar to the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing. Well, when Hasmonean King Hyrcanus destroyed a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, it set interfaith relations back a bit.

Over time, the values of the Maccabean Revolt were pretty much forgotten by the Hasmonean rulers. By the rule of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), the Hasmoneans were promoting Hellenization. As a backlash to this, the Pharisees emerged to promote a return to the Jewish Law.

In one instance, Jannaeus had 800 of the Pharisees who opposed his rule crucified. So the political parties were basically the Pharisees who promoted Jewish tradition and the Sadducees who promoted Hellenization. Then, Jesus rose up as a third party candidate.

The Upper Crust Had Fancy New Uptown Digs

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The aristocracy of Jerusalem consisted largely of the Pharisees and other religious authorities at this time, and Herod the Great had just built them the ancient world's equivalent of Beverly Hills.

It was called the Upper City, and it was located right next to Herod's Palace on Mount Zion. This place was the height of opulence, i.e. where the rich people lived. Those rich people just so happened to include the Jewish religious authorities, a fact that Jesus took keen note of.

The Maccabean Revolt Was Brutal And Contentious

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Leading up to the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC, the then ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes did pretty much everything possible to piss off the Jewish people. Antiochus was the Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire, of which Israel was a part of. The important thing, though, is that Antiochus went all-in on trying to Hellenize the Jews (make them more like the Greeks).

Up to this point, the Jews had pretty much been allowed to practice their religious traditions more or less freely. Under Antiochus, however, life become much more difficult. The dude literally renamed the temple in Jerusalem for Zeus and set up a pagan alter there to sacrifice pigs on.

Add to that the fact that he raided the temple not once but twice, stealing ancient artifacts and treasures worth the ancient equivalent of billions. Oh yeah, he also allegedly massacred 40,000 Jews in a day. So that was obviously not great. 

The stage was set for the pushed-way-too-far Jews to go John Wick on this guy. The Maccabean Revolt would end up being successful, restoring independence to Israel. It is in remembrance of this that Hanukah is celebrated.

The whole series of events, however, left a deep rift between the Jewish community and their gentile neighbors. They freakin' hated each other. This fact is critically important to understand when talking about the ministry of Jesus, who pretty much was telling the Jews to get over it and "love thy neighbor."

A Brand-Spankin-New Temple Was Under Construction

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The Temple in Jerusalem, the earthly dwelling place of God, was kind of a big deal. Seeing its political and religious importance, Herod the Great decided to rebuild it from the ground up and make it huge and fancy in the process. This place was like a capital building, cathedral, and football stadium all rolled into one. Thus, Herod really wanted to make it great again (and in doing so make Judea and himself great as well). 

The construction was a massive undertaking, though, and it continued long after Herod the Great's death. In fact, it was still underway when Christ came to town. So when Jesus said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, that raised a whole lot of eyebrows. Naturally, they didn't understand what he really meant.

The Jewish Local Government Was Pretty Shifty

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This was the Jewish court system during the time of Jesus and it was controlled by the Pharisees. It consisted of 71 Rabbi who passed judgment on criminals that came before them. It ruled on both civil and religious violations of law. This was the council that Jesus was brought before. They lost the ability to impose capital punishment in 30 AD, which is why they ultimately had to seek out Pilate in order to condemn Jesus to death.

The council did not initiate arrests, but it did function to try the accused. There were no attorneys, but instead witnesses were called against the accused, and the accused could call witnesses of their own. The generally did not convene during the Sabbath, festivals, or the eve of festivals, which was the first thing strange about Jesus' trial. The second was that it convened in the middle of the night, when not all of the members were present. It kind of reminds one of Congress, come to think of it.

A Ton Of People Were Visiting The City For Passover

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It is important to note that many people visited Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Many as in millions, which is insanely impressive for ancient times. With all these people staying with relatives or just camping out, the city's population spilled out into the surrounding countryside.

Not only were the logistics of maintaining civil order in such a scenario staggering, if you wanted to start a revolt this was the time and place to do it. No doubt, the Romans were keenly aware of this situation, shown by the extra military presence in the city at the time.

In 63 BC, Rome Was (Sort Of) Invited In

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The Roman dominance over Israel actually started with a fight over succession rights between the two sons of Hasmonian ruler Alexandra. Both of them appealed to Rome for assistance since, well, Rome was the big power player in the area. Rome obliged them, with General Pompey invading Jerusalem and profaning the temple. That probably wasn't what they had in mind, but c'est la vie. First born son Aristobulus II unsuccessfully tried to resist the invasion, which landed Hyrcanus II the job of high priest.

After another internicine struggle, Herod the Great ended up as the next high priest. Rome allowed him nominal rule as a client-king, but they also had a local Roman governor assigned to the area. Rome also ended the tradition of the high priesthood being determined by succession, replacing it with an appointee system. Naturally, these appointees had to be approved by Roman authorities.