The Roman rule of Judea began in 63 BC with the conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey. After capturing the city, killing the priests, and entering into the holy of holies, Pompey appointed a new high priest. A tax burden was placed on the Jews requiring tribute to Caesar. Antipater became governor and the city walls were rebuilt. From Antipater came Herod, who was briefly ousted in 40 BC by the Parthian revolt. The revolt did not last long however, and Herod the Great returned with Roman soldiers to reclaim his Judean throne. Thus began the reign of the Herods under Rome’s authority, to maintain order in a Jewish religious culture led by the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and occupied by Jews longing for their Messiah to come and establish God’s eternal Kingdom as promised in the Davidic covenant. However, the Jewish longing for a Messiah was guided by misconceptions, which ultimately led to the religious leaders’ rejection of their eternal King and His Kingdom.
The Roman occupation of Israel affected the lives of the land’s Jewish inhabitants in both positive and negative ways. On a positive note, although the Hellenization of the western world continued, Jewish culture remained the same. Jews were not forced to worship the Roman state cult, nor were they required to speak Greek. Plenty of opportunities existed for “aspiring social climbers to adopt the ways of the world” (Tomasino, 278). With such adoption came career paths that led to prosperity. The religious activities of the Jewish people continued, allowing the religiously pure Pharisees to continue their strict adherence to the Law and the temple activities continued. Furthermore, there was peace, stability, and a level of security for Israel, so long as they did not cause any problems that might have required Roman intervention or discipline.
On a negative note however, Hellenization was continuing to spread, posing a threat to Jewish religion and culture. Roman soldiers could at times oppress the Jews by requiring their forced labor for State projects. But oppression was mostly realized in the pocketbooks of the Jews. The Roman Empire was an expensive operation to run, and the Jews had to pay in order to keep it running. In addition to the existing Jewish laws for tithes and offerings for their priests, there was now tribute to be paid through various taxes. These negatives resulted in a general disdain by the Jews for their Roman rulers.
Disdain led to resistance of various sorts. There was passive resistance by some Jews that played out through murmuring, complaining, cursing, cheating on taxes, and the occasional secretive cheering for groups of bandits who robbed the Romans (Tomasino, 283). On the other hand there was active resistance through various groups of freedom fighters. Josephus records these groups as the lestai, the sicarii, and the zealots. The lestai participated in a form of social banditry by steeling from Rome in order to give back to the Jews. The Sicarii were deadly assassins that targeted people in power, both Jewish and Gentile (Josephus, Jewish War 20.8.10). The zealots, so called for their religious and political zeal, were those who sought to restore God’s chosen nation through revolting against any foreign force ruling Israel (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.1).
Israel was God’s favored nation and race, leading Jews to wonder how much longer God would allow Rome, the massive pagan machine, to rule His chosen ones. The paganism of the Gentiles was being spread throughout the world and there was nothing that Israel could do on their own to stop it. A supernatural intervention was required (Tomasino, 289). There was a longing for the messiah, the super king who would restore the throne of David as God’s anointed one. This king would reunite Israel, defeat the unrighteous, and establish God’s righteous reign on earth forever (2 Sam. 7; Is. 9:1-7; 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6, Amos 9:11-12). To the Pharisaic mind, this would require a mighty warrior who held an ultimate value and strict adherence to God’s Law, for it was a low value and loose adherence to the Law that led to the previous destruction and oppression of God’s people by various nations. Thus the timing was ripe for this Messiah because the temple system had been restored, along with an outward commitment by the religious leaders to maintain purity and righteousness.
Surely the coming Messiah would greet the Pharisees with enthusiasm, offering praise for their strict commitment to remaining pure and protecting themselves from law. Their dedication to obeying the law by creating additional laws, or fences, to protect them from sinning would be seen as honorable by the coming super king. The Pharisees’ rejection of sinners and lack of engagement towards them guarded God’s chosen ones from impurity, thus being ready to usher in the reign of David’s heir. All of these visually righteous deeds flowed from a remembrance of covenant disobedience and a desire to avoid the same fate in the future. It was this understanding of the Messiah, and the conceived idea about how to remain obedient to the Law, that led to the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus; for He did not meet them with enthusiasm, but with rebuke (Luke 7:29-35; Matt. 12). He tore down their guardrails and taught about a spiritual kingdom that even a tax collector could inherit.
The Pharisees did not accept Jesus’ actions and His teachings were often used to point to the self-righteous, unloving behavior of the Jewish religious leaders (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus taught against aggression towards Rome (Matt. 5:41). He violated their understanding of the Law—especially the Sabbath laws (Mishnah, Tractate Sab. 7.1-4; Matt. 12). He taught a message that reversed the social order put in place by the religious elite. He taught a message of servant leadership where the first becomes last and the least becomes the greatest. Those that had been deemed unclean and rejected—the sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and women—were being accepted into the coming kingdom of God. Jesus ate with these sinners, thus appearing to defile Himself through communion and fellowship with impure people.
When Jesus offered rebuke, it was often directed to the Pharisees for their self-righteousness and obsession to the law that led to the exclusion of the very people who needed them most. Rather than being ambassadors of God’s grace to the lost, they looked down their noses at the lost as unworthy, thus placing themselves on a pedestal and diminishing their own sinfulness. Christ was controversially fulfilling the Law and drawing attention back to the original purpose of God’s Law—to love God and to love others. When the people failed, the religious leaders should have been the tools of grace God intended them to be, to help draw them into the repentance God made possible through the sacrificial system of the Law. But not even the miraculous signs of Christ could melt the cold hearts of the Pharisees; the leaders unfit to lead God’s people (Zech. 11:4-6a).
Ultimately however, it was the sovereign plan of God that led to the Pharisees’ rejection of Christ (Isa. 53:1; 53:3; 49:4; Ps. 69:8; Zech. 11:12-13; Matt. 27:21-23; 26; 14-15; John 1:11; 5:43; 19:13-15 Acts 4:25-28; Eph. 1:1-11). The Pharisees’ hearts were hard (Isa. 8:9-10a; John 12:37-40). Jesus was the prophesied stone rejected by the Jews (Ps. 18:22; Matt. 21:42-43), and their unbelief led to the Messiah’s rejection of their own self-righteous behavior (Zech. 11:8a; Matt. 23:33). Jesus was saddened by their unbelief and stopped ministering to them (Zech. 11:9; Matt. 12:10-11). But it was through the hard hearts and inability of the Pharisees to lead people into a right relationship with God that Jesus came to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham. He become the perfect sacrifice and blessing for all nations. The super king had come, but to establish a spiritual kingdom in which all who believed in His name could take part (John 5:24).
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Danby, Herbert. The Mishnah. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933. Print.
Ferguson, Everett. “Jews in the early Roman Empire.” Pages 427-430 in Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Print.
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Flavius Josephus, Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987. Accordance Electronic Version.
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