FIRST CENTURY RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL BACKGROUND

Around the time of Herod the Great (70 BCE) a civil war broke out between the two main religious factions, the Saducees and Pharisees. Prior to this, King Jannaeus, a Hasmonian who sided with the Saducees, had crucified thousands of Pharisees causing great long term hatred. The Hasmonian family were Saducees and in succession to the position of High Priest. Jannaaeus died and his wife Alexandra brought peace to the land for about 15 years when the Pharisees seeking revenge, restarted the war then went to general Pompeii of the Romans to "bring peace" to the land. The Pharisees attacked the Saducees on Shabbat killing 12,000 priests who refused to fight. The Pharisees then quickly allied themselves with the Romans to take control.

Rome sends in a procurator named Antipater, an Edomite descendant and the father of Herod the Great. (This is the Herod who slaughtered the innocents as recorded in the Gospels). Antipater sent Herod to Galillee to bring down a revolt lead by the priest Zacharias. Herod put to death thousands, including innocent victims. He also appointed a gentile to the position of High Priest and had the entire Sanhedrin killed with the exception of two men – Hillel (hill-EL) and Shammai (sha-MY). They were recognized as popular leaders and Herod spared to prevent a full revolt. (Shammai favored the Romans, Hillel opposed them.) Herod appointed political cronies to fill the Sanhedrin.

Herod then married the last Hasmonian princess, Alexandra Salome (SAH-low-may), giving him political legitimacy for ruling in Judea. Herod killed off the rest of the Hasmonians, and took total control. Herod had two sons with Alexandra. His older son put on the High Priest’s garments at the age of thirteen. When the people saw this there is a time of national mourning and repentance as he is the first legitimate High Priest in many years. Herod saw this and was threatened so he had this son drowned in a pool. When his wife got upset Herod put her into exile with the younger son. Herod took on another wife, had five children by her, and had them all killed.

A populist movement began around the younger son of Alexander Salome. Herod brought a false accusation of adultery to her and had her killed. Herod then went temporarily insane as he truly loved her. Herod then had Alexandra Salome’s younger son put to death. However the younger son had children who continued. At the end of Herod’s life, a son from the second wife tried to take control. Herod had him killed and his brothers imprisoned.

Herod in his final will, ordered that any person remotely related to the Hasmonian family, including his own sons, were to be killed, except for one grandson who was to live. This was carried out. Herod died a horrific death, rotting from within. This surviving grandson is the Herod on the throne when Yeshua is brought to trial. This Herod is married to his niece (also named Salome).

The Qumran community (Dead Sea Scrolls) in their literature writes a commentary critical of an uncle being married to his niece – probably written in reaction to the Herodians, who were considered an abomination to the Jews. This is an interesting criticism as the Torah allowed for such marriages.

By the time of Yeshua the Temple had been corrupted by the Herodians for some time (i.e., people had bought their way into important positions.) In response to this corruption, a number of Saducees split off and departed into the wilderness (and other places) and formed what became the Essenes, (eh-SEENS) setting up their own "temple" and system of sacrifices and offerings, done in the wilderness. Many of the Wilderness Essenes did not marry in order to keep "pure" and draw closer to G-d. It is this group that did most of the writing found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Much of their terminology can be seen in Yeshua’s teachings (i.e., the poor, the meek, "the Way"). Sha’ul’s teachings on marriage may also reflect this.

THE PHARISEES

Unfortunately, the term "Pharisee" has become a synonym for an evil person or hypocrite. This is due to an improper understanding of history and Scripture as taught in many churches and Bible Studies. No one would say that Sha’ul and Nicodemus were evil, yet they were Pharisees until the day they died. I can’t imagine anyone saying Yeshua gave bad advice, but He told the people to follow what the Pharisees taught. In fact much of what Yeshua Himself says in the Gospels is a reiteration of teachings already established and taught by the Pharisees, especially Hillel, the grandfather of Gamliel, who taught Sha’ul.

Examples of where Yeshua agreed with Hillel are found in all four of the Gospels:

Teaching

Yeshua

Hillel

Critical of tithing of plants grown only for seeds Matthew 23:23 Ma'asrot 4:5-6
Healing by faith on the Sabbath was allowed. Mark 3:2-4 Tosefta Shabat 7:14
Reached out to sinners and taught them Luke, Ch. 15 Avot D'Rebbe Natan 3:1
Allowed the handling of an item on Sabbath for which there was no need John, Ch. 5 Betzah 26b

This chart is taken from "Not Subject to the Law of God?" found at www.yashanet.com/library/underlaw.htm.

The Pharisees came about as a populist movement shortly after the Saducees gained power. The Saducees were the original Temple authority, made up of priests and Levites, developed around Zadok and his priests who gained control after the return from the exile (Ezra’s time period). By the time of Yeshua, the Saducees had lost much of their power to the Pharisees.

Yeshua Himself could best be described as teaching as a Pharisee and holding favor with the Essenes. The latter was true because He had the approval of John the Baptist, who was a leader in the Essene community. John had Scriptural authority as well, as he was from the tribe of Levi and destined to be a priest.

It was because of Yeshua’s relationship with these two groups, Pharisees and Essenes, (who did not necessarily think highly of each other) that he was able to hold together a coalition of His own followers made up of people from each camp. They became known as the Nazarenes, or "the Way," and whom we also refer to in these studies as the early or original "Messianic community."

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