The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

On this Christmas Eve, as we think about beginnings let’s consider for a moment the end and how that might instruct our future thinking.

They took him in front of the Sanhedrin to be judged. Now in those days the Sanhedrin was a religious legislature and court. It had two primary parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the liberal, almost secular, party to which most of the elite members of the religion belonged. They did not believe in an afterlife and thought the law as written was sufficient. Since there was no after life to worry about they only had to stay on Yahweh’s good side during life. They were an outgrowth of the High priesthood of Zadok (not the Zadok of Solomon’s time but a later Zadok).

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were much more conservative in their religious views. They believed that the law of Moses as interpreted by the Levite priesthood ordained by Moses was the basis for the faith. Most importantly the Pharisees believed in the words of the prophets and in life after death. They believed in the idea of a Messiah coming to free them from oppression and restore the kingdom of God.

Like other “governing” institutions of history the Sanhedrin membership tilted towards wealthy members of the society and in the year 33 the Sadducees held a majority in the chamber. But while a minority in the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees had a majority of the Jewish people on their side and as such could exert political pressure upon the Sadducees. Yes, political pressure for the Sanhedrin represented the Jews to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch (not to be confused with Herod the Great, King of Judaea) as well as the Roman Prefect (Governor) Pontius Pilate. Everyone knows, of course, that Pilate was the true authority in Judaea and that Herod was merely an administrator and a vassal of Rome; and in Jerusalem Pilate was Rome.

But back to the trial of Jesus. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the Sanhedrin started sending provocateurs to the various gatherings attempting to get Jesus to say something for which he could be indicted, for religious blasphemy was just as much a crime then as it is today in any number of Islamic nations, England in the sixteenth century and early Pilgrim settlements in the American colonies. He sidestepped most of the attempts at provocation which must have frustrated the priests who were looking to remove him as a threat.

Yes, Jesus was a threat not just to the Sadducees but the Pharisees as well because his preaching took Judaism back before the Second Temple or even the First Temple. No Zadok or Levite priesthood for him; rather Jesus hearkened back to Melchizedek the high priest who had ordained Abraham. This, mind you, is pre-Moses, pre-Ten Commandments, and pre-Exodus and it is definitely before Deuteronomy and Leviticus. In fact it takes you back to the very making of the Covenant between Abraham and Yahweh. Briefly, when Abraham is returning from having rescued his nephew Lot by defeating in battle the kings of Sodom and Gomorra, he is greeted by the High Priest Melchizedek who brings him Bread and Wine. Melchizedek consecrates Abraham who will become the patriarch of the Israelites through his grandson Jacob whose sons will form the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is preaching the basics, Keep the law and treat your neighbors as you would be treated. Such statements are even too much for the conservative Pharisees who base their beliefs on Mosaic Law and the Levite priesthood. By reaching back before Moses people in the year 33 might make the claim Jesus was a high priest in the tradition of Melchizedek and Enoch and Noah before them.

Such teaching simply could not be allowed for it would rend not only the governing concepts of the Pharisees, but the Sadducees as well. Such teaching would take the religious congress out of the political world, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” is not the advice the Sanhedrin wants people to take to heart. Jesus preached return to the principles of God and man, not God, government and man. Jesus is offering the same covenant that Yahweh offered but his reward is not in this world but the world of the afterlife. Yet, if his philosophy is practiced by all even this world will become a better place.

Caiaphas, the high priest of Judaism in 33 was a Sadducee and in Jesus saw a threat not just to the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees but to his own personal position as the high priest, for if people followed Jesus they would pay no never mind to Caiaphas. And it will be Caiaphas who shapes the charge that Jesus calls himself King of the Jews for such a charge is the only one that the Roman Prefect will think is a threat to public order. In other words Pilate will not mix in the internal conflict of religious dogma. Thus, King of the Jews is the charge against Jesus in front of Pilate who wishes no revolution, religious or otherwise, in the province of Judaea. He tries to say that this is not a matter for Rome and sends Jesus to Herod who denigrates him but does not convict him of anything instead sending him back to Pilate. Herod wants no popular uprising on his hands either. Jesus has too many supporters and it must be Rome not Herod Antipas who condemns him. And when the choice of Jesus or Barabbas is given to the crowd both Herod and Caiaphas, no doubt, had loud voiced supporters calling for Barabbas who really was a threat to public order, although that is the crime for which Jesus will be crucified; a threat to public order and dispensed with by the Romans, not the Jews. While Pilate claims to find no fault and washes his hands of the matter, there is no mistake Caiaphas has maneuvered Pilate and Rome into doing the dirty work for the Sanhedrin and Herod.

So, Jesus was killed not so much for religious reasons as for the political and societal changes his preaching implied. Agents from the Sanhedrin went among the people sowing distrust and falsehoods about him. They twisted his words in an attempt to demonstrate he acted against the law and the wishes of the people. Other agents attempted to trap him into public statements that would incriminate him. They investigated and interrogated his friends and followers. And finally, they hauled him into court on the trumped up charge of being the “king of the Jews.” Something he never said, but a title Caiaphas was afraid the people in the streets might just give him if he lived.

There will be those who claim I have oversimplified the situation but when most things are boiled down to bare facts of causation, they are seldom overly complicated. You simply have to ignore the noise.

Now, go back to the Title of this piece and do the math, as in 2+2= and you’ll come up with the result that although things change we do the same thing to people now that we did 1,987 years ago. How do you feel about the Sadducees and the Pharisees speaking on your behalf?

By the way, I had a pet lab rat in college. I called him Caiaphas. Can you think of a better name for a rat? I kept him in a cage in my room and we had many serious discussions on philosophy and theology. He was a good listener. I used to put my draft seminar papers into his cage. He was a much better paper shredder than the government ever bought.

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