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The cauldron of anger and dissatisfaction mixed with messianic hope was beginning to boil; soon it would erupt in serious outbreaks of violence throughout the land.

Heinrich Bünting – "Travel Book through Holy Scripture" – Helmstadt, 1582 –  A Sketch of the Temple (photo credit: KEDEM AUCTION HOUSE IN JERUSALEM)
Heinrich Bünting – "Travel Book through Holy Scripture" – Helmstadt, 1582 – A Sketch of the Temple
Yesterday, when I listened to the evening news, I recalled what I learned many decades ago about the social protests in Jerusalem two thousand years ago:
Herod the Great was despised for eliminating the last remaining heirs of the Hasmonean dynasty, descendants of the Maccabees, because of his paranoiac fear that they would usurp his throne. During his oppressive reign, much to the chagrin of the mainstream Pharisaic Jewish majority, the wealthy Sadducean aristocrats collaborated with the corrupt High Priests (appointed by Herod) who controlled the Temple, in order to keep their power base. The cauldron of anger and dissatisfaction mixed with messianic hope was beginning to boil; soon it would erupt in serious outbreaks of violence throughout the land.
Herod, who was obsessively wary of these apocalyptic expectations, remained constantly on the lookout for any hint of sedition. And as the oppression intensified, so too did the passion and violence of the downtrodden. Daily, Jews were arrested and taken away by the king’s guards, even if they were merely caught meeting suspiciously together [Jos. Ant. 15.8. 287-289, 336].
The Pharisaic leaders vociferously called for the removal from office of the corrupt and arrogant Sadducean priestly family of Boethus, whose appointments were based on power politics and not upon piety and learning. They demanded to be free once again to elect men of pure morals as their high priests, in place of the Hellenized favorites who had been chosen and deposed by Herod according to his own pleasure [Jos.Wars, 4.3.6,147-149].
These priests were adherents of the Sadducean form of Judaism that was based on a rigid interpretation of ancient tradition. They were extremely strict in their interpretation of the Torah’s commands and often cruel in their administration of justice [Jos. Ant. 20.9.1, 199]. They held anyone who was not a Sadducee in absolute contempt and imposed upon the people rulings that evinced insensitivity and an attitude of aggressive violence. The priestly hierarchy, in conjunction with the Jewish ruling aristocracy, wielded tremendous political power [Jos. Against Apion 2.21,185-187], but no longer served as a source of guidance for the people. The people opposed the corruption, oppression, and cruelty of these Sadducean priests who controlled the Temple treasury and co-operated with the aristocracy in the exploitation of the poor.
In 26 CE Pontius Pilate became prefect of the provinces of Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea (Edom). Besides overseeing mundane tasks such as tax collection and managing construction projects, Pilate’s most crucial responsibility was that of maintaining law and order. He used any means necessary to accomplish this aim; what Pontius Pilate could not negotiate, he accomplished through brute force, responding viciously to any disturbance. For his success in eliminating potential rebels, Pilate was rewarded with a ten-year term of office, although one to three years was the usual term for a Roman prefect. Pontius Pilate was a cruel and brutal person. “Great unrest and dissatisfaction were brewing, for he was deliberately provocative” [Jos. Ant. 18.3.1-3, 55-59; J.W. 2: 169-174; 2.9.2-4].
In 30 CE, after Pontius Pilate enraged the Jews by taking sacred money from the Temple treasury for a mundane building project, widespread protests erupted. Even when thousands turned out within an hour and formed a ring around the tribunal of Pilate, besieging him with an angry clamor, he would not back down. A trumpet sounded the signal for Pilate’s soldiers to bludgeon the Jews into silence if they failed to disperse. And then the Samaritan and Idumaean soldiers, who were disguised as protesters among the masses, took out their hidden weapons and beat scores of people. In terror, the crowd fled pell-mell, but the multitude was so great that most could not escape into the narrow streets. Soon, after crushing the resistance cruelly, Pilate forbade all demonstrations, public-meetings, and even gatherings in the streets of Jerusalem. These developments further radicalized the messianic movement, leading to continuous unrest throughout the next half-century. [Jos. War 2.175-177; Antiq.18:60-62].
Wary of the authorities, rabbinic sources include only terse and circumspect references to the messianic movement, the “Fourth Philosophy,” which was a theocratic-nationalist movement founded by Yehudah the Galilean and his younger comrade, Tzadok [Jos. Ant. 17:271-272, 18.1.6; Wars 2:56]. The sect were known as poor and pious Ebionites, who opposed the Sadducean hierarchy for prioritizing preservation of their wealth rather than living in an ethical and sanctified fashion [Jos. War 5.5.6, 222-224; 5.5.4, 210-211; Ant. 15.11.3, 395]. They denounced the High Priests for taking money straight out of the Temple treasury to pay for huge dowries when their children married [B.Ketub. 66b], allowances for perfumes and jewelry [B.Yoma 39b; M.Kelim 12:7; M. Shab 6:5], and extremely generous pensions to the widows of the High Priests [B.Ket. 65a 66b; Lam.Rab.1:16,51; B. Git.56a].
Even after the Temple was destroyed, these pious activists who taught restraint, self-effacement and self-reform as the way to salvation did not give up hope. Because our ancestors remained faithful to those values, we, thank God, are privileged to have been granted another opportunity to fulfill their dreams of building a moral society and serving as a Light unto the Nations:
You have been told what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:8].