An aphorism attributed to the first century BC Roman orator, Marcus Cicero, goes like this, “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” During his time, the political infighting of the Roman senate reminds us that what we see in the United States House of Representatives and Senate is nothing new. Even the backlash and what we called in “The End of Evangelicalism” the vitriolic reaction of brothers and sisters in Christ on both sides of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial should not be surprising. In fact, it reminds us of the politics in 1st century BC – 1st century AD Israel when Rome was in control of the Judean countryside.
Jesus stepped into this politically divided Israel that is not all that dissimilar from the United States today, perhaps not even dissimilar from the rest of the world as patriotic nationalist movements rise across the globe.
While it might be interesting to rehearse the entire political history of Israel prior to the construction of the second temple, what is of particular interest is the arrival of Jesus Christ among a politically divided nation. By the time of His birth, the political tension in Israel was particularly acute. On the one side were the Herodians, a group of Jews who were theologically aligned with the Pharisees, but had more in common with the political views of the Hellenized Sadducees. On the other side, the Zealots, full of religious fervor, were a grassroots Jewish group that plotted the overthrow of the government.
The Herodians believed that the government provided more assurance for the protection of life and property so they gladly welcomed and supported the reign of Herod the Great, who Caesar declared “King of the Jews.” Herod the Great found favor among the Jews in the restoration of the temple in the second decade of the first century BC. Feeling threatened at the announcement of a new king of the Jews, he also murdered the male children of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18), with no apparent recourse from the citizens of the city. Herod’s intentions and actions compelled the Holy Family to take refuge in Egypt until his death in 4BC. His successor Herod Antipas the Tetrarch continued to find favor among the Jews. Eventually, due to being confronted for his immoral behavior, he beheaded John the Baptist at the request of his step-daughter (Luke 9:7-9). John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, called people to repentance, indifferent of their political leanings, as the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). The politically entrenched Herodians joined the Pharisees in plotting to destroy Jesus after being alarmed by His powers of healing (Mark 3:6), perhaps even thinking His power was demonic (Mark 3:22), and tried to trick Him into taking a public stand on tax issues hoping to discredit Him as a Jewish partisan (Mark 12:17).
After all, we are certainly more civil than the Herodians and Zealots of Jesus’s day; our two-party system far superior. But is it really?
Perhaps the religious fanatics of the day, the Zealots vehemently opposed Roman rule. Later, they would be the leaders during the Jewish Wars that resulted in the destruction of the second temple in 70AD. Even a few of Jesus’s followers – Simon the Zealot for example – were caught up in this movement. No doubt others had similar political leanings, particularly Peter who prepared himself to die by the sword in defense of his beliefs (John 18:10) only to be humiliated when he denied the vary one he sought to defend (Matt 24:35-36).