The Enemies of Jesus

Find out about the groups who opposed Jesus: the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Zealots and the Romans. For each one present information about who they were and how they opposed Jesus. This could be a booklet, poster or any other format.

There are various ways of looking at the death of Jesus: as the fulfilment of prophecy or as the result of politics and power struggles amongst those who were in charge. However you choose to look at it there are various groups who played their parts to a greater or lesser extent.

thingThe Jewish Leaders – Pharisees and Sadducees

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the ruling Jewish leaders in the community, a bit like two political parties fighting over power and how the country should be run in the modern world.

Traditionally the Sadducees were aristocratic (richer, land-owning) Jews and were largely made up of the priestly classes of the tribe of Levi. For this reason they had a focus on preserving tradition; that is ‘keeping things the way they are’ because these things had worked out quite well for them!

They might have been quite upset by Jesus’ apparent challenges to traditional authority as well as his empowering of the poor. Jesus had told them that he did not come to work with rich or well off but with the poor, which was not how things had normally been done. They were thus likely to have been quite suspicious of him.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a newer ‘political party’ that was more idealistic and had emerged after the troubles the Jews had had in fighting off invading powers like the Babylonians and the Greeks. They blamed the breaking of Jewish Law (Torah) for the misfortunes the Jews had suffered and wanted to keep stricter control on the behaviour of Jewish people to make sure they stayed within the Law in future.

For this reason Jesus would have upset them because he frequently challenged the laws, healing on the poor and reducing the 613 Commandments of the Torah to the simply commands to love your God and love your neighbour! They would have seen Jesus as a threat as he taught directly against their way of doing things.

Jews from the Pharisees and Sadducees formed the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council. A group of twenty-three elders who decided on laws in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas at the time of Jesus. However, they had very limited power as they were only allowed to do anything with the say so of the Romans who were occupying the land.

romansThe Romans

At the time of Jesus the Roman Empire was huge, stretching from the Northern borders of Britain into Africa and Asia. It was ruled over by an emperor, or Caesar, but one man could not rule over so large an area without a lot of help. For this reason Roman politics and the army had to be very well organised and the Empire was broken up in lots of smaller areas, a bit like the British Government allows county councils to deal with local issues today. The overall laws were made by the senate / Caesar with the actual implementation of these and any other local issues being dealt with by regional governors.

Now things were a bit complicated around the time of Jesus. When he was born Rome was kind of a Republic, with the Senate (that is a group of elected nobles) helping to run the empire. However, by the time Jesus was a teenager the republic had collapsed and one man, the Caesar, was in charge. Like at all times of great political change there was some fighting over the top spot so by the time Jesus dies (some 15 years later) there had already been three different Caesars! Life expectancy for a Caesar or for anyone who supported a particular Caesar to closely was not that great!

So why does all this matter to us? Mostly, it doesn’t. Caesar probably neither knew nor cared about Jesus. He was a local issue to be dealt with by local government, in this case the regional governor of Judea; Pontius Pilate. However, just bear in mind that Pilate was well aware of the political situation and scared for his own life. Several previous governors of Judea had met sticky ends either at the hands of mobs or at the hands of their bosses for not controlling the mobs!

PilatePontius Pilate

Pilate was the local governor or Judea. A Roman citizen and solider who had been appointed by the current Caesar, Tiberius, about the time of Jesus trial and death. He alone had the power to sign death warrants in Judea, and he signed quite a lot of them. However, what we do know is that he could not afford another rebellion in Judea and the Gospels suggest that this was the reason he was pressured into allowing the Jewish leaders to put Jesus to death.

Pilate is portrayed in John’s Gospel as believing Jesus (to an extent) but we don’t have records of his real thoughts about him. Chances are he was just trying to appease a mob and save his own skin. It didn’t work as Tiberius died (read ‘was poisoned’) and was replaced by Caligula as Caesar and things went downhill for Pilate anyway!

Perhaps most famously (and probably entirely fictionally) is the image of Pilate ‘washing his hands’ of the blood of Jesus, being unwilling to put to death someone he saw as an innocent man but unable to stop it for fear of his own life. You find this image again and again in books today; just wait until you do Macbeth in English!

ZealotThe Zealots

During the Roman occupation there were many laws that the Jewish people did not like. The Romans were Pagans and Polytheists (believing in lots of gods). Often their laws demanded that sacrifices were made to other gods or that slaves (like the Jews) served in the army in the service of other gods. Many Jews did not like this however one particular group formed who really didn’t like it – they were known as the zealots.

One or two of Jesus’ disciples were members of the zealots, certainly Simon the Zealot (hence the name!) and possibly Judas Iscariot as well, though this is not known. They wanted the Romans out of Judea and often used violent or unpleasant means to get what they wanted (not that they ever did!).

Some have suggested that Judas Iscariot might have betrayed Jesus when he worked out that he was not going to be a powerful warrior king who would defeat the Romans in a big military battle. Judas saw Jesus performing miracles and using the power of God to help the Jewish people and though he could smash the Roman army. But when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of donkey, rather than a war-horse, he may have decided to get rid of him to make way for a more powerful leader.

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