The influences and leaders of those times.
Around the time of Jesus' birth, there were
four main religious and political groups in
Palestine. One of these groups was known
as the Sadducees. The typical Sadducee
was an extreme conservative. He was part
of a group made up of the Jerusalem
priesthood and wealthy landowners - the
This group had carved out for itself a
comfortable working arrangement with the
Roman occupiers. Any Sadducee would be
extremely unhappy with anyone who
threatened this privileged position. The
Sadducees were loyal to Caesar and upheld
A Pharisee was someone who was deeply
devoted to the Old Testament Law - the first
five books of the Bible. He was determined
to apply the whole of the Law to every part
of daily life. As a result, the Pharisees had
evolved a system of rules to govern the
most minute details of behavior. For
instance, there were thirty-nine types of
work prohibited on the Jewish holy day,
the Sabbath, and there were regulations to
cover the swearing of oaths, the washing of
cups and plates, and the maximum traveling
distance allowed on holy days.
The Pharisees were a larger group than the
Sadducees, - numbering about 6,000 in the
time of Jesus. They were generally liked by
the common people as they too were
working men. (Altho' there were exceptions
to this, as some would refer to the people
as "am'ha'rets" which, roughly translated,
means "people of the earth" or "common"
people; this is the same name today of one
of Israel's popular daily newspapers!)
Their genuine desire was to make the Law
bearable for the people, but their zeal for
the Law often led them to adopt rigid and
harsh attitudes. The typical Pharisee was
dissatisfied with Roman rule, but would not
normally take part in actively opposing the
However, a third group, who came to be
known as the Zealots after the time of
Jesus, *were* active in their opposition to
The Zealots were a set of loosely organized
guerilla groups whose aim was to restore
political liberty to God's people. They
believed that the Jews could have no
master but God, and therefore allegiance to
Caesar was blasphemy. They may often
have refused to pay taxes, and conducted
terrorist attacks on the Roman forces.
Their hope was that God would use the
freedom fighters to set the Jewish people
free - to make Israel an independent nation
once more, ruled over by God's Messiah.
Many people in the time of Jesus hoped for
the coming of the Messiah. They believed he
would be a powerful Jewish king, given
special strength by God to restore the
fortunes of Israel.
The Essenes were different from other
groups in that they withdrew from normal
life. They lived like monks in desert
communities, and one such community in the
wilderness around the Dead Sea may well
have responsible for writing and copying a
large collection of manuscripts known as the
Dead Sea Scrolls.
But although the average Essene was
removed from the mainstream of Palestinian
society, he too longed for the time when
God would intervene in the affairs of the
Jewish nation by purifying his people and
ridding them of the Romans.
A dangerous area.
Some people have said that Jesus was born
in a quiet corner of the world where little
happened. The truth is far different.
Palestine was, and still is, in a highly
significant position internationally. It lies
across the trading routes of 3 continents:
Europe, Asia and Africa.
Politically and religiously it was an extremely
The Jewish hope.
The Pharisees, the Zealots and the Essenes
were united in their expectation that the
time was coming when God would act
decisively in the nation. This was a hope
shared by ordinary working people as well,
those who had no allegiance to any of these
groups. This hope for the coming of the
Messiah was one which the Jewish people
had held onto for centuries. It was widely
believed that the fulfillment of that hope was
Though Christians have traditionally thought
of the Pharisees as the ones responsible for
Jesus' death, the Sanhedrin (or Jewish
council), which worked so hard to secure a
death sentence, was largely made up of the
aristocratic Sadducees. The Pharisees and
the Sadducees had long been enemies, but
Jesus managed to unite the two groups in
opposition to himself.
The Sadducees were very concerned that no
one should upset the working arrangement
they had built up with the Romans. Although
Jesus would not come out into the open
politically, he did make some remarks about
the future of the Jewish nation that the
Sadducees saw as dangerous.
He said that Israel was about to be judged
by God, that Jerusalem would be destroyed,
and that there was no hope for the nation
Because of the popularity of Jesus, such
words could not be allowed to pass without
taking action against him.