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Inter-Jewish Conflict
and the Passion of Jesus

    When we view the Gospels in light of inter-Jewish polemics of the age, they seem practically tame. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect railed against its opponents, grouping them together with Gentiles as “children of Belial (the Devil)” and “the lot of Darkness.” (Take note: the Scrolls sect stated that those who did not follow their teachings were “children of the Devil.” John 8:44 describes Jesus’ opponents in the same way.) The leader who oppressed the group was called “the spouter of lies” (1QpMicah). The Dead Sea Scrolls commentary on Nahum describes all the Pharisees as “seekers of flattery” who conduct themselves with “falsehood and deceit.” But I have yet to hear a scholar argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls are “anti-Jewish”! We recognize the rhetoric in these texts for what it is: an outgrowth of inter-Jewish rivalry.

Interfaith Oppression

    But the friction between Jewish sects was seldom restricted to a war of words. When it was in their power to do so, groups often used violent force to silence their opponents. One well-documented case was the Dead Sea Scrolls sect’s Teacher of Righteousness, a figure who probably lived sometime in the second century B.C.E. He and his group opposed what they perceived as laxity in temple administration and errors in religious practices of the masses. But they soon learned that the high priest was not one to accept such insolence charitably. The “wicked priest,” as he is called in the Scrolls, attacked the Teacher and his followers and forced them to flee to a refuge they called “Damascus” (whether this reference is to the literal city of Damascus has been the subject of much debate). It’s not clear what the Teacher had done to provoke the attack—our sources are rather one-sided. But the 4QMMT scroll, which purports to tell the reasons the Scrolls sect separated itself from other Jews, records only religious differences, not political problems. The Teacher wasn’t trying to foment rebellion against the government, but he apparently possessed some dangerous charismatic influence. The high priest felt the Dead Sea Scrolls sect was a threat to the stability of his regime, and he used his authority to drive the group into hiding.

    This incident was hardly the last time that the high priest used force to protect his position—a position that often entailed as much political authority as it did religious authority. In 88 B.C.E., the Hasmonean monarch Alexander Janneus (who served as both king and high priest) crucified 800 Pharisees who had attempted to overthrow his rule. He also had their wives and children executed. But the Pharisees didn’t resign themselves to “turn the other cheek.” After the death of Janneus, they initiated their own reign of terror against the Sadducees (Ant. 13.410-19; War 1.113-4). During the days of Herod the Great, the high priesthood was largely gutted of its authority. But after Herod’s death, in the times when Judea was under the administration of Roman governors, the priesthood asserted itself once again.

    The high priest and the Sanhedrin (which the high priest chaired) ran local affairs, while the Roman governors insured that taxes were paid and that rebellion was kept in check. But the governors definitely had the power to restrain the local magistrates, keeping them from overstepping certain boundaries. Josephus reports that between the administrations of the governors Festus and Albinus, the high priest Ananus seized the opportunity to do away with one of his enemies: James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church (Ant. 20.197-203). Josephus clearly implies that the execution would not have occurred had the governor been present. (This fact might lend some credence to the Gospels’ affirmation that the Jews weren’t permitted to execute Jesus on their own [Jn 18:31].)

    Another interesting feature of this episode is that Josephus doesn’t tell us why Ananus wanted to be rid of James. He writes that Ananus fabricated some charges that James violated the law, but he doesn’t say which laws he was accused of breaking. Josephus does report that Ananus was a Sadducee, and like others of his sect, very harsh with those with whom they disagreed. It’s possible that James’ crime was simply that he insisted that Jesus had been resurrected—a mockery of Sadducean theology. In any event, the execution caused a great turmoil among the more “most equitable” Jewish people who felt that Ananus had acted unjustly (proof that the charges against James were false). They issued a complaint with the Roman governor that Ananus had convened the proceedings without the governor’s permission. As a result, Ananus was deposed from the priesthood.

    This incident should well make us wonder at those who argue that the Evangelists invented the notion that there were Jewish leaders who would resort to violence to do away with Jesus. If James, the leader of the Christian church, a man reputed to have been well regarded in Jerusalem, could incite the ire of the high priest simply because of his theology, how much more so would Jesus have elicited the wrath of the priesthood? Jesus, after all, physically attacked the Temple and the temple market. He mocked the Pharisees and disdained their understanding of the Law. To the high priest, Jesus threatened the stability of his position. In the Pharisees’ view, he was drawing people away from the true faith into a dangerous antinomianism. Jesus wasn’t just a wandering idealist—he was a troublemaker. And troublemakers, in those days, could be dealt with very harshly, indeed.

The Role of Pilate

    There should be no doubt that Jesus’ actual execution was carried out by the Romans nor that he was charged with inciting rebellion. The accusation displayed over his head on the cross—“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—was a political charge (no one would be executed for ruling a kingdom “not of this world”). It’s also well known that Pilate was a cruel and insensitive man. At times, he deliberately attempted to irk the Jews and other peoples under his administration. So why, then, do the Gospels hold that Pilate was a reluctant participant in the execution of Jesus?

    We need not attempt to defend all the details of the Gospel accounts. No doubt they contain some theologizing and reconstruction. But the general picture of a reluctant Pilate isn’t so impossible as some have argued. First of all, Pilate had already been officially reprimanded by Rome because of his mismanagement of Judean affairs (Philo, Legatio 299-305). Further incidents, he knew, could cost him his job (as eventually they did). While Pilate would have had no qualms about executing a brigand in his own realm—and Rome would have held him guiltless in such a case—Jesus wasn’t of his own realm. He was a Galilean, officially under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. Pilate had already executed some Galilean Jews within his realm (Lk. 13:1), and the incident may well have soured relations between him and Antipas (Lk. 23:12).

    Had Pilate executed Jesus against Herod’s wishes, it might have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. What’s more, Pilate probably knew little about Jesus before the high priest and his associates had brought their charges against Jesus. Most of his activity had been confined to Galilee and had resulted in little public mayhem. Given his perverse tendency to flaunt the wishes of his subjects, he might have been inclined to release Jesus simply because the high priest’s company so obviously wanted him convicted. And finally, Pilate was rash, but not so capricious as some contend. The incident that cost him his job—falling upon a group of pilgrims who were heading to Mt. Gerizim to see a promised miracle—wasn’t so innocent as it might seem since even Josephus observes that the pilgrims were armed (Ant. 18.86).


    It’s very important for Christians to be sensitive to those of other faiths, and we should be quick to refute any assertions that smack of anti-Judaism. We should make it very clear that the Gospel accounts aren’t anti-Jewish, but only “anti-establishment.” We should also be careful in our Bible translations, writing, teaching, and preaching to distinguish between the Jewish power brokers who wanted Jesus silenced and the masses who were innocent of the act. But the account of the opposition that Jesus received from the high priest and other Jewish politicians need not be repudiated. It is no more anti-Jewish to say that the high priest’s party precipitated the death of Jesus than it would be anti-American to say that President Truman dropped the atomic bomb in the Second World War. The Jewish leaders took the action they felt was necessary to protect their positions and their people. We don’t have to approve of their actions, but there is little historical basis for arguing that they never happened.

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