The Politics of Late Second Temple Judaism
To grant unto us that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies / Should serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him all our days (Luke 1:74-75).
Zechariah prophesied a message of hope for his people Israel centering on what God was going to accomplish through his son John and the Christ who would follow afterward. They looked forward to rescue from their enemies so they could serve God in holiness and righteousness.
For many in Israel at this time the enemy was clear and apparent: the Romans and their client-king, Herod (Matthew 2:3). The Roman general Pompey was welcomed into Jerusalem in the midst of a feud among some of the final Hasmonean rulers 60 years earlier; he marched into the Holy of Holies itself and desecrated it. On the whole, the land of Israel was not the most valuable piece of property for the Romans; their neighborhood proved more essential. Rome could no longer sustain itself without Egyptian wheat; control of the Mediterranean Sea was essential to keep the wheat flowing, and that required control of the entire seaboard. The Romans were not going anywhere. At the same time, the Romans proved more than happy to maintain their authority over various lands through client-kings, and Herod fit the bill. He may have been an Idumean (Edomite), and thus seen as a half-breed by the Jewish people; but he was loyal to the Romans, provided appropriate taxes, and generally kept a restive part of the world quiet. The Israelites suffered his taxes and imperiousness, and resented their overlords bitterly. For many, the solution was evident; they would soon rise up to do what their ancestors had done.
The Romans were only the most recent pagan power with aspirations for great worldly power to claim control over the land of Israel. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians had ruled over Israel in some way or another for centuries; after Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire, Israel was ruled over by the Macedonians, first the Ptolemies and then the Seleucids. Throughout this time Israel was at best tolerated with suspicion and at worst subject to terrible persecution (2 Kings 17:1-41, 25:1-30, Daniel 1:1-6:28, Esther 1:1-10:3). Nothing had prepared Israel, however, for what Antiochus IV Epiphanes would do in 167 BCE: he defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and banned the practice of the Law of Moses (cf. Daniel 7:1-11:45).
Some among Israel went along with Antiochus; others celebrated what Antiochus was doing. But many others in Israel resisted, led by the house of Hashmon and its leader Judah called the Maccabee. Over the course of the next few years the Maccabees would win impressive victories over Seleucid armies. Dynastic instability and general weakness within the Seleucid rule meant the Maccabees would de facto rule over Israel for many years. They would be known as the Hasmoneans; later generations of their rulers had all but became what the Israelites had thrown off. They had saved Israel from an existential threat, but none among them were the prophet or the Christ which the prophets had foretold.
Hasmonean rule was still within living memory when the Spirit spoke through Zechariah; we can therefore understand why so many in Israel believed they could rise up and defeat the Romans, since their ancestors had done something similar against the Seleucids. The Zealots all maintained this hope fervently and deeply; it also burned brightly in the breast of many of the Pharisees. Many would profess to be the Christ who would destroy the Roman threat, from Judas the Galilean to Simon bar-Kokhba, and many were willing to follow them to the end (cf. Acts 5:34-38).
Many clung firmly to the hope of a Messiah who would come to eliminate the Roman threat; others may have had no love for the Romans, but found the perceived hypocrisies and immoralities of fellow Israelites to be worse, like the Essenes. Others did not mind keeping their heads down and wished to focus on cultivating holiness and righteousness before God; this would eventually become the posture of many of the Pharisees/rabbis after the cataclysms of 70 and 135.
Yet not all Israel found the status quo insufferable. Some were willing to tie their fate to the Herods; such Herodians did well for themselves for awhile (cf. Matthew 22:16). Many Israelites freely accommodated themselves and their beliefs with the Greco-Roman world.
And then there were the Sadducees. The Sadducees were more religiously conservative than generally recognized, but focused their devotion primarily on the Temple and its services (Matthew 22:23-32). As long as the Temple stood, the power base of the Sadducees remained. They would do whatever they could to preserve and maintain the Temple as the center of Israelite life.
The Romans had little interest in adjudicating matters within Israel; the Israelite body of judgment, the Sanhedrin, made up primarily of Pharisees and Sadducees, were able to decide most matters (Matthew 26:57-68, John 18:31-32, Acts 23:6). The focus of the Jewish world was Judah and Jerusalem; Jewish people lived in the diaspora and even throughout the historic land of Israel, particularly in Galilee, but pride of place was given to Jerusalem, with prejudice expressed toward those from elsewhere (cf. John 7:52).
Jesus became flesh and dwelt among humanity as a Jewish man in this world of foment and tumult. In His time there was no firm distinction between secular and sacred, the “political” from the “spiritual.” Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom did not neatly align with any particular partisan political view in late Second Temple Judaism; nevertheless, His message did speak to the condition of Israel. Jesus re-centered Torah and Temple around Himself (cf. John 2:13-22); He embodied the story of Israel to bring it to its fulfillment in victory over the forces of evil and resurrection from the dead, and would be vindicated when the Day of YHWH came yet again for Jerusalem in 70 as it had in 586 (Matthew 21:33-46, 24:1-36).
Jesus as the Christ completely disrupted the politics of Israel in late Second Temple Judaism if they were only able to perceive it. Salvation from the Romans would not look like what Israel would desire. The Christ Israel wanted looked more like Barabbas than he did Jesus (Luke 23:18-19); the day would come when Israel did choose “Saviors” more like Barabbas, and were completely devastated (Luke 23:28-31). Those who put their hope in armed insurgency would be destroyed; those who put their hope in the Temple in Jerusalem would wail, lament, and be frustrated. Essenes, Herodians, Sadducees, and Zealots would cease as a going concern; the Pharisees, chastened by circumstances but still resistant to Jesus as the Christ, developed into the rabbis and the more quietist piety of Rabbinic late antiquity.
All Zechariah prophesied would come to pass in Jesus, yet not as Israel expected. Israel would not continue to serve God as before without Roman rule or interference. Yet those who would trust in Jesus and participate in His Kingdom would be freed from enslavement from the forces of evil and could strive unto righteousness and holiness through the Spirit in Him (Romans 8:1-39). May we trust in the work God has accomplished in the Kingdom of Jesus, and find eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry