The Sanhedrin: First-Century Power Players, Part 6

To help you better understand the historical-cultural context of the Acts of Faith series (The Centurion’s Wife, The Hidden Flame, and The Damascus Way), I’d like to introduce you to the primary Judean authorities at the early part of Acts. This is Part 6 of 10.

The Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling council. While the Romans were the absolute political power over Israel, the Sanhedrin was the governing body over daily Jewish life.

Above the Sanhedrin loomed the Roman power structure—Pontius Pilate as the Roman provincial governor and Herod Antipas, whom the Roman emperor had appointed. But the common Judean individual had no connection to Rome, other than avoiding the soldiers on street duty during the high holy days. The power to affect their lives was held by the Sanhedrin. No secular Jew was permitted to sit upon this ruling council. And the council was dominated by the Sadducees.

Unlike Greece, which had ruled Israel until the Maccabeus revolt some two centuries earlier, Rome did not insert itself into provincial daily life. Greece wanted all its conquered subjects to become thoroughly Greek—clothing, language, competing in their games, worshiping their gods in Greek temples.

Rome did not care what god a conquered nation worshiped, so long as that temple did not incite revolt against Rome. Rome cared about four things—collecting taxes, protecting Roman roads, defending the borders, and ensuring Rome was supplied with plenty of local produce. Other than that, Rome pretty much left the provincial structures in place.

There were several notable exceptions, including one that holds special significance to believers: The Sanhedrin could not condemn a man to death for sedition—this is why the ruling council had to petition Pontius Pilate to crucify  our Lord.

Also in Jesus’ time, the southeastern borders of the province known as Judea marked the limit of Roman power. South of the Golan hills, rising only thirty miles east of Capernaum, began the vast Parthian empire. Precisely where the Roman province of Syria began and the Parthian kingdom began depended upon who had won the latest battle.

But this was not why Rome was so worried about Judea. So concerned, in fact, that in Jesus’ time the emperor Tiberius decreed that Pontius Pilate answer directly to him, an astonishing development almost unknown in Roman history. All other provincial governors answered to the Roman Senate.

The reason for this anxiety is not mentioned directly in any known historical document. But the alarm and the decrees are real, because they are referred to by numerous authorities dating from that time. And from this we can presume the real reason.

Jews were everywhere. Contemporary historians estimate that Jews made up about five percent of the total population of Rome, making them the largest minority in the empire’s capital itself.

Not only that, they held positions of influence. Accounts suggest that the majority of these Jews were Hellenized, assimilated into the Roman or Greek cultures, so they were Jews in name only—particularly in the eyes of the Pharisees. But not all of them had left behind either their heritage or their worship of Jehovah.

We do not have any account of a Daniel arising to influence the Roman emperor of the time. But one rather astonishing legend has managed to survive the two thousand years separating us from them.

But first I need to explain one aspect of Roman law. In direct translation from the original Latin, it outlawed the crime of atheism. In its original form, atheism was not a worship of no god. It was worship of a god that defied Roman rule. And other than promoting outright revolt, the worst way it could be displayed was through proselytizing.

As Christianity began to spread across the empire, certain rulers came down very hard on these new believers. The ruling emperor and the provincial governors, if they disliked Christians enough, could sentence them to death by any number of means—scourging, crucifixion, torture, the arena games, and on and on, a tragic litany of martyrdom that began with the stoning of Stephen. This law stayed in place right down to the moment when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity on his death bed, and with virtually his last breath revoked this foul law.

What is extremely interesting is this fact, which has only recently been uncovered: The law was not originally written against Christians. It was first directed against the Jews.

Whether Jews actually went out and sought converts, even among the Jewish community, is doubtful. Rabbinical sources from this period suggest there was little contact between the devout Jewish community and the Hellenized Jews, both because of religious differences and because of economic barriers. Poor devout Jews had nothing whatsoever to do with rich Jews, who were deeply involved in the Roman culture and did not believe in God. Even devout Jews, aliens living on the fringes of an empire occupying their homeland, would not have attempted to convert Romans to Judaism.

And yet it happened. Thirty-seven years before Jesus carried his cross up the rise to Golgotha, a certain woman in Rome became a secret follower of this Jewish God. Disgusted by the obscene idol worship at many Roman temples, which reflected the wicked culture that dominated the empire, she sought a spiritual path lined by morality and directed toward a God who cared—who cared for her.

The problem was that this woman happened to be the sister of Caesar.

Further, she decided to make her decision public. She had no choice, not after her brother the emperor declared himself a deity and ordered all his subjects to offer temple sacrifices in his honor. Which, as a God fearer, she could not do.

The emperor was furious at his sister’s declaration of allegiance to this Jewish God. He responded by banning all Jews from Rome. The women and children were simply expelled. All men between the ages of eighteen and forty, married or single, were given the choice of either joining the Roman army or facing crucifixion. Thirty thousand of these recruits were shipped out all over the empire, most never to be heard from again.

This emperor finally died and was replaced by another who opposed the severity of his predecessor’s decision. With the decree revoked, Rome within twenty years again held a significant population of Jews. By the time Jesus began his earthly ministry, many Jews once more held influential positions in Rome.

But also at that time, Tiberius came to power, and he was so fearful of how these Jews might respond to a revolt in Judea that he decreed his newly appointed governor, Pontius Pilate, answer directly to him. As noted earlier, Pilate was the only provincial governor to have this direct access. This was both good and bad. If Pilate succeeded, Tiberius might well lavish him with more power. If he failed, the Roman Senate, which despised him for usurping their power structure, would not have left his toenails intact.

There is no doubt that the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem, was totally aware of their unique position. Recognized by Rome, along with their control over the Judeans, the Sanhedrin used their power to their own benefit. Such as when an obscure prophet from Galilee rose to a position of prominence among the local population and their authority was threatened.

Pilate, who was trapped between a local council that battled him at every step and an emperor who had ordered him to maintain calm in Judea, had no choice but to publicly wash his hands over the fate of the most innocent man who had ever lived.

Here are links to each of the books in the Acts of Faith Series. I believe it will enhance your understanding of first-century power players to read the novels as we progress through this series.


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Coming next: The Zealots

2 Responses to “The Sanhedrin: First-Century Power Players, Part 6”

  1. Gary Gilmore says:

    Such good information. Do you know the names of the particular Caesar and his sister? That would be interesting. I would like to dig a little deeper on her.

  2. [...] Jesus and the Pharisees: First-Century Power Players, Part 4 The Sanhedrin: First-Century Power Players, Part 6 [...]

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