Religion and Revolt - The Pharisees

Abridged from Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance by Hyam Maccoby

The motive force behind the Jewish Resistance was the Jewish religion. This is a difficult point for the modern reader to grasp because we are not used to thinking of religion as a political, activist, revolutionary force. Also, the picture of the Jewish religion given in the New Testament is that of a rigid Establishment clinging to the status quo....

There is no indication in the New Testament of any conflict between Jewish religion and Roman power. In fact, the whole issue of Roman power is played down to such an extent that there is hardly a hint of any opposition to Rome. The aim of the Gospels is to present the revolutionary issue of the day as between Jesus and the Jewish Establishment.

The fact that there was a Roman Establishment against which revolutionary forces existed is veiled so that the Establishment against which Jesus rebelled can be represented as entirely Jewish.

There was a small religious party, the Sadducees, who were collaborationists, that supported the status quo and accepted official posts under the Romans...The High Priest himself was a Sadducee, and it is one of the most important points to grasp in New Testament studies that the High Priest was appointed by the Romans.

As a member of a quisling minority group he was regarded with contempt by the great mass of the nation. Religious authority lay not with the priests but with an entirely different body of people called the Rabbis, the leaders of the Pharisees.

Thus the picture given in the Gospels of a Jewish religious Establishment which supported the status quo is true insofar as it relates to the Sadducees, who were...established by the Romans.

As far as the mass of Jewish people were concerned the true Establishment was the dispossessed party of the Pharisees who held no positions of political power and whose leaders neither sought nor received recognition from Romans.... So from the first to the last, the Resistance against Rome came from the Pharisee party.

This statement will come as a surprise to those whose knowledge of the Pharisees depends on New Testament accounts. The Pharisees there are represented as being concerned only to safeguard their own official positions.... The Romans are such shadowy figures in the Gospels that the question of whether to resist or collaborate with them hardly arises. The powers-that-be are the Jews; Pilate the Roman appears only as a background figure on whom the Jews call in their vendetta against Jesus and whom they have to manipulate and mislead in various ways in order to wreak their vengeance.

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