Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review (#58 of 2014) Power and Politics in Palestine by James S. McLaren

Power and Politics in Palestine the Jews: The Jews and the Governing of Their Land, 100 BC-Ad 70 (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement)
McLaren looks at the recorded action over the period 100BC - 70AD to determine what can be conclusively known about Jewish self-governance under Roman rule. He exhaustively looks at various other studies, comparing various researchers' opinions on what the boule and Synedrion (Sanhedrin) were. He looks chronologically at recorded events, identifies the roles people appear to have played, and examines how decisions were reached. His source material are primarily Josephus' The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, as well as the Gospels and Acts. (The Mishnah and other later sources are not considered useful for McLaren's purposes for many reasons, one of which is because its writing was motivated to further the future of Israel in the absence of a Temple. Someone tell Ray Vanderlaan.) The book is written for an academic audience that is already very familiar with Josephus' works. While a brief summary of the major events examined from Jospehus' work are summarized, the author assumes the reader has read the entirety of the texts.

I read this book because a reader of the Gospels & Acts is forced to ask "Who are these priests?  Who was Herod, who was Pilate, Agrippa & Bernice, what's going on here?" There are plenty of recorded events in between the birth of Jesus and his ministry, his trial and the trials of Stephen, James, and Paul. I find that the average Christian is ill-equipped to discuss the historical Jesus (and historical church) with critics like John Dominic Crossan and Reza Aslan (whose book I recently reviewed) who argue that Jesus was merely a function of the historical context of first century Palestine, or that Jesus' and his disciples had specific political motives. There are also those who argue there is a contradiction in the Gospel accounts-- the Jews deliver Jesus to Herod because they did not have the authority to put anyone to death, but there apparently was no such hesitancy when it comes to Stephen, James, and other Christians who were martyred.


A comparison of Josephus' The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews reveal many differences in the descriptions of the governance of the Jewish state, as well as contradictions in various events. Josephus' accuracy and possible motivations in writing the accounts are analyzed. Luke's accounts, likewise, are problematic in that Luke may not have been closely familiar with the governance of the state and uses some terms interchangeably. The sources, and therefore scholars, differ on the role of the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the King, and the Sanhedrin(s).

What is clear is that there was political competition. Some figures had influence even though they no longer held official positions, and others held official authority but lacked influence among the people. Under Roman rule, the Jews generally had a head of state that was responsible and held wide authority. The family of Herod both ruled directly and maintained influence over the period.

"It is possible that the heads of state called upon the assistance of certain groups or individuals but they were not subject to other Jews. As long as these men appeased the Romans after 63 BC they were allowed to govern their kingdoms." 

Beginning with Alexander Jannaeus, Josephus records how several revolts were put down by the ruler at the time. This gives glimpses into which persons had what authority. Jannaeus is followed by his widow, Salome Alexandra, who appears to have been an effective ruler. She appoints Hyrcanus as high priest, and it is clear that he is subordinate to her command until her death, where he becomes the head of state. Pharisees and others begin to have prominent roles in the administration of Palestine. After Pompey assists Hyrcanus in a civil war against the Sadducees, Judea comes under Roman rule. An unpopular Antipater is essentially given power by Rome and appoints his sons Herod and Phasaelus as governors in the territory and a power clash ensues.

Hycranus summons Herod to trial after a murder but later releases or acquits him. Herod eventually is appointed "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate and prevails in a power struggle by conquering Jerusalem with Roman help. He ruled until 4 BC. Judea was placed under the direct rule of a Roman prefect in 6 AD. After Pilate becomes prefect in 26 AD, he is faced with some Jewish dissent against some of his actions-- allowing his troops to display their effigies when marching into Jerusalem, and later using temple funds to build an aqueduct. In the former incident Pilate backs down and relents to Jewish pressure. In the latter, he puts down a protest against his visit to Jerusalem (he ruled from Ceasarea) with violence. But not all Jews objected to Pilate's actions, particularly in regards to the aqueduct.

"the acceptance of Roman involvement in Jewish affairs was a complicated matter. On certain occasions their assistance met with some approval, yet at other times interference with particular customs was positively rejected" (87).

During the trial of Jesus we have an introduction to the synedrion. There are a host of characters requiring consideration including the high priest, the "scribes," and the "leading men."

"Uncertainty also remains regarding the references to the synedrion. John does not include the synedrion in the proceedings. Matthew combines the synedrion with the 'chief priests' and draws a
distinction between the two. Mark separates the synedrion from the 'chief priests', 'elders', and 'scribes'. Luke, on the other hand, refers to their synedrion, suggesting that synedrion did not denote one specific institution. Matthew and Mark appear to believe there was a formal Jewish trial against Jesus, which they describe with the term synedrion. This, however, is despite the separation of the synedrion from the other participants. Luke and John move away from such a stance, although the former probably believes there was a formal gathering" (92-93).


It is unclear exactly why the Jewish authorities enlisted Pilate in the trial and execution of Jesus, and why Pilate would in turn enlist Herod Agrippa, but McLaren examines a few possible motives.

"Rather than view Pilate as a 'puppet' in the hands of 'the chief priests', it is conceivable that he and 'the chief priests' acted in league. The presence in Jerusalem of a man who openly opposed by words and deeds the established order of affairs and had gained some public sympathy was likely to anger those Jews who were interested in maintaining the balance of power. Whether Jesus was
concerned with spiritual and/or temporal matters, his message certainly roused the anger of the influential Jews" (99-100).


It is "plausible" that the chief priests presented Jesus to Pilate as a troublemaker to be executed, feeling he was guaranteed to act, and thus the "chief priests" would not bear the responsibility of executing him themselves.

"this incident does not clarify whether the Jews had the ability to try and execute people in the mid-first century A D . The gathering of men to question Jesus before he was taken to Pilate probably sought to confirm their approach in dealing with the matter. There is no reason to assume, however, that the Jews actually wanted to take responsibility for trying Jesus, despite the intentions of
Matthew and Mark. It is, therefore, not appropriate to view the incident in terms of the extent of Jewish judicial independence" (101).


The trials of Peter and John, and Paul before the synedrion are also examined. The synedrion appears to have been headed by the chief priest and was both a sort of advisory body as well as a place where trials on certain matters would take place. Claudius appointed Herod Agrippa to rule Judea sometime after 39 AD and did so until his death in 44, after which Judea returned to direct Roman rule. Many incidents are described where the Jews and Romans both cooperated and negotiated in order to maintain the status quo. It is during this period that Paul is arrested, during the reign of procurators Felix and Festus. Agrippa II, while no longer having actual authority, was still often called on to negotiate between the Jews and Rome as a respected authority.

Jews still had autonomy in conducting their own affairs, legal and religious, under the high priest. Josephus mentions the trial of James and others, who were stoned by the synedrion, for violating some aspect of Jewish custom.The trial of James is the last case where the synedrion functions as a trial court.

"We have no reason to believe that the Jews were unable to try and execute other Jews in practice, providing that the procurator had been informed of the situation" (156). 

The last incidents examined are those in the war against Roman occupation. Josephus records that a large number of priests, the powerful, and the populace were opposed to the war. There were clearly attempts at negotiation to stave off armed conflict. Once Jerusalem was liberated, however, "most Jews in Jerusalem appear to have accepted the path of war and independent rule" (176).

McLaren concludes the book by examining all the accounts of rule and the synedrion. There was definitely a synedrion that was not a "national assembly" but a body composed of religious leaders and led by the high priest which conducted trials and may have played an advisory role. There was also a boule which may have been an administrative body in Jerusalem or greater Palestine (which Joseph of Arimethea may have been a member) but did not play a religious role. When revolt against Rome broke out, the boule was replaced by a "common council" intended to be more representative of the populace.

After the death of Herod the Great the chief priests and other influential laity took a greater role in administration and there was essentially no division between civil and religious affairs. These people represented the community in Jewish-Roman negotiations, with the high priest often acting as the leader of the Jews. The synedrion could be activated whenever the need arose, such as when controversies arose or heretics needed to be tried, but it was not a permanent political institution.

McLaren concludes: 
"Although Rome held overall control through its military power, it was not a relationship of master-servant. Jews retained their sense of community identity and interacted with the Romans as a subsidiary partner on the basis that the territory should remain loyal in frienship to Rome. The revolt of AD 66-70 was, therefore, not inevitable" (225).

His conclusion would seem to counter Dominic-Crossan, Reza Aslan, and others who argue that Jewish desire for independence was very strong and that Jews were looking for every opportunity (and every possible messiah) to cast off the Roman yoke. I give this book 4 stars. It is exhaustively researched and will give the reader plenty of sources to follow up with.

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