THE SANHEDRIN (Who’s Who – 4)

The chief priests, and all the Sanhedrin, looked for evidence for a capital charge against Jesus, but they didn’t find any. Several people invented fictitious charges against him, but their evidence didn’t agree. Then some stood up with this fabricated charge: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple, which human hands have made, and in three days I’ll build another, made without human hands.’” But even so their evidence didn’t agree. [Mark 14:55-59 (NTE)]

The Great Sanhedrin was the Supreme council (high court) of the Jews. Formed around 200 BC and modeled after the 70 elders who helped Moses in governing the Israelites, its 71 members consisted of scribes, priests, and elders with the high priest acting as its presiding officer. Along with religious and ritualistic Temple matters, the Sanhedrin addressed secular criminal matters, proceedings in connection with the discovery of a corpse, trials of adulterous wives, tithes, the preparation of Torah Scrolls, and drew up the calendar. As long as the Sanhedrin maintained public order and the Jews kept paying their taxes to Rome, the Romans were content to leave most of the nation’s judicial matters to them. While the Sanhedrin were supposed to administer justice, in the case of Jesus, they were anything but just; in fact, they sought perjured testimony.

The Sanhedrin’s members had to be of pure Israelite descent. The leading Jews of Jerusalem, they probably were appointed to the position. In the New Testament, the Sanhedrin is also referred to as the “council,” the “chief priests and elders,” the “chief priests, elders, and scribes,” or simply as the “chief priests.” When Judas went to the “chief priests” and offered to betray Jesus, he went to the Sanhedrin. During Jesus’ first trial, the Sanhedrin charged Him with blasphemy but changed the charge to treason when they brought Him to Pilate. It was the Sanhedrin who encouraged the crowd to call for Barabbas to be freed rather than Jesus and they were the ones who bribed the soldiers to say that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb.

While the majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, its scribes were Pharisees and usually the most educated men in the community. Scribes wrote up legal documents, recorded deeds, acted as ancient notary publics and court recorders, and carefully made copies of the Torah. Men of influence, they were well respected and, as professional scholars, were expert teachers and interpreters of Mosaic law.

“Elders” was a general term describing the older leaders of the community. Aristocrats with Sadducee learnings, they probably were priests or lay readers. The priests of the Sanhedrin were high-ranking, wealthy, influential Sadducees. Descending from the tribe of Levi, they served in the Temple and ensured that Temple service was carried out correctly. Originally, the Sanhedrin had the right to appoint or confirm the high priest (who was supposed to be a descendant of Aaron) and the office was a life-long position. By the time of the Herods, however, civil authorities appointed the high priests based on their political and religious sentiments and the position was not permanent. Herod the Great, for example appointed six different high priests during his reign. Because this position should have been life-long, even though Annas was ousted by the Romans in 15 AD, many Jews still considered him the high priest, which is why Jesus was first taken to Annas following His arrest. After this pre-trial hearing, Jesus was then taken to Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law), a Sadducee who was the high priest.

For the Sanhedrin, Lazarus’ resurrection was the last straw—a miracle that could not be denied. Thinking that Jesus’ many miraculous deeds would cause everyone to believe He was the Messiah and lead to their wanting to make Him king, they were fearful that an insurrection would follow. They reasoned that, if Jesus were allowed to continue His preaching, the Romans would destroy the Temple, nation, and their secure positions and aristocratic lifestyle (which they eventually did in the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD). In spite of their religious differences, the members of the Sanhedrin agreed that Jesus had to be stopped.

It was the high priest Caiaphas who suggested that, by eliminating Jesus, they would save the nation from Rome’s reprisal. Little did the priest know that his words were prophetic and he was playing right into God’s hand. Yes, one man, Jesus, had to die for the people but he was mistaken in thinking Jesus had to die to save the Jews from the Romans. That one man, Jesus,  had to die to save all mankind from sin and death.

“You haven’t worked it out! This is what’s best for you: let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out.” He [Caiaphas] didn’t say this of his own accord. Since he was high priest that year, it was a prophecy. It meant that Jesus would die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but to gather into one the scattered children of God. [John 11:5-52 (NTE)]

It was Caiaphas who had given advice to the Judaeans that the best thing would be for one man to die for the people. [John 18:14 (NTE)]

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Then he [Jesus] said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out – and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out right away and began to plot with the Herodians against Jesus, trying to find a way to destroy him. [Mark 3:5b-6 (NTE)]

Great Blue HeronRather than a religious sect, the Herodians were a political group who favored Herodian rule over direct Roman rule. Unlike previous kings of Israel, the Herodian kings were appointed by the Roman emperors. It’s been said that “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” and it seems that way with the various Herods we meet in the New Testament. It was Herod the Great, ruler of Judea from 37 to 4 BC, who enlarged the Temple Mount and began rebuilding the second Temple around 20 BC. This Herod was the “king of the Jews” who questioned the Magi and sought to kill the Messiah by slaughtering boys under the age of two. [Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC.] After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided among his sons and Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. This is the Herod who ruled Galilee throughout Jesus’ ministry—the one who married the wife of his brother (Herod Philip II), beheaded John the Baptist, and sent Jesus back to Pilate.

The next king of Judea was Herod the Great’s grandson and Herod Antipas’ nephew, Herod Agrippa I. Ruler from 41 to 44 AD, his story is found in Acts 12. He put the Apostle James to death, imprisoned Peter (who was miraculously rescued from prison by an angel of the Lord), and met a horrible end when he was consumed by worms. The last of the Herodian line to be king was his son, Herod Agrippa II. Mentioned in Acts 25 and 26, this was the Herod who, after allowing Paul to testify in court, said he’d done nothing to deserve imprisonment or death. The main job of all these Herods was to keep the peace in Judea. They had to maintain a delicate balance by bending to the people’s will just enough to avoid being overthrown and yet not allow the Jews so much independence that Rome would step in and take full control.

Seeing Herod and his family as Judea’s salvation, the Herodians submitted to Rome out of political expediency. Afraid that Jesus would cause an uprising, they saw Him as a threat to keeping Herod on the throne. As long as the land remained peaceful, Herod would rule and the status quo would remain. Knowing that any insurrection would cause the Romans to respond with overwhelming force, they wanted to make a pre-emptive strike against any disturbance by killing Jesus.

Even though the Pharisees wanted a descendant of David on the throne and the Herodians wanted to keep Herod there, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Jesus’ miracles caused people to look to Him for salvation—something not on either groups’ agenda. When Jesus healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees enlisted the Herodians to help in a plot to destroy Him. Although the Pharisees were popular with the people, they lacked the political clout to carry out their plans. As supporters of Herod Antipas, the Herodians held the political power and these rival forces came together to plot against their common enemy.

The Herodians were willing to settle for temporary salvation and peace but Jesus brought permanent salvation and peace. They looked to politics and people when they should have looked to faith in God!

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might trap him into saying the wrong thing. They sent their followers to him, with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said,…. “So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not?” [Matthew 22:15-17 (NTE)]

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They then entered the city (‘they’ here means Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the zealot, and Judas (the son of James) and went to the upstairs room where they were staying. [Acts 1:13 (NLT)]

hong kong orchidAlong with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two other major sects or philosophies mentioned by the historian Flavius Josephus were the Zealots and Essenes. Religion and politics were one and the same in ancient Palestine and the Zealots movement originated with Judah/Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee. Their most basic belief was that any and all means were justified if it led to political and religious liberty for the Jews. When Judah was killed while leading a revolt around 6 AD, his followers fled to the desert and continued in guerilla warfare against the Romans.

Josephus reported that the Zealots agreed in most things with the Pharisees “but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.” The two groups interpreted their suppression by Rome differently. Seeing their oppression as God’s punishment for the nation’s sins and His call to repentance, the Pharisees were confident that once the nation became committed to following the law, God would intervene and their nation would be restored (explaining their rigorous enforcement of the Law). The Zealots, however, believed that the Jews had to reject any ruler other than Jehovah and considered any cooperation with their Roman rulers as traitorous. Fiercely opposed to Rome’s occupation of Judea, they believed God would deliver them with the sword. Regarding the Greek language a symbol domination and paganism, Zealots were opposed its use. Wanting to incite rebellion, they refused to pay taxes, harassed and murdered government officials, and were known to violently attack Jews if they thought them to be collaborators or heretics. There probably were no other groups so diametrically opposed than Zealots and tax collectors and yet among Jesus’ disciples were Simon the Zealot and Levi/Matthew, the tax collector. What a beautiful demonstration of Jesus’ power that, rather than hate each other, these men loved Jesus and one another!

The Zealots, thinking Jesus would incite war against the Romans, initially may have welcomed Him as the Messiah. As His ministry continued and they realized the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke was not a political one and would not come about by military victory, they may have seen Him as a false Messiah. It is speculated that, like Simon, Judas was a Zealot and that his disappointment in a non-military kingdom is what led to his betrayal of the Lord. Barabbas, the criminal whose place Jesus took that day on Golgotha, was a Zealot who’d been sentenced to death because he’d committed murder during an uprising.

The Essenes are the fourth group cited by Josephus who reported they “shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue.” Originating around 150 BC and disappearing after the Temple’s destruction, they’re not directly mentioned in Scripture. Rather than coexist with or fight Rome, the Essenes chose to withdraw from Rome entirely. Disgusted by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, they abandoned Jerusalem in protest against the worldliness of the city, the way the Temple was run, and Roman rule. A monastic Jewish community with strict membership requirements and the communal ownership of their possessions, the Essenes lived in the desert. Living austere lives of poverty, abstinence, and ritual purity, they didn’t sacrifice animals, own slaves, or make oaths. The Essenes believed God would send two messiahs from within their sect. Rather than resurrection, they believed in an immortal soul and, rather than man’s free will, they credited all things to God. When the Apostle Paul warned the Colossians about man-made philosophies, he may have been warning them about some of the Essenes’ unorthodox beliefs. Because of their ascetic lifestyle and their belief that ritual immersion in water (baptism) was an indication of spiritual change, it is speculated that John the Baptist was an Essene but that is merely speculation.

Fortunately, the Essenes were copyists who preserved the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is thought that the Dead Sea scrolls, found by shepherds in Qumran in 1946 or 47, were recorded and stored by an Essene community. Among the scrolls, we have a nearly all the Hebrew Bible along with Essene commentaries on many of them. Even though they are never specifically mentioned in Scripture, they played an essential role in preserving the Word for future generations.

While we tend to think of 1st century Judaism as a unified faith, we find that it was as divided as the Christian church is today.  And, just as Paul warned the Colossians about false philosophies, we must be cautious as well.

Watch out that nobody uses philosophy and hollow trickery to take you captive! These are in line with human tradition, and with the ‘elements of the world’ – not the king. In him, you see, all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence … Don’t let anyone rule you out of order by trying to force you into a kind of fake humility, or into worshipping angels. Such people will go on and on about visions they’ve had; they get puffed up without good reason by merely human thinking, and they don’t keep hold of the Head. It’s from him that the whole body grows with the growth God gives it, as it’s nourished and held together by its various ligaments and joints. [Colossians 2: 8-9,18-19 (NTE)]

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The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to catch him out by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. [Matthew 16:1 (NTE)]

magnoliaIf I mentioned the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs, used the acronyms AARP, NRA, or PETA, or referred to the #MeToo or BLM movements, today’s readers would understand my references but they’d be unfamiliar to a reader 2,000 years from now. That’s the difficulty we sometimes encounter when reading the New Testament. While the authors knew who they were talking about, the 21st century American often doesn’t.

1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus lists at least four main sects of Judaism—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. Although no group constituted a majority, each group claimed to possess the only truth. Since politics and religion were almost the same thing in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, we’ll get a better grasp of the hornet’s nest into which Jesus stepped when He began preaching if we know a little about the various religious and political groups He encountered.

The Pharisees are the group we know best. Having originated about 150 BC, they were comprised of people from all walks of life. Josephus reported that “the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.” Popular with the people and considered the highest religious authorities, these powerful men were influential in the local synagogues. They believed that God transmitted both the written law (the Torah) and an oral law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Believing both the written and oral laws of divine origin and equal importance, they demanded strict observance of both. Their leaders were called rabbis or teachers and often attracted followers or disciples. Jesus frequently censured the Pharisees and clashed with them about things like fasting, hand washing, their concept of the Sabbath, and temple contributions. While we tend to see them as legalistic hypocrites, not all Pharisees were phonies or opposed to Jesus; some even became His followers. Moreover, their emphasis on following Jewish rituals and traditions outside of the Temple kept Judaism alive after the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD.

The Sadducees were another religious group in Jesus’ day. Composed mostly of priests, they existed from about the 2nd century BC until the Temple’s destruction. Their political responsibilities included administering the Jews in Judea, collecting taxes in the temple, and regulating relations with the Roman Empire. Because they were backed by the rich and elite, the Sadducees tended to side with whomever was in power. Because they profited from Temple business, unlike the Pharisees, they weren’t popular. Josephus reported that “the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious (obedient) to them.” It was the Sadducees Jesus criticized when he cleared the Temple’s outer courts of its market and money changers.

Believing solely in the authority of the written Torah, the Sadducees rejected the Pharisees’ oral traditions. Their difference can be seen in the way the two groups interpreted the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” [Exodus 21:24] Inflexible in their literal interpretation of the Torah, the Sadducees would demand the loss of an eye (tooth, hand, or foot) as punishment for causing such a loss to another person. With their oral tradition, the Pharisees interpreted the law figuratively and would only demand that an equal monetary compensation be given to the injured party. While both the Pharisees and Sadducees believed in mankind’s free will, the Pharisees differed in their belief that God had foreknowledge of man’s destiny. Pharisees believed in the existence of angels and spirits, that spirits could communicate with man, and in the resurrection of the dead during the Messianic age; the Sadducees did not.

What both groups did agree on was that Jesus was a threat to their positions and they joined forces against their common enemy. Sadly, each group was so sure they possessed the only truth, it never occurred to them that they could be wrong! They were so intent focusing on the Law that they missed the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies when He was right in front of them!

“Well, well!” replied Jesus. “You’re a teacher of Israel, and yet you don’t know about all this? I’m telling you the solemn truth: we’re talking about things we know about. We’re giving evidence about things we’ve seen. But you won’t admit our evidence. … And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil.” [John 1:10-11,19 (NTE)]

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He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” [Luke 18:27 (NLT)]

Several years ago, we took our daughter and grand-daughter to a magic show. On the way home, we explored various scenarios to figure out how the $50 bill, signed by my husband, that we’d witnessed going up in flames, ended up in the middle of an uncut orange, that was in a paper bag, inside a locked box, inside another locked box, that was way across the stage. While we tried to find an explanation for the trick, my grand piped up, “Stop trying to figure it out. It was magic!”

While it was an entertaining show, we adults knew it wasn’t real magic—just carefully orchestrated and well-executed sleight of hand. But, not wanting to disillusion the little one, we waited until she was out of ear-shot before trying to find an explanation for what we saw. There is something about us that wants to make sense of that which makes no sense, which probably explains the popularity of the CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us in which magicians perform tricks and the hosts try to figure out how they’re done. To determine whether they’ve been fooled and yet avoid exposing the trick’s secrets to the audience, the duo use cryptic language when speaking to the magician to describe the methods they suspect he used. On rare occasions, Penn and Teller are perplexed and the guest receives a trophy. Yet, even when that happens, the audience knows it’s just an illusion rather than anything supernatural.

Magicians are in the business of fooling people but God is not. We can try to figure out a magician’s magic trick but we’ll never find an explanation for God’s miracles. It was not sleight of hand that turned water into wine, stilled a storm, healed lepers, fed a multitude, filled the net with fish, or blinded Paul. It was no illusion that held back the Red Sea, multiplied one widow’s food and another’s oil, caused the sun and moon to stand still, provided manna from heaven, or kept three men from burning in a fiery furnace. Nevertheless, it’s only human to wonder how God covered Egypt with darkness while light fell on the Israelites, caused Jericho’s walls to fall, made water to pour from a rock, turned Aaron’s rod into a serpent, or made a sundial go backwards ten steps. Much in the Bible simply makes no sense in a world ruled by the laws of physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry or any other science.

While magic is merely an illusion, God’s miracles—even though they defy human logic and reasoning—are not! Being the creator of the universe, God has His own set of rules that can be changed at will. One of the greatest minds of our generation was physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. An avowed atheist, he believed the universe is governed by the laws of science and said, “Religion believes in miracles, but these are not compatible with science.” That, however, is the point—a miracle defies human understanding because it transcends the laws we know of nature. If Hawking, Penn and Teller, or anyone else could explain or reproduce it, then it wouldn’t be a miracle.

While God doesn’t want unthinking believers, in the end, we must come to him out of faith, not logic. We come without understanding how a virgin gave birth to a God/man—without witnessing the Holy Spirit descend like a dove from heaven, watching Jesus walk on water, observing Lazarus emerge from his tomb, or viewing Jesus’ resurrected body ascend into heaven. Nevertheless, we believe! “There’s no way he can do that!” is only true when we are speaking of men; with God, all things are possible.

 Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [Augustine]

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

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At the Festival of Harvest, when you present the first of your new grain to the Lord, you must call an official day for holy assembly, and you may do no ordinary work on that day. [Numbers 28:26 (NLT)]

fruitAt sunset yesterday, the Jewish feast of Shavuot began. Originally known as Festival of Harvest or First Fruits, Shavuot is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals given to the Israelites. The first was that of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and the third was the Final Harvest or Ingathering (Sukkot or Tabernacles). Originally, all three festivals were tied to the harvest with Passover at the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot seven weeks later at the start of the wheat harvest, and Sukkot at the last harvest of the season. For a nation who’d left Canaan because of famine, spent four hundred years in a foreign land (much of it as slaves) and then another forty years as nomads, the promise of becoming a people with land of their own, who could plant and harvest for themselves, must have been almost inconceivable.

Two distinct rituals were observed on Shavuot. In gratitude for the harvest, two loaves of bread baked from the new crop of wheat, a bull, seven lambs, two rams, and a goat were offered. In the second ritual, the choicest of the harvest’s first fruits were presented to the priests as these words from Deuteronomy were said: “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.” [26:3] Continuing with verses 5 through 10, the worshiper then acknowledged God’s faithfulness in bringing the people out of Egypt and in keeping His promise to the patriarchs to bring His people to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Because it fell a full seven weeks (50 days) after the Passover, this festival became known as the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot).

Ten days after Christ’s ascension, during Shavuot, a group of believers gathered together in Jerusalem. A powerful wind roared and flashes of fire appeared and “everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Because of the uproar, a crowd gathered and Peter preached the gospel to them. That day, 3,000 people believed and were baptized; these new believers were the first fruits of the gospel harvest. Because it occurs fifty days after Easter, Christians call this day Pentecost, from the Greek meaning “fiftieth.” Because of the difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, however, 2021’s Shavuot began last night but Pentecost will not occur until Sunday, the 23rd.

Because rabbinic tradition held that the Law was given on Mt. Sinai exactly seven weeks from the beginning of the Exodus, the day’s emphasis gradually moved from the first fruits of the harvest to the Torah. By the 2nd century, with the Temple destroyed, what began as a harvest festival commemorated the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

Today, Shavuot celebrates Israel’s bond because of the Torah and Pentecost celebrates Christians’ bond because of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when looking at the origin of this ancient Jewish festival and its acknowledgement that God fulfilled His promise to bring His people into the Promised Land, I think of the many Messianic promises of the Old Testament. Rather than freeing us from slavery in Egypt, God faithfully fulfilled His promise and freed us from slavery to sin. Rather than physically bringing us into Canaan, He brought the Kingdom of God to us. Granted, the story is not over and the Kingdom is not fully realized, but we are in the land He promised and the best is yet to come! Let us be thankful and praise God for all He’s given us!

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. [Deuteronomy 8:7-10 (NLT)]

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