A great darkness lay over the land where soon would shine the first Light of the newborn Son. This darkness was not only spiritual, but political as well. Let us look at some of the institutions, so roundly admonished by Jesus.
The Sanhedrin dates back no further than the second century B.C. when the Seleucid kings who ruled Palestine decided to form a local government such as already existed in many Hellenistic cities. That is, they gave the council of the Ancients, which administered the city's affairs, the right to make civil and religious laws, subject to the supreme authority of the king. Since Jerusalem was the capital of Judaism, the decisions of this council had directive force for other Jewish centers in the Seleucid monarchy as well, although these still retained their own local councils, also called "sanhedrins."
The great Sanhedrin then came into being as a limited form of autonomous government conceded to the Jews by foreign kings. However, if a native monarchy or despotism was instituted, the great Sanhedrin lost a great deal of power, which is exactly what happened under the tyrannical Herod, who left it with merely a shadow of authority.
The Romans were very tolerant of the religious beliefs and practices of their subjected peoples, in addition to giving them a limited amount of civil juridical freedom. Thus, the Sanhedrin was entrusted with the administration in Jerusalem.
Composition of the Sanhedrin
The body was largely composed of the aristocracy and consisted of seventy-one members including its president, the High Priest. The members were divided into three groups:
1. Chief Priests -- Sadducees, of the sacerdotal and usually wealthy aristocracy, most influential at the time of Jesus.
2. Ancients -- Represented the lay aristocracy, also the Sadducees.
3. Scribes -- Composed of more active laymen and Pharisees, but also some Priests and Sadducees. After 70 A.D. this was the only group which remained.
Jurisdiction extended over all the Jewish world. However, outside Palestine most Jewish communities were taken care of by their own councils or sanhedrins, and only in rare cases was the Great Sanhedrin summoned.
"Sadducee" comes from a word meaning "righteous" or "just." The Sadducees as a group were designated a liberal faction, culturally more prone to innovation than their opposition, the Pharisees. But in their religion, they attempted to preserve the original and true moral heritage of Judaism, and rejected the changes and innovations of the Pharisees.
The Torah, "The Law" which Moses had given the nation, was the one and fundamental Law. The Sadducees refused to accept the additional oral regulations of the Pharisees based on tradition. They said that this tradition was merely a distortion of the simple pristine Hebrew Spirit.
Because the Pharisees greatly interpreted the Torah, they worked the oral law into a system which gradually assumed a greater importance, in practical use, than did the Torah.
By 70 A.D. the Sadducees had been restricted to the Temple and to the great sacerdotal or wealthy families centering about it. After the destruction of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D. the Sadducees disappeared from history, and later Judaism was dominated solely by the Pharisaic tradition.
The word "Pharisee" is derived from the Hebrew "Perushim" or the Aramaic "Perishayya" which means "separated." These were the Hebrew separatists, those who sought to keep every- thing strictly Jewish in a land that was gradually coming under the Greek influence, as the more wealthy aristocrats, the Sadducees, began to absorb some foreign ideas.
They were bitter toward the ruling classes, for after they had fought to put them on the throne, in order to oppose the spreading Greek culture, they found that these rulers once installed turned toward the very culture and philosophy they had been put in office to oppose. So the Pharisees rebelled, but unlike most rebels, they rebelled backward in favor of increased complexity in the old Jewish traditions in all things, to keep it unmixed from foreign influence, though added to by themselves.
Yet the Pharisees held aloof from the common people too, thinking themselves superior and practically untouchable. They kept aloof from all that was not Jewish, and all that was irreligious and impure, since in Judaism, religion and legal purity were inseparable concepts.
The Pharisees held that the Torah, the "written law" was only a part and not even the principle part of their national-religious constitution. There existed in addition the more extensive "oral law" composed of the innumerable precepts of "tradition," or actually customs which had been multiplied through use, and passed along as law by those who thought these should be followed.
This oral Law was composed of narrative and other elements; a system of precepts which covered the most varied of activities in civil and religious life. This mass of traditional beliefs and customs rarely had any true connection with the written Torah.
The Pharisees overcame this obstacle by subjecting the Torah to arbitrary interpretation. The written tradition contained 613 precepts, while the oral Law was far more extensive but no less binding.
Actually the oral Law was more binding. The Scribes wrote, "Greater weight have the words of the Scribes than the words of the Torah." Having established the principle of authority OVER the Torah, any law could be drawn up with the backing of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees drew their support from the people, who were hostile to all that was foreign, and deeply attached to those traditional customs from which the Pharisees derive their oral Law. The historian, Josephus, gives a descriptive account of the Pharisees in his Wars of the Jews.
This group studied the Law but hinged their study on three main questions: The Sabbath rest, payment of the tithe, and ritual purity. Their method was to acquire first a knowledge of the maxims and opinions already deduced from tradition, and second to study their extensive application and subsequent development. The Talmud is in part a collection of maxims written or orally handed down through the centuries by the Pharisees and by doctors of the Law.
Even before the invectives of Jesus, some truly pious Jews wrote against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus spoke out in general against their actual behavior rather than their teachings. We can understand Jesus' words in Matthew 23, when he says: "The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat. So practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders . . ." and wonderment was with the people that Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
No general judgment can be made with respect to the conduct of all the Pharisees, for there were truly outstanding masters like Hillel, Gamaliel and Elder who taught St. Paul, and others. Jesus himself was on good terms with some -- like Simon, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea. But those who valued their positions hesitated to come out openly in Jesus' behalf.
The priesthood became identified with the Sadducees (those of the wealthy class), and the doctors of the Law with the Pharisees. Therefore, it can easily be seen why Jesus spoke primarily of the Pharisees and Scribes.
The sphere of the priesthood was restricted to the Temple liturgy and political intrigue while the function of Scribes brought them into direct contact with the people as teachers of the Law, representatives of Moses in the synagogues and the streets.
The Scribes were not all Pharisees, as in practice not all Pharisees were Scribes, since one might not have had the necessary education. The Scribe was the most educated in the Law -- he could be priest or layman, Pharisee or Sadducee. At the time of Jesus, only very few Scribes were priests and Sadducees, being mostly laymen of Pharisaid beliefs. That is why the Gospels appear to link the two.
Any descendant of Abraham could become a Scribe, but the road was hard and long. The study often began in boyhood (as with St. Paul) at the feet of a master. The course of study was not completed by the student until usually around forty years of age; and since he was often poor, he had to work at another trade in order to earn a living.
Before the split in Jewish thought, the Jews found that they had no actual record of the Laws or Words of God. So some decided to completely dedicate their lives and work solely on the Law, the one good they still possessed, in order to preserve it with all care, transmit it with complete accuracy, and examine and apply it with careful study. These men were diligent copyists and teachers in the broadest sense of the term. Therefore, as one skilled in the Law, the title of honor, Rabbi ("my great one") was given to him.
The authority of the scribes was very great even as early as 200 B.C. But it became even greater as it became a rising position opposite the priesthood. In the time of Jesus the priesthood had kept its liturgical duties and its rank in the Jewish theocracy, having lost all influence so far as the spiritual formation of the multitude was concerned.
The true spiritual father and teacher, the moral guide and catechist, was no longer the priest, but the Scribe. The priests took less and less interest in the Law and the laity supplemented them in the spiritual direction of Judaism.
The Scribes were the professional "learned men," the scholars and intellectuals of that day. Complicated systems of writing made the scribe a professional specialist hired by kings and merchants to communicate and interpret. Since he was in control of all the information, he came to have importance as possessor and transmitter of all the learning. He was responsible for the production and copying of all literature, for keeping the records of government, of history, and of business transactions for trade. They began to assume a class snobbery, with contempt for the laboring class.
Their scholarship consisted in knowledge of the Law, which was regarded as the sum of wisdom, and the only true learning. They were not members of any party or sect, but most were Pharisees. They were hostile to Jesus who posed a threat to what they felt was the integrity of the Law to which their own lives were utterly devoted, and which they considered the very heart of Judaism. They cherished the tradition and refused to admit the validity of any change.
There was a saying among them that the study of the Law was greater than royalty or the Priesthood. Some Pharisees devoted their whole lives to the study of the Law, with the possible exception of time spent on the side for some kind of livelihood. Students of the Law became very conscious of their own great merit. Underlying all this were the commandments of Moses and the words of the prophets through the ages, but the kernel of them began to be ignored, hid in the rubbish of a pile of rules. As Jeremiah (8: 8) had cried out, "How can you say . . . the Law of the Lord is with us? But behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it a lie."
The spiritual significance became lost in the man-made additions, and the commentaries on the Law which took precedence over the Law itself. There were several thousand of them, and their three main objectives had to do with rules for the Sabbath, with legal "purity," holding themselves aloof from all non-Pharisees, and with law as governing worship, such as tithing and ritual. They held a ponderous measure of respect with the people.
The Zealots were a nationalistic party with a radical and fiery attachment to liberty, indifferent to personal suffering and fear- less of death. It has been thought that Simon Peter was a Zealot, though it was another apostle who was called Simon the Zealot.
This party was an offshoot of the Pharisees, but more rigorous in political zeal and willing to risk all for Jewish independence. They finally, after Jesus' time, precipitated the wars and were then deleted from history, but the Pharisees have remained to this day as the main body of Jewish faith.