I have a favorite project that my New Testament class does near the start of the year. After a little bit of setting the stage by looking at the cultural shifts of the Intertestamental Period, I divide the class into 4 groups. These groups are tasked with researching and taking on the identity of one of the four main sects of Judaism during the Second Temple Period.
The first of these sects are the Sadducees, who were generally members of the wealthy upper class and had the most political power. During Roman occupation, the Sadducees aligned with Rome for survival. Likely due to their submission to Rome, the Sadducees were the ministers of the Second Temple, Herod’s Temple. As such, the Sadducees did all of the priestly duties and offered sacrificial animals for purchase in the temple courtyard.
Next are the Pharisees, who we in the Christian tradition typically give a bad rap for their legalism. The thing is, the Pharisees were threatened by the Roman Empire and afraid of losing their identity. Their strict emphasis on following both the written and oral laws was an attempt to preserve who they were within an empire known for gradually absorbing the cultures it conquered.
Third are the Zealots, who generally believed the same things as the Pharisees, and were violently against the Roman occupation. Zealots remembered the days of the Maccabean revolts and looked forward to a Messiah who would lead them in an effective revolution out of Roman rule.
Last are the Essenes, who sought to preserve their identity and purity as the true Israel by living outside the towns in their own compounds. The Essenes followed a similar strictness to the Pharisees, and they believed that their separateness from greater society made them holier than those involved in that society.
Another group, not represented in the class, would be the poor and disabled. Popular wisdom of the day said that those who were in this last category were there because of their own (or their parents’) sin. The Zealots, Essenes, and Pharisees all believed that the advent of the Messiah was contingent upon Israel’s purity. This enforced the strictness with which they lived and led them to look down on the poor and disabled, who they believed to be evidence of Israel’s lack of purity. This last group typically had no power or voice in their society.
(Note to you history nerds: some great resources on the topic of Second Temple Judaism that we use in class are Daniel Erlander’s Manna and Mercy and two titles by Darrell L. Bock: Studying the Historical Jesus and Who is Jesus?)
Upon finishing research, the groups present who they are and what they believe. Next, we dig into Mark, chronologically likely the first gospel written. As we read, each group strives to make sense of Jesus through the lens of their sect. Sometimes they were together in their sect groups, sharing information from different chapters as though they were spying on Jesus. Sometimes they form groups where one of each sect is represented, and they attempt to share their findings in a way that protects their own interests yet also finds out what the other sects are thinking.
As we near the end of Mark, I bring the sects together in a forum. The purpose of the forum is to determine what needs to be done with Jesus. Most years, every sect finds enough reason to see Jesus as a threat, traitor, or both, and then they try to find a way to get him killed. The tricky part here is that only Rome has the authority to kill anyone. The sects find themselves walking a delicate balance between a Roman Empire that is both entirely disinterested in petty, Jewish affairs, and still sensitive to any threat of sedition their occupants (*cough* Zealots *cough*) might be concocting. After taking time in the forum to present one’s views, ask clarifying questions of the other sects, and answer concerns, each sect proposes a course of action and everyone votes for the option they like best.
This fall was the 4th time I have done this project, and it was the first time I had a group fully support Jesus throughout the whole study of Mark’s gospel. The Essenes saw how Jesus was caring for the poor and disabled, recognized that all of the sects, themselves included, had failed to do this, and decided that this was generally good for society, and it got them off the hook. (This second reason was probably the big sell.) They held their ground in the forum and were eventually outvoted by their peers who decided that the Essenes should be offered as slaves to appease the Romans in exchange for executing Jesus. While I was surprised at the Essenes tenacity of loyalty to Jesus, I was also surprised by something I’ve seen every year, and in the biblical narrative itself.
The Pharisees and Sadducees always determine that they should be working together, despite their differences, to achieve a common goal. Having a sympathy for the Pharisees because of their desire to maintain their identity, I was struck by why they should ally with the Sadducees in the first place. The Pharisees viewed the Sadducees as sellouts who had voided and betrayed their Jewish identity for a position of economic and political power. The Sadducees should have been the greatest threat to the Jewish way of life, even more than Rome. Rome could give them a hero’s death, but the Sadducees, even if they claimed to be Jews, had bastardized what it meant to be God’s chosen people.
And yet, isn’t this the same pattern we see in our own American political system? When we feel threatened, when our very identity and way of life feel at stake, we align with the powerful. The church has often allied with those in power. This may require us to give up pieces of the identity that we are trying to protect, and yet we think that survival demands protection from those in power.
The example of Jesus stands in stark contrast. Jesus spent his time with the powerless, changing their lives, liberating them from an oppressive religious system, providing hope. He gave up power, submitted to being slandered, beaten, and executed. In one account, Jesus stays silent, not even offering a single word in his own defense. This example runs the risk of death, of annihilation, of losing one’s identity with one’s life. And it is the promise of resurrection that keeps this story compelling.
So we have to ask ourselves: Is our alignment with power about what we truly believe is right, or is it about self-preservation? Does this alignment cause us to jeopardize our own integrity? Do we care about what happens to those without power? And do we believe that the death of the ego, the identity, the ideals that carried us this far are also given the promise of the resurrection? Can we trust Jesus with even that?