By: Helen K Bond
Jerusalem in the 30s CE was in a frequent state of heightened political and religious tension, no time more so than at the great religious festivals. Passover was particularly hazardous, with tens of thousands of pilgrims flocking to the holy city not only from Palestine but from all over the Jewish diaspora. Some, like Jesus, would have stayed with friends in the surrounding towns and villages. Others crammed themselves into the narrow city streets, or even passed the chilly nights in tents outside the city walls. The first visitors began to appear over a week in advance, ready to take part in purification rituals, to prepare themselves spiritually, or simply to spend time in the capital.
It was a joyous, celebratory occasion: work was temporarily stopped, families were reunited, food and wine were plentiful, and hopes and dreams were in the air. At the heart of the festival was a story: an account of a chosen people liberated from slavery centuries before through God’s gracious deliverance. But there was also a tragic irony: Israel was no longer free. This time the oppressors were not the Egyptians, but Rome. Together, these ideas created a lethal cocktail of deep religious yearnings, nationalism, and resentment. ‘It is on these festive occasions that sedition is most likely to break out’ noted the historian Josephus wryly (War 1.88), and most of the riots recorded in his works seem to have occurred at Passover in particular.
Riots in Jerusalem were, of course, the very last thing that the Roman prefect of Judaea wanted. The small province had only been under direct Roman control for twenty years, and the prefect’s primary responsibility was to maintain law and order. Not surprisingly, he took extra security precautions at Passover, leaving his Headquarters in Caesarea-on-Sea with a detachment of troops to bolster the city’s meagre garrison. These were auxiliaries, men drawn from the largely pagan cities of Caesarea and Sebaste; they would be housed in the Antonia Fortress while Pilate based his praetorium in Herod’s former palace (visiting Herods would have to make do with the older and less luxurious Hasmonean stronghold).
The prefect in Jesus’s day was Pontius Pilate, a Roman knight who had been in post since 26 CE, and who had presumably enjoyed an impressive career on the battlefield prior to his provincial posting. He would have been sure to make a striking entry into the city, riding on a horse, accompanied by men in armour, a clear statement of Roman power. Once settled in Jerusalem, the troops were there to be seen, and quickly took up their stations on top of the Temple porticoes in full view of the assembled pilgrims. They would certainly have instilled fear in the onlookers, but their very presence also stoked up resentment. Josephus notes the ill will that existed between the populace and these pagan troops, and no doubt their very presence sometimes caused the riots they were supposed to deter.
Rome had few officials in the provinces, and the prefect needed to rely on the help of indigenous leaders, particularly the High Priest and the Jerusalem aristocracy. Their knowledge of local customs, diplomacy and (it was hoped) the respect they commanded amongst the ordinary people, were invaluable to the Roman governor. In the 30s, the High Priest was Joseph Caiaphas, ably assisted by his father in law, Ananus I (the Annas of the New Testament).
By this time, the High Priesthood was a Roman appointment, and presumably only men who could be trusted to pursue a pro-Roman line could expect preferment. Caiaphas had been appointed by Pilate’s predecessor, Gratus in 19 CE, but Pilate allowed him to continue in office, probably finding him to be an able leader and a useful ally. (In fact, both Pilate and Caiaphas lost their posts within a few months of each other in 37 CE). Scholars nowadays doubt the existence of a fixed, formal, judicial body known as ‘the Sanhedrin.’ While there may have been some kind of a town council which oversaw routine administrative matters, governance of the city seems to have been in the hands of the High Priest alone. Typical of the times, he would have presided over affairs through face-to-face diplomacy, temporary liaisons, and by summoning meetings of relevant aristocrats.
In the tense Passover season, the High Priest, just as much as the Roman prefect, wanted to see peace in Jerusalem. Caiaphas’s chief concern was the smooth running of the vast Temple complex. The regular rounds of feasts and sacrifices guaranteed God’s continued care and blessings not only to the land of Israel, but to the whole world. There was no room for error, and no room for disruption. Riots in particular might lead to Roman involvement, perhaps even profane Roman troops in the sacred enclosures of the Temple. In the turbulent years after the death of Herod I, Roman legions had swept down through the country, stamping out insurrection wherever they found it. Eventually they arrived at the Temple; many Jews lost their lives, the treasury was plundered, and parts of the outer porticoes were burned. Further destruction was averted by the surrender of the city, but the incident must have remained in many people’s memories as an indication of what Rome might do when riled. The fear of the chief priests in John 11:48 that the disruption caused by Jesus might bring about Roman destruction of the Temple was not an idle one. Order had to be maintained, at all costs.
There were advantages for both Pilate and Caiaphas in working together. Perhaps they met one another soon after the prefect’s arrival to agree on tactics. They would have agreed that these were delicate times, that disorder could not be tolerated, and that troublemakers were to be rounded up quickly, before things could escalate. Most routine disturbances could be dealt with by the Roman forces and their commanders; the prefect might be bothered only with more difficult cases. And so a plan of action emerged, an uneasy compromise in the interests of national security between two men who doubtless in other circumstances would have had little time for one another. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Those flocking to Jerusalem for the feast would have known the score. It had been the same every year since the Romans came to power. And as a Galilean prophet rode into the holy city for the Passover and stood in the outer courts of the Temple, ready to overturn the tables of the merchants and money changers in a symbolic act which signified the end of the sacred complex, he could have had no doubt of the fate that awaited him.
Helen K Bond is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh.
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