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Groups in the Gospels (1)

Howard A Barnes, Westhoughton

Introduction to Groups

Most of the "great multitudes" of the Gospels, the common people, had neither the time nor the interest to get involved in the activities of certain groups such as the Pharisees. However, there were many groups in the Gospels – with numbers ranging from a few hundred to many thousands - who played an important role in the story, and knowing something about each of them is useful in understanding the situations described.

Historical Background

The New Testament opens with Herod the Great, who, having been made the "king of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, reigned over the provinces of Idumea (Old Testament Edom), Judea, Perea, Samaria and Galilee, as well as Decapolis, Trachonitis and Iturea, with a population of around 2.5 million. He rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem and was responsible for other magnificent buildings, all of which earned him the title "Great". However, he was anything but great in any other way; indeed he was quite brutal, being responsible for the killing of his own wife and two of his sons, as well as the innocent children of Bethlehem (Mt 2.16).

After Herod’s death, the Romans made his son Herod Archelaus ruler of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. However, Archelaus was eventually considered incompetent by the Roman emperor Augustus, who then combined the individual provinces of Samaria, Judea and Idumea into one single province called Judæa, under the direct rule of a Roman governor based at Caesarea on the coast of Samaria. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judæa from AD 26-36. Herod’s other son Herod Antipas was made ruler of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC–AD 39, and he built himself a new capital at Tiberias near the Lake of Galilee. So, when John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus came onto the public scene, Pontius Pilate and Herod were the "powers that be" (Lk 3.1). Often, both Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas would be resident at Jerusalem for the major Jewish feasts.

Religious Background

In New Testament times the temple at Jerusalem was fully operational, with all the feasts and festivals being celebrated and a full set of priests functioning. However, what was new compared with Old Testament times was the existence of many synagogues. These arose during the period of the Babylonian captivity, when exiled Jews assembled for praise, prayer and the public reading of the scriptures. The word "synagogue" means assembly.

Whereas there were synagogues in most towns and villages, there were quite a number in Jerusalem, catering for different languages and backgrounds, so Luke could have been referring to five different synagogues in Acts 6.9. In terms of Jews abroad, it has been estimated that approximately five to seven million Jews of the Dispersion had more than a thousand synagogues.

Certain rules and structures had evolved for the running of synagogues. First, for there to be meetings there had to be at least ten men present. Sometimes ten unemployed men were paid a small sum to be present at every service to be sure this quorum of ten was met! Each synagogue had a board of elders made up of senior, well-respected men of the local Jewish community, who in turn appointed one or more "rulers" to administer the synagogue affairs. It was the rulers’ role to control the synagogue services, to decide who would be called upon to read, preach, and pray, to look after the discussions, and generally to keep order, with the help of an assistant (Lk 4.20). Also there were chief seats in the synagogue (Mt 23.6; Mk 12.39; Lk 11.43; 20.46) reserved for distinguished members and guests.

In some cases, when people offended in some serious way, they would be "put out" of the synagogue (Jn 9.22; 12.42; 16.2) and this was considered a great shame.

Other relevant features of synagogue life will be discussed as necessary when we deal with the appropriate groups. We will set out the various groups, collected under various headings.

Occupational Groups

Temple-based occupations

(1) The High Priest

Of course, the high priest is not a group, but for the sake of completeness should be considered first. Traditionally, the high priest was the head of the Aaronic family, and the position was normally passed on to the eldest son on the death of a high priest. However, this tradition had long been overtaken by political or economic considerations (i.e. the highest bidder) and Herod the Great and then the Roman authorities chose whoever of the Aaronic family suited them best at any one time and for as long as they thought useful, often for just one year. In the Gospels, two men are called high priests, Annas and Caiaphas (Lk 3.2). The latter was actually the "officially" appointed high priest at this time, but Annas was his father-in-law and had been the high priest previously. After Annas, the Roman governor tried a few more high priests, but in AD 18 he eventually selected Caiaphas who was found to be most co-operative. Caiaphas was a very shrewd individual and survived for eighteen years as high priest, by far the longest term of office during that period. Nevertheless, Annas was still thought of as the patriarch by the Jews and no doubt he had considerable influence with Caiaphas, and he may sometimes have presided over the Sanhedrin (Acts 4.6). Perhaps this was why the Lord Jesus was first brought to him for preliminary examination prior to his trial proper before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (Jn 18.13).

The high priest was supposed to "have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity" (Heb 5.2), however Annas and Caiaphas seemed to have little interest in ordinary people. Of course the high priest alone could celebrate the Day of Atonement as described in Leviticus 16.

(2) Chief priests

This influential Jerusalem-based group, a few hundred in number, was made up of ex-high priests (see above) and heads of the priestly families. They were very prominent in Jewish religious life, especially in Jerusalem. The most important of them seems to have been the "captain of the temple", second only in rank and power to the high priest. The captain’s duties included day-to-day supervision of the priests and of all temple activities. Other chief priests also had supervisory roles, being in charge of the daily and weekly temple services, the temple treasury, and the maintenance of the sacred vessels.

In terms of opposition to the Lord Jesus, the chief priests played the most prominent role, and in lists of joint activities against the Lord Jesus we find the chief priests were almost always mentioned first, with the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the rulers, etc. In this respect they took a leading part in the Sanhedrin (Mt 26.59, 27.1; Mk 14.55; 15.1). It was to the chief priests therefore that Judas went to arrange for the Lord’s arrest (Mt 26.14; Mk 14.10; Lk 22.4; Jn 18.3). They took the leading part in plotting against, accusing, and attacking the Lord Jesus (Mt 16.21; 20.18; 21.23; 27.12,20; Mk 10.33; 15.3,11; Lk 22.2; 23.23; 24.20; Jn 18.3,35; 19.6,15 (cp. Jn 12.10). Last of all, the chief priests organised the cover-up concerning the resurrection (Mt 28.11-15).

Why did the chief priests act in such a bad way towards the Lord Jesus? Pilate knew that "the chief priests had delivered him for envy" (Mk 15.10; Mt 27.18; cp. Acts 7.9).

(3) Priests

There could easily have been 10,000 priests at the time of the Lord Jesus’ public ministry. Unlike the chief priests, most of them lived outside Jerusalem in the towns and villages of Judæa and Galilee. However, according to Jewish tradition, as many as 12,000 priests and Levites lived in Jericho, the second largest city of Judæa after Jerusalem, and some 15 miles away (see Albert Barnes’ New Testament Notes on Luke 10).

The priests were divided into 24 priestly courses or companies (see 1 Chr 23.6; 28.13,21; 2 Chr 8.14), each of which served for a week at a time at the temple, Sabbath to Sabbath (1 Chr 9.25; 2 Chr 23.8). Their duties included lighting the altar fires, attending to the offerings of incense and unleavened bread, and offering the sacrificial animals. It is said that the normal daily temple ritual required the services of up to 1,000 priests and Levites and even more at the times of the major feasts. (For more details see Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple - Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, published 1874, and available free to read or download from the internet at www.ccel.org.)

One prominent priest in the Gospels is Zacharias, (Lk 1.5). What he was doing – burning incense at the golden altar in the temple – was a once-in-a-lifetime work for a priest, because there were so many thousands of priests.1

To be continued.

1 See Vincent’s Word Studies on Luke 1.9, and "Zacharias" in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.


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