Jerusalem in the 1st century AD was an uneasy place. A thin veneer of calm covered a seething cauldron of oppression, resistance, hatred, racial and religious conflict, and murder. Palestine, known to all conquerors since antiquity as a hot bed of revolution, had by 30 AD been under Roman domination for nearly 100 years since Pompey conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in 63 BC.
The political arrangement was simple. The Roman conquerors wanted peace and taxes, the first to limit the expense in blood and treasure of holding Palestine, and the second to get as much as possible out of the province to finance their Imperial tastes and adventures. Lacking a natural port like Greece, resources like Asia Minor, or major wheat harvests like Egypt, Palestine had little to offer their conquerors except for being an eastern outpost against the Parthians and a land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa. Many troops and lots of money were necessary to hold the land, so the Romans wanted the Jews to be quiet.
The Sanhedrin, the religious ruling council in Palestine, had the most the political power in Palestine except for the Romans. The Jews were a religious people, and could be strongly influenced by the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees, greater in number but forming a smaller percentage of the ruling council, had the confidence of the people. The Sadducees, smaller in number but comprising a greater percentage of the Sanhedrin, had the confidence of Rome. They also had the machinery of the temple to generate wealth and the credibility of the temple and priesthood to support them. Without the temple, the Sadducees had neither authority nor income in Israel. The bargain was simple…the Sanhedrin would keep the people quiet, and the Romans would leave them in their place of honor and not destroy anything.
Into this uneasy stalemate walked Jesus. He taught with authority, lived blamelessly, and performed mighty miracles to testify to His message. He also harshly and publicly rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees, and was extremely popular with the people. Far more than most, Jesus was a threat to the religious and political order in Palestine in the first century. His teachings seemed to conflict with much of Moses’, making it difficult for even the fair minded of the Pharisees to agree with Him. Jesus was no naïve bystander, but had full knowledge and was in complete control of everything that was going on.
Jesus began Passion Week in the worst possible way, from the Jewish leader’s perspective. Riding on a colt, He was greeted wildly by the crowds in Jerusalem shouting “Save Now”! Jesus, the true Messiah, did nothing to quiet the people. Jerusalem was overflowing with patriotic fervor and the crowds and the Passover provided the perfect conditions to begin a Jewish rebellion. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead, His most spectacular miracle. His cleansing of the temple and predictions about the temple during Passion Week were like lightning bolts to the Sanhedrin. Jesus’ words provoked the religious elite repeatedly during the Passover, and Judas’ wanted Him to get on with beginning the revolt against Rome. Combined, these conflicts provided the final impetus and the right setting for the Sanhedrin to get rid of Jesus once and for all.
In Jesus’ Jewish trial, He stood alone before the Sanhedrin as they mocked and threatened Him. Wanting to convict and execute Him before Jerusalem was awake, His trial was a mockery of justice. The Law of Moses required two or more witnesses to condemn a man to death, and by accepting Jesus “confession” without corroborating testimony, they further distorted the Law.
The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead, but were technically not allowed to execute someone (although this didn’t stop them in Acts 7 when they stoned Stephen without approval). Not only that, they wanted Jesus ritually cursed, as would happen if He were crucified (Deuteronomy 21:23). So, they had to take Him to the Romans to be condemned. Although the Sanhedrin convicted Him and sentenced Him to die for blasphemy, the Jewish leaders carefully avoided religious language and accused Jesus instead of fomenting political instability. Knowing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate tried to shift the decision to Herod, and then feebly attempted to save Him, but political expediency prevailed. Christ was crucified.