Organised religion at the time of Jesus
Religion during the life of Jesus on earth had become firmly organised following many centuries from the exodus from Egypt through Moses up until the emergence of the various classes of Sadducees, Pharisees and the Scribes and, of course, standing above these the High Priest. Many centuries of tradition came to culminate in what had become the Jewish religion in the first century AD.
All these groups, though sometimes fighting amongst themselves became the custodians of the Jewish religion and the interpreters of the law of Moses. They considered themselves to be the most qualified to do so. The Temple in Jerusalem was the symbol of their power and through this they exerted enormous influence on the culture of the Jewish people. What they said or decided was law and the entire Jewish people had to conform to their ordinances.
The Mosaic law over centuries had been expanded and a huge class of scriptural scholars arose who deemed themselves to be most capable of interpreting these laws and explaining them to the common man. They also demanded compliance and he who would not comply was ostracised and forbidden to go to the Temple, a fate which was most unpleasant.
Through the power which they derived from the Temple these religious leaders could impose taxes on virtually every Jewish person. The yoke which they laid on the common man is already well known to everyone. The High Priest was the de facto head of state and the tyrannical rule of the religious classes is well-documented so much so that it became not really a question of interpreting the Mosaic law but of enriching themselves through punishing heavy taxes on the people.
In addition to the sufferings imposed by the religious authorities was the Roman occupation which imposed additional burdens on the people. Therefore it is safe to say that spiritually and also in the earthly sense the children of Israel lived under enormous burdens: the Mosaic law was no longer being interpreted in the way that the common man could understand but was being used as a means to oppress the people and rob them of their livelihoods while in the earthly sense the additional burden of having to live under Roman law was detestable.
In the midst of all this came Jesus Who was sent on a purely spiritual Mission. Because of the Nature of Jesus and the Works which He performed it is not difficult to see how the hopes of so many were raised thinking that He had come to liberate them from the Romans. In fact it is the disappointment which many people felt when Jesus refused to address this very issue that led to anger and betrayal in some quarters.
In spite of the fact that Jesus from the very beginning of His Mission had stated that He had come on a purely spiritual Mission, it was not so easy to convince the majority who only had eyes for an earthly freedom instead of the much more valuable spiritual freedom from the effects of sin and darkness.
Jesus met a firmly organised religion which was already set in its ways. It had its traditions and its ways of doing things. Its custodians had amassed great wealth at the expense of the common man and were not about to allow themselves to be challenged by anyone. The tyrannical power which they held over the people was the source of their livelihoods and they were not going to give this up easily. The mere thought of losing this livelihood and equally important their reputations and influence provided the fuel which they used to oppose Jesus.
They were ready to fight with everything they had for their self-preservation even though they knew they were in the wrong. It was a fight for survival. Whatever means they had at their disposal they would use against Jesus Who was now beginning to win adherents to Himself. He had to be stopped.
They could not argue as such with what Jesus was saying because they knew that He spoke the Truth nor could they deny His miracles which were well known. It was then Jesus against an establishment which was bent on its own preservation. In the midst of all this turmoil came the idea of “…it is better for one man to die for the good of the nation…” John 11:49.
All this had nothing to do with the Mission of Jesus which was purely spiritual. Jesus was killed purely because He was a threat to the establishment. It had nothing to do with what we hear bandied about today that His death took people’s sins away, no! This was purely a political assassination or an elimination of a threat to their influence and power and nothing more and mankind should see this as the grievous crime that it was.
It is what it is and cannot be denied or glossed over by anyone. He who denies this does great injustice to Jesus and His great Mission and casts doubt on the Justice and Perfection of God. It is either one or the other, there is no middle course here. Unfortunately the same will happen today and is happening. We have not changed at all in this respect. We would seek to eliminate anyone who dares to put our influence and power and income in jeopardy even if this person speaks the truth and is correct in what he says.