History Articles

History of the Sanhedrin

April 10, 2006 /

jerusalem temple 767413SANHEDRIN

The Greek word ‘sunedrion’, translated council is referred to in the New Testament as “the Great Law-Court”, “the Court of Seventy-One”, and “the rulers and elders and scribes”. It was the supreme theocratic court of the Jews and reflected the local autonomy which the Greek and Roman powers granted the Jewish nation. Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. The council had 70 members plus the ruling high priest. Three professional groups composed the council: high priests (the acting high priest and former high priests) and members of the chief-priestly families; elders (tribal and family heads of the people and the priesthood); and scribes (legal professionals). At the time of Jesus two religio-political parties within Judaism were represented in this membership: the Sadducees of the majority and the Pharisees of the minority. Caiaphas the high priest was a Sadducee. Most of the scribes were Pharisees. The presiding officer of the council was usually the high priest.

The council was connected with the minor courts, being the highest court of appeal from these. The Sanhedrin’s authority was broad and far-reaching, involving legislation, administration, and justice. There was religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction. However, during the time of Jesus, the council had lost to the Roman governor the power of capital punishment. The council met daily, except on Sabbath and feast days, in a session room adjoining the temple. In extraordinary cases, the council met at the house of the high priest. One of the responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was the identification, and confirmation of the Messiah. The gospel writers identify a delegation from the council going out to question John the Baptist as to whether he was the Messiah. There were about a dozen false Messiahs running around during the first part of this century deceiving the people, and it was the responsibility of the council to identify and denounce them. This is why Jesus had to eventually come into conflict with them.

Although the minority party within the council was the Pharisees, they were the majority party outside the council. During the first century, Philo tells us they numbered six thousand. They were highly respected among the people, operating principally in the synagogues. The typical Jewish boy would have received his religious training from a Pharisee. Their name meant “separated ones” and they kept themselves pure of any corrupting influence, including Greek or Roman influences. They first appeared more than a century before Jesus though by this time had little interest in politics. They had a highly developed system of rabbinic tradition which sought to apply the Biblical Law to a variety of circumstances. They held to three doctrines that the Sadducees did not: the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and angels and demons. This they had in common with Jesus, and it should be noted that these were devout laymen, not priests. Where they conflicted with Jesus was the charge that in their over attention to the tradition of men concerning the minutiae of the Law, they had largely neglected the real intention of the Law. Numbered among the Pharisees were Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the great teacher Gamaliel, and his student Saul of Tarsus, also named Paul.

The Sadducees seem to have gotten their name from “zaddikim” the righteous ones. They had little in common with the Pharisees except their antagonism toward Jesus. They represented the Jewish aristocracy and the high priesthood. They had made their peace with the political rulers and had attained positions of wealth and influence. Temple administration and ritual was their specific responsibility. Being well educated and wealthy, they held themselves aloof from the masses and were unpopular with them. They were externally religious and were very political, seeing Jesus as a threat to the status quo. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees held only to the written Law, specifically the first five books of Moses, the Torah.

The New Testament calls two men high priest, Annas and Caiaphas. It turns out that Caiaphas was actually the current high priest at this time, though there are a number of reasons why Annas was called high priest. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas and had been high priest from A.D. 6-15, when he had been deposed by the Roman governor, Valerius Gratus, shortly after the governor took office. The governor tried three more high priests within the next three years until he appointed Caiaphas, in A.D. 18, a man he found cooperative. Nevertheless, Annas was the patriarch and real power behind the high priesthood. While the title was used later for Annas as an honorific, the Jews still saw the high priesthood as an office for life, whether the Romans felt that way or not. He was the senior ex-high priest and may have presided over the council at times. This is why Jesus was first brought to him during his trial.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Herod Antipas

April 9, 2006 /

herod antipasHEROD ANTIPAS

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (whom we met in the Christmas story) and Malthake. After his father’s death in 4 B.C. he was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea in Trans-Jordan. Like his father, he was a great lover of great and artistic architectural works, and built the beautiful Tiberias (named after guess who), as capital of his kingdom on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which was renamed Sea of Tiberias).

He was married to the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia, but afterwards divorced her to the wrath of her father. Antipas found himself at war with the king and was saved only with the help of Rome. He took away from his half-brother, Herod Philip, his wife Herodias. Her influence over him led to his utter ruin. As you may recall the story of John the Baptist, the prophet denounced Antipas’ breaking the Jewish law by taking his brother’s wife. The historian Josephus further tells us that Antipas feared the prophet’s popularity with the people, and subsequently imprisoned him. Herodias did not like the Baptizer and after her daughter Salome pleased the ruler by her dance, after which he promised the girl anything up to half his kingdom, the head of John was requested. This execution did not make Antipas any more popular with the people.

This is the Herod that Jesus called “that fox”. Jesus was not referring to personal pulchritude. From a study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature it can be seen that the fox is both crafty and inferior in its position. The fox is an insignificant or base person, in contrast to the lion. He lacks real power and dignity, using cunning deceit to achieve his aims.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Inspired in part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Pontius Pilate

April 7, 2006 /

Pilate Ecce Homo 774013PONTIUS PILATE

His name provides two valuable clues to his background and ancestry. The family name, Pontius was that of a prominent clan among the Samnites, hill cousins of the Latin Romans. They had almost conquered Rome in several fierce wars. The Pontii were of noble blood, but when Rome finally absorbed the Samnites, their aristocracy was demoted to the Roman equestrian or middle-class order, rather than the senatorial order. It is Pilate’s personal name Pilatus that proves almost conclusively that he was of Samnite origin. Pilatus means “armed-with-a-javelin”. The pilum or javelin was six feet long, half wooden and half pointed iron shaft, which the Samnite mountaineers hurled at their enemies with devastating effect. The Romans quickly copied it, and it was this pilum in fact, that made the Roman Empire possible.

Some historians feel that Pilate rose to prominence and perhaps gained the governorship of Judea under the sponsorship of Sejanus. Lucius Aelius Sejanus was, like Pilate, of the equestrian order. He was the prefect, or head of the Preatorian Guard, the personal body guard of the emperor. Sejanus was an ambitious man. He had the complete trust of the emperor Tiberius, who at this time was living in self-exile on the island of Capri while engaging in various debaucheries. It is quite likely that at this time Pilate was admitted to the inner circle of ‘amici Caesaris’ or friends of Caesar, an elite fraternity of imperial advisors open only to senators or equestrians high in imperial service. This fact would play a part in the later trial against Jesus. The emperor was getting old and paranoid. Sejanus took advantage of this and offered up to Caesar the names of senators he claimed were not loyal to Rome. Tiberius would convict them of maiestas, or treason. Their property and wealth were forfeit, and they usually committed suicide to avoid bringing public shame upon their name. Sejanus hoped to consolidate his power as well as advance himself in the confidence of the emperor, hoping perhaps to become co-consul with Tiberius. However his boldness did not go unnoticed and through the efforts of the future emperors Caligula and Claudius, the plots of Sejanus were made known to the emperor, and Sejanus himself was convicted of maiestas. His allies as well became suspect.

It is unlikely that Pilate was an incompetent official, for he ruled Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. It is doubtful that the emperor Tiberius, who insisted on good principal administration, would have retained Pilate for so long, the second longest tenure of any first-century Roman governor in Palestine. Never the less, the governorship of Judea was a most taxing experience and, aside from Good Friday, it seems from our sources Philo and Josephus that there were a number of other incidents in which Pilate blundered.

In what came to be called “the affair of the Roman standards”, Pilate’s troops once marched into Jerusalem carrying medallions with the emperor’s image or bust among their regimental standards. This provoked a five-day demonstration by the Jews at the Provincial capital, Caeserea, which protested these effigies as a violation of Jewish law concerning engraven images. Pilate finally relented and ordered the offensive standards removed.

Later, he built an aqueduct from cisterns near Bethlehem to improve Jerusalem’s water supply, but paid for it with funds from the Temple treasury. This sparked another riot, which was put down only after bloodshed, even though Pilate had cautioned his troops not to use swords.
On another occasion, Pilate set up several golden shields in his Jerusalem headquarters that, unlike the standards, bore no images, only a bare inscription of dedication to Tiberius. Nevertheless, the people protested, but this time Pilate refused to remove them. The Jews, with the help of Herod Antipas, formally protested to Tiberius. In a very testy letter, the emperor ordered Pilate to transfer the shields to a temple in Caserea, and ominously warned him to uphold all the religious and political customs of his Jewish subjects. This last episode occurred just five months before Good Friday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time


P.S. An excellent historical novel is available by Paul L. Maier, history professor at Western Michigan Univesity called Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novelir?t=billpetro 20&l=ur2&o=1

History of Palm Sunday

April 6, 2006 /

Palm Sunday 4 764484PALM SUNDAY

The week we now call Holy Week, started with Palm Sunday. Why was this week so important that three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) devote a full third of their contents to reporting this week, and The Fourth (John) dedicates its entire last half? Jerusalem, which had a normal population of about 50,000 at this time, had at least tripled in size because of the influx of pilgrims celebrating the Jewish holiday Passover. Early Sunday morning Jesus made his baldly public entry into the city. This was the end of all privacy and safety, and the beginning of what would be an inevitable collision course with the religious and political authorities. Crowds began to gather to see the rabbi from Galilee. The procession began accompanied by shouting and singing from the throngs as they threw down their garments on the pathway to cushion his ride – an Oriental custom still observed on occasions – as well as palm fronds, the symbol of triumph. The Old Testament prophet Zechariah had foretold the arrival of the Messianic king in Jerusalem via the humble conveyance of a colt. Here the crowd hailed Jesus as “the son of David”, a loaded name used at a loaded time. The priestly establishment was understandably disturbed, as the palm was the national emblem of an independent Palestine. These were Jewish flags. What if Jesus should claim to be the heir of King David? (Recent archiological excavations have turned up Roman coins, which have the head of Tiberias (idolatrous to the Jewish subjects) but overstamped with a palm.)

The “conspiracy” against Jesus had been building for at least 3 years, and the sources record seven instances of official plotting against him, two efforts at arrest, and three assassination attempts before this time. This intrigue was no spur of the moment idea. A formal decision to arrest Jesus had in fact been made several months earlier. The Jewish religious officials were afraid that if Jesus were to continue performing his signs, he would win over the people and the Romans would come in and destroy the Temple and nation. According to legal custom at that time, a court crier had to announce publicly or post an official “wanted” handbill in the larger towns of Judea about forty days prior to a trial. Small wonder that there was some debate over whether Jesus would dare appear in Jerusalem for the next Passover. This discussion ended abruptly on Palm Sunday.

There were political reasons for dealing with Jesus. There had been a dozen uprisings in Palestine in the previous 100 years, most of them subdued by Roman force. Another Messianic rebellion under Jesus would only shatter the precarious balance of authority, break Rome’s patience, and might lead to direct occupation by Roman legions.

Religiously, Jesus was a dangerous item. The people were hailing the Teacher from Galilee as something more than a man, and Jesus was not denying or blunting this blasphemous adulation. Personally, the Pharisees had been bested by Jesus in public debate, being called vipers, whitewashed tombs, and devourers of widow’s houses. Humiliated, they would be only too happy to conspire with the scribes, elders, and chief priests. There were economic motives for opposing Jesus as well. Seeing the commercialization of the Temple, Jesus had driven the dealers and animals out, as well as turning over the tables of the moneychangers causing a major disruption in business. There were many reasons for dealing with Jesus.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

Historical Climate of Easter

April 5, 2006 /

Jerusalem sunset 782873HISTORICAL CLIMATE

What was the historical climate surrounding the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? This man born to die, not just in the normal sense, but in some special sense, entered Jerusalem amidst a torrent of political, social and economic turbulence. The events in Palestine at this time are rarely linked to the larger context which controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the culmination of Jesus’ career was really a tale of two cities – Jerusalem and Rome. In these historical notes we will examine this climate. Some of the subjects we will examine include:


Palm Sunday

  • what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?

The Trial

  • what took place during the trials, what laws were involved?

The Crucifixion

  • what was involved?

The Resurrection

  • what do we know about it?



  • who was he, what were the pressures he faced, did he fly a plane?


  • was he as clever as his father, Herod the Great

Pharisees & Sadducees

  • how were they related, which held the greater power, and how were their names spelled.

The Sanhedrin & the High Priests

  • what was the makeup and jurisdiction of the council. Who was the current High Priest, Annas or Caiaphus, the New Testament calls them both High Priest?

Our story begins during the last week of March, A.D. 33. The relationship between the Jews and Rome went back at least 100 years. In 63 B.C. a dispute arose between two factions of the high priestly family. One of the factions appealed to Rome for assistance. The result of this was that General Pompey arrived in Palestine during his reorganization of the East and made Judea a Roman client kingdom. Herod the Great was appointed king (remember him from the Christmas story?). Upon his death in 4 B.C. the kingdom was divided into 4 tetrarchies among his sons. His son Herod Antipas (we’ll meet him again) was given Galilee and Pereae. Archelaus received Judah, Idumea, and Samaria which he ruled so poorly that he was banished and replaced by a succession of Roman governors or prefects. Judea was neither one of the more important, nor more illustrious provinces and for that reason was not ruled over by a member of the more noble ‘senatorial’ class. Instead, a member of the equestrian class (equus=horse Lat., ‘knight’ or official), the middle class which made up an important part of the Roman bureaucracy and military. The sixth of these governors was Pontius Pilate.

For centuries the Jewish people had awaited the coming of a Messiah, “the anointed one” of God who would rule on the throne of King David and deliver them from their oppressors. This expectation ran throughout the Old Testament, with a number of themes attached: God’s vice-regent on earth, a deliverer from political oppression, a suffering servant who would deliver the people from their sins, an eternal ruler. During the period between the Old and New Testaments, ca 400 B.C to A.D. 65, a large amount of literature surfaced, called apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, repeating and embellishing the concept of the Messiah. (The Greek word of the Hebrew Messiah is christos, or “anointed one”, from which we get the word Christ. Christ was not Jesus’ name, but rather a title, Jesus the Christ.) Before the Romans, the Jewish people had suffered under a number of occupying oppressors, including the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Medeo-Persians. After almost a hundred years under the Romans the expectation for the Messiah had reached almost a fever pitch. This was the condition when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Time

April 4, 2006 /
Categories: ,

clock 791004TIME


On Wednesday of this week, on April 5 at two minutes and three seconds after 1 o’clock, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. This will never happen again unless you use a 12-hour clock, in which case it will happen again 12 hours later… or unless you live in Europe or elsewhere that uses dd/mm/yy format, where it will happen on May 4… it won’t happen again, at least until the next century!

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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History of April Fools Day

March 31, 2006 /

April Fool 745101APRIL FOOLS’ DAY

April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day, is the name given to the custom of playing practical jokes on friends on that day, or sending them on fools errands. The origin of this custom has been much disputed; it is in some way a relic of those once universal festivities held at the vernal equinox, which, beginning on the old New Year’s day, March 25, ended on April 1.

Another view is that it is a farcical commemoration of Jesus’ trials during Passion Week when he was sent from Annas’ House to Caiaphas’ Palace to Pilate’s Praetorium to Herod’s Hasmonean Palace and back to Pilate again… which culminated in his crucifixion on Good Friday, which may have been April 1.

The observance in the UK of April 1 goes back to ancient times, though it did not appear as a common customt until the early 1700s. In Scotland the custom was known as “hunting the gowk”, i.e., the cuckoo, and April fools were “April gowks.” The France would designate this person as poisson d’avril.

In the US individuals and employees would concoct elaborate hoaxes on April Fools’ Day. At Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, for example, the size and complexity of these hoaxes were legendary in the 1980s in particular, with local television and radio media showing up to capture the event.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood hysterian

History of St. Patrick’s Day

March 16, 2006 /


Although much of the life of the patron saint of Ireland is shrouded in legend, he was probably born around the year 389. What we do know about him comes from his book, “The Confession”, which he wrote near the end of his life. It begins, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful…My father was Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a presbyter, who was at the village of Bannavem Taberniea.” He was born it seems in the Severn Valley in England; British, not Irish. He was doubtless educated in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain under a Christian influence with a reverence for the Roman Empire, of which he was a citizen. His father was a landowner and together with his family he lived on their estate. At the age of sixteen, when he claimed he “did not then know the true God,” he was carried off by a band of Irish marauders. Irish tradition says he tended the herds of a chieftain in the county Antrim. His bondage lasted for six years during which time, as he wrote, “turned with all my heart to the Lord my God.”

He fled 200 miles to the coast of Wicklow, and encountered a ship engaged in the export of Irish wolf-dogs. After three days at sea the traders landed, probably on the west coast of Gaul, and journeyed twenty-eight days through the desert. At the end of two months Patrick parted company with his companions and spent a few years in the monastery of Lerins. After returning home from the Mediterranean the idea of missionary enterprise in Ireland came to him. He seems to have proceeded to Auxerre where he was ordained by Bishop Amator and spent at least fourteen years there.

While in Ireland Patrick was both an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus and an organizer of the faithful. He battled heresy as well as engaged in trials of skill against Druids. There is some evidence that he traveled to Rome around 441-443 and brought back with him some valuable relics. On his return he founded the church and monastery of Armagh. Some years later he retired, probably to Saul in Dalaradia.

Patricks WellAs one travels through Ireland, there are many stories and legends about Patrick. One in Dublin has it that the St. Patrick Cathedral (pictured at the top) is situated at the site of an old well where Patrick would baptize converts into the faith. There is a stone tablet in front of the church commemorating the location (pictured at right).

Patricks titleIn modern times St. Patrick’s day has become primarily an ethnic holiday celebrating Irish heritage in much the same way as Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian ethnicity in the United States. You can’t close down the schools on St. Patrick’s Day without showing ethnic bias. So Massachusetts’s Suffolk County closes the schools to commemorate March 17, 1776, the day the British cleared out of Boston. For the record, they call it Evacuation Day.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of the Ides of March

March 14, 2006 /

Ides Forum CuriaIDES OF MARCH

According to the ancient Roman calendar, the ides fell on the 13th of the month with the exception of the months March, May, July, and October, when it fell on the 15th.

It was on March 15, 44 B.C. that the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated. Contrary to popular belief, including William Shakespeare, Caesar was not assassinated in the Capitol, meaning the Curia Hostilia or Senate House in the Roman Forum at the foot of the Capitoline Hill (pictured at top), but rather near the statue of Pompey at the Theatrum Pompeium (pictured at right in the Largo di Torre Argentina in modern day Rome), where the Senate used to meet at that time. This precinct is now a Cat Sanctuary (as you can see the cat in the center of my photo) where I counted over a dozen homeless cats. They are regularly fed by local women.

Ides Forum RostraMarc Antony would have delivered his Shakespearean “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from the Rostra of the Forum, directly across from the Curia (pictured at left).

Ides Forum CremationDead bodies could not be kept inside the City, and Caesar was cremated in the Forum (at the location pictured on the right).

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian