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The Romanization of the Sanhedrin

In the aftermath of Christ’s tremendous miracle of raising the dead man Lazarus to life, there was, as there always seems to have been, some who were moved to faith and others who were repulsed by it. John tells us in the final section of chapter 11 that some “went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done” (v46 ESV). Upon hearing of this amazing miracle, the scribes and Pharisees expressed their feeling that Jesus was a threat to them because his success had the potential to bring the attention of Rome upon the Jewish nation. The negative attention of Rome meant a threat to “our place and our nation.” For this reason, Caiaphas, the high priest, proposed a solution to the threat that Jesus posed: “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (v50 ESV).

We should note in this proposal that there very well may have been mixed motives. To be sure, the council cared at some level about the people of Israel. That is to say, they likely did not view Jesus as merely a threat to their own power and position but also to the people and nation whom God had chosen. At the same time, Caiaphas does state that “it is better for you” that Christ die. That is to say, because the power and position of the Sanhedrin were wrapped up with the fate of the nation, the fate of the nation could only have been a proximate concern for these religious authorities. Indeed, John’s language suggests that Caiaphas’ proposed solution will confer a benefit or be advantageous to the Sanhedrin. So, then, at least part of the motivation for seeking to put Jesus to death is the self-preservation of political power, or maintaining the current order of things.

That said, it’s worth reflecting on the irony of this motivation behind Caiaphas’ proposal. Both the felt threat and the proposed solution are motivated by a desire to maintain power through what is really a thoroughly Roman way of thinking. Caiaphas proposes to preserve “our place” and “our nation” from the threat of Roman destruction by doing precisely what the Romans did to preserve the very same thing!

This is remarkable to me because it is a motivation that sets the same trajectory as that which we see in Judges and 1 Samuel. Israel, seeking self-preservation its own way, ends up adopting the practices of the pagan people around it. In fact, Richard Belcher, Jr., has noted that the book of Judges could be subtitled, “The Canaanization of Israel,” because Israel ends up looking like the pagan nations around it. And that same trajectory appears to be at play in this proposal to have Jesus killed for the preservation of the place and nation. The Sanhedrin, seeking to maintain its place and nation—ostensibly to remain separate and apart from the pagan nations around it, like Rome, actually ends up adopting the very ethos of Rome to do it.

After all, it was Rome that perfected the most public and brutal form of fearmongering, i.e. crucifixion, to which our Lord would be subject not too long after the events of John 11. Crucifixion was designed to deter dissent and disobedience through a public display of what would happen to you if you dissented or disobeyed like the person hanging on the cross. The result was Roman self-preservation, or maintaining the current order of things. The Sanhedrin, though not directly advocating crucifixion, nevertheless applies the same idea. To maintain the current order of things, Caiaphas proposes that the council find a way to put Jesus to death. And how very Roman of them to address the perceived threat of Jesus of Nazareth in that way.

Sadly, the trajectory that was set in Judges and 1 Samuel ended with the exile of Israel from the Promised Land. They had become like the nations of Canaan that God had ejected from the land (because of their unrighteousness), and so they, too, were ejected from the land. Thus, the Canaanization of Israel came full circle. In a similar way, the same thing happened to the Sanhedrin. With this proposal to put Jesus to death because of his success, they became like the very nations to which they were supposed to be a light. Thus, there was something of a Romanization of the Sanhedrin, and the result was that they ended up losing their place and nation in 70 A.D. The perceived threat of Jesus, voiced by the scribes and Pharisees became a reality, and the Pharisees themselves were prophetic in their concerns.

The takeaway for us is to be mindful of our motivations and the intentions of our heart lest we, too, be “Romanized” to the point of turning away from Christ and be rejected by him on the last Day.

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