I’ve been a political and ecclesiastical independent all of my adult life. It’s partly because Jesus was that way, too. For example, next month I plan to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. I will have been a member of this group for twenty years and will have attended every Annual Meeting except one. Everyone who attends wears a badge of identification. Under my name on my badge it will say “Independent.”
I’m not saying this because I’m proud of it. I’m only saying it since it’s a fact. But if I had not chosen to be a professional golfer, but a religious or scholarly occupation, things may have been different. Yet, when I co-founded the PGA Tour Bible Study, we discussed about how we would identify ourselves. We decided that since people of our group would have had many diverse religious backgrounds, it was best that our group remain independent of any religious affiliation, such as a church denomination or even calling ourselves Protestant our Evangelical. Indeed, over the years we had many Tour players who attended the group who had Catholic backgrounds. I’m saying all of this because it probably has something to do with why I’m still a religious independent today. Having said this, I should also say that I also believe in the church and in attending church regularly with the people of God.
During the time of Jesus, the tiny nation of Israel was located within the geographical confines of the great and sprawling Roman Empire. Yet, Israel was the only territory within the geographical boundary of the Roman Empire that was not part of it. Israel therefore occupied a unique status in subjugation to Rome. Even though Israel was largely a religious nation that uniquely worshipped one God, under Roman dominance Israel could not operate as the theocracy it was originally designed to do in accordance with the so-called Law of Moses.
This bifurcated situation for Israel involving its identification with one God and its political subjection to Rome always irritated much of Israel’s population, which latter consisted almost entirely of Jews. Israel still had its own political parties. One was the secretive Zealots who advocated the violent overthrow of Roman authorities in Israel. One of Jesus original Twelve Apostles included Simon the Zealot (Luke 6.15). He apparently was called that due to formerly being a member of the violent Zealots. Years later, they caused the First Jewish Revolt, in 66-70 AD. It resulted in the Roman military completely destroying the temple at Jerusalem.
In contrast, there were the Herodians. Their members previously had been friendly to Herod the Great. He had been a Gentile king of Israel. So, Herodian Jews were pro-Rome. Herod’s legacy was the building of some magnificent structures in Israel which included the restoration of its temple at Jerusalem. It was called popularly Herod’s Temple and one of “the seven wonders of the world” at that time. Herodians desired to restore the Herodian Dynasty to Israel, yet remain attached to the Roman Empire.
Yet, it was the party of the Sadducees that controlled the religious life in Israel, especially the ruling Sanhedrin made up of seventy members with its dominant high priest always being a Sadducee. The Sadducees also controlled the worship in the temple at Jerusalem.
Not to be forgotten was the third most prominent religious group in Israel–the Essenes. They are most known for their separatist ideas, strict adherence to Halakhah, and their denunciation of the other religious parties, especially the Sadducees, as being morally corrupt. Many Essenes withdrew from Jewish society to establish the Qumran Community in the Judean wilderness to the east, thus overlooking the Dead Sea. These people are most known today for having preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Then, there were the theologians in Israel who formed schools, also called “houses.” The foremost were the School/House of Hillel and the School/House of Shammai, both being named after sages. These schools often were engaged in disputes about theology and how to live life.
For example, when some Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19.3), they posed this question because it was vigorously disputed between the houses of Hillel and Shammai. Those of Shammai said a man could divorce his wife only if she was guilty of adultery, whereas those of Hillel, being liberal, said a man could divorce his wife merely for burning his dinner. (No joke!)
But Jesus would not commit himself to any of these parties. Instead, he remained an independent. Of course, we ought to remember that Jesus was no more than a laborer most of his adult life. For we read, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Luke 3.23). It consisted of traveling about Israel as an itinerant preacher and healer. Yet he did this only for about two or three years before he was put to death.
So, all during Jesus’ public ministry he remained independent from all of these political, religious, and theological parties. For we read about Jesus in the Gospel of John, “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2.23-25 NIV).