Romans 13 as a Pharisaic Political Strategy: Approaching the Tension from Historical Perspective

by Nestor Ravilas

How much of his Pharisaic formation stayed? And how does this residue of his former religious upbringing correlate with his new found faith? Catherine Mills doubts that anyone is capable of breaking out from one’s identity formation. Although Judith Butler, out probably of her Hegelian training, casts a positive stance on this issue of identity shifting. She winces a bit, however, telling us that the task is next to impossible. Was Paul then a converted Christian with his Pharisaic foundation remains intact, lurking beneath and indirectly assisting him all the way in reading and interpreting things happening around him, including his new religious persuasion? Was his feisty stand against those “trouble makers” in the churches of Galatia bespeaks of Pharisaic symptoms who are known for intolerance of competition as demonstrated earlier by the Pharisees who bothered and interrogated Jesus throughout his life for his non-Pharicsaic reading of the Torah?

Paul’s conversion is a watershed in the drift between the Rabbinic Judaism and of Christianity. He is not only the man who popularized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, but demeaned at the same time its fiercest rival, the Pharisees. It was commonly accepted that after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, only two of four religious schools of Judaea survived: the Pharisaic party that turned to be the Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement that later becomes Christianity.
Pharisee/Rabbinic Judaism on the other has a long and celebrated history than Christianity. Their formation might have been occasioned by the reforms initiated by Ezra and Nehemiah. The earliest mentioning of their group, however, was during the time of the greatest Hasmmonaean prince, John Hyrcanus, as reposted by Josephus in his Judean Antiquity. Since then, despite the effort of Josephus to discredit the group as observed by Steve Mason, the Pharisees become an influential and popular Jewish sect. Although opinion varies as to whether they remained popular and influential during the time of Herod, the Synoptic Gospels however attest to the fact that during the time of Jesus, the Pharisees remained that way. If indeed correct that the Pharisees were the forerunners of the Rabbinic Judaism that survived the onslaught of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it only says that the influence and popularity of the Pharisees have never receded from the time of Alexandra Salome up to the fall of Jerusalem. This might be the pride and honor bear by every Pharisee, including former members who converted to other sects.
In the history of the Pharisees which occurred much in the narration of Josephus of the Hasmonean dynasty in his book, the Judean War, their influence and popularity is attributable to their political cunning in playing along with those in power. The golden years of the Pharisees occurred during the reign of Hasmonean queen, Alexandra Salome. But having John Hyrcanus, father-in-law of Salome, as their student says that their dominance against their rival group, the Sadducees, predates the said golden era. Through the shrewdness of the Sadducees, however, the Pharisees were dropped by John Hyrcanus and declared as outlaws and their precepts or Torah interpretation was replaced. The tension of the Hasmonean house with the Pharisees was inherited by Alexander Jannaeus, son of John Hyrcanus and husband of Alexandra Salome. The fray went berserk that many Pharisees were killed by Jannaeus. Jannaeus reign, however, was beset by trouble throughout because the people sided with the influential Pharisees. Thus, in his deathbed, he asked his wife, Alexandra Salome, to reconcile with the Pharisees, so as not to inherit the grudge he and his father, John Hyrcanus, had with the Pharisees and the Jewish people who had supported them.
Alexandra Salome did as she was told, she reconciled with the Pharisees. To make the story short, the Pharisees reigned supreme in this time of puppet government of the queen. They established well themselves, made their legal precept installed, making their dual Torah acceptable, and ruled both Jewish religion and government. Everything the Pharisees did was ingrained in Jewish society that even during the time of Herod the Great and of Jesus they remained the most popular and influential group to reckon with.
Does this Pharisaic pride slip the mind of Paul? Was not the Alexandra Salome incident the inspiration behind his appeal for Christian to submit to a friendly Roman government? To play along so as to accomplish much while the government is unsuspicting of his group? It could be a Pharisaic political strategy tried to mix with the Christian activism inherited from the Baptist-Jesus tradition. This does not suggest, however, to drop such stance of the Baptist and Jesus against oppression and injustices, but a proposal to seize the time while the ruling government is friendly and just. The Alexandra Salome period which is the golden years of the Pharisee might be the model to Paul’s admonition in Romans 13, but it does not say anything once the political tide turns to an Alexander Jannaeus’ style of rule who hanged thousands of Jews while having a party in the palace. Definitely, the tune will really change in such kind of political condition.

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