Den of thieves: When religious elites manipulate politics

Jesus was no stranger to religious leaders getting tangled up with politics. In fact, he reserved his harshest criticism for the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

Mar 14, 2020

By Anil Netto
Jesus was no stranger to religious leaders getting tangled up with politics. In fact, he reserved his harshest criticism for the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. They acted all holy but then burdened the people with all sorts of religious obligations.

The High Priest at the time of the kangaroo trial of Jesus was Caiphas, who must have had a good working relationship with the Roman occupiers or overseers. This was a time when these high priests could be easily removed and replaced by the Roman prefects. So it it easy to imagine how beholden they were to the Roman imperial rulers.

In fact, Caiphas’ stint as High Priest (AD18-30) as high priest coincided with Pontius Pilate’s reign (AD26-36) as Roman Prefect for the territory. Pontius Pilate was, to put it mildly, brutal and insensitive to local religious traditions. By the time Caiphas was in office, the office of the High Priest was heavily politicised.

Also very much in the picture at the time of Jesus’ trial was the “high priest emeritus” Annas (or Ananus son of Seth). Annas was still influential, having served as high priest from AD6-16. That is why Jesus was first sent to him.

It was a cosy arrangement between the religious elite and the political rulers from Rome. It allowed the Romans to “outsource”  the pacification of restless local populations to local religious leaders or client or puppet kings.

The religious elites were all too aware of the consequences of allowing ferment to brew, fertile soil for rebel movements led by self-proclaimed messiahs.

Of course, Caiphas may have had “noble” intentions prompting him to say it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish (at the hands of Roman retribution).

The religious elites only had to look at how the Romans brutally suppressed rebel movements that sprang up after the mad tyrant Herod the Great died, soon after Jesus’ birth at around 4BC. Earlier, the Roman’s complete destruction and sacking of Carthage in 146BC could have played on the mind of the religious elites.

So we can perhaps understand why they were on tenterhooks when Jesus toppled the money-changers’ tables in the week of  Passover, that great festival celebrating liberation from slavery in Egypt. The fervour during these festivities was laced with political overtones, considering that the Romans were now occupying Judea.

It is no wonder that one of Pilate’s main duties was to oversee the Temple during the period of the Passover, when thousands of the faithful would converge around the Temple.


The Temple back then was the centre of religious fervour – and economic activity, for it also served as the Treasury. No doubt, there was a lot of self-interest involved among the religious elites. Apart from managing the Temple treasury, the high priests were almost like kings, in the absence of any serious political leader or secular king. The high priest and his cronies also presided over supreme religious council, the Sanhedrin.

That’s not all. While they did not have luxury limousines(!), they did live in more than-comfortable mansions, complete with mosaic flooring, carved stucco wall decorations , stone table tops, fine glassware and other luxurious trimmings – all in stark contrast to the lifestyles of the average peasant or casual worker.

In return for the high priest keeping politically charged religious fervour in check, the Romans allowed the religious elites all these perks. They also allowed the Jews certain concessions: they were exempt from worship of the Roman emperor, military service and court attendance on the Sabbath. The Jews were allowed to settle inter-Jewish disputes according to their law and tradition.

It was a cosy arrangement, the religious elites’ collaboration with the political rulers.

But Jesus saw straight through the charade, and he made every attempt to undermine the priestly class’ notions of clean and unclean, pure and impure and what made the Sabbath holy.

The last straw came when he created havoc in the Temple by toppling the moneychangers’ table while blasting this whole place, the centre of religious control of the territory at the service of vested political interests, as a “den of thieves”.

Unfortunately, the problem of religious elites manipulating political sentiments for their own ends has continued throughout history to this day.  Den

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