Corruption will be the ruin of a nation!

In the time of Jesus, a cosy, corrupt collaboration existed between the religious aristocracy and the Roman occupiers.

Jan 28, 2022

These days, corruption and accountability are very much in the news. Just days after an anti-corruption protest in Kuala Lumpur came more alarming news: Malaysia has dropped five rungs to 62nd place out of 100 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021.

This is the country’s lowest ranking since 2012. Now, this is hardly surprising, given the lack of tough action against corruption and the lack of any reforms to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

Greed-driven corruption is an eternal problem. The pages of Scripture and contemporary texts of the period are filled with anecdotes and admonitions that point to abuse of power and corrupt practices. Leaders entrusted to serve the people invariably succumb to greed, corruption and oppression.

In the time of Jesus, a cosy, corrupt collaboration existed between the religious aristocracy and the Roman occupiers.

The High Priests were chosen by King Herod ‘the Great’ and later by the Roman occupiers. Four priestly families — including the family of Annas — dominated this period until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Annas or Ananias served as High Priest from AD 6 to 15, and his descendants continued as high priests for much of that period in the First Century. In fact, Annas’ influence extended six decades, like a high priest emeritus, perpetual high priest or less charitably, a mafia don.

It was Annas’ son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas, who served as High Priest during Jesus’ adult years. Caiaphas probably enjoyed a close working relationship with the Roman prefects (including Pontius Pilate from AD 26/27 to 36/37), which may explain why he ruled as High Priest for so long (AD 18 to 36/37).

The aristocratic class in Jerusalem lived luxurious lives. In 2016, archaeologists discovered the 2,000-year-old remains of a Jerusalem neighbourhood where the aristocrats lived. Here they found a ritual stone cup with a priestly inscription which led them to believe that this was where the priestly ruling class resided.

One house, near the site of Joseph Caiaphas’ home, had its own cistern, three bread ovens, a Jewish ritual bathing pool and even a bathtub, which was a luxury beyond the means of ordinary people then.

This neighbourhood lay just southeast of Herod’s palace, the floor level of which was higher than the Temple on the hill opposite.

Many ordinary people at the time viewed the high priests as corrupt, greedy and ruthless. Talmudic texts describe how the high priests would club people with sticks.

In Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus describes Annas as a “great hoarder of money”. He used some of this money to win the favour of the people and cultivate friendships with influential people by providing them with “presents”.

Not only that, Annas also had “servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of people, and went to the thrashingfloors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence” and they were not beyond beating up those who did not give the tithes to them.

So, the other high priests “acted in like manner, as did his servants, without any one being able to prohibit them” to the extent that some of the older priests who relied on those tithes “died for want of food”.

Enter Pontius Pilate, who was posted to Judea as prefect or Roman governor. As a prefect, he may have harboured ambitions to eventually join the senatorial class in Rome. But to become a Roman senator, he would need to own property worth at least one million sesterces (probably several million ringgit, or even, well over RM10m).

How to make that kind of money? A prefectship offered in a land rich in resources would have offered ample money-making opportunities, through the sale of tax collection rights and other concessions. The problem was Roman-occupied Palestine was not rich in valuable resources – well, apart from one place: the Temple treasury in Jerusalem.

Just imagine the wealth hoarded in the treasury from the tithes and gifts of valuables from the Jewish diaspora, the sale of sacrificial animals (sometimes at inflated prices), the temple taxes, the money changers’ profits and the interest collected from loans given out.

Over time, the Temple would have collected an enormous amount — though some of it would have been used to finance the opulent Temple renovations that Herod had launched. So luxurious was the Temple that it was plated with gold and covered with marble, a sight dazzling to the eye.

It did not take long — just one or two years after his arrival in Judea — for Pilate to eye the Temple treasury. He figured a win-win situation mega-project would keep all the fat cats happy: use Roman technology to build a sophisticated aqueduct to supply water from the south of Bethlehem to Solomon’s pools, which would boost the water supply to Jerusalem. The elite could have their running water to supply their luxury homes.

A Roman mega-project using Temple funds!

This plan outraged pious ordinary Jews. Josephus tells us, “the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten-thousands of the people got together, and made a clamour against him [Pilate], and insisted that he should leave off that design”.

But where was Caiaphas in all this? Why did he agree to this plan? Did both sides stand to benefit from commissions, kickbacks and whatnot?

Pilate had anticipated the protest, and his plainclothes security men blended among the crowd and then set upon the protesters and even bystanders, slaying many of them while others were trampled by those fleeing.

This bloodbath happened around AD 28, just as John was preaching in the wilderness and Jesus was getting more involved with him.

Traumatised, many, including those burdened by debt, would have flocked to John, who was already drawing a large following, given the mounting social injustices of the time.

Over a hundred years before, another group, the Essenes, had abandoned Jerusalem to live in the desert in protest at the worldliness in the city and the way the Temple was being run.

Jesus would later condemn those who were abusing their positions to oppress and burden the people.

No surprise then that the religious leaders and the local aristocracy, involved in their corrupt collaboration with the Roman occupiers, felt threatened by the likes of John and Jesus who were exposing their moral bankruptcy.

Four decades later, this corrupt collaboration would break down as rebels turned on the Roman occupiers, resulting in a war that led to the destruction of the Temple.

Yes, be careful. Corrupt, oppressive rule plants the seeds for the ruin of a nation.

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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