Let us begin by considering the term politeia and the related word politeuma. Both are derived from the Greek word for city-state, polis; the Greek word for “citizen” is polites. Our modern word “politics” comes from an adjective derived from the term polis, and means “concerning the life and governance of the city-state”.
St. Paul uses the term politeia in Eph. 2:12: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth [politeia] of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (ESV).
He uses the term politeuma in Phil. 3:20: “But our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV).
St. Paul’s use of these terms differs from that of Josephus. The meaning of words is dependent upon context and the understanding of the author and the audience. Politeia can refer both to a state, a body of citizens, and to the constitution that binds them together, along with its supporting institutions and officers. Politeuma can mean “citizenship” as an abstract term, or it can be used as a near synonym for politeia, where it means something like “community”. There are inscriptions from Jewish communities within the Roman Empire that identify themselves as politeumata (which is the plural of politeuma, as stigmata is the plural of stigma), and this usually implies that they are officially recognized by the supra-state, with particular rights, privileges, and exemptions.
This brings us to the nature of the Roman Empire as it existed in the first century AD. It is a common assumption that everyone lived by the same laws within the Roman Empire with the same rights and privileges. Even among those who understand that there was a difference between citizens and non-citizens, it is assumed that these are the only two groups, as if no others existed within the empire. However, the coming of the empire to cities that already had their own constitutions did not mean that those constitutions were necessarily overturned (although it was understood that loyalty to Rome was expected). Athens, for example, continued to have a distinct body of citizens who had particular rights and privileges in relation to Athens, whether or not they also held Roman citizenship.
Within the empire there were different levels of autonomy for cities and towns, which affected their relationships with other parts of the empire, with the provincial governor, with the Senate, and with the emperor. Roman law was absolute, but there were local legal systems and customs that were often respected. A case in point is the trial of our Lord. The Sanhedrin or synedrion that tried him acknowledged to Pilate that as the representative of Rome and the emperor, he held the authority for executions within Judea, but the implication is that the Sanhedrin had authority over “lesser” trials and penalties – unless the defendant was a Roman citizen, as was the case with St. Paul. (For discussion of these terms and the Beth Din, see ‘The Political Synedrion and the Religious Sanhedrin’ and ‘The Titles High Priest and the Nasi of the Sanhedrin’ by S. Zeitlin.) Thus Roman citizenship was the most prestigious and usually offered the greatest protection – but it was not the only kind of citizenship.
The term politeia in the sense of “constitution” had a long history already by the time Josephus came to use it. Aristotle’s theory and discussion of the different kinds of constitution is the locus classicus for introducing students of political philosophy to their subject. He came up with a set, tabulated below, of three kinds of constitution in noble and ignoble forms: monarchy and tyranny; aristocracy and oligarchy; consitutional government and democracy.
Philosophers from Socrates onward debated what was the best form of government, with many advocating a mixed system. Polybius, writing long after Aristotle in flattering praise of the Romans, praised the Roman constitution as the best devised so far because it blended the different kinds already in existence. The consuls represented a monarchical form of government, while the Senate represented aristocracy, and the popular assemblies that passed laws and voted for magistrates represented democracy.
Regardless of whether this assessment accurately represents the nature of government and politics in the Roman Republic of Polybius’ day, his comments are useful in charting the development of political theory and its application to real-world situations. The chief concerns of theorists and law-makers (when acting “altruistically”) were the following: preserve traditional structures as far as possible, especially religious ones; encourage moral conduct and civic-mindedness among the citizens; prevent any one group from gaining too much power over others. Naturally these principles were conditioned by cultural, moral, and religious presuppositions. Discussion regarding the rights of slaves and women in the form it took during classical antiquity would be quite alien to modern westerners.
Into this world of ideas, laws, rights, privileges, and politics Josephus made his foray, like Philo before him. The relationship between Second Temple Judaism and what it would describe as “Hellenism” (itself a very problematic term) was complicated. Following the destruction of Jerusalem, the sale of Judeans as captives, and the train of captive Judeans in the imperial triumph at Rome, Josephus had his work cut out for him. He had to persuade the cultural and political elites that the Judeans were a civilized people who could engage with the structures and culture of the empire. The nation, as far as he was concerned, was not to be judged by those “rotten apples” that started the revolt and pursued it to its distastrous conclusion – never mind that he himself had been one of them.
|Rule of one||Monarchy||Tyranny|
|Rule of a group||Aristocracy||Oligarchy|
|Rule of the whole community||Constitutional government||Democracy|