Why was Jesus so specific when he said, "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you..."?
That's not a throwaway word, "Gentiles". According to all three Synoptic writers, Jesus was very specific. It's something about the gosh-darn Goy Rulers the disciples were suppose to avoid mimicing, here. But what is that something, and why did Jesus call it specifically Gentile?
Which Jewish rulers did Jesus have in mind, to exclude from his point, when he phrased things this way?
Surely it could not have been the Jerusalem leaders. The Sanhedrin and Temple authorities seem to have done a fine job of ruling over their subjects. Herod the Great? Surely not. Jewish he may have been, technically, but Herod learned from the Romans directly for 40 years (and indirectly from his other superiors before he became an authority himself). Was it Herod Antipas, near the Sea of Galilee? Or Philip the Tetrarch, up near Mount Hermon? Nope. Philip was nicer than Antipas, but each was still appointed by Rome to exercise personal and virtually unfettered dominion over all persons in their respective districts.
Which Jewish rulers in Jesus' day ruled so differently than Gentile rulers?
We have to consider the Synagogue.
Now, as far as we know, there was no standardized synagogue practice before 70 AD. Other than study of Torah, and presumably some amount of community prayer, there wasn't even a standardized liturgy for early first century synagogues, let alone the same organizational flowchart for all communities everywhere. Nevertheless, because there were multiple commonalities among Jewish synagogue culture, there also must have been some commonality among synagogue leadership in the various towns across Palestine.
Also, the Gospels imply Jesus took time to visit most if not all of the synagogues within Galilee, and many more elsewhere. Perhaps some synagogues would have fit more suitably into Jesus' mental exception than others, but the general pattern we're positing would have been common enough for him to get a strong impression about, regardless of which synagogues he'd visited, and regardless of what Nazareth's had been like.
With that in mind, what was this Jewish pattern? What traits did Synagogue leadership share, generally?
I'll suggest four.
First, regardless of whether they appointed officials or had ten people down by the river, one characteristic that must fit the majority of early first century synagogues, surely, had to be genuine community. That is, most synagogues were small. They were in small towns, or they were frequented by smaller groups. Beyond size, the word synagogue itself actually means community (via gathering). That's easy to contrast against Gentile government at the time, which was vast, impersonal, and universally dominant. In the Jewish synagogue, a prominent figure would be someone you knew well, not someone who sailed in to give orders, take money and leave early. In the most formal of synagogues, even, a "ruling official" would still be someone whose entire life had been long ingrained among all of your neighbors.
Second, because of that genuine community, another trait shared by persons of prominence, in any particular synagogue, had to be organic appointment. That is, most synagogues - communities, remember, who might not have quite yet afforded an entire set of scrolls, let alone a permanently dedicated facility to hold meetings within *ahem* - most synagogues were established at least one or two previous generations before Jesus' day, and (despite our historical uncertainty about the synagogue institution, universally) many or most had very easily been congregating for a century or more, if not much more.
The point is that virtually any synagogue "ruler" anywhere would have grown up within that community as a child and young person before becoming old enough and respected enough to be somehow (?) appointed, elected or defaulted upon as an official, an elder, a leader or a "synagogue ruler". Now wait, am I saying a small town can't wind up appointing a bad leader (perhaps for lack of much option)? Certainly, that can happen quite easily, and often did I might bet. Nevertheless, organic appointment probably held forth in more places than not, because a typical synagogue would have a plurality of elders at various stages of life, and their well-known reputations would allow them to recognize the congregation's natural predilection - being displayed over time through communal experience - for the newest members of [what I'd ideally like to call] the oversight committee, or the synagogue council, or so forth, however many members it had.
Third and finally, with so much lifelong communal interaction between the local body and it's own organically selected supervisory members, there would naturally be some level of social accountability, also. For example, if Jairus' sick daughter had caused him to seek out a sorcerer for healing, the community would have heard of this and their reaction would have affected his position, and perhaps also his tenure. Whether the procedures that followed had been previously established or whether the inevitable would simply take its due course, any ruler of any early first century synagogue was bound to be socially accountable to his fellow Jews on a daily, weekly and annual basis.
Let's call these the first three distinct aspects of (if you will) "Jewish eldership". They are: genuine community, organic eldership, & social accountability. But, again, there is at least one more characteristic to mention.
While these first three factors alone might have appeared to some degree in some tribal locations as well, such people groups were also quite commonly ruled by some sort of "might makes right" tribal leader(s) who would typically fight to establish a hereditary chain of succession in ruling the tribe, and for selfish as much as (or moreso than) for societal benefits. So, with this in mind, let's observe in contrast to this a fourth characteristic of Jewish leaders - they were also presumably chosen because of their dedication to learning, exhibiting and sometimes also teaching the spirit and strictures of God's Law.
Yes, there seems no way to deny that dedication to Torah must have been a key way in which Jewish synagogue rulers / leaders / elders (or at least, the best of all those whom Jesus had ever met) were somehow outstanding in the Lord's mind, as compared with specifically Gentile rulers. It should go without defending that dedication to Torah should quite naturally exclude the type of monarchical brutality that might help one lord it over, say, a barbarian tribe. And as far as other means of coercion, well, yes, teachers of God's Law have been known to manipulate people. (Obviously, we are not shocked to recall this!) But once again, nevertheless, we must affirm that even a fraudulent dedication to Torah meant that God's Law was being presented, which provided constant potential, at least, for God's spirit to actually have direct influence over hearts and minds of a synagogue community, including also its leadership.
One more point remains. We must briefly consider hierarchy.
Did the Jewish synagogue rulers exhibit hierarchy? It may be difficult to say. In some sense, perhaps it's a semantic dodge to attempt a "no" answer, seeing as how it's ingrained in humanity that any appointed official is generally considered "above" the larger body which the official ostensibly serves. On the other hand, to speak of hierarchy in a functional sense, we don't have a great deal of data to suggest whether the synagogue leaders (elders, rulers, etc) ever did much actual "overing" of anyone "under" them, at all.
There's a vast difference between directing and supervising. This brief survey did enough to consider Jewish community leaders as ontologically different from gentile civic leaders, and there are indeed several significant contrasts. A fully functional analysis may or may not lie beyond the scope of the data assembled by experts (and, honestly, there really isn't much data to go on at all), but such a functional analysis is absolutely beyond the scope of this humble blog post. I will leave that to others.
What has now been concluded? Let me try to sum up.
The title of this blog post asked a simple question: did the rulers of Jews "lord-it-over" their people? We didn't answer that question definitively, at least not in any functional terms. That question would require yet further research and consideration. However, we did answer an important, related and preliminary question:
Did Jesus have specific reasons in mind for excluding some types of Jewish leadership when he warned the disciples very specifically to avoid imitating Gentile leadership?
Because synagogue leaders can be characterized by four traits that gentile leaders were never characterized by, all together - and those being genuine community, organic appointment, social accountability, and dedication to Torah - yes indeed. It would appear Jesus had very good reasons for excluding Jewish leadership from those particular comments.
*Not that all Jewish synagogue leaders were leading as servants like he urged the disciples to do. No, of course Jesus' other experiences testify that he did not actually think all synagogue rulers were quite so laudable, in practice. But again, how many did or didn't live up to the potential inherent in a Torah-based community... well, as I said in my comments on "functional terms", that's a topic for a whole other post!