Roman Rule in Ancient Palestinian
At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of Christ. Often, however, the marketing images of Jesus’ advent are quite simplistic and quaint. The reality, though, was quite different.
Jesus entered a brutal, unjust, and chaotic social-religious environment. Knowing more about that setting helps us understand his suffering for us and the meaning of the incarnation. So, in this blog I will summarize Roman rule in Palestinian during the time of Jesus and several decades that followed. (This post is longer than usual, so please read patiently until the end.)
As you read, please think about several dramatic incidents recorded in the gospels concerning the Roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators. Consider, for example, Herod’s mass killing of Jewish children (Matt 2:16), the Jewish intention to “make him king” (John 6:15), the question about paying “taxes to Caesar” (Matt 22:17), and Pilate’s inquiry “Are you king of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2).
About 63 B.C., orthodox Jews defeated the dictator, Antiochus Epiphanes, when he tried to desecrate the temple. God seemed to intervene on their behalf. But several years later, another pagan, the Roman general Pompey, entered the Holy of Holies and escaped untouched. From that moment, many Jews viewed the Romans as the great new enemy―an idolatrous re-embodiment of ancient Babylon.
For a time, the Romans oversaw Palestine from a distance―from the province of Syria. At first, they ruled through the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. Herod the Great and his successors, however, were never accepted as true kings by most Jews. Herod made every effort, though, to legitimate himself: he married Marriamne, granddaughter of an earlier ruling family, and began rebuilding the Temple, as a true Jewish king was supposed to do.
Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.) became emperor Augustus’ favorite client king. Roman largesse funneled to Herod enabled the emperor’s bidding. The high priestly families, who relocated from Rome in support of Herod, also benefitted greatly from Roman patronage. The Jewish Historian, Josephus, describes Herod’s economic relationship to his people in this way:
Herod loved honors and, being powerfully dominated by this passion, he was led to display generosity whenever there was reason to hope for future remembrance or present reputation. But since he was involved in expenses greater than his means, he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the greater number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took this money.
Revolution remained in the air in the early years of the first century, and after a revolt led by Judas the Galilean in 6 A.D., Rome deemed it wiser and safer to make Judea a province and rule onsite. From then on, there was a succession of procurators in residence. Pilate (26–32), for example, was the third.
Isolated Jewish protests were put down by the Romans with sporadic violence. The second major Roman conquest, for instance, came in response to widespread popular insurrections in every major section of Palestine at the death of Herod in 4 A.D. This was right around the time Jesus was born. Also at that time, 6,000 Pharisees refused to take the oath of allegiance to Caesar. That number no doubt grew in the thirty-plus years until Jesus’ ministry.
In addition, several movements of peasants led by “messiahs” asserted their local independence. As a result, the Romans brought ruin and forced servitude in places connected with Jesus and his followers. In the area around Nazareth, the Romans “captured and burned the city of Sepphoris and reduced its inhabitants to slavery . . .The whole district became a scene of fire and blood . . . [They] rounded up rebels from around the countryside and crucified about 2,000.”
Here is an account of a bloody incident from about the year A.D. 52, almost twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus:
The usual crowd had assembled at Jerusalem for the feast of unleavened bread, and the Roman cohort had taken up its position on the roof of the portico of the temple . . . Thereupon one of the soldiers, raising his robe, stooped in an indecent attitude, so as to turn his backside to the Jews, and made a noise in keeping with his posture. Enraged at this insult, the whole multitude with load cries called upon Cumanus to punish the soldier; some more hothead young men and seditious persons in the crowd started a fight, and picking up stones, hurled them at the troops . . . These troops poured into the porticos, the Jews were seized with irresistible panic and turned to flee from the temple and make their escape into the town . . . upwards of thirty thousand perished.
For some time before the conquest of the Jews (in the early 70’s), the Roman authorities objected that tribute was being channeled out of the Jewish provinces and funneled into the Temple, instead of Rome. The Roman conqueror, Titus, addressed the Jewish elite, who had formerly benefitted from Roman patronage and who had now surrendered to him. To the Romans they appeared ungrateful for Rome’s “generosity” and they worried that funds dedicated to Rome were being used to format rebellion:
No, assuredly you were incited against the Romans by Roman humanity. To begin with, we allowed you to occupy this land and set over you kings of you own blood; then we maintained the laws of your forefathers and permitted you, not only among yourselves but also in your dealings with others, to live as you willed; above all, we allowed you to exact tributes for God and to collect offerings, without either admonishing or hindering those who brought them―only that you might grow richer at our expense and make preparations with our money to attack us! And then, rejoicing in such privileges, you turned your superabundance against the donors, and like untamable reptiles spat your venom upon those who caressed you.
Thus, the Romans were continually nervous, and the embers of revolution smoldered during Jesus’ lifetime and thereafter. Everyone expected God to defend his name and destroy the pagan colonizers. This hope led to the great rebellion of 66 A.D. But different factions, each believing they were the true chosen warriors of God, fought against each other, as much as against the Romans. The Temple was burned, and Jerusalem taken in 70. The final Jewish resistance at the fortress Masada followed in 74.
In the end, the pagans won, and God did nothing―so it seemed.
But Paul wisely noted:
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:6–9).
There is a great need for theological books in Central and South America―in Spanish. Especially needed are studies by Reformed authors (in whatever field).
Consider these discouraging situations that I have encountered:
I met evangelical university leaders who could only cite critical, German scholarship about the Bible. Over time―and having little access to contrary ideas―they denied the Trinity and key doctrines about the scriptures.
An evangelical gained a doctorate in philosophy from the state university. He could not read English, so he had little or no access to evangelical scholarship regarding Gnosticism. His primary Spanish source about the early church was written by a former evangelical scholar (translated from English). This author teaches that there were various kinds of Christianity in the early church and that our “orthodox” variety is simply the brand that survived. Later on, I heard the evangelical graduate parrot the same ideas in a seminar for believers.
I visited a seminary library in Buenos Aires, and it was disheartening. The collection was small, and the texts were clearly quite old.
In Central America, an evangelical university library has only 5,000 volumes―and for two reasons. There are not many conservative, theological texts available in Spanish. Many schools, ministries, and churches with educational aspirations lack the funds for books in any subject.
A missionary and church-planter told me that several of his seminary texts in Spanish were very poorly translated. Clearly, the work had been done by unqualified translators.
With these anecdotes in mind, consider what the New Testament scholar, J. Gresham Machen, wrote about 100 years ago:
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
Many Christian thinkers and emerging scholars in Central and South America today are intellectually malformed by “false ideas.” Often, “the whole collective thought” of their nations and cultures are skewed. And this is due in part to a lack of Christian scholarship that is not available in Spanish at a reasonable price.
Is there a solution? Surely, there is!
In the long-term, visionary benefactors should sponsor the translation and distribution of quality books to needy educational institutions, scholars, and churches. In addition, English for reading programs should be instituted all over Latin America. Grants for research and writing should be available for Christian authors and academics to produce texts in Spanish.
In the short-term, generous donors should purchase Spanish book collections and provide those to educational institutions and churches. For instance, we are compiling a list of Spanish theological and biblical texts. So far, we have about 200.
A second possibility is the purchase and provision of collections in English. Many university students and educated people possess some English reading ability. But they do not have access to books due to cost.
A third possibility is to help us build a small library in Buenos Aires! Our vision includes classics and newer works in English and Spanish. We hope to begin with 100 books about worldview and biblical studies in year one. Then, for several years thereafter, adding other fields of inquiry. With these resources, we desire to serve Christian thinkers and to attract non-Christian intellectuals to interact with us.
If one of these options appeals to you, please contact me at email@example.com.
Watch my interview with Flavien Pardigon about a biblical theology of religions:
The idea of scripture that emerged among the Reformers occurred in competition with the medieval Catholic church’s teaching about the magisterium and the Pope’s claim to ultimate authority in all of life and thought. The doctrine of scripture alone was inherently polemical and conceptually central to Protestantism.
But, in reality, the concept of scripture alone emerged at the very beginning in Genesis 1–2, when God created the world by his word alone. The battle of authority, however, appeared in Genesis 3, when sin first emerged.
Genesis 3 indicates that serpent does not listen to God. He does not affirm sola scriptura. In fact, he is totally opposed to the idea. All his mental energy is dedicated to hiding the truth (John 8:44). He does not want us to listen to God. Remember what Paul told us, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).
In Genesis 3:17, God explained the massive impact of Satan’s guile, as well as Adam and Eve’s sin. Adam sinned because he listened to Eve. She sinned because she listened to the serpent. The snake sinned because he misrepresented God and introduced skepticism about God’s instructions. Adam and Eve did not heed God’s command and instead paid attention to the devil. Failing to listen to God is the main problem in Genesis 3, which is the opposite of sola scriptura.
This issue appears all the time in the Bible. There are many competitors with God’s revelation, for instance: the worldviews of Babel, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament, Pax Romana, Stoicism, and mysticism. This dilemma also appears as obedience versus disobedience, folly versus wisdom, true versus false prophets, and truth versus heresy.
Also, the book of Proverbs teaches that everyone hears conflicting voices representing contrasting worldviews. Each says, “Listen to me!” But behind the dissonance of daily existence, only two speakers call out to mankind: Folly and Wisdom (Satan and God). This battle for allegiance is fought in the private and public realms, as each wants to capture individual minds and imaginations. Both promote their perspectives within the realm of ideas. Both want to influence the public sphere. And both propose lifestyles corresponding to their worldviews.
Let us remember that the idea of sola scriptura appeared from the very beginning, whereas the doctrine of sola scriptura emerged within a contested theological environment much later in history.
Today, however, the competition is just as fierce. Due to the ubiquity of social media, we hear thousands of voices every day telling us not to listen to God and to deny the doctrine of scripture alone. Sola scriptura, therefore, is an inherently polemical concept and implies intellectual rivalry. For this reason, it is crucial to the life and thought of the church to practice the doctrine of scripture alone.