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).