Geopolitical interactions between Rome and Judea in the first century, and their historical effect, bear similarity to events occurring today. The Middle East was then, as it remains today, a critical land bridge connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia. It connected Rome’s European empire with its African counterpart, and stood squarely astride three major trading routes: the Silk Road, the Via Maris, and the Trans-Saharan trade routes. The world’s commerce moved through the Middle East; control of that region resulted in control over a large part of that commerce. Rome dominated the western world. Its major enemy, Parthia, stood opposite in central Asia. The Middle East remains astride a major trade route today: the Suez canal, which joins Asian and Indian oceanic trade with that of the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Middle East also serves as a connection between Eastern and Western culture. Finally, our modern economy is dominated by a dependence on fossil fuels, of which the Middle East is a principle supplier. In Roman times Egypt possessed a similar and equally valuable commodity: grain. It should come as little surprise, then, that the Middle East continues to exercise a significant influence over world events today as it did two millennia ago.
The history of the first century cannot be placed into context, however, without knowledge of the events in the preceding centuries. Under Kings David and then Solomon, Israel was a powerful Jewish state. After Solomon’s death circa 924 B.C., the kingdom divided into two smaller states, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Assyrians conquered Israel in the north in 722 B.C.; the southern state, Judea, did not fall to the Babylonians until 586 B.C. Those kingdoms, in turn, were defeated by the Medes and Persians and became part of the greater Persian empire. The Persians, in their turn, were conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.
The conquest of Persia, encompassing most of the Middle East as we know it today, was probably the single most important event in the history of Israel between the death of Solomon and the birth of Jesus. Alexander the Great spread Greek language, culture, and philosophy throughout the region, and established numerous cities. Greek culture was prevalent everywhere, and Greek was the official spoken and written language of the Middle East at the time of Jesus. Yet despite Alexander’s hellenization of the region, many Jews retained their Hebrew language and customs.
Alexander died at age 33 and his empire was divided between four of his generals. The area which we know today as Palestine was allotted to Seleucus, later known at the “King of Asia,” and who established the Selucid dynasty. It was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, his fourth generation great-grandson, who defiled the temple, causing the “abomination of desolation.” While trying to suppress Jewish religion and customs, he erected a statue of Zeus in the temple. Antiochus’ efforts resulted in the Maccabean revolt in 167 B.C. and the subsequent period of Jewish self-rule in Palestine until Roman conquest by Pompey in 63 B.C. The conquest of Jerusalem brought an end to the independent Jewish nation, which became a tributary of Rome.
In 37 B.C., Rome made Herod, an Idomenian, King of Judea. Sometimes known as Herod the Great, he ruled until his death in 4 B.C. This generally accepted historical date coupled with Biblical accounts, such as the story of the wise men, Herod’s plot, and the flight into Egypt, fix Jesus’ time of birth to approximately early in 4 B.C. or late 5 B.C.
Augustus was emperor in Rome at that time and it was he who ordered the census of the Roman Empire, which sent Joseph and his family to Bethlehem. The subsequent death of Herod was, therefore, propitious. Joseph’s choice of returning from Egypt to Nazareth is interesting. Augustus had divided the land among Herod’s sons; Judea to Herod Archelaus, Idomea to Herod Phillip, and Galilee to Herod Antipas. The Jews hated Herod Archelaus because he was a non-Jew from Idomea, a tyrant, and a hellenizer. Joseph, therefore, felt that it would be safer for his family to go to Galilee, which was under the rule of a far milder and more tolerant Herod Antipas. Nothing else was heard about Jesus until he is taken to the temple at age 12 by his parents and there he gives a strong indication of his knowledge and intelligence. Where was he the rest of the time until the beginning of his public life? Stories abound that he appeared in India, China, and Africa, but there is an interesting verse in the gospel of John which gives us a clue: “and the child grew in waxed strong and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel”. (Luke 1:80 KJV*). Of course, he could have been in other deserts in other lands, but given the circumstances of life and travel in the first century this would be highly improbable without the use of his divine powers which he was not yet ready to employ. (John 2:4 KJV).
Returning now to our objective, we need to know what else was happening in the Roman Empire which could affect future and then current events in Israel. The rule of Herod Archelaus in Judea was cruel and oppressive, so much so that in a rare show of unity both the Jews and the Samaritans sent a delegation to Rome to petition for his removal. Surprisingly, Augustus agreed. Archelaus was deposed and sent into exile in Gaul. Why did the emperor of the most powerful nation in the world agree to remove the man he himself had appointed only two years previously?
As already noted, Judah was extremely important strategically. In 53 B.C., a large Roman army (seven legions) led by Crassus was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae. The Parthians at that time occupied much of modern Iran, Iraq, and Jordon. In 40 B.C., the Parthians invaded Judea and captured Jerusalem. Herod the Great went to Rome for help and in 37 B.C., with the assistance of two Roman legions, drove the Parthians out. Herod then became king of Judea until his death in 4 B.C.
Parthia was a major threat to Rome in the first century, primarily because it stood opposite the strategically critical land bridge connecting Europe and Asia with Africa. Rome could not allow its empire to be divided in half by a strip of land occupied by a powerful enemy. Judea was the buffer against Parthia. Rome had to control it and, to do so, had to pacify the Jews. For this reason, Augustus agreed to remove Herod Archelaus.
After removal of Herod Archelaus in 6 A.D., Judea became a procurational province with a Roman procurator (governor). Moderate unrest continued during the rule of the first four procurators. In 14 A.D., Augustus died; his grandson, Tiberius, became emperor. Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the commander of the praetorian guard, became a principal adviser to Tiberius and, therefore, probably the most powerful man in Rome at that time. Sejanus was very anti-Semitic. In 26 A.D., he prevailed on the emperor to appoint Pontius Pilate as procurator of Judea. Pilate’s job was to suppress the Jews and prevent them from conspiring with the Parthians against Rome.
Pilate went about his job with vigor. While Roman headquarters were in Cesarea, Pilate stationed troops in Jerusalem. This infuriated the Jews because the legionary banners displayed in Jerusalem bore portraits of the emperor, which was a violation of Jewish law concerning worship of idols. Pilate also massacred a mob in Galilee which had become disorderly during a holiday. But the best known episode during his governorship was the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in 29 A.D. Jesus was handed over to Pilate by the Pharisees who feared that Jesus would destroy their power over the people with his teaching. Pilate allowed him to be executed in order to pacify the Jews and prevent them from seeking help from Rome’s enemies. What must astound many Christians today is that this earth-shaking event went virtually unnoticed when it occurred. The only contemporary reference is in book XVIII of Antiquities by the Jewish historian, Josephus, who mentions both Jesus and John the Baptist. The spread of Christianity throughout the world over the next 400 years makes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the most important event in human history.
Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the leadership of the community of believers fell to Peter and James. The first believers were all Jews and in fact worshiped in the synagogues or temple with the nonbelievers. For this reason, the Romans regarded the followers of Jesus as just another Jewish sect. Nevertheless, the believers were persecuted as heretics by the regular Jewish community. Saul of Tarsus, a rabbi, was especially vigorous in this persecution. However, in 37 A.D., he had a miraculous conversion to Christianity. In that same year, Tiberius died and his grandson, Gaius “Caligula” became emperor. His brutal reign lasted only four years until he was assassinated. His Uncle Claudius then became emperor in 41 A.D. During these years, civil unrest persisted in Judea, despite its succession of procurators.
Claudius appointed Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, as king of all four tetrarchies. Herod Agrippa had some degree of success, but unfortunately died suddenly in 44 A.D. Judea again reverted to a procurational system and Cuspius Fadus was appointed procurator. Subsequently, civil unrest resumed. The Jews did not like the Romans or anyone else ruling them, showing no respect for their customs and religious practices. One particular episode demonstrates this situation. Caligula, who was probably quite mad, decided he was a god in 39 A.D. When he ordered statues of himself to be placed in the temple, it enraged the Jewish population of Judea. To prevent the situation from getting out of hand, Petroneus, the legate in Syria, petitioned Caligula to change the orders. Although Petroneus was instead condemned to death, Caligula was assassinated shortly thereafter, invalidating the order.
Meanwhile, Paul “nee Saul” finally managed to convince the believers in Jerusalem of the sincerity of his conversion. In 45 A.D., he set out on his first missionary voyage to Antioch and Asia Minor. He made second and third voyages in 49 A.D. and 54 A.D. Paul met with great success and Christian congregations sprang up throughout Asia Minor. When Claudius, who was no friend of the Jews or Christians, expelled the Christians from Rome in 49 A.D., they fled to join Paul and his disciples, Aquila and Priscilla, in Asia Minor.
When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his first voyage, the Counsel of Jerusalem was held, during which Paul managed to convince the Jewish believers that there was a role for the Gentiles in their movement, which did not require circumcision or rigid adherence to the dietary and other laws. This greatly helped him and the other evangelists in bringing Christianity to the Gentiles.
In 62 A.D., Paul was imprisoned in Rome. However, in the years just prior to and after, he wrote his epistles to the various congregations he had established. Most of these letters have survived and serve as a significant guide for the Christian faith today. He was finally executed in 67 A.D.
In 54 A.D., Nero became emperor. He was no more a friend to Christians and Jews than Claudius and in fact blamed the great fire of Rome on them. He persecuted them vigorously and was responsible for the deaths of Peter and Paul. In 68 A.D. Nero’s own guards rebelled. In fear of what could happen to him if he was captured, he committed suicide in 68 A.D. Rome, which had suffered through two probably insane and one inept emperor, was too preoccupied during those years to concern themselves about what they considered a minor Jewish sect and, thus, allowed it to flourish.
Conditions in Jerusalem in those years were also chaotic. There was a riot in the temple in which 13,000 people were trampled. Priests leading various sects were at war with one another, and bandits and assassins roamed the streets. During this period, James the Good, brother of Jesus and leader of the Christians, was arrested. The procurator, Festus, had died, and in the absence of Roman authority, Annas, the high priest, had James stoned to death before the new procurator, Lucceius Albinus, could arrive. Annas was later promptly deposed.
Roman rule was very unpopular throughout Judea and Galilee, especially in Jerusalem. The onset of the Jewish rebellion occurred in 66 A.D., when the procurator of Judea, Gessius Florus, seized part of the temple treasury and allowed his troops to loot sections of Jerusalem. The Jews rose up in anger and drove Florus out of the city. Jews from Galilee and elsewhere in Palestine joined the revolt. The governor of Syria, Castius Gallus, attempted to intervene with the 12th legion, but was defeated at the gates of Jerusalem. The victory encouraged the rebels. In February 67 A.D., finally sensing the danger of the revolt, Nero, who was still emperor, appointed Vespasian to the command of a large Roman army. By June 69 A.D., all opposition in Judea and Galiliee had been overcome and Vespasian was at the city walls of Jerusalem.
Again, events in Rome profoundly affected the operations in Palestine. After Nero’s suicide late in 68 A.D., he was succeeded by a general from Spain, Galba, who in turn was himself assassinated a few months later. Otho became emperor and Vitellius, another general, marched south from southern Europe where he defeated and killed Otho in a decisive battle. Vespasian himself was then proclaimed emperor by his troops. While his son, Titus, remained in Palestine with the army, Vespasian marched on and defeated Vitellius in battle. Vespasian thus becomes the fourth emperor in a year, and the year 69 became known as “the year of the four emperors.” Little was accomplished at Jerusalem during that tumultuous year.
Once Vespasian established himself and stabilized the empire, he appointed Titus commander of the army in Palestine and ordered him to conquer Jerusalem. The one-year delay in the attack on that city had resulted in little benefit to the Jews; they had continued to fight amongst themselves. John of Gischala led gangs of Zealots who killed or suppressed more moderate Jews. Two other factions were also present in Jerusalem at that time. Fighters loyal to Simon Ben Giora or to Eleazar, son of Simon, fought each other in the streets for control of the city.
In the spring of 70, Titus began his attack. By the end of May, the great wall was breached. By August 30th, the Romans had reached the temple. There was little cooperation between the various Jewish factions and late in the day, the temple fell and burnt to the ground. Whether the burning was intentional or inadvertent has never been completely ascertained. Titus did not order the burning, but could not stop it. The temple fell on the ninth of the Jewish month of Av, which is the same day that the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Thus ended the Jewish revolt of 70 A.D.
The apostles and disciples spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire during the remainder of the first century A.D. Thomas went to Parthia, Andrew to Scythia, Titus to Crete, Timothy to Ephesus, John to Asia Minor, Mark to Egypt, and Peter throughout Asia Minor and southern Europe. The Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the rest of the New Testament were written during this time. Peter finally reached Rome where he and Paul laid the foundation for the church.
The first century was also a time of great persecution of Christians and Jews, especially under Domitian, who was emperor from 81 to 96 A.D. John was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelations. After the death of Domitian, John returned to Ephesus where he died around 100 A.D., the last of the apostles.
There are some interesting similarities between the first and 21st centuries. In the first century, the world’s greater power of Rome defended Judea (Israel) against its greatest enemy at that time, Parthia. Rome saw Israel as a buffer state between it and the Parthians. Judea also occupied a critical geographic location between Asia/Europe and Africa. In the twenty-first century the United States, as a great western power, is in a similar position as Rome. Iran and the Muslims occupy a role similar to the Parthians in that they seek to establish a unified state, albeit an Islamic one. Similarly, in the year 69 A.D., Rome endured four incompetent, ineffective emperors. Had that not occurred, Vespasian would have taken Jerusalem with much less loss of life and very likely without destruction of the temple. Today many see the United States’ current president as an inept and ineffective leader. Where will he lead us? Finally, in 48 A.D, a council was held on Jerusalem in which a vote was taken as to whether Gentiles would be allowed to join the Christian movement. In May 1948, a vote was held in the United Nations to allow a Jewish nation to be formed and join that organization. It should also be noted that another vote will be taken in late September 2011 to divide that nation. History does, it seems, repeat itself.
* = Correction: Luke 1:80 (KJV) refers to John the Baptist not Jesus. This does not change the overall sense of the paragraph.