Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC) was a Roman politician and general who led the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the fledgling Roman Empire. He was succeeded by Augustus Caesar in 27 BC, considered to be the first Roman emperor. He in turn was succeeded by Tiberius Caesar, who was in power from 14-37 AD, the period when most of the Gospels is set and when Jesus was crucified. Jesus is now thought to have been born in 5 BC, five years earlier than when the BC/AD calendar was devised.
As the Roman Empire grew, regions around the Mediterranean sea were forced to succumb to Roman rule. There was no country called Israel at this time and the Jews or “Israelites”, lived mainly in Judea and the temple was located in the capital, Jerusalem. They had also ventured north to Galilee and Samaria, and south to Idumea.
In 60 BC, they were involved in a brutal civil war and afterwards, an Idumean called Antipater set about restoring order to the region. His son was Herod, who was on good terms with Rome. By 37 BC, the Roman Senate appointed Herod as king of Judaea – an overall region encompassing Idumea, Judea, Mishor, Samaria, Lower Galilee and Bashan.
This is the Herod that the Gospels refer to as “Herod the Great” and he was instrumental in expanding the temple and constructing the sea port at Caesarea.
1. Herod Archelaus became tetrarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea.
2. Herod Antipas, also known as “Herod the Tetrarch” and “King Herod” in the Gospels, became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
3. “Philip the Tetrarch” was given the territories to the north and east of the Jordan.
4. His sister Salome, received the cities of Jabneh, Ashdod, and Phasaelis. Later, after the death of Salome, Lysanias became tetrarch of Abilene.
In 6 AD, Augustus Caesar became fed up with the leadership of Herod Archelaus, removed him and placed Judea, Samaria and Idumea under direct Roman administration.
Caesar ordered Quirinius, the governor of Syria, to take a census of the regions (the one mentioned in the Gospels) for taxation purposes. Caesar then sent a Prefect to act as Governor, with the first one being Coponius. In 26 AD, Pontius Pilate became the fifth governor. By then, the province had grown to take in the regions of Phonecia and Gaulantis to the north and Decapolis to the east. The administrative capital became the sea port of Caesarea. The Romans referred to the province as Iudaea.
While the remaining tetrarchs continued to have control over their individual regions, the role of the governor was more diplomatic, ensuring all regions of the province paid the required taxes to Rome and that law and order was maintained. He had a small allocation of centurion soldiers, but if more support was required, he could call on forces from the larger Roman province of Syria to the far north.
The Jews were allowed to practise their own religious beliefs and, to a large extent, manage their own laws. People who broke Roman law were imprisoned by the Romans. The one thing they could not do, that caused them problems, was execute anyone. That decision could only be made by the governor. Traditionally, Jewish execution was carried out by stoning someone to death. The Roman execution was crucifixion, a slow and painful way to die, that usually took several days.
Living under Roman rule infuriated the Jews, and eventually led to a war in 66 AD where the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD. They also despised the practice of the Romans choosing the high priest, as we will see in the next page.