Brief Historical Background



The conquests of Alexander the Great led to the spread of the Greek culture and language across a wide area. The generals who succeeded Alexander, Ptolemy in Egypt and Seleucus in Syria, attempted to unite their subjects with policies which combined Greek and native ingredients.

The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, provoked the Jews into a revolt by his radical attempt to promote Greek culture (a process often known as 'hellenization'). He did win the support of the aristocratic Jews, who were keen to be recognized as cultured 'Greeks'. The brother of the Jewish high priest changed his name from Jesus to the Greek Jason, and bribed Antiochus so that he could become the high priest. He scandalized other Jews by building a gymnasium where nude exercises went on within sight of the temple. Jason ended his life in exile in Sparta.

Antiochus forbade the observance of the Sabbath and the practice of circumcision, and forced the Jews to eat food they regarded as ceremonially unclean. When a mother and her seven sons refused to defile themselves by eating pork they were martyred. Sacred prostitution associated with the Syrian goddess was practiced in the temple precincts. In December 167 BC, a pig was sacrificed on an altar erected to the Greek god Zeus. This was taken to be 'The Awful Horror' prophesied Daniel 11:31 by Daniel.

Jewish opposition was led by a priest called Mattathias and his sons, the oldest of whom was Judas, called 'Maccabeus' (The Hammer). The Maccabean Revolt succeeded in recapturing the temple in December 165. Jews today celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, the 'Festival of Lights', to commemorate this event.

After Judas was killed in 161 BC, his brother Jonathan took over leadership. He was also appointed high priest in 153, the first of the long line of Hasmoneans (named after Simon, the last surviving brother of Judas) who were to control that post until 36 BC. This joining of political and religious leadership in the hands of one family was not welcomed by many of the devout Jews.

John Hyrcanus, a nephew of Judas and Jonathan, won political independence for the Jews in 129 BC. This lasted only to 63 BC when the Romans annexed Palestine.


The Roman leader Pompey was given unlimited powers in 66 BC to clear the Mediterranean of pirates, a task which he efficiently accomplished in three months. Almost as an afterthought he marched into Palestine, where two brothers were squabbling over the high priest's office. He sided with the older brother, Hyrcanus, against the ambitious Aristobulus. In 63 Pompey captured Jerusalem, and had the audacity to enter the Holy of Holies of the temple, which only the Jewish high priest entered once a year. The fact that he touched none of the temple treasures did little to lessen the indignation of the Jews.

Pompey also organized the Decapolis, a league of ten cities which were Greek colonies, and included Scythopolis (Bethshean) south of the Sea of Galilee, and nine others in Syria and Jordan, among them Damascus, Philadelphia (Amman), Pella, Gerasa and Gadara.


The Idumaeans were a tribe who had been forced by the Nabatean Arabs westwards into southern Judea, where they had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean rulers of Palestine. The Idumaeans were for this reason Jews of a recent and suspect background. At the same time they were shrewd, and had no scruples about making political deals with the Romans for their own advantage.

ANTIPATER governed them from about 47 BC. He also served as an advisor to Hyrcanus, and gained the confidence of Pompey. When Julius Caesar was besieged in Alexandria in 48 BC it was Antipater who persuaded the Jews to aid Caesar. In gratitude Caesar gave the Jews important privileges.

Antipater's son, HEROD THE GREAT, was an opportunist of the highest order. During the tumultuous years of the Roman civil wars he skillfully shifted his allegiance from Pompey to Caesar to Antony to Octavian (Augustus). Because he was such an able soldier the Romans valued his services. He provided a strong buffer-state for Rome against the Nabatean Arabs to the south and the Parthians to the east.

Herod was appointed king of Judea by the Romans in 40 BC, and was supported by Roman soldiers in his fight to gain control of Judea in 37. From that time he relied on Gentile soldiers, including the Celtic bodyguard of Cleopatra which had been granted to him by Octavian. He transformed the ancient city of Samaria into Sebaste for his foreign mercenaries. He also built Palestine's first deep-water port of Caesarea.

Though successful in politics, Herod was bitterly unhappy in his private life. He married ten wives, including the beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. Though he loved her passionately, he suspected her of infidelity and had her executed. Later, in 7 BC, he had her two sons killed. When he found that his favorite son, Antipater, had been plotting against him, he had him executed- just five days before his own death in 4 BC. It was this paranoid monarch who ordered the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus.

Our system of dating BC/AD was devised by a monk in the sixth century AD. However, he miscalculated the reign of the Emperor Augustus by four years. Jesus must have been born before Herod's death in 4 BC, a date which has been established by astronomical calculations.

Herod's kingdom was divided between his THREE SONS:

ARCHELAUS inherited Judea;

ANTIPAS was given Galilee and Perea (Transjordan);

PHILIP inherited largely Gentile areas east of the Sea of Galilee.

Philip's rule was just and relatively uneventful. It was in Philip's territory that Jesus was transfigured, on the slopes of Mount Hermon. At Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Hermon, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ.

Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, was called 'that fox' by Jesus because of his craftiness. He was denounced by John the Baptist for his adulterous relationship with Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother. After a seductive dance by her daughter, probably Salome, Antipas rashly promised her whatever she asked. He reluctantly fulfilled her request by presenting John's head on a dish to Herodias. It was her nagging insistence which proved to be Antipas' undoing. When he asked to be upgraded from tetrarch to king in AD 39, he was instead banished with his wife to France.

Archelaus was 'a chip off his father's block'. As his first official act, he slaughtered 3,000 of his enemies. When Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt, they wisely avoided his territory and settled in Galilee. Archelaus' rule was so oppressive that Jews and Samaritans united in successfully requesting his deposition in AD 6. This paved the way for direct rule by Roman governors.


Herod was a prodigious builder, as recent archaeological excavations have shown His rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, begun in 19 BC, was admired by Jesus' disciples, according to Mark, chapter 13. Final work on the temple was completed just six years before it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. All that remains today is the great platform whose western side is the Wailing Wall, where Jews today still lament the destruction of the temple.

Spectacular remains have also been uncovered at the fortress of Masada on the western shore and of Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. Machaerus was the fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned. Other splendid structures from Herod's time have been found at Jericho, where Herod died, and at Herodium, where he was buried.


From 6 AD, except for the brief rule of Agrippa I (41-44 AD), until the outbreak of the First Jewish War in 66 AD, a series of fourteen Roman governors ruled Judea.

The governor of Judea, known as a 'praefect' or 'procurator', came from the Roman equestrian class, and was subordinate to the legate of Syria at Damascus. Judea was considered a minor province; its governor had at his disposal only a small force of about 3,000 auxiliary soldiers, mostly stationed at Caesarea. On festival occasions, such as the Jewish Passover, a cohort of about 500 soldiers would be stationed in the Fortress of Antonia in Jerusalem, overlooking the temple grounds.

Pontius Pilate governed from AD 26 to 36, under the Emperor Tiberius. He was a protégé of the powerful Sejanus, head of the praetorian guard in Rome. Pilate outraged the Jews by several tactless actions. For instance he used temple funds to build an aqueduct, and introduced military standards bearing the emperor's image into Jerusalem, which offended Jewish religious traditions. He met opposition with ruthless force. On the other hand, he yielded to Jewish pressures to have Jesus crucified as a royal pretender. This occurred either in 30, or as some writers have argued, in 33 after the fall of Sejanus, when Pilate's own position became insecure.

As his name Felix (Latin for 'fortunate') indicates, the governor of Judea from 52 to 60 AD was a freedman, or former slave. His brother Pallas was the secretary of the Roman treasury under the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD).

The historian Tacitus says of him: 'With every sort of cruelty and lust he exercised royal functions in the spirit of a slave.'

It was his hope for a bribe which kept the apostle Paul imprisoned in Caesarea. When Festus (60-62) succeeded Felix as governor, Paul took advantage of his right as a Roman citizen to appeal direct to Caesar, who at that time was Nero.


The greatest blow felt by the Jews was to their national pride. They believed that God had chosen them to be his special people. They looked forward to the day when the nations of the world would come to worship God in Jerusalem. Instead, the Romans and their puppet rulers desecrated their holy places, and insulted their laws and customs.

Herod the Great built a temple to Augustus in Caesarea. Inside it were statues of the emperor depicted as Zeus and Rome personified as Hera, statues the Jews considered idolatrous. In Caesarea and in Jerusalem Herod built theaters and amphitheaters. Games were held in both places every fourth year in honor of Augustus. The naked competitors greatly offended the Jews, as did the religious customs linked with the games. Worst of all, over the great gate of the temple in Jerusalem Herod placed a massive golden eagle- the symbol of Roman dominion.

Roman soldiers were stationed in Judea to keep in check the Parthians who came from an area north-east of Syria. They were never completely conquered by the Romans. The soldiers also kept the peace in Judea, prevented riots and ensured the safety of trade routes.

The army's headquarters was at Caesarea but a detachment was kept as a garrison in Jerusalem. Soldiers were always on duty in the outer temple area, and more were sent to Jerusalem at Passover time when pilgrims flocked to the city.

The Jews were left under no illusion as to who controlled their country. Uniformed soldiers were an everyday sight in their streets. The Jews were, however, exempt from military service because their law forbade the carrying of weapons on the Sabbath, and because soldiers were expected to take part in pagan religious ceremonies.

One of the most hated aspects of Roman domination was the heavy taxation. The provinces were expected to bear most of the cost of administering the empire. In the province of Syria income tax was 1 per cent of a man's income per year, but there were also export and import taxes, taxes levied on crops one-tenth of the grain crop and one-fifth of the wine, fruit and oil - purchase taxes, taxes payable on the transfer of property, emergency taxes, and so on.

A Roman official called a censor was responsible for collecting the revenue but he sold the right to extort it to the highest bidders. These TAX COLLECTORS demanded more money than was due and kept the difference for themselves. It is likely that they took bribes from the rich so it was the poor people who really paid for the Roman government.

There were frequent Jewish revolts against the Romans, triggered by ill treatment of the Jews. In the time of the procurator Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 AD) a Roman soldier threw a scroll of the Law into the fire. The Jews were so incensed that Cumanus was forced to have the soldier executed. Under Judas the Galilean the Jews revolted against the excessive taxes but the revolt was put down with great cruelty and all the rebels were executed (Acts 5:37). Because they longed to be free of Rome sects such as the Zealots openly rebelled, and the Essenes opted out of normal citizenship in their self-supporting community.

The occupation had some benefits. The Romans secured peace and built a good system of roads. This in turn encouraged trade. They often respected local customs, allowed religious freedom and a certain degree of self government. They built baths and government offices.

The Sanhedrin, (the Jewish council of seventy elders and the high priest which met in Jerusalem) had control of religious affairs and also administered government and justice under the authority of the Roman procurator. Although it tried certain criminal cases it does not seem to have had the right to enforce capital punishment, which is why Jesus had to be executed by Pilate, the Roman governor.


After his year as consul, Caesar left Rome to serve as the proconsul or governor of Gaul (France). There, between 58 and 51 BC, he defeated innumerable Celtic and Belgic armies, massacring hundreds of thousands in the process. He twice invaded Britain, though it was not made a province until the later invasion of the Emperor Claudius in AD 43.

When Pompey persuaded the Senate to order Caesar to lay down his arms at the end of his period as proconsul, Caesar challenged them by crossing the River Rubicon in 49 BC. As this marked the boundary between his province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, the die was cast for war. In the civil war which followed, Pompey's followers outnumbered Caesar's. But in 48 BC, on the plains of Pharsalus in northern Greece, Caesar decisively defeated Pompey. Hoping to find refuge in Egypt, Pompey fled to Alexandria but was murdered as he landed.

Caesar traveled to Egypt in pursuit of his enemy, and there became infatuated with Queen Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. After extricating himself from a difficult military position in Alexandria with the aid of the Jews, Caesar proceeded to mop up pockets of opposition with rapidity. He had great plans and reforms in mind: he revised the calendar (his 'Julian' calendar, with minor changes introduced by Pope Gregory, is the one we use today), and planned a colony for Corinth. But because he arrogantly took up the powers of dictator, some of his close friends, including Brutus, joined in a plot to assassinate him in 44 BC, on the Ides of March, the 15th.

In a speech immortalized in drama by Shakespeare 'Friends, Romans, countrymen' - Mark Antony aroused the people to a fever pitch against the assassins who found it prudent to leave the country. Much to his own chagrin Antony found that Caesar's will did not name him heir; instead Caesar's young grandnephew, Octavian, was nominated successor. After some bitter feuding, Antony and Octavian, together with Lepidus, formed a Second Triumvirate in 43 BC to pursue Caesar's murderers. One of their first acts was to sentence to death the orator Cicero, who had bitterly attacked Antony in a series of speeches.

The crucial battle was fought at Philippi, Macedonia, in 42 BC. Brutus and Cassius, the leaders of the assassins, were disheartened, partly because of faulty communications, and committed suicide.

The victors divided the Empire: Octavian was to rule the west and Antony the east. Antony summoned Cleopatra to appear before him at Tarsus. He was captivated by her, though he was married to Octavian's sister, the noble Octavia. Egged on by the ambitious queen, Antony eventually divorced Octavia and proclaimed Caesarion, Cleopatra's son, the legitimate heir of Caesar.

But outside the bay of Actium in north-western Greece, Antony's fleet was outmaneuvered by Octavian's admiral, Agrippa in 31 BC. Instead of attempting to rally his dispirited troops, Antony shamelessly joined Cleopatra in flight. After a half-hearted attempt to defend Egypt, he committed suicide. Cleopatra clasped a poisonous asp to her breast, and was buried at Antony's side in Alexandria.


In 27 BC Octavian was granted the title Augustus and became the first 'emperor', a term which is derived from the military title 'imperator'. Technically he was no more than first senator. But as he combined in himself all the powers of consul, tribune and other offices, he had no rival. Augustus shrewdly kept direct control of all the military provinces which held the major part of the armed forces. He wisely avoided Caesar's mistake, by behaving deferentially to senators. In his reign Roman peace (Pax Romana) was extended as far as the Danube and the Black Sea.

Augustus was not only the first emperor, he was also the greatest. He justly deserved the title 'father of his country'. He passed many wise and far-sighted measures concerning both Rome and the provinces. He boasted that he had transformed Rome from a city of brick into a city of marble.

His genuine piety, celebrated in the famous Altar of Peace in Rome, led to his restoring eighty temples. Augustus also attempted to regulate morals, and banished his own daughter Julia for her immorality. He tried to use legislation to encourage marriages and births, and his censuses do indicate an increase in the number of citizens from 4,233,000 in 8 BC to 4,931,000 in 14 AD.

It was during an era of peace in his reign that Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than at his parents' home in Nazareth because a census ordered by Augustus required all adults to register at their ancestral home towns.


The Emperor Tiberius was the son of Livia, the empress, by a previous marriage. Though an able soldier, his dour personality did not impress Augustus. For his part Tiberius resented the shabby manner in which he was treated, in particular by being forced to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Augustus' adulterous daughter Julia.

Tiberius' reign was marred by a glut of treason trials. In 26 AD, at the age of 67, he was persuaded by Sejanus, the sinister chief of the praetorian guard, to retire to his luxurious villa on the island of Capri, near the bay of Naples. According to the scandalous stories repeated by the writer Suetonius, the emperor indulged himself with orgies and sadistic displays, and rarely ventured back to mainland Italy.

In 31 AD the treachery of Sejanus was uncovered and he was summarily executed. In either 30 or 33 AD, Jesus was crucified under Sejanus' protégé, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, a fact which was known to the historian, Tacitus.