Introduction to New Testament Part 2: The Buildup to Christ

Beginning of Roman Rule of Judea

In 63 B.C. Pompey conquered Syria and took over Judea for Rome. He immediately began reorganizing the eastern Mediterranean world. To aid in absorbing Israel as a Roman territory, Pompey appointed Hyrcanus II as high priest in Jerusalem. Things were relatively smooth for Israel for a few years.

  • Rome had become a republic in 509 B.C. and remained so until 27 B.C.  Julius Caesar, a powerful general and good politician, was made one of three ruling consuls of the First Triumvirate in 60 B.C. after his conquest of Gaul. That conquest acquired a huge territory for Rome. Caesar and Pompey struggled against one another for supremacy in Roman politics. The result was a civil war. In 48 B.C. Caesar defeated Pompey. 
  • In 46 B.C. the Roman Senate made Julius Caesar dictator of Rome for 10 years. In early 44 B.C. the Senate changed his position to dictator for life. That appointment changed Rome’s long revered position on their republic. In 27 B.C. Rome was declared an empire ruled by an emperor who held his position for life.

Octavian Rises in Power

On March 15, 44 B.C.a group of senators assassinated Julius Caesar casting all Roman territories, including the Middle East, into turmoil. In his will, Julius Caesar declared his great-nephew Octavian (age 18) to be his adopted son and heir. This brought about a new struggle for power. 

  • Antony and Octavian, both defenders of Julius Caesar, fought his killers, Cassius and Brutus, for power to rule. Antony and Octavian prevailed. After the defeat of Cassius and Brutus, Antony and Octavian began to struggle against one another. 
  • Antony was married to Octavian’s sister but divorced her to marry Cleopatra of Egypt. The power struggle continued. Octavian finally won by defeating the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C. and Egypt was annexed to Rome. Octavian continued to gain honors and power.

Meanwhile in Israel

The Parthians attacked Syria and Judea. In Judea Hyrcanus, the High Priest, was seized and his ears mutilated to make him permanently ineligible for priesthood. The Parthians took him into captivity in Babylonia, where he lived for four years. While there the Babylonian Jews paid him every mark of respect. 

  • Hyrcanus was replaced by Antigonus II. Antigonus conspired successfully with the Parthians to capture Jerusalem. That accomplished, Antigonus was made king and priest.
  • Herod, the young son of deposed king Antipater, fled to Rome. While there he won the favor of Mark Antony. Antony persuaded the Senate to bestow on Herod the title “King of the Jews.” Herod returned to Jerusalem and with Antony’s help drove out the Parthians. In this way Herod was established as political ruler of the Jews under Rome. 

Octavian Becomes Emperor

After Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra, his power and recognition greatly increased. So much so that in 27 B.C. Rome converted its long-existing republic into an Empire with Octavian as its first emperor. He was known as Caesar Augustus He reigned from 27 B.C. until 14 A.D. Augustus was Emperor of Rome when Jesus was born. It was Augustus who established the census that bought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. When Augustus died, Tiberius, the oldest son (by a previous marriage) of Augustus’ wife became Emperor (14 A.D. to 37 A.D.) Tiberius was emperor during the active days of Jesus’ ministry. 

Herod’s Reign

With the death of Antony and Cleopatra, Herod shifted allegiance from Antony to Caesar Augustus. In 31 B.C. Augustus confirmed Herod as king. Eventually Herod became known as Herod the Great. His overall rule was from 37 to 4 B.C.  Herod was a brutal man who executed everyone he deemed a threat, including one of his 10 wives, 3 sons, and other family members. On the plus side, he was a master-builder. He built the port city of Caesarea, beautified and refortified other important cities. He rebuilt Jerusalem including significant improvements to the Temple. It was Herod’s Temple that Jesus knew. Through cunning political skill, Herod managed to keep Rome satisfied, producing a stability that Israel had not experienced for a long time. 

  • The “land of the Jews,” Herod’s kingdom, was situated at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. On average it was about 145 miles north to south and 45 miles west to east. The capital was Jerusalem. Herod created the spectacular port city of Caesarea at a lovely spot on the coast which previously had no harbor. The harbor was made by installing huge blocks of stone to define a partially enclosed sheltered zone.
  • Physical barriers divide the land into 5 longitudinal zones, narrow from west to east and long in the north-south direction. From west to east, the first zone is the coastal plain, the second foothills, the third the central mountain range, the fourth the wilderness and the Jordan Valley, and the fifth the eastern mountain range. The topology varies so much, snow can be in one place and sunshine and palm trees a few miles away.

Birth of Jesus

From Scripture we know Herod was king when Jesus was born. Jesus’ precise birthdate is not known. It had to be before Herod died in 4 B.C. The most commonly assumed date is 6 B.C. No one really knows. 

Government of “The Jews” After Herod’s Death

When Herod died, Rome split his lands between several of his descendants. In the process Rome added extra levels of government.

  • The Jewish Sanhedrin (ruling council) was charged with administering biblical law. Procurators (Roman officials), supported by a military force of some 3,000 men, supervised and watched over the Herodian rulers and the people as a whole. Rome held final authority
  • Only the principle Roman in charge could pass a sentence of death. The multiple levels of authority made life complex. Financial support for all levels placed a substantial tax burden on the people. Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Jesus to death, was the 5th Roman Procurator (26 A.D. to 36 A.D.). His established reputation was “stubborn and arrogant.”

Population @ Time of Jesus

Under Emperor Tiberius, when Jesus was active in ministry, the population of the Roman Empire was about 45 million. Some 30-40 % of the population were slaves. About 10% of the total population were Jews (about 4.5 million) scattered over the entire empire. Only about 10% (or 500,000 to 600,000) Jews lived in Israel.

The Shock of Destruction and Exile

The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the exile which followed was a shocking experience to the Jews. In the end they understood that experience as punishment for sins, especially the sin of putting other gods before the LORD.

  • Exile, and the consequent experiences with Babylon and Persia, demonstrated to them how very small their nation was in comparison to the huge world empires. 
  • They could only marvel at being chosen by God to be His own. Why did He not choose one of the great nations of the world? Yet, God had chosen them and put them in a special place that was to be their own forever. 
  • But, their special place was now occupied by the Romans. How could that possibly fit God’s plan?

Religious Groups

Several religious groups were active in Jesus’ day. At the time, Judaism had become more a way of life than a defined and accepted set of doctrines. Theological ideas were important, but no single interpretation dominated.

  • The most important thing unifying the Jews was their understanding of their unique relationship with God. They were the “chosen ones,” chosen by God to fulfill His plans. God had established an eternal covenant with them. 
  • The best known and most influential religious group were the Pharisees (about 6,000 in number). Many people (perhaps most) agreed with their point of view on most issues. The Pharisee rabbi Hillel had revolutionized rabbinic thought with an exegesis method allowing a more liberal interpretation of the law. The Pharisee Gamaliel (Hillel’s son) was Paul the Apostle’s teacher. Gamaliel was the leader of the Pharisees from 25-40 A.D. 
  • Pharisees were devout followers of OT law. They were zealous that the law be obeyed. To make it easier for people to know when they had obeyed, Pharisee wisemen interpreted the law into a set of rules they said were equivalent to the law. Pharisees were often hostile to Jesus. They believed Him to be lax in obedience to the law, too accepting of sinful people, and too open to contact with gentiles.
  • Sadducees were the 2nd major group, probably a few hundred in number. They had a significant role in the Sanhedrin and the priesthood. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, they disappeared from history. The Pharisaic view became the dominant view.
  • Sadducees were part of the priestly aristocracy holding power through their connection to the families of high-priest’s and other aristocrats. Sadducees sought to discredit Jesus by attacking His belief in the resurrection. Although usually opposed to Pharisees, they joined forces with them to get rid of Jesus who appeared as a threat to their privileged positions. 
  • Essenes (about 4000 in number) were a pious group who believed in separating themselves from worldly things, devoting their lives to the study of Scripture. The Essenes at Qumran were a strict, highly disciplined community living together communally rejecting anything that hinted at luxury. They practiced celibacy. New members were admitted only after 2 or 3 years of a strict novitiate and a series of solemn vows.
  • Zealots (perhaps a few hundred in number) were zealous for the law, willing to do anything to advance the cause of God, including violence. They were anxious to rid the nation of Roman control and willing to die striving to make that happen. They were dangerous to themselves and to the nation.

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