Some Background on Rome and Judaea

This Easter the combination of rewatching Ben-Hur and a Palm Sunday sermon has me thinking about questions relating to the Romans and Judaea in the time of Jesus that I don't think I'd ever spent much time on before. One is the question of exactly how Rome came to be in charge in Judaea (raised by the film), and the other is what exactly was going on the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem on his final visit (raised by the sermon). The two are connected in a general way by considering the Roman presence in Judaea and how it affected both Judaeans and visitors. Now that I have satisfied my own curiosity, I thought others might be interested, so I am posting it here.

To answer the first question, it is necessary to go back nearly 300 years before the death of Jesus in c30 CE, to the situation of the eastern Mediterrean at the death of Alexander the Great. Alexander had not lived long enough to establish firm control and administration over the lands he had conquered and, after his early death in battle (in 323 BCE), his generals divided vast tracts of territory among themselves. In the east, various generals fought to establish their control over the satrapies (provinces) of the former Babylonian Empire conquered by Alexander.

Seleucus, one of these generals, and his descendants were generally successful in consolidating power in what is now Syria and surrounding regions and resisting encroachments from the Ptolomean dynasty in Egypt. At its greatest extent Seleucus' kingdom stretched to the Indus River although the eastern provinces were fairly quickly lost to Indian rulers. In attempting to extend their power westward early in the 2nd century, under the influence of the exiled Carthaginian general Hannibal, the Seleucids went to war against Rome and were defeated. Among other conditions of peace a large monetary indemnity was imposed.

This defeat and the subsequent economic uncertainty brought Antiochus IV Epiphanes to the Seleucid throne. On his watch matters went from bad to worse: the Parthians, who would become Rome's long-term eastern foe, captured the eastern provinces and Antiochus himself overreached himself with an aggressive pro-Hellenistic accomodation policy and was the cause of a successful rebellion under the leadership of the Maccabee family. So in 161 BCE, according to the historian Josephus and 1 Maccabees 7-8, the first known contact between Rome and Judaea took place. Judah Maccabee, one of the leaders of the Maccabee Revolt, sought an alliance with Rome, the rising power in the eastern Mediterranean, to bolster his position in the on-going conflict against the Seleucid kingdom. The Maccabees achieved semi-independence from the Seleucids and expanded their own state with opportunistic wars against neighbouring areas. The dynasty they founded is called the Hasmonean dynasty. There's no evidence that Rome took any part in the Maccabee revolt, but the alliance is interesting in showing the very positive terms in which Rome was regarded by some actors in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Rome was expanding its authority and influence in that area by a mixture of hard and soft power, ranging from military conquest (especially involving kingdoms and dynasties that had offered support to Hannibal in exile) to supporting one side or the other in civil wars and dynastic struggles so as to insure influence over the eventual winner. Often Roman intervention was deliberately sought by one or more sides in local disputes. The reward for the Romans was not just more territory for Rome but also the vast wealth of the Greek east. Because at this point generals were personally financially responsible for retiring legionaries who had served in their armies and because of the tremendous costs of political campaigning back in Rome, they were strongly motivated to succeed! A successful Roman general could afford land to settle his veterans and still end up with enough money to support a lavish civil campaign for office and influence in Roman politics.

A century after the alliance with the Maccabees, in 63 BCE, Pompey, known to history as Pompey the Great, a very successful Roman general indeed and member (with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus) of the Gang of Three behind the current Roman political scene, had conquered Rome's old nemesis the kingdom of Pontus (in what's now northeastern Turkey). As a result of Pompey's conquests and treaties, most of the eastern Mediterranean had fallen under Roman rule or influence except the rump of the old Seleucid kingdom (including its client Judaea). Among his other actions, Pompey intervened in a civil war between two Hasmonean would-be rulers, Aristobolus II and Hyrcanus II. He put Hyrcanus on the throne and reorganised the Hasmonean territory: the territory ruled by Hyrcanus II was reduced to Judaea and Idumea (the Biblical Edom), Galilee, and Perea, while Samaria was carved out into a separate client state.

An important supporter of Hyrcanus II was the Idumean, Antipater. After 40 BCE, when the Hasmonean state fell into chaos after Hyrcanus II was deposed in a coup by Antigonus, the son of Aristobolus II, it was Antipater's son Herod who emerged as the new ruler of the Hasmonean state. Although Herod was not related to the Hasmonean family, he was married to the last surviving Hasmonean princess, Mariamne, and this gave him some credibility. Furrthermore, he had the patronage of Rome, having gone there so that he could be presented to the Senate by Mark Antony and Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and recognised as king of Judaea. By 37 BCE he had captured the territories of Judaea and Idumea, Galilee, and Perea (his campaign in Galilee was a particularly bloody one against Hasmonean partisans). As Herod the Great, he would rule until his death in 4 BC but his many brutalities in power, lack of Hasmonean ancestry, and Idumean origins meant he was never a popular ruler.

When Herod the Great died, his three surviving sons Philip, Antipas, and Archelaus divided his kingdom into parts. Archelaus received half Herod's kingdom and Philip and Antipas a quarter of the original kingdom each. Herod's will and this division were certified as valid by Rome whose client Herod had been. But Archelaus was such a bad ruler that in 6 CE the Romans intervened directly again: Augustus unseated Archelaus and attached his kingdom to the Roman province of Syria, meaning that Judaea, Idumea, and Samaria came under direct Roman rule, with a procurator or prefect as he was sometimes called (a subordinate of the governor of Syria) in charge. The capital of Roman Judaea was Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the Great and named in honour of Augustus' uncle Julius Caesar. It also had a large artificial harbour and became a centre of trade for the whole coast.

Its position on major trade and communication routes was one reason to make Caesarea the capital, rather than Jerusalem. Others included the modern amenities such as theatres, baths, and administrative buildings, and the fact that it was not a temple city like Jerusalem. The Romans tried to avoid temple centres when possible in their foreign territories. There was also a palace there, built by Herod, which could serve as a residence for the procurator. Pontius Pilate was the fifth of these procurators. A man with some influence in Rome, he served for 10 years, from 26-36 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.

Like Herod the Great, Pilate was not popular. Neither the Gospels, nor the historian Josephus, nor the philosopher/theologian Philo Judaeus portray him in a very positive light. He frequently pushed the envelope of Roman-Judaean relations in ways that left permanent strains and a legacy of distrust. For example, early in his tenure he became impatient with the convention that Rome would respect Judaean religious scruples about the city of Jerusalem by not bringing into it certain kinds of military insignia, ones that contained representations of the emperor, because such images offended Judaean sensibilities about what should be allowed in the holy city. So he ordered a detachment of auxiliaries into Jerusalem whose standards contained a depiction of a bust of the emperor. He had to back down after strong Judaean resistance but it was not an auspicious start.

As governor, he would have visited Jerusalem regularly, even though he did not make it his capital. Like Caesarea Maritima, Jerusalem contained a palace built by Herod that could function as a residence for the governor when he visited the city and also as a praetorium, a seat of official business. It also contained a fortress, the Antonia, where the small permanent garrison in the holy city was housed. At Passover the governor came to Jerusalem with the usual military escort, likely of about 1,000 troops, and augmented that garrison to protect against trouble at the festival. Also it is likely that the governor visited Jerusalem at that time to hold law sessions. One of the most important parts of a Roman governor's duties was to hear legal cases that involved Roman citizen living in his province and other cases that didn't come under the jurisdiction of the local authorities (which in Jerusalem was the high priest and Council, or Sanhedrin). We know, for instance, that Pilate had heard capital cases, perhaps as many as three, before Jesus came before him in the period leading up to that Passover, since at least three other men (Barabas and the two who were crucified with Jesus) had been condemned to crucifixion. It is possible that others had been crucified earlier in the court session.

But did he arrive at Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus rode in? It's possible of course, but how can we possibly know? We don't know the time of day that Jesus arrived. We can't be sure what day it was that Jesus arrived: John says the entry occurred the day after the anointing at Bethany, which he places 6 days before Passover. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't really date the entry (though Matthew and Mark do place the anointing 2 days before Passover). In the recent commentary on Mark by Joel Marcus, the commentator works out a sort of proto-Holy-Week chronology which also has the entry fall on the fifth day before Passover. However Marcus is doubtful whether Mark's chronology is completely reliable historically or whether some of the events have been arranged arbitrarily to fit the proto-Holy-Week chronology. The cleansing of the Temple would be a case in point, since Marcus thinks it is far more likely that Jesus would have gone straight from his entry into the holy city to the Temple than that he merely looked around and returned to Bethany, leaving the cleansing of the Temple to the next day. Certainly the traditions behind John and Mark do assign different events to different times. We also don't know precisely when the governor arrived in Jerusalem -- some scholars speak imprecisely of the beginning of Passover week. There was no Roman week; the Jewish week ran from Sunday to the Sabbath, modern Saturday, so by that reckoning the beginning of Passover week would strictly be the Sunday before start of Passover.

So I think the answer is, yes, Pilate could have been arriving at one side of Jerusalem when Jesus was arriving at the other, but he equally well might have arrived at a different time. In reality it does not seem to matter very much. The claims, which preachers sometimes make, that Jesus was making a pointed comparison between himself and the Roman governor, contrasting two kinds of power or empire, or that he was deliberately satirising a Roman governor's entry, don't really depend on the two entries coinciding in time. Everyone in Judaea would have been familiar with the ceremony of an official entry. The question is whether they would have recognised some sort of "message" to do with Rome in what Jesus was doing. The gospels themselves certainly portray Jesus' actions as carrying a message, but it was one to do with the meaning of his messianic claim, of what it meant to be a "king of the Jews". It seems to me that the fundamental meaning of what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples and anyone else who was paying attention was the kind of messiah he was. That would be borne out by the two texts quoted or alluded to in the entry accounts in the gospels, Ps 118.25-6 and Zech 9.9-10, both of which have, or were interpreted to have, royal connotations, as a shout of acclamation and a description of a gentle king riding on a donkey, respectively.

But was he also a political revolutionary, wanting to encourage resistance to Roman rule, even though it may have been a non-violent resistance? I personally don't find Jesus as political revolutionary convincing, far less Jesus as political satirist. It does not seem to me that this approach is borne out by the gospels, unless one eliminates as later additions to the story all or most of the passages that say or suggest that Jesus ever claimed to be the messiah or the Son of God, or that he was influenced in his thinking by Jewish apocalyptic. This attitude relies very much on the work of scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who are cited in the sermon I heard. But it has never seemed to me that so radical a rejection of most of the traditional content of New Testament exegesis is justified. It appears to me that trends in modern New Testament scholarship are increasingly moving away from the ways of reading the biblical texts advanced and defended by the Jesus Seminar (in which Borg and Crossan participated).

Basically as C.S. Lewis pointed out a long time ago now in the lectures that became Mere Christianity, you cannot have it both ways. He was speaking of the idea that Jesus was a "great human teacher", but it works equally well in the present case.If you want a political revolutionary Jesus, or a guerrilla theatre satirist Jesus, then you have to read the New Testament in ways that throw messiah Jesus and son of God Jesus out of court, and you can't just wave your hands and get them back. So I am happy to continue with an old-school Jesus, one who entered Jerusalem on a donkey to show his followers what God's Messiah should really be like and whose attitude to the Romans was likely one shared with most of his contemporaries, a grudging accomodation to Roman rule and practices as long as the integrity of the Temple was preserved.

The Romans, like the Hellenistic Seleucid or Hellenised Hasmonean rulers before them, seem to have tried most of the time to respect the Jewish religion and its requirements, as for instance, exempting Jewish witnesses from having to travel to court and give evidence on the Sabbath, as long as Judaeans paid taxes and kept the peace. And the population of Judaea seem for the most part to have been willing to accommodate themselves to Roman rule, overlooking pagan religious images on coins, even the Syrian shekels used to pay the Temple tax, or pagan temples to the divine Augustus being put up in other cities so long as Jerusalem was spared. In the end the accomodation could not hold. Rome's overreach, like that of the Seleucid monarchs earlier — an overreach to which Pilate contributed as we have seen — and a combination of distrust of Rome and apocalyptic fervour on the Judaean side led to a terrible revolt in the late 60s CE, the Jewish War, which ended the only way it could, with a crushing defeat inflicted by Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE.

The nascent Christian movement, like other groups on the fringes of mainstream Judaism, suffered greatly because of the war. Both leaders and followers had to flee from Judaea. Professor Marcus thinks that the Gospel of Mark was at least in part a response to the situation of Jewish Christians in the immediate buildup to war and its early days. Other scholars think the shock of 70 CE helped to bring about the writing of all the gospels, in the sense that it underscored the need to record stories and traditions about Jesus and his teachings before the elders of the community were further scattered or killed. But did Jesus contribute to this terrible situation by acts of political revolution or satire? I hope not, and I think not!