The New Testament's accounts of the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus set the events clearly in the context of Roman occupation. The Gospel of Luke associates the birth with a registration of the population in the time of the Emperor Augustus (Luke 2: 1 ), and all the canonical Gospels refer to the involvement of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in the events leading up to the crucifixion (for example, Matt. 27: 2; Mark 15: 1; Luke 23: 3; John 18: 28 ). The story of the early spread of Christianity is set in the context of the Roman Empire. Therefore an awareness of some of the key events, particularly those which impinged on Judea, is important for understanding the setting of the New Testament.
In 63 BCE, Pompey besieged the Temple in Jerusalem, eventually breaking in on the Day of Atonement. It is said that some 12,000 Jews fell at that time. Jerusalem and Judea came under the power of Rome and a number of free cities were established: Gadara, Hippos, Scythopolis, Gaza, Joppa, Dor, and Strato's Tower. In the aftermath of a revolt led by Alexander, the son of Aristobulus II, Judea was divided into five districts (Jerusalem, Gadara, Amathus, Jericho, and Sepphoris) under Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria. Hyrcanus II, who had been made high priest and ethnarch of the Jews, was under the control of Antipater, the governor of Idumea. Antipater was an astute politician, who first supported Pompey and then, after Pompey's death, Julius Caesar. When Caesar invaded Egypt, Antipater assisted him by providing a Jewish army, 3,000‐strong. He also persuaded the Arabs and the Syrians to support Caesar, and he himself assisted in the capture of Pelusium. As a result, Caesar appointed Antipater procurator of Judea. He became virtually the ruler of the whole of the Palestine area, and he made one of his sons, Phasael, prefect of Judah, and another, Herod, prefect of Galilee.
Antipater was poisoned in 43 BCE. Antigonus, the son of the last of the Hasmonean rulers (Aristobulus II) was prevented from conquering Judea by Herod. Mark Antony made Phasael and Herod tetrarchs of the Jews. But subsequently Antigonus, with the help of the Parthians who had invaded Syria, was successful in taking control of Judea. Phasael was imprisoned and then committed suicide, and Hyrcanus was exiled to Babylon. Antigonus ruled and served as high priest from 40 to 37. But Herod, having first placed his family at Masada, travelled to Rome to secure the help of Mark Antony and the Roman Senate appointed him king of the Jews. He returned from Rome to Ptolemais, took Joppa, and recovered control of Galilee of which he had been prefect. Three years later he married Mariamme, granddaughter of Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II. In 37 BCE he took Jerusalem, with the assistance of the Roman legions, and ruled as king until 4 BCE. Matthew's Gospel mentions King Herod in the story of the visit of the Magi after the birth of Jesus, and blames Herod for the instigation of the ‘massacre of the innocents’ (Matt. 2: 1–18 ).
Herod's status was that of client king. There were many such rulers in the Roman Empire, including Cleopatra who ruled in Egypt as a client queen. Such rulers reigned with Rome's approval, and they were appointed or replaced and their territories enlarged or reduced at Rome's pleasure. Herod's appointment marked a change in the policy replacing such rulers by others in the same royal line. Herod, an Idumean, replaced the last of the Hasmonean kings, Antigonus. Client kings were personally bound to the emperor, often through marriage alliances, and sometimes the emperor brought up their children with his own family or else appointed guardians for their children. They were relatively independent within their own kingdoms and might issue coins, as did Herod, albeit that he was only permitted to issue copper coinage. They were expected to provide military assistance to the emperor, if required, and in many cases their primary function seems to have been to maintain order on the boundaries of the empire. Herod was bitterly disliked by the Jews. He despoiled them for his own gain and was prepared to put to death not only his enemies but even members of his own family.
In 31 BCE, Mark Antony was defeated by Octavian in the battle of Actium and, in the following year, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Herod went in haste to Rhodes to meet Octavian, now ruler of the Roman Empire, to pledge the support he had formerly given to Antony. Octavian was impressed, and replaced on Herod's head the crown which Herod himself had removed, thereby reconfirming his kingship. In 27 BCE the Roman Senate conferred upon Octavian the title Augustus. He reigned until 14 CE, when he was suceeded by Tiberius (14–37) who was followed in turn by Caligula (37–41).
A feature of Herod's reign was his building activity, ordering the construction of temples, palaces, and other public buildings in places such as Nicopolis in Greece, Antioch in Syria, Rhodes, Tyre, Sidon, and Damascus. In Palestine, notable among his activities were the rebuilding of Samaria, the construction of the port of Caesarea, and the transformation of Jerusalem. (On his building activity in Palestine, see ‘The Kingdom of Herod and his Successors’ and ‘Jerusalem in New Testament Times’ .)
As noted above, the New Testament places the birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod. The reigns of Herod's successors provide the context of the life and ministry of Jesus, and some knowledge of these often turbulent times is of relevance to readers of the Bible, although direct references to the events are limited in number. After Herod's death, and in accordance with his will, the rule passed to his three sons; Archelaus became king of Judea, Antipas was designated tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Philip became tetrarch of Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Gaulanitis. The Jews of Judea did not welcome Archaelaus as their ruler, and there was a disturbance at the time of the Passover, following the death of Herod, in which some 3,000 Jews were reputed to have been killed by the horsemen of Archelaus. Subsequently, while Archelaus was away visiting Rome, a revolt broke out in Judea and spread to Galilee, Idumea, and Perea. The revolt was quelled by Varus, the governor of Syria, and Josephus reports that 2,000 Jews were put to death at this time. In the end, Archelaus was designated ethnarch—not king—of Judea by Augustus, and he ruled from 4 BCE to 6 CE. Then he was sent into exile and his kingdom, Judea, was made part of a Roman province which included Samaria, Judea, and Idumea.
Herod Antipas ruled as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE. He built the city of Tiberias on the shores of Sea of Galilee, and made it the capital of Galilee. It was Herod Antipas to whom Jesus referred as ‘that fox’ (cf. Luke 13:32 ). He seems to have been a capable ruler who kept the balance between maintaining his friendship with Rome and attempting not to offend the religious scruples of the Jews. He did however suffer a defeat at the hands of the Nabataean king Aretas, and he was eventually exiled to Gaul, having been accused of rebellion against the Roman emperor Caligula by Agrippa I (who had been made king over what had previously been the tetrarchy of Philip).
Philip ruled from 4 BCE to 34 CE as tetrarch of Trachonitis, Batanaea, Gaulanitis, Auranitis, and Ituraea. He built Caesarea Philippi (Paneas) as his capital, and enlarged and developed the city of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, calling it Julias in honour of Augustus's daughter Julia. He seems to have been a moderate and just ruler. Because he died without heir, the territory he had ruled was added to the province of Syria.
In Judea, after Archelaus was exiled in 6 CE, rule passed into the hands of Roman governors, the first of whom was named Coponius (6–9). There seems to have been a census, taken for taxation purposes at the time of the establishment of the province, conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. This census may be alluded to in Luke 2: 1–2 , where it is mentioned as the context for Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. But Matthew's Gospel places the birth of Jesus earlier, in the time of Herod. Acts 5: 37 suggests that the census provoked protest, led by one Judas the Galilean, who was put to death. The best known of the Roman governors of Judea was Pontius Pilate (26–36 CE), under whom Jesus was crucified (for example, Matt. 27: 24–6; Mark 15: 6–15; Luke 23: 20–5; John 19: 13–16 ). He was not a good administrator, and he angered the Jews by setting up votive shields in Herod's palace. He also put to death many Samaritans, as a result of which an embassy was sent to Vitellius, the Roman legate, complaining of his actions. Pilate was ordered to go to Rome to answer before the emperor, and he was removed from his governorship.
When Caligula, who had the reputation of being insane, succeeded Tiberius as emperor in 37 CE, he appointed Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, as king over the former tetrarchy of Philip. Agrippa succeeded in persuading Caligula to give up a project to set up a statue of himself as a god in the Jerusalem Temple. When Claudius (41–54) succeded Caligula, who was murdered, Judea and Samaria were added to Agrippa's territory. Thus he came to rule all the territory that had formerly belonged to his grandfather, Herod the Great. Agrippa began to build a wall around the north suburb (Bezetha) of Jerusalem, probably in the vicinity of the present northern wall, but he was instructed by Claudius to cease this project. It was Herod Agrippa who, according to Acts 12: 1–19 , had James, the brother of John, put to death, and who was responsible for having Peter arrested and imprisoned. It was under Claudius that Jews were expelled from Rome, including Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18: 2 ).
When Herod Agrippa died unexpectedly in 44, his kingdom was again made a province ruled by Roman governors. The first of these, Cuspius Fadus (44–6), angered the Jews by ordering that the robes of the high priest should be placed in the Antonia Tower under Roman charge. The matter was referred to the emperor, Claudius, who decided in favour of the Jews. Herod Agrippa I's only son, also named Agrippa, had remained in Rome after his father's death. In 49 he was appointed king (Herod Agrippa II) of Chalcis. After the death of Claudius, Nero (54–68) gave him territory in Galilee and in Perea. His capital was at Caesarea (Paneas) which he temporarily renamed Neronias in honour of the emperor. He was granted the authority to appoint the high priest at Jerusalem and to supervise the Temple and its funds.
M. Antonius Felix was Roman governor of Judea, from 52–60. He married Drusilla, the sister of Herod Agrippa II (Acts 24: 24 ). During his period of office a group known as Sicarii (after the daggers they carried) or ‘Assassins’ arose among the Zealots, to campaign against Roman authority. They laid the groundwork for the rebellion which was to break out in 66 (see below). It was before Felix that Paul was tried (Acts 24: 1–23 ). When Felix was recalled by Nero, he was succeeded by Porcius Festus (60–2). Paul was brought from prison at Caesarea to appear before Festus (Acts 25: 1–12 ), who proposed that he should be tried in Jerusalem, but Paul made his appeal to the emperor. So the matter was laid before Herod Agrippa II, who asked to hear Paul and, as a result, Paul made his famous address to Agrippa and his sister Bernice (Acts 25: 13–26: 32 ).
Later, when Gessius Florus (64–6) became governor, Bernice appealed to him on behalf of the Jews, urging that he adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards them. There had been protests and demonstrations against Florus in Jerusalem which Florus had put down violently, with many Jews being killed. Herod Agrippa II, who investigated the situation, urged the Jews to submit to Roman authority and, at his suggestion, arrears in tribute were collected and repairs were made to the Temple precincts. But the Jews in Jerusalem soon turned against Agrippa; he was attacked with stones and left the city.
The deterioration in the relationship between the Roman government and the Jews of Judea led ultimately to the outbreak of a revolt against Rome in 66. The priests, led by one Eleazar, stopped the practice of offering sacrifices on behalf of the emperor, thereby signalling the rejection of Roman authority. Nero chose Vespasian to put down the revolt. Vespasian overcame Galilee, forcing the resistance leader, John of Gischala, and his Zealot supporters to flee to Jerusalem. Vespasian became emperor in 69. In the April the following year his son Titus arrived at Jerusalem with a force of Roman legionaries and laid siege to the city. The siege lasted from April to September. On the 9th of Ab (in August) the gates were burnt, and the Temple was also burnt, despite the fact that Titus had given orders to the contrary. John of Gischala held out for a time in Herod's palace on the western hill, but the whole city was in Titus' hands on the 8th of Elul (in September). The war dragged on until 73, when the fortress of Masada finally fell. Titus commemorated his victory by the erection of a triumphal arch in Rome, with pictures of the Temple treasures being carried off in procession. Titus succeeded his father Vespasian as emperor in 79, and he in turn was succeeded by Domitian (81–96). Under Domitian there occurred the persecution of Christians which provides the context for the writing of the Book of Revelation.