The Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin constituted the
wealthy class. Other residents of Jerusalem lived in relative squalor.
Jesus found himself with almost no middle class to preach to,
but there was for a time equanimity between the Roman political
and social systems while Jewish moral teachings were spreading
throughout Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The Apostle Paul was an
example of this, being a Roman citizen (See Acts 16:37) and preaching
in Greek the gospel of a Hebrew Messiah. The impression is that this
temporary tranquility was but a hiatus between wars, but it gave
Jesus the opportunity to establish his Church among them in that
The Jews in Jerusalem had become very influential. They were
intimately involved with organizing trade in the Mediterranean
world, as many routes passed through Palestine toward the seaports
to the east. Many prosperous Jews became citizens of an everexpanding Greco-Roman worldly outlook as well. Their court, the
Sanhedrin (formerly Council of Elders), was entrenched there with its
chief priests and scribes (See Luke 22:66) and recognized as legitimate by the Romans who tolerated their religious ceremonies.3 They were recognized in matters of law which did not directly affect Roman interests, and as such it had no power to carry out sentences of death.
By Jesus’ time, the first century of the new era, the city of Jerusalem had grown in size to about three miles in circumference. The emperor Titus built a wall around the three million inhabitants it housed.Perhaps the most famous Roman governor of Judea was Augustus
Caesar (31 b.C. – a.d. 14), an energetic ruler who demanded order in
his government. He worked for financial reform while including
careful registration of persons of each conquered town or city,
according to their ancestral birthplace. Augustus was essentially
concerned with power. He was always suspect of other powers
arising in that area that would challenge Rome’s further expansion.
Palestine was therefore allowed to be only a semi-independent state
within a gentile dictatorship full of military sites.
Indications of the Roman presence were everywhere, especially near Jewish places of worship. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator in Judea who later would give up Jesus to be crucified, is rumored to have built his palace near the Jewish Temple.Herod the Great ruled Judea for a time (Josephus estimates 34 years until his death in 4 b.C.)4 as successor to the throne of his father Antipater. Herod was a prodigious builder, but also a murderer.
His wife and children suffered death at his possessive and jealous
hand. After the death of Herod during Jesus’ childhood, Palestine
was divided thrice into areas governed by Herod’s sons, Philip
(areas northeast of Galilee), Antipas (Galilee and Perea) and Pontius
Pilate who was made procurator over Judea, Samaria and Idumea.
Josephus tells us that Pilate planned to abolish the Jewish laws.5
Antipas and Pilate shared a love of power in their regions. Both were
involved in the trial of Christ.
But it was increasingly difficult for the Romans to rule the Jews
because they were mutinous, stiff-necked and insurgent as a captive
people in their own country. Pilate even encouraged ongoing conflicts
in his attempt to govern them. The more oppressive he became, the
more they robbed and protested his edicts, always in the name of
socio-political causes. He had a reputation for always denying the
Jews what they asked for. His final concession to them in allowing
Jesus to be crucified he made reluctantly in an effort to restore order and to protect his reputation with emperor Caesar, for the Jewish zealots exhorted Pilate that “…whosoever maketh himself a king
speaketh against Caesar.” (John 19:12)
By the time of Jesus’ birth the Jews had become but a remnant
of their once huge Davidic nation. Ten of the original Twelve Tribes
had been led north only to become lost in antiquity following the
breakup of Judah and Israel in the latter part of the tenth century.
Around 587 b.C.6 Nebuchadnezzar, king of Chaldea, led thousands
of Jews from Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon before burning
Solomon’s Temple and destroying the city, killing its king. Jerusalem
was eventually rebuilt in time for Alexander the Great—son of
Macedonian king Philip—and his armies to capture it. There were
several more conquests by Egyptian kings who offered sacrifices to
pagan gods within the city walls.
By the time Jesus was born, Jerusalem had been conquered nine
times, many hundreds of thousands of Jews paying the price of
the spoils until the Roman high priest John Hyrcanus begged the
Romans for help. They had not long since thrown off some of the
yoke of Syria, Greece and Egypt through their great freedom fighter,
Judas Maccabeus (who many Jews regarded as their Meshiach),
rededicating their precious temple in 165 b.C.7.
Roman rule in Palestine was habitually neutral but could turn
suddenly into open hostility. Pilate, a pagan, was increasingly
scornful of Jewish customs. He had a fondness for erecting graven
images, even flags with Caesar’s likeness. These probably were
done rather as a display of power than of open demonstration. This
angered and threatened the various Jewish sects. Veiled and then
open rebellion followed. Pilate increased his troops at the walls and
byroads of the city. Roman watchmen checked incoming visitors and
made sure that the Jewish priests never forgot their presence was
subject to Roman approval. With time the situation worsened until
Pilate’s men responded to a Samaritan disturbance by massacre.
Pilate’s ten-year rule of tyranny ended and he was sent to Rome.
Part 4 next week