Jews and the Roman Empire

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The spiraling tension between Jews and Rome erupted in two revolts that deepened the rift between Jews and Christians.

Holland Lee Hendrix: President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary

Spread Of The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire grew over a long period of time from basically a political unit in Italy to the entire Mediterranean basin, but it took a lot of time…. It really grew out of a number of different dynamics, certainly through invasion, through conquest, but also through invitation and one could be say bequest; certainly the eastern part of what became the empire actively solicited Rome’s presence and were looking for, a firm, stable political authority and found, in Rome, that authority….

The spearhead, one could say, of Roman expansion I think most certainly was as much economically based as it was militarily based. We have a lot of evidence that tells us about Roman venture capitalists out there on the fringes of Roman economic spheres, beginning to build their small economic empires, and in some cases rather larger economic empires, that brought with [them] Roman rule. In fact, in some eastern Mediterranean cities Roman business men formed actual social units, political units within the Greek cities. These then became the networks by which political power then followed. So from economic and military activity spreading out from Italy, the empire spread through North Africa, through the West all the way through Great Britain, to the East all the way to eastern Syria, and that embraced all of Greece, all of Turkey, the Syral Palestinian area. The complete Mediterranean basin was effectively Roman.

L. Michael White: Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

The Roman Empire And Judea

The way the Roman Empire developed, was gradually to take over more and more territories in the eastern Mediterranean. Some of these were governed as provinces. You can imagine the Roman Empire gradually taking over more and more areas as they conquered and progressively moved to the east. North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, Syria. And gradually, they also conquered Judea. In the process, they set up some as provinces, and some as client kingdoms. Judea happened to be one of these client kingdoms run by its own independent, or semi-independent, King. This is the person we know as Herod the Great.

For the ordinary people of the Jewish homeland, Rome was a kind of dominant political factor. Although they might not have seen Romans on a day-to-day basis, the imposition of Roman power was certainly there. In the case of the client kingdom, Judea, Herod’s rule and Herod’s forces would have been the political entity. But everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Everyone knew that Rome was the source of both the wealth and also the source of some of the problems that occurred in the Jewish state. So the political reality of the day was of a dominant power overseeing the life on a day-to-day basis.

Pilate’s Inscription Found At Caesarea

In Caesarea, they also found a block of stone with a local Governor’s name carved on it. Tell us the story. What does that tell us about the society and the politics of that time?

Yes, this inscription that’s now been found at Caesarea Maritima, which refers to Pontius Pilate, is one of the most important discoveries made in the archeological work of the last two decades. Precisely because it’s the first piece of hard evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate. Now, for Pilate, of course, we have a number of literary references, both in the Jewish historian, Josephus, and also among the Christian gospels. But this is the first piece of direct evidence from an archaeological source which actually gives us his name and tells us he was there as Governor. The city of Caesarea Maratima was actually the Governor’s residence. This was the capitol city, from the perspective of the Roman political administration. So, it would have been where Pontius Pilate would have lived, where he would have had his court.

And what does that tell us, because if Herod ruled the city, if Herod was the local client King, what was Pontius Pilate doing there?

Herod ruled from 37 B.C.E. to 4 B.C.E. Quite a long and impressive reign from just the political perspective. But, at his death, his kingdom, which was the largest extent for the Jewish state since the time, really, of David and Solomon, was subdivided among three of his sons. One son, Herod Antipas, took the northern territories of the Galilee and those on the east side of the Jordan River. Another son, Phillip, took the areas to the east of the Sea of Galilee … the area now thought of as the Golan Heights, and a good stretch of territory over in that direction. The third son, Archelaeus, took the major portion, and in fact the most important cities… Now this region, which we would probably call Judea, was really the most important of the three sub-divisions. But Archelaeus, in contrast to his two half-brothers, didn’t fare as well as his father. And within ten years, he was removed by the Roman overlords, and replaced with military governors … what we usually refer to as Procurators, or Prefects, posted there by the Roman administration to oversee the political activities of the state.

Pontius Pilate, is one of these first round of governors posted to the province of Judea, once it was given over to Roman military governorship. And the stone that we now have from Caesarea … is very important. It gives us three pieces of information. First, it tells us that Pontius Pilate was the Governor. Secondly, it calls him a Prefect. That’s what we see in line three of the text. Thirdly, and in some ways most interestingly, the first line tells us that Pilate had built a Tibereum. What that means is, a temple for the Emperor Tiberius, as part of the Imperial Cult. Thus, here we have, at Caesarea Maritima, a Roman Governor building a temple in honor of the Roman Emperor.

Paula Fredriksen: William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

Herod And The Temple

Tell me a little bit about Herod the Great as a person. I mean, he was a man of enormous ambition. What kind of person was he?

Herod the Great was probably one of the greatest kings of the post-Biblical period in Israel, but you wouldn’t want your daughter to date him. He was ambitious, brutal, extremely successful; he brooked no opposition, either with family or with politics. He was … a genius of [a] self-made man. Thanks to the political connections of his father, he was able to marry into the ruling family in Judea. And it was under his kingship that post-Biblical Israel really rose to its political and material heights in the early days of the Roman Empire. Herod was a successful client king, which meant that as long as he paid tribute to Rome and was on the correct side of any kind of Roman fracas, he protected the political independence and liberty of Jews in Israel. And… he did that very well. He also advertised the success and wealth of his own regime and the importance of his people by having an incredibly ambitious program of building … some of the most beautiful buildings that we have still existing in the land of Israel were done under Herod. Of course, his great architectural gift to posterity was what he did with the Temple in Jerusalem.

Why did Herod want to build a Temple? What would it mean to him?

The Temple in Jerusalem was the symbolic and, in a sense, political heart of the country…. But by building the Temple, Herod established a residence with Jewish history…. By rebuilding the Temple … refurbishing it … making it enormous and really one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world, he not only increased enormously the religious prestige of Judaism, but , if political history is in a sense the history of real estate development, he enabled Judea to have a positive balance of trade. Jerusalem, then as now, was one of the major centers of tourism. Not only Jewish tourism, but gentiles as well would come up to Jerusalem…. The way to think of the Temple with Herod’s vision, is to think almost of an airport as much as a of a church or something like that. He created architecturally, a space that could accommodate an enormous number of pilgrims and tourists and interested others. And by doing this, he made a statement. Not only about his own country, but about the God of Israel.

Eric Meyers: Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University

Influence Of Herod The Great

There’s nobody in all Jewish history, I could say without hesitation, who has had a greater influence on the material culture and splendor of Palestine Israel than Herod the Great. His building plan was ambitious beyond expectation, beyond belief. And his ability to bring local resources as well as foreign resources to bear on his public works program was unparalleled. And this was especially interesting because he was such a nasty person, such a evil man in many ways, but he was a brilliant strategist, and a brilliant politician. And his public works program, coming as it did after the great earthquake of 31 B.C.E., was a way of bringing diverse communities together in Palestine. He brought Pharisees together with the Essenes and all sorts of people. His public works really brought the community back together. And it is one of the real untold ironies of Jewish history that this man, who’s the guy you love to hate in Jewish history really, leaves the most indelible mark on the face of the land of Israel. Whether it’s the western wall or the Temple itself, with all of its splendor, or the great amphitheater at Caesarea, or the harbor at Caesarea, all of these magnificent monuments are attributed to him and his working relationship with both local indigenous peoples as well as foreign sponsors.

L. Michael White:

Tensions In Judea At The Time Of Jesus’ Birth

Can you describe the situation in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth?

Well, the first thing I think I would say about the situation of Judea at the time of Jesus, is that it really is a burgeoning economy. It’s a new world because of the arrival of Rome, and because of the accomplishments of Herod’s rule. But at the same time, these very accomplishments produce some tensions. We could probably think of it best if we think of it as almost two intersecting axes. The first is a series of religious tensions, many of them focusing on the Temple. The Temple is both the center of continuity, it’s the center of devotion, and yet it can be the center of religious controversy and apocalyptic expectation or sectarian identity. Such as that we see at … at Qumran, and among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On the other side, there is the political and socioeconomic tension that we see reflected in the rise of social banditry. Let’s remember that Josephus actually mentions over a dozen of these rebel bandit kinds of figures, like Judas the Galilean and The Egyptian. All the way from the time from Herod, himself and going down to the time of the first revolt. And at least, according to Josephus, there’s a kind of increasing sense of political unrest that comes with them.

Now, this political tension though, is also fueled by religious ideas and expectations. And here again, Jerusalem and the Temple seem at times to be a kind of focal point of their ideas.

The First Revolt — 66

The situation in Jerusalem was… becoming increasingly tense through the mid sixties. This is the period of the build-up toward the first revolt against Rome. The outbreak of the war would occur in 66 but Josephus tells us that for a number of years prior to that from at least about 60 up until the outbreak that there was growing tension over the last few governors of the countryside. He tells us that they were pretty abusive and corrupted administrators … robbing the people … in order to line their own pockets. Josephus also tells us that there’s another source of growing tension in the country at this time because there’s an increasing number of bandit and rebel types coming out of the woodwork in the country, and so between growing banditry, the rise of the Zealot movement, a[n] insurgency movement, and then the corruption of the administration, the situation in Jerusalem is becoming very, very tense indeed. By the year 66 it would break out in a full scale Jewish revolt against Rome.

The story goes that when there was a riot in the city of Caesarea the Roman governor required reparations to be paid. The Jewish inhabitants of Caesarea had apparently gotten angry over the relationships with their gentile neighbors and had gone on a rampage. The governor wanted them to pay for the damages. When they refused he went to Jerusalem and demanded the money to come out of the temple treasury and that was the spark that ignited the first revolt. Unfortunately he didn’t count on the level of popular sentiment that had been growing. He thought he could bluff his way in with only a few troops and he was run out of town very quickly. When he called for reinforcements and tried to march on Jerusalem again he was ambushed on the way and apparently the Jewish insurgents thought this was a sign that God was in fact ready to deliver them from Roman rule, that this was the coming of the kingdom, and so quickly a small outbreak burst into an open revolt and consumed the entire country.

…The war, that lasted from 66 to 70, …falls fairly neatly into two distinct phases. [I]n the first phase of the war, most of the military action was limited to the Northern Territories, to the Galilee itself. Now this is where we encounter Josephus for the first time because even as a young person he was given command of the Galilean armies and was in command of them when the Roman General Vespasian, who would soon become the next emperor, led the troops to occupy the Galilee and quell the revolt. Vespasian basically decided to divide the country into parts. Mop up the North and then move on the South later. Jerusalem was his ultimate target but he wanted really to isolate it before he ever tried to take Jerusalem.

By the year 68, though something else would happen in Roman politics. The Emperor Nero was assassinated, and what ensued was a year of civil war back in Rome as three different individuals claim to be the emperor of Rome. That disruption in the political continuity at Rome meant that the war was put on hold also, and as a result of that it gave another breather to the rebel forces. They again seemed to think that this was a sign of divine deliverance, that God had in fact finally killed the emperor who was trying to oppress them. So the war actually heated up after the death of Nero a bit. Vespasian eventually was recalled to Rome and was made the emperor. His son Titus who would succeed him a few years later as emperor of Rome was left in charge of the armies. It was Titus then who would proceed to undertake the siege of Jerusalem and finally end the war in the year 70.

The Seige Of Jerusalem

The siege of Jerusalem is a sad story. Josephus tells us about some of its events, and it’s in gruesome detail in the story of the Jewish war. Josephus describes walking around the walls of Jerusalem and pleading with people on the inside to give up rather then go through the suffering and agony that would come from a long protracted siege. Josephus also tells us that there’s a lot of infighting going on in the city among the different rebel factions who occupy different parts of Jerusalem. The loss of life must have been catastrophic to the Jewish population as a whole.

For two years then Jerusalem was under siege. Starvation, disease, murder were the order of the day. In the final analysis, by the month of August in the year 70 the fate of Jerusalem was a foregone conclusion. The Roman armies were masked. They were ready to break through. Everyone knew it. It was just a matter of when but they were going to fight to the death, and many of them did die. So on that fateful morning when they broke through, Josephus describes the events of them breaking through the walls. The Roman soldiers running through the streets. Going into every house. Killing everyone they find.

It’s a pretty awful slaughter and we have lots of evidence of it now between the artifacts that one finds of the first revolt that are scattered throughout this layer of the archaeological record. Arrowheads, spears, other kinds of indications of pretty serious hand-to-hand combat in all parts of the city. The lower city of Jerusalem remains to this day largely uninhabited but in Jesus’ day in up to the time of the first revolt that was the most populous part of the city. But in the first revolt in those final hours of the battle it was burned to the ground.

The Burnt House

One of the most recent and poignant examples of this comes from the archaeology. Something called the burnt house which actually shows us one of the houses that apparently was burned … the furniture and the implements are here in place with a layer of ash and residue of the burning still quite clear. And we have to really think of this as a massive trauma to the Jewish experience, in the Jewish psyche of that time. Jerusalem, the sacred city. The temple, the center of piety and identity, is gone and they have to be saying to themselves, “How could God let this happen to us? What have we done wrong?”

… The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem is really very important to all Jewish history. We have to imagine the whole population of Judea. That Southern region and especially the city of Jerusalem itself really being forced to leave because of the devastation of the city. Apparently the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 is the occasion of a massive shift of population away from the South and toward the North. In future generations the main center of Jewish population would be the Galilee. Not the Southern Judean region. So as we think of Jerusalem in those final hours of the war we have to [imagine] a stream of refugees fleeing the city, and as they look back seeing the temple in flames. The smoke rising on the horizon and they are wondering what it is that will be the center of their faith now that the house of God has been destroyed….

As they looked back at the… smoke rising on the horizon from the temple they might have remembered the words of the psalm, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion.” This is a psalm from the first destruction, back in the time of the Babylonian exile, but at the time of the revolt against Rome it must have come back as a haunting refrain of what happens when the temple is lost. When the people feel that their God has abandoned them, or maybe it’s their fault….

Eric Meyers:

Tragedy At Masada – Suicide?

Chart of the fortress at Masada and surrounding Roman troops.

When the Romans attacked Jewish citizens in Caesarea on the coast, the home of their administrative offices in the year 64, there was an enormous outbreak of opposition and hostility in the Jewish community to this distant Roman administrative force. This is really what precipitated the war, which broke up, literally, four years later, and led to the cataclysmic conclusion, the burning of Jerusalem in the year 70.

The Rock of Masada, one of the most glorious places in all Israel, became the major refuge point for some of the most extremist elements opposing Rome. The zealots, and their most ardent supporters, fled right in the middle of the war – 66, 67, 68 – to Masada, where [over 600] of them took residence… in the splendor of this gorgeous place to eke out a futile existence which had such an unhappy ending.

If one looks to the site of Masada and observes these ruins there, we can see on the northern corner a three-tiered magnificent palace. This is where Herod and his retinue stayed, and they got the cool afternoon breezes there every day, an absolutely beautiful place…. On all the four corners, on the whole edge of the rock, was a wall. And here the zealots located most of their homes when they resettled the place after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. There were the great storerooms in the middle of the rock… full of foodstuffs and an arsenal of weapons…. And you had another palace, and even underground cisterns that were tremendous, the size of football fields, so that water could be provided to this remote place. Here these… Zealots situated themselves for nearly four years after the loss of Jerusalem. And they could observe from their perch upon this rock, the Romans in the six encampments all around them….

It was a refuge for Herod, and it became even a greater refuge now for these Zealots following the war, even though the war, for all intents and purposes, had ended in 70 on the 9th of Ab, some time in July. So they went on, and they built little hovels in the casement wall, and they built other little residences in the trappings of Herod’s splendor. And they watched Flavius Silva built a ramp on the western side, as it stepped up the mountain. [That] took a long time, and there were six Roman camps all the way around on the eastern side, coming around the northern and southern corners as well. And they watched that, and then the tale gets confusing. The tale gets confusing because we have one major written source, and that’s the tale of Josephus himself. And he tells us a story of mass suicide before Flavius Silva and the troops could come up.The Roman general Flavius Silva, who built this ramp, decided suddenly on the day that the ramp was completed to let his soldiers go back and get a good night’s sleep before they would invade the camp. And this is one of the clues that tips off modern day scholars and readers of Josephus that this is not the thing you would expect from a brilliant Roman strategist. Send the troops back and have a good meal, a good rest before they take on these 600 some men, women, children. They’re not exactly the strongest opposition that you could imagine.

Josephus V. Archeology

Anyway, Josephus tells us that, and when they came and finally broke through with a battering ram the next day they found no one there except the silence of the place and a mass suicide. And that brings us to the question, who’s right? Josephus or the archaeology…? The story that we can reconstruct from the archaeological remains is at variance from what we find in Josephus; we don’t find 630 skeletons in the ruins that were excavated by archaeologists at Masada in 1963 to 1965. What we find are 25 skeletons in a big underground cave on the southern face that may or may not be refugees who escaped the mass suicide, and three other skeletons, a grown person and two children, on the site, and that’s it. There is no trace whatsoever of human remains on the site. Which leads us to reflect on the meaning of this in Josephus, and the meaning that was created by the archaeological interpretation of those facts. Clearly for Josephus, who was supported by the Roman Emperor in Rome after the war, who started out a general and wound up a pacifist, he may have used his writing of events to make an apology to his Roman patrons for those events. And he made suicide, in good Hellenistic literary style, the vehicle for this apology. On the other hand, the archaeologists who looked at the events were looking to make that story – “Masada shall not fall,” [is] a phrase of modern interpretive history – to make those events, and to make this data a symbol for modern Israel and their position in the conflict of the modern Middle East. And so politics and nationalism here, I think, have influenced the way the story has been told by contemporary archaeologists.

In addition to the absence of skeletal remains, I must say that the most heinous sin for a Jew is suicide. It is one of the most unexpected things that would come from a group of pious, let alone Zealous, Jewish people in the first century. People have questioned this also as one of the major reasons for doubting the veracity and truth of the narrative of Josephus…. There is no greater crime, there is no greater sin in Judaism than suicide itself. Not only is this the ultimate insult to a loving God, but it represents also the only instance in which a Jew would be disqualified from burial in a Jewish cemetery….

If there are no bones, and if there were no mass suicide, what happened to all of these people? In my opinion, the Roman troops probably, after they broke through with a battering ram, stormed the complex, hunted up all of these zealots, all of these poor souls, killed them and threw them over the rock, over the edge. And those bodies disarticulated naturally over the years, and their bones have been washed away, with the many floods, into the Dead Sea.

Read more on Josephus’ account and the archeological evidence of suicide in Shaye Cohen’s article Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus

Holland Lee Hendrix: President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary

Roman’s Eye View Of Masada

From the point of view of a Roman soldier, Masada would have been a truly awful but, at the same time, greatly relieving phenomenon. The Romans had been trying to scale Masada for a long time and had used all of their best strategies and tactics…. But the Romans, you know, also liked a good fight and the fact that that remarkable group of people who protected and fortified Masada committed suicide would probably have been seen as a source of great disappointment for the Romans. They would have wanted to punish them themselves, or at least to vanquish them themselves, but it would have been an enormous relief because Masada posed a huge strategic military challenge to the Roman legions….

You had this extremely steep, high, plateau on which Masada was built, and the fortifications put up, and if you were a Roman soldier approaching Masada, I think your heart would sink because you know that you would have to first to spend a lot of time building a lot of ramps, massive ramps to move the army up the sides in order to breach the walls, but you would know in the process that you were on a suicide mission because, all the while the fortifiers and guardians of Masada would have been pelting you with any number of lethal objects, at no doubt great losses to the army. So if you were a Roman soldier or a Roman general you would be very concerned about the enormous toll on the attacking army. The irony, of course, is that when the soldiers breached the walls finally, it was not they who had been subject to the suicide attack, it was those who had been guarding Masada who had committed suicide. So there is a cruel irony in the whole breach of Masada.

L. Michael White:

The Second Revolt — The Bar Kochba Rebellion

The relationship between Judaism and Christianity after the turn of the second century would become more and more hostile as time went on partly because of other political forces that continued to develop. The political expectations of apocalypse did not simply die out after the first revolt; some people, both within Christian tradition and within Jewish tradition, still expected a cataclysmic event to bring a new kingdom on earth soon. As a result within sixty years after the first revolt there would arise a new rebellion. We typically call this the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome or the Bar Kochba revolt. And it’s named after a famous rebel leader who really becomes the central figure of this new political period. He’s called Bar Kochba. His name, though, actually is not a real name, it’s a kind of messianic title. Bar Kochba means “son of the star.” It’s a title taken from the Book of Numbers as a reference to Davidic tradition. It’s a kingship title. The star is the star of Judah, one of the symbols of the political expectation of apocalyptic tradition. His real name seems to have been Shimon Bar Kosova, and he probably was of a royal family of the Jewish tradition. But he takes to himself this messianic identity and claims that in the year 132 it is time for a new kingdom to be reestablished in Israel. Apparently he did take Jerusalem for some time. …It’s possible, although we’re not absolutely sure, that he thought he could rebuild the temple too. But events would not let that happen.

The Romans very quickly began to put down the revolt and within three years all of those who had followed Bar Kochba were either killed or dispersed. The story of the Bar Kochba revolt is really one of the most tragic in all of Jewish history precisely because it really only furthered the desolation of the country and the economic deprivation of the Jewish people. The Roman authorities were merciless in stamping out any signs of this revolt, they could not let this happen again. And so we find, the evidence of Bar Kochba revolt really being a nightmare for the archaeologists. Recently the discoveries of caves around the Dead Sea have shown direct information about the Bar Kochba revolt. Apparently the rebels that followed Bar Kochba hid in these caves during the last stages of the war, but we know that the Romans knew where they were and simply camped up on top of the hill waiting for them to starve to death or come out and give up. But apparently their resolution was pretty strong because many of them did. One of the caves is called the cave of horrors and it contains over 40 skeletons of men, women and children who preferred to die rather than give in to the Romans. Another cave is called the cave of letters and in it were found caches of pottery and coins and other things of daily life. They were living down in these caves for quite some time and, and could have held on probably had they not starved to death…

2nd Revolt Precipitates Christian/Jewish Split

The one thing that does happen in the second revolt, though, is [that] the self-consciously apocalyptic and messianic identity of Bar Kochba forces the issue for the Christian tradition. It appears that some people in the second revolt tried to press other Jews, including Christians, into the revolt, saying, “Come join us to fight against the Romans. You believe God is going to restore the kingdom to Israel, don’t you? Join us.” But the Christians by this time are starting to say, “No, he can’t be the messiah — we already have one.” And at that point we really see the full-fledged separation of Jewish tradition and Christian tradition becoming clear.

There are a number of important discoveries that have been made from the period of the second revolt which show us precisely the kind the things that were going on: coins, for example, struck by the rebel forces under Bar Kochba which say things like – “the year one of the redemption of Israel.” They really think they have established the new kingdom. Others show the temple restored. And maybe they thought they were going to rebuild the temple.

We have to remember that one of the stimuli to the second revolt was the suspicion on the part of many Jews that the Roman emperor Hadrian had plans to build a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem itself. And of course that would have been an anathema to any faithful Jew. So the idea of restoring the kingdom was really more than just a spiritual exercise, it was a political reality in their mind.

Now among the letters found in the cave of letters is at least one from Bar Kochba himself. And it’s a very interesting letter because it’s addressed to Bar Menachem and it asks his friends and followers to bring certain things to the caves. So they’re expecting to hold out for quite some time. Among the things he asks them to bring are myrtle leaves, citrons, palm branches. In fact it sounds like they’re preparing to celebrate a passover meal. The expectations of the second revolt are much like those of the first revolt against Rome, namely that God would bring deliverance and establish the kingdom.


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