Politics in the Holy Land leading up to the time of Jesus (Mark 4)

The Holy Land just prior to and during the time of Jesus was formally under the supervision of the Roman governor of Syria. The Roman period began in 63 B.C. and culminated with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and the establishment of Jerusalem as a pagan city in A.D. 135. As a critical epoch in the history of Israel, ancient contemporaries and modern interpreters view these years as a period of tremendous change, expectation and consequence.

Arrival of Rome and the end of the Hasmoneans

Roman control debuted in Israel in the wake of a conflict for succession between two sons of the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra: Hyrcanus II, who had served as high priest, and Aristobulus II, who had been the chief military commander. Although Hyrcanus initially yielded to his brother, he was pressed by the Idumean leader Antipater to fight for the throne. Both sides sent delegations before the Roman general Pompey in Damascus, who eventually sided with Hyrcanus. In the meantime, the supporters of Aristobulus had barricaded themselves in the temple of Jerusalem. Pompey’s forces besieged the temple mount for three months, eventually taking the area. Josephus recorded that Pompey desecrated the temple by entering into the Most Holy Place (Wars 1.7.1-6). Hyrcanus was confirmed in power, although denied the title of king and stripped of all coastal and Transjordanian Greek cities. After another rebellion in 57 B.C. by Aristobulus’ son Alexander, Hyrcanus retained only the high priesthood and the temple, while the province of Judea was divided into five administrative districts.

During the course of a Roman civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, the Idumean Antipater encouraged Hyrcanus to support Caesar and to send auxiliary troops to his aid in Egypt (47 B.C.). As a gesture of thanks, Julius Caesar conferred upon Hyrcanus the title Ethnarch of the Jews (an Ethnach was a man appointed by Rome to be ruler of a people) and named Antipater as the first procurator of Judea. Antipater named his two sons, Phasael and Herod, as prefects over Judea and Galilee, respectively. Herod quickly distinguished himself and was named prefect of Syria by the Roman governor.

Herod the Great

Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. was a blow to Jewish communities throughout the empire and produced a period of instability in Rome. During this interval the eastern empire was attacked by Parthians from Mesopotamia. They named Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus, as high priest and king in Jerusalem. Phasael was captured and slain, while Herod fled to Rome. After the defeat of the Parthians, Mark Anthony and Octavian (Julius Caesar’s heir) conferred the title King of the Jews upon Herod in 37 B.C.

Herod ruled from Jerusalem with the support of Rome from 37 to 34 B.C. He functioned as a client-king (a king who rules under authority of an outside power) and was considered a “friend and ally of the Roman people” (a title conferred by the senate upon non-Romans whose support they valued). He was dependent upon Rome for his kingship and was compelled to swear an oath of allegiance to Caesar (Josephus, Antiuities 17.2.4). In return he promised stability, order and tax revenue. Herod earned an international reputation as a great benefactor and builder of cities and temples, but his legacy within Judaism is almost entirely negative. Josephus recorded the contemporary evaluation that Jews suffered more during the reign of Herod than during the entire period prior to Herod since the Babylonian exile (Josephus, Wars 2.6.2).


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