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There were three political entities in this world at the time of Christ. They were the Roman, the Hellenistic, and the Jewish states. The first two were closely tied together, and the third kept its sovereignty from the others. Let us begin with the state of the Romans.
The empire of Rome was founded in 753 BC as a small union of villages. Nevertheless, in a little over 200 years, it had a strong republican form of government. Rome became the ruler of Italy by defeating the Etruscans in 265 BC. They then conquered Carthage in 146 BC, which made them a chief maritime power. They then proceeded to conquer Achaia in 146 BC. Following the death of Attalus III of Pergamum, they acquired the territory of Asia in 133 BC. In 63 BC, they annexed Syria and Judea; finally, in 57 BC they conquered Gaul. In a period of 500 years of uninterrupted war, the empire of Rome grew from an obscure village to a ruling empire. In fact, there were constant Civil Wars until 30 BC when Octavian became Emperor.
As we are mentioning Emperors – there are 13 that we need to stop and consider.
THE EMPERORS OF ROME
AUGUSTUS – Emperor from 27 BC to 14 AD. He was the first to be called the Princeps or first citizen of Rome. He ruled wisely and established the compromise between republicanism and a dictatorship. In 27 BC, he became the commander in chief, and in 23 BC, he was given Tribunal power for life. He is noted for many outstanding events in his life. He was responsible for having the Senate purged of unworthy members, he started the professional Army, the Julian Laws (19 and 18 BC) were established to improve family life, he organized the police and fire departments, and he boasted that he found Rome brick and left it marble. The most important event in this study is that Augustus was the ruler at the time of Christ’s birth.
TIBERIUS – Emperor from 14 to 37 AD. He became emperor at 56 years of age, after spending most of his life in politics. He had been forced to marry Julia the daughter of Augustus and became very bitter about it. His reign was marked by his distant, haughty, suspicious nature. This caused him to be generally disliked. He is the Emperor that was on the throne during the ministry of Jesus.
CALIGULA – Emperor from 37 to 41 AD. Affectionately known by his soldiers as “Little Boots.” Possibly this was a nickname given to him as a child because he loved to wear military boots. He was very popular because he reduced the taxes that Romans had to pay. Nevertheless, he was mentally weak and soon demanded to be worshiped as a god. He ordered his statue erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, which did not go over very well. His reckless expenditures depleted the treasury, and he was forced to resort to violent means to restore the viability of the treasury. His life was cut short when he was assassinated by the Imperial Guard.
CLAUDIUS – Emperor from 41 to 54 AD. An early illness (possibly Infantile Paralysis) left Claudius looking idiotic. He was lame and had a stuttering problem. His redeeming virtue was that he was a brilliant scholar. He sought to restore the ancient Roman religion. The Roman historian Suetonius lists that he expelled some Jews from Rome because of riots taking place because “of one Chrestus.” It was possibly during this time that Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from Rome. He was the Emperor on the throne during Paul’s ministry.
NERO – Emperor from 54 to 68 AD. A very interesting study can be made about this man. The first five years of his reign were quiet. Then in 59 AD, to gain total control he had his mother murdered. From this point on, his reign was one of turmoil. He was an artist and not one of executive material. His carelessness and extravagance emptied the treasury of Rome. In 64 AD, a great fire swept through Rome leaving it blackened and devastated. Nero is thought to be the one behind it, because he wanted to build a Golden House, and needed to clear the way for it. A scapegoat was needed, so he accused the Christians, and many were subsequently brought to trial. It was during this persecution that Peter and Paul perished. Nero finally had to flee and was put to death by his own order to avoid being captured. We look back at Nero in New Testament study and see him as the one who started the Roman persecution of Christians and was responsible for Paul’s death.
GABA, OTHO, AND VITELLIUS – three short-lived emperors. Gaba was emperor in 68 AD and was killed by his guards under the order of Otho. Otho ruled in 69 AD and was killed in battle. Vitellius also ruled in 69 AD but was unable to control his own soldiers. The troops of Vespasian sacked Rome, killed Vitellius and allowed Vespasian to come to power.
VESPASIAN – Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. After establishing his power, he proceeded to suppress the revolts in Batavia and Gaul, while his General Titus flattened Jerusalem. He established a solvent treasury by a very strict economy. With his strict economy, he was able to construct the Coliseum at Rome. He is important to students of New Testament study because he was on the throne at the time Jerusalem was overthrown and destroyed.
TITUS – Emperor from 79 to 81 AD. He was the General who led the troops to destroy the capital city Jerusalem. He was the one under whom the Temple of Jerusalem was burned and razed to the ground. He was very popular with the people, mainly because he loved to provide public entertainment. One point, when Rome suffered a fire that destroyed the Capitol, Parthenon, and Agrippa’s Baths, Titus sold his private possessions to meet the general need. However, as students of New Testament study, we must remember that he is the man who destroyed Jerusalem.
DOMITIAN – Emperor who ruled from 81 to 96 AD. He was a brother to Titus. In the role of emperor, he was an autocrat. He tried to raise the public moral level by restraining prostitution in Rome. However, he soon demanded to be worshiped as a god. He was hailed as Dominus et Deus. He was a good economist in the public realm. His nature was one that was hard and suspicious, making him pitiless in his revenge. He felt that he had numerous enemies so that even his own family felt unsafe and had him assassinated. He is probably the emperor that sat on the throne while John wrote the book of Revelation.
NERVA – Emperor from 96 to 98 AD. He was a man of advanced years when he came to the throne. He was considered a “safe” candidate to rule the empire. His administration was kindly and free from internal tensions.
TRAJAN – Emperor from 98 to 117 AD. He was a Spaniard by birth and a soldier by profession. He was energetic and aggressive in his temperament.
These emperors sat on the throne of Rome during the time of the New Testament. From Augustus to Trajan God used the pagan world and what it thought was its own schemes and plans to forward His great plan. The plan of the ages — that Jesus would provide salvation, and the church that He established while here on earth would carry the good news to the ends of the known world of that day.
The Roman Empire was made up of a miscellaneous realm of independent cities, states, and territories. All except Italy was under the Provincia from which we get our word province. The provincia was a “post of command,” and it was a territory that a General had conquered.
There were two forms of government. The Proconsuls were the peaceful provinces and answered to the Roman state. The Procurator was for the turbulent provinces and was answerable to the Emperor himself. The offices of procurator were on an annual appointment basis. Pilate before whom Jesus was tried was a procurator.
THE HELLENISTIC KINGDOM
Roman culture owed its origin to the political organization of Rome and to the Hellenistic spirit of the day. The Roman conquests had absorbed the Greek colonies. This brought great treasures to Rome. In addition, the inclusion of the Greek slaves brought in many who were more intelligent than their Roman masters were. They were employed as teachers, doctors, accountants and other mentally skilled jobs. The Greek Universities were attended by the Roman aristocrats who in turn learned Greek.
The most important of the Hellenists was Alexander the Great. His father was Philip king of Macedonia. In just 20 years, Philip had succeeded in making the Greek city-states servant to Macedonia. Then Philip died in 337 BC. His son Alexander possessed his father’s aggressive military genius. He also had a good veneer of Greek culture from studying under Aristotle.
In 334 BC, he defeated the Persian forces at Granicus River. He then gained control of Asia Minor. He followed this by subduing Syria and Egypt where he founded the city of Alexandria. He spent 3 years consolidating his empire.
The luxury and revel of Babylon weakened him. It is said that he cried when he felt there were no more worlds left to conquer. He died of a fever at the age of 32 in 324 BC. He left no heirs, and so his four Generals divided his kingdom. Ptolemy took Egypt and Southern Syria. Antigonus claimed most of Northern Syria and West Babylon. Lysimachus held Thrace and Western Asia Minor. Finally, Cassander ruled Macedonia and Greece.
Seleucus I in the battle of Ipsus in 301 BC took the territories of Antigonus and Lysimachus. For many years, there were constant battles between the groups.
In 201 – 200 BC Antiochus III (also known as the Great) defeated Egypt and gained control of Palestine.
His attempts to Hellenize the Jews brought about the Maccabean revolt, which we will cover in the section on the Jewish state. Their rule in Syria ended in 63 BC when Pompey made Syria a province of Rome. It was their rule in Palestine that brought the Greek language to the Jews.
Before the Seleucid rule, the Ptolemies of Egypt ruled over the Jews. The death of Cleopatra in 30 BC marked the last of the Ptolemies. Rome then made Egypt her granary. Alexandria had always been a place where the Jews could live. In Alexandria, there was a great library founded to contain all the important works of the world. Under the Ptolemy Philadelphus (285 – 256 BC) the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek. This was called the Septuagint Bible used by the New Testament writers.
The cultural effects of the Hellenistic kingdom were lasting. They introduced Greek customs and manners in the east. Their architecture prevailed. The Greek language became the language of the courts and common people.
The gospel of Christ with a Greek Bible from which to preach and with the Greek language as its universal medium of communication soon reached the outposts of civilization.
THE JEWISH STATE
The Jews said to Jesus that they were not in bondage to anyone. Nevertheless, the history of the nation reveals otherwise.
The nation went under Babylonian rule when Nebuchadnezzar overran Judea and captured Jerusalem. This was officially when the independent Jewish state ended. Mattaniah was renamed Zedekiah and placed as a puppet king, and the nation had a twilight existence from 597 to 586 BC. In 590 BC, Zedekiah thought he was powerful enough to rebel against Babylon, and he cast his lot with Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar did not overlook the challenge, and in 586 BC, he leveled the walls of Jerusalem and deported the population to Babylon.
The end of the Jewish state did not end Judaism. What we recognize as “orthodox Judaism” began here. During this captivity, synagogue worship began (because of the loss of the Temple), and the study of the Law replaced the sacrifices while they were captive.
Cyrus, king of Persia, captured Babylon by diverting the Euphrates River in its flow. As the leader of the Persians, Cyrus was a benevolent despot. It was Cyrus who decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland. He even helped to rebuild the Temple from the Royal Treasury.
Not all the Jews returned. About 42,000 from Judah, Benjamin, and Levi did — and they arrived in Jerusalem in 537 BC. They began at this time to rebuild the Temple under Zerubbabel. Facing much opposition from the people of the land, they did not complete the rebuilding of the Temple.
For 17 years, there was no further work on the Temple, until Haggai and Zechariah returned. Once again, the local opposition raised its head, but this time a request was sent to Darius — who searched the records and decreed for the work to continue. The Temple was finished in 516 BC in time for the Passover observance.
From 516 to 458 BC the records are silent. Then we have the record of Nehemiah returning, and in two months the walls and the city were intact. He also promoted social and economic reforms. Ezra was there, and he promoted knowledge of the Law.
It was during the time of Nehemiah that Manasseh, the grandson of the High Priest, was expelled to Mt. Gerizim where he established a rival cult. This became the center of the Samaritans.
During this 70 year, captivity period two aspects of Jewish life had disappeared. The monarchy and the prophets. The priesthood became more political during this time, and we find the beginning of the scribes. These were learned transcribers of the law, and they came to be held in the same plane as the Priests themselves. We also find the Great Synagogue established. It was a council of 120 men, which later would evolve into the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day.
During the years 322 to 198 BC, the Jews were under the heel of the Ptolemies. Comparatively little is known of this period. Under the first Ptolemies, many of the Jews were deported to Alexandria — but they appear to be a free community. The study of the Law and strict observance of the same was zealously maintained.
It was during this time that the younger Jews took on the manners and customs of the Greeks. During this time period, the Septuagint was created. Josephus speaks of a legend that says that 72 elders (six from each tribe) completed their work in 72 days, and when it was read, all the Jews approved it. This was the version of the Old Testament that Jesus and his disciples used.
From 198 to 168 BC, the Jews were under the rule of the Seleucidae. The first ruler was Seleucus. He died in 175 BC, and his brother Antiochus IV came to rule. The people called him Epimanes (madman) instead of Epiphanes (Manifest God).
Antiochus became embroiled in a contest with Egypt and was defeated. He then took his anger out on the Jews. On December 15, 168 BC, he set up an image of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and sacrificed a sow on the altar in the Temple. Judaism was forbidden at this time.
In the village of Modin, an old priest named Mattathias started a revolt against Antiochus and his forces. He was forced to flee into the wilderness region, and there he died. His successor in the revolt was a man named Judas – who would carry the nickname Maccabeus (the Hammer) because of the way that he fought.
From 168 to 142 BC The Jews under Maccabeus routed the Seleucidae and recaptured Jerusalem. They cleansed the Temple and established a new feast – Hanukkah. Soon they had conquered all of Palestine. Throughout the fighting Judas had appealed to Rome — but no help came. Judas was killed in battle, and his brother Jonathan took command. The warring drug on until 143 BC when Demetrius II of Syria granted Simon, another of the brother’s freedom.
Simon was then made High Priest for life. This was a happy time for the Jews, but it was short-lived. Demetrius was dethroned by the Parthians. War once again followed, and this time the Jews were victorious.
Ptolemy murdered Simon and two of his sons in 135 BC; John Hyrcanus (a son of Simon) took possession of Jerusalem before the Ptolemies could capture it. At the death of the Syrian ruler, Syria fell into civil war. John Hyrcanus went in and conquered Idumea and Samaria.
He was established as High Priest and Head of State, becoming the founder of the Hasmonean Dynasty. When John died, he left the dynasty to his wife and son Judah Aristobulus. Judah quickly imprisoned his mother and brothers to hold total rule. This did not last long for Judah died shortly after coming to power.
There was constant unrest in the region until finally, Hyrcanus II cast his lot with Caesar. Hyrcanus was made the Head of the Jewish state. He appointed Antipater his minister to control the region. Antipater was granted Roman citizenship, and then he appointed his son Phasel as the Prefect of Jerusalem and his other son Herod the Prefect of Galilee. Thus, the Hasmonean dynasty lasted from 142 to 37 BC.
From 37 BC on, the nation of Israel was under the rule of the Romans. We have covered this in a previous section. Here, let us view those Kings who were directly in the Palestine region during the time of Christ.
HEROD THE GREAT – ruled from 37 to 4 BC.
He was 22 at the beginning of his rule. During the invasion of the Parthians, he hid his family and escaped to Rome. By either smooth talk or secret intrigue, he was named King of the Jews.
His first act was to name a High Priest. He named Aristobulus to this position, even though he was underage. Aristobulus was so well liked that Herod became jealous. While throwing a feast in his honor in Jericho, Herod had the servants drown Aristobulus in a bathtub. Herod was sent to Egypt to answer for his crime but was released. He then went to Rome for a conference with the Emperor Octavian. When he returned, he found his wife cold to him. Thus, he had her executed. Remorse over this act caused him to fall physically and mentally ill.
Herod did not win the friendship of the Jews. His Idumean blood made him a foreigner. He used the priesthood as a political tool, and his lifestyle was loose and immoral. The last days of Herod were filled with violence and hatred. He murdered his sons. When at one point he appealed to Augustus for permission to execute his own son Antipater, Augustus replied that he would rather be Herod’s hus (hog) than his huios (son).
Herod eventually died of cancer of the intestines, dropsy — and many believe — of a guilty conscious on April 1, 4 BC. The jealous and unscrupulous character of this man explains his treatment of the Wise Men and the slaying of the children in Bethlehem.
Herod’s will left his reign to Archelaus. Archelaus, Philip, and Antipas went to Rome fighting over the rulership of this region. The Jews also went to Rome begging for mercy at Augustus’ court. The decree of Augustus set up the tetrarchy as follows:
Archelaus — Judea, Samaria, Idumea.
Antipas — Galilee and Perea.
Philip — Batanea, Trachonitus, Aurantis.
ARCHELAUS – ruled from 4 BC to 6 AD.
He promoted the building of public works in his short reign. The Jews also disliked him. Finally, Augustus banished him to Gaul in 6 AD. The only reference to him in the New Testament is in Matthew 2:22.
PHILIP – ruled from 4 BC to 34 AD.
He was the happy exception to the Herods. He followed their precedent in building, but was fair in his dealings with people. He was married to Salome, the daughter of Herodias.
The Jewish historian Josephus has nothing but good to say about this man. He is only mentioned in the New Testament in Luke 3:1.
He died peacefully in 34 AD. In 37 AD his section of the tetrarchy was given to his nephew Agrippa I.
HEROD ANTIPAS – ruled from 4 BC to 39 AD.
He is the most prominent Herod in the Gospels. Jesus refers to him as “that fox.” He built a capital city and named it Tiberius, but he had to colonize it by force because it was built on top of a graveyard. The Jews refused to enter it. His government was modeled on the pattern of the Greek governments.
Herod Antipas was a Jew by religion. He, therefore, was concerned with the Law. It was his marriage to Herodias that would cost him in many ways. It caused him to murder John the Baptist, and eventually cost him his kingdom.
Herod Antipas was the Herod that Jesus was tried before in the Gospel accounts.
HEROD AGRIPPA I – ruled from 37 to 44 AD.
He was the son of Aristobulus and Bernice who was cousins. Bernice was the daughter of Salome, the sister of Herod the Great.
Emperor Caligula gave him his appointment. He had enough sympathy for the Jews and influence in Rome to keep Caligula from erecting a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Agrippa was in Rome when Claudius came into power and was given all the territory that had originally been that of Herod the Great.
He himself lived in Jerusalem and worshiped in the Temple. He is one of the first persecutors of Christianity. He executed James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, and imprisoned Peter with the intentions of executing him also.
His death occurred suddenly in 44 AD.
HEROD AGRIPPA II – ruled from 50 to 100 AD.
He was the son of Agrippa I and was given from Rome the rights to rule. When Festus became Procurator of Judea, Agrippa II visited with him. Thus, Paul was tried before Herod Agrippa II.
Although Agrippa II had a good knowledge of Judaism, he never had any convictions toward it. In the 66 AD revolution in Israel, he openly sided with Rome.
Both in Judaism and in the pagan world there was a class system. There were a wealthy aristocracy and a large number of poor people.
In Judaism, the aristocracy was the priests and the rabbis. They were the ones who controlled all the business traffic connected with the Temple. This business was the sale of sacrificial animals and the exchanging of the Roman coinage into Temple money. Among the Sanhedrin were the well to do. Men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were considered to have a firm financial base.
The majority of people in Judaism were poor. Joseph and Mary were in this lower class. The one redeeming quality of the social system in Judaism was that the social divisions were restrained by the Law. All were equal in God’s sight.
Contrasted was the pagan society. The aristocracy was made up of the newly acquired landholders. They owned all the public lands and bought out the poor. They were a major discouragement to the poor. Because of these upper-class people, the middle class had almost disappeared. The hungry, idle crowds of people would vote for any candidate running for Senate whose promises sounded better than the competitors did.
The pagan world had a large number of plebs. These were the poor people, numerous and in a pitiful condition. They would follow anyone who had food and entertainment.
The largest segment of the pagan world was made up of slaves and criminals. Possibly one-half of the civilization was made up of men who were free. Of these, only a small segment were men with “full right” citizenship. War, debt and the birth rate was the cause of this large section of the population. While today we use machinery, in those days they used cheap labor. Slavery was a very debasing form of life. Trickery, flattery, and fraud were the slave’s best tools.
Since the slaves were often the teachers of that day, corruption was spread, as they would instruct their charges in how to do what they were doing.
Nowhere in the New Testament is slavery directly attacked or defended. Nevertheless, Christian influence weakened it. This group of despairing and disinherited people became the fertile breeding ground for criminal activity.
The ghastly picture that Paul paints in Romans 1:18-32 was not overdrawn. There were no standards in paganism to check the downward drift.
Under Augustus, there was a literary revival. Vergil, Horace, and Ovid were the prophets of their age with their different brands of poetry and storytelling. Between the time of Augustus and Nero, there was a lull in literature. Under Nero there arose the stoic philosopher Seneca who wrote essays. The literature at this time took a turn toward self-criticism of the times.
In the realms of art and architecture, we find that construction was continuous during the time of the Roman Empire. Mainly they produced utilitarian buildings. They used the arch for good effect. Bridges, aqueducts, and theatres still stand as monuments to their building skills.
The realm of music and drama was one of bad influence upon the people. These forms were committed to entertaining the mob, not to intellectual thought. Presentations were shameless, course, cheap, full of moral degradation. They taught obscenity and lust.
Where the theatre taught obscenity and lust, the Arena glorified brutality. Bloody contests between men and beasts, or between men and men, were promoted by the Emperor.
They were not interested in science or math to any large extent. They were mainly interested in land measurement and calculating financial transactions. Geography was heavily studied. Medicine flourished during this time period.
Compulsory education was unknown at this time. The slaves did education in the house. When there were private schools, they were dreary, with the curriculum being only reading, writing, and arithmetic. Greek and Latin were learned by rote memory. Public speaking was emphasized. Those who did well went to the Greek universities to study philosophy.
Jewish boys were somewhat the same. They learned to read and write from the Old Testament, and they were to learn large sections of the Old Testament by rote memory. They learned the traditions and rituals of their religion. A real scholar learned from a Rabbi such as Paul did under Gamaliel.
There were four major languages used in that day. Latin was the language of the courts and the law system. Greek was the language of culture, used in writing and theatre. Aramaic was the chief language used in speaking and business. Hebrew used in Palestine was a dead language by the time of Jesus and was not understood by most people. The wide use of Aramaic, Latin and Greek are shown in the inscription placed over the cross of our Savior.
The moral standards of the time of Jesus were low. Only crime was news, any virtue around basically went unnoticed. Moralists like Seneca had lofty ideas and words, but they went basically unnoticed. Paganism was unable to lift itself out of its moral morass — this, in turn, brought about pessimism and depression. One is forced to ask, “Does this sound like today?” Are we copying the trends of the ancient Roman Empire?
- What are the three major political entities discussed in this chapter?
- How many Roman Emperors were discussed? Describe some important characteristics of these emperors.
- Who was the emperor on the throne during Christ’s walk on the earth? What was the emperor like?
- Who was the emperor on the throne during Paul’s ministry?
- What is a “provincia?” What are the two types of rulers in this governmental form?
- Antiochus IV was called Epimanes instead of Epiphanes. What is the difference between these two words?
- Describe the Social World of Jesus’ day.
- What were the four major languages in use during the New Testament times?
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SCROLL THROUGH DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BELOW
BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
BIBLICAL STUDIES / INTERPRETATION
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM
CHURCH ISSUES, GROWTH, AND HISTORY
 Luke 2:11
 Acts 18:2
 Matthew 24:2
 Lord and God
 Daniel 7: 1-7
 Galatians 4:4. This is a good verse to memorize. It is an excellent summary of this section.
 John 8:33
 Matthew 2:1-18
 Luke 13:32
 See Acts 12
 Acts 25:13-26:32
 Acts 22:25-28
 The account of Philemon is an excellent example.
 1 Corinthians 15:32
 Acts 22:3
 Acts 18:3