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Ever feel like you’re missing something when you read the New Testament? I’ll never forget feeling that way the first time I read through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. When I arrived at the Gospels, I was immediately confronted by religious and political groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. But where did they come from? I didn’t remember reading about them in the Old Testament. Herod the Great was called “king of the Jews,” but how did he obtain that position? The Romans were obviously in charge, but how on earth did Rome come to rule over the Jewish nation? Last I read, the Persian king Cyrus ruled over them, allowing the people to return to the land and rebuild the temple. What on earth occurred on that blank page between Malachi and Matthew?
That’s when I realized that I needed to understand the historical, cultural, and political background of the New Testament. In this article, I want to demonstrate how the background of the text illumines the foreground and that when it comes to understanding the Greco-Roman world of the Jews, one needs to attend to the historical, cultural, and political context of this crucial moment in redemptive history.
the history of the greco-roman world
Alexander the Great took control of Israel in 332 BC and imposed the Greek way of life on the Jewish nation—he “hellenized” the Holy Land. He spread Greek culture, founded Greek cities, built Greek structures, introduced Greek coinage, and spread the Greek language. Even though Alexander let the Jews live according to their ancestral law, the Greek way of life became the largest threat to maintaining a distinct Jewish identity.
Some Jews, especially the younger ones, loved this cultural shift in identity. They wore broad-brimmed Greek hats and quickly finished their duties in the temple in order to exercise naked at the gymnasium, just like the Greeks. Some even underwent surgery to reverse their circumcision.
Other Jews were appalled and longed to be liberated from Greek control. After Alexander died in 323 BC, the Seleucid dynasty eventually took control of the Jews. But by that time, a revolt had been brewing. And in 167 BC, it finally happened. The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes destroyed copies of the Jewish Scriptures, forbade circumcision, prohibited the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, and sacrificed swine on the altar of burnt offering. In response to this sacrilege, one bold family launched a Jewish revolt—the Maccabeans.
Mattathias and his sons were sick of paying taxes to an oppressive government that sought to eradicate their Jewish religion, their very identity. His oldest son, Judas Maccabeus, was a master of guerrilla warfare. He overthrew pagan altars, circumcised children by force, and even killed happily hellenized Jews. Judas and his troops eventually marched into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple that Antiochus IV had profaned. It was December 14, 165 BC. To commemorate this event, a new festival was added to the Jewish calendar: Hanukkah (meaning “Dedication”; see John 10:22).
The Jews were now under the control of the Maccabean (or Hasmonean, after their ancestor Hashmon) dynasty. But it was Simon Maccabeus who achieved complete Jewish political independence in 142 BC. And thanks to the expansion policy of John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son and high priest and ruler of the Jewish nation from about 135 to 104 BC, the Jews essentially regained the same amount of land that King David and Solomon had enjoyed.
Many Hasmonean rulers took on the title “king” and/or “high priest,” but peace was not a hallmark of their rule. Instead, their rule was riddled with betrayals, assassinations, and political and religious corruption. Israel was a divided nation, split between “pro-Hellenizers” and “anti-Hellenizers.” The Sadducees supported the former; the Pharisees the latter.
In the midst of this civil strife, the Roman general Pompey the Great took control of Israel in 63 BC. Israel had to submit to Rome by paying taxes, just as they did under Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, Ptolemaic, and Seleucid rule. However, Pompey installed a Hasmonean ruler, Hyrcanus II, to govern Judea and Idumea as high priest, and he also granted a level of freedom to the Jews. But Hyrcanus II was simply a client king (or, perhaps better, a puppet king) of Rome.
After Pompey was assassinated, Julius Caesar came to power in 48 BC. Under his rule, the Jewish people found favor. He granted a tax reduction and an exemption from military service. He also installed two Hasmonean rulers as client kings, one with the title of procurator of Judea (Antipater), the other as ethnarch or “ruler of a people” (Hyrcanus II).
After Caesar was assassinated by Cassius and Brutus in 44 BC, the Jews had to pay more taxes. Later, Mark Antony and Octavian gained control of Rome. They declared Herod “king of the Jews.” Herod, an admirer of Greek culture, was now officially a friend and ally of the Roman people. (Can you hear the Maccabean family flip in their graves?) He was bound to carry out the will of Rome as a puppet king, as were his descendants after him: Herod Archelaus (Matt. 2:22), Herod Philip (Luke 3), Herod Antipas (Mark 6; see also Luke 23:7), Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12), and Herod Agrippa II (Acts 26).
Several Roman emperors who ruled during the first century installed governors over the land of Israel. Though there were many, the most well-known Roman governor is Pontius Pilate. Extrabiblical texts portray his rule as oppressive, a characterization confirmed in Luke 13:1.
The greatest act of oppression came at the end of the Roman-Jewish War (AD 66–70). Emperor Vespasian’s son Titus laid siege to the city. But the famine, pestilence, disease, hunger, and violence within the city walls paled in comparison to the most heinous act: the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This greatly altered Jewish identity, worldview, and religious practice, with consequences stretching even to this day.
jewish life under the romans
A monolithic Roman policy toward the Jews did not exist in the first century. Some emperors were more well disposed than others, granting the Jewish people more fundamental privileges, such as taxation relief, military exemption, and freedom of religion. In fact, Judaism was considered a religio licita (permitted religion), even if the Jews were monotheists who were intolerant of other religions.
However, plenty of Roman emperors despised Jewish religious intolerance, especially when it came to the worship of the Roman state gods. This led to the Jews’ becoming targets of suspicion, hatred, and persecution. And their earnest desire for a messiah to liberate them from “exile” did not help, as attested to by the several riots and revolts throughout the first century that are recorded in Acts 5:36–37; 21:38 and by the Jewish historian Josephus. These events only increased suspicion of the Jews and limited their political power.
Even Jews in power were beholden to Rome. They often cared about pleasing Caesar more than they did about pleasing the God of Israel. They were similar to client kings, bound by Rome to carry out the will of Caesar. Many were hellenized through and through, much like their ancestors before them who embraced Alexander’s hellenizing strategy.
Ultimately, the Jews were never solely under Roman control. The One who controls all of history, who “changes times and seasons” and “removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:21), providentially guided His church until “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), when the true King would be born (Mic. 5:2).