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).