Roman Rule (63 BCE-313 CE)

When the Romans replaced the Seleucids as the great power in the region, the Middle East was divided between them and the Persians. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) was the dominant figure in Rome following Sulla’s retirement in 79 BCE. He campaigned in Spain, put down piracy in the Mediterranean, and took over the remnants of the Seleucid Empire in the Middle East. Pompey’s eastern adventure came at a critical juncture in Jewish history: After Alexander Yannai (also known as Yonatan [Jonathan] the High Priest) died, there were nine years of peace as his widow, Shlomzion (Salome), ruled as queen; but on her death, her sons Hyrcanus and Aristobolus fought over the throne; hearing about this civil war the Romans intervened; initially Aristobolus was appointed ruler, but, following the advice of Antipater (a now Jewish Idumean), Pompey reversed the decision and appointed his brother High Priest as Hyrcanus II, granting him limited authority under the Roman governor of Damascus. He also detached the Decapolis, now established as a new province, from his domain.

In 48 BCE Julius Caesar ousted Pompey, and became, in effect, the sole ruler of Rome; Antipater was made procurator, his sons were appointed district governors, Phazael in the south, Herod in the north. Then in 44 BCE Cassius and Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar; the assassins were, in their turn, defeated by Mark Anthony and Octavius Caesar; Rome’s focus on her distant borders was momentarily blurred. The Persians chose this juncture to invade the land, bringing their own Jewish candidate to the throne with them. The Jews welcomed the invasion, which they saw as a possible restoration of the Hasmonean dynasty under Mattathias Antigonus, the joint grandson of Aristobolus and Hyrcanus. The Persian forces captured Hyrcanus, but Herod retreated south through the Judean desert (where he left his entourage) to Egypt, eventually reaching Rome.

Herod the Great

In 40 BCE, Octavius Caesar on his one side, Mark Anthony on the other, the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of Judea. Returning with Anthony, who came to drive out the Persians, Herod managed to reduce the opposition and in 37 BCE, established his position as King. Granted almost unlimited autonomy in the country's internal affairs, he became one of the most powerful monarchs in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. A great admirer of Roman-Greek culture, Herod launched a massive construction program, which included the cities of Caesarea Maritima and Sebastia, the fortresses at Herodium and Masada, and the shrines at Paneas and Hebron. He also remodeled the Temple into one of the most magnificent buildings of its time. But despite his many achievements, perhaps because of them, his Jewish subjects regarded him as a Mityaven (a Hellenizer, still used as a derogatory term for modern Jews by devout Orthodox Jews today). Herod failed to win the support of his Jewish subjects, and, according to later Jewish sources, he was popularly hated.

A protege of Mark Anthony, who ruled the eastern end of the empire from Egypt (where Rome feared he had fallen under the influence of Cleopatra, ‘the serpent of the Nile’), Herod’s skills as a political survivor served him in good stead when the power struggle between the two Roman leaders ended in Anthony’s defeat by Octavius at the battle of Actium in 31BCE; Anthony and Cleopatra (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor if you prefer) took their own lives; Octavius took the title of Augustus as he became sole ruler of Rome, setting the seal on the last days of the Roman republic; most of the local rulers in the East had owed their appointment to Anthony; most were replaced. Herod offered his throne and his head to Augustus, who nevertheless (or perhaps thereby) was persuaded that Herod would prove as loyal to him as he had to Anthony; he not only reconfirmed him as ruler of Judea he extended his kingdom to include the area taken away by Pompey.

Herodian and Roman Rule

On Herod’s death in 4BCE, Augustus divided Herod’s kingdom between three of his sons: Archelaus was appointed ethnarch over Judaea, Samaria, and Edom (i.e., central and southern Palestine); Herod Antipas tetrarch over the Galilee and Peraea (east of the Jordan River); and Philip tetrarch over Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Auranitis (the area between the Decapolis and Damascus).

Philip ruled the northern area until his death in AD 34. Antipas reigned in Galilee and Peraea until AD 39 when he was banished by Caligula. Archelaus was removed at the request of his subjects in 6 CE. The region under his rule (i.e., Judaea, Samaria, and Edom) became the province of Judaea ruled directly by low-level Roman prefects, the last of whom (Pontius Pilate, AD 26–36) was removed from office for his massacre of Samaritans. Herod’s kingdom was restored under the emperor Caligula's protege, Herod Agrippa I, who had succeeded Philip in the north in the year 37. The tetrarchy of Antipas was added soon after his removal in 39, and the territories of Judaea, Samaria, and Edom were added in 41, so that from 41 to his death in 44 Agrippa ruled the kingdom of his grandfather, Herod the Great, from Jerusalem. In 44, on his death, the entire kingdom reverted to direct Roman rule as the procuratorial province of Judaea.

A series of rebellions against poor procuratorial rule culminated under Florus, procurator 64–66, in the decisive and final outbreak. Florus had failed to prevent, had perhaps allowed, the Greek population of Caesarea Maritima to massacre the Jews in that town. Greeks elsewhere repeated the assault. Jews responded by slaughtering Gentiles in Samaria, Galilee, and elsewhere, and Florus lost control. The Jewish rebels gradually organized and were successful early on against the governor of Syria, who had brought two legions south to help Florus. At this point Vespasian and his son Titus, both future emperors of Rome, arrived with substantial reinforcements and first the north and then the rest of the country was reduced, the revolt ending with the fall of Jerusalem in 70. The Temple was destroyed, and the Tenth Legion set up a permanent base in Jerusalem. With the fall of Masada three years later all resistance ended.

Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism

Jesus of Nazareth was born shortly before Herod died, which, in all probability, occurred in 4BCE. Jesus was born in Bethlehem fulfilling, so the Gospels tell us, the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. His parents made a sacrifice at the Temple to mark the occasion of his birth, and then fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacres. When they returned after Herod’s death they settled in Nazareth, a tiny village in the Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas.

Virtually nothing is known of the life of Jesus until about the age of 30, when he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, tested in the desert and began his mission. Rejected by his own village, he descended to the Sea of Galilee, a moderately sized freshwater lake, a day’s walk from Nazareth. There he gained a following, teaching very much in the manner of his famous predecessor, the liberal Pharisee, Hillel the Elder (who died when Jesus was about barmitzva age). The bulk of his ministry, as recorded by the Gospels, takes place in a small geographical area around the north-western corner of the lake; and most of that in and around Capernaum.

Around the year 30, on his visit to Jerusalem for Passover, the crowds gathered as he descended the Mount of Olives and hailed him as the “King of the Jews:” The threat of revolt against Rome was in the air. In the middle of the week the Temple servants of the High Priest arrested him and he was tried for blasphemy. The Gospels describe what seems to be a preliminary hearing before the High Priest (plus elders? plus sanhedrin?): If a full-scale trial took place before the Sanhedrin sitting at the Temple, it is not recorded. Either way he was shipped over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who had come to Jerusalem, as he did on every holiday when hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered in Jerusalem. Passover was an especially sensitive time, as it is the holiday in which Jews remember that they were slaves in Egypt but now are free: when Jesus descended the Mount of Olives the Roman army was in the fortress of the Antonia, dominating the Temple Mount, emphasizing Jewish subjection.

In the end Jesus was crucified (a common Roman punishment) just outside the city walls, his crime on the cross for all to see: The King of the Jews (the Gospels vary as to the exact wording). The entire Christian world knows that 3 days later, he rose from the dead, appeared in various places to various people, and then ascended to Heaven from the Mount of Olives. And Christians await his return.

Early groups of followers of Jesus, appear to have continued to meet in Jerusalem, particularly at the time of the festivals; this group comprised largely a sect (among many) within Judaism. It took on a different aspect when it gained followers of non-Jews who were no longer obliged to follow all common Jewish customs and practices. It also meant that there were 2 distinct groups of early Christians (the term ‘Christian’ was not yet how believers described themselves); those who still practiced Judaism and those who did not. There was also growing opposition among some Jewish groups to this particular form of ’Judaism’, which accelerated substantially as a new soon-to-be-normative form of Judaism developed in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.

The total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was catastrophic for the Jewish people. The loss of the Temple resulted in a radical restructuring of Jewish ritual practices, creating the form of Judaism still practiced today, Rabbinical Judaism, then centered around the Sanhedrin, first at Yavneh on the coastal plain, and later in the Galilee.

By the turn of the century a standard form of Judaism emerged, focused on a synagogue service, where Jews prayed 3 times a day. The heart of the service was the recital of 18 prayers, some of which had been in use for a long time, some of which were new. This became a standard form (still in use today), and also became normative. Basically the Sanhedrin , whose authority had derived from the Temple, now took upon itself that authority, wherever it was located, and declared that all Jews must follow the newly-developed rituals. The idea underlying this injunction may well have been practical; while the Temple stood, multiple forms of Judaism existed, the Temple itself was the unifying factor. Now that it no longer existed, Judaism might well disintegrate unless a new unifying principle could hold the Jews together; the Sanhedrin now laid down, that those who do not worship ‘like us’, will no longer be regarded as Jewish; among others, this excluded from Judaism those Jews who were followers of Jesus, who was not regarded as the Messiah by the Judaism that emerged from the ruins of the revolt.

According to the contemporary historian Josephus Flavius, hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in the revolt, and many thousands more were sold into slavery. Rome upgraded the province of Judea to a Praetorian province and stationed a full legion, the Tenth, permanently in Judea. Nevertheless, Jews remained in Judea and returned to Jerusalem, at least until the next major Jewish revolt, possibly caused by the Emperor Hadrian planning to build a Greek city where Jerusalem had stood, with a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount.

The Second Exile

The revolt that broke out in 132, unlike the Great Revolt of 66-70, was led by one man, Simon from Kosiba (better known as Bar Kokhba, i.e. son of a star, an appellation bestowed on him by Rabbi Akiva) and had been planned well in advance, arms and supplies collected and underground hiding places prepared in the hills of Judea. The revolt resulted in a last brief period of Jewish sovereignty, during which Jerusalem and Judea were regained. However, after initial losses, the Roman Emperor Hadrian sent Julius Severus from Britain to put down the revolt; leading an overwhelming force comprised of forces from 8 legions, he built a network of roads, an evertightening web which eventually closed in on all of the rebels. Dio Cassius informs us that 600,000 Jews were killed and 600,000 sold into slavery. In 135 Judaea was renamed Palaestina after the Jews’ ancient enemy, the Philistines. After Hadrian’s death, his successor and adopted son, Antoninus Pius, renamed Jerusalem, now "plowed up with a yoke of oxen", Aelia Capitolina (after Publius Aelius Hadrianus).

The Philistines had come from the west shortly after Joshua and had ruled the central and southern coastal plain of the Holy Land. After they were deported by Babylon they disappeared as a people. But their memory and the area they controlled on the coast, the land of Pleshet, remained; its name was now perpetuated by the new Roman province, hoping thereby to put an end to Jewish ties with the land, ties that Rome saw as underlying the revolt.

To repopulate Jerusalem, Hadrian apparently brought in Syrian Greeks and perhaps some legionary veterans. In the Galilee Jewish presence remained strong but elsewhere the Emperor Septimus Severus (193–211) advanced the urbanization and Hellenization of southern Palestine; Eleutheropolis replaced biblical Maresha, Diospolis ancient Lydda, and under Emperor Elagabalus (218–222) Nicopolis replaced Emmaus. Severus also banned Jewish attempts to convert non-Jews. Nevertheless Palestine was a backwater in the Roman Empire until Christianity became the state religion and the Holy Land (Terra Sancta) a central part of the Empire. The Roman divisions into Palestina Prima (Samaria, Judea and their coastal plains) and Palestina Secunda (the northern coast, the Galilee, and both sides of the Jordan valley) was maintained by Byzantium (the eastern Roman Empire which survived) long after Rome was destroyed by the Huns and Visigoths. The Negev and the Edomite hills constituted the Provincia Arabia (the later Palestina Tertia).