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Historical Background to the Gospels

There are a few important historical events and personalities that one must be aware of in order to have a critical understanding of the gospels. These are:

Herod the Great

The most convenient point for a background historical summary of these events would be the year 39 BCE. It was in that year that the Idumean, Herod "The Great" (c73-4 BCE) was appointed the "confederate king" of the Jews by the Roman senate. His years of seeking favor with Rome, always siding with the winners of the empire's internal squabbles, finally paid off. Herod then, with some Roman support, took control of Jerusalem two years later and started his reign as King of the Jews in 37 BCE.

Herod, however, was not popular with the Jews. He was too Hellenized and too pro-Roman for the average Jew. Be that as it may, it was Herod who initiated the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem in 20 BCE. Herod never did live to see its completion for he died in 4 BCE. Around 18BCE the sanctuary was completed, but the rest of the Temple was not finished until 63 CE. Herod meant it to be the grandest temple of all, for which he hope to be remembered by his Jewish subject.

Herod is connected to Jesus historically in many ways. Jesus was born during the last years of Herod's reign. It was this Herod that the gospel of Matthew alleged ordered the massacre of all male babies under two years old as an attempt to get rid of Jesus. It was also the temple that Herod built which Jesus referred to as his father's house when he drove out the moneychangers. [1]

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The Tetrarchs

After Herod's death, the Roman Emperor, Augustus, divided the province of Palestine into four separate districts or tetrarchies. (See map below) Three of these four districts were given to Herod's three sons [a]: Herod Philip (d. 34 CE), Herod Archelaus (d. CE18) and Herod Antipas (died circa 40 CE). Philip and Antipas were called "tetrarchs" which means ruler of one fourth of a province. Archelaus was called "ethnarch" or provincial governor. Philip, was given the territories of Iturea, Gaulatinus, Trachonitis and Auranitis. Archelaus was given the territories of Idumea, Judea and Samaria. Herod Antipas was given the territories of Galilee and Paraea. It was Archelaus reign in Judea that, according to Matthew, forced Joseph to bring Mary and Jesus to Galilee after their brief sojourn in Egypt (Matthew 2:22).

Philip seems to have a quiet reign. When he died in 34 CE, he left no heir and his tetrarchy was passed over to the Roman legate of Syria. The other two Herods did not led such a peaceful life. Herod Archelaus' rule coincided with a rise in messianic fervor among the Jews and the Samaritans. This fervor which boiled over into minor uprisings was dealt with severely by Archelaus. His oppressive rule, however, made the Romans fear a widespread Jewish revolt. As a result, in CE6, Augustus banished him to Vienne. After that his tetrarchy became a province administered directly by a Roman procurator or governor.

Herod Antipas, of the three, was the one most like his father. An event that concerned Antipas that was narrated in the gospels involved what was, to the Jews of that time, an illicit affair. It involved Antipas and Herodias, the wife of his brother, Philip. This sister-in-law induced Antipas to leave his wife, which he did. Herod then married Herodias, an incestuous union in Jewish eyes. It was the condemnation of this action by John the Baptist that led to his imprisonment and execution (Mark 6:14-29). It was under Herod Antipas' reign that Jesus grew up in Galilee. It was also to this Herod that Luke says Pilate sent Jesus for interrogation (Luke 23:6) during his trial in Jerusalem. Herod Antipas remained as tetrarch until CE39 when he, too, was banished to Lyons in Gaul. [2]

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The Census Revolt of 6 CE

After Judea was made a Roman province in 6 CE, the Roman legate in Syria, Publius Sulphicus Quirinius ordered a census there to determine the taxable properties in Judea. This measure provoked a popular Jewish revolt that was led by one Judas of Galilee.

map of palestine
Palestine during the time of Jesus

The armed rebellion failed, thousands of prisoners were seized and some two thousand of the rebels were crucified. [b] The forces of Judas of Galilee became known as the Zealots, which came from the Greek zelos (rebellion) or as Cananaeans, from the Aramaic qanan with the same meaning. Some of Jesus' apostles were zealots: Simon the Cananaeans and, probably, Judas Iscariot. [3]

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Direct Roman Rule

The uprising convinced Rome of the need for more direct rule over the unruly province. A Roman procurator, Coponius, was appointed to rule over Judea. [4] The next historical figure of interest is Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman procurator of Judea. He held this office from 26 to 37 CE. The whole span of Jesus' ministry is within the tenureship of Pilate. According to the gospels it was Pilate who ordered, albeit reluctantly, the execution of Jesus (Mark 15:1-15). [5] Pilate's successor, the sixth procurator was Marullus, who was procurator from 37 to 41CE. Marullus' successor however was not a Roman procurator but another Idumean named Herod.

This Herod also appeared in the narrative documents of the New Testament (in the Acts of the Apostles). His name is Herod Agrippa I (10 BCE-44 CE). Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great through his father Aristobolus, who was Herod's second son. For some services rendered to the Emperor Claudius, Herod Agrippa was made the king of the entire region of Palestine once ruled by his grandfather in 41 CE. His rule was short lived though, for he died suddenly in 44 CE. It was Herod Agrippa who had James, and probably his brother John, executed in 44 CE. It was also this Herod that imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-3). [6]

After the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, he was succeeded by the seventh procurator, Fadus. In his eight years as procurator, Fadus kept good control of the Judean political climate. His successors however did a poorer job. Jewish resentment against Roman occupation reached a boiling point in 66 CE. Fadus successor was Felix became the eighth procurator in 52 CE. It was during Felix's tenure that Paul the apostle was arrested and detained for trial. Felix's successor, Festus held the office for only two years, from 60-62 CE. [7]

It was during the procuratorship of Festus that Paul was sent to Rome to appeal his case. Paul spent two whole years under house arrest in Rome. According to the Acts of the Apostle he "without hindrance...preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ."(Acts 28:31).

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The Persecution of Christians in Rome by Nero

Actually, Paul' timing could not have been worse. It was around this time that the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 CE) started to lose his mental equilibrium and became insane. The first eight years of his reign, from 54-62 CE, saw an enlightened reign, under guidance of the stoic philosopher Seneca (c.5 BCE-65 CE). Having gone mad, Nero killed Seneca by ordering him to commit suicide. The emperor then had his wife, Octavia murdered to please his mistress, Poppaea. This mistress too was killed by Nero, who kicked her pregnant body to death.

Then in 64 CE, a great fire, lasting a week, raged over central Rome. Nero then used the burnt-out land to built a new palace, the Domus Aurea. Not surprisingly the finger of suspicion as to the cause of the fire fell upon Nero. He looked for a scapegoat and found a convenient one in the Christians. He than began a systematic persecution of Christians in the city of Rome. The terror that befell the Christians (incidentally, one of the few times the Christians were systematically persecuted.) included being used as living torches and being thrown to beasts in the amphitheater. It was in this persecution, circa 64-67 CE, that, according to tradition, both Paul and Peter were martyred. [8]

The Jewish Revolt (66 CE)

Meanwhile back in Palestine, after the death of Festus in 62 CE, there was a brief period before his successor took office. The Sadducees [c] took the opportunity to indict James, the brother of Jesus and brought about his death in 62 CE. When Albinus became the tenth procurator in 62 CE the political situation in Judea was reaching a fever pitch. Jewish revolutionaries, called sicarii, men of the dagger, were launching terrorist attacks all throughout the Judean countryside. The procurator's attempts at suppressing them met with little success. Albinus successor Florus, who became procurator in 64 CE, was probably the worse possible person to hold the post. He was greedy and corrupt and had no empathy with the Jews of Palestine. All the sporadic protests of the Jews was finally ready to explode into a full-scale revolt. [9]

In 66 CE a race riot between the Jews and the Gentiles erupted in Caesarea. The Gentiles slaughtered 20,000 Jews within an hour. This slaughter, together with the arrests of Jews by the order of Florus, effectively emptied Caesarea of any Jewish resident. Florus handled subsequent events poorly: he desecrated the Jewish Temple and attempted to extort the Jews by ordering them to pay him 17 gold talents (in today's value this would be about US$350,000) from the Temple funds for protection. This sequence of humiliating events united the Jews; the Zealots were joined by all the major Jewish sects. In May of that year the Zealots attacked the Roman garrison stationed outside Jerusalem. The garrison, which was led by Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, was routed by the Jewish insurgents. This initial moral boosting victory initiated open rebellion against the Romans all over Palestine. [10]

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Nero sent one of his best generals, Vespasian (9-79 CE) to quell the rebellion. The general's first move was to wipe out the Jewish resistance in Galilee, which he did successfully. In one of this battles, he captured a Jewish military commander, Joseph ben Matthias (37-c.100 CE). This Jew eventually went over to the Roman side, was awarded Roman citizenship and changed his name to Flavius Josephus. It is to Josephus' voluminous writings after his defection that we owe many of our knowledge of the conditions of first century Palestine and the Jewish Revolt. His History of the Jewish War in seven volumes presents an eyewitness account of the Jewish Revolt. His Antiquities of the Jews, a 20 volume work, traces the history of the Jews from the moment of creation until the Jewish revolt. Among his other writings include Autobiography and Against Apion.

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Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE

Meanwhile Vespasian continued to mop up the Jewish resistance in Paraea, Samaria and Idumea. He was poised for an attack on Jerusalem when the news of Nero's death reached him. He made his way back to Rome where he became the new emperor. The task of attacking Jerusalem fell on the shoulders of his son, Titus (c.40-81). The siege of the holy city of the Jews took place in April 70, at the time of the Jewish Passover festival, at the time when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, in addition to the insurgents. The Jews stubbornly defended Jerusalem for several months. Finally famine, fatigue and the vastly superior Roman army took their tool on them. Jerusalem finally fell in September of 70 CE. The Romans entered Jerusalem and killed everyone they found. The loss of life in Jerusalem was, by any accounts, horrendous. More than one million Jews died during the siege. The whole city was leveled, including its walls and the Temple, the symbol of Judaism, was destroyed. [12]

With the fall of Jerusalem the main force of the Jewish revolt was no more. The rest of the operation consists of mopping up the remaining insurgents. The last Jewish stronghold was in fortress of Masada, west of the Dead Sea. Masada was stubbornly defended by the Jews but it too, fell in 74 CE. The Jews in Masada, realizing that Roman victory is imminent, committed mass suicide. When the Romans finally made their way into the fort, to their surprise they found only one woman alive. With the fall of Masada, the Jewish revolt ended. [13]

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After the War

The Jewish revolutionary war marked a turning point for Christianity (and Judaism). Many of the Jewish Christians, who were called Nazarenes, died during the war. Some of them, acting on an oracle managed to flee Jerusalem and escaped to Pella in Transjordan.

The Nazarenes, the followers of Peter and James, were, by logical extension, the true followers of Jesus. Before the revolt, they were caught in the middle between the Gentile Christians and the Jews. They could not fully accept the Gentiles because they still believed that Jesus never abrogated the Law. To them a follower of Jesus must first be a Jew. The Jews in turn could not accept the Nazarenes because of their beliefs in Jesus. The Roman destruction of Jerusalem made the Jews even more eager to foster unity among themselves to the exclusion of others. The Nazarenes with their associations Gentiles began to be shunned by the orthodox Jews. Eventually a test clause was inserted, around 90 CE, in the Jewish synagogue worship to exclude Nazarenes from them. [d] By the time of the second Jewish revolt in 132-135 CE the break between the Nazarenes and Judaism was completely severed. [14]

The destruction of Jerusalem was viewed by the Gentile Christians from a different angle. To them it was proof of God's punishment to the Jews for rejecting the savior. As the number among of Gentile Christians grew, Jewish Christianity, with its insistence on adherence to the Law, was pushed into the background. The die was cast. The Nazarenes were ejected from Judaism and eventually became a heretical sect within Christianity. The sect finally disappeared around the fourth century.

With the exclusion of the Nazarenes from the Jewish synagogue worship, the followers of Jesus, the Nazarenes and the Gentile Christians, became an entity distinct from Judaism. With this we end our brief excursion into the historical background of the New Testament times.

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a.The fourth tetrarchy, Abilene, was ruled by Lysanias, who had no relation to Herod.
b.Crucifixion as a method of death sentence was reserved for crimes of a political nature, such a revolution against the Empire.
c.The Jewish religion during the first century CE consisted of four main sects or factions. These sects are the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the Essenes. The Saduccees consisted of the wealthy and land-owning, many of whom are priests. Its members are situated mainly in Jerusalem. The Pharisees consisted of lay religious teachers. It was they who kept the faith of Israel alive outside Jerusalem. Modern Judaism is derived from the theology of the Pharisees. (Chapter Nine will elaborate further on the theological differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.) The Zealots are Jews committed to open rebellion against Rome. The Essenes was the monastic sect in Judaism. The ruins at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered are generally believed to be an Essene monastery.
d.The "test clause" involves a congregational prayer which curses the "heretics and Nazarenes". Anyone keeping silent during this part of the worship would automatically reveal that he is a Nazarene

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1.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p61-62
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p239, 502
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p63-64
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p65-66
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p239
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p77,154-155
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p66
4.Ibid: p66
5.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p66
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p66
6.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p1033-1035
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p152
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p239
7.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p68
8.Armstrong, The First Christian: p168
Cary & Scullard, A History of Rome: p359,634
Roberts, History of the World: p266
9.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p68-69
10.Cary & Scullard, A History of Rome: p367
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p186
11.Martin, New Testament Foundations I:Ibid: p69,75-76
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p280
12.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p333
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p70
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p185
13.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p70
14.Ibid: p70-71

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