Bible to Life | Roger Wyatt
bringing the Bible to life through a study of the past
by Roger Wyatt | 19th May 2021 | more posts on 'Intertestamental Studies'| 2
Tags: Rome | Josephus | Herod
Photograph: Roger Wyatt - Sunset over the Judean Hills
The political events that fashioned the world of the New Testament are known, largely, through the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. His works reveal a degree of political and religious fragmentation in first century Palestine that resonates with the gospel narratives. In both The Jewish War (JW Book 1) and Jewish Antiquities (ANT Book 14), Josephus provides an authoritative account of the arrival of Rome, the end of the Hasmoneans, and the rise of the Herodian dynasty.

According to Josephus, Pompey who had been campaigning in the East, arrives in Damascus (ANT 14 § 34) where his attention soon turns to Judea where the brothers Aristobulus and Hyrcanus were disputing the Hasmonean throne. The treachery and arrogance of Aristobulus (ANT 14 § 48) resulted in Pompey’s attack on Jerusalem in 63 BC and the slaughter that followed would, no doubt, live long in the cultural memory of the Judeans: ‘Of the Jews there fell twelve thousand, but of the Romans very few’ (ANT 14 § 71). Furthermore, Josephus despairingly writes, ‘we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans’ (ANT 14 § 77). The sacking of Jerusalem had far reaching ramifications, but the loss of territory (Galilee and Samaria) to the now Roman province of Syria was particularly galling for the Judeans, moreover, the heavy tribute exacted upon the populace would be a hallmark of the coming years. All that remained of the Hasmonean kingdom, Judea and Idumea was soon divided up into five territories, each governed by a council and Hyrcanus, although allowed to serve as high priest, was king no longer; ‘So the Jews were now freed from monarchic authority, and were governed by an aristocracy’ (ANT 14 § 91). During this time, Antipater the Idumean rose to prominence, largely through his manipulation of a weak Hyrcanus.

After the death of Pompey, Antipater supported Caesar’s war against Egypt for which Caesar ‘honoured Antipater greatly’ (ANT 14 § 137). Furthermore, Josephus informs his readers that Caesar ‘appointed Hyrcanus to be high priest’ (ANT 14 § 143) and made Antipater ‘procurator of Judea’ (ANT 14 § 143). When Caesar departed for Rome, Antipater seized the opportunity to extend his influence and appointed his two sons into positions of power; Phasael was made governor of Jerusalem, and Herod, who was only fifteen years old, he put in charge of Galilee (ANT 14 §158). However, the rise of the Herodians did not go unnoticed by the ‘principal men among the Jews’ (ANT 14 § 163) and opposition to Herod’s murderous actions in Galilee gained pace. It was, however, the Parthian seizure of Syria in 40 BC that precipitated a return of the Hasmonean monarchy under Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus – he would be the last Hasmonean king. As the Parthians made a move on Jerusalem Herod fled the capital and headed for Masada, ‘setting out at night with those to whom he was most attached, in the hope of reaching Idumaea undetected’ (JW 1 § 263). Phasael and Hyrcanus were, however, captured and handed over to Antigonus - Phasael killed himself and Hyrcanus was carried off ‘in fetters to Parthia’ (JW 1 § 273). Meanwhile, Herod went from Masada to Petra where he hoped for, but never received, help from the Arabs. Eventually he reached Egypt and, after a perilous sea journey, arrived in Rome where he was received by Mark Anthony who convened the Senate. Once the details of the Parthian incursion and Antigonus’ accession were relayed to the Senate there was widespread anger and unanimous support for Herod; ‘These revelations angered the Senate, and when Mark Antony rose to suggest that the Parthian war was an added reason for making Herod king, they all voted in favour’ (JW 1 § 285). Herod was king of Judea, albeit a client-king, the year was 37 BC.

Whilst Judea was transitioning, rather tumultuously, towards its new form of political existence under the Herodian dynasty, the Roman Empire had come to an end as a republic. Events precipitated by the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar in 49 BC led to the evacuation of the Senate from Rome and Caesar’s appointment as dictator. In 44 BC, after the appointment of Caesar as dictator for life, he is famously murdered on the Ides of March - this did not however prevent his deification in 42 BC. A new order gradually emerged under Caesar’s successor and grand-nephew Gaius Octavius, who on the Ides of March 27 BC became Augustus and Princeps (first citizen). Despite his claim that the Republic had been saved, and despite the laying down of his powers, in truth, he was handed the empire to the cheers of the Senate. It is this Caesar Augustus who is made mention of in Luke’s gospel; ‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world’ (Luke 2:1).

The census followed the death of Herod the Great and was accompanied by a bitter rivalry between two of his sons, Herod Antipas and Herod Archelaus. The matter is taken to Augustus, who, Josephus records; ‘appointed Archelaus, not indeed to be the king of the whole country, but ethnarch of one half of that which had been subject to Herod. . . as for the other half, he divided into two parts, and gave it to two other of Herod’s sons, to Philip and to Antipas’ (ANT 17 § 317-318). Josephus records that Philip the Tetrarch would rule over Batanea, Trachonitis as well as Auranitis, whilst Herod the Tetrarch would rule Galilee and Perea. Caesar gave Judea and Samaria to Archelaus – who, nine years later, would be deposed on account of his cruelty by the emperor himself (ANT 17 § 344). Rome took direct control of Judea, appointing a series of governors, of whom Gratus, and Pontius Pilate were the most renowned.

Joseph son of Mathias, or Flavius Josephus as he is better known – a first century Jewish historian, born in AD 37 and famously present at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. His first historical work describes the war the led to the cataclysmic destruction of the temple.
There was no political entity known as Israel post 720 BC after the Neo-Assyrians successfully besieged and sacked Samaria. The last king of Israel, Hoshea, was deposed from the throne, and most of the northern occupants exiled. Moreover, although Palestine, as a distinct political entity, did not exist until the formation of the Roman Province of Syria-Palestine in 135 AD, the toponym has functioned as a ‘conventional name used between 450 BC and 1948 AD to describe a geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and various adjoining lands’. Mashala Nur. Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (Zed Books Limited: London 2018), 1.
Josephus, Titus F. & Williamson, G.A. (trans.), The Jewish War. (London: Penguin Classics:1959).
Josephus, Titus F. & Whiston, W. (trans.), Jewish Antiquities. (London: Wordsworth:2006).
Pompey the Great.
Josephus also records that Hyrcanus was ethnarch of Judea in ANT 14 § 148 and ANT 14 § 151.
Lands won back from the Seleucids during the time of the Maccabees.
Philip’s tetrarchy included Transjordan lands to the east of the Sea of Galilee in what today would be the disputed territory of the Golan Heights, Syria and north-west Jordan. Antipas’ territory included Galilee and the Transjordan region of Perea, in modern day Jordan.
Herod the Great - infamous for his murder of the infants of Bethlehem. He also murdered many members of his own family, including his own wife and three of his sons.
Please Share!

David on May 20 2021 at 11:14 AM
Most interesting Roger and fills in a lot of background. Thank you. DK
Roger on May 20 2021 at 11:17 AM
Thank you David!
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