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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

From Herodian Tetrarchs to Roman Governors

Given Herod's proclivity for removing both real and perceived threats to his power, succession upon his death in 4 BCE was less complicated than it might have otherwise been. The territory was divided among the king's surviving sons: Archelaus, the heir according to Herod's final wish, was appointed by Rome as ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea; and Philip was named the tetrarch of Auranitis, Trachonitis, and probably Iturea. Only Philip would complete his rule.

The transition began inauspiciously. Upon Herod's death, the people of Jerusalem rebelled in reaction to the executions of the scribes Judas and Matthias. Archelaus sent in troops, and a massacre of the local population ensued. When he left for Rome with his brothers to confirm the distribution of territory, another revolt erupted in Judea. This time Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, quelled the conflict and left a legion in Jerusalem as insurance against further outbreaks. Yet the legion's commander, Sabinus, oppressed the local population, and sporadic outbreaks continued. Concurrently, in Galilee and Perea new rebellions brewed. In response, Varus returned, crushed the resistance, and crucified over two thousand rebels.

This presence of Roman troops in Judea facilitated Archelaus's removal from office in 6 CE. Hearing substantial complaints by a delegation from Judea and Samaria, and perhaps concerned as well with Archelaus's internal policies with respect to the trade route between Syria and Egypt, Augustus banished Herod's first heir to Gaul. Judea and Samaria were incorporated into the province of Syria and consequently fell under the authority of a succession of Roman governors.

In the absence of a local king, Rome permitted the Jewish population substantial political autonomy; the arrival of the Roman governor coincided with the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin with the high priest as its leader. Among the twenty-eight priests who held the office between Hyrcanus II and the destruction of the Temple, the most famous is also the one with the longest tenure, Joseph Caiaphas, who served from 18 to 36 CE. To avoid rebellion under this local authority, Rome reserved the right to name the high priest and to control the priestly vestments needed for the celebration of major holidays.

Unlike the Herodian rulers, the governors had no sympathy for the population's economic situation or religious sensibilities. Their policies of raising taxes, bringing Roman standards into Jerusalem, raiding the Temple treasury, and other such provocations would eventually lead to a full rebellion against Rome. Problems began almost immediately with Rome's demand for a census. Inaugurated by Augustus for all provinces, this practice enabled the empire to determine taxation rates for land, material goods, and individuals. Josephus mentions the census under P. Sulpicius Quirinius, which he dates to the thirty-seventh year after the battle of Actium, or 6/7 CE. Luke's story of the birth of Jesus records: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2.1–2 ). By this device, Luke explains why Joseph, together with his very pregnant wife, Mary, made the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem; thereby, Jesus is born in Bethlehem and the prophecy from Micah 5.2 can be fulfilled. (The Gospel of Matthew depicts Mary and Joseph as already living in Bethlehem; they relocate to Nazareth after the death of Herod the Great for fear of persecution by Herod Archelaus.)

The dates provided by Josephus and Luke are not easily reconciled. Luke 1.5 depicts the census as occurring during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. Possibly Luke's “first” is incorrect, and there was an earlier census under Herod the Great, prior to the incorporation of his territory into the provincial system, but direct attestation is lacking. For Luke the census, historical or not, serves as a dramatic apologetic device. Joseph and Mary, and therefore Jesus, are seen as adhering to the demands of the Roman government: travel anywhere when one is about to give birth, let alone by donkey over the rough terrain between Galilee and Bethlehem, surely proves dedication to duty. This loyalty is contrasted with another event, and another Galilean, mentioned by both Luke and Josephus in conjunction with the census, and this other reference illustrates the problems created by the Roman policy.

Acts 5.37 , in a speech attributed to Gamaliel I, states that “Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.” According to Josephus, Judas, originally from Gamala in Galilee, protested against the census held by Quirinius. In this he was joined by a Pharisee named Zadok. Whether these leaders called for open revolt or simply urged noncooperation is unclear, but the premise for the protest is certain. Judas and his followers believed that the local population should not be forced to relinquish the freedom they had struggled to attain during Maccabean times, that there is “no king but God,” and that obeying Augustus would be a violation of the First Commandment. Probably killed for his views, Judas was survived by his equally zealous sons, James and Simon, who were to be executed during the reign of Tiberius for revolutionary activities, and Menahem, a leader of the revolt in Jerusalem just before the war of 66–70. The family line, and its legacy of zeal, continued until the fall of Masada.

The Roman governor at the time (6–9 CE), Coponius, faced additional problems. According to Josephus, during this time a group of Samaritans entered the Temple during the Passover celebration and profaned its sanctity by scattering human bones. This is one of many episodes that testifies to the enmity between Samaritans and Jews; the phrase “good Samaritan,” based on the parable of Jesus in Luke 10.30–37 , would have seemed to most Jews an oxymoron.

Meanwhile, in Galilee, Antipas was continuing the building practices of his father, Herod the Great, by creating the city of Tiberias in honor of Augustus's successor, Tiberius. Like his father, Antipas also faced problems within his own household: rejecting his wife, the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, the tetrarch married Herodias, the sister of Agrippa I. This did not please the Nabateans, who successfully battled Antipas's troops. Nor, according to the Gospels, did it please John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet who condemned the remarriage as a violation of biblical law, for Herodias had been the wife of Antipas's half brother Herod. (She was not, contrary to Mark 6.17 , the wife of Philip; he was married instead to Herodias's daughter, Salome.)

As both popular leader and political prophet, John presented a danger to Antipas. According to the authors of the Gospels, he was beheaded at the instigation of Herodias and her daughter. Josephus confirms the execution, but not the Gospel story of the daughter's dance, the silver platter, or the condemnation of the marriage. According to Josephus, John the Baptist was killed because his enormous popular support threatened Herod's rule. He states that John was a pious man who immersed Jews “for the purification of the body when the soul had previously been cleansed by righteous conduct. Others joined crowds about him because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons. … His eloquence had so great an effect on the people that it might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did” (Antiquities 18.5.2).

Following the death of Tiberius in 37 CE and in light of the subsequent friendship of Herod Agrippa with Gaius Caligula, Antipas fell out of favor with Rome. In 39, the emperor banished him to Gaul, or possibly Spain, where he was accompanied by Herodias.

Philip, the third brother, inherited a region populated almost entirely by non-Jews. Thus the particular problems caused by conflicting cultural and religious norms that brought unrest to the rules of Archelaus and Antipas did not affect him. Continuing the family's interest in reconstruction, Philip rebuilt the city of Panias near the head of the Jordan River and renamed it Caesarea Philippi; here, according to the Gospels, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (Mark 8; Matt. 16 ). Upon Philip's death, his territory was annexed to Syria.

The extent to which various members of the population resisted Roman occupation and colonialism is unclear. The overarching power of the empire, while antithetical to the sensibilities of Jews like Judas the Galilean, was to some extent buffered by the continuing role of the Herodian household, now represented in Rome by Herod's grandson Agrippa I (called Herod Agrippa in Acts 12 ), and his son, Agrippa II. The relatively homogeneous population, as well as the lack of strong, consistent policies either from the procurator's palace at Caesarea or from the imperial throne itself, also limited Roman oppressiveness. Between the death of Augustus and the First Jewish Revolt of 66 CE, Rome was ruled by Tiberius (14–37), Gaius Caligula (37–41), Claudius (41–54), and Nero (54–68). It is not known how often Jews came in direct contact with representatives of Rome; the experiences of the metropolitan population of Caesarea would have been different from that of residents of a village like Nazareth. Also unknown is the extent to which various Roman social services, such as fighting bandits, building roads, and constructing aqueducts, might have been appreciated. But for many the financial drain of Roman exactions substantially outweighed the benefits of these services.

When the situation did become intolerable, either the governor would be recalled by the emperor or the emperor himself would be involuntarily recalled to his ancestors. The ineptitude, if not the sheer malevolence, of the governors is epitomized by their most famous representative, Pontius Pilate (26–36 CE), who deliberately provoked the local population by bringing Roman shields, probably decorated with images of the emperor, into Jerusalem. The population protested the action by baring their throats to the soldiers; rather than risk a bloodbath, Pilate sent the standards back to Caesarea. But his problems with the locals continued. Attempting to raid the Temple treasury for funds to construct an aqueduct in Jerusalem, Pilate provoked another protest that ended when he sent his soldiers into the unarmed crowd, massacring them.

Pilate's difficulties, and those of other Roman officials, were not only with Jewish groups. In 36, Pilate learned of a Samaritan prophet who promised his people that he would show them the vessels of the wilderness tabernacle; local tradition taught that the sacred implements were buried somewhere on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritan temple had stood. Pilate sent his troops to intercept the crowd, even though the people involved may not have had revolutionary goals. When the news of the Roman attack reached Vitellius, Pilate's superior in Syria, the governor was finally, after ten years of hatred by and for the local population, recalled. His replacements, Marcellus (36–37) and Marullus (37–41), did little to appease the Jewish population but also little to antagonize them.

During Roman rule, heavy taxation and the economic stratification of rich and poor intensified. Under the authority of the procurators, the Sanhedrin was responsible for collecting taxes on agricultural produce, which had been paid since 63 BCE, and the poll tax, which began in 6 CE after the annexation of Judea and Samaria. This latter tax is probably referred to in the question put to Jesus: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus' answer, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mark 12.17 ), is, perhaps characteristically, ambiguous: either pay the tax, the traditional interpretation, or do precisely the opposite, if one assumes that all things belong to God.

The contradictory interpretations of Jesus' answer reveal the contradictory ways that taxation was viewed by the local populations. For the rich and for the tax collector, it was, respectively, tolerable and possibly lucrative, if socially unacceptable; for the poor, it was, well, taxing. Tolls, a second form of tribute, were levied on imports and exports, and for the use of roads, ports, and markets. To collect funds, the Romans contracted with wealthy locals, who in turn subcontracted to tax collectors. Condemned by the population as agents of an oppressive government, liable to corruption, and badly paid as well, the tax collector—the “publican” of the King James Version—was generally despised. Compounding his problems was the system itself: given the siphoning of funds by various Roman officials, more taxes had to be collected than what imperial records mandated, simply to meet demands.

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