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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.

On the Eve of Revolt, 41–66 ce

The political and economic situation in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee became increasingly intolerable by the middle of the first century. In addition to the problems caused by famine and occupation, more difficulties sprang from Rome itself. At first, the ascension of Gaius Caligula in 37 looked promising for the local population. Not only did Caligula early in his tenure entrust to his friend Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamme, the tetrarchy that had been held by Philip, but two years later he added the territory of Antipas. Thus two parts of Herod the Great's massive holding remained, nominally, in Jewish rather than imperial hands. Agrippa also received the right to appoint the high priest.

This friendship did not, however, lead to the emperor's appreciation for Jewish sensibilities. In 40/41 Caligula determined that his statue would be erected in the Jerusalem Temple. The action may have been one of many signs of his increasingly erratic behavior, or Caligula may have wished to punish the Jewish population for their refusal to allow Gentiles to erect a statue of the emperor in Jamnia. Even though they recognized the potential for mass slaughter, the Jewish population of Judea mobilized to protest this desecration. Caligula was killed before the order could be carried out. Agrippa, who had attempted to keep the population of Judea calm during this crisis, and who then had worked toward the accession of Claudius, was fittingly rewarded: the new emperor severed Judea and Samaria from the province of Syria and so from direct Roman rule, and he appointed Agrippa king over the whole area once held by Herod the Great. To Agrippa's brother Herod, Claudius granted Chalcis in Lebanon.

Because Agrippa presented himself as an adherent of Torah and because of his Hasmonean connections, he was well received by the Judean and Galilean populations. He also appears to have begun construction on a wall on the north side of Jerusalem; but since Rome withheld sufficient funding, the project remained incomplete. Finally, Agrippa convinced Claudius to grant various political privileges to Jewish communities, first in Alexandria and then throughout the empire. Such local concerns were, however, belied by his more cosmopolitan interests outside Jerusalem. In Caesarea, Agrippa erected statues of his daughters Berenice and Drusilla, minted coins bearing his portrait, and sponsored games.

And, in Caesarea, in 44 CE, he died. Josephus recounts that when Agrippa appeared dressed in resplendent clothes, the local crowd proclaimed him divine; he immediately saw an owl, which reminded him of earlier predictions about his death. He then declared his demise to be the will of heaven, suffered excruciating abdominal pain, and died five days later. Acts 12.20–23 recounts a similar story:

Now Herod [Agrippa] was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body, and after winning over Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king's country for food. On an appointed day, Herod [Agrippa] put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Josephus recounts that the populations of Samaria and Caesarea rejoiced at his passing. There is no similar testimony from Judea, where his reign had been a rare beneficial interlude for the population during the first century CE.

Agrippa I had died, but social problems and political machinations continued as usual. Instead of bestowing the kingdom on Agrippa's son, Agrippa II, who was only seventeen, Claudius annexed the territory as a Roman province, as he had several others. Then came a series of governors, each contributing to increasing domestic unrest. Cuspius Fadus (44–46) had the misfortune of ruling at the time the prophet Theudas attempted to part the Jordan River (and so, symbolically, represent Joshua conquering the land held by enemy hands). Many people followed him—as did the cavalry of Rome, under the governor's orders. Fadus was replaced by Philo's nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander. His term ( 46–48 ) witnessed a bad famine, partially alleviated by generous gifts of Egyptian grain from Helena of Adiabene, and, from her son Izates, funds for purchasing food. This governorship also witnessed the revolts of the sons of Judas the Galilean, James and Simon, whom Alexander had crucified. The governor would return to Jerusalem in 70 to fight more rebels; Vespasian appointed him as adviser to Titus.

Third came Ventidius Cumanus (48–52), an inept ruler responsible for many of his own problems. In 52, when a Galilean was murdered in Samaria and conflict between the two populations subsequently broke out, Cumanus did nothing. The conflict spread to Judea, from which two Jews mounted a raid into Samaria. Claudius, spurred on by Agrippa II, finally intervened: he found in favor of the Jews, penalized the Samaritans, and exiled Cumanus.

The next governor, Antonius Felix (52–60), faced increasing incidents of rebellion, particularly attacks from the Sicarii (from sica, a curved dagger, used to assassinate Jews seen as cooperating with Rome). Felix was also ruling when a Jew known only as the “Egyptian” led a large number of people to the Mount of Olives, having promised them that he would bring down the walls of Jerusalem. The governor's heavy-handed approach to squelching these incipient revolts only exacerbated local tension. His greed is attested by Acts 24.26 ; he had hoped to relieve Paul of his funding. Felix's personal life, no less suspect, demonstrates the interconnection of Roman rule and Judean royalty. His wife, Drusilla, was the daughter of Agrippa I. Although she was betrothed to Epiphanes of Commangene, that contract ended following Agrippa's death, when Epiphanes recanted on his promise to be circumcised. Drusilla was then betrothed by her brother, Agrippa II, to Azizus of Emesa, who did agree to the ritual operation. The queen would later dissolve her marriage in order to wed Felix, who had been courting her by proxy.

Personal scandal also touched Agrippa II. Rome did not approve of his living with his other sister, Berenice; rumors of incest spread. Berenice was the widow of, first, the son of the Jewish leader of Alexandria, and second of Herod of Chalcis; she would later become the wife of the king of Cilicia and finally the partner of the emperor Titus. Yet Agrippa's personal life does not appear to have interfered substantially with his political career. Appointed by Claudius king of Chalcis in 49, when his uncle Herod died, Agrippa II also received control of the Jerusalem Temple and the power to appoint the high priest. In 53, Claudius granted him both Herod Philip's former holdings and Abilene. In 54/55, Nero would increase these holdings with the addition of two cities in Perea and two more in Galilee.

In turn, Agrippa II remained faithful to the empire. From the time of his enthronement in 49 to his death in 92, his coins depict the reigning emperor. Nevertheless, he also tried to do well by his Jewish citizens. He continued the construction of the Jerusalem Temple, and when the massive unemployment that resulted from its completion threatened Jerusalem's peace, he provided jobs for many of the workers. When the First Revolt broke out in 66, he sought to quell the rebellion; but once hostilities increased, he sided with Rome. Although his loyalties were to the empire, and although he did have a dispute with the Jerusalem priests mediated by the next governor, Porcius Festus (60–62), over his desire to tear down a wall that blocked his view of the Temple (Nero decided in favor of the priests), Agrippa II is well regarded in rabbinic sources.

Festus is also known for sending another dispute to Nero. It is Festus to whom Paul appeals in Acts 25.11 . Although an able and cautious administrator, Festus could not resolve the heightened tensions and increasing Jewish antipathy toward Rome. Between Festus's death in office and the arrival of his successor, Albinus (62–64), the Jerusalem church began to face increasing local pressure.

That the early followers of Jesus faced opposition is certain; Paul himself admits in his letter to the Philippians that he had been a persecutor of the church. Yet it is much less clear why and to what extent it was harassed—by Jewish kings, Sadducees, representatives of the synagogues, Roman authorities, and members of the general populace. Although much of the evidence for the persecution of the church locates the difficulties outside Judea, Acts does record several local incidents. For example, Acts 12.1–2 mentions that James the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John was ordered executed by Agrippa I. And in 62, during the interim between governors, James the brother of Jesus perished at the command of the Sadducean high priest, Annas II. But then, prompted by complaints from the Pharisees, Agrippa II deposed the priest. The timing of the incident indicates that the high priest's action was illegal; both Roman and Christian sources suggest that local governments in occupied territory lacked the right to carry out capital punishment.

Such persecution of the church occurred sporadically outside Judea as well. Although the origins of the Christian communities in such locations as Rome and Egypt are not known, it is nevertheless likely that the movement was spread by Jewish evangelists, who used private homes and perhaps synagogues as bases for proselytizing. Among these missionaries, the best known is Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who himself once persecuted the church. Following a conversion experience, Saul—or, as he became known to the Greek-speaking world, Paul—established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. Through his efforts and those of his fellow missionaries, Gentiles were brought into the church by means of baptism. They were not required to follow the rituals of the Jewish scriptures, such as dietary regulations, circumcision for males, or particular forms of Sabbath observance. Instead, their principal ritual appears to have been the Eucharist, practiced as a fellowship meal. Yet Paul, who advised cooperation with the government (see Rom. 13.1–7 ), was, according to legend, beheaded by Nero.

As a new religious movement, the Christians were already suspect in the eyes of their neighbors. Their preaching of a crucified savior, the sexual asceticism practiced by some of them (especially women), their Eucharistic language, their strong eschatological orientation, and their insistence (like the Jews') that there was only one deity—all these contributed to various outbreaks of violence against them. The most famous of these occurred in Rome, when Nero accused the local Christian community of starting the great fire of 64 CE. Moreover, whenever Jews were targeted for specific governmental action, Christians, especially those who were ethnically Jews, were likely to find themselves under attack in the wake of that action. Thus, when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49, the Jewish Christians were banished as well; one missionary couple involved in this expulsion, Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila, is known from both Paul's letters and Acts of the Apostles.

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