New Testament Backgrounds For Beginners: Pt. 3

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Editor’s Note: This series is for those who want to better understand the New Testament’s historical-cultural background, but aren’t sure where to start. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, respectively.

As we venture in to week 3 of New Testament backgrounds, I want us to get a feel for what Rome’s expansion policies were like and what this meant for the various people who were placed under their power. Then, in the last part of the post, we’ll especially spend some time focusing in on how this took shape in Judea, Galilee, Samaria, etc. All the places where Jesus carried out His ministry and the region where the church was born.

The Structure of Roman Government
The vast majority of the Roman Empire was made up of provinces. These were blocks of territory which helped Rome organize her administration. For example, Corinth was a city located in the province of Achaea. There were primarily two types of provinces: senatorial and imperial.

Senatorial provinces were made up of loyal citizens and were generally peaceful places where the army’s presence wasn’t required. Imperial provinces, on the other hand, were sort of like military outposts which were usually located around Rome’s frontiers or in places where Roman rule wasn’t fully embraced and the threat of rebellion greater. Many of these housed the largest building block of the Roman army, the famed Legion (made up of roughly 5,300 infantry and 700 cavalry).

Taken together, these administrative units formed the basic organizing principle of the Empire.

Now you may have noticed that I said this was the case for the vast majority of the empire. That implies that such was not the case everywhere. Primarily on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, Rome stopped short of making many of the areas in this region provinces. Instead, they granted the right to become client kingdoms.

Rome had their preferences when incorporating different people groups into their holdings. One such preference was to allow native populations to rule themselves internally, with a leader from within that population who would ensure that taxes were sent to Rome and that threats of insurrection were squashed. So if you’ve ever wondered how Herod could be King alongside the Roman emperor, there’s your answer.

The boundaries of King Herod’s client kingdom included Judea, Idumea, Galilee, Perea, Samaria, Iturea, and Trachonitis (here’s a map to help you get oriented visually). So now I’d like for us to turn our attention to his kingdom and seek to understand its history and development and how these interfaced with the ministry of Jesus and the leaders of the early church.

The Governing Of Herod’s Kingdom
A close reading of the gospels will reveal that when Jesus was born, Herod presided as king over Judea, whereas when Jesus is put on trial, there is a procurator. The well known Pontius Pilate. So what gives?

Well, remember, that Rome’s preference was to allow native dynasties to continue to rule themselves. Let the locals take care of the internal stuff. As long as they keep rebellions down and turn their taxes in, who cares what happens there on the day to day.

Following Herod’s death, his kingdom was split up among his three sons, who would rule as tetrarchs: Archelaus, Philip, and Herod Antipas. Philip received the land northeast of the Sea of Galilee which made up Iturea and Trachonitis. He has gone down in history as an able leader. Herod Antipas received Galilee, as well as Perea which was situated on the other side of the Jordan River. Judea, Samaria, and Idumea went to Archelaus, but he was such an awful leader that Rome had him removed in A.D. 6 and installed a procurator in his place. Pontius Pilate would fill that position from A.D. 26 to 36. When we understand that Jesus was from Galilee, it helps to see why Pilate first had Jesus sent to Herod Antipas before trying him himself (Luke 23:7). For a brief stint (A.D. 37-44) a descendant of Herod, Herod Agrippa I, was given rule over the former Herodian kingdom, but this did not last long due to an unexpected death (as Acts 12 and Josephus record).

So what we’ve seen is that outside of Herod the Great around the time of Christ’s birth and a brief rule from Herod Agrippa I from A.D. 37-44, Judea was ruled by an outsider, a Roman procurator and Galilee remained under the power of Herod Antipas. That being said, Judea still had their own ruling council which was allowed to function autonomously. That ruling body is the Sanhedrin.

We come across this term a few times in the New Testament, especially when Jesus is nearing the time of His crucifixion. The Sanhedrin par excellence was located in Jerusalem (other minor sanhedrins could be found in Jewish communities throughout the empire). The Sanhedrin was another feature of Second Temple Judaism and filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of the monarchy following the Jewish exile.

It was dominated by the Sadduccees, yet Pharisees were also present and held more respect from the general populace than the other. In addition to providing authoritative interpretations of Scripture, they also served to monitor the national religion, provide advanced religious education, and even served as a real civil authority with its own police force! They could not, however, issue the death penalty, which is why they were so reliant on Pilate to do it.

This was how the Jews living in Palestine were governed. For Jesus and the early church leaders, this is the Roman empire they knew. The gospels and Acts particularly intersect with the Roman government. Having some idea of this structure can help us better understand certain portions of narrative which we find in those books. We must bear in mind that the information we’re having to learn was common knowledge for the original audiences of these books. So, knowing something of what they knew can hep sharpen our understanding of these texts.
Well, that wraps us up for this week. Next time, we’ll finish this series up by reviewing a list of excellent resources to get you started on your own journey into that strange, intriguing first century world. The world into which our Savior came to give His life for you and me. When we can familiarize ourselves with that world, we can be lost in the wonder that Jesus truly came. He came in real space in real time in real history.


The image above was borrowed from fusion-of-horizons and was resized for this post. You can find the original image and the copyright information here.

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