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The Romans

What horrific event occurred in 70 AD? 

The Roman general Pompey took Jerusalem in 63BC, slaughtering some 12,000 Jews in the process - a tragic pattern set at the time of the Babylonians, but sadly not to end there, as history will bear evidence. The Romans were on a conquering tour of the Middle East and decided to intervene in a dispute between two Hasmonean brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobolus II, who were fighting for control. Rome favoured Hyrcanus over the cunning Aristobolus and so the latter was thrown into jail, while the former was given the throne of Judea.

But there were strings attached, as this brought the whole land under indirect Roman rule, as a province of Syria. A generation later, Roman influence was brought to bear through the selection of a new King for the province, King Herod. Identified as someone who could further Roman influence in the east, the emperor declared Herod the 'King of the Jews' and sent him off to conquer the land. After a 3 year campaign, Jerusalem yet again came under siege and, after it was taken, Herod sent his vanquished opponent, the hapless Antigonus, off to Rome to be beheaded.

King Herod reigned for thirty three years and was deeply unpopular. The main reason was his using the title 'King of the Jews', which rankled as he was really descended from the Edomites. These were traditional enemies of the Jews, who had been forcibly 'Judaised' a couple of generations back. He tried to alleviate this by marrying a Hasmonean princess after divorcing his previous wife, Doris. His new mother-in-law was a battleaxe and forced him to install his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, as High Priest.

Unfortunately, Aristobolus was drowned after high jinks in a swimming pool (serves him right as High Priests were not meant to frolic about!), which had international repercussions, particularly with Cleopatra of Egypt (yes, it was she), who had her eyes on expansion eastwards. She had Herod summoned to her friend Mark Anthony to account for himself, which he did with a large bribe. The purpose for recounting this episode is that this was the point when Herod started to develop a deeply suspicious nature which became his enduring trademark.

Yet Herod did some good. He brought peace to the north-eastern territories and he loved building things. He built, with the help of a thousand burly Levites, a new Temple in Jerusalem to add to the one he built for the Roman emperor in Samaria. He also built stadiums and theatres, which didn't make him too popular as they were intended for the forthcoming Greek games. He also gave Roman names to the local regions and towns, some of them in honour of his own family, even though he was to try and murder most of them in time.

Herod's Temple took more than 80 years to be completed and the final trimmings were in place barely 7 years before its destruction! Nevertheless, the Temple was just about operational when it witnessed something significant and unusual in about 7 BC (or in 1 BC for traditionalists). An elderly priest, Zechariah, had a meeting with the angel Gabriel there while on a tour of duty. Subsequently, his wife, Elizabeth was to give birth to a son, John, months later. John the Baptist was to grow up to be very special indeed. We read of him in Matthew 3:3: "This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: 'A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him'". God's apparent silence was over. After over 400 years since Malachi, the last prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, we now have a new voice, that of John the Baptist and we move to the world of the Gospels.

King Herod died a madman, one of his last acts being to order the slaughter of all infants in the Bethlehem area, after discovering the presence of a rival 'King of the Jews'. This, of course, was Jesus, the true King of the Jews, who by now had escaped to Egypt. After Herod's death, his kingdom was split into three and given to his three sons, none taking the title of King. Herod Antipas became a tetrarch (a minor title) and ruled Galilee, falling foul of John the Baptist in Matthew 14:1-12. Archelaus became the much more important, politically, ethnarch of Judea, which did him little good as, after a few bad decisions, he was banished to Europe. From this time on Judea was proclaimed a province of the Roman Empire and was governed by a Roman official, a procurator, appointed by the emperor. The fifth such procurator was Pontius Pilate, who governed from 26 AD to 36 AD. 

By now the Roman hold on the province was firm. The heart of the country was Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, separated by Samaria, which was inhabited by a people who were not quite kosher, with a religion that tended to 'mix-and-match' the Judaism of the day, which was not surprising as they were descended from immigrants of the Assyrian Empire. Jerusalem at that time was a splendid place, the most dazzling sight being that of the Temple. There may have been as many as 250,000 people living there at the time, swelling to the millions during the pilgrim festivals. Local affairs were sorted out by the Sanhedrin but real power was held by the Romans. All major decisions had to be referred to Rome, including the death sentence of Jesus, which had to be approved by Pilate.

Jesus? So where does he fit into our story?

Steve Maltz
February 2014

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)

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