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Political Conditions

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. Reign of Herod the Great.—Christ was born nearly at the close of the reign of Herod (Matthew 2:1), who died in the spring of b.c. 4. Herod’s relation to Rome was that of an allied king (rex socius), whose title and authority alike were dependent upon the goodwill of the Emperor. He was expected to preserve order within his kingdom, and to bring it into a fit state for inclusion in the normal system of provincial government, and at the same time to protect the frontier of the Empire. With foreign policy he had nothing to do; and the right of coining was probably limited, the only known Herodian coins being of copper. A certain tribute was exacted, which Herod raised on the other parts of his kingdom than Judaea; and instructions from Rome had to be strictly and quickly followed, the Imperial consent being necessary also to any arrangement as to the succession to the royal property or domains. Within these limits his power was restrained only by the necessity of not provoking the people either to rebel or to appeal to Rome.

2. Tetrarchy of Philip.—Special permission had been given by Augustus to Herod to bequeath his kingdom as he liked (Josephus Ant. xvi. iv. 5), the will being subject, of course, to Imperial confirmation. Under the pressure of various palace intrigues, and with a view to separate elements between which at the time there was no possible cohesion, Herod left Judaea to Archelaus, Galilee and Peraea to Antipas, and the north-eastern districts beyond Jordan to Philip. This partition was eventually accepted at Rome, with a few slight modifications. To Philip, with the title of tetrarch, which originally implied the government of a fourth part of a tribe or kingdom, but gradually came to be used of any petty dependent prince, were assigned the comparatively poor districts lying to the east of the Sea of Galilee, and extending northwards as far as Mt. Hermon (Luke 3:1). Over these he reigned for thirty-seven years (b.c. 4–a.d. 34), when upon his death the territory was incorporated in the province of Syria, though without losing the privilege of the separate administration of its finances (Josephus Ant. xviii. iv. 6). Three years later it was given to Agrippa i., with the title of king. The population was predominantly Syrian and Greek, with Jewish settlements in the south-west; and though Philip’s sympathies were entirely Roman, he respected the sentiments of the different classes of the people, and his long reign was disturbed by no outbreak of popular feeling, and no peremptory interference from Rome. Like most of the Herods, he had a passion for building; and to the quiet and well-governed city of Caesarea Philippi, near the alleged source of the Jordan, Jesus withdrew (Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27) when the multitudes were crowding upon Him and His enemies tempting Him (Matthew 16:1); just as Bethsaida, another of Philip’s cities, was His refuge when news reached Him of the Baptist’s death (Luke 9:10, cf. Mark 8:22).

3. Tetrarchy of Antipas.—The title of tetrarch was granted also to Antipas, whose dominions included the two districts of Galilee and Peraea, separated by the confederation of free Greek cities known as the Decapolis. Peraea, east of the Jordan and south-east of Galilee, bore a high reputation for the purity of its Judaism, but politically was of small importance. Its population was prevailingly Jewish; though Antipas found an opportunity for the indulgence of his passion for building in the erection of Julias on the site of the ancient Beth-haram (Joshua 13:27), opposite Jericho. But the main part of the tetrarchy, as far as numbers and industry are concerned, lay to the north of Samaria, where the Jews formed the majority of a population estimated perhaps too highly (see art. Population) at three millions, and comprising almost every possible admixture of Canaanitish and Greek elements. The administration of Antipas must have been successful on the whole, for it continued for more than forty years, though his father’s diplomacy became in him craft and meanness (Luke 13:32; Josephus Ant. xviii. iv. 5). His private friendship with Tiberius may be part of the explanation of the length of his reign; in a.d. 39 he was banished by Caligula to Lyons, and his territories were added to the kingdom of Herod Agrippa i. (Acts 12:1; Josephus Ant. xviii. vii. 2).

4. Ethnarchy of Archelaus.—On the death of his father, Archelaus succeeded to the lordship of Judaea, with Samaria and Idumaea. His accession was opposed by some of his own family, and by the popular party at Jerusalem, who aimed at the restoration of the theocracy, but pleaded meanwhile for the investment of the high priest with supreme civil power, in subordination to the Emperor alone. Archelaus went in person to Rome (cf. Christ’s allusion in Luke 19:12), whither also journeyed an embassy from the people. Augustus substantially confirmed Herod’s appointment; and Archelaus returned as ethnarch of the three districts. He was disappointed with the inferior title (which denotes literally the ruler of a nation living, with separate customs, in the midst of another race, and was possibly chosen, in contempt, to identify Archelaus with his unwilling subjects), and proceeded to make his administration (b.c. 3–a.d. 6) one of revenge. Twice, if not thrice, a change was made in the high priesthood by a ruler who was considered as of mixed blood—unclean in his birth and unclean in his practice. The tyrannical disregard of powerful sentiments was carried to such an extent that at length the Jews forgot their hatred of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans their kinship with the ethnarch, and a joint deputation proceeded to lay their complaints before Augustus. Archelaus was fined and exiled to Vienne, and his domains were made directly subject to Rome.

5. The Roman procurators.—The situation of Judaea, on the confines of Egypt and Arabia, was of such military importance that Rome could not wisely concede the repeated request of the people for the investiture of their high priest with all the functions of civil government. Instead, the country was made a kind of annex to the province of Syria, with a governor (procurator) of its own, of equestrian rank, who was charged particularly with the control of the army and the finances, and with the task of turning the district into a bulwark of the Empire. The legate of Syria was invested with only a general supervision; he was expected to interfere at his discretion in cases of need, but generally to remain in the background, as an unseen support of the Roman rule. The first procurator was Coponius (a.d. 6–9), a knight whose name is otherwise unknown. Accompanied by the legate Quirinius, he appeared at Jerusalem, took possession of the property of Archelaus, and turned his palace into the official abode of the procurator during the festivals, Caesarea becoming the seat of government. Their next administrative act was to arrange for the taking of a census, with a view to control the incidence of taxation, and to establish Roman methods of government. The process was to compile schedules, enumerating the local communities, according either to houses or to families, for the purposes of a poll-tax, and providing information for the levying of taxes upon capital (originally, in Syria, one per cent., but afterwards probably increased) and upon trade. At the same time the produce of the field was valued, and made chargeable to the extent of one-tenth in the case of corn and two-tenths in that of fruit and vine. This was the enrolment referred to by Gamaliel (Acts 5:37); and on religious as well as patriotic grounds, as seeming to involve even a competition with Jehovah for the tithes, the result was dismay on the part of the leaders of the people, and an actual revolt, headed by Judas of Gamala, who thereby founded the fanatical party of the Zealots or Cananaeans (Matthew 10:4). On the present occasion the revolt was suppressed after some furious fighting; but the agitation smouldered, and eventually broke out in the insurrection in the course of which Jerusalem was burnt. The census schedules, when completed, would be sent to Rome for approval; but in levying the taxes there would be no delay. Such as were destined for the Imperial treasury were collected under the supervision of the procurator, who made use of the Sanhedrin and various local courts. The customs were leased to collectors, individuals or syndicates, who paid a fixed annual sum, retaining any excess in the actual yield and making good any deficiency. The contracts were then divided, and sublet to subordinate officials in the different localities, and thus an entire class of publicans of various grades (Luke 19:2) was constituted, whose average morality was probably low, but is not to be taken at the valuation of the popular hatred. Nothing more is known of the procuratorship of Coponius beyond a breach in the temporary alliance between the Jews and the Samaritans. The quarrel was brought to an issue by a successful attempt of the latter to defile the cloisters of the Temple on the eve of the Passover. Through Coponius no redress could be obtained, and the Jews had to content themselves with more stringent regulations for the exclusion of the Samaritans, and with a large extension of the police system of the Temple, the night-watchmen being increased in number to twenty-four, and an official made responsible for a periodic visitation of their rounds.

The successors of Coponius were Marcus Ambivius (? a.d. 9–12), Annius Rufus (? 12–15), Valerius Gratus (15–26), and Pontius Pilate (26–36). Of the first two the dates cannot at present be fixed with precision, and no known change of administration was introduced by them. Soon after his accession in a.d. 14 to the throne of the Empire, Tiberius adopted the policy of lengthening the term of service in these provincial appointments, in the hope of protecting the people from rapacity, by affording the governors a longer period over which to spread their exactions. The theory was not a compliment to this class of officials, and did not work well in Judaea. Of the administration of Valerius Gratus the least that can be said is that it was meddling. In eleven years he changed the high priest four times, and the changes would have been more frequent but for the temporizing character of the man (Joseph Caiaphas) upon whom his final choice lighted. The example of oppression in Rome, whence the Jews were expelled by Imperial edict, was imitated so closely in Judaea, that several deputations were sent to Tiberius to protest against the masterfulness and avarice of his representative, with little other result than that of additions to the army of occupation.

A similar policy of oppression was adopted by Pilate, who exceeded his predecessor in resentment, but whose violence was apt to collapse in the presence of a stubbornness greater than his own. His first act was characteristic alike of his contempt for precedents and of his docility when opposed. The new troops destined for the garrison of Jerusalem were ordered not, as before, to leave at Caesarea the medallions of the Emperor that were attached to the military standards, but to proceed in full equipment to their quarters in the Castle of Antonia. To the Jews the sacrilege appeared of the worst kind, as involving them in the crime of idolatry (Exodus 20:4). From all parts of the country people flocked to Caesarea, and, disdaining the threat of massacre, extorted from the procurator, by their superior resolution, an order for the removal of the medallions. This bad beginning was followed by an equally bitter quarrel over the restoration of an aqueduct that brought water to Jerusalem (cf. Luke 13:4). The scheme was of the utmost value to the city, as the supply of water conveyed through an older aqueduct at a higher level was proving insufficient; but the offence was that Pilate proposed to throw the cost upon the Temple treasury, and actually seized some of the sacred funds. A riot was anticipated; but the soldiers, dressed as citizens, were distributed among the crowd, and at a given signal turned their weapons against the people. The scheme was proceeded with, and the popular hatred grew savage. So much did Pilate disregard Jewish sentiment, that certain Galilaeans were put to death in the Temple, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrifices (Luke 13:1). By taking a prominent part in an insurrection, Barabbas endeared himself to the people (Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19). On the death of Sejanus, in a.d. 31, Tiberius assumed a more friendly attitude towards the Jews; and, soon after Vitellius added the legateship of Syria to his other high commands (a.d. 35), he found it necessary to interfere. Pilate was ordered to proceed to Rome to answer for the wanton cruelty of his administration, and Marcellus was entrusted provisionally with the duties of the procuratorship.

6. Administration, military and civil.—In Syria, as in Egypt, were regularly stationed three or four legions, to which recourse could be had in any emergency; but the ordinary garrison of Palestine consisted of auxiliaries, raised partially amongst the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country. The Jews were generally exempted at the time from military service, on account of their temperament and religious usages. The garrison was distributed over the country in such a way as to make itself everywhere felt. At Caesarea, the headquarters, was a force of three thousand men, of whom five-sixths were infantry. A cohort of five or six hundred infantry, with a detachment of cavalry and a body of spearmen or slingers (Acts 23:23), was quartered in the fortress of Antonia. Smaller garrisons occupied Jericho, Machaerus, Samaria, and any other centre whence an important district could be commanded. There is no evidence of the existence of a police corps apart from the soldiery, though a secret-service system upon a large scale was maintained by Herod, and probably also by the procurators. The military were employed in keeping order, in the arrest of persons under suspicion (John 18:12), in guarding prisoners (Matthew 27:27), and in superintending the execution of a sentence (John 19:23). Use was sometimes made of the officers of the local courts and of the armed retinue of the native dignitaries (Matthew 26:47). The Temple police were under the command of a captain of high rank, who probably controlled also the officers of the Sanhedrin; and these functionaries were recognized and supported within limits by the military authorities. There are traces also of the existence of a body of paid spies or secret police under Jewish control (Luke 20:20, Matthew 22:16, Mark 12:13). In the provincial towns and rural districts order was kept as in Jerusalem; the administration acted through the local courts and organizations, with soldiers at hand when needed. See also art. Police.

Taxation was of two kinds—Imperial and provincial. A poll-tax and a tax on landed property were collected by the procurator, and the produce remitted to Rome (Matthew 22:17). Custom duties and market tolls were collected by lessees, who paid for the privilege a fixed yearly sum, destined in the case of Judaea for the Imperial treasury, but in that of Galilee for the tetrarch. Besides these regular imposts, an arbitrary procurator might enrich himself by a variety of exactions, as the penalties of imagined offences or the condition of official support; but in Judaea the expenses of administration were met by authorized deduction from the revenue of the taxes and tolls. Economically the province was poor, though a few courtiers and ecclesiastical dignitaries were of great wealth. So heavy was the incidence of taxation, that in a.d. 17 a deputation was sent to Rome to plead for relief. Sixteen years later, the entire Empire was visited by a financial crisis so severe that bankruptcies multiplied beyond enumeration, and even some of the public treasuries suspended payments in cash. In this general distress Syria and Palestine shared, though the busy industrial centres in Galilee did not suffer so much as the crowded and unemployed population around Jerusalem.

7. Political parties (see the various articles under separate titles).—The Samaritans, though kindred in race with the Jews, were regarded by them as sectaries, and the bitterness on both sides was fatal to joint political action of any permanent kind. The Sadducees were a priestly nobility, tenacious of the prestige of their own order, but tolerant of any system of government that did not threaten their prosperity. Opposed to them were the Pharisees, whose national ideal was that of a theocracy, and whose endurance of an alien rule was reluctant or sullen. They were supported sometimes by the Herodians, who favoured the dynasty of Herod, but were not disposed to quarrel seriously with any established institution. An extreme party was gradually formed of irreconcilables, under the name of Zealots or Cananœans (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15), who were prepared to use the sword without delay for the restoration of a theocracy. In political theory the Essenes exaggerated the views of the Pharisees; but their comparatively small number in the early part of the 1st cent, and their segregation from ordinary life made them a force of little consequence except in times of excitement.

Literature.—Josephus; references to other sources in Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (or HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ), which is indispensable; Hausrath, Hist. of NT Times; Derenbourg, Hist. de la Pal.; Mommsen, Rom. [Note: Roman.] Provinces; Madden, Coins of Jews; the Archœol. of Keil, Riehm, Benzinger, Nowack; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , the EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] , and the JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] ; O. Holtzmann, NT Zeitgeschichte; Moss, Scene of our Lord’s Life [a useful elementary handbook].

R. W. Moss.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Political Conditions'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​p/political-conditions.html. 1906-1918.