The Political World

Until Christ – Prior to 1948, the last period of Jewish history in the land extends from the return from the Babylonian Captivity (538 B.C.) to the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). During this period, there was no Israelite King on the throne in Jerusalem. The Persian rule in the land lasted about 200 years (536 to 330 B.C.), Greek rule nine years (330-321), Egyptian rule 120 years (321-198), and Syrian rule about 40 years (198-166). King Antiochus Epiphanes oppressed the Jews resulting in the Maccabean revolt. The Jews gained independence in 166 B.C., lasting until Pompey came to Jerusalem in 63 B.C. In 40 B.C., Herod the Great was appointed king by the Romans and he began his reign in 37 B.C. Herod died in 4 B.C. To win the Jews over, Herod the Great tore down Zerubbabel’s Temple, built in 516 B.C., and he began building a new Temple in his eighteenth year (23/22 B.C.). It was completed in A.D. 65, only five years before its final destruction. Herod’s Temple was a magnificent white marble structure in days of Jesus. It measured 600 feet east and west, and little over 600 feet north and south. It was divided into the outer court or court of the Gentiles and the inner court, subdivided into women’s court and the court of the Israelites.

Time of Christ – In his will, Herod the Great divided the land among three of his sons:

1. Herod Antipas (4 B.C.-39 A.D.), tetrarch of Galilee and Perea
2. Philip (4 B.C.-33 A.D.), tetrarch of Iturea
3. Archelaus (4 B.C.-6 A.D.), tetrarch of Judea and Samaria

In A.D. 6, Archelaus was accused by the Jews of cruelty and deposed by Augustus. Henceforth Judea and
Samaria were ruled by a Roman procurator who stood under the Roman legatus of the imperial province
of Syria. The fifth man to hold this office was Pontius Pilate (26-36 A.D.).

Economics – Politically, the emperors were on the rise. The empire had settled down and it was
prosperous except for the distant frontiers and Palestine. Economic theory was nonexistent. The
primitive, agrarian economy was remarkably stable because of widespread use of slave labor in
competition with free labor. The Roman silver denarius and Greek drachma were of equal value in NT
times and were in circulation everywhere. The stability in coinage was paralleled by stability in prices
and wages. From 100 B.C. to A.D. 150, at least, the wages of unskilled and semiskilled labor was one
denarius per day. Food costs were about one-half denarius per day. The diet was limited to vegetables,
olive oil, fruit, and cheap wine. Slaves or free laborers could not expect to eat meat except on feast days.

In Palestine, disparity between rich and poor existed. Few were wealthy and a great many lived always
on the brink of poverty. The work, as in Italy, was done by a mixed group. There were agricultural
slaves in competition with hired help, who were freeborn Jews. In the towns and cities, freeborn men did
most of the labor. Slaves were used only for domestic help. They were most conspicuous in the homes
and palaces of the Jewish wealthy.

Unlike our laws, the Roman laws were brief, clear, and, by the first century A.D., carefully collected and
organized. Jurists and magistrates rarely interpreted them philosophically or neglected them. Generally,
speaking, Roman citizenship was sparingly conferred on provincials as late as the first century A.D. The
Romans did much to encourage travel and commerce in order to promote political stability in the far-
reaching Empire. One of the greatest successes of the Romans was their system of roads. Intended
initially for military conquest and consolidation, they made an immense contribution to the commerce,
peace, and general stability of the Mediterranean world.

Local municipal government was very important in all areas of the Empire. Roman authorities reserved
the right to administer the death penalty, and levied taxes. Local senates, councils and assemblies
attended to most of the affairs of the people.

The Sanhedrin – Roman rule was harsh and unfeeling, but the Jews, under their high priests and the
Sanhedrin, enjoyed a large measure of home rule. The Sanhedrin was the supreme governing council of
the Jews having judicial and within certain limitations, executive authority. Its decrees were of binding
force even among the Jews of the Diaspora. Its membership was composed of 70 men, called elders and
rulers, with the high priest as president ex-officio. In the time of Christ the members came from two
leading classes: chief priests (heads of the 24 orders), who appear to have been for the most part
Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law, representing the Pharisees who at this time had the greater influence
among the people. The Pharisees had the majority of the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees had the High
Priest. Its regular place of meeting was in Jerusalem, in the hall or Chamber Gazith within the Temple

Taxation – Usually the Romans farmed out the revenues of a district or on a certain article to a local
collector for a lump sum, who with his employees collected as much as they could. Extortion was the
rule, and only limited by the victim’s ability to pay. A Jew who held such a position became a social
outcast, first on principle, because paying any kind of taxes to heathen power was considered treason to
Yahweh, their invisible King (hence offerings of tax collectors were not accepted at the synagogue);
second, because most of them were personally dishonest.

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