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THE NEW TESTAMENT BACKGROUND

Supplemental Commentary:

THE NEW TESTAMENT BACKGROUND

I

The Background.  The true background of the New Testament is that of Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era---a background which is made up of many foreign elements.  Previous to our era, this tiny land, alternately battle-ground and buffer-state, trembled often to the sound of marching legions from Egypt, or Assyria, or Persia, or Greece.  But in the end it was Rome's turn to play an important part in the land where Christ was born.

Rome definitely entered into the politics of Palestine when Pompey marched southwards from Syria and took Jerusalem after a siege lasting three months (63 B.C.).  The coming of Rome was a kiss of death for the Machabean or Asmonean dynasty founded a century before by the great Judas Machabeus.  The Jewish state became a vassal of Rome and national independence was a thing of the past.

The Herod Family.  Some few years later an unexpected character, Antipater of Idumea, appeared on the scene.  This ancestor of the Herods, a favorite of the Romans and very ambitious, introduced his sons, Phasael and Herod, into local politics, the first being created governor of Jerusalem, the other of Galilee.

During the last decades of the first century B.C., Asia changed hands with startling rapidity.  Antony, master of Asia after the battle of Philippi (42 B.C.), made Herod and Phasael tetrarchs of the province of Judea.  Originally "tetrarch" meant a "ruler of a fourth part."  In New Testament times the title was used of a "petty prince" or "ruler of a district."  The remainder of the country was attached to Egypt and Syria.

Shortly thereafter, one of the last descendants of the Machabean family, Mattathias or Antigonus, captured Jerusalem.  Herod escaped and made his way to Rome, where a judicious use of money won him great favor; the Senate in formal session declared him king of Judea.  It was not, however, until 37 B.C. that Jerusalem fell into Herod's hands.

The reign of Herod "the Great," so-called in comparison with his rather inferior descendants, is divided into three periods: the consolidation of his power (37-25); the period of prosperity, Roman friendship, and great building activity (25-13); and that of domestic troubles (13-4 B.C.)

Antony's star suffered eclipse at Actium, 31 B.C.  With characteristic adroitness, Herod passed over to the camp of the victorious Octavian (Augustus) at just the right moment.  Making the most of Rome's favor, he initiated a great building program.  The most important undertaking of this sort was the rebuilding and enlarging of the temple of Zorobabel, begun in the 18th year of his reign (20-19 B.C.), and completed shortly before the Jewish revolt and the fall of Jerusalem.  "He who has not seen Herod's building has never seen anything beautiful," was a common saying of the day (cf. John 2, 20).

The domestic troubles which marred the third period of Herod's life were of such gigantic proportions as to overshadow all else.  He had in all ten wives and almost as many sons, and so many of the latter were murdered at his command that a saying became very popular to the effect that it was better to be Herod's pig than his son.  How very little human life mattered to Herod is reflected in Matthew's account of the massacre of the Holy Innocents (2, 16-18).

Upon the death of Herod, his kingdom was divided among his three sons, no one of whom bore the title of king.  Archelaus reigned as ethnarch of Judea (4 B.C.---6 A.D.).  The exact meaning of "ethnarch" (translated "governor" or "ruler of a people"), is not certain, but it appears to indicate a petty ruler subject to Rome, and higher in rank than a tetrarch.  His reign was marked by tyranny and despotism.  By far the worst of Herod's sons, he was summoned to Rome and exiled to France; his territory was incorporated by Cyrinus into the Roman province of Syria, and was put under the direct rule of a local procurator.

Philip ruled as tetrarch over northern Transjordan.  The southern border of his territory was, roughly speaking, the river Yarmuk and neighboring Decapolis.  Philip ruled (4 B.C.---34 A.D.) justly and peacefully; but at the end of his long reign, his territory was also annexed to Syria.  Two of the cities built by him (Caesarea Philippi and Julia or Bethsaida) are mentioned in the Gospels.

Herod Antipas was the last son of the great Herod to occupy a position of authority.  This is the New Testament Herod so fearlessly criticized by John the Baptist; the same Herod whom Jesus Christ stigmatized as "that fox" (Luke 13, 32); before whom Jesus stood silent during the Passion (Luke 23, 7).  He ruled as tetrarch over Galilee and Perea (4 B.C.---39 A.D.), but the intervening territory of Decapolis was under the direct supervision of the governor of Syria.  Towards the end of his reign, Antipas learned that the Emperor, Caligula, had presented the former territories of Philip and the title of king to Herod Agrippa, brother of Herodias.  This ambitious woman who had already been the cause of much trouble, was so envious of her own brother's good fortune that she prevailed upon her husband, Antipas, to seek the same title for himself.  Together they went to Rome, hoping to realize this ambition; but there they found themselves outwitted by Agrippa, and were rewarded, not with royal honors, but with degradation and exile.

Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne, ruled briefly (41-44) over a territory as extensive as that of his grandfather, for the new Emperor, Claudius, added to his possessions (those which had formerly belonged to Philip and Antipas) both Judea and Samaria.  He is mentioned in the Acts (12) as having killed St. James the Greater and imprisoned St. Peter.  Rome grew suspicious of this petty king when he began to build the third wall around northern Jerusalem, and it is likely that his early death saved him from an official investigation.  His son, Agrippa II, was too young to fill the important position held by his father, and so did not succeed him.  Instead, after a few years, he was made king of a tiny principality in Chalcis, succeeding his uncle, Herod.  Like him, Agrippa was guardian of the temple and its funds, and had the right to appoint the High Priests.  Then, in exchange for Chalcis, Agrippa obtained the tetrarchy of northern Transjordan, to which parts of Galilee and Perea were in time added.  He ruled until about 85 A.D.  It was before this last representative of the Herod family that St. Paul appeared during the Caesarean captivity (Acts 25, 13 ff).

II

Roman Provincial Rule.  In 27 B.C., Augustus divided into two classes the provinces which were under Roman rule.  Those which he reserved to himself because they were difficult to manage, as Syria, for example, were called imperial, and those which were pacified and more or less accustomed to the domination of Rome were called senatorial provinces.  The provinces were either consular or praetorian, depending on the rank of the governor in charge.  The governors of the senatorial provinces were called proconsuls; while the imperial provinces were ruled either by legates pro praetore, as was the case of Syria, or by prefects, as in Egypt, although nominally the actual head was the Emperor.  A few imperial provinces were ruled in an exceptional manner by governors of equestrian rank---procurators---when (as in Mauretania and Thrace) the rudeness of customs, or (as in Judea) the special tenacity of the natives in adhering to national customs rendered the usual methods of imperial government impossible.

The Procurators.  From 6-41 A.D., Judea was ruled by seven procurators, one of whom was Pontius Pilate (26-36).  The procurator was directly responsible to the Emperor, who could remove him at will.  He was dependent upon the legate of Syria for serious military aid, and the legate could in some cases remove the procurator and send him to Rome to answer for his administration of the province.  The residence of the procurator was maritime Caesarea.  Experience, however, had taught the governors to be in Jerusalem with troops ready for action on the occasion of the great religious feasts, when smouldering nation resentment was most apt to burst out in flames.  Whenever in the Holy City, the procurator reside on the western side of the city in what was formerly Herod's palace---now known as the Citadel.

In the Roman empire, the Jews were exempt from military service in Roman armies.  The procurator had at his disposal five cohorts of mercenaries, recruited from the Greeks, Samaritans and Syrians; it seems that these cohorts (numbering about three thousand men in all) were supplemented by a wing of cavalry (cf. Acts 23, 23).  Each cohort (four hundred to six hundred men) was commanded by a chiliarch, and one of them was always quartered at the Antonia, the fortress or garrison overlooking the temple area.  St. Paul was to owe his life to this fact (cf. Acts 21-22).

One of the chief functions of the procurator was the administration of provincial finances.  In fact, the name "procurator" come from this function: to "procure" money in the form of taxes.  The revenue obtained from Judea, an imperial province, went into the imperial treasury, called the fiscus to distinguish it from the aerarium, which was the treasury of the Senate.  In literal truth, Judea rendered to Caesar . . . taxes (Matt. 22, 17 f).  The actual collection of taxes was carried out by local agents, Jews, called "publicans" in the Gospels; to these men the procurator farmed out the taxes for a fixed sum, as was the common practice in antiquity.  Whatever the collectors obtained over and above the fixed sum paid for the right of collecting the taxes, was to their own profit; if they failed to obtain the same amount they paid for the privilege, it was their own loss, and they could blame no one.  Much room therefore was left for individual injustice and extortion, depending upon the rapacity of the collectors.  This as a rule was great, and explains the cordial dislike felt by the people for the publicans.  This dislike is reflected in the Gospels, where publican and sinner are regarded as synonymous.  St. Matthew was a collector of the customs tax in Galilee (Matt. 9, 9), and Zachaeus was chief of the publicans who collected like taxes in Jericho (Luke 19, 1-2), but both were recipients of Jesus' favor.

The Sanhedrin.  Operating side by side with, but more or less independently of the Roman governors, were the local courts, and in the case of Judea, the Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin or Council of the New Testament corresponds to the gerousia or Senate (cf. 1 Mach. 12, 6; 14, 28; 2 Mach. 1, 10; 4, 44), and is hardly older than the times of Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.).  According to the Talmud, there were seventy members of the Sanhedrin, presided over by a President.  This supreme native court was empowered to decide on secular affairs such as civic improvements; of much more importance was its almost absolute authority to deal with violations of the Law, idolatry, blasphemy, false prophets and the like (cf. Matt. 26, 65; John 19, 7; Acts 4-6.23).  Only one galling restriction did Rome impose upon this court: the procurator alone possessed the right to exercise the jus gladii, that is, pronounce sentence of death.  John 18, 28 ff is a good illustration of this.  Aside from this restriction, the Sanhedrin had independent authority in policing the city and temple.  It could order the arrest of individuals guilty of disturbing the peace---such orders were carried out by its own corps of police (Matt. 26, 47; Acts 4, 3)---and it had power to mete out corporal punishment less than death (Acts 5, 21-40; 2 Cor. 11, 24-25).

All things considered, the Sanhedrin enjoyed a rather extensive jurisdiction under Roman rule.  That this jurisdiction was valid only within limits is evident from the fact that the Roman authorities could at any time take the initiative themselves and proceed in trials independently of the Jewish court.  This right they sometimes exercised, notably in the case of St. Paul (Acts 21, 33 ff).  Jews who were Roman citizens could in these circumstances exercise the right of appeal to the Emperor (Acts 25, 10-12).

Clashes between Jewish and Roman authorities were normally to be expected.  Valerius Gratus, procurator from 15-26 A.D., removed three High Priests from the presidency of the Sanhedrin in as many years, and then, in 18 A.D., appointed as High Priest that son-in-law of Annas, Joseph Caiphas, who conducted the religious trial of Christ.  Caiphas remained in office until 36 A.D.

Sects: Pharisees.  A word must here be said about the various sects existing at the time of Christ.  These were principally two: the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and of the two, the Pharisees were the more influential and important.  Referred to in Machabean times as "Assideans," they were avowedly "pious," and their piety took the form of separation (whence their name derives) from heathen practice and from all contact with the common people.  The Pharisees were a tremendous power in the life of Judaism.  They taught belief in personal immortality and judgment after death, angels, resurrection of the just, and maintained the doctrine of free will and divine Providence.  Moreover, they were men of vivid, Messianic faith, although this became so confused with national hopes and aspirations that it made no provision for a suffering Messias and a spiritual kingdom.  By the time of Christ both their faith and its observance had degenerated into a sterile devotion to the externals of religion almost to the exclusion of an inner spirit of piety.  Thus it is that while the people looked upon the Pharisees as the champions of the faith, and venerated them because of their zeal for the Law of Moses and for the traditions that had grown up around it, nevertheless Christ on many occasions condemned their narrow spirit of Sabbath observance (Luke 13, 15), their many washings in the name of legal purity (Mark 7, 1-8), and their scrupulous payment of tithes (Matt. 23, 23), even to the exclusion of the more important duties towards their neighbor: justice, mercy and charity.

A large part of the sect of the Pharisees was made up of the Scribes; although the terms are not synonymous.  The Scribes were the lawyers, the interpreters of the Law of  Moses, the men who sat in the chair of Moses (cf. Matt. 23, 1-2) and who were called Rabbi.  Their decisions on custom and traditions, as well as on questions directly flowing from the Law, inevitably drew them into conflict with the second great religious sect of the times, the Sadducees.

Sadducees.  The Sadducees were, in contrast to the Pharisees, a sect whose members were drawn chiefly from the sacerdotal and lay aristocracy.  They claimed descent from Sadoc, a famous High Priest who lived in the time of Solomon (cf. 3 Kgs. 4, 2; 1 Par. 6, 9-15); but not all of the Sadducees were priests; some of them were representatives of the better families.  The sect had known varying fortune, but at the time of Christ the High Priest was invariably a Sadducee, and he was in the eyes of the Romans the official representative of the Jewish nation.  The Sadducees were the inflexible conservatives, admitting nothing but the letter of the Law of Moses, and they were legal rigorists, demanding the full penalties of the Law in criminal trials.  In this they are again contrasted to the Pharisees, whose acceptance of tradition mitigated to some extent the severity of the old lex talionis; this more humane attitude in court won for the Pharisees the friendship of the people---something the Sadducees apparently never succeeded in doing.  The Sadducees did not believe in personal immortality, personal judgment, resurrection of the body, or in angels (cf. Acts 23, 8).  Comfortable in a material sort of way, they were little interested in the coming of the Messias and showed no serious concern about Christ until His popularity threatened to get out of hand.  Then they forgot their century-old hostility towards the Pharisees, and joined hands with these born enemies in a successful effort to destroy Christ.  They were themselves destroyed by the fall of Jerusalem, 70 A.D.

Pilate.  The year 36 marked the recall of Pontius Pilate.  He had been a man of an unbending and hard character, whose administration Philo describes as one of "corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill-treatment of the people, continuous executions without trial, endless and intolerable cruelties."  Pilate's career as a petty governor of Judea was characterized by imprudence and bad judgment.  There was first of all the incident of the military standards.  The procurator had his soldiers march into Jerusalem by night carrying these flags (upon which was the figure of the Emperor), but the wholly violent opposition of the people compelled him to order their removal.  (Pilate's action was looked upon as a flagrant violation of the first commandment, cf. Ex. 20, 4; Deut. 5, 8.)  Next he confiscated the contents of the temple treasury in order to finance the aqueduct from Solomon's Pools to Jerusalem.  The popular opposition to this high-handed procedure was crushed brutally with clubs, which only served to augment the growing dislike for the governor.  Frequent outbursts of popular feeling against the government are only hinted at in the Gospels (Luke 13, 1; 23, 12.19), but it is impossible to read John's account of the civil trial of Jesus without sensing something of the intense, reciprocal hostility between governor and people.

During his later days as procurator, Pilate unwisely introduced a number of golden votive shields into his residence, the praetorium.  The shields were without figures, and bore only the name of the Emperor.  Upon receiving the protests of the Jews, Tiberius himself ordered the removal of the offending shields.  Pilate's final blunder was to overestimate the importance of a group of Samaritans gathered on Mt. Garizim to see the vessels of the temple, supposedly buried there by Moses.  He commanded his soldiers to disperse the crowd, and the order was carried out with much shedding of blood.  Vitellius, legate of Syria, ordered Pilate to Rome to give an account of his conduct to the Emperor.  Two procurators, Marcellus and Marullus, filled out the five years which then ensued until the brief reign of Herod Agrippa I, 41-44 A.D.

From Pilate to 70 A.D.  The average Roman governor of a colony was not remarkable for his considerateness and tact in dealing with his subjects.  Nor were the procurators, men of the equestrian order, often gentle or greatly concerned about the feelings and prejudices of their subjects.  It sometimes seems that they deliberately acted in such a manner as to arouse the people.  Those who ruled Palestine until the outbreak of the revolt were for the most part indifferent to right or wrong, and seldom listened to any voice save that of money.

Of the seven remaining procurators who ruled Palestine from 44 to 66 A.D., two deserve mention by reason of their connection with St. Paul.  Felix (52-60) held Paul a captive at Caesarea for two years (58-60), hoping no doubt that Paul would attempt to buy his freedom (Acts 24, 26).  Festus (60-62) fell heir to the chaos left by the miserable government of his predecessor, a chaos so complete and far-reaching that his well meant efforts in the interests of justice were quite hopeless.  After a hearing, however, Festus commanded Paul to be sent to Rome for trial, for Paul had appealed to the Emperor (Acts 25, 10).  Festus arranged to have Paul heard by Agrippa II and Bernice (Acts 25, 13 ff) before his departure for Rome.

Festus died in office, and there ensued a period of wild anarchy and violence, during which St. James, head of the Church in Jerusalem, was put to death by Scribes and Pharisees acting on orders of the High Priest, Ananus.  It is quite possible that the stoning of St. Stephen occurred during a similar inter-regnum after the dismissal of Pilate in 36 A.D.

The final, bloody conclusion was soon to be written to this tale of continued misrule and brazen injustice.  The glorious temple of Herod was completed under Albinus (62-64) some eighty years after its inception.  This procurator was a grasping scoundrel, but a paragon of virtue in comparison with his successor, Gessius Florus.  The tyranny of Florus (64-66) was unbounded; he plundered villages and communities as well as individuals, and went so far as to afford protection to bandits and robbers on condition that they share their spoils with him.

Thus the stage was set for the final conflagration.  Only a spark was needed to set it off, and the spark was struck when Florus laid hands upon the temple treasury.  In bitter protest and with mock solemnity, the people took up a collection of anything and everything for "poor Florus."  Florus sought savage revenge.  The destruction, plundering, imprisonment, and crucifixions which followed were indications of his wrath, but the popular temper was so aroused that the procurator was speedily compelled to withdraw to Caesarea.  The Revolution had begun.

After five months of siege, on September 8, 70 A.D., Jerusalem fell and was razed to the ground, and the story of Israel's quasi-independence came to an end.  Judaea capta became a separate province of the Empire, and was henceforth distinct from that of Syria.

Importance of Rome.  Rome and the Roman world were the bridge built by divine Providence for the spreading of the good tidings of salvation.  The administrative unity of the empire which was the product of Roman genius, made possible and greatly facilitated the labors of the Apostles.  Humanly speaking, the missionary career of St. Paul would have been of short duration, had he not traveled constantly through territories policed by Roman soldiery and managed by ever-watchful representatives of the Emperor.  More than once his Roman citizenship saved him.

But Rome and particularly Roman education and belief were a formidable obstacle to the gospel.  The upper classes, trained from youth to admire strength and beauty, and taught to venerate and love their own city and the gods, found it next to impossible to look favorably upon a religion whose hero died upon a gibbet without striking a single blow in self-defense.  Traditional paganism, however, sometimes combined with local patriotism and private interests to resist the heralds of Christ (cf. Acts 19, 23 ff).  In the end, however, paganism fell because it was fundamentally incapable of providing adequate satisfaction to the aspirations and longings of the human mind and heart; and Christianity was able to such satisfaction.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the spread of the gospel, however, was the happy, prosperous condition of the world, inaugurated in the reign of Augustus and carried on by his successors.  So much indeed was happily brought about by Rome, that some of the provinces were led to look upon the Emperor as the cause of this peace and prosperity.  The cult of the Emperor sprang up; his divinization even during life soon followed.  He was to be potent rival and competitor of Christ until the time of Constantine, when the two rivals clashed in a battle for supremacy; then the battle was decided forever in favor of Christ the King who had risen from the dead.  With the fall of the cult of the Emperor, paganism fell also, and Christianity's triumph was complete.

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CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE

Palestine
Birth of Christ, 9-6 B.C.
Public Life of Christ, 27-30 A.D.
Herod Agrippa I, 41-44
Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, 49/50
Jewish insurrection, 66-70
Jerusalem falls, and the temple is destroyed, 70

Apostles
Stoning of Stephen, 36 A.D.
Conversion of Paul, 36
Martyrdom of James, 42
Paul's 1st missionary journey to Cyprus, Asia Minor, 45-49
Paul's 2d missionary journey to Galatia, Macedonia, Greece, 50-52
Paul's 3d missionary journey to Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, 53-58
Paul imprisoned for two years in Caesarea, 58-60
Roman captivity of Paul, two years, 61-63, followed by acquittal
Martyrdom of James the Less, 62
Martyrdom of Peter, 64/67
Paul again arrested, 66
Martyrdom of Paul, 67
Death of John, c. 95-100

Procurators
Administer Judea from 6-41 and 44-66 A.D.
Coponius, 6-9
Ambivius, 9-14
Ann. Rufus, 12-15
Val. Gratus, 15-26
Pon. Pilate, 26-36
Marcellus, 36-37
Marullus, 37-41
Cuspius Fadus, 44-46
Tib. Alexander ---48
Ventidius Cumanus, 48-52
Felix, 52-60
Festus, 60-62
Albinus, 62-64
Gessius Florus, 64-66

Rome
Augustus, 27 B.C.---14 A.D.
Tiberius, 14-37
Caligula, 37-41
Claudius, 41-54
Nero, 54-68
Vespasian, 69-79

Richard T. Murphy, O.P.