Tensions Between Rome and the Jews During the Early 1st Century AD


One of the recurring themes of the Roman Empire in the first century AD is the friction between the Jewish people and the Romans.  Much of stemmed from the dramatic cultural difference between the Romans who adopted Greek culture and the Jews, some of whom adopted Greek culture but most of whom held tightly to their Hebrew traditions.  The reign of the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC) and the revolt of the Maccabees set an unbridgeable chasm between the two.

There were other reasons for the Jewish-Roman friction as well:

Taxation (Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol 5, Page 605)

Type of Tax Amount
Land tax
Poll tax (Matthew 22:17)
Import and export taxes
Crop tax 10% of grain, 20% of wine, fruit and oil
Income tax 1% of income per year
Tolls to use roads
Tolls to enter certain towns
Taxes on animals and vehicles
Salt tax
Sales tax
Tax on the sale of slaves
Tax on the transfer of property
Tax for emergency services

Military

The Roman Legio X Fretensis (Tenth Legion of the Sea Strait) was the legion stationed in Judea during the ministry of Christ.  Levied by Augustus in 40 BC, it was a famous unit of roughly 4500 men which had been stationed in Syria and Judea since 20 BC.  Legio X mascots included the bull and the boar (wild pig), images of which were emblazoned upon their banners and coins.  Such images were probably not well received among a people severely punished for worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32, 1 Kings 12:25-33) and for whom the pig was the worst of animals (Deuteronomy 14:8, Isaiah 65:4, 66:3).

Politics

Dating from their exile in Babylon, large Jewish populations were present in Mesopotamia and in Egypt.  Egypt had become part of the Roman Empire, but Mesopotamia remained in the Parthian Empire, the major enemy of Rome in the Middle East.  Parthia crushed a Roman army under Crassus in 53 BC and invaded Syria in 51 BC.  They invaded Syria again in 40 BC during the Roman civil war and were ousted in 38 BC, at which point Herod, the hated Idumean, was installed by Rome as the ruler.  One of the reasons for the great fear of Herod at the coming of the Magi from the East (Parthia) was his concern that Parthia was seeking a new king and a pretext for war (Matthew 2). Parthia and Rome fought again in 36 and 58 AD.   The Jewish rulers often tried to play off Rome against Parthia but they generally favored east over west.

Roman views of the Jews

Seneca (6 BC to 65 AD), a teacher of the Emperor Nero, reflected a very negative and widespread view of the Jews in his writings. He famously wrote “Yet the customs of this most base people have so prevailed that they are adopted in all the world, and the conquered have given their laws to the conquerors” (“victi victoribus leges dederunt,” cited from Seneca’s “De Superstitione” by Augustine, “De Civitate Dei,” vi. 10). The Emperor Caligula declared himself a god in 39 AD and commanded that images of himself were to be erected in every house of worship in the empire.  The Jews refused and Caligula threatened to destroy the temple.  He was stopped when he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.

Some sources attest that Roman soldiers exposed themselves on the temple grounds and burned scrolls of the Torah.  Whether or not these actually happened, there is little doubt that Roman soldiers mistreated the people, such as forcing them to travel or carry burdens (Matthew 5:41).

Conclusion

The friction between Rome and the Jewish people was longstanding and not without reasons.  However, it ended tragically in the Great Revolt (66-73 AD), the Kitos War (115-117 AD), and the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD).  The Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed and Judaism changed forever.

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