Judea Under Roman Rule (63 BCE-66 CE)


Of all the calamities of that time none so deeply affected the nation as the exposure to alien eyes of the Holy Place, hitherto screened from view. Pompey indeed along with his staff, penetrated to the sanctuary, entry to which was permitted to none but the high priest, and beheld what it contained. –Josephus, The Jewish War 1, 152

The Roman general Pompey, taking advantage of an internal quarrel between two rival members of the Hasmonean royal family, conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Taking the city, Pompey entered the Temple itself, and passing through its courts, encountered increasingly holy precincts—eventually the Holy of Holies itself. The Jews were stunned by this religious affront. Having satisfied his curiosity, Pompey was likewise surprised because he found no cult object representing the high god of the Jews, but only an empty room and Torah scrolls. Thus began the Roman rule of Judaea, one that was to last for more than seven hundred years and was punctuated by the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian in 70 CE.

Roman rulers adopted a wide range of policies towards their Jewish inhabitants. Julius Caesar and Augustus maintained a generally benign approach towards the Jews and their rather strange and seemingly xenophobic customs. Others, like Pompey were uncharitable towards Jewish peculiarity. Still others were outright dominating as illustrated by an attempt by Caligula to have a statue of himself set up and worshipped in the Temple, which brought world Jewry to the brink of revolt.

The memory of the Hasmonian Revolt and the trauma of direct Roman rule unleashed apocalyptic currents within Judaism. Various groups within the thoroughly Hellenized Jewish world responded to the Roman Empire in different ways, with some embracing it while others rejected it. This polarized response to Roman rule was expressed even in the Temple itself, rebuilt beginning in 20/19 BCE by the Roman puppet king Herod the Great in honor of the glory of the God of Israel. The architecture of Herod’s Temple was drawn directly from the style of imperial temples built to honor Herod’s “divine” patron, Caesar Augustus. While some Jews were inspired by Herod’s Temple, others scorned it and considered it to be profane. Some Jewish groups vied for control of the Temple, while others awaited an apocalyptic explosion that would bring an eternal “kingdom of God.”

The literature of various Jewish groups during the period between Pompey and the First Jewish Revolt is particularly rich. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, Philo of Alexandria, Roman authors and Rabbinic literature provide evidence for the struggles gripping the Jews during this period as they came to terms with their hyphenated Jewish-Roman identities. The Jewish historian Joseph son of Mattathias, Flavius Josephus, chronicled the social, political and cultural life of the Jews during this time. The literary remains of the latter Second Temple period help us to understand how Jewish communities proliferated across the Roman Empire. Particularly, these sources shed light on how Jews in Roman Judaea conceptualized their universe and lived their very local lives.

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