Introduction to the Romano-Jewish world


The events of the New Testament occurred against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. Under Herod the Great, Palestine was an independent ally of Rome, but after his son Archelaus was removed in 6AD, Judaea became an integral part of the Roman Empire.

The New Testament refers to at least five Roman emperors, though not all are named. Although Judaea had a considerable degree of autonomy, Jewish religious leaders were appointed by the Romans and acted as civil administrators, working largely in co-operation with the Roman governor.


Roman shops at Antioch in Pisidia

Roman shops beside the Forum, Antioch in Pisidia


While Hebrew was the religious language of the Jews and most of the population of Palestine spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek, the universal language of the Roman Empire. As a result, the words spoken by Jesus that we read in the New Testament have usually been translated two or three times – from Aramaic into Greek and then into English or another language. Sometimes we lose the original meaning in translation. For instance, the  Greek word 'kataluma' often translated 'inn' in the nativity story in Luke 2:7 really means a 'guest room' inside a Jewish house. 

In the bilingual world of Roman Palestine, most Jews had two names – a Hebrew name used within the Jewish community and a Greek name used in Roman circles. Paul, for instance, was a Roman citizen with a Hebrew name - Saul - and a Greek name - Paul. As the Jews were subject to Roman civil laws and Jewish religious laws, they used Roman currency for commercial transactions, but Jewish currency for religious purposes.

Jewish opposition to Roman rule grew steadily during the time of the New Testament. The imposition of Roman taxation in 6AD sparked a revolt under Judas the Galilean. In the ensuing years, many nationalist ‘bandits’ attacked Roman targets and Jewish ‘sicarii’ and ‘zealots’ stirred up increasing unrest, culminating in the outbreak of the Romano-Jewish War in 66AD. One of Jesus's close circle of followers - Simon - was a 'zealot' (see Mark 3:18). The resulting widespread persecution of Jews across the Roman Empire was followed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD.


The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

The Temple Mount, Jerusalem


Christian believers suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans until Constantine became the first Christian Emperor in 312AD. In 326AD, Constantine sent his mother, the dowager Empress Helena, to Palestine to search for the sites of the main events in the life of Jesus Christ. As a result, she built churches on what fourth century Christians believed to be the site of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, and his ascension to heaven from the Mount of Olives.

Constantine presided at the first worldwide Council of Christian bishops in Nicaea in 325AD. This was followed by subsequent councils in Constantinople (381AD), Ephesus (431 & 449AD), Chalcedon (451AD), Constantinople (553 & 680AD) and Nicaea (787AD).

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