For most of New Testament times, Palestine was divided into ten regions forming the Roman province of Syria (see Map 2). Palestine became a ‘puppet’ kingdom allied to Rome after being conquered by Pompey in 63BC. The Bible tells us that, over twenty years into his reign, the Roman emperor Octavian Caesar (who was given the title Augustus, meaning ‘more than human’, in 27BC) ordered a census to be taken across the Roman world. This census was organised by Cyrenius or 'Quirinius', the Roman governor of the province of Syria (see Luke 2:1-2).
Map 2 Palestine at the time of Jesus
Immediately before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in 5 or 6 BC, Herod the Great had been ruling the independent kingdom of Palestine for over thirty years (see Fig. 2). Herod ruled as a ‘client king’ under Roman patronage. Herod was the first foreigner to become king of the Jewish nation, his father being from Idumaea (Edom) and his mother from the Nabataean Kingdom of Arabia Petra. He ruled for thirty-three years (37BC – 4BC) as a friend and ally of Rome and was given the title ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman senate.
Herod had a personal bodyguard of four hundred Gauls – formerly belonging to Cleopatra – given to him by Octavian in appreciation of his loyal support. He built Herod’s Palace and the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, and reconstructed the Temple in 23BC, building new colonnades and enlarging the temple courtyards to accommodate more Jewish pilgrims.
After the birth of Jesus, astrologers from the east arrived at Herod’s palace searching for the baby who was born to be the ‘King of the Jews’. In a jealous rage, Herod ordered a massacre of the infants in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1-23).
Fig. 2 Herod’s Family Tree
When Herod died in 4BC he left his kingdom to three of his sons:
Herod Antipas became ruler (‘tetrarch’) of Galilee and Peraea (4BC – 39AD). He ruled from his capital at Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He divorced his first wife (the daughter of Aretas, the Nabataean king of Arabia Petra) in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip. He imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist in 28AD for criticising his marriage (see Mark 6:14-28 & Luke 3:19-20), and Pilate sent Jesus to him for judgement in 30AD (see Luke 23:7-12).
Archelaus reigned (as ‘ethnarch’) in Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea (Edom) taking the place of his father Herod (see Matthew 2:22) from 4BC to 6AD. This prompted Mary and Joseph to move to Nazareth, in Galilee – outside his jurisdiction. Archelaus was deposed by the Romans in 6AD, and Judaea (together with Samaria and Idumaea) became a Roman province administered by a procurator – who resided in the Roman capital at Caesarea. Pontius Pilate, the fifth procurator, appointed in 26AD, condemned Jesus to death in 30AD (see Matthew 27:11-26).
Philip (Herod Philip II) ruled as tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis to the north east of the Sea of Galilee from 4BC to 34AD (see Luke 3:1). His capital, Caesarea Philippi (‘Philip’s town named in honour of Caesar’) was the site of Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ (see Matthew 16:13-16) in the summer of 29AD.
Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, became king of Ituraea and Trachonitis in 37AD, following the death of Philip (Herod Philip II), his uncle. In 41AD, the Romans extended his kingdom to include Judaea and Samaria. On his death in 44AD (see Acts 12:20-23), Judaea and Samaria once more came under direct Roman rule under the procurator, Felix. Shortly before his death, Herod Agrippa executed the apostle James (the brother of John), and arrested Peter, who had a miraculous escape (see Acts 12:1-19).
Herod Agrippa II (who was only a child when his father Herod Agrippa I died in 44AD) became King of Ituraea and Trachonitis in 53AD. He ruled for over forty years. In 59AD, he interviewed Paul about his religious beliefs (see Acts 26:1-32).
The title ‘tetrarch’ was originally used by the Greeks to denote the ruler of a fourth part of a region. By Roman times, the term was used for any ruler in the eastern provinces. When John the Baptist began preaching during the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar (26/27AD), Lysanius, for example, was referred to as tetrarch of Abilene, governing this northern territory from its capital, Damascus (see Luke 3:1-2).