Between 6AD and 41AD, Judaea was a Roman province under the direct control of the Roman governor or ‘procurator’. Pontius Pilate was the governor in 30AD at the time of Jesus’s trial and execution (see Matthew 27:21). In 41AD, the province of Judaea was disbanded and added to the kingdom of Herod Agrippa I, who ruled as a Roman ‘client’ king until his death in 44AD (see Acts 12:21-23). On Agrippa’s death, as his son (who became Agrippa II) was only a child, the province of Judaea was re-established and, together with Galilee and Peraea, came under direct Roman rule once again (see Map 2).
When Paul was arrested in 57AD, Felix was the Roman governor (see Acts 23:24). He was replaced by Porcius Festus in 59AD, and it was Festus’s request that Paul return to Jerusalem to be tried that prompted Paul to appeal to the emperor Nero (see Acts 25:9-11).
It was during Felix’s governorship (52-59AD) that the worsening relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea was first referred to the emperor. The Jews bitterly resented the Romans’ presence in Judaea, and hostility between Jewish nationalists tended to flare up wherever there was a large contingent of Roman soldiers, especially at Caesarea, the Roman’s Judaean headquarters. By the mid-60s, Judaea had become a time bomb about to explode.
Roman theatre at Caesarea
Riots broke out in May 66AD, when the Jewish sacrificial ritual was ridiculed outside a synagogue in Caesarea. The situation became seriously inflamed when Gessius Florus, the Roman governor (64-66AD), withdrew money from the Jewish Temple treasury, and, facing an uproar, attacked Jerusalem and crucified a number of prominent Jewish citizens. Shortly afterwards, Masada – the desert fortress built by Herod the Great – was captured by Jewish nationalists (‘Sicarii’) and the Roman garrison was killed (see Map 2).
Full-scale war broke out when the Roman garrison was driven out of Jerusalem in September 66AD, disarmed and then murdered. In response, all the Jewish inhabitants of Caesarea were massacred. This prompted the Jews to attack all the Judaean cities with a Gentile population, and to slaughter innocent men, women and children mercilessly. When Cestius, the Roman legate of Syria, and his army of over five thousand Roman soldiers was anihilated at Beth Horon, near Jerusalem, this produced a great feeling of revulsion amongst the Romans, and a desire for revenge.
At this point, the Jews appointed five regional commanders, including Josephus Flavius (who subsequently changed sides, and wrote a detailed account of the war). They then prepared for a violent response from Rome. According to Josephus, this ‘universal hatred of the Jews’ was at its peak in 67AD – which may account for the execution of Paul and Peter in Rome around this time. In Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians were caught between radical Jewish nationalists and the might of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, most of them managed to escape to Pella (across the River Jordan in the Decapolis) before the Romans mounted their onslaught.
River Jordan at Caesaea Philippi
In the spring of 67AD, a Roman task force was dispatched under the leadership of Vespasian (who had commanded one of the four legions during Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43AD). The Romans captured Jotapata, north of Sepphoris, in July and most of Galilee by October. During 68AD, the Romans overcame Jewish opposition in most of Judaea, Idumaea and Peraea, but Jerusalem – with its impressive walls and fortifications – remained in Jewish hands. Most of 69AD was spent making preparations for an assault on Jerusalem. Vespasian’s son, Titus, was left in command when Vespasian returned to Rome to be acclaimed emperor on Nero’s death in June 69AD.
The seige of Jerusalem began in the spring of 70AD. By May, the two outer north walls had been captured and the city was encircled with fortifications to prevent any inhabitants from escaping. The Antonia Fortress was captured in July, while the Temple was stormed and set on fire in August, By September, the Upper City had been captured and burnt. This fulfilled the prophesies made by Jesus when he wept over Jerusalem on entering the city in 30AD (see Luke 19:41-44).
Spoils from the Jewish Temple – including a gold seven-branched candlestick, the Table of the Shewbread and several ritual trumpets – were subsequently displayed during the victory parade in Rome (as shown on the marble reliefs on the side of Titus’s Arch at the Forum in Rome).
Spoils from the Jerusalem Temple shown on Titus's Arch in Rome
Several outposts of Jewish opposition remained beyond 70AD. Herodium was captured in 71AD, and Machaerus in 72AD (see Map 3). Masada withstood a prolonged Roman seige until May 73AD, when the last remnant of Jewish survivors committed mass suicide rather than be taken alive by the Romans.