Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Jews and Christians in the First Century A.D.

Steve Muhlberger
 It is easy to see history in linear terms, as though only one place or one people really count at any given time.

This is a silly and illusory way to think about history, of course; it is one that only considers power as worth studying.  The Romans, however, being great worshippers of power, were very susceptible to that view I have just described.  With perhaps one exception {Pompeius Trogus}, no Roman ever wrote a history about the empire as a whole.  Rather, they wrote about Rome the city and Rome the people.  Everyone else were extras, who were dragged on stage whenever the Romans needed them -- generally because they needed to beat up on someone.

It os difficult to see the empire from a different perspective, but we much remember that the people and cultures that Rome swallowed up were generally left to carry on  in much the same way as before.  This is particularly true of the eastern Mediterranean provinces, where some of the older cultures we discussed were still there. Their languages and religions, which were older than Rome itself, still lived.  Homer was still learned by rote by many Greek boys; Ishtar and Isis were worshipped in places they had been worshipped for millenia.

One of these cultures is still very well known.  That is the culture of the Jews. Their experience illustrates the survival within the Roman worldof one of these old cultures, one that was resolutely non-Roman.  At the same time, the changes that took place within Jewish culture serves to remind us that the Jews weren't caught in some time-warp where all change stopped.  The Jews adapted to life in the Hellenistic and Roman world, their culture grew and evolved, and had a variety of effects on both  their rulers and their neighbors within the empire.  Finally, the Jews can stand in for the others who are known only through archaeology or a few scraps of literature.

The last time we talked about the Jews  at any length was in connection with the Persian Empire.
During the Persian empire, you will recall, the Jews were in the process of becoming a widely scattered and rather cosmopolitan people.  Because of deportations, the Jews were no longer concentrated in a small district in Palestine.   Jews served Persian monarchs as officials and soldiers, and some gained considerable influence within the empire.

After Alexander, Jews continued to spread into new areas.  Hellenistic monarchs encouraged them to do so.  Jews were considered valuable settlers by anyone setting up a new city, which was a common activity of the kings. Toleration or mild favor toward the Jews was probably the usual attitude of most such kings.

In Palestine, however, there were so many Jews that they were a rather indigestible lump for kings
determined to make Greeks the ruling race.   When King Antiochus of Syria succeeded in converting the High Priest and the custodians of the temple, there was a general revolt, and the Maccabees led
a successful war of independence from Greek Syria.  A new line of High Priests, who also called themselves kings, ruled a revived kingdom of Israel between 140 B.C. and 63 B.C.

In the latter year, the Roman general Pompey took Jerusalem.   Thereafter, the Jews were subject to a Roman protectorate, and usually ruled by a client king set up by the Romans.  The most famous of these was Herod, a general who made his fortune by supporting Octavian against Antony.

What was the position of the Jews once they were part of the empire?

No single generalization will do.  The first contacts of the Jewish state with Rome had gotten relations between the two people off on the right foot.  In 161 B.C., Rome supported Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus, in order to weaken Syria.  Jews got a name as friends of the Roman people.

Later on, Jewish leaders had a knack for picking the right side in Roman civil wars, and were rewarded with privileges.  Julius Caesar and Augustus issued edicts guaranteeing the right of Jews to practice their traditional religion whereever they lived. This was a bit of luck that enabled the Jews to live mostly unmolested throughout the Roman world, right up to and even after the conversion of
the empire to Christianity.

Those edicts and privileges were an important support for the majority of Jews who lived outside of Palestine.  These Diaspora Jews were mainly an urban people, living in most, perhaps all of the Greek cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and in few places in the west -- Rome for instance.
These Jews were differentiated from their relatives in Palestine by the fact that few were peasants, and most spoke Greek as their native language.

Urban Jews in the Hellenistic world were in fact one group among many who were attracted to the Greek-ruled cities like Antioch or Pergamum or Alexandria.  Like other ethnic groups, they had their own quarters, their own streets, where they were a local majority.  They had places of worship,
in their case synagoges (a Greek word).  They even had a bit of autonomy. There were Jewish neighborhood organizations and usually an over-all leader or council with the power to settle disputes between Jews.  And like other non-Greeks, Jews were not citizens of their cities.

Jews may have been more important than the other non-Greeks in their cities.  For one thing, there were lots of them. They were particularly numerous in Alexandria, the metropolis of the east.  In the first century A.D., they may have actually constituted 10% of the population of the empire {de Lange, 27}.

Another thing that distinguished the Jews from others was the fact that they strictly segregated themselves from non-Jews.  Jewish dietary customs were so strict that Jews could not decently eat with outsiders.  Further, they would not worship foreign gods; they were certain that only theirs was real.  The self-imposed separation was a source of trouble and tension.  The ancient  polis was, at base, a religious institution, whose gods and rituals tied it together.  A religious Jew could never take part in an important aspect of the life of a Greek city; and therefore could not become a citizen, no
matter how long established or how rich.

This is not to say that Jews never assimilated.  Many did, and some enjoyed successful careers as Greek or Roman citizens.  But many held back, relying on their wealth, numbers and Roman privileges to gain clout in the community.  This often made them unpopular with their neighbors.

Most Jews in the Roman world lived in the situation just described. Most Jews were urban, Greek-speaking, and inclined to be friendly to Rome, which was their protector from local bigotry.

The situation was much different in Palestine, especially Judaea, the area around Jerusalem.  It was one of two areas where most Jews were peasants and spoke Aramaic (the other was Babylonia, a Jewish center for centuries to come).

In Judaea, Jews were the majority, and felt that the land was particularly theirs.  Here, the feeling towards Rome ranged from mildly favorable to fiercely hostile. Palestinian Jewish society, in fact, was divided by different attitudes to Rome.  We can distinguish a number of different groups.

First, there were the Sadduccees.  This was the most conservative group.  It controlled the High Priestship, the Temple, and the ritual performed at the Temple.    The High Priest and his council, the Sanhedrin, were junior partners in the running of the country.  They saw themselves as the maintainers of the ancient priestly tradition of Israel. By others, they were often seen as collaborators with a hated foreign rule.

Second were the Pharisees, who are famous from the New Testament.  The Pharisees had particular theological and social views.  They did not think worship at the temple was the most
important duty of a good Jew.  Rather, they believed that one should know the precepts of God's law from the Bible, and carry them out in one's daily life.  They included many educated men, the scribes, and were preachers of the law, in all its complexities.  This is why Jesus in the New Testament often denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their formalism.  They were trying to convince ordinary Jews, who were probably no more religious than anyone else on average, to follow a very strict ritual life.

Another dissident group, a little farther out on the fringe, were the Essenes.  The Essenes can be visualized as a group of Jewish monks, except I do not believe that they were celibate.  But like monks, they thought the world was such a sinful place that they should withdraw to the desert and
live in holy communities, unpolluted by sin.  The Dead Sea scrolls, the earliest copies of the Bible, which were found in Israel in 1948, may well have belonged to the Essenes, or at least another group like them.

A last group was called the Zealots.  What they stood for was active resistance to Rome, by force.

The dissident factions flourished because there was a general resentment of the Roman presence.  Rome did not stand for some secular ideal of order and unity.  Rome stood for Roman domination, a domination secured by the proper respect and worship of the Roman gods.

Many of the things that the Romans did in the course of their normal business could not help but grate on Jewish sensibilities.  Roman eagles, for instance, were not just symbols of military units -- they were religious symbols venerated by the troops.  From the Jewish point of view they were graven images, idols, which should not be allowed into the Holy City.

Also,  by the first century, the worship of the emperor or at least his genius was a standard method for provincials to demonstrate their loyalty.  Working out a compromise position on this issue was not easy, and there were always zealots against any compromise.

The Romans could be bullheaded, too. Caligula almost started a Jewish revolt by insisting on having a statue of himself erected in the Temple.  Fortunately the governor on the spot countermanded the order, and Caligula was murdered before he could insist further.

In this atmosphere of foreign rule and religious conflict, Messianic beliefs were very common.  The Bible seemed to promise that when the people of God were sore afflicted, a savior, a Messiah, an "anointed one," would return to lead them to freedom.  There may have been disagreements on who
the Messiah was or what he would be like, but many thought of him as a king, probably from the line of David, who would come to rule Israel.

Thus the first half of the first century A.D. found Judaea a very unhappy province.  From the Roman point of view, it was not an insignificant problem.  Not only was its location near the border with
Parthia strategic, but Jews, as I have said, were perhaps 10% of the whole imperial population.  Most of them did not live in Judaea, and most were more friendly to Rome than the Judaeans.  On the other hand, there were also Jews in the Parthian empire, even Jewish client kings.  Messing with
the Jews had incalculable consequences.

Out of this land and period emerged Jesus of Nazareth.  Everyone knows the story in outline.  Jesus, a carpenter's son from Galilee, a country district north of Judaea proper, announced himself to be the Messiah. According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus went to his home synagogue at Nazareth, after one of his preaching tours, and read these words from the book of Isaiah:

     The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anoined me to preach
     good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the
     captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those
     who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

"Then he closed the book and sat down.  But he added :  'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'"  {Luke 4:18-19; Marty, p. 24}

As a proclaimed Messiah, he quickly got into trouble and was disposed of.  The gospels say that he was executed by the Roman governor of the time, Pontius Pilate, but that he was only trying to please the Jews, specifically the Sadducees.  It makes sense that the Sadducees would be hostile to Jesus, but Pilate may have been hostile, too.  By the time the gospels were written down, Christians were trying to distance themselves from the Jews, now rebels against Rome, and show they were not subversives.

Jesus's followers soon became convinced that he had risen from the dead.  His family, the apostles, and various other of his students and followers began preaching that Jesus was the Messiah and that the end of the world as they knew it was near.  Some Jews believed them, and others did not.  There was sometimes violence between the two groups.

Soon the Christian message was spreading outside of Judaea and Galilee, into the far-flung network of urban Jews.  Here it was received very enthusiastically.  One man who was particularly responsible for this movement was Paul.  Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus in Anatolia.
He was not wealthy but from a family important enough to have gained Roman citizenship, and had a reasonable education in both Greek and Jewish traditions.  Under his original name of Saul, he had been active in anti-Christian groups in Judaea.

One day, when he was going to Damascus to attack Christians there, he was struck down and visited by a vision of Jesus.  Saul saw the error of his ways, changed his name to Paul, and became an enthusiastic evangelizer to other Jews like himself.

Paul was convinced after his vision that though he had never seen Jesus in the flesh, he was an authentic apostle, like the original twelve, and qualified to spread the word.  He was never on particularly good terms with the others.  They were suspicious of him:  after all, he had helped
kill at least one of their friends.  So Paul avoided Jerusalem, still the main Christian center, and preached in Syria, Anatolia, and Greece, speaking mainly to Greek-speaking Jews and other city folk who were already sympathetic to Judaism.

Earlier in the lecture I stressed the separation between Jew and non-Jew in the Hellenistic cities, and the hostility of non-Jews for the standoffish Jews.  But, just as some Jews threw off their heritage and became Greeks or Romans, some non-Jews crossed the line in the other direction.  Every Jewish community was surrounded by a group of god-fearers who thought the Jews were on to a good thing.  Most did not take the ultimate step of circumcision, but many observed the rituals of Jewish life and considered themselves converts.  Some Jews no doubt disapproved of such people, but others accepted them.

Paul took acceptance to the ultimate limit.  Where the original apostles had seen Jesus's message as one of salvation for Israel, Paul thought it was something more:  Jesus had founded a New Israel, that would include all of those who believed in him, whether Jew or Gentile.  Paul also emphasized a strand in Jesus's teaching that the original apostles had perhaps not taken to heart.  Jesus always criticized those who followed the letter of God's law and not the spirit.  Paul believed that the old law was abolished by Jesus's coming.  Those who believed, if they were not Jews, had no need to take on the obligations of the Jews under the Old Testament.

In fact, even Jews need not concern themselves with the burdensome and socially unpopular restrictions that set them apart from their neighbors. The New Israel was a new community with its own rules:  rules that were much simpler than the old ones.

This message spread like wildfire through cities where some gentiles wanted to be Jews, and where many Jews were much influenced by Greek ideals and perhaps uncomfortable in the cultural contradictions of their environment.

Paul sometimes met hostility from urban Jews, even ferocious hostility; but he always found people to listen.  He hopped from city to city, armed with addresses of friends, relatives, and business associates of converts, hunting them out, converting in turn those who would listen. He wrote letters to congregations that he or his associates had established, urging them on in their struggle to found a new community and find a common identity.  Paul thought he could cover the whole world with Christian communities.

He made a good try:  before he was arrested and killed, he covered 10,000 miles.

Paul's success had a price.  What he was doing was viewed with considerable suspicion by the Christians of Jerusalem.  These people, including the surviving followers of Jesus, were all practicing Jews, who sacrificed at the Temple and attended meeting at synagoges.  What Paul was doing seemed incomprehensible, or maybe reprehensible, to them.  Had Jesus really meant to free Jews from the ordinances laid down by God in the Bible?  Paul worked hard to patch this rift, and with some success.  For one thing, he could offer monetary support to the impoverished church at
Jerusalem, out of money raised from his overseas converts.  And Peter and he seem to have cooperated to some extent.  But there was a different orientation in the two groups, and that remained.

In the 60s A.D. there came a turning point in both Jewish and Christian history.  After several crises, the pot of anti-Roman feeling in Judaea boiled over.  The High Priest refused to sacrifice to God on behalf of the emperor, something that had often been done before.  There were anti-Roman riots.  Finally, in A.D. 66 the Roman garrison at Jerusalem was massacred.  There was a major rising, and Nero sent troops under Vespasian to put it down.

The war was one of the biggest Roman wars of the first century B.C. The Jews put up a long resistance, and suffered accordingly.  It was in fact a very destructive war: not only were the Jews fighting the Romans, they were fighting other non-Jewish groups who lived in Palestine, especially urban Greeks, and even each other.  When the Romans were besieging Jerusalem, there was civil war among the defenders in the city.

The whole tale is told in great detail and with great drama by the Jewish historian Josephus, whose work survives and is well worth reading.

The war was mainly over by A.D. 70, when Titus, the son of Vespasian, took Jerusalem, leveled the temple, and carted its treasures back to Rome.

The Jewish War severely damaged the Jewish community of Palestine. Many Jews were killed, and many more left to diaspora communities.  (It should be noted that diaspora communities had not supported the revolt. Most Jews were remote from the issues that brought it about, and had no
wish to cross Rome.)  Judaea and Jerusalem lost much of their cultural influence; the undamaged diaspora communities became more central.

The result of the first Jewish war was confirmed by the second, in 132, after which the Romans banned Jews from Jerusalem and built a Greco-Roman city on the site.

The disappearance of the temple after 70 was very important for the Jewish religious tradition.  No longer was the old ritual round the center of Jewish worship.  The synagoge, where Jews met to pray, and the Hebrew school, where they came to learn how to read the Scriptures, became that
center.  After the second revolt, Messianism, too, was discredited.  In the first five centuries after the revolt, the Jews, led by the Jews of Palestine and Babylon, restructured their religion into what is called rabbinical Judaism:  a Judaism roughly like the Judaism of the Pharisees, who sought to make the ritual round part of every Jews life, in so far as was possible.

The Jewish War of A.D. 66 also affected the early Christians.  There were two effects:  the Jewish war was the kind of calamity that Christians had expected would accompany the return of Christ and the new age, but it was not the prelude to such an apocalypse.  It was a judgement, but not the
last judgement.  The original apostles who had expected Jesus to return soon were dead or old; the newer Christians had to start planning for the long term.

And most of these newer Christians were not Jews.  Many of them did not live in Palestine.  After the Jewish war, there was a certain hesitancy to connect Christianity with Judaism.  The government was already inclined, thanks to Nero, to see them as subversives.  Being associated with Jewish Messianism and revolt was hardly desireable.  For a variety of reasons, Christians, the New Israel, began to pull away from the Old, which they saw as superceded and discredited.

Most Jews were probably perfectly happy with this.  Jewish Christians were left in the middle.  Over the next few centuries, they would dwindle away and finally disappear.

 Christians and Jews both had a long history in front of them in the Roman empire.  We will look at some of that history in future lectures.

But today we should conclude by stressing one main point.  The Roman world contained many things not approved of, understood, or controlled by the Romans: like troublesome Jews and incomprehensible Christians. But their own empire gave these people opportunities to migrate and spread their ways of life.  In the end not even the Romans would remain unaffected.


Henry Chadwick,  The Early Church.

Peter Garnsey and RichardSaller,  The Roman Empire.

Nicholas de Lange,  Atlas of the Jewish World.

Martin E. Marty,  A Short History of Christianity.

Wayne A. Meeks,  The First Urban Christians.

NU also has the complete works of Josephus in English.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.