I love to write about the first four centuries of Christianity. My first book was published in 2013 and dealt with the lives of Origen and Jerome in the third and fourth century. The book I will have published early in 2014 deals with the Emperor Augustus, Herod the Great and the Messiah. I try to explain the relationship between imperial Rome and Palestine. It wasn’t as simple as one would imagine. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll attach a draft copy of the preface for the unpublished book.
Two thousand years ago Palestine was a minor kingdom important to Rome only because it was situated between the Roman Province of Syria and the Roman breadbasket, Egypt. The Israelites were a rebellious people who had spread throughout the Mediterranean. Strong hands were needed to keep the peace and Pax Romana prevailed because of the threat and sometimes the use of force.
In 63 BC, Pompey the Great intervened in the civil war between two Hebrew brothers vying for the kingdom of Palestine, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. One brother was supported by the Pharisees (Hyrcanus) and the other by the Sadducees (Aristobulus). Complicating the civil war was the interference of the Bedouin of Idumaea and the Nabataean Arabs from Petra. This was not an inconsequential familial dispute; their father, Alexander Jannaeus, as High Priest and King of the Israelites, had crucified 800 Pharisees and slaughtered their wives and children in front of them.
Both sides sought an arbiter, a third force to end the bloodshed and civil war. That third force was the Roman legions under Pompey. Each of the brothers tried to solicit Pompey’s support through bribes. Eventually, Pompey decided to support the older brother, the inept Hyrcanus II; the same brother designated high priest and king by his mother.
When the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans, Pompey entered the Sacred Temple. Surprising many, he didn’t touch the golden table, the holy candlestick, the pouring vessels or any item reserved for the priests. Moreover, Pompey did not confiscate the two thousand talents of sacred money he found in the Temple treasury. Because of this respect for their religion and the peace that came with it, most Israelites accepted Roman administration and Roman taxes. Peace was restored–temporarily.
Those who supported the Romans were rewarded. An Idumaean became procurator of Judea. He in turn appointed his son Herod, to be governor of Galilee and another son, Phasael, to be governor of Jerusalem. The inept Hyrcanus was left by Pompey with the religious duties of the high priest, a less significant position as far as the Romans were concerned.
In the following years, the defeated side in the civil war gathered together under Aristobulus’s son, Antigonus. He offered the enemies of Rome, the Parthians, 1,000 talents and 500 women if they would help him retake Jerusalem. Of course, the Parthians, a strong force on the eastern border of Rome’s Syrian Province, were only too happy to do so. With their support, Antigonus retook Jerusalem and captured the high priest, his uncle Hyrcanus. Antigonus then had his uncle’s ears cut off so he could never again be high priest and sent him into exile with the Parthians.
The situation in Rome as the story opens in 38 BC is no better. Rivals Pompey and Julius Caesar have been assassinated and a very different civil war looms this time between Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and Antony, the man who was consul when Caesar was assassinated and who may have known of the plot to kill Caesar. Both men wanted wanted control of the Roman Republic. Both men wanted peace in Palestine and both felt the man to ensure that peace was the Idumaean, Herod.
While all this was going on the average Israelite prayed for a Messiah. In those years of turmoil, every nation had one or more gods protecting their nation, and the Sacred Scriptures of the Israelites promised a Messiah to save the nation of Israel or so it seemed. Our characters come on the scene to tell us how it might have been—the expectations and the reality.