Power, Conflict and a Baby’s Birth

Guest Post by Peter Britton of TimeMaps, Ltd.

Christmas is a wonderful festival to look forward to at this time of year. But how many of us have more than the haziest notion of the historical setting for the first Christmas?


As a historian, the Biblical stories of the Nativity always emphasize to me how the events of the New Testament are set in a very real – and very particular – historical environment.

Setting the scene

Let’s first run through a very quick overview of Jewish history during the few centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus.

After their spell of exile in Babylon (587-539 BC), Jewish people re-settled the area around Jerusalem, rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing the worship of Jehovah. For almost four hundred years – first under the Persians, then under a line of Greek-speaking kings – they were allowed to live more or less in peace, running their own affairs. However, in 167 BC, one of these Greek kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, decided to put an end to this situation. He occupied Jerusalem and outlawed the worship of Jehovah.

This provoked the Jews into rebellion, under the leadership of the Maccabees family. A fierce but successful struggle left this family ruling an independent Jewish kingdom. They were able to expand its borders to include the surrounding districts of Samaria, Galilee and Idumia (the ancient Edom). This was an area significantly large than present-day Israel. The leading families of these conquered areas were apparently given the choice – convert to Judaism, or leave.

As time went by, the new Roman superpower appeared on the western horizon. Judea and other countries in the region were conquered by the Romans in 63 BC.

Who was Herod the Great?

At that time, the Jewish kingdom was in chaos, suffering intense power-struggles and civil wars It was able to put up very little resistance to the Romans. Exactly the same was true for the Roman empire as well, on a much larger stage: the political in-fighting in Rome convulsed the entire Mediterranean world in repeated civil wars. In these uncertain times, the people who gained power were often cunning and ruthless individuals, who would do whatever it took to gain power.

Such a man was Antipater, an official at the Jewish court at the time the Romans marched in. He came from Edom (if you’ve read the Old Testament you’ll remember that the Edomites were one of the most bitter of Israelite’s hereditary enemies), and although Jewish by faith, Antipater was certainly not seen as a proper Jew by the Jews in Jerusalem.

He soon made himself indispensable to the Romans, however, and became a close friend and ally of their leading generals, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. They in turn made Antipater the effective master of Judea. When he was assassinated by a Jewish zealot in 43 BC, the Romans put his son Herod in charge of the country, in his place.

The Massacre of the Innocents

Even though of Jewish faith, the Jews regarded Herod with great suspicion, as they had his father. He was even more ruthless and more cunning than his father had been. This is not just the verdict of the gospel writers, it is also that of a famous Jewish historian, Josephus. He wrote about Herod a hundred years after his time. Josephus paints Herod as a complex man – very shrewd and in some respects a good ruler, but with a strong taint of cruelty and paranoia in his character. He killed many members of his own family (including his young wife) when he thought they threatened his power.

There are no records of the killing of the baby boys of Bethlehem outside Matthew’s gospel, and modern scholars tend to doubt it took place. However, Bethlehem would have been a tiny community by modern standards, probably with no more than several hundred inhabitants. The number of male babies involved would have been very few, perhaps only half a dozen. Such an act, terrible though it was, could easily have escaped the notice of the historians – but was very much in keeping with the person Herod appears to have been.


The Roman governor

In Luke chapter 2 we meet Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria. He is someone we know quite lot about from Roman sources, as he was a bit player in the great events of the time. Publius Suplicius Quirinius, to give him his full name, was born in a small town near Rome called Lanuvium, and pursued the standard career of a Roman politician. By around the time of Jesus’ birth he had risen to fill one of the most important posts within the Roman empire, governor of Syria. Roman governors were not just civilian administrators; they were also the commanders of the forces within their province. “Our man in Syria” was, in effect, the supremo of the entire Eastern Front against Rome’s fearsome enemy, Parthia. As such, he exercised authority well beyond his own province.

And what of the census he organized? Josephus talks about a census in AD 6, well after Herod the Great’s death. However, we know that Quirinius was in the eastern provinces from 12 BC onwards, on and off, and, given that censuses were a normal part of Roman statecraft, there is no particular reason to assume that earlier censuses were not taken before the one mentioned in Josephus. Indeed, with his close familiarity with Roman government, it would have been natural for Herod himself to have conducted one. The census in AD 6 gets a mention in Josephus because it sparked the first popular Jewish revolt against Roman rule. It does not mean that it was the first one to have taken place.

The New Testament as History

Whatever one’s stance in terms of faith, there is no doubt that the New Testament is a valuable historical source for the early Roman empire. It confirms so much of what we know from other evidence. In Acts, every one of the Roman governors Paul encounters were also known from Roman sources (including inscriptions). His appeal to Caesar gives an insight into Roman citizenship which is completely in line with what else we know about it. All three Roman centurions who appear in the New Testament are portrayed as impressive individuals – exactly what one would expect from responsible officers in one of the greatest military organizations the world has known. It is no wonder that modern historians have gone to this collection of ancient writings for a clear and reliable light on this remarkable period.

If you want to re-familiarize yourselves with the original Christmas, why not go to Matthew 1: 18-2: 23, and Luke 2: 1-20?

And if you want to learn more about the context of Jesus’ birth during the height of the Roman Empire, check out this amazing iPad app by team at TimeMaps, Ltd.

Roman Empire TimeMap for the iPad

By Peter Britton

[email protected]



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This entry was posted on Monday, December 16th, 2013 at 11:41 am and is filed under History, Homeschooling. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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