Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The People

Under Roman rule, Palestine was inhabited by a mixed population. Judaea was the only province in which the great mass of the people was purely Jewish. Jerusalem and the surrounding district were peopled by the descendants of the Babylonian exiles, and the hatred which was cherished against foreigners in this region resulted in its being left exclusively in the hands of the Jews. Outside Judaea, and throughout the rest of Palestine, the population consisted of Jews, Syrians, and Greeks. The Syrians belonged to the same race as the Jews, and had always retained a footing in the Holy Land; the Greeks entered it as colonists after the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great. In all the towns along the coast of the Mediterranean, with the doubtful exceptions of Jamnia and Joppa, which were partially Judaized by the Maccabaeans, a Gentile population preponderated. At no period of their history had the Jews been able to gain a permanent footing on the seacoast of Palestine, and the settlement of Jewish colonists in the towns of Raphia, Gaza, Anthedon, Ascalon, Azotus, Appolonia, Caesarea, Dora, and Ptolemais, dates from the time of the Greek invasion of the East. Some of these towns were important centres of commerce and industry, and in them the Jew was able to gratify his trading instincts while remaining on the sacred soil of Palestine.

Passing from the seacoast to the interior of Palestine, we find the northern province of Galilee was bounded on the west and north by the Gentile populations belonging to the districts of Ptolemais and Tyre. On the east it was separated by the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee from Gaulanitis, Batanaea, and Trachonitis, the population of which was composed partly of Jews, partly of Syrians, and partly of nomadic hordes. These nomads were hardly within the pale of civilization. They made the almost impregnable caves of the Trachonitis their refuge and home. Sallying forth from their natural fastnesses among the rocks, they preyed upon the surrounding country, and Herod had to settle warlike colonists among them from Babylon and Idumaea, in order to keep them down. After Herod's death the Trachonitis relapsed into its old anarchic state, and one of his successors complained that the people of this region were living the life of wild beasts. The settled population of Gaulanitis and Batanaea was more Gentile than Jewish, and the towns of Caesarea Panias, and Julias, or Bethsaida, were mainly inhabited by the heathen. Caesarea Panias was situated at the sources of the Jordan, and was famous for its celebrated grotto of the Greek god, Pan. It had been a Hellenic town several centuries before the birth of Christ; in it Herod the Great built a temple to Augustus, and his son Philip raised it to a position of some importance among the cities of his tetrarchy. Julias also owed its rise to Philip. It was formerly known as Bethsaida, but Philip in honour of his imperial patron's daughter changed its name to Julias, and it henceforth became a Hellenic town.

On the south, Galilee was separated from Judaea by the province of Samaria. In spite of the intense hatred which existed between the Jews and the people of Samaria the Jews refrained from classing the Samaritans among the heathen. This was owing to the fact that a certain portion of the inhabitants of the province adhered to the Mosaic code; and although they rejected all the other books of the canon, and considered their own sanctuary on Mount Gerizim quite as sacred as the Temple at Jerusalem, the orthodox Jews continued to regard the Samaritans as being to some extent brethren in the faith. Side by side with this heterodox Judaism a great deal of heathenism also existed in Samaria, for the province contained a large Gentile population. Sebaste, the capital of Samaria, was a Gentile town, and it is probable that many of the colonists who came from Babylon to Samaria after the fall of the old Israelitish monarchy only partially adopted the religion of the land. Alexander the Great settled Greek colonists in the province, and from his days till the conquest of Samaria by the Maccabees, Greek civilization must have exercised a powerful influence on the inhabitants. The old city of Samaria was destroyed by the sons of John Hyrcanus (circa 107 B.C.); Herod rebuilt it, and under the new name of Sebaste it became one of the most important towns of Palestine.

It will thus be seen that Galilee was surrounded on all sides by a population which was more Gentile than Jewish, and a strong Gentile element was to be found in the province itself. So much was this the case that it was called Galilee of the Gentiles. The two most important cities of the province, Tiberias and Sepphoris, were practically Hellenic centres. In the country districts and the smaller towns, such as Nazareth, Cana, Dalmanutha, Magdala, it is probable that the Jews were in the majority.

A number of important Hellenic towns, situated with the exception of Scythopolis on the eastern banks of the Jordan, were formed probably by Pompey into an independent confederation, which became known as the Decapolis, or Ten Cities. On the downfall of the Syrian monarchy these cities fell into the hands of the Jews, but most of them contained a Gentile population, and bore Greek names. The towns of the Decapolis were Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippus, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, and Canatha, and the citizens were to a great extent composed of Greeks who emigrated into Syria on the establishment of Greek supremacy in this quarter of the world.

Southwest of the Decapolis lay the province of Peraea, a narrow strip of territory running along the eastern banks of the Jordan. Peraea extended from Pella in the north to the fortress of Machaerus on the shores of the Dead Sea; it was bounded on the east by the Decapol is and the territory of the Nabataeans. Very little is known respecting the population of Peraea, but there is every reason to believe that it contained the same mixture of Jews and Gentiles as existed in most of the other parts of Palestine.

In Roman times, the Hellenic towns of Palestine were quite independent of Jerusalem, as well as of each other. They all acknowledged the supremacy of Rome, either in the person of the Herods or of the Roman procurators, and they all contributed so much annually to the Herods or to the imperial exchequer. Beyond these things they were left as much as possible to manage their own affairs in their own way. Every town of any note was the centre of a certain district, which varied in extent after the manner of our English counties. All the internal affairs of the district were under the control of a representative council, consisting in some cases of several hundred members. In name some of these councils possessed more authority than others, but in practice it was possible for all of them to conduct the business of the district with little or no interference from the imperial officials. It was, however, very seldom that they succeeded in doing this owing to the antagonism of rival factions within the communes. In Caesarea the Jews enjoyed equal civic rights with the Gentiles, and the same privileges were probably accorded them in such cities as Tiberias and Sepphoris. In Samaria, in the Decapolis, and in the older Gentile cities along the seacoast, it is hardly likely that the Jews were admitted to all the privileges of citizenship. The management of internal affairs in Jerusalem was entirely in Jewish hands, and a similar state of things no doubt existed in the Jewish portions of Galilee and Peraea.

In the Hellenic cities of Palestine, Greek polytheism did not succeed in extirpating the indigenous forms of faith, and the temples of Semitic gods and goddesses existed side by side with the sanctuaries of Greek divinities. This was more especially the case in the towns along the coast, and the original inhabitants of such places as Gaza, Ascalon, and Azotus, did not desert the shrines of their local deities. But in other departments of life, Greek influence was supreme, and in some parts of Palestine, Greek literature was cultivated with a fair amount of success. One of Cicero's teachers, Antiochus, an eclectic philosopher, was a native of Ascalon. The emperor Tiberius was taught by the Syro-Grecian Theodorus of Gadara; this town also produced Meleager, who may be called the father of the Greek anthology. As a rule the Syro-Grecian was a light and mocking spirit, and excelled as a musician, jockey, juggler, and buffoon. He was a corrupt and degraded creature, and exercised a very pernicious influence on the morality of the empire.

These defects of character, however, did not prevent him from being an excellent and successful trader. He carried on business operations throughout the Roman world; and Syria was justly celebrated for its linen, purple, silk, and glass. Galilee was an important seat of the linen industry, and the linen products of Scythopolis commanded the highest prices in the Roman markets. Ascalon and Gaza were celebrated commercial ports, and Caesarea possessed a harbour which rivaled the ancient quays of Tyre.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


It was impossible for the purely Jewish population to escape the multitude of Greek influences by which they were surrounded, and the effects of Greek civilization are to be found in nearly every phase of Jewish life. The Temple of Jerusalem was mainly constructed in the Greek style, and most of the public buildings were built in accordance with Greek architectural designs. Religious feeling prevented Greek painting and sculpture from being tolerated in the Jewish parts of Palestine; but the Book of Daniel refers to Greek musical instruments, and it is not improbable that Greek music was common among the Jews. Roman, Greek, and Phoenician coins were the current money of the realm, and the Gospels are not wanting in allusions to the coinage of Rome. The amusements of the people were largely derived from Greece, and Greek games were celebrated in most of the chief towns of Palestine. Even at Jerusalem there were chariot races, contests with wild beasts, running, wrestling, and boxing, just as if the centre of Judaism had been a purely Greek city. Jericho possessed a theatre, a hippodrome, and an amphitheatre, and in other parts of the Holy Land buildings of a similar description were to be seen. The rabbis, it is true, were hostile to these heathen forms of amusement, but their denunciations were only heeded by a comparatively narrow circle; the Greek games offered an irresistible attraction to the great mass of the populace.

Except among the learned, Hebrew had become extinct as a living tongue, and in the time of Christ the language in general use was Aramaic. But traders and the higher classes also understood Greek, and a vast number of Greek words had found their way into common use. Greek names were very frequently employed for money, weights and measures. It was the same in civil, military, and legal affairs. Many commercial terms were also Greek, and Greek words had even come to be used for food, clothing, and household furniture. Among the ruling classes it was very usual to call children by Greek names, such as Alexander, Aristobulus, Philip, and so forth. The Greek names, Andrew and Philip, also occur among the disciples of Christ, which would lead us to believe that Greek names for persons were being adopted by all classes of the community. Greek had become the mother tongue of nearly all the Jews who lived in the West, and the vast multitudes of them who came as pilgrims to Jerusalem must have fostered the spread of Hellenism in the Holy City and in other parts of the land as well.

It does not appear, however, that the Jews of Palestine were drawn like their brethren of the Dispersion into the fascinating toils of Greek speculation. In Palestine, the action of Hellenism upon the Jewish population was almost entirely confined to the secular side of life. The Palestinian rabbi regarded Greek philosophy with suspicion; he had no taste for that ingenious harmonizing of Greek and Hebrew thought which was so ardently cultivated by the Jews of Alexandria; he had an inward conviction that Greek wisdom was inimical to the Law, and did his utmost to suppress its growth. The diffusion of Greek ideas among the masses would undoubtedly have destroyed the belief that the Jews held of Jehovah as a tribal God; it would have shattered their faith in the multitudinous ordinances of the Law, and it would have reduced them in their own eyes to a position of simple equality among the other races of mankind. But the tendencies of Greek thought were not as the rabbis imagined in the direction of polytheism. On the contrary, the Greek philosophers were busily engaged in dissolving the old polytheistic conceptions of antiquity. They were slowly feeling their way towards the monotheistic conclusions of the Jews, and would ultimately have arrived at a lofty idea of the Divine attributes, even if Judaism had not existed. Nor was the dissatisfaction with the gods of Olympus confined to the schools of the philosophers; it had penetrated all ranks and conditions of ancient society. So much was this the case that it was a very common occurrence for Gentiles who had ceased to believe in polytheism to embrace the faith of the Jews. "Many of them," says Josephus, "have agreed to submit themselves to our laws." And again: "For a long time back great zeal for our religion has laid hold upon multitudes; nor is there any city of the Greeks, or indeed any city at all, even though barbarian, where the observance of the seventh day, on which we rest from toil, has not made its way, and where the fasts and lamp-lightings and many of our prohibitions as to food are not observed. . . . As God penetrates the whole world, so the Law has made its way amongst all men." These pious Gentiles are frequently mentioned in the New Testament, and it was from their ranks that a large proportion of the early Christians was drawn.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


Unfortunately, the rabbis of Palestine did not grasp the significance of the momentous change which was coming over the religious consciousness of the ancient world. At the very time that Greece was growing weary of her gods, and was feeling after a higher form of faith, at that very time the rabbis were busily inculcating amongst the people of Palestine an intenser hatred of the Gentiles and all their works. According to their teaching, it was an act of disobedience to the Law to hold any intercourse whatever with the Gentiles. It defiled a Jew to sit with them at table or to enter under their roof. It was even asserted that the Gentiles had lost the nature of men and only retained the instincts of the beasts. All knowledge of God was denied them; they were God's enemies, and when they made inquiries of a Jew respecting Divine things it was his duty to answer them with a suppressed curse. According to Jewish ideas, all Gentiles were base born, and all their women were unclean. To marry a Gentile woman was a heinous offence; the children of such an alliance were bastards, and had no part in the inheritance of Israel. It was forbidden to counsel or befriend a Gentile, and the benefits conferred by a Gentile on a Jew were in reality no better than serpents' poison. The growing hatred of the Gentiles is seen in the question which was raised in the time of Christ as to the lawfulness of paying tribute to Rome. When the Jews had to pay tribute to the Greek monarchs no heart-searchings on this matter had arisen among them. These new qualms of conscience were the outcome of a more furious antipathy to the Gentile world.

A bitter feeling of resentment was aroused throughout the Roman Empire by the irreconcilable attitude of the Jews towards the rest of mankind. Cicero speaks of them as a nation born for servitude, and stigmatizes their religion as a barbarous superstition. Seneca despises them as a wretched and criminal people, and Tacitus says with some truth that the Jews had made themselves notorious by their hatred of the human race. Juvenal falls into many absurd mistakes regarding the tenets of Judaism, but he certainly does not misconceive the tendency of much contemporary rabbinic teaching when he says, that the Jews would point out the way to no one but their own fellow-believers." The practice of denouncing Gentiles as unfit to be associated with, was sufficient in itself to make the Jews detested, and was utterly opposed to the humane sentiments of national brotherhood which were taking root in the ancient world. "The Jews," says Appolonius of Tyana, "have for a long time fallen away, not only from the Romans, but from all mankind; for a people that devises an anti-social life, . . . is further apart from us than Susa or Bactria, or the still more distant inhabitants of India." The contempt which the Jews brought upon themselves by their separatist customs is also expressed by Appolonius in a conversation which he is said to have held with Vespasian on the Jewish war. "If," said he, "someone came from the seat of war, and announced that thirty thousand Jews had fallen through you, and in the next battle that fifty thousand had fallen, I took the narrator aside and intentionally asked him what he was thinking of, that he had nothing more important to say than this."'