The Great

The establishment of our religion at the very time when the Empire began so auspiciously was an unmixed blessing, and this is proved by this fact—from the reign of Augustus the Empire has suffered no damage; on the contrary everything has gone splendidly and gloriously, and every prayer has been answered.

— Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 4.26.5

Jesus was born during the reign of the first Roman emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (27 B.C.E.—14 C.E.), later called Augustus, in the territory of Herod the Great, King of the Jews (40-4 B.C.E.). At that time, the Roman Empire held approximately 85,000,000 inhabitants in twenty-four provinces under the famed pax Romana. The reign of Augustus was a time of universal peace and economic prosperity and so much new building that according to the Roman biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130 C.E.) the emperor used to boast that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. The verses of Isaiah 40-55 look forward to just such a universal peace and prosperity as they foresee the restoration of Israel during the long, peaceful rule of her anointed king, the Messiah. A descendant from the ancestral line of the biblical king David (c. 1050 B.C.E.), this Messiah would restore to the Jewish nation the glory of his reign and free the Jews from foreign dominance. The words of the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius (c. 260-339 C.E.) quoted above echo the Isaiah passages and see the pax Romana under Augustus as part of God's divine plan to unify and pacify the world for the birth of Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah descended from the line of David.

But the local world into which Jesus was born was in reality a multicultural tinderbox ruled by the Herods—Herod the Great and his descendants—client kings under the Romans. While the Herods sought to unite Jew and gentile in a nation state with some independence from Rome, the Jews were divided among themselves over the increasing secularization of Judea and the increasing collaboration of their Jewish leaders with Rome. Internecine strife, continued warfare, and rivalries over succession were compounded by the general sense among the Jewish populace that their leaders were too secular, too Roman. Instead of unifying the Jews, the rule of the Herods only heightened the antagonism among the Jews and between Jews and non-Jews, fanning the hope of a Messiah who would free the Jews from their rulers—both the Herods and Romans.

This chapter outlines the story of Jesus, a Jew born in Galilee who claimed that he was the long-awaited Messiah and who inspired the development of a Christian church that would quickly become distinct from its Jewish origins. As the gospel accounts of his life are considered against contemporary politics in the Roman territory of Judea, four historically important intersections between "Christians" and the Herods emerge: the birth of Jesus under Herod the Great; the death of John the Baptist at the order of Herod Antipas (4 B.C.E.—39 C.E.); the persecution of the early Christians in Jerusalem under Herod Agrippa I (41-44 C.E.); and the meeting in Caesarea of Herod Agrippa II (27/8-100 C.E.) and Paul, the "apostle to the gentiles," just before Paul began his missionary journey to Rome. Under each successive Herod, the antagonism between the Jews and the Romans and between the Jews and the emerging "Christian" Jewish sects intensified, until, in the end, the Jewish kings could not prevent the complete dissolution of Jewish-Roman relations, or forestall the spread and growth of the new Christian church.

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