10.   The eras and the turns of eras in Roman, Jewish and early Christian history in the 1st century CE

In about 30 CE a series of elderly gentleman trained under the reign

Volcano Pichincha, sulfur fumes
Volcano Pichincha, sulfur fumes

of Augustus were ruling in Rome and in Palestine. From the Isle of Capri the 70-year-old emperor Tiberius directed events in Rome. In the capital of the empire the knight Aelius Seianus, the chief minister of state, was in control of everything.

In Palestine the tetrarchs Herod Antipas and Philip had ruled the northern territories for more than 30 years. For more than 20 years Antipas had been supported by the governor Jesus.

Judaea and Samaria were under direct Roman administration as the province Judaea, and since 26 CE the knight Pontius Pilate had ruled with a rod of iron. In the following years this peaceful idyll of Augustean stability and Middle Eastern joie de vivre was about to be shaken by a line of events, in the course of which the rulers were completely exchanged.

In the years 36/37 CE responsibility for the political order was handed over to a new generation of political leaders.


Planning and building the new capital of Tiberias was the masterpiece of the government of Jesus.

Volcano Pichincha, crater in the crater
Volcano Pichincha, crater in the crater

For this brilliant feat Jesus got the honorary title tekton (tektwn). This Greek word is usually translated as “carpenter”, but here it means “architect”. Those building a new city or a new capital would like make many things better than before: they would like to leave old things and ways behind.

The inspiration behind this was the idea of the New Jerusalem. In the Jewish capital Jerusalem the great Temple, the house of God, had been under construction for more than forty years.

Herod Antipas and Jesus wanted to build a city for the people without forgetting to worship the divine powers. The new capital was built in record time, if not in three days as in John 2, 19.

From the year 20 CE there are the first coins of Herod Antipas with the inscription Tiberias and the reed, which was a symbol of the city by the Sea of Galilee. The coins celebrated the new capital.


9.     The city of Tiberias

Anyone who knows biblical narratives will be sure to remember the parable of the Great Supper,

Volcano Pichincha, descent into the crater
Volcano Pichincha, descent into the crater

Matt 22, 1-14; Luke 14, 15-24. A king invites guests, but they do not come. So the king decides to invite the poor and the beggars. Fortunately Flavius Josephus sketches the historical situation of this parable, Ant 18, 2, 3.

The prince Herod Antipas had built the new capital and had named it after the ruling emperor Tiberias. When he invited the upper class to live in the new city, they all made excuses. Herod Antipas invited the lower class to live in the capital and enticed the impoverished with properties, building sites and start-up capital.

None of the new settlers were asked where they come from or what they had been before. Former slaves, Josephus sneers, also settled in Tiberias and got full civil rights.

In the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt 20, 1-16) there are still signs of contemporaries’ amazement that all new citizens are treated equally, irrespective of their social background and their work (the equal wages symbolize the same civil right they all got).


The fifth parable is not a miracle:

Volcano Pichincha, descent into the crater
Volcano Pichincha, descent into the crater

The Call of the Levi (Matthew). Duties and taxes were leased in the Hellenistic states and in the Roman Empire. Wealthy men guaranteed with their fortune that the demanded sum of taxes in a city or a region would be paid.

Their job or their risk was to divide the tax paid to the king among the other wealthy citizens of the city or the region and collect the money from them. In the principality of Herod Antipas the system of leasing taxes and duties probably worked the same way.

The leaseholders of duties (the publicans) the governor Jesus dined with can originally only have been rich Jewish aristocrats. Only these upper-class people were able to guarantee a sum of taxes or duties. Understanding the narration this way, the meaning of the parable is as follows:

Jesus, as governor, did not ostracize the Jewish aristocracy in Galilee, but integrated it in monarchic society. When the rich aristocrats demanded benefits from the monarch like the poor Galileans, Jesus’ answer was negative: It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick, Mark 2, 17.


The fourth miracle: The Healing of the Paralytic.

Volcano Pichincha, Ecuador
Volcano Pichincha, Ecuador

This miracle has central importance for the early Christians; it is told of Peter and of Paul too (Acts 3, 1-11; 14, 8-18). In the Old Testament help for the weak is a symbol of the Messiah and the last days, Micah 4, 6s, Zephaniah 3, 19.

The paralytic is again the Galilean people. He is so weak that he cannot do anything to bring about the healing himself. But there are friends in need who demonstrate the weakness of the people to Jesus. In the parable Jesus’ help consists of pronouncing an order.

In the historical situation the governors Jesus help was to order people to help themselves. But Jesus did not just issue orders: he ensured that the people were legally and economically able to meet his orders.

The good policy of the government was followed by an economic boom which has been proved by historians. In this context I will later speak about the founding and populating of Tiberias.


The third miracle: The Cleansing of the Leper.

Volcano Pichincha, crater
Volcano Pichincha, crater

The leper is the non-Jewish people of Galilee. Leprosy is a contagious disease; in the Ancient World it was incurable, and the leper was put under strong quarantine: the disease ostracizes the sick.

In parables leprosy and the leper symbolize ostracism, i.e. exclusion from the religious community (probably 2 Kgs. 5). The governor Jesus wants to take all the people under the authority of the monarch: he needs them all for the economic boom, strengthening the economic power of the tetrarchy.

Jesus wants to tear down the barriers erected by the Jewish aristocracy to exclude the non-Jewish Galilean from the profits of the economic prosperity.

Jesus cleanses the leper. The miracle is not that he can break the laws of nature: the wonder is that someone is suddenly able to give the same rights to the Galilean lower class as to the Jewish upper-class.


8.     The measures taken by the governor
according to Mark 1-2

Mark 1-2 keeps – as miracle stories – a catalogue of the measures taken by the governor Jesus.

Volcano Pichincha, crater
Volcano Pichincha, crater

 The miracle narratives are not historical records of healings of individuals, but parables which describe the activity of Jesus for the benefit of the Galilean population.

First Jesus heals the Demoniac. The man symbolizes the people of Galilee: the unclean spirit which possesses the man is the Jewish aristocracy which justifies its supremacy by its alleged cleanness and the uncleanliness of the non-Jewish population.

The spirit gets to the point: Jesus has come to destroy the supremacy of the (Jewish) aristocracy in Galilee. The man, the people of Galilee, is freed from the jurisdiction of the aristocracy and comes under the authority of the monarchy.


7.     Sources

A famous mosaic from late Antiquity (3rd century CE) shows the Roman poet Virgil

Volcano Pichincha, crater
Volcano Pichincha, crater

sitting between two Muses. To his right stands Klio, the muse of history with a scroll in her hands, to his left Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, with a theatre mask. On Virgil’s knees lies a scroll with the 8th verse of the Aeneid quoting: Muse, tell me the reasons…

Virgil created the Aeneid, the poem of the Roman state, the myth of Roman origins. Mark wrote the gospel of Jesus, the myth of Christian origins.

As with Virgil’s poem two literary genres were also the inspiration for the Gospel according to Mark: historical account, giving us the facts, and tragedy, transforming the facts to create a fictional story of philosophical truth. The poet tells us the reasons for what was going on, but transformed poetically.


Ad 3: The fall from the parapet of the temple reminds us of the fall at the stoning.

Volcano Pichincha, morning fog in the crater
Volcano Pichincha, morning fog in the crater

Aesop, the teller of fables, was thrown down a hill by the Delphinians because of alleged sacrilege (vita 141); the same fate threatens Jesus in Luke 3, 29. The matter is as follows: until Herod Antipas’ days the lower classes were under the jurisdiction of the aristocracy.

The tetrarch changed this: he took over the jurisdiction of all people in his country. Thus he could guarantee civil rights for all the inhabitants. Jesus was given immunity: he was to enforce the described change of jurisdiction in Galilee.

So the Jewish aristocracy lost a part of its influence over the non-Jewish lower-class people of the province.


6.     Assumption of office

Appointing Jesus as governor in Galilee and Perea turned out to be a clever move

Volcano Pichincha, international roped party
Volcano Pichincha, international roped party

for Herod Antipas. If Jesus failed, Antipas could dismiss him as guilty and himself had a clean record. If Jesus succeeded, the tetrarch could give himself credit for success. The extended Temptation in Matt 4 and Luke 4 can be seen as an employment contract.

Three points were agreed: 1. bread, 2. rule, 3. personal security. In the narration Jesus himself is the beneficiary, but in the historical situation he was intended to give these benefits to the inhabitants of Galilee.

It was a question of securing the reign of Herod Antipas, to reduce the power of the aristocracy and gain the lower classes as a power basis for the monarchy.

Ad 1: In the Ancient World the number one rule for keeping power was the following: avoid famine riots. In premodern societies the social policy was to supply grain in sufficient quantity and to keep prices low.


When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, Augustus passed on his throne to three of his sons. The challenge

Volcano Pichincha, crater edge
Volcano Pichincha, crater edge

which Herod’s successors had to meet was to turn the traditional reign of Herod into a new Augustean-style monarchy and to reduce the influence of the mighty aristocracy as Augustus had done in Rome.

The princes were expected to favour the prosperity of new social classes as allies against the aristocracy. The oldest of the sons, Archelaos, failed and in 6 CE he was banished to Gaul. Judaea was turned into a Roman province at the wishes of the Jewish aristocracy.

Philip in the North met the challenge: he introduced and kept peace in his reign and managed to die in office, highly estimated, in 34 CE.

Herod Antipas stood between these two alternatives. He was a full brother of Archelaus and got the small and agriculturally rich Galilee and Perea east of Jordan.


5.     Historical background

Three key words characterize the historical background of Jesus. Rome, the Parthian Empire and Galilee.

Volcano Pichincha
Volcano Pichincha

In Rome in the late Republic, the old aristocratic families had led the state to the brink of ruin with their struggles for power. Emperor Augustus had managed to build a stable monarchy in place of the rule of the aristocracy.

He retained the facade of the Republic and integrated the old elite into the New State with a lot of administrative offices and honorary posts. Under the rule of Augustus the economy boomed and orders for the building industry brought profits to the entrepreneurs and employment to the lower class.

Sculptors and poets were vying with each other to praise Emperor Augustus, the First Man of the state, and the Golden Age without war that he had brought about. Augustus became a celebrated example for all monarchs at the time, including the Herodian princes and the governor Jesus.  


4.     Unemployment

When Herod the Great became seriously ill, the Roman studies of the Jewish princes

Volcano Pichincha, ascent to the crater rim
Volcano Pichincha, ascent to the crater rim

came to an end. At the end of year 5 or the begin of 4 BCE the princes and Jesus travelled to Judaea. In 7 BCE, as the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn announced to the astrologers a change of ruler in Palestine, they fortunately stayed in Rome and so escaped the distrust of Herod the Great in his old age.

Two half-brothers of the princes, the sons of Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobul, were out of luck: Herod had them executed for flimsy reasons in 7 BCE. In the gospel according to Matthew this episode turned up as the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem, Matt 2, 16-17. There Jesus escaped the massacre too, this time because of the flight into Egypt (= Rome).


3.     Chronology

1.  According to John 2,20: 8,57 after 46 years of building the temple, in 27 CE Jesus

Volcano Pichincha, ascent to the crater rim
Volcano Pichincha, ascent to the crater rim

was about 50. Thus he was born in 24/23 BCE. This corresponds to Luke 2,1ss, Matt 2,1ss and Luke 1, 5, which say that Jesus was born under the rule of the emperor Augustus and during the reign of King Herod the Great.

2. The highly political office which was offered to Jesus was the office of the governor of Galilee in the ministry of Herod Antipas. In 6 CE Jesus took over this office.

At that time he was 30; this was his first public office, Luke 3, 23. 6 CE was the crisis of the sons of Herod the Great. Then, after popular disturbances, Archelaos was banished to Gaul by the emperor.


According to Josephus, Ant. 17, 1, 3 in about 9 BCE Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip

Volcano Pichincha, 4794 m, Ecuador
Volcano Pichincha, 4794 m, Ecuador

were sent to Rome for further education. There they stayed privately with a family, maybe with Asinius Pollio.

I imagine that Jesus, being in the entourage of the princes, also went to Rome and got the same education. Herod the Great and his successors needed competent experts for the administration and Rome-educated diplomats who were loyal to the Herod family.

For the Romans it was important to educate members of the elites of the subject nations, who could transmit Roman principles of government to their homelands.

They studied the artes liberales, subjects for free-born young men, which did not require hard manual work: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (which included astrology), music theory.

 In Rome, the Jewish students had to learn Latin, the language of the rulers of the world.