The Roman Province of Judea: A Historical Overview

Rome’s acquisition of Judea and subsequent involvement in the affairs of that long-troubled area came about in largely indirect fashion. For centuries Judea had been under the control of the Hellenistic Greek monarchy centered in Syria and known as the Seleucid empire, one of the successor states to the far greater empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered the vast reaches of the Persian empire toward the end of the fourth century B.C. As the decaying Seleucid monarchy disintegrated, Rome was compelled to take control of the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean and its hinterland in order to prevent ambitious petty kings in the region—and more importantly a renascent Parthian empire—from filling the vacuum left with the fall of the Seleucids and so posing a threat to Rome’s Mediterranean empire. As a part of this larger region and as a place once ruled by the Seleucids, Judea became a subject area of Rome.

Rome was not interested in Judea per se and for too long did not understand the problems unique to Judea which should have prevented the Romans from dealing with the Jews in the same way they did the other subject peoples in the eastern reaches of the empire. Similarly, the Jews made no effort to become acquainted with their Roman rulers, to whom they regrettably attributed the characteristics of their previous Greek masters, whose efforts to encourage Hellenization entailed a lack of religious toleration which threatened Jewish worship. By contrast, Rome was actually quite tolerant of the religions of all its subject peoples. This mutual misunderstanding of the nature of Judea by the Romans and of Rome by the Jews clearly made more difficult the administration of Judea. However, by itself it cannot account for the tragic events in Judea, which derived less from any relation to Rome than from the vehement struggle among rival Jewish factions whose ambitions for power harmed their countrymen and ultimately brought an end to Judea as an entity.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 36:3
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