Countdown to Acts

Day 4: Israel Under Roman Rule

Romans 13:1, John 11:45-53, Acts 28:17-28

Throughout the book of Acts, Israel was under Roman rule, which had been the case since Rome wrested the region from Syria in 64 BC. During the New Testament era, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world.

Legend tells us that Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC. The first seven kings of Rome increased the size of the kingdom by conquering neighboring territories. But eventually, a tyrannical king named Tarquinius Superbus drove the people to revolt. After this uprising, Rome became a republic which gave her citizens a voice in political and national affairs. As a republic, Rome grew even more powerful, reaching well beyond the borders of Italy into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

As anyone who has ever read Shakespeare knows, Roman leadership became increasingly unstable as the Empire grew larger. Ambition, paranoia, distrust, betrayal, and a lust for power made it very difficult for anyone to govern with stability for any length of time. Positions of authority in Rome had a high turnover rate due to assassinations, promotions, demotions, and transfers of power.

By the time Rome took occupation of Israel, the Empire was large, but spread thin. Israel’s location was strategic. It lay at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Ruling Israel meant Rome would be able to move freely between the continents.

The Jews were defined by their worship, their temple practices, and their history as followers of one God, and one God only—Jehovah. Rome knew that devotion like this was hard to extinguish, so they reckoned it would be politically wise to leverage Israel’s religious zeal as motivation to live at peace with their occupiers. Rome arranged a compromise. Israel could continue to practice their monotheistic religion so long as they obeyed Roman rule, paid their taxes, and kept the peace.

This was a shrewd psychological move. Under this arrangement, many in Israel came to see their right to worship God as a privilege that was now granted to them by Caesar, who could take it away if they fell out of line. We see this on display during the Triumphal Entry, when the Jewish religious leaders pleaded with Jesus to tell those laying down their palms and coats to stop referring to Him as a king. If Roman authorities heard this was happening, they might have shut down the Passover celebration (Luke 19:37-40).

Under Roman law, Jews were given certain rights that made the arrangement more palatable. For example, they were excused from military service and from ever having to appear in court on the Sabbath. By the time we come to the book of Acts, the dealings between Jews and Romans were predominantly positive.