Jesus in the Context of Roman Rule

Matthew 22:21 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

This week we will turn our attention to Jesus of Nazareth.  We will focus on his life and ministry in context both of Roman rule in Judea and Palestine, and of the theological, cultural, and political trends that we have discerned in late-Second Temple Judaism.  Drawing on Richard Horsely’s account, we will see that Jesus (and that more shadowy figure, John the Baptizer) emerges not only as a teacher of ethics, but, like John before him, as a popular leader and advocate for a new society, focused on the Galilean village as opposed to the Jerusalem Temple.  His teaching work included a sectarian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which brought his ministry into conflict with other sects in Judea.  His popularity, with its messianic and prophetic tones, brought him into conflict with the Jerusalem elites and, ultimately, with the Roman authorities.  The life and ministry—and death—of Jesus is the story of a prolonged and chosen conflict with Roman and Jewish authorities worked out through scriptural interpretation and Jewish sectarian practice.

For this week, we will focus on Horsley’s Jesus and Empire, but with reference especially to the Gospel of Mark as a primary text.  We will also look  at parts of the Gospel of Matthew. We will do some from the perspective of the “historical Jesus” approach, which—I hasten to add—does not inherently exclude other approaches. I do not expect you to agree with everything Horsley says, but rather I offer this short book as an example of a very large historical Jesus scholarship. Horsley’s point of view is certainly clear enough—even perhaps a bit overdrawn, but it is good to think with.

Reading assignments:

  • Read Horsley, Jesus and Empire, chapters 2-5 in particular (they are short!)
  • Also we will discuss The Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of Matthew (in Ehrman’s anthology of New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings).
  • also highly recommended: re-read Cohen, chapters 5-6

Audio Lectures:

  • (coming soon this week), I will offer some short lectures on each chapter of Horsley, and then a discussion of the two gospel texts in relation to ideas in Horsley’s book. But you can start the reading today! Horsley is a pretty quick read.


  •  Q source or Gospel: A hypothesized collection of the sayings of Jesus thought to have been the source (Q<German Quelle “source”) of material in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke held in common, but not in the Gospel of Mark, which is taken to be the earliest of the 4 canonical gospels. You can find editions of this reconstructed Q if you are curious, but it remains just a hypothesis as no extant copy or fragment exists.


Please pick 2 of the following 4 questions and write a 400-word minimum response to both. Submit them to by April 11.  Write to me if you have questions or need more time!

1. Look at Matthew 12.1-13 and 22.15-45.  What are the points of disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians?  How are these disputes argued?  How does Jesus’ ministry fit into the larger picture of “sectarian” Judaism?

2. Horsley’s Jesus and Empire, chapter 2, describes various forms of “popular” protest to Roman rule in Palestine that he sees as distinct from those of “scribal groups.”  What are some of these popular forms, and why are they more troubling than “scribal” forms of protest? 

3. Horsley pp. 91-98 outlines Jesus’ demonstrations and prophecies against the Temple.  Why are these words and actions significant in relation to what you have learned about the Temple State, and also in relation to what happens to it in the first century CE?

4. In Horsley’s chapter 5, how does the paradigm of the “village community” work with the idea of Covenant renewal to shape a particular vision of Jesus’ message? What do you think of this idea? 


Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period

The Second-Temple period did not know just one Judaism, even in Jerusalem.  Rather, it was a period of great intellectual expansion, and a time of protracted social and political divisions.  These factors, combined with interaction with Diaspora Jews East and West, led to several alternative formulations of “true” Judaism.  After the destruction of the Temple, most of these formulations died out or were deliberately rejected, and what emerged—Rabbinic Judaism—was far more homogenous.  But in the First century, a Jew in Jerusalem (or elsewhere) would be regularly presented with several different notions of what it would mean to be a Jew.

The groups that emerged, particularly during the Hasmonean era, came in time to be “sects.” That is, they perceived themselves as the “true” or “correct” form of Judaism, and they defined themselves by contrast with other claimants.  Sects each constructed their own interpretation of and relationship to the Law, the Temple, and Roman authorities.  They could ask in the same breath whether one ought to sacrifice in the Temple or pay taxes to Caesar.  They might debate about whether the dead are raised to life, or whether God favors armed resistance to Rome.  Sects in this era were inevitably politically as well as religiously groups


So who are all these groups?  Josephus tells us about three “schools” of Judaism:  the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  But he later talks about bandits and Sicarii, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus meets regularly with Sadducees and Pharisees, but also has to deal with Herodians and the followers of John the Baptizer.  Philo of Alexandria tells us about Essenes and a group called the Therapeutae.

Are all of these “sects”, or “schools”?  What distinguishes each?  Are they equally important?  This week we’re going to look at some of the sects which emerged under the Hasmoneans and thrived under the Romans, to see what sort of religious, cultural, and political options were open to a Jew in the First century CE.

First we’ll look first at Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, and the early followers of Jesus. We’ll also look at the more militant groups and “bandits” that sometimes seem to reflect sectarian colors.  Finally we’ll focus on more radically sectarian Judaism in the Qumran community, which some scholars take to be an Essene group.  This is the group that left the Dead Sea Scrolls to posterity.  In those scrolls we can read the fascinating story of one close-knit group’s disaffection and resistance to mainstream culture.

Readings:  Josephus chapter 7 (specifically pp. 133-138) and Appendix A (pp. 461-2); Cohen Ch. 5-6.

Additional readings:  the Community Rule (1QS), the War Scroll (1QM), the commentary on Habbakuk (1QHab), available here.

Audio Lectures:

  1. Introduction: What is sectarianism? (11:29)
  2. Pharisees and Sadducees (13:53)
  3. Samaritans and Christians (27:30)
    • Note: have your New Testament handy for this one!
  4. Zealots and the “Fourth Philosophy (7:27)
  5. Essenes and the Qumran Community:
    1. A look at the Habakkuk Commentary and the War Scroll (25:35)
    2. A look at the Community Rule (13:10)


  • hairesis (Greek, literally “choice,” it means a group one joins voluntarily with a coherent teaching of its own; it came to describe a philosophical school)
  • secta (Latin, “path, way, method, school of thought”)
  • sicarii (Latin, “daggermen,” a group of terrorists operating in Jerusalem)
  • pesher, (Hebrew, “interpretation,” a word often used in commentaries to signify the allegorical meaning after citing the text, sometimes used as shorthand for any such commentary)

Visual Materials:

Written Assignment:

You have been given the second question sheet already, but given the disturbances and problems we have had, I will extend the deadline to April 3 to make sure you have time to discuss your answers with me. I hope the materials from this week will clarify things.



Judea and Roman Rule

Inscription from Caesarea mentioning Pontius Pilate

The death of Herod the Great showed how delicate his hold was on his subjects; it proved difficult to find a suitable successor. So the Romans decided to put Judea directly under Roman authority through the stationing of an equestrian prefect.  The rank of this official shows in itself that Judea was not a major Roman concern. A senatorial proconsul or an imperial legate reporting directly to the emperor would normally govern an area of prime importance.  Syria was such an area, as it faced the frontier of the Parthian Empire and was therefore a military zone of great interest to Roman security. Judea was just a land link between Syria and Egypt, so it needed mostly to be kept quiet and free of sedition.

The equestrian prefects that ruled over Judea were to find, however, that the Judeans could be very difficult to keep quiet.  One of them, Pontius Pilate, is all too well known to history as the man who authorized the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. But we will examine other moments of conflict that show how easy it was to miscalculate the moods of the Judean populace, particularly on matters of religion.

  • for March 3 and 5 : read Josephus, chapters 6-8 (pp. 120-163)
  • also read these short selections of from Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities for Tuesday, which are about Herod’s building program. Texts: Assassination Attempt on Herod the Great.

From the Hasmoneans to the Herodians

This week we will continue to discuss the tensions produced by the Hellenization of the Near East, and in particular the advent of the Hasmonean dynasty. This development begins to draw the Romans into the picture, particularly as they were aggressively expanding eastward at a time that weakened the situation of the Seleucid monarchy that was encroaching upon the Temple State.  This allowed for an quasi-independent Jewish monarchy to flourish, which would have various outcomes for Jewish society. The aggressive expansion of the Jewish monarchy in the region of Syria-Palestine would fuel some tensions with non-Jews, the results of which we’ll see later. But the Hasmonean monarchy’s takeover of the role of high priest will also ignite sectarian tensions. Ultimately, a disputed succession in this line will lead to a direct Roman intervention, thus drawing this historical land of Israel and Judah into the Roman sphere in more permanent form.

The connection between the Hasmoneans and the dynasty of the pro-Roman Herodians is explicitly made in Josephus’ work The Jewish War, so in addition to perusing Maccabees 1 and 2, you could also just read the first chapter of Josephus to get a sense of how he frames it. That is not required, just something you might do if this period fascinates you. It can be easy to get caught up in all this!

The Romans preferred to rule areas peripheral to their main interests through client kings. Such kings had to be effective leaders who held their subjects in a tight grip, and who could be counted on to provide the Romans with tribute, military assistance, and a general acquiescence to Roman values. In this regard, King Herod the Great was a virtual model of client kingship.  Through his ruthless control of the people in his realm and his ambitious building throughout Palestine, Herod made his kingdom a place that the Romans could be proud of. By building the city of Caesarea Maritima, he provided the area with its first proper port city, allowing easy access to the country from the sea. Named for Caesar Augustus, the “City of Caesar by the Sea” would be a congenial home to Roman officials, merchants, soldiers, and travelers.

The Herodian Temple Plaza and the Royal Basilica

This week we also look at the building program of King Herod and the nature of his position in the eyes of his subjects. We will also see how his rebuilding of the Temple Mount brought the great edifice to the pinnacle of its magnificence and fame.  Through his building projects in particular, we will see how Herod is in many ways a Hellenistic ruler, though in Jerusalem itself, he will try to present himself as a righteous, Jewish king.

This week’s assignments:

  • February 25, read the Maccabees and Daniel excerpts from the Powerpoint located here, which we’ll discuss in class. Read also Josephus chapters 1 (optional) and chapters 2-3 (required).
  • February 27, read Josephus, chapters 4-6. (For a detailed description of the Temple Mount and the Temple itself, see pages 301-306)
  • Also recommended for this week: Hayes and Mandell, chapter 3.

Israel, Judah and Judea: Who are the Jews?

This week we address a simple question: who exactly are the Jews? This question raises some central themes about the nature of Judaism and its adherents in the first century CE. These can be separated into the people of Judea proper (Jerusalem and its surrounding area) and the peripheral Jewish communities ranging from Galilee to Syria, Egypt, Babylon and beyond—even in Rome.  Judaism was unique in this period in being largely focused on cult ritual in a single temple in Jerusalem, to which Jews paid a tax and made pilgrimage three times a year or as they could.  Such a centered, monotheistic cult was unusual in the ancient world, and aroused both curiosity and suspicion.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.

We will talk about specifically the Jews of the first centuries BCE and CE, and how they positioned themselves in historical and ritual time. We will talk about the Jewish calendar and what it conveys of their ritualized history, and the massive sacrificial economy of the Temple that so many people were engaged in in some way. We will compare Roman and Jewish animal sacrifice as a way to see the commonalities—later to disappear after the destruction of the Temple—between Jewish and Gentile worship in those times.

This week’s assignments:

  • February 18, read Cohen, chapters 1-2. Also recommended: Hayes and Mandell, Introduction.  Leviticus 1-7, Exodus 12.
  • February 20, read Cohen, chapters 3-4. Also recommended: Hayes and Mandell, chapter 2.

Roman Religion: The Age of Augustus

The Emperor Augustus as Jupiter

No single person had a greater influence on the world of the first century CE than Caesar Augustus. From around 31 BCE to 14 CE, he gradually converted the Roman Empire from an ancient Republic teetering towards disaster to a stable monarchy, though Rome could never call itself that.  The Roman Republic was founded on the negation of kingship, so Augustus had to engineer the façade of a “restored republic” in order to effect the profound changes he sought to make, positioning himself as “first man” of the Senate, or princeps senatus.  He preferred to style himself a kind of über-citizen than an emperor, and so we term this period of Roman history the Principate (from princeps).

And yet Augustus was definitely engineering a dynastic claim to power beyond is own lifetime.  In the process of returning Roman society to order, he took great care to use religion as a unifying force, posing also as both paterfamilias of the most important family and pontifex maximus, or chief priest of Rome. This week we’ll look closely at certain elements of Augustus’ use of religion to bolster his claims to power, and the various poses of Roman piety he adopted to convey the idea that his leadership was the right way to bring peace and stability to both Rome and its sprawling empire.

The article by John Scheid will give you a good sense of how tradition and innovation were intertwined in Augustus’ religious program.  You’ll also be able to read his own record of his achievements in the excerpts here from the Res Gestae, which are helpful for understanding how he wished to present himself as the first citizen of Rome. We’ll also take a more focused look at a particular state ritual, the Secular Games or Ludi Saeculares, and the primary source readings for this include an inscription detailing the days and rituals of this extended festival as well as the hymn written by the great poet Horace. Finally this week, we’ll read in Warrior about the origins of the imperial cult or emperor worship during his reign.

This week’s assignments:

  • February 11: read John Scheid, “Augustus and Roman Religion: Continuity, Conservatism, and Innovation,” which you can get here. Also, the handouts on the Res Gestae and the Ludi Saeculares.
  • February 13: Warrior, chapter 11 on Becoming a God.


Recommended reading beyond the syllabus:

Eck, Werner. 2007. The Age of Augustus. Second edition. Blackwell. ISBN 9781405151498.

Zanker, Paul. 1990. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. U Michigan Press. ISBN 0472081241.

Roman Religion: Imperial Aspects

We spoke last week about some basic features of Roman religion, the kinds of things even an average person would encounter in household religion, marriage, or death. We also talked about the organization of time (calendar) and space (temple), and how that shaped Roman religious experience generally. Some of these features go back to the primordial stages of Roman religiosity—and are therefore hard to assess in terms of accessible evidence. Now we shift to talk more about how Roman religion changed in response to the growth of Roman power.

By the first century CE, Roman religion was intertwined with the complexities of empire.  The Roman Empire itself sprawled from Britain to North Africa, from Spain to Syria. It comprised many nations with many divergent religious practices, from Celtic druidism to Jewish monotheism and the vastly ancient traditions of Egypt.  Imperialism transforms both the ruler and the ruled, and this certainly is true of the Romans, who came to adopt various foreign cults in the course of their imperial expansion. Isis, Mithras, and even Jesus found their followers not only on the fringes of the Empire, but also in the city of Rome itself, though acceptance of such foreign cults was never automatic.
 So it’s important to look at how Rome tried to control foreign religions that threatened to intrude upon traditional Roman values.

In addition to the permeation of foreign cults into the Roman cultural sphere, we must also look to peculiar forms of Roman religion that reflect Rome’s sense of its own power and right to rule; of these we will focus in particular on the triumph and the arena. Lastly, we will begin to discuss this week the growth of emperor worship, and what it means for the consolidation of Roman power under the principate.

This week’s assignments:

• February 4, read Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, chapters 7-10
• February 6, read Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, chapter 2.