LESSONS OF HISTORY: Israel
Litigators need to “know their audience.” In a historical sense, the Middle East might provide some clues as to the rise and fall of Rome – and perhaps suggest something useful for our own country and its future. Rome became involved in the Middle East from self-interest and treaty obligations. Romans tried nation-building, then occupation, and ultimately annexation. Terrorism plagued Roman [mis]adventures in the Middle East . The Republic –and later the Empire — sought stability and peace. But the Middle East , including ancient Judea, proved intractable.
The Challenging Middle East
Rome never pacified the Middle East. Arguably, that failure led to the ultimate fall of the Empire.
Consider that part of Middle East now called Israel. Ancient Judea was particularly troubling to Rome. It had long been under the Empire’s domination – though not direct control. Augustus sought to foster a Jewish client state within the Empire. Judea’s many feuding ethnic groups made that iffy. However, the area was vital to Rome. Next-door Egypt was Rome’s “bread basket.”
Israel was a buffer against the important nearby Persian Empire. Augustus regarded Persia as the key to peace in the Middle East and made peace with them. Earlier, Julius Caesar had plotted to conquer Persia. However, the more-realistic Augustus knew his limits. He decided to make Judea a buffer state – technically independent – but under his ultimate control, with a Roman form of government and a puppet king who would rule a diverse number of ethnic groups, including Greeks and Samaritans.
The Jews were not ecstatic with this and immediately began militant protests. The Caesars tried to accommodate everyone. Augustus established his regional capital in Caesarea rather than Jerusalem – a bow to the sensitivities of Jewish believers. In addition, Roman coins circulating inside Judea did not bear the image of the Emperor – out of respect for the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images.
The Gospels and the book of Acts reveal contemporary challenges for Rome. For example, the Bible speaks of one consequence of Roman annexation – a census, so that everyone could be taxed.
One dissident group in Judea was the Zealots– terrorists in Roman eyes. The Zealots insisted that foreign occupation broke God’s commandment that He alone was king. Zealot insurgents killed Roman soldiers and militated for Israel’s freedom. A no-nonsense Roman military response followed. This, in turn, led to fierce resentment and rebellion against Roman rule.
Christ and Roman History
The story of Christ reflects this tension. Jesus created hostility among influential Jews, including the Pharisees and Sadducees. They began to prepare a dossier on Jesus and brought His activities to the attention of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. A typical civil servant, Pilate aimed to finesse the situation without great fuss. He was looking over his shoulder at the new Caesar, Tiberius, who ruled repressively and would not take kindly to Pilate if he mishandled the situation.
At Passover, the Roman governor had permission to call up troops to prevent riots in Jerusalem. Typically, the Roman governor relied on a local council to handle community matters – just as in other parts of the Empire. Judea’s counsel, the Sanhedrin, consist of 71 leading Jews. They found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and brought Him to Pilate. Pilate reminded the Sanhedrin that blasphemy was not a crime under Roman law. [Note that Jesus – no Roman citizen – was nevertheless guaranteed certain basic freedoms – i.e., he could not be punished unless the conduct was prohibited].
Insisting that Christ be put to death, the Sanhedrin this time charged him with treason and threatened to contact the stern new Emperor if Pilate did not find Jesus guilty. Pilate sought to pardon Jesus but ultimately yielded to the crowd. Jesus was deemed a traitor and crucified for treason.
Problems continued to plague Rome; governors constantly faced nationalism and violence. In that vein, a Roman citizen named Paul later spread the Gospel, disturbing the peace as he traveled the Empire. As a Roman citizen, Paul was often protected by that status. He ultimately perished, probably in 64A.D.
Rome – Jews and Christians
The way the Roman dealt with the new Christian religion illustrates much about their character. Jews had been protected – they were not required to venerate the Roman Emperor as a god. Other accommodations were made. However, the new Christians were not in a traditional protected category. Worse, they specifically refused to worship the Emperor, as was required of all citizens. Harassment – often martyrdom – followed.
Later in Judea, the situation worsened. By 66 A.D., Zealot violence had developed into a full-scale insurgency. The Romans regarded the instigators as terrorists –the Jews saw themselves as freedom fighters.
In 70 A.D., Jerusalem was captured and the Temple destroyed under the new Emperor, Vespasian. A small group of Jews held out at Masada but the Roman army slowly battered them into submission. Today, Israeli army recruits take the oath of allegiance at Masada, where their ancestors fought so bravely.
Ancient Israel provides an interesting historical laboratory to study Empires and how Rome attempted to deal with a rebellious people. It is a story of accommodation, occupation, and ultimately, ill will and failure.
NEXT TIME: What can be learned from ancient Rome to serve Americans and their world today?