Giants in the 'Holy Land:' towards understanding a Jewish homeland

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth came at the end of a remarkably strong Jewish self-rule and the beginning of centuries of struggle for a homeland. Photo: Edward Lear (Ashmolean Museum)

FLOWER MOUND, TX, October 4, 2011—Rome ruled the land of Israel with an iron fist at the time of Jesus. Cruelty and brutality typified the rule of Roman emperors and the local authorities that they installed to control their conquered lands. The dynasty of Israel’s rulers, the Herods, was given the task and responsibility of controlling the very obstinate and self-willed Jewish people, a challenge that would prove greater than Herod expected.

Who was the prime mover of first century Jewish politics? King Herod the Great stands as an historical figure who lives today in infamy. A figure larger than life, he is more known today than in his own century.

In AD 63, Rome conquered outright the land of Israel, which had been self-ruled by powerful Hasmonian Jewish Kings. The land is often referred to as “Israel” (“Erets Yisra’el,” or “the land of Israel” in Hebrew ) or “Palestine” (as Arabs prefer). Actually the term Palestine was first used by the Romans to expunge the name “Israel/Judea.” The term came from the coastal dwellers called Philistines. It became the popular name after the failure of the second Jewish revolt under Bar Kokhba in AD 132-35.

Herod’s father, Antipater, a powerful official under the Jewish Hasmonean kings, had helped Julius Caesar in Alexandria, Egypt, and as a reward, was given and the right to preside over and collect taxes from Judea. Antipater was an Idumaean (Edom of the Old Testament) by birth and later converted to Judaism, but was never accepted by the Jews.

When the Maccabean Jewish king, John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea in 140-130 BC, he required the Idumaeans to accept Jewish law. At this time many converted to Judaism, and perhaps, Antipater did as well. His position as king of Judea led the way for his son, Herod the Great, to continue the powerful influence of the Herodian dynasty.

Following the poisoning assassination of Antipater in 43 BC and some brilliant political maneuvers, his son, Herod, was promoted to second to the king in command of Galilee. The Jews never accepted his Idumaean heritage even though he publicly claimed to be Jewish.  

While Herod wanted to be king of Judea, Rome feared his lack of support among the Jews would cause trouble. The Jews supported Antigonus, a member of the royal family of the Maccabees. In 40 BC, Antigonus was crowned king of Judea and Herod fled to Masada for safety. He later left Masada for Rome, hoping to garner their support.

Rome acquiesced to Herod and appointed him “puppet” king of Judea in BC 37 and sent him back with two legions of Roman soldiers. After five months of siege he conquered Jerusalem and put Antigonus to death. Herod was now king, but the Jews hated him.

Herod the Great’s favor with Octavian (later became Augustus) led to his ultimate victory over Cleopatra, who wanted the kingdom of Israel for herself. His new found ally, Octavian, confirmed his position as king of Judea.

It was under Herod the Great that construction began on the Jewish temple. His prolific career of building water systems, fortresses, and cities is overshadowed by the violence and brutality that filled his last days. To finance all of his building projects he extracted a heavy toll of taxes. When many unemployed subjects could not pay, they were forced into slave labor.

On April 1, 4 BC, Herod died with what many believe was intestinal cancer. His slaughter of his favorite wife, Mariamne and his son, Antipater, five days before his death reveals his utter cruelty. It was in these last days the Scriptures tell us of the events of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ life was lived under Roman rule.

From the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the expulsion from the land in AD 132/135 until 1948, the Jews were homeless; they depended on the good graces of the “foreign giants in the lands. 1948 changed all of that, but it came with a cost—a price still being extracted in the 21st century.


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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