10 Facts About the Holy Land in the Time of Jesus

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

24 Dec 2018

Throughout history the Holy Land – roughly situated between the Jordan River and the Eastern Mediterranean – has been subject to various conflicts and conquerors: the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and later on the Crusaders, for instance. By the 1st century AD – when Jesus was born, and in the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus – the Holy Land had come under Roman rule.

Here are ten facts about the Holy Land in the time of Jesus.

1. In antiquity, the Holy Land was part of Palestine

The borders of mandatory Palestine are visible in red.

Palestine was, and still is, situated between Egypt, Arabia and Syria in the Fertile Crescent.

2. Palestine was divided into two distinct geographic regions

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In the north was Galilee, through which two great trading routes ran: one between Damascus and the eastern Mediterranean coast, the other between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Further south was Judaea, centred around Jerusalem. Judaea was more mountainous than Galilee and its arid landscape meant that olives and fruits were widely cultivated throughout the region. Sheep and goat rearing were also common sights.

3. Palestine had become a Roman client state in 63 BC

The third triumph of Pompey.

In 63 BC Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem. Although the ruling dynasty, the Jewish Hasmonean Kings, survived, they became ‘puppet monarchs’ who relied on Rome for their power.

4. At the time of Jesus’ birth in 4 BC, the Holy Land was ruled by King Herod

An image of Herod the Great.

Also known as Herod ‘the Great’ one of his greatest achievements was his overseeing of a great building program during his reign.

Herod constructed many military marvels such as the stronghold at Masada, but he also constructed much economic infrastructure, such as a Roman-style trading port called Caesarea Maritima which became a bustling port of trade.

A majority of biblical scholars have dismissed the story that Herod ordered the execution of all male children two years old and under, as claimed in the New Testament.

5. The greatest of Herod’s construction projects was the temple complex in Jerusalem

Herod massively expanded the Temple Mount, the ‘beating heart’ of Jerusalem. In the centre of the Mount was the Temple to the Jewish God, originally built over 500 years before. Under Herod’s orders the Temple underwent significant reconstruction and expansion. It was one of the largest building projects of the time.

A model of the Temple reconstructed by Herod on Temple Mount. It was the beating heart of Jerusalem.

Alongside reconstructing the Temple, Herod also constructed new, formidable defences guarding the ‘Holiest of Holies’, most notably the Antonia Fortress.

6. Herod had ten wives, as many sons and five daughters

Mariamne, the second wife of King Herod, and her children go to their execution. Painting by Edward Hopley.

All of his marriages were made for political reasons and it appears many were unhappy affairs. Herod even had three of his sons executed after he began to fear they were attempting a coup.

7. After Herod died in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided…

A map showing the division of Herod’s kingdom following his death. Jerusalem and the Holy Land was situated in Herod Archelaus’ territory (light green). Credit: Alorkezas / Commons.

In his will, Herod asked that Judaea be divided between three of his sons: Herod Archaelaus (shown in light green on the map), Herod Philip II (orange) and Herod Antipas (pink). Parts of his kingdom were also given to Salome (grey), his sister, while there were also ten autonomous cities: the ‘decapolis’ (cream).

8. …but Augustus soon annexed the Holy Land

Archelaus’ territory was annexed and became the Roman province of Judaea.

After judging Herod Archelaus as an incompetent ruler, in 4 AD the Roman Emperor Augustus annexed Archelaus’ territory, turning it into a Roman province called Judaea. Augustus placed this new territory in the hands of a Roman governor.

9. Augustus ordered a census of Judaea to be taken

A medieval Byzantine mosaic depicting Mary and Joseph registering for the census before Governor Quirinius.

The tax census was carried out by Publius Quirinus, the governor of Syria. The date of this census is contested by scholars as the Gospel of Luke states the census was carried out during the reign of Herod. Josephus, however, claims it was taken some ten years later after Herod’s death, following Augustus’ creation of the Roman province of Judaea.

10. A strict watch over the Temple in Jerusalem was maintained by the Temple Guard

It consisted of three priests and twenty-one levites, who likely wore civilian clothing to help blend in with Temple visitors. Their weapon was probably either a club or a sword, although the evidence is unclear on this.

Some suggest it was the Temple Guard who both arrested Jesus and then later stationed themselves outside of Jesus’ tomb to prevent people trying to move the body.

The arrest of Christ. Some believe it was members of the Temple Guard who seized Jesus as he was taken directly to a trial conducted by a Jewish judicial body

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