Jesus—His Life and Message: Rulers and Religion

November 25, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

From the beginning of Jesus’ life through His death and beyond, the Herodian dynasty ruled Palestine and the surrounding area, the lands of the eastern Mediterranean coast. These rulers were clients of Imperial Rome, who served with the appointment and permission of Rome. The first of this family to be appointed as ruler in Israel was Herod the Great. Upon his death, his kingdom was divided between three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip the Tetrarch.

Herod the Great

Herod the Great, who reigned in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth, was nominated by the Roman Second Triumvirate of Octavius (later to become Caesar Augustus), Mark Antony (of Cleopatra fame), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and was confirmed by the Roman Senate in 40 BC.

Herod had previously been governor of Galilee and was a member of the ruling family in Israel. Eight years earlier, in 48 BC, his father Antipater II had been recognized as administrator of Judea, and he in turn named one of his sons as governor of Jerusalem, and Herod—his twenty-five-year-old second son—as governor of Galilee, the Jewish province in the north of Israel.

Herod was initially popular among the Galilean Jews as well as the Romans. He was later appointed governor of Coele-Syria, where he became involved in the Roman affairs of the area. Rome considered him an effective leader who both put down various revolts and did well in collecting taxes.

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and the Second Triumvirate eventually took over in Rome. One of the instigators of Caesar’s murder, Cassius (the other being Brutus), went to Syria and assumed leadership of the area. Cassius reappointed Herod as governor and promised to make him king after he and Brutus defeated the armies of Octavius and Antony. As it turned out, Antony defeated Cassius, and in 41 BC, he appointed Herod and his brother as tetrarchs1 of Judea. In 40 BC, the Parthians besieged Jerusalem. Herod’s brother died, and Herod fled to Masada, then to Petra, and eventually to Rome, where he was appointed King of Judea. He returned to Palestine, fighting his way to Jerusalem, which he conquered in 37 BC.

In 31 BC, Octavius and Antony fought each other in a civil war. Herod favored Antony, who lost. However, he managed to persuade Octavius that he was loyal to Rome, and was confirmed as king.

During his 43-year reign, Herod built theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes, as well as numerous fortresses and pagan temples in his Gentile territories. He also built a royal palace and rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

In total, Herod married ten times. He exiled his first wife, Doris, and her son Antipater. He then married Mariamne I. Thirteen years later, he married Mariamne II, the mother of Herod Philip.2 His fourth wife, Malthace, a Samaritan, bore Archelaus and Herod Antipas. His fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, bore Philip the Tetrarch.

Over the decades, Herod’s sons were constantly jockeying to become the next king after his death. Herod made six wills, each time naming a different son or sons as rulers after his death. He had two of his sons imprisoned and then killed. Antipater was eventually recalled from exile and made Herod’s exclusive successor, but then he tried to poison his father and was imprisoned. Eventually, Herod received permission from the emperor to execute Antipater, which he did—only five days before his own death, of natural causes. In his sixth will, he had made Archelaus king, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Philip tetrarch of four other regions in the north.

Herod the Great was, for good reason, perpetually concerned that someone would eliminate him and replace him as king. It was within this milieu, and shortly before his death, that the wise men from the east arrived to tell him of the star which foretold of a king being born in Israel. True to his nature, Herod attempted to find that newborn king and destroy him, which led to the killing of all the male children below the age of two in Bethlehem.3

Because Herod’s last will was made so shortly before his death, it hadn’t yet been ratified by the emperor. Archelaus and his brothers, Philip and Antipas, all traveled to Rome to contest the will's provisions. Antipas and Philip argued that Herod had not been of sound mind when the sixth will was made, while Archelaus argued that this last will expressed Herod’s wishes at the time of his death.

A delegation of prominent Jews also went to Rome, to petition that instead of Archelaus being named king, the area become united with the province of Syria and be governed directly by Rome. Octavius (by then Emperor Augustus) appointed Archelaus ethnarch4 of Idumea (Edom), Judea, and Samaria, with the promise that he would be made king if he proved himself worthy. Herod Antipas was confirmed as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Philip tetrarch of four regions in the north.


Archelaus kept his position as ethnarch for ten years. Upon the death of his father, he took temporary power, until the time he could have his father’s will endorsed by Rome. Before he left for Rome with his brothers, he reacted savagely to an uprising in the Temple during the Passover feast. He sent in troops which killed about 3,000 Jews who were celebrating the feast. Like his father, he resorted to brutal measures for ruling the people. It was because Archelaus was ruling in Judea that Joseph and Mary didn’t return to Bethlehem after their sojourn in Egypt, but rather went to Nazareth, in Galilee, which was an area ruled by Herod Antipas.

Eventually, because of Archelaus’ oppressive rule, a delegation of Jews and Samaritans complained to Caesar Augustus. His brothers Antipas and Philip also went to Rome to complain about him, as they presumably resented his oversight of them in his role as the Roman representative for Palestine. Archelaus was deposed by Augustus, and his territories became an imperial province ruled by Roman prefects. Twenty-five years later one of these prefects, Pontius Pilate, sat in judgment of Jesus.

Herod Antipas

Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD. He was ruler over the area where both Jesus and John the Baptist performed most of their ministry. He rebuilt the city of Sepporis, the largest city in Galilee, which was four miles from Nazareth. It’s possible that Joseph, the father of Jesus, used his carpentry skills in this reconstruction. From a Roman point of view, Antipas was considered a good ruler.

Herod Antipas had been married to the daughter of a Nabatean king when he traveled to Rome in 29 AD. During the journey, he stopped to visit his brother Herod Philip, and while there fell in love with Herodias, Herod Philip’s wife. She agreed to marry him, provided he divorce his first wife. His wife became aware of the proposal and returned to her father, who later retaliated by declaring war against Antipas. Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife caused John the Baptist to publicly criticize Antipas, resulting in John being arrested and eventually beheaded at the behest of Herodias’ daughter Salome.5

We read of Antipas in relation to Jesus three different times in the Gospels. When he heard about Jesus’ ministry, he thought Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist.6 When Jesus was making His last journey to Jerusalem and was in Antipas’ territory, some Pharisees warned Him that he should leave, as Antipas wanted to kill Him.7 Jesus said to “go tell that fox” that He would continue His ministry for a while and then would go to Jerusalem to die. Lastly, during Jesus’ final day, Jesus was sent by Pilate to Antipas for judgment. Antipas was in Jerusalem for Passover, and since Jesus came from Antipas’ territory, Pilate sent Him to Antipas. Pilate had damaged his relationship with Antipas because he had killed some of his subjects.8 His sending Jesus to Antipas in some way made reconciliation between Pilate and Antipas possible.9

Herod Antipas, along with his wife Herodias, was eventually banished by the emperor Caligula to the foothills of what today is southern France. Rule of his territory was given to Caligula’s friend and Antipas’ nephew, Agrippa I.

Philip the Tetrarch

Philip was tetrarch of the northeastern part of what had been Herod the Great’s kingdom.10 Unlike his brothers, he ruled over people who were not solely Jews, but also Syrian and Greek. He was liked by his subjects and ruled well. He rebuilt a city near the source of the Jordan River and named it Caesarea Philippi, in honor of the Roman emperor, and to distinguish it from the coastal city Caesarea. It was here that, in response to Jesus’ question of who men said He was, Peter stated that Jesus was the Son of the living God. It was also in Philip’s region that Jesus would feed the 5,00011 and heal a blind man.12

Pontius Pilate

As noted earlier, when Rome deposed Archelaus as ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, Augustus decided to govern these areas through a Roman prefect, later called a procurator. Prefects were representatives of the emperor and were in charge of the financial affairs of the province, including the collection of taxes. They controlled between 500 and 1,000 troops and also held judicial responsibilities.

The residence of the prefect was in Caesarea Maritima, a coastal city in the north of Samaria, which was the administrative capital of the Province of Judea. During Jewish festivals, the prefect would travel to Jerusalem accompanied by extra troops to help keep things peaceful.13 Prefects were less competent than other Roman rulers and emissaries, and as Judea was relatively insignificant to Rome, prefects were set up there, while more competent leaders governed more important areas of the empire.

Pontius Pilate, who ruled for ten years from 26 to 36 AD, was the fifth prefect of Judea. From the beginning of Pilate’s rule, he showed disregard for the Jews and their customs. Soon after his arrival, he brought Roman standards with images of the emperor into Jerusalem. Because the Jews didn’t believe in making images, they sent a delegation to Caesarea to plead with Pilate to take them away. He sent soldiers into the crowd with orders to cut them into pieces if they didn’t allow Caesar’s image to remain. The Jews fell down together and exposed their necks, choosing to die rather than transgress the Mosaic Law. Pilate relented and removed the images.

Later, Pilate took funds from the temple treasury to build aqueducts. When the Jews protested, he sent his soldiers into the crowd dressed as civilians. At his signal, they beat the protesters with clubs and many Jews died. He also was responsible for killing a number of Samaritans a few years after Jesus’ death, which seems to have been his fall from grace, as he was then summoned to Rome by the emperor Tiberius. When he arrived, the emperor had already died, and there are no further historical records of Pilate after that time.

Religious Groups in JesusDay


In Jesus’ day, there were a variety of Jewish religious groups within Israel. The most well known are the Pharisees, who came into prominence about 130 years before Jesus’ birth. They weren’t necessarily a large group, but they were very influential. The name Pharisee comes from the Aramaic word meaning “separate,” and the Pharisees were seen as separated ones. They based their religious views on both the Tanakh14 and the oral traditions, which they generally considered equal in authority. We read throughout the Gospels that the Pharisees would question or criticize things Jesus did that contravened their oral traditions, which they considered equal to breaking God’s law.

Pharisees believed in God, angels, spirits, prayer, the last judgment, the immortality of the soul, the coming of a messiah, and in faith and works. Jesus agreed with much of what they taught, as seen by His statement, Practice and observe whatever they tell youbut not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.15 Their preaching had much truth to it, but they didn’t practice what they preached. They were legalistic in regard to the Law and their traditions, with a special emphasis put on the oral tradition, sometimes even above the Mosaic Law. Jesus made this point when He said to them:You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.16

The Pharisees opposed Jesus because they saw Him as being lax toward their laws; they disapproved of how He interacted and ate with sinners, of His contact with Gentiles; and not least of all, they rejected the claims He made about Himself and His relationship to God.


Another prominent group of Jews in Jesus’ day was the Sadducees. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Sadducees faded into oblivion, which makes it difficult to know much about their origins and beliefs. They rose to prominence in Maccabean times, but their power and numbers decreased during Herod the Great’s reign. However, their fortunes really rose when Judea began to be ruled by Roman prefects in 6 AD. In Jesus’ day, they held considerable authority in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body in Jerusalem, which while subservient to Rome, still possessed judicial and religious authority and was the highest Jewish court), as well as in the priesthood.

Generally speaking, they came to power through their connections with the high-priestly or aristocratic families. They were Hellenized and aligned themselves with the Romans and the ruling class. The high priests and others of Temple prominence during Jesus’ lifetime were Sadducees. They rejected much of what pious Jews (including the Pharisees) believed. Therefore they didn’t believe in angels or spirits, the resurrection of the dead, final judgment, life after death, or a coming Messiah. They were concerned with keeping their privileged positions and not damaging their relationship with the Romans, which was one of the main reasons they opposed Jesus.


Although not spoken of in Scripture, we know of another group of religious Jews in Jesus’ day, called the Essenes. They are spoken of in the historical writings of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1948. It appears that a number of them settled near the Dead Sea somewhere between 150 and 140 BC. Around 31 BC they abandoned that location, possibly due to an earthquake. Some of them returned to the location following the death of Herod the Great. They disappeared from the historical record after the Great Revolt of Judea in 66–70 AD.

The Essenes were anti-temple, believed in the preexistence and immortality of the soul, and were very legalistic in matters of ritual purity. They saw themselves as the righteous remnant of Jews who were living in the last days. They looked for a political Messiah and the end of the age. Some of the Essenes lived together communally and held all their possessions in common. They dedicated themselves to studying Scripture, ritual washing, prayer, and copying their own writings. The Dead Sea Scrolls, found hidden in caves near where they lived, contained some of what are considered to be writings of the Essenes along with scrolls of some of the writings of the Old Testament.


The Zealots were a group who opposed the Roman occupation. Religiously, they were close to the Pharisees’ beliefs; however, they sought to advance the cause of God through any means necessary, including violence and murder, even sometimes of other Jews. They considered themselves patriots and advocated armed rebellion and a military solution for the political liberation of their country.

The People of the Land (Am ha-Aretz)

The majority of people in Israel in Jesus’ day were not part of the above-mentioned religious groups. They were simply trying to live their lives within the will of God. They were the common people, known as Am ha-Aretz, the people of the land. Religiously, their views were similar to those of the Pharisees; however, the Pharisees looked down on them, considering them to be rabble who knew nothing of the Law and didn’t do those things they felt were required for righteousness. These common people were those whom Jesus saw as the lost sheep of the house of Israel, those He had compassion on, who listened to Him and received Him gladly. Jesus’ disciples mostly came from these people.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Brisco, Thomas V., editor. Holman Bible Atlas. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah Vols 1,2. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Charlesworth, James H., editor. JesusJewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated edition) Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering JesusGenius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2007.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1997.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2010.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of JesusTeachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 A general title applied to those who governed any part of a kingdom or province, with an authority subject only to that of the Roman emperor.

2 Herod Philip was the first husband of Herodias and the father of Salome. Herodias divorced him in order to marry his brother, Herod Antipas.

3 Matthew 2:16.

4 An ethnarch was the ruler of a people, tribe, or nation, but was not a king. Archelaus, as an ethnarch, outranked his brothers who were tetrarchs.

5 Matthew 14:6–11.

6 Matthew 14:1–2; Mark 6:14–16; Luke 9:7–9.

7 Luke 13:31–33.

8 Luke 13:1.

9 Luke 23:6–12

10 Luke 3:1.

11 Luke 9:10–14.

12 Mark 8:22–26.

13 Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas, 212.

14 The Tanakh is the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament.

15 Matthew 23:3.

16 Mark 7:8.