Mark's Gospel

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The Political Background

Herod the Great

At the time of Jesus' birth, Palestine had been governed for some thirty years as a Roman protectorate. Its ruler, Herod the Great (37-4 BC), was a tribute-paying vassal of Rome. It was his policy ruthlessly to preserve his throne against all comers, and to this end to be on good terms with whoever ruled in Rome. A considerable proportion of Jewish opinion was hostile to him because:

  1. He was an Idumean and had no Jewish blood. According to the Jewish Law he therefore had no claim to the royal throne, for Deuteronomy 17:15 explicitly states that it was forbidden to accept as king anyone who was not of pure Jewish blood. Herod was therefore regarded as an illegitimate usurper. This applied also to his heirs.

  2. He had been thrust upon the nation by the Roman conqueror.

  3. His observance of the Law of Moses was done merely out of a sense of duty as his role of king. He himself claimed to be 'more a Greek than a Jew'. He antagonized the people by promoting Greek culture and building a theatre and amphitheatre close to the Holy City.

Herod was a very able man, but history condemns him as a cruel tyrant. The story of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, in Matthew's Gospel, is quite typical of his conduct.

After Herod the Great

On the death of Herod in 4 BC, the Emperor Augustus divided the kingdom among Herod's sons. They were not, however, granted the title of king which their father had enjoyed as a mark of the special favour of Rome: Archelaus was an ethnarch or ruler of the nation, while Philip and Antipas were tetrarchs or rulers of a fourth part. Mark mistakenly refers to Herod Antipas as 'King Herod' (Mark 6:14). Archelaus proved to be a poor ruler that in 6 AD the Romans got rid of him and his territory was made into a province administered by a Roman procurator. Philip was established in the hill country of the north and took no active part in Palestinian affairs.

At the time of the ministry of Jesus Palestine was effectively governed by two men, the tetrarch Herod Antipas in Galilee and a Roman procurator in Judaea and Samaria. In 26 AD the proconsul was Pontius Pilate.

Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas was publicly denounced by John the Baptist for his illegal marriage to Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother, Philip. Herod Antipas is famous for having John's head served on a dish after he made a promise to Herodias' daughter when she danced for him (Mark 6:14-29).

Tax collecting

The Roman system of taxation was established in Palestine in 6 AD when the land was first occupied by the Romans. Under it the right to impose taxes in a given area was farmed out to the highest bidder, who agreed to pay the state a fixed sum for the privilege. The right was further contracted out, at a profit, to chief tax gatherers, and finally to an army of local men who actually collected the tax, so that the total sum collected was much greater than the original Roman demand. Levi (or Matthew) appears to have been a local tax gatherer, for he is described as 'sitting in his office' (Mark 2:14) when Jesus called him. The system was convenient to Rome but extremely inefficient because it made possible every form of dishonesty and extortion. Tax collectors were not only hated for their greed, but also because they served the conquerors. The Gospels reveal that the Jews freely associated with tax collectors, the worst kind of sinners.

Overall Summary of the time

From the days of Herod the Great to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD every procurator in succession had to deal with violent uprisings. Each incident in turn had to be harshly put down only to erupt again. Palestine was a troubled province, at best enjoying only an uneasy peace. The Jews were conscious of their unique status as the people of God, and this made the rule of foreigners unbearable to them. The Romans were not only conquerors but abominable heathens, and according to Jewish Law, unclean. Many of the Jews longed for a Messiah who would get rid of the Romans and restore the region to its former glory which it had under King David's rule. Many, such as the Zealots, thought that the only way of achieving this was by violent means.

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