The Roman Effect
Seven insights into the life and culture of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.
It is diﬃcult today to imagine life in the ancient Roman Empire. We are far removed from the ﬁrst century, and the motion picture industry has molded the way we perceive Roman society. However, here are some biblical insights based on facts that have been revealed to us:
(1) Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver (Mt. 26:15), was possibly motivated by political ambition. The apostle John called him a “thief” who stole from the disciples’ treasury (Jn. 12:6).
But 30 pieces of silver was not much money. According to Exodus 21:32, it was the value of merely one slave.
Judas may have hoped to use Jesus to spark a revolt against Rome. For more than three years, he observed Jesus’ miraculous powers and saw how the crowds adored Him. Judas may have wanted Jesus to use His powers to ﬁght.
(2) The word Iscariot normally would refer to either Judas’s father or the city where he was born, yet there are no good candidates for those two traditional associations.
However, Iscariot is similar to the Latin word sica (plural sicae), which means “curved dagger.” It is also extremely similar to the Latin word sicarius, which means “assassin” or “murderer.” The Sicarii (plural) were a group of assassins dedicated to throwing oﬀ the yoke of Rome. This fact might explain Judas’s sudden remorse. He may not have intended Jesus to die; and when He did die, Judas thought his hope of political victory over Rome was gone.
(3) Archaeologists have discovered game boards etched into the paving stones in the Fortress of Antonia, where the Roman soldiers abused Jesus during His trials. The boards were for a game called The Game of the Kings. It involved moving pieces through the various positions on the game board, with the winning soldier mocking the prisoner as a king. This might be the cultural background behind the mocking of Christ, the crown of thorns the soldiers pounded into Jesus’ head, and the substitute scepter given Him.
(4) It is clear in Scripture that the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, did not have the authority to execute Jesus. The Talmud aﬃrms that the Sanhedrin lost the right of execution 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple.1 So God had His Son die a blood-soaked death after being “pierced” (Zech. 12:10) by Roman soldiers and “lifted up” (Jn. 3:14) on a Roman cross.
(5) The New Testament uses the proper word for Pontius Pilate’s position in the Roman government: governor (“prefect”), rather than procurator, which was a later development in Roman leadership. Historians Josephus and Tacitus, by way of contrast, got it wrong.2
(6) Jesus was not considered a Roman citizen, as the apostle Paul was. Historians explain that Pilate’s “governorship” would have given him absolute control over all non-Roman citizens.3
(7) As civilized as Rome may have appeared superﬁcially, its callousness and cruelty to non-Romans were epitomized in the barbaric gladiator spectacles.4 In fact, Rome’s extreme paganism made followers of Jesus stand out.
- Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, ed., Soncino Babylonian Talmud, trans. Jacob Shachter and Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 41a <come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_41.html>.
- A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1961), 6.
- Peter Connolly, Living in the Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Tel Aviv: Steimatzky, 1988), 48.
- Roland Auguet, Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994), 16.