In the decades before the life of Jesus, the Roman Empire increased its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and by 40 BC the land of Judah became a province of the Roman Empire ruled by Jewish puppet kings. When King Herod the Great died in 4 BC, the emperor Augustus divided Herod’s kingdom among his three sons: Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus, who ruled Judea and Samaria. Archelaus ruled so badly that the Jews and Samaritans both appealed to Rome, and in AD 6 Judea became part of the larger Roman province of Syria, ruled by a Roman Governor.
As we read the Gospels, we find many references to the influence of the Roman occupiers. The Romans encouraged the development of several cities with heavy Greek and Roman influence, such as Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast which the Romans used as the administrative capital of Judea, and Tiberias – called after the emperor of that name – a city in Galilee mentioned in the Gospels.
A number of Roman soldiers were stationed in the province of Judea to keep order and to suppress the ever-present threat of rebellions – which occurred frequently and were just as quickly and brutally put down. Two cohorts (with about 500 men in each) were stationed in Jerusalem (Acts 23:23-32) and a third cohort guarded the capital Caesarea (Acts 10:1). An additional two cohorts served throughout the province (Acts 27:1) along with a squadron of cavalry (Acts 23:23-32).
The rank and file soldiers of the Judean Legions were sometimes Roman (Acts 27:1), but many – possibly including a number of the soldiers who participated in Christ’s execution – were recruited locally. At least two and perhaps more cohorts in Judea were composed of Samaritans.
The military officers were mainly centurions (each commanding 80 rather than 100 men as often supposed). Seven of these centurions are mentioned in the New Testament, and two are particularly prominent in the Gospels – the one who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-13), and another who watched Jesus die on the cross and exclaimed “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). Despite being Gentiles looked down upon by most Jews, the New Testament shows many of these men to have been honorable and accepting of the truth.
The Roman governors of Judea were also military men chosen for their rank and experience. They oversaw local government, taxation, and some building projects. They also served as judges and, as Rome's governing authorities in the area, they alone had the power to execute criminals. While several of the Roman governors are mentioned in the Gospels, only one – Pontius Pilate – is pictured in some detail. Although he is mentioned over fifty times in the New Testament as well as in a number of historical documents, and archaeological evidence of his governorship was discovered in 1961, not much is known about him. The Gospels make it clear that Pilate was weak in dealing with the Jews regarding the false charges brought against Jesus, but they show that he was equally unwilling to execute him and tried repeatedly to avoid this. What happened to Pilate? Within a few years of the death of Jesus, the Roman Governor was recalled to Rome in shame due to his handling of an uprising among the Samaritans. He died soon after, in AD 39.
Although Pilate is doubtless the most infamous example we meet in the Gospels, a great many of the events of New Testament history involved upstanding Romans. It is perhaps not surprising that the Book of Acts shows the devout centurion Cornelius was the first Gentile converted to Christianity (Acts 10), and despite the Romans’ reputation for brutality among the Jews, the Gospels show that both Jesus and the early Church fully accepted the individual Romans who turned to God – sometimes with greater faith than that found among the Jews themselves.