First-century C.E. Jerusalem was impressive by anyone’s standards. With a population of tens of thousands—by some estimates, even 100,000 or more—it was the largest city in Palestine. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.) described it as “the most famous city in the East, not just in Judea” (Natural History 5.70).
Its primary source of prestige was the Second Temple, the most sacred site in Judaism and the only place where biblical tradition allowed animal sacrifice. Originally built around 515 B.C.E. to replace the temple destroyed by the Babylonians, the temple and its support buildings were completely renovated by King Herod (reigned 37–4 B.C.E.), whose architects combined Jewish, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman features. Herod also doubled the size of the Temple Mount, creating the largest temple complex in the Roman world, and reorganized its courts, devoting a sizable area for Gentile visitors and a particular court for Jewish women. The temple was a pilgrimage site for Jews throughout the Roman world, some of whom traveled there to celebrate the festivals of Passover (Pesach), Weeks (Shavuot), and Booths (Sukkot). An annual half-shekel tax helped support the temple. The city’s elites especially benefitted from the economic impact of pilgrimage, and archaeological excavations have uncovered lavish residences with frescoed walls, mosaic floors, imported pots and dishes, and other luxury goods.
The city was structured around two hills, the eastern one with the temple and a western one now called Mount Zion. Jerusalem stretched south to include territory beyond the Old City’s present walls, which date only to the 1500s C.E. The city expanded northward in the first century C.E., with Agrippa I, a member of the Herodian dynasty, constructing a wall that was perhaps as much as 450 meters north of the modern wall. Greek and Roman architectural influence was very visible. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that Herod the Great built a theater in the city and an amphitheater “on the plain” and that a hippodrome (a stadium for horse races) existed there by the 60s C.E. (Jewish War 2.44, Jewish Antiquities 15.268 and 17.254-55). In important respects, however, Jerusalem differed from other major Roman cities. Visitors would not have seen the statues of emperors or deities or the temples to various gods that were commonplace elsewhere.
Governmental administration of the city shifted over the decades. After the death of Herod (4 B.C.E.), his son Archelaus succeeded him. When the Roman emperor Augustus exiled Archelaus in 6 C.E., Roman governors—appointed officials holding the title of either “procurator” or “prefect”—assumed control of Jerusalem and the rest of Judea. Aside from a three-year period (41–44 C.E.) of rule by Agrippa I, the city remained under direct Roman administration until the Great Revolt (66–70 C.E.). That uprising led to the destruction of the temple and the rest of the city, and archaeological excavations have found ample evidence of its toll. The ruined city became home to a Roman legion, and c. 130 C.E. Emperor Hadrian refounded it as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina, a city in which Jews were forbidden to live.
Mark A. Chancey is professor of religious studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His research interests range from the historical Jesus, archaeology and the Bible, and the political and social history of Roman-period Palestine to church-state issues and religion and contemporary public education. He is the author of two books with Cambridge University Press, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (2005), and is the coauthor of Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Yale University Press, 2012).
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
The ritual killing and offering of animals to deities, often on an altar and intended as good for the gods.
Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.
A territory controlled by a different nation, generally in separate geographic regions.
Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.
A sequence of rulers from the same family.
a person who is not Jewish
"The revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire between 66 and 73 C.E.,
the result of which was the destruction of Jerusalem and the second
Of or relating to the reign of the family of Herod, which governed Palestine from 55 B.C.E. to the end of the first century C.E.
A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.
The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).
the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control
of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.
The part of Jerusalem currently surrounded by an Ottoman-era wall, in which the Temple Mount is located. The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously occipied cities in the world.
Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.
literally “pass over,” a biblical pilgrimage festival celebrated in the spring.
a journey, usually with religious significance
A first-century C.E. Roman soldier, lawyer, and writer who pursued a philosophy of nature and the physical world.
a Roman administrative officer
The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.
Literally "Weeks," a biblical pilgrimage festival celebrated in the spring, seven weeks after Passover.
Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.
The site in Jerusalem of the First and Second Temples, according to the Bible.