Hey guys, so in the next few episodes, we’re going to be talking about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But to help set the stage for some of these New Testament events, it is really helpful to have a basic understanding of the world that Jesus is going to be born into. In this episode, we’re going to familiarize ourselves with the geography of the New Testament Palestine area, and some of the political history of this region as well. Let’s do it.
Alright, so when Jesus was born, the Holy Land was ultimately under the power of the Roman Empire. But, Rome allowed the Kingdom of Judaea to be ruled directly by a practicing Jew known as Herod the Great. Herod was kind of a mixed bag. He built some great things, like the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem and the port city Caesarea. But he wasn’t well-liked by the Jews, partially because of his affiliation with Rome and his Idumean heritage. They didn’t consider him “Jewish” enough. He’s also known for executing his favorite wife, a few of his sons, and in the Bible for ordering the killing of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. To escape the slaughter in Bethlehem, the gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph and Mary took Jesus and fled to Egypt.
Herod the Great died while Jesus was still very young. After Herod’s death, the ruling of the kingdom, as per Herod’s request, was divided among 3 of his sons. Herod Archaleus ruled the largest chunk of land, ranging from the Idumea region through Judaea and Samaria. Philip, known as Philip the Tetrarch, ruled the northeastern region (which included cities like Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi). Herod Antipas ruled the regions of Galilee and Peraea (which included cities like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana). Also as a fun fact, the Sea of Galilee is not really a sea. It’s a freshwater lake about the size of Washington DC.
And then, for the sake of filling in this map, you had the Greek Gentile region called Decapolis. Remember when Jesus sends a bunch of demons into a herd of swine? That happens on the Decapolis side of the Sea of Galilee. The man that was healed “departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him…”. Reading the Bible with a map of the Palestine area in hand can be really helpful. If you’re a Latter-day Saint, check the back of your Bible for some of these helpful maps.
But anyway, back to Herod’s successors. Herod the Great’s son, Archaleus, was not a popular ruler among the Jews. In the gospel of Matthew when Christ’s family returns from Egypt we read, “But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither … he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth …” Remember, even though the region of Galilee was part of this kingdom, it was ruled by Herod Antipas, not Archaleus.
In 6 A.D., Archaleus was deposed by Rome and banished. His land was made an official Roman province and came under the rule of a Roman prefect. Fun fact: The Roman prefect in charge towards the end of Christ’s life was none other than Pontius Pilate. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
So Archaleus is banished, but we’ve still got Herod Antipas and Philip the Tetrarch ruling parts of the kingdom. Now, Herod the Great’s family tree can get a little confusing sometimes but bear with me. Philip the Tetrarch had a half-brother (literally a brother from another mother) named Herod Philip. Herod Philip married his half-niece, Herodias, and together they had a daughter named Salome. Eventually, Herodias decides she’s done with Herod Philip and wants to marry his half brother (her half brother-in-law), Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Peraea. So they divorce their spouses and get hitched.
This marriage causes quite the stir, as it violated the Law of Moses. And Herod Antipas gets called out by a guy named John the Baptist. John the Baptist is arrested and according to the historian Josephus is held in the fortress of Machaerus in the Peraea region.
You know the rest of the Bible story. Salome dances before her step-father, and Herod Antipas promises to give her whatever she wants. At her mother’s urging, she requests the head of John the Baptist. (Fun fact, Salome later marries her half-uncle, Philip the Tetrarch.) Later, when Herod Antipas hears about the miracles of Jesus, he gets a little freaked out that Jesus might be the resurrected John the Baptist. The Pharisees tell Jesus, “depart hence: for Herod (referring to Herod Antipas) will kill thee.” Of course, Jesus doesn’t care in the slightest.
In the Bible, you’ll notice that Jesus does a lot of traveling between Galilee and Judaea. According to Google Maps, it takes about 35 hours to walk from Capernaum to Jerusalem. But right smack-dab in the middle of these two regions is Samaria. When making these trips, the Jews would often substantially lengthen their journey by crossing and traveling along the other side of the Jordan river just to avoid the Samaritans. They did not get along. Why?
700 years before Christ, this Samaria region, then known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians. Most of the Israelites were taken captive into Assyria and the region was repopulated with Assyrians who intermarried with the sparse remaining Israelites. This was a violation of the Law of Moses because the Assyrians were gentiles, and Israelites were not supposed to marry Gentiles. The posterity of these unlawful relationships would be known as Samaritans. Essentially, the Jews viewed the Samaritans as mudbloods.
So, there’s some background on the world Jesus is born into. We’ve barely scratched the surface. In our next episode, we’re going to flesh out some additional things you’re going to want to understand when reading about Jesus. We’re going to talk about Pharisees and Sadducees and the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas and Zealots and all of that good stuff. But if you want to learn more about the stuff we’ve talked about today, check out the resources in the YouTube description. Watch another video or two on our channel while you’re here. We’ll see you next time. Have a great day.
- MAP: “The Holy Land in New Testament Times”: https://bit.ly/3uSCcC8
- Decapolis (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3akjObQ
- Herod [the Great] (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3lpadH7
- Herod Archaleus (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3oScL2Q
- Herod Antipas (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3AwpnyA
- Philip [the Tetrarch] (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3iNjs23
- Herodias (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/2X25P7L
- Salome (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3iQOkPq
- Judaea (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3oOJZ2T
- Galilee (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/2YBlDiJ
- Samaria (Encyclopedia Britannica): https://bit.ly/3DKshCb
- Fun little infographic of some relevant pieces of Herod the Great’s family tree (Biblical Archaeology Society): https://bit.ly/2YFZkrt
- “Chronology of the New Testament” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3mMUVM5