Just before the birth of Jesus, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, demanded that a census should be taken of all those who came under the authority of the Roman Empire. There were two main reasons for doing this: to recruit men to the army and to raise taxes. Jewish men were exempt from serving in the army so the main issue here was taxation. It was necessary for everyone to return to their tribal home. This meant Joseph and Mary had to travel about 150 kilometres to return to Bethlehem in the south of the country. Series 1 Episode 9
Jesus encounters many tax collectors in his ministry. One of his twelve disciples, Matthew, was a tax collector, Series 3 Episode 9. He collected customs duties on behalf of the Romans who demanded a certain amount but were open to the tax collector asking for more money for themselves. Some tax collectors were very rich and all were unpopular, as they were considered collaborators with the Roman overlords. Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, Series 10 Episode 11. He worked in the busy city of Jericho where many people passed through on their way to and from the capital Jerusalem, coordinating other tax collectors. This meant he was both very unpopular and very wealthy! Zaccheus was transformed by his meeting with Jesus; he distributed half of his wealth to the poor and offered to pay four times as much to anyone he had cheated. Tax collectors were often mentioned in the same breath as ‘sinners’. These people were despised by the Jewish religious authorities but welcomed by Jesus.
Israel was ruled by governors of specific areas on behalf of the Romans. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee where Jesus’ ministry began. He had his headquarters at Tiberias which was close to Capernaum where Jesus was based. Although he had heard of Jesus, Herod Antipas seems to have only met him in Jesus’ last few hours. He was responsible for the death of John the Baptist and was fully aware of Jesus and his popular movement which may account for Jesus moving out of the area for a time. Series 6 Episode 4 explains that he could not keep the influence of Jesus out of his household. A centurion, an official and the wife of the manager of his household had all encountered Jesus and his miracles.
Pontius Pilate governed the area of Judea in which the capital city of Jerusalem was situated. At the time of the Jewish religious festivals, he would take up residence in Jerusalem to guard against religious uprisings and crowd trouble. There was a large military fortress near the Temple in Jerusalem. Generally, he would leave religious disputes with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish authorities, but they were not allowed to issue the death penalty - only the Romans were permitted to do that. Pilate tried to devolve the responsibility of Jesus’ judgement to Herod Antipas as Jesus came from his area of jurisdiction but Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. Crucifixion was a common form of punishment, which the Romans used to intimidate their opponents and dissuade people from rebellion. Pilate bowed to the pressure of the crowd and handed Jesus over to be crucified. Soldiers led Jesus out to Golgotha, the place of crucifixion and gambled to own his clothes, Series 13 Episode 6. The centurion at the foot of the cross, when he saw the earthquake and all that had happened declared, “Surely, he was the Son of God.” Matthew 27:55, Series 13 Episode 7.
The Roman influence continued long after Jesus’ death. Jesus had prophesied about a time when the Temple would be destroyed and the people scattered, Series 12 Episode 2.This happened in AD 66 - 70 when a war took place between the Jews and the Romans. Many Jews were exiled to all parts of the Roman Empire. The book of the Acts of the Apostles recounts how many of these Jewish people were reached with the Gospel through Peter and then Paul, who was himself a Roman citizen.
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem came as a result of a Roman edict. He was exiled as a baby to escape the jealousy of the ruler Herod the Great. He met soldiers and tax collectors who worked on behalf of the Romans. His death was expedited by the Roman governor, Pilate. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Yet through it all, the Kingdom of God was advancing into all the world - and beyond the Roman Empire!