Representatives of the Roman government are everywhere in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles. Wherever Jesus and the apostles went, they encounter Roman officials whose authority sometimes worked against them and sometimes helped them.
Jesus’ last words to His apostles sent them across the Roman Empire and beyond: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV)
The Herodian Kingdom
The kings mentioned in the New Testament ruled the Herodian Kingdom of Judea as a client state of Rome. When the Roman Army conquered Judea and its surrounding regions in the first century BC, they left nominally Jewish kings in place and appointed Roman governors and other officials to deal with them. Roman governors controlled troops in what became the imperial provinces of Judea and Syria. As long as tribute money flowed to Rome and there were no civil disturbances, all went well.
Herod the Great
The first king mentioned in the New Testament is “Herod the king.” (Matthew 2:1) He was king at the time of Jesus’ birth who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem. He was responsible for large public works in Judea and especially in Jerusalem. He rebuilt what is today called the Second Temple. Upon his death, Rome divided Judea into a four-district tetrarchy among Herod’s three sons and one daughter.
Antipas was the son of Herod the Great known in the New Testament as “Herod the tetrarch.” (Matthew 14:1) He was technically not a king. He ordered John the Baptist beheaded. According to Luke 23:6-7, Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod’s local jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was in Jerusalem at the time. Oddly, the exchange between Pilate and Herod regarding Jesus formed a closer bond between the two men. (Luke 23:12)
Herod Agrippa I
Born Marcus Julius Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa was educated in Rome with the son of Emperor Tiberius and the young Claudius. When Emperor Caligula sent Agrippa to Jerusalem as a young man, he deposed his uncle Herod Antipas, took over his tetrarchy, and called himself a king. Acts 12:1–23 tells how “Herod the king” persecuted the Jerusalem church, had James the apostle killed, and imprisoned Peter. Agrippa died a gruesome death (Acts 12:20-23) when he encouraged people to worship him as a god.
Herod Agrippa II
The son of Herod Agrippa I was born and raised in Rome and assumed his father’s throne at the age of seventeen. He and his sister Bernice (herself queen of another Judean region) listened attentively to Paul’s testimony of salvation at the invitation of Governor Felix. (Acts 25:13-27)
Later, Agrippa tried without success to avert war between Rome and Judea. He was ejected from Jerusalem as a Roman collaborator and lived out the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 AD) in Rome before he died, thus ending the Herodian dynasty and any further mention of Herodian kings in the New Testament.
The emperor’s representative in the imperial province of Judea is called a governor in the King James translation of the Bible. His Roman title would be prefect, praetor, or propraetor depending on whether he held rank of consul in the Senate and had imperial authority to command troops.
“Pontius Pilate the governor” is known in the New Testament as the Roman official who presided over the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 27: 15-54) Secular historians describe his administration of Judea as troubled by ongoing conflicts with the Jewish community. Historians note that Pilate often stirred Jewish anger with his offensive decrees and then brutality suppressed protests. He was eventually dismissed from his post as governor for being ineffective in being able to control his subjects.
The Apostle Paul was sent in protective custody to Caesarea after a Roman centurion petitioned “Felix the governor” to hear the apostle’s case. (Acts 23:25-30) History indicates that Felix was a procurator with administrative and judicial responsibilities who also warranted the title of Governor. Paul’s trial ended in a stalemate and yet Paul was kept in loose confinement. On at least one further occasion Felix and his wife Drusilla heard Paul’s testimony, and frequently sent for Paul and talked with him about Christ (Acts 24:24-26). When Felix was succeeded as governor by Porcius Festus, having already detained Paul for two years, he left him imprisoned as a favor to the Jews (Acts 24:27).
The governor after Felix was pressured by the leaders in Jerusalem to send Paul to them for a hearing (intending to kill Paul there). Festus refused and insisted that they come to Caesarea. (Acts 25:1-5) Paul’s defense against false accusations was that he had never done anything against the Law of Moses, the Temple, or Caesar. (vv. 7-8) When Festus pressured him to go to Jerusalem where his life would be endangered, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case Caesar (Nero). (vv. 9-12)
A representative of the provincial governor is usually called a deputy in King James Bible. Some are mentioned by name and others simply by their title in conjunction with the Apostle Paul’s ministry. Roman historians call these men proconsuls.
In Corinth, Jews rioted over Paul’s bold preaching which resulted in the chief of the synagogue believing on Christ. Many others in the city also believed and this fueled a public disturbance that brought Paul before Gallio, “the deputy of Achaia.” (Acts 18:12) Gallio heard the accusation against Paul that he had violated the civil law. When Gallio sat in the bema seat and heard that the charges were about offenses involving the Jewish religion, he dismissed the charges as an internal Jewish matter. He deemed Paul’s preaching to be not against Roman law, but still left Paul to be beaten by the mob. (vv. 13-17)
On the island of Paphos, “the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus” heard about Paul and Barnabas and desired to hear what they had to say. When he saw Paul miraculously make a local sorcerer blind, he “believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” (Acts 13:6-12)
Other Government Officials
Tax collection figures in several New Testament passages. The collection of taxes and tribute was one of the primary reasons for maintaining a Roman presence in the provinces. Locals would handle the tax collection under the supervision and with the enforcement of Rome. Taxes generated revenue that allowed the Roman elite to maintain their luxurious lifestyles, to build monuments and temples to their gods, and to finance military adventures.
The decree from Caesar Augustus, “that all the world should be taxed,” (Luke 2:1) resulted in the Messiah being born in Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy.
Jesus “saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom” (Luke 5:27) and called the man known as Matthew (his Greek name) to follow Him. Matthew was a Jewish collaborator with the Romans to collect taxes and likely would have had military guards to protect him from retribution and his receipts from theft.
Magistrates in Philippi heard accusations against Paul and Barnabas for depriving idol manufacturers of their trade and causing a riot. The resulting order was for sergeants to beat Paul and Barnabas and imprison them. The Philippian jailer and his family were saved that night and in the morning Paul informed the magistrates that he and Barnabas were Roman citizens, had been beaten and imprisoned improperly, and demanded an apology. (Acts 16:19-40)
Magistrates were officials appointed by a consul or governor to preside over the administration of justice in a Roman province or colony. They were attended by sergeants, called lictors or “rod bearers” in Latin.
In Acts 16:20, 22, 35-36, 38, the Greek word strategos, is translated magistrate. In Luke 22:4, 52; Acts 4:1; 5:24, 26 it is translated magistrate or captain. It signifies a leader having military authority.
The Greek word archon, is rendered magistrate in Luke 12:58; Titus 3:1. It literally means a prince, but was also used for any official with governmental or ruling authority.