The People and Demographics of the Holy Lands


Throughout Palestine, in the countryside and especially in the great cities of the coast and the Decapolis lived Gentiles--non-Jewish people.  Some of these people traced their descent from the Greek colonists settled by Alexander and his successors.  They worshiped Greek and Syrian gods in temples built in the Hellenistic style.  And they lived in cities or their territories with Greek political and cultural institutions and the public structures to house them: gymnasia, theaters, hippodromes, stoas.  There seems no way to establish the ethnic identity of any Gentile group in Palestine.  Fergus Millar characterized most Gentiles living in Palestine as Greco-Aramaic--and even the Jews, the only group with a clear ethnic self-definition, commonly spoke Aramaic.  To call these Gentiles "Greeks" or "Syrians" falsely suggests that we actually know something about their ethnic identity or about a homogenous cultural/ethnic group in southwestern Asia.

The Jews, by the beginning of the Roman period, had come to identify themselves not ethnically so much as religiously.  That identification focused on the Bible, canonized before the Roman period as the Tanak, consisting of the five books of Moses (the Torah), the books of the prophets (the Nebiim), and the writings (the Ketubim).  This identification outlasted any religious or political institutions thanks to the rabbi's colossal interpretation of the experience of defeat in the first and second centuries, an interpretation commensurate with the prophet's interpretation of defeat in the First Temple Period.  Religious life focused on the great festivals, pilgrimages to Jerusalem, daily observances (scriptural study, prayer), dietary restrictions and ritual purity, observation of the Sabbath, and attendance at synagogue for prayer, instruction, and meetings.  The accounts of Josephus, the New Testament, and the documents from the Judaean desert attest to the variety within Judaism of the first century that included such sects as the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Christians.

wpe2.jpg (8930 bytes)All varieties of Judaism had more or less Hellenized by the Roman period--that is, Jews adopted the standard material culture of the Greco-Roman world and--with some variation--ate, dressed, and built like Gentiles.  Hebrew had fallen out of everyday use, and the Jews spoke the prevailing languages of the area: Aramaic and Greek (the picture shows a piece of a Jewish tombstone from late antique Caesarea, written in Greek but carrying Jewish names, symbols, and title: priest).  In the hands of some philosophers, such as Philo, even the theology and interpretation of the Bible had Hellenized.  Some purists--Essenes, for example, and the amorphous groups known as Zealots and sicarii (some of whom seem more like bandits or politically motivated terrorists than like religious puritans)--decried the extent of Hellenization within Judaism and tried to preserve or restore the True Israel by withdrawal into the desert, by militancy, or by both.  From them emerged the violent Messianism that in times of political distress erupted into popular rebellion against Roman rule, especially during the two great revolts of 66-73/74 and 132-35.

Before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE the Jews also had powerful political and religious institutions to help them establish an identity, especially vis-à-vis the Romans: the priesthood and the calendar of festivals, all focusing on the temple cult in Jerusalem, and the Sanhedrin or council of aristocratic Jews under the presidency of the Chief Priest.  Jerusalem constituted the geographical and imaginary center of Judaism (imaginary because it remained a center even after its destruction) even for the Jews living outside Palestine in the scattered communities of the Diaspora.   Until 70 CE the Romans or their client kings appointed the Chief Priest, but left to him and the Sanhedrin control over the internal affairs of Jewish regions of Palestine.   Local leaders owed their position to the Sanhedrin.  Autonomous Jewish areas or communities included Jerusalem and the villages of Judaea, the Jordan valley, and Peraea; the Jewish communities in otherwise Gentile cities on the coast; and the rural villages of Galilee and Idumaea where the Hasmoneans and Herod had forced the Gentiles to convert to Judaism.  The disaster of the Bar Cochba Revolt in 135 entailed a profound demographic consequence: the nearly complete removal of Jews from Judaea, which the Romans repopulated with Gentiles.

For the most part the aristocratic Jewish leadership fit well into the pattern of Roman rule via co-optation of local elites.  But in 66 CE Jewish leaders failed to contain popular resistance to Roman rule and, rather than let it destroy them, they joined the revolt.  After 70 and the dissolution of the Sanhedrin the Romans no longer permitted the Jews to handle their own affairs except in cities (eg, Tiberias and Sepphoris) with enough well-off Jews that they could dominate the Roman-style municipal government.  Religious leadership passed to a group of scholar/teachers or rabbis who settled at Iamnia in the coastal plain southwest of Jerusalem.  They established a court that gradually acquired the religious and judicial authority of the Sanhedrin.   After the Bar Cochba Revolt this group moved to the Galilee and settled in a series of towns until it became permanently established in Tiberias as a reconstituted Sanhedrin under the leadership of a patriarch.  This religious leadership held the respect of and received regular contributions from the Jews of the Diaspora.  The scholars of Tiberias also formulated the new style of Judaism known as rabbinic Judaism and prepared their people for a long future without large-scale formal religious institutions and without political autonomy.  Gradually, over the second and third centuries, the patriarchate came to hold civil power as well as religious authority as the Romans recognized the patriarch as the representative of the Jews.  This role ended in the Christian era of Late Antiquity.

The Samaritans did not differ ethnically from the Jews, but due to their religious heterodoxy in the Hasmonean period they suffered a negative identification on the part of the southern Israelites and, in consequence, persecution.   In 110 BCE John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple and city (Shechem) at Mt Gerizim.   But they rebuilt and continued to flourish during the Herodian and Roman period despite official attempts to destroy their identity by acts of terrorism and the foundation of colonies and planting of military garrisons among them.  The Samaritans concentrated in Samaria, although the cities of Samaria-Sebaste and Scythopolis remained mostly Gentile.  Samaritans also lived in the territories of the cities of the coastal plain.

wpe1.jpg (6437 bytes)The Christians emerged as a sect within Judaism.  They had limited success in winning Jewish converts (called Minim from the second century), and under the leadership of the apostles in the first generation turned their efforts at proselytism toward the Gentiles much more successfully.  The small Christian community of Jerusalem did not join the Jews in their revolts, but Jewish members could not remain after 135.  The small congregation in Jerusalem thus became wholly Gentile.  Not until the fourth century and the beginning of imperial patronage did a significant congregation rise there, and only at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 did the bishop of Jerusalem, hitherto subordinate to the see of Caesarea, attain patriarchal status.  In late antiquity Christians constituted the majority of the population in all of Palestine.  The picture shows the tombstone of a Christian family, George, Anastasia, and their children; note the crosses placed before and below the text.

The nomads of the desert regions to the east and south, called by such names as Arabs, Tent-dwellers, and Saracens, represent not a single ethnic group but peoples whose style of living threatened Roman security and so precipitated the formation of the limes.  The degree to which they settled in Palestine in the Roman and late antique periods remains unclear.

Descendants of the Nabataeans (themselves sometimes called Arabs) presumably still lived in southern Palestine after the absorption of their kingdom by the Romans in 106, although their language rapidly went out of use thereafter.

A number of Romans, finally, sojourned in Palestine, usually in consequence of their official duties.  These people included thousands of soldiers and scores of governors, commanders, administrators, and their staffs.  They originated from all over the Mediterranean but especially Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Syria.  They spoke Latin and whatever native languages they came to Palestine with; educated Romans, of course, commanded Greek as well.  But Latin gradually went out of use in Palestine--as throughout the eastern empire--during the third century, and Greek replaced it as the language of government.