Arts & Books Books

The surprising truth about the Roman army at the time of Christ

James Baresel on a detailed but flawed guide to a lost world

The Roman Army and the New Testament
By Christopher Zeichmann
Fortress Academic, 208pp, £60/$80

Few phrases are as cringe-inducing as “the historical Jesus”, with its implication that there is an alternative, mythical Jesus created by those wishing to deny the historical accuracy of the New Testament, orthodox Christology and the supernatural generally. Defence of the mutual conformity of traditional theology with the facts of history should not, however, lead us to overlook another perfectly valid point – that while our understanding of facts with theological significance has improved over time, many more mundane events connected to biblical history have been lost to human memory.

The Roman Army and the New Testament will be a useful resource for those wishing to reconstruct our knowledge of that lost world. It must be admitted that, like many works in its genre, Christopher Zeichmann’s book is marred by the anti-supernatural biases of “the search for the historical Jesus”. But, like many works that take this stance, Zeichmann’s book contains many interesting and valuable facts which need only to be extracted from the author’s theorising.

Fortunately for those reading Zeichmann’s book, the first two of its five chapters present little that is objectionable – a consequence of these chapters’ focus on the Roman army in the world of the New Testament rather than on the depiction of the Roman army in the New Testament books. What they demonstrate is that more modern popular perceptions of the military in early to mid-1st century Palestine are largely inaccurate, not because they were influenced by the New Testament but because they were grounded in broader assumptions about the fighting forces of the Roman Empire.

Units of the Roman army garrisoning Palestine at the time of Christ were not drawn from the famous legions. Use of the legions was limited to areas that were either of the greatest strategic significance, under ongoing threat or the scene of at least impending conflict. Less sensitive areas were garrisoned either by auxiliaries or by the armies of technically independent satellite states. Herod the Great and Herod Antipas were among those commanding satellite armies. Legionaries are to be encountered in portions of the New Testament which concern the travels of the Apostles. The “Roman soldiers” stationed in the Palestine of the Gospels were auxiliaries. These were, like legionaries, under the direct orders of the Roman government but, like satellite armies, they were recruited among men living in the area where they served and who did not hold Roman citizenship (a prerequisite for entry into the legions).

The Roman army in Palestine was, therefore, the army of a foreign imperial power without being an army of foreigners (the same combination later seen in the Indian Army of British India). Upholding imperial authority against possible rebellions was obviously among its purposes, but its normal daily functions were not those characteristic of an occupation force. Provision of labour for engineering work and policing were more typical of its responsibilities. In this, the auxiliary units serving in Palestine conformed to the standards of Roman soldiers elsewhere in an empire whose authority was generally acquiesced with.

Jews of the time were not, unlike later Christians, forced to participate in pagan rituals. Roman practices were not unusually brutal by the standards of the age. Depending on the disposition of local officials and military commanders, soldiers could either be little better than thugs running extortion rackets or upright administrators of justice.

The last-mentioned fact could easily be deduced from the variety of behaviour attributed to soldiers in the New Testament, but Zeichmann treats such variety as perplexing until “explained” by non-biblical sources – an exercise in overlooking the obvious due to a supposition that the New Testament presents a series of quasi-fictitious and apocryphal stories intended to communicate attitudes towards, in this case, Roman soldiers. This results in the last three chapters being as dominated by gratuitous and intellectually painful speculation as the preceding ones were by serious research. That it would have been rare for a Roman centurion to recognise Christ as Son of God is, for Zeichmann, a sufficient reason for claiming that the centurion on Calvary did not do so.

Pages are wasted analysing the possibility that the story of the Gerasene demoniac and swine might be a symbolic anti-Roman legend – a local military unit’s use of a boar’s head logo receiving intense analysis while the reality of an exorcism is dismissed out of hand.

Yet, despite its flaws and its high price, this book will be of considerable interest to those with a solid grounding in theology and an interest in biblical history.