Was Jesus a Roman Citizen?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #27 – Was Jesus a Roman Citizen?

 

As far as we know Jesus was not a Roman citizen, as the term is generally used, although He was a Roman national or subject.

Citizenship then, as now, carried with it certain rights and privileges as well as duties.

Palestine in the time of Jesus had the status of a conquered province, which was divided into several principalities with varying degrees of autonomy.

At that time comparatively few of the inhabitants, whether Gentiles or Jews, had acquired Roman citizenship.

Galilee, where Jesus lived, was part of a tetrarchy, which also included Peraca, and Herod Antipas was tetrarch throughout the life of Jesus.“As far as we know Jesus was not a Roman citizen, as the term is generally used, although He was a Roman national or subject.”

This tetrarchy was in the nature of a vassal state and the tetrarch was a puppet king with very restricted local powers.

Judaea and Samaria during most of the lifetime of Jesus constituted a Roman province attached directly to the Empire and was governed by a series of procurators or governors, of whom Pontius Pilate was sixth.

Very few Jews at that time were Roman citizens. Most of them probably would not have accepted Roman citizenship if it had been offered to them.

Both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire developed from the old city-state of Rome. The only full-fledged Roman citizens were the privileged classes in the city of Rome.

All members of the Roman senate had to be residents of the city, and a Roman citizen could exercise his franchise only within the limits of the capital.

In the time of Jesus the number of Roman citizens in the Empire was only a few million in a total population of about 120 million.

Roman citizens outside the city of Rome enjoyed certain privileges and civil rights not enjoyed by the mere nationals.

They had the right to appeal to Caesar from decisions of the local authorities, and if condemned to death could not be executed by crucifixion.“In the time of Jesus the number of Roman citizens in the Empire was only a few million in a total population of about 120 million.”

During the reign of Claudius (41 to 54 A.D.), who became emperor about twelve years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the rights of Roman citizens living outside Rome and Italy were increased and such citizens were permitted to sit as members of the Roman senate.

Sometimes, as a mark of special consideration, civil rights were conferred upon entire cities and communities outside Italy. Pompey granted the protection of Roman citizenship to Tarshish (or Tarsus, a city of Cilicia), which was confirmed by Julius Caesar.

Thus Paul, as well as his father before him, was a Roman citizen. In connection with the arrest of Paul and Silas at Philippi, the chief city of that part of Macedonia and a colony, Acts 16:35-38 says,

35) And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go.

36) And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace.

37) But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.

38) And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans.Acts 16:35-38 (KJV)

From Acts 22 we learn that Paul was free born in Tarsus and that his parents were Jews.

The chief captain who ordered Paul bound and scourged at Jerusalem admitted that he himself had paid a great sum for citizenship.

Historians inform us that the sale of civil rights to foreigners and nationals was at that time the source of considerable revenue to the Roman government.

In Philippians 3:5 the Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) says he was of “the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.”

Thus it is clear that Jews living in the Roman provinces were permitted to enjoy the status of Roman citizens and what was known as “the freedom of the city.”

Paul finally appealed directly to Caesar in Rome, which was one of the prerogatives of Roman citizenship in certain cases.

According to tradition, when Paul was later condemned to death in Rome, he could not be scourged and crucified because he was a Roman citizen; but Peter, who was not a Roman citizen, suffered both of these humiliations and tortures.

Jesus was not a Roman citizen, but lived and died a Roman national. Not being a Roman citizen, He could not appeal Pilate’s decision, and He was scourged and crucified as a Roman subject without civil rights.

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