Soldiers in the Gospels

By Gary Manning Jr Mar. 14, 2011 1:30 p.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament

When I teach or preach from the Gospels, I always bring in relevant aspects of the historical and cultural background. Including such details not only helps us in our interpretation of the scene, but also helps us retell the story well – an essential part of preaching from narrative passages.

Several passages in the Gospels involve soldiers. Movies about Jesus, and most sermons about Jesus, portray all of these soldiers as Romans. We sometimes get the idea that there were centurions on every street corner. But is this the case? I have pulled together some of the information that we have about soldiers in Judea and Galilee in the first century, and included a few comments about each scene in the Gospels involving soldiers.

Herod the Great: During Herod’s rise to power, his personal army consisted of Jews as well as bands of foreign mercenaries. Rome also loaned Herod the use of three legions to help him expel the Parthian invaders and their puppet king, the Hasmonean prince Antigonus. But by the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod had no Roman troops; he still had a sizable Jewish army, as well as one cohort each of German, Thracian, and Gallic mercenaries. Herod continued to use some Roman advisors and officers.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee: Herod Antipas also had his own army. Although details are sketchy, his soldiers were likely Jews and Gentile mercenaries, like his father’s army.

Pilate and other Roman governors: When Archelaus (another Herod) was removed from office in AD 6, Jerusalem and Judea fell under the control of the Roman governors. They kept four cohorts (a cohort was usually 6 centuries of 60-80 soldiers) and some cavalry in Caesarea Maritima, the Roman provincial capital, and one cohort in the fortress Antonia in Jerusalem. The cohort in Jerusalem was primarily in charge of protecting the fort and the arsenal. The governor came to Jerusalem at major feasts with additional cohorts, which were temporarily quartered in the Praetorium (the governor’s palace). Roman cohorts normally travelled with battle standards and shrines that honored their gods. However, the troops left these behind when they came to Jerusalem, since Romans (usually) tried to honor the religious customs and gods of their client nations. Since the “Roman” soldiers in the East were primarily recruited from the Syrian Greeks, they probably spoke Greek as their primary language, not Latin. Their senior officers were probably ethnically Roman or Italian.

The High Priest: The Roman governors allowed the priestly aristocracy to govern Jerusalem and Judea, although the governor appointed and removed high priests and kept the right of capital punishment. The high priest had his own Jewish troops (called ὑπηρέται, hyperetai in the Gospels). These primarily had police responsibility, but were also prepared for city defense.

Scenes involving soldiers:

Soldiers coming to John the Baptist: Some soldiers come to John the Baptist for baptism (Luke 3:14). Since John’s primary ministry was in Galilee, these are probably Jewish soldiers of Herod Antipas.

Gentile officer who comes to Jesus (Matt 8:5-13). It is possible that this officer is a Roman centurion, as it is normally interpreted. However, the word translated "centurion" is ἑκατοντάρχος (hekatontarchos), which refers to an officer of any army. Throughout the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), hekatontarchos is a standard title used for captains and administrators, translating the Hebrew title שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת(sarey meyot), “leader of a hundred” (Exod 18:21, 1 Sam 8:12, 2 Sam 18:1). Josephus uses the title to refer to officers in David’s army, the Roman army, and in his own rebel army. Since it is unlikely that Roman troops were stationed in Galilee, it seems possible, or even likely, that this man was a Gentile mercenary captain in the army of Herod Antipas.

The arrest of Jesus: John 18:3 mentions the cohort and officers of the high priest. Although “cohort” can refer to troops of any nation, in this case it refers to a squad (or more) of soldiers from the Roman cohort. In Jerusalem, a reference to “the cohort,” along with the mention of a χιλίαρχος (chiliarchos, commander of a cohort, John 18:12), makes it clear that Roman troops are present along with the officers of the high priest. Since civil disorder was always a possibility at Passover, the high priest decided to request a contingent of Roman troops to support this arrest. John’s wording can be interpreted to mean that some portion of the cohort was present, rather than the entire cohort.

Jesus before the high priest: When Jesus appeared before the high priest, only Jewish officers (ὑπηρέται) were present (Matt 26:58). One of them struck Jesus during the hearing (John 18:21); others beat him after the verdict (Mark 14:65). In the morning, these soldiers would have guarded Jesus as he was handed over to Pilate.

Jesus before Pilate: Pilate ordered Jesus to be beaten and mocked by his soldiers (Matt 27:27-30).  These were from the cohort that had travelled down with Pilate from Caesarea Maritima. Most of these troops were recruited from the Syrian Greeks, known for their hostility towards Jews. Josephus records that in about AD 50, one soldier “mooned” the Passover crowds from the walls above the Temple and caused a riot; another was executed by the governor for tearing up a Torah scroll.

Jesus before Herod Antipas: Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover, so Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, probably hoping to dodge the problem of executing Jesus. Herod’s soldiers, who were probably Jewish, mocked Jesus and gave him a royal robe (Luke 23:6-12).

The crucifixion: Since the Roman government reserved the right of capital punishment, Roman soldiers presided over the execution. Mark calls the presiding officer a κεντυρίων(kenturion), a Latin loanword, rather than the usual hekatontarchos. Crucifixion was reserved for acts of insurrection against Rome; the two criminals were likely compatriots of Barabbas, an insurrectionist.

The tomb: The high priest persuaded Pilate to seal Jesus’ tomb and post a squad of Roman soldiers (Matt 27:62-66). Since their failure to guard the tomb could result in their execution, the chief priests promised to use their influence with Pilate to protect them, if they would lie about the event.

There is more to say, as soldiers show up in Acts, and as metaphors in Paul's letters (maybe the topic of a later post). Paying attention to the “local color” of scenes in the gospels doesn’t always dramatically influence our reading, but it does help us retell the stories in an interesting and accurate way.  


  • Karen Manning Mar. 14, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    Very interesting.. .especially about Herod the Great using German cohorts. .suppose there were some of our ancestors there?

  • Richard Zuelch Mar. 14, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    A very interesting post. It demonstrates, with these various layers of existing military in Palestine, just how highly organized - and how highly militarized - the Roman Empire was at that time. Such militarization shows that the Empire was willing to brook no nonsense from its conquered states, even though it allowed a certain amount of local civil and religious freedom (as long as fealty to the Emperor was maintained). And, of course, as you say, it also demonstrates the high visibility of soldiers in the New Testament, especially the Gospels.

  • Gary Manning Mar. 14, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    Yes, it is fascinating that Herod had German mercenaries! Maybe some day I'll try my hand at historical fiction and write a story about one of those German soldiers.

    Richard, you are certainly right - very militarized. Israel was on the eastern edge of the Roman empire, and the Romans feared a Parthian invasion. They actually kept far more troops in Syria (as high as 6 legions, and not even 1 in Judea). Part of the strategy was to set up client kingdoms, like Herod the Great's kingdom and Herod Antipas' tetrarchy. These were supposed to serve as buffer states, and the Romans only allowed rulers in those client kingdoms who would heavily promote Roman interests. The client kings would have their own taxation systems and their own armies. The Romans would send in troops only to help the client kings defend themselves or to quell revolt.

  • Louis Apr. 27, 2015 at 4:48 AM

    What were the Hebrew soldiers called besides soldiers?
    There were the Pharisees, Sadducees, & even later the revolutionaries called Zealots but there had to be a name for the army?
    I've been searching online off and on for a week and your site is the closest I've come. Hope you can help.

  • Gary Manning Jr Sep. 21, 2015 at 5:12 PM

    Just saw your question now, Louis. In all the Greek documents I have studied, there is no special word for Jewish soldiers in the first century. They were normally called stratiotai (in Greek), just as soldiers of other countries were. Jewish armies were called strateumata, just like other armies. Some Jewish soldiers are labeled as spearmen, cavalry, footmen, archers, etc, or by their rank, but these terms do not indicate their ethnicity. Soldiers who served a king were called basilikoi, so the soldiers of the Herods were often called basilikoi. The temple police/soldiers are called huperetai, which is a fairly general term meaning "officer," but context can usually tell if they are temple officers. If you read through Josephus' Jewish Wars you can see the various terms used to refer to Jewish soldiers and armies.

  • standr Sep. 30, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    Informative article. Thanks.

  • David McManamey Mar. 4, 2016 at 11:09 PM

    I would be interested in the authority for Herod having German Thracian ad Gallic cohorts.

  • Gary Manning Jr Mar. 26, 2016 at 10:41 PM

    David - Josephus has lots of information about Herod's armies. These bands are mentioned in War 1:672, Ant 17.198, 15:217. Each was a στῖφος, which is probably a rough synonym for cohort. In this case, we know that the Gallic στῖφος numbered 400. The term "Gallic" could also be translated "Galatian." Both are Celtic.

  • Michele Straitiff Apr. 3, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    How does this information not dramatically influence our reading of these scripture.

  • Alison Cheah Aug. 23, 2016 at 11:36 AM

    Oh, thank you, thank you. Your explanations about Herod's mercenary army have finally made sense of the fact that there was a centurion based in Capernaum!

  • WILLIAM TURNER Oct. 30, 2016 at 4:57 AM


  • James Nov. 6, 2016 at 4:58 AM

    Great post. Thanks for this.
    I was wondering if you or anyone knows how common or widespread was basic military training amongst the Jews at the time of Jesus. We're most Jews trained to carried weapons and given basic military training?
    We know that some of the disciples of Jesus carried weapons and Jesus even expects the disciples to have weapons - Luke 22.38 which presumes they had some competency to use weapons. Peter cuts the ear off of Malchus in Jn 18.10.

    Also, in Paul 6:10-18 - he is clearly using very strong military language. What was happening in Ephesus? Was Paul speaking and converting Roman soldiers or were some of the Ephesians mercenaries or Jewish soldiers? It is all so interesting.

  • Gary Manning Jan. 25, 2017 at 12:32 PM

    Just noticed the last few comments and questions.

    William: yes, it is true that by the first century, Roman legions recruited from many areas in the Empire. The Eastern legions primarily recruited Syrian Greeks. Centurions/ captains could be of any nationality, as they worked up through the ranks. Identifying their nationality in ancient texts is not always easy, as they all received Roman names upon entering service. Higher ranking officers (tribunes) were normally from aristocratic Roman families. They used their military posts as part of a normal course of political promotion (the cursus honorum).

  • Gary Manning Jan. 25, 2017 at 12:33 PM

    James: The Herodian dynasty had large professional armies consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. There is some evidence that their training was influenced by Roman armies. I have not run across any evidence that ordinary citizens received much military training. However, people in villages likely had to defend themselves against bandits, since city troops / police were not very close. Peter used only a short sword, which might be common for self-defense, and hitting Malchus in the ear suggests his lack of training.

    The military language in Eph 6:10-18 is actually derived primarily from passages in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. Paul draws on passages that describe God or the Messiah as a rescuing warrior, and applies God's weapons to Christians. So Paul was not using much Roman imagery in Eph 6. If you want to see the OT passages that Paul was quoting from, you can take a look at the cross-references in a good Bible. Maybe I'll do a blog post on it later.

  • Shane Oct. 25, 2017 at 8:17 AM

    To say that Paul was not using "much Roman imagery", I find a little hard to apply seeing as he as chained to a Roman as he wrote Ephesians or at the least on house arrest.

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