Was Jesus a Roman Citizen? (Rights and Privileges)

In our modern world of nation-states and citizenship tied to the place of birth, it is sometimes hard to think of what citizenship looked like for Jesus.

If Jesus lived in the Roman Empire, was he a citizen?

Jesus was not a Roman Citizen.

Understanding citizenship in the Roman Empire helps to understand Jesus’ citizenship better. Or the lack of.

Jesus was born in the Roman Empire.

If you take Matthew and Luke’s birth stories as historically accurate, Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt.2, Lk.2). A village of the kingdom of Judea. Ruled by Herod the Great, a vassal king of the Roman Empire.

If you don’t take these reports as accurate, which many New Testament Historians don’t. Jesus was born somewhere in the region of Galilee. Which was still part of the kingdom of Herod the Great at the time of Jesus’ birth.

After his death, his kingdom was divided into four parts and distributed among three of his sons.

Galilee went to Herod Antipas. Thus, along with Peraea, it became a separate kingdom from Judea but still remained part of the Roman Empire.

Either way, Jesus was born in the Roman Empire. And lived his entire life in the empire.

But in the Roman Empire, the Duke of Wellington’s thoughts were lived out.

“Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.”

Duke of Wellington

Despite Jesus being born in the Roman Empire, he was not a Roman citizen.

He would have considered himself a Jew.

Being a Jew, Jesus Could Have Still Been a Roman Citizen

Not that his Jewish status would have prevented him from being a Roman citizen.

Person Holding Jewish Flag

Many Jews enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship.

Yes, it was considered a privilege, with only 1 to 2 percent of the Roman Empire being Citizens.

But similar to America today with Italian, German, Japanese and even Jewish. Identifying themselves as (ethnicity) American.

You could be a citizen of Rome but not of Roman descent.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher, was a Roman citizen.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, was a Roman citizen.

And closer to Jesus, The Apostle Paul was a Jew who enjoyed Roman citizenship.

Where any of Jesus' Disples Roman Citizens?

Were any of Jesus’ disciples Roman citizens?

But it doesn’t appear that any of the 12 were Roman citizens. Rather, like Jesus, they had been born in an empire in which they did not belong.

As the message of Jesus spread, Roman citizens became disciples. Commonly called “Christians” later. 

But during Jesus’ lifetime, with his strict focus on the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt.15:24). Citizens of Rome are not counted as his disciples.

Along with his focus on the outcast. In Rome itself, there were many poorer Roman citizens, but in the farther outreach of the empire, wealth and privilege came with citizenship. 

A possible exception is the Roman Centurion. Whose servant  Jesus healed because of his faith (Matt.8, Lk.7).

I could easily see the Centurion after seeing the power of Jesus becoming a disciple. At least from a distance. Probably never joining the ranks of the 12 or wandering around Galilee listening to Jesus. But that he would admire him and speak well of him whenever he came up in conversation.

And took the teachings of Jesus to heart. Pattern his life after Jesus even while working as a soldier. You didn’t have to be a pacifist to be a follower of Jesus.

Roman Citizenship in the Time of Jesus

Second-class citizenship is often a complaint in our modern democracies when someone appears not to be treated equally with others.

In the Roman Empire, this was not the exception but the rule.

Citizens of Rome enjoyed many privileges and rights not enjoyed by the rest of the population of the Roman Empire.

Bill of Rights of a Citizen

It’s these rights and privileges. That we can see that Jesus was not a Roman citizen.

The empire allowed a great level of autonomy among its many regions.

Giving the High Priest and Sanhedrin a great level of power and control of local laws and customs in Judea.

But these never superseded Roman citizenship.

A few of the privileges that are missing are Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.

Roman citizens were exempt from physical abuse during interrogation, excruciating forms of capital punishment like crucifixion and could appeal to the emperor if they felt they were not receiving a fair trial.  

  • Jesus was flogged while being tried by Pilate.
  • Jesus was executed by crucifixion.
  • Jesus never appealed to Tiberius (Emperor) during his trial.

None of this could have happened if Jesus was a Roman citizen.

Of course, there are always times when “justice” is not received.

When the law is not correctly applied, if Jesus was a citizen, he could have done as Paul did in Jerusalem. Right before being flogged, he asked the centurion, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:25). Appealing to his rights as a citizen.

Immediately stopping the proceeding. As the centurion knew of the consequences of not following the law regarding Roman citizenship.

Or even in a worst-case scenario.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples could have appealed to Rome about the misjustice of Jesus’ form of execution and trial. 

Like what Paul did in Philippi (Acts 16). Pilate, Joseph Caiaphas (High Priest) and the Sanhedrin all would have had to give account for their “crimes.” Changing greatly what happened with the early church in Jerusalem.

But none of this happened.

Why?

Because Jesus lived in the Roman Empire but was not a Roman citizen.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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