🔼The name Praetorium in the Bible
The Latin word Praetorium (or Praitorion in Greek) is not really a proper name but rather a descriptive term that found an increasingly wide field of application, until it became used as if it were the name of the building from which the Roman governor ruled (comparable to, say, the descriptive term "the White House" for the building that was actually named Executive Mansion).
There are a few buildings and facilities referred to as Praetorium in the New Testament:
- The royal palace at Jerusalem, where Jesus was held, tried and tortured (Matthew 27:27, Mark 15:16, John 18:28, 18:33, 19:9). Roman governors resided in Caesarea (the administrative capital of Judea) but frequently visited Jerusalem (the civil and religious capital of the Jews) and stayed conveniently at Herod's palace. This palace was a Jewish facility that made space available for the Roman governor and consorts, so technically only this let out space should have been referred to as the Praetorium, but this name appears to have been applied to the entire building.
- Herod's palace at Caesarea, which was as much a Jewish affair as the one in Jerusalem, but was referred to as the Praetorium for the same reasons (Acts 23:35).
- The camp of the Praetorian Guard (the Roman Emperor's bodyguard, comparable to the United States Secret Service). Although these soldiers were to serve and protect the emperor, their organization was dominant enough to depose (murder) and instate emperors (they killed Caligula and declared the hapless Claudius his successor). Paul makes the enigmatic submission that his imprisonment has become well known throughout the Praetorium (Philippians 1:13), which most commentators take for a reference to the barracks of the Praetorian Guard, but why the Praetorian Guard would be interested in Paul, and why Paul would in turn be specifically interested in that isn't clear. At that time Paul was the face of an illegal movement for which he would be executed, and a public reference to collaborators among the Praetorian Guard would have been rather insensitive (read our article on Onesimus for more on this). It may be that in stead Paul meant to refer to Rome's administrative apparatus, rather than, say, general Roman citizens or even slaves.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Praetorium
The name Praetorium comes from the word praetor (like museum comes from muse or aquarium from aqua), which in turn is formed from the familiar prefix prae (in Greek προ, pro), meaning first.
Initially, the title praetor described someone at the top of a hierarchal ladder: either a general or a magistrate of some sort, and can somewhat be compared to our modern title Excellency or the less bombastic word "chief". The Roman Republic assigned praetors to take over some of the duties of the consul, who was someone who held the highest elected political office. A Republican praetor can thus be compared to a modern chief of staff.
The word Praetorium, therefore, described a building from which a governor executed his reign. It literally means Government Building.
Note that even though the word praetor became used to describe a subordinate chief, it literally (and originally) described someone without an earthly superior (a primary or firstling). In that regard the word praetor is similar to the word Christ.