One of the earliest Biblical references to the wilderness of Judea is during the time of Joshua, when the area was said to contain six cities (Beth Arabah, Middin, Secacah, Nibshan, the city of Salt, and En Gedi (Joshua 15:61 - 62)). King David fled to this desolate place when his rebellious son Absalom tried to take the throne from him (Psalm 63:1).
Jesus, after he raised Lazarus from the dead, went with his disciples into this sparsely populated area in order to avoid the threats against his life from the Jews (John 11:46 - 54). During the time of the New Testament church the wilderness of Judea was also known as a place where thieves and robbers resided (see Acts 21:38).
Under Roman rule
The area considered Judea under the Roman Empire included the areas (or parts thereof) of the ancient Israelite tribes of Benjamin, Simeon, Judah, Ephraim and Dan. It included the cities of Bethany, Bethlehem, Emmaus, Ephraim, Hebron, Jericho, and Jerusalem. What is known as the Judean wilderness is located near the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Under the Romans, it was ruled by Herod the Great from 37 to 4 B.C. then by one of his sons, Herod Archelaus, from 4 B.C. to 6 A.D.
What exactly is it?
A wilderness is commonly thought to be a place absent of trees and completely destitute of inhabitants. In the New Testament, however, the original Greek word (Strong's Concordance #G2048) means a rough and mountainous area that is sparsely settled that does have some forests. The type of land is best used as pasture rather than for tilling. It was in such the rough terrain of the wilderness that John the Baptist preached repentance to the masses (Matthew 3).
The reason why there is a wilderness area near the Jordan is due to an effect called the 'rain shadow.' As weather travels eastward over this part of the world, it encounters the Judean Hills lying east of Jerusalem. As warm, moist air from the Mediterranean rises toward the top of the hills, it condenses and drops its moisture just before crossing over the hill tops. The now dryer air continues its journey eastward toward the river.
This dry strip of land that runs alongside the Jordan River and Dead Sea receives roughly a quarter of the total amount of rainfall that places like eastern Jerusalem are blessed with.
Tempted by the Adversary
The most well-known reference to the wilderness of Judea is in regard to Jesus' temptation by Satan the devil. The book of Luke records how, for a period of 40 days and 40 nights, Satan tempted Jesus to sin. References to Jesus' temptation are also in Matthew 4 and Mark 1. Luke records three of the devil's temptations. The first temptation was to eat food while Jesus was fasting (Luke 4:3). The second was to be given immediate power over the world (verses 5-7). The third was to test God's love for him (verse 9).