Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel)
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Political Setting

For thousands of years, the Jewish people were primarily subject to foreign rule (Egyptian, Syrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, etc.), with only brief periods of independence. In the first century, Romans ruled the Mediterranean area known as Palestine (modern day Israel), where Jesus was born and lived his life. In the hierarchy of power, the Jewish self-government reported to the authority of the local Roman government (King Herod), which reported to Rome (Emperor Caesar).

  • The Roman government practiced syncretism, accepting that all religious beliefs, philosophical teachings, and government systems are ultimately compatible, or a reflection of, a larger system – the Roman system. They practiced one of the first “one country, two systems” policies – pronouncing that all people had religious freedom, political freedom, and freedom of thought, yet maintaining strict control. 
  • The Jews held much distrust and often hatred for the Roman Empire – they were unwilling subjects. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the local Roman ruler, King Herod had initiated a massacre of all Jewish baby boys born at the time. Herod was also responsible for placing forbidden idols within the Jewish temple. Such actions added more reasons for Jewish resentment of the foreign Roman government.
  • The Jews understood the world to be divided into two types of people: Jewish and Gentile (non-Jew). The Jews worked hard to disassociate themselves from the Gentiles.
  • The Jewish people accepted their freedom in both their governing system, and in maintaining their own traditions, yet the Roman government required that everything be ultimately subject to Roman authority. For example, Jewish citizens were under the authority of the Jewish court system (the Sanhedrin), yet all rulings for the death penalty were sent to the Roman government. 
  • The Jewish religious and governing system was divided between two parties: the Pharisees – the ‘people’s party’, taught the law and traditions of Israel’s patriarchs, and were strictly conforming to Jewish law; and the Sadducees – the wealthy and conservative leaders who rejected the traditions in favor of political and religious cooperation with the Romans. 

Economic Setting

The economy of first century Israel was supported by three key segments: agriculture of olives, figs, grains, dates, and vineyards; trade fostered by Israel’s key location on the Mediterranean Sea; and large government building projects sponsored by King Herod.

  • King Herod employed many laborers by commissioning many public works (e.g. building temple in Jerusalem, palaces, ports, fortresses, stadiums, ornate stone carvings, etc.) 
  • There was a very large disparity between rich and poor.
  • The upper class was made up of the temple priests and priestly aristocracy (including the Sadducees – a Jewish sect)
  • The middle class was comprised of traders and merchants, artisans (stonecutters, masons, sculptors) and craftsman (metal, wood, cloth dye). The Pharisees (another Jewish sect), sages, scribes, and teachers were also a part of the middle class.
  • The lower class was made of laborers (weavers, stone carriers, slaves (non-Jewish person taken into slavery because of debt), and the unemployable (lepers, blind, insane, crippled, etc.)
  • The Roman government required heavy taxation of its people. Tax collectors were local employees considered to be outcasts and traitors.
  • Jews were also required to give sacrifices to the temple – sometimes in the form of money, and usually by purchasing sacrificial animals to offer to the priests.
  • Traveling teachers made their living by traveling from town to town and accepting gifts from those who came to hear them. 
  • During the first century, the temple courtyards had often become a marketplace – local merchants would sell sacrificial animals at excessive cost in order to turn a profit from the tourists or religious seekers that would come to the temple.

Cultural Setting / Daily Life

Jesus spent most of his life in and around the farming village area of Nazareth. Similar to many farming villages throughout the world, life was patterned after traditions, roles and rituals passed down from many generations beforehand.

  • Population: The village area of Nazareth was populated mostly by Jews, but also with some diversity of Syrians, Greeks, and Romans. The major city of Palestine was Jerusalem, which was more cosmopolitan and contained far greater ethnic diversity.
  • Language: The common language in the Roman Empire was Greek. However, at the time it was common for Jews to also use Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus’ every day language was Aramaic.
  • Village Life: The hub of a village was the marketplace and shops. And for a Jewish village, the synagogue was a central meeting place, and the seat of the local Jewish government.
  • Housing: Houses were all purpose 1-2 room squares, with dirt floors, flat roofs, low and narrow doorways, and front wooden doors. Often people would sleep on flat roofs during hot nights. The houses were arranged around a central shared courtyard where neighbors performed daily chores (cooking, laundry, etc.) in each other’s company. Water was carried in from a public well and stored in a courtyard cistern. Lighting was provided by earthenware oil lamps. People slept on mats, and owned limited personal goods. 
  • Food: The woman’s daily job included preparing food for her family – for example, they would grind grain, bake bread, milk the animals, and make cheese. Typically a family ate two meals: Breakfast – light or small amounts of food taken to work; and Dinner – A large meal with cheese, wine, vegetables and fruits, and eggs. As for meat, fish was most common, followed by chicken or fowl. Red meat (beef and lamb) was served only on special occasions, and pork and crustaceans were absolutely forbidden. Most foods were boiled or stewed in a big pot and seasoned with salt, onions, garlic, cumin, coriander, mint, dill, and mustard. Food was sweetened with wild honey or syrups from dates or grapes. Food was generally served in a common bowl and eaten by dipping in with the fingers.
  • Clothing: The undergarment was called a “tunic”. The outer garment was called a “mantle” – it was loose fitting with fringes, bound by blue ribbon. Men wore a belt – a four-inch wide leather belt or cloth “girdle”. If one was wearing only an undergarment, then he was said to be “naked” or “stripped”. If one was wearing only an undergarment (tunic) and belt, they were said to be wearing a “loincloth”. The phrase “to gird your loins” meant that the tunic was pulled up between the legs and tucked into the belt. People also wore sandals on their feet, and a white cloth over their head, hanging to their shoulders. This cloth protected them from the sun.
  • General Physique: Most Jews were fairly small in stature, light-skinned but tanned from sun. Most had black or brown hair worn long, and most men wore beards.
  • Family Structure: The husband was the spiritual and legal head of the house. He was responsible for feeding, sheltering and protecting the family. Children were instructed early to honor their parents. A Jewish family lived by very strict moral, social and religious rules. Parents, unmarried children, and a married son and spouse would often all live under one roof.
  • The Role of Women: In first century Israel, women were considered second-class citizens, akin to slaves. The fact that they are mentioned as avid followers of Jesus is unusual – both that they would be allowed to follow him with his disciples, and unusual that the authors of Jesus’ biographies would mention their presence at all.
  • Jesus’ Family life: Joseph (Jesus’ father) was a carpenter, making their family a part of the middle class. Mary (Jesus’ mother) was a teenager who was “promised” by her parents to be married to Joseph (at the time when Jesus was considered to be miraculously conceived). Following their marriage, and Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph had other children as well.

Religious Setting

Jewish leaders fought for the purity of their belief in one God in the face of conflicting foreign religions. Yet at the same time, they fragmented into sects divided over variations of the Jewish law.

  • The Jewish people believed in one God (monotheism) who was invisible and could not be portrayed. In contrast, the surrounding cultures believed in many gods (polytheism) who could be represented by images or idols.
  • Jewish tradition was centered on the Sabbath Day – the day began on Friday at sundown and ended at Saturday sundown. Sabbath was started with prayer, the lighting of the candles by the wife of the household, followed by a joyful Friday supper. Sabbath was considered to be a day of rest and worship, where everything one did was in honor of God.
  • The Jewish people were seeking a “Messiah” or savior – they were waiting for the leader God had promised who, according to their understanding, would bring them spiritual renewal and political freedom from centuries of foreign oppression, currently from the Roman Empire.
  • The culture of first century Israel was very interested in the supernatural – it was common for people to believe in curses and be controlled by superstitions.
  • The major religious holiday during the Jewish year was the Passover feast celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt. During the Passover, many Jews would travel to Jerusalem in order to celebrate in the holy city. This is why Jesus and his disciples traveled to Jerusalem for their last supper together – they were celebrating the Passover. This is also the tradition that caused so many Jews to be present in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Educational Setting

For the first century Jew, religion, law, history, ethics and education were inseparable. Through both written (Torah) and oral (Mishna) law, teaching was passed from generation to generation. Rabbi's (teachers) and synagogues were highly esteemed aspects of society.

  • The Roman Empire thrived on syncretism – seeking to have all people (Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Jew, etc.) maintain their own traditions and philosophies, and yet seeing them all under a general Roman perspective.
  • The Jewish education emphasized law, ethics, and history for the purpose of right, moral living. In contrast, the Greek education system called “gymnasium” emphasized science, arts, linguistics and bodily training. 
  • Most Roman citizens were influenced by the teachings of different philosophical systems; the two major philosophies of the time being Stoicism and Cynicism.
  • For Jews, the “Torah”, translated “law” was the source of all learning – religion, history and ethics. The Torah includes the first five books of the modern Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy)
  • The “synagogue” translated “house of assembly” was the Jewish place of both worship and education
  • Young Jewish boys started formal education at the age of 5, learning to read and write. At age 10, boys would start to learn the Jewish law. Formal education was complete by age 18. Young girls would learn at home from their mothers and other women. Young men were educated by a Rabbi (teacher) from the local synagogue.
  • Young men, seeking advanced education as “scribes” or doctors of the law, could study a broader range of topics with a religious motivation in mind. 
  • At the highest level of education, a scholar would go to a great or renowned teacher and become a disciple, often learning through daily discussions and activities. These men were known according to who their teachers were– “from the school of….” 
  • Jesus studied at the synagogue – in one instance when Jesus was 12 years old as recorded in Jesus’ biography by Luke, the author says “They (Jesus’ parents) found him (Jesus) in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47)

  • Johnson, Luke T.The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation.Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1986.
  • Josephus, Flavius.The Jewish Antiquities, 20.200.
  • Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Proclamation Commentaries: Matthew. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1986.
  • The Student Bible: New International Version. Notes by Philip Yancy and Tim Staffod. Zondervan Bible Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1986.
  • Ward, Kaari. Jesus and His Times. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. 1987.

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3 entries for this category:

Herod the Great

In about the year 40 B.C., a man who would come to be known as Herod the Great went to Rome to receive the title King of the Jews. Now Herod was not a nice guy. His family life was a mess. He was married 10 or 11 times, scholars are not exactly sure how many. He had 43 children. He had only one wife that he ever really loved. Her name was Mariamne. He married her when she was 15. She had five children in seven years. Then Herod decided that he couldn't fully trust her loyalty so he had her executed the only wife that he ever loved. He wasn't too sure about her mom, either, so he had his mother-in-law executed. Two of his sons he thought were getting a little too ambitious and he wasn't real comfortable with that, he had two of his own sons executed because he thought they might want to take over for him before he was ready. When he was close to dying, five days before he died, another one of his sons he was afraid was trying to take over a little quickly, he had a third son executed, five days before he died.

When Herod was going to die, a guy by the name of Peter Richardson writes about this, he wrote a book called, Herod, and he and Rob Bell and Barbara Taylor have all either written or spoken on this subject. I am kind of indebted to them for this message. But, not long before Herod died, because he knew nobody was going to be sad when he died because of what a jerk he was, so he left orders for dozens of the most influential citizens of Israel to be imprisoned in Jericho. Then, when he died, they were to be executed as well because he wanted people in Israel to cry on the day that he died and he knew nobody would be crying for him. That's Herod.

When Herod died, his estate was a mess. He left seven different wills. They weren't quite sure which one was supposed to be legally binding, so three of his sons went off to Rome to try to carve up the pie and get as much of the territory as they possibly could. We need to know about these three sons to understand about Jesus and his life. So I want us to say the names out loud. One of them is Archelaus. Second one was Herod Antipas. And, the third was Phillip.

Jesus' family knows about this. Jesus initially was born in Bethlehem which is around here in this area where Archelaus is going to rule. Some of you know that Jesus' family left to go down to Egypt after his birth because Herod the Great was still alive and was slaughtering young male children. Then, after Herod the Great passes from the scene, they decide they're going to move back and initially they would have moved back to the same area.

But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: He will be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2: 22-23

So He went and lived in a town called Nazareth which is up in Galilee in this area up here. And now we start to see a little bit of the courage of the man that we follow.

By: John Ortberg
Category: Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel)
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Israel and the Book

Israel had a Book. They called it the Tenakh¨the sacred writings were called the Tenakh. Say that word together out loud. When you get to the end of it, it's like you're clearing your throat. It's from three letters: T is for Torah; N is the Hebrew word for the prophets Nedi'im; K is for their word for writings Ketugim.

They had a Book that was unlike any other book that had existed before, because it contained truths and ideas that had never hit the world before. This Book said that instead of there being little tribal gods all over the place, there was one God, that this God is holy and just and loving and good, and that He created all things and plans on redeeming all things.

This Book, unlike any of the other mythologies or religions of the peoples around Israel, said that human existence is not just an endless cycle of repetition over and over and over again, but that it is a story.

This Book said that it is God's story, and that the story had a beginning - that God said: Let there be light and there was - that it had a middle - there was a fall and God has begun this work of redemption¨and that one day it will reach a climax. There's going to be an end to this story. There is something to look forward to.

This Book said that this God created human beings in His own image. That means that they have an indescribable splendor about them, and that they are accountable to this just and holy God. That means they carry an indescribable responsibility, and that they can now know how to live. Because of this Book, mankind is not stuck in darkness anymore. It is very hard to recapture what the world was like before this Book came to it. Those ideas changed the way that the world thinks and feels.

This Book so defined Israel that they called themselves simply The People of the Book. Other people are known for other things . . . for their power, for their armies, for their industry. Israel was a People of the Book. To help his or her child learn the Book was every parent's greatest responsibility. To be able to grow up and teach this Book ¨to become a rabbi¨that was the greatest ambition.

Let me give you an example to show you just how much they loved the Book: When a young man fell in love and wanted to be married to a young woman, in order to ascertain whether or not he was worthy of their daughter, the custom was that her family would give this prospective, wannabe groom a test on his knowledge of the Tenakh just to see if he deserved the bride. The more desirable the girl was considered to be, the more beautiful and intelligent she was, the more wealthy her family was and so on , the higher the score he had to get on the Tenakh. It was the only education system where, if you passed the test, you'd actually lose your Bachelor's Degree! I thought that was kind of funny.

The Israelites showed their reverence for this Book in a thousand different ways. They didn't have a Book with a cover like we do. It was all in scrolls. Genesis was written in a scroll. When the rabbis debated whether or not a book was sacred¨whether it belonged in the canon of sacred scripture¨they debated in particular about three books. They debated about Esther, because the word ?God? is never mentioned in Esther; they debated about Ecclesiastes, because it expresses a rather cynical philosophy where there is no God; they debated about The Song of Solomon. If you wonder why they debated about that one, go home and read The Song of Solomon, if you're over eighteen and married.

They didn't ask: Should it be counted Scripture? What they did ask was: Does the scroll on which it is written render the hand unclean? This is a very picturesque, actionÂ-oriented language. Here's what is behind their question. In order to eat, of course, you had to have clean hands. This was very important in Israel's system. When you were reading most scrolls or most writings, you could eat while you were reading. That was OK. Sometimes crumbs would get in the scroll, and then mice or rats might be attracted to it, and they would gnaw it or destroy it. Ordinarily, that would be OK , but not for the Book.

If a scroll were considered to be part of the Book Genesis, Exodus it was a record of the words of God, then you could not eat while you were reading it. That scroll had to be preserved and could not be lost. That scroll was precious. A sacred scroll ?rendered the hand unclean.? They were People of the Book who loved the Book.

Before there were kings in Israel, Moses told the people: When he "a potential king" takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are the Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.
Deuteronomy 17:18-20

They loved this Book. They said: If we're going to have a king, he's got to write the Book down and read it each day. Think of how long that would take. They loved it so much that in Jesus' day an historian by the name of Josephus, writing to a Gentile audience, tried to explain the Jews' passion about the Book in this way: Time and again we have given practical proof of our reverence for our own scriptures. It is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of their birth to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them and, if need be, cheerfully die for them. Time and again the sight has been witnessed of prisoners enduring torture and death rather than utter a single word against them.

By: John Ortberg
Category: Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel)
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Spread of Christianity

Rodney Starr, a professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, has written a book called The Rise of Christianity. He calculated how it is that Christianity spread in the Roman Empire at the rate of about 40% per decade. In the year 40 AD, a few years after Jesus died, there were roughly 5,000 Christians in the world.

That looks pretty insignificant and negligible. That was .0075% of the population of the Roman Empire. Then it starts to spread and keeps going until by 350 AD there are about 33,000,000, or 56% of the Roman Empire, who named the name of Jesus. How did that happen? The Roman Empire was collapsing, yet this movement of Jesus just kept spreading.

Partly it happened because people throughout that part of the world had never heard a message like this one before. One of our problems today is that the Gospel has been a part of our world and our culture. Even in people who donĂľt believe it, it colors everything. It has been woven into our lives for so long that we take it for granted, and we forget what a world apart from that message would look like.

By: John Ortberg
Category: Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel)
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