Part 5 – New Testament: The Gospels

History overview

In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem. This ended a century of Jewish sovereignty in the land. It was Roman policy in the countries they conquered to allow local rulers to stay in power as long as they remained loyal to Rome. The first ruler of Judea under the Romans was Herod, to whom they gave the title of king. He came to power in 37 BC.

Herod was not very popular with the Jews, and he was known for his cruelty. During the thirty-three years of his reign he built many magnificent structures. These included the city of Caesarea on the coast and the city of Sebaste near the old city of Samaria. Herod dedicated both of these cities to the emperor Augustus. He also built a number of fortresses at strategic locations around the country. Among these were the desert strongholds of Masada and the Herodion and the fortress of Machaerus, where John the Baptist was later held before he was put to death by Herod’s son Antipas.

Herod’s Temple

Herod’s greatest building project was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He doubled the size of the platform on which the old Temple still stood. The northwest corner of the platform was protected by a fortress. It was there that the Roman governor would sometimes stay when he went up to Jerusalem from his permanent station at Caesarea. It may have been here, in the so-called Antonia Fortress, that Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. When Paul was arrested in Acts 21, he was taken from the Temple area up some stairs into the fortress. From there he spoke to the angry crowd of people below.

The Temple in Jerusalem was an extremely busy place, visited by thousands of Jews each day. Among the many activities were large numbers of animal sacrifices, not only routine daily offerings but also special sacrifices brought by individuals in thanksgiving, or when they completed a Nazarite vow, when they were healed of certain diseases, and for many other reasons.

Because the Temple area was considered holy, certain categories of people were not allowed to enter. These included all non-Jews as well as people who suffered from certain illnesses or physical defects. Acts chapter 3 tells of the healing of a man who had been born crippled [with a physical handicap]. Before he was healed, he sat every day at the gate, as close as he could come to the Temple, but he had never been able to enter the Temple area.

The large courtyard surrounding the Temple complex served many purposes. There one could find teachers of the Law with their students. There too were to be found tables and stalls where pilgrims could buy certain animals for sacrificing or change money they had brought from their native country for the coins accepted in the Temple. In thirteen locations around the Temple area were large collection boxes in the shape of a ram’s horn. Here the people could deposit their donations to the Temple. It was into one of these that the poor widow placed her two small copper coins.

The southeast and southwest corners of the Temple platform stood as much as seventy meters above the ground below. From the southwest corner a priest would blow the shofar or ram’s horn each week to announce the beginning and end of the Sabbath day. This corner came to be called the place of the blowing. It may also have been known as the “pinnacle of the Temple.”

The Temple complex was controlled by the High Priest and the Sadducees, who were the party of the priests. The assistant to the High Priest was called the Segan. Among other duties, he was in charge of the Temple guard.


In addition to worship in the Temple, Jews could also go to a synagogue nearer to their home. We do not know exactly when or where synagogues were first built. They are not clearly referred to in any Old Testament text. By the time of the New Testament, however, synagogues were quite common in many parts of the Roman Empire. In a Jewish community they served almost as a kind of community center, with both religious and social activities. Synagogues play an important role in the gospels and in the book of Acts.

This building is a reconstruction of what a synagogue would have looked like. The entrance here faces Jerusalem, although the few first century synagogues that have been excavated are not consistent in their orientation. The open space in the center was divided by supporting columns. Around three or four of the walls were benches where some of the worshippers could sit. Most of the people would stand. In New Testament times there was no separation between men and women.

At one end of the open center stood a table, often made of stone. On this table was laid a scroll of the books of Moses. The reading of scripture was the primary activity in the first century synagogue. On the Sabbath there was a reading from the writings of Moses. This was followed by a reading from a second scroll containing the writings of the prophets. Any Jewish man could be called on to read. In the time of Jesus the reading from the prophets may have been according to a fixed list, but it was still common for the reader to choose his own passage to read.

The accepted practice was for the reader to stand while reading the scripture. If he had any words of exhortation to add to the reading, he could do that sitting down.

History continued

King Herod died in about 4 BC. The Romans divided up Herod’s kingdom among three of his sons. Archelaus was given the title of “ethnarch,” or leader of the people, for the area of Judea. His two brothers Antipas and Philip were given territories in the north and east of the country. They were called “tetrarchs,” which meant “ruler of a quarter of the country.”

By the year 6 AD the people had had enough of Archelaus’ cruelty. They sent a delegation to Rome to ask that he be removed from office. The Romans agreed but sent in his place one of their own people with the title of governor. They also changed Judea to a province of Rome.

The most famous of the governors of Judea was Pontius Pilate, who held office from 26 to 36. The governors became increasingly oppressive. Finally, in 66 AD the Jews rebelled against Rome. The war of rebellion lasted for four years. At the end of the summer in the year 70 the Romans captured the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took many Jews out of the country as slaves.

Roman army

The Roman army was divided into legions. Each legion consisted of approximately 5000 soldiers. During the time of the New Testament there were four legions stationed in the province of Syria , of which Judea was a part. Each legion was divided into ten cohorts, and each cohort had six centuries, consisting of 80 men each. The commander of a century was called a centurion.

Several centurions are mentioned in the New Testament. The Roman army could use its authority to force an ordinary person into temporary military or civil service. This provides the background to Jesus’ saying [matthew 5.41] “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Roman soldiers exercised this authority when they forced Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of execution.

The story of the ministry of Jesus begins in all four gospels with the preaching of a man named John, who was a relative of Jesus. The New Testament information about John coincides to a great extent with what we know of John from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote near the end of the first century. John was in the desert, but in a place with a lot of water, and he was baptizing people.


Baptism could be done in natural flowing water or in standing water. By the time of the New Testament it was most common for a person to be baptized in a specially prepared pool cut into the rock and lined with plaster. This pool was known as a mikveh.

The normal practice was for the person being baptized to enter the water and dip down into the water until he or she was completely immersed. For the baptism to be valid, it was necessary for the water to come into contact with every part of the body. For this reason no clothing or jewelry or any other object was worn. For the same reason, the person doing the baptizing did not touch the baptized one; instead the baptizer was actually an observer and did not normally go into the water.

Galilee topography

Jesus’ ministry began in the north of the country, in the tetrarchy ruled by Philip.

Much of the narrative in the gospels takes place in the region of the Galilee and specifically around the lake that is known as the Sea of Galilee or, in Hebrew, Kinneret. The lake is fed by the Jordan River flowing down from its sources in the north near Mount Hermon. The river leaves the lake near its southern end and continues to the Dead Sea. The lake is over 200 meters below sea level and is hemmed in on three sides by hills.

Almost all of the gospel events near the lake take place in its northern third. All of Jesus’ movements on the lake are more or less on an east-west axis. When a gospel writer says Jesus got into a boat and went “to the other side,” it usually means that Jesus was cutting across the northeast or northwest corner of the lake and never right across the middle.

Because of the low elevation of Lake Galilee combined with other geophysical factors, there is a prevailing wind across the lake. It is at its strongest in the middle of almost every afternoon, when it blows over the lake from west to east, causing sizeable waves on the eastern side. This wind usually dies down in mid-evening and may reverse direction in the nighttime hours, although it normally does not blow as strongly then. In the winter months the Galilee region, like the rest of the country, is subject to storms that come out of the northwest or the north. These storms can be quite violent.

One story, repeated in all three synoptic gospels, describes what happened when Jesus sent demons into a herd of pigs. The pigs are described as running down the steep bank and into the lake. Few locations meet this description, and the event probably took place on the eastern side of the lake.


Soon after Jesus began his public preaching and healing, he left his home in Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. Capernaum was located on a major trade route from the Mediterranean coast to Damascus, the so-called Via Maris or Way of the Sea.

Capernaum also lay on the political border separating the tetrarchy of Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas, from Gaulanitis, which was ruled by Antipas’ brother Philip. Because of this location, Capernaum was the site of a Roman customs house. One of Jesus’ disciples, the tax collector Matthew, probably worked here. The town also housed a small military garrison, quartered to the east of the Jewish town. The garrison was under the command of a centurion, probably one of Herod Antipas’ mercenaries.

The activities of a tax collector probably included collecting duties or tolls from merchants traveling along the Via Maris, taxing fishermen on fish caught in the Sea of Galilee, and maintaining public order.

Capernaum was evidently quite small but large enough to have its own synagogue. Its population was likely no more than 1000 to 1500 people. Most of its inhabitants made their living from fishing in the lake.

Several other towns in the area are mentioned in the gospels.

About five kilometers north of Capernaum stood the town of Chorazin. There, in a synagogue built after the time of the New Testament, was found a special chair called the “seat of Moses.” Chairs of this type were also in use in the time of Jesus, but their exact purpose is uncertain. What is clear is that they represented authority, and most translations today at Matt 23 do not speak of the chair itself but of the authority of Moses exercised by the Jewish leaders.

Bethsaida was the home of at least three of Jesus’ disciples. The exact location of Bethsaida is still debated, but it was not far from Capernaum on the north shore of the lake. As in Capernaum, the people in Bethsaida made a living from fishing.

Fishing boats

A Galilee fishing boat measured about 8.5 meters (28 feet) long and 2.5 meters (8 feet) wide and was able to hold 12-15 people. It could be propelled by a sail and also by oars. The boat was steered by a special oar or rudder at the back. Fishing boats often worked in teams to let out and take in the nets. Fishing boats also used anchors to hold them in a particular place. An anchor was made of a large stone into which a hole had been drilled. A rope was tied through the hole and attached to the boat.

This example of a fishing boat was discovered in 1986 when the level of the lake was particularly low.

Fishing nets

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament know different kinds of nets used in fishing. The cast net was used by one man. It was circular with weights and a draw rope around its edge. It was roughly 6—7.5 meters (20-25 feet) in diameter.

The net was thrown from a boat or from the shore in a circular motion so that it landed with the net fully spread out on the water. The weights carried it down, trapping fish underneath. Then the draw rope was used to close the net and pull it back to the fisherman.

Seine, dragnet

A different method of net fishing was to drag a net through the water trapping fish inside. The dragnet was long and rectangular. It hung vertically in the water with floats at the upper edge and weights at the lower. The net was drawn in by men working in boats or from shore. As the ends were drawn together to the boat or drawn ashore, fish were trapped in the area enclosed by the net. The dragnet is mentioned in Matt 13 and in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Habakkuk.

Trammel net

A third type of fishing net is mentioned in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as the synoptic gospels. This net was actually two or three nets combined in layers, usually a small-mesh inner net sandwiched between two nets of looser mesh. Unlike the casting net or the dragnet, this net was not moved in order to trap fish. This net was put in place in the water and left there for several hours to give fish time to swim into it and get stuck. Fish swam through the outer layer and into the fine-mesh net, pushing it through the other layer of loose mesh. This caught the fish in a kind of pocket from which they could not return.


It was also possible to catch fish one at a time without using a net. A fishhook was a small, curved piece of metal or bone or even a strong thorn. One end was sharply pointed, usually with a barb just behind the point. The other end had a loop or bend to which a fishing line could be attached.

To the fishing hook was attached some kind of bait to attract a fish, and the hook, attached to its string, was thrown or lowered into the water. When a fish swallowed the bait, it got stuck on the hook. This method of fishing is mentioned once in Amos 4 and once in Matt 17.

Harpoon, fishing spear

The Old Testament has several words that describe a kind of spear used in fishing. A wooden rod had a metal or bone point with barbs attached to one end. The other end probably had a rope tied to it so that the spear could be pulled back to the thrower.

The fisherman threw the spear and tried to stick it through the fish or aquatic animal.

Nazareth and more geography

Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up, was also located in the Galilee region. While the Greek of the New Testament always calls Nazareth a town, never a village, it was evidently not a place of much importance.

The people made their living from agriculture and craftsman trades. One of those trades was a worker in building materials, like wood and stone. According to the gospels, this was the trade of Joseph, and perhaps also of Jesus.

The important Galilee city of Sepphoris was located not far from Nazareth. After Sepphoris had been destroyed, Herod Antipas decided in 3 BC to rebuild it. This prospect of work may have drawn Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to live nearby.

The Galilee region was divided into upper and lower Galilee. The upper Galilee included the city of Paneas, also called Caesarea of Philip. Philip, son of Herod the Great, made it the capital of his tetrarchy and named it after the Roman emperor. It stood at the foot of Mount Hermon, which may have been the “high mountain” where Jesus’ transfiguration took place. Here too were some of the sources of the Jordan River.

The Galilee region was separated from Judea in the south by Samaria. Because relations between Jews and Samaritans were not good, Jews normally made the trip between Galilee and Judea by following the King’s Highway to the east of the Jordan River.

The Israelite house

Houses and other structures were normally made of the material most commonly available. In areas like Mesopotamia and Egypt, where there was no abundance of either stone or wood, structures were made of dried mud bricks. The most common and easily accessible building material in the land of Israel was stone. Stones were either selected for shapes that would fit together in a wall, or the shape of a stone was somewhat altered by stonecutters.

Shapes and sizes of houses differed over the centuries and from one country to another. However, from the time the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan even until New Testament times, building materials and methods remained relatively unchanged, and even the basic structure of the dwelling of a non-wealthy family did not change much.

The house of an average family was simple, consisting of an open courtyard bordered on three sides by rooms. Because of its four living spaces, this structure is often called the “four-room” house. On each side of the courtyard was a room. One of these was mostly closed in and could have served for storage and a place for food preparation. The other room was used for similar activities, although in many cases it was open, separated from the courtyard only by pillars. In some cases the second side room could be used as a stable for the family’s animals. Both side rooms were roofed, and some archaeologists believe the central courtyard was also usually covered. Other activities in these side rooms could include preparing thread and weaving and dyeing cloth, making or repairing tools, and even pressing small amounts of olives for their oil.

At the back of the courtyard and perpendicular to it was a long room. Here the family all slept together on mats on the floor or on low beds. When the man in Jesus’ parable says [luke 11:7] “I am in bed with my children,” we understand that they were sleeping in just such a common bedroom. In this same room the family also ate their meals.

Eating customs

In Bible times people normally ate two meals a day, one sometime in the morning, and one in the evening after the day’s work.

Food was placed in large dishes on a mat on the floor, and people sat around the mat. There are also fairly early references in the Bible to people sitting at a table to eat. Most such references are to wealthy people. The Hebrew word for table originally indicated a straw mat or animal skin spread on the ground.

Even where there was a table, it was normally little more than an elevated mat. The normal posture for eating around a table was to recline on one’s left side on a cushion. The legs were slightly bent behind the person. Once when Jesus was reclining at table, a woman was able to come up to him from behind and anoint his feet. From this reclining position John was able to lean back against Jesus’ chest to speak to him. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus says that Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; this may refer to a symbolic messianic banquet where Lazarus has the place of honor next to Abraham.

In Bible times people did not use eating utensils like forks, spoons, or knives. They simply ate with their hands. It was common to tear off a piece of the flat bread and use it to dip or grasp some other food. When the proverb [proverbs 19.24; 26.15] describes the lazy man as putting his hand in the dish and not lifting it to his mouth, the point is not that he is eating with his hands but rather that he is too lazy to lift his hand to his mouth.

Since people were usually putting their hands into the same bowl of food, hand washing was important for communal hygiene. Consequently, Jewish law placed great importance on washing the hands before eating.

In the average house food was placed in earthenware bowls or on flat platters. Clay was also the material from which cups were made, although some families could afford cups and other dishes made from stone. Stoneware did not break as easily and could also be boiled for purification if something unclean touched it. Only the rich could afford utensils made of metal or glass.

Stoneware was also sometimes used for water storage. In John’s account of the wedding celebration at Cana, the water was being stored in large stone containers.

House structure continued

The sleeping and eating room was lit during the daytime only by whatever light came in the doorway or small windows. At night light was provided by oil lamps. These could take various shapes. The basic idea was to have an open or closed dish containing olive oil. A cloth wick lay in the oil and burned giving off light.

The walls on the inside and outside of the house were often covered with plaster. This kept out the wind, the water when it rained, and even some insects or small animals. In wealthier homes it was often the custom to decorate the plastered walls with colored designs.

The floor of the simple house was usually just packed dirt. Of course, as people moved around the dirt would be loosened. Loose dirt that had not been wetted and packed again made a layer of dust on the floor. In one of Jesus’ parables [luke 15:8-9] he speaks of a woman who lost a coin in her house. A coin could easily disappear in the layer of loose dirt on the floor. Her way to find it was to get a broom and sweep the floor.

A family house usually had one floor, but frequently they could have more than one storey. The roof of Israelite houses were flat, and it was normal to have stairs on an outside wall leading up to the roof. Many family activities took place on the roof. People slept there during hot weather, stored grain and other produce there, or just sat for a talk in the evening breeze.

The roof was constructed of three layers. First of all wooden beams were laid between the walls. Smaller sticks were then laid down crosswise close to each other. On top of the sticks was a layer of dirt, which was packed down with a heavy stone roller. Some houses also had a layer of stone tiles on top of the dirt.

When the four men let their friend down through the roof of Jesus’ house in Capernaum, they may have done considerable damage to his roof and probably also showered down quite a bit of dirt on Jesus and the others standing below.

The thin layer of dirt on the roof of the house was an ideal place for airborne seeds to land and take root. Because the layer of dirt was thin, the grass and weeds grew up quickly. Exposed to the sun, this grass soon dried up and died. Several places in the Bible describe wicked people as being “like grass on the roof.” They seem to prosper, but they will be judged by God.

The door of the house was made of wood and also had wooden hinges. There were two ways of locking a door. The most common and most secure was to place a wooden or metal bar across the door from the inside. In the ancient world people had also developed locks for their doors. These locks were made of wood. The key could be made of wood or metal.

As families expanded, they often did not build new houses but just added rooms to the existing house. A son who married would add an extra room or two and bring his bride to live with his family. In time the family dwelling could develop into a small complex of rooms.

One of Jesus’ parables begins with a quotation from Isaiah 5, describing work done before a vineyard was planted. In order to guard his grapes while they were ripening in mid-summer, the owner of the vineyard built a watchtower overlooking his property. Once the grapes were ready for harvest, it was most efficient to press them near the vineyard. The grapes were pressed on a flat floor where the juice could run into a collecting vat. In preparation for the work, it was necessary to level the floor and cut a vat from the stone.

Capital punishment

The Romans gave the Jews much room to administer their own legal affairs. The highest Jewish court in the time of the New Testament was the Sanhedrin. With its full makeup, the Sanhedrin had 70 members plus the High Priest, who presided over its sessions. The Sanhedrin held its sessions normally in a special chamber in the Temple. It could even sentence a person to death, but it could not carry out the death penalty without permission from the Roman authorities.


In Luke chapter 4 we read of Jesus returning to Nazareth, the town where he had grown up. In the synagogue Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. Things he said after the reading made the listeners angry, and they tried to kill him.

The Law of Moses prescribed several forms of capital punishment, including stoning. Even before the time of the New Testament, formal procedures had been worked out for the execution of a convict by stoning. In order to make the death somewhat more humane, the person was dropped on his head from a height of between one and two heights of a man. This fall should knock him unconscious immediately so he would feel no more pain from the stoning. Those who had been witnesses against him then dropped large stones on him from above, crushing him to death. When the people in the Nazareth synagogue took Jesus to a high place, their intention was to stone him.

The body of the dead man had to be buried before sunset on the same day. Until the burial, the body was hung from a tree as a kind of warning against wrongdoing. This is the meaning of the verse [deut. 21.23] in Deuteronomy, “cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree.” In the Dead Sea Scrolls the same verse is also applied to death by crucifixion.


Crucifixion was a form of punishment in which the accused criminal was nailed or tied to a tree or a post and left to hang until he died. It was known and used in many cultures long before the New Testament. The Romans may have adopted it from the practice in Carthage in North Africa.

The execution often took place on a cross made of two pieces of wood. Frequently the vertical stake was permanently fixed in the ground, and sometimes a tree stump was used. The convict was made to carry the horizontal crosspiece to the place of execution. There he was laid down on the crosspiece and nailed to it through his wrists. The crosspiece was then lifted and attached to the vertical stake. There was sometimes a small projection in the vertical beam on which the victim could sit. Then the victim’s legs were nailed to one or both sides of the stake. The hanging position made it extremely difficult to breath and for the victim’s heart to pump blood. He normally died of suffocation. But death came slowly, sometimes only after a few days. The victim could relieve the strain on his upper body by pushing up with his legs. If the legs were broken, death followed more quickly.

Jewish sources relate that noblewomen in Jerusalem took it on themselves to bring relief to crucifixion victims. They would give the dying man a drugged drink to dull his senses and lessen his pain.

Burial practices

Burial practices in New Testament times had not changed greatly from those of Old Testament times. Poor people were still limited to hand-dug graves covered with stones, and rich people still used caves or tombs cut into the rock. Hundreds of tombs, elaborate and simple, were cut into the slopes of the hills surrounding the city of Jerusalem, mainly on the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus. By New Testament times, it had become the custom for richer families to lay the corpse in a large stone box [sarcophagus] until the flesh was off. Rather than just pushing the dried bones to the side of the tomb to make room for the next body, they were removed from the large box and placed in a special small “bone box” or ossuary.


Men and women wore similar styles of loose clothing.As an undergarment people wore a kind of undershirt called a tunic. It could be made of wool or linen or even leather. It reached between the knees and the ankles and often had no sleeves. In warm weather, it could be the only garment worn by the lower classes. It was the tunic of Jesus that the Roman soldiers gambled for.

Over the tunic people wore a robe, although poorer people might not be able to afford one. The robe was held in place by a long sash wound around the waist. The sash kept the robe from swinging freely and getting in the way. It also could serve as a kind of pocket where people carried small objects. The Bible uses the sash as a symbol for readiness. The outer garment or robe could also be used as a blanket at night. For this reason Israelite law said it must be returned to its owner by sunset.

Jewish men sometimes wore a special garment required by the law of Moses. It was a kind of rectangular shawl worn around the neck. On its four corners it had long blue threads or tassels. These were intended as a reminder of God’s commandments. The requirement in Numbers 15 was simply to attach tassels to the normal garment, but with time the custom developed into a separate garment similar in shape to mantles used by other peoples. When the woman who suffered from internal bleeding touched Jesus’ robe, it was probably one of these tassels that she touched.

When Jewish men prayed, they also tied a small leather box to their forehead and to their forearm. The box is called a phylactery, or tefillin. This practice reflected a literal understanding of the Mosaic command to bind the commandments of God to the forehead and to the forearm.

The most common footwear was sandals. These were made of a thick piece of leather or sometimes wood tied with leather straps around the ankle. Sandals were not buckled but tied.

On their heads men wore a kind of turban, a long sash wrapped several times around the head. The headcovering was for protection from the sun; until the time of the New Testament it was not considered a religious duty for a man to cover his head. On the other hand, Jewish women were expected to keep their hair bound and covered so that they would not be too attractive to men who were not their husbands.


In the gospel accounts, Jesus and his disciples travelled several times between Galilee and Jerusalem. These journeys were made by foot, which was the most common means of transportation. The walk from the north was generally made through territory to the east of the Jordan River. The river was forded north of the city of Jericho, and then they turned west. From this point they climbed on a steep but well-kept Roman road until they came to Jerusalem. The entire journey lasted three or four days. The walk from Jerusalem to Jericho took about one day. It was on this steep road that Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus described a man making a journey from the city of Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a journey of about 30 km, about a day’s journey according to the ancient sources. But it is a drop in elevation of about 1200 meters, and it’s quite steep. Some of our bible translations with illustrations show this as flat topography, which is a misrepresentation of the real topography.

The Bible mentions a variety of thoroughfares, either within a town or village or longer ones joining cities and even countries. Most were not paved but were simply paths worn by the passage of many feet and carts drawn by animals. Within cities and towns certain public areas were sometimes paved.

Strictly speaking the thoroughfares within smaller towns and villages were not “manmade” in the sense that they were not specially constructed. They were normally unpaved and were simply the product of the space between buildings.

Most of the roads mentioned in the Bible would have been local thoroughfares that were little more than wide walking paths. These followed the topography, and for the most part would not have been used by vehicles.

Some of the roads mentioned in the New Testament were Roman roads and were specially prepared and paved with stone. This kind of road appears, for example, in Mark 10.46. Here we see remains of an old Roman road that went down from Jerusalem towards the coast. The stones were scraped in a way that would prevent horses and donkeys from slipping.

 Jerusalem topography

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus had between 50,000 and 100,000 inhabitants. The city was surrounded by walls. The dominant structure was the Temple that Herod had built; its platform took up almost a quarter of the area within the walls of the city. The original city that David captured and expanded lay to the south of the hill on which the Temple would be built. Over the centuries the city expanded to the west and a bit to the north.

To the east of the city stood the Mount of Olives and its extension to the north, called Mount Scopus. Mount Scopus had its name because it was from there that witnesses observed the new moon. The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, and accurate observation of the new moon was important for declaring on which day the month began. Specially appointed witnesses watched the new moon appear and then signalled down to an emissary of the Sanhedrin waiting on the Temple Mount. It was one of the duties of the Sanhedrin to declare that the new month had begun.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives, in a valley called Kidron or Jehoshaphat, was the Garden of the Oil Press, or Gethsemane. On the night when Jesus was arrested he took his disciples to this Garden, which probably included many olive trees. The two villages of Bethany and Bethphage were located on the southern part of the Mount of Olives. Jesus stayed at the home of friends in Bethany during the week before he was crucified.

The opening chapter of the book of Acts describes Jesus’ ascension to heaven from the Mount of Olives.

Readings from the CEV Learning Bible, Session One


Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in the province of Judea during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman ruler called emperor. About sixty years earlier, the Romans had invaded Palestine as they continued expanding their great empire throughout the lands sur­rounding the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. At the time of Augustus, the Roman Empire ruled over fifty million people from many different nationalities-from Palestine and Syria in the east to Spain in the west, including most of northern Africa and much of Europe. Because the Romans were well ­organized and had a strong army, their empire was actually very stable. Travel and trade between areas was easier than it had ever been. Historians have observed that the international peace brought by Roman rule and the superior system of Roman roads helped disciples to spread a new reli­gion based on Jesus’ teachings.

Palestine before Roman Rule

The centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth were not politically stable in the area known as Palestine. The Jewish people who returned to Judah from exile in Babylon had been allowed to rebuild their cities and the temple in Jerusalem, but they were ruled by the Persians. Then the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, defeated the Persians and drove them out of Palestine. Alexan­der’s generals and their descendants ruled the land for many years, bringing with them Greek (Hellenistic) culture. One Greek ruler from the Seleucid family (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) tried to force the Hellenistic way of life on the Jewish people in Palestine. When he put up a statue of a pagan god in the holy Jewish temple in 168 B.C., Jewish people were enraged and rebelled. Led by Judas Maccabeus, the people defeated the Seleucids, reclaimed the temple, and creat­ed their own government. For nearly one hundred years the Jew­ish people were again in charge of the land, led by members of Judas Maccabeus’ family (the Hasmoneans), who took over as kings and priests of Israel. Yet many thought that the Hasmonean rulers were as selfish and cruel as the foreign kings who had ruled before them, so Jews did not fight back when the Romans invaded the country in 63 B.C.

During these two centuries before Jesus was born, a number of different Jew­ish religious groups were formed, each hav­ing different ideas about how to interpret the Scriptures and live the Jewish faith. These groups with their competing ideas appear in the New Testament and will be discussed individually later in this article.

Roman Rule in Palestine

Though many peoples and cultures con­tributed to the cultural life in Palestine in Jesus’ day, the Romans were by far the most powerful. They controlled the land with strong, well-trained armies. The Roman emperor appointed a governor (procurator) who was in charge of collecting taxes and preventing the people from rebelling against Rome. The Romans placed heavy taxes on land, on goods and food that were bought and sold, and on inheritances. They (also charged tolls for people traveling t through the areas they controlled. The taxes went to support the Roman army and to maintain control of Palestine. Farmers and the poor suffered the most under this system of taxes.

The Romans made contracts with local people in order to collect taxes. These local tax collectors (publicans) would often collect much more than the amount they were supposed to turn over to the Romans. They kept the rest. In Palestine, this led to bad feelings between the Jewish people and their neighbors who agreed to collect taxes for the Romans. Tax collectors were often seen as traitors by the Jewish religious leaders. Some called them sinners, and said they were not welcome to be part of the Jewish people or to worship with them. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and welcomed them (Luke 5.27-32; 19.1­10), he offended those who wanted to keep the tax collectors apart from Jewish social life.

Roman policy was to respect local cus­toms and the laws of the peoples they ruled. They let local people form councils to control local affairs. In Judea the local rul­ing council (Sanhedrin) was made up of the high priest and chief priests and wealthy supporters of the Roman government. Their participation in the work of the council made them become even wealthier.

The Romans also set up rulers in the areas that were under their control. These local kings and governors reported to the Roman senate or to the emperor’s repre­sentatives. For example, in 37 B.C. the Romans appointed Herod the Great as king of Palestine, partly because Herod’s father had helped the Romans take control of the region. Herod ruled until 4 B.C. and was responsible for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, which attracted many wor­shipers and visitors from all over the Roman Empire during the days of Jesus. The outer court of the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, was a place where non-Jews (Gen­tiles) could come to see the beauty of this great building. They could also watch the temple priests offering sacrifices as repre­sentatives between God and the followers of Judaism. The high priest was the person in charge of the temple. He was able to hold this position because of the support of the Roman authorities. The income from gifts and offerings to the temple was the major source of money for the whole peo­ple of Israel.

When Herod died, his three sons were appointed by the Romans to rule Galilee and Perea, the land east of the Jordan River. Under the Herods, the priests and their supporters on the council gained greater power and wealth. Although John the Baptist and Jesus were born during the time of Herod the Great, it was Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, who was in power when they came to trial. Herod Antipas ordered the death of John the Baptist (Matt 14.1-12). During Jesus’ trial, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, sent Jesus to see Herod Antipas because Jesus was from Galilee, the area under this Herod’s rule. Usually, the Roman governors did not want to get mixed up in local problems and arguments. This is why Pilate sentenced Jesus to death only after the leaders of the people almost started a riot and argued that Jesus claimed to be a king of the Jews. This claim meant Jesus was considered guilty of rebellion against Rome and could therefore be put to death according to Roman law.

Class and Rank in the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had a class structure based on wealth, birth, and citizenship. At the very top of Roman society was the emperor, who was considered the empire’s “first citizen.” Some emperors even declared themselves to be equal with the gods. Below the emperor were six hundred senators, who were the empire’s wealthiest citizens. Next came a group known as “knights,” who had reached a certain level of wealth. They were well-edu­cated and often were recruited to serve in the government of the empire. Beneath them were wealthy local citizens, known as “honorable men,” who formed city coun­cils. The upper classes in Roman society wore special clothes and got the best seats at special events.

Below these top groups came the large group of ordinary working people. They were divided into levels. First came those who were not wealthy but still had the priv­ileges of Roman citizenship. Rome recog­nized only a small group of its subjects as full citizens. Citizens had the freedom and pro­tection of their personal rights. For example, the apostle Paul was able to have his trial in Rome because he was a Roman citizen (Acts 16.37; 22.27). Jesus was not a Roman citizen, so he could be condemned to death without a formal trial by the personal decision of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Below citizens in the class structure was a large group of non-citizens who were free but did not have the special privileges allowed to Roman citizens. And beneath these non-citizens, at the very bottom of the class structure, were slaves, who could legally be bought or sold, beaten or tortured, as their owners saw fit. Slaves worked mostly as household servants for the rich. At the time of Jesus, almost one-third of the population of Italy were slaves. Slav­ery was very common and accepted through­out the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day.

Jewish Groups in Palestine

As mentioned above, the Romans allowed the various peoples in their empire to develop their own local councils. These councils usually included the wealthy and powerful people in a region, who were free to make laws and to force the people in that region to obey them. The chief priests and the rich people who worked with the Roman authorities formed the Jewish coun­cil based in Jerusalem. The Greek word for this council was “synedrion.” After the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, the Jews began to use this name spelled in Hebrew (Sanhedrin) for the group that replaced the priests as the orga­nizers and lawmakers of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. This group began to write down formulas for applying the Law of Moses. These interpretations developed into what today are known as the “Mishnah” and “Talmud.” The Jews in the time of Jesus had different opinions about what it meant to be the people of God. Here is a summary of some of the  key groups that formed and how each one interpreted the Law of Moses:

Zealots. The Maccabees, as discussed earlier, insisted that the Jewish people have their own king. They were defeated when the Romans took over the land in 63 B.C. Later attempts to win freedom and create an independent Jewish state failed in A.D. 70 and again in A.D. 135. The Jewish nationalists who tried to organize the revolt against the Romans were called Zealots. Scholars disagree about whether this term applies to a single, well-orga­nized group or to any number of groups of dissatisfied Jews who wanted to be rid of their Roman rulers. At one time, this term also meant “someone who was strongly devoted to God and God’s law.” The CEV translates zealot as “Eager One.” In the New Testament the term is even applied to one of the followers of Jesus (Luke 6.15; Acts 1.13).

Pharisees. By Jesus’ day, it was common for Jewish people to meet in private homes for worship and to study the Scriptures. This practice had begun in the later second cen­tury B.C. and continued in the first century A.D. One group that did this would become very powerful within the Jewish communi­ty. They called themselves “Pharisees,” which meant “The Separate Ones” in Hebrew. They wanted to renew and protect Judaism by having all Jewish people strictly follow the laws concerning the Sabbath, fasting, and the purity of food. Most Phar­isees had regular jobs and were involved in the Roman culture of the day. But their special meetings and the strict way they fol­lowed the Sabbath law forbidding work on the seventh day of the week set them apart. As a result, they had a strong sense of group identity. There were also Pharisaic groups in cities outside Palestine. The apos­tle Paul, who was from Tarsus in southeast­ern Asia Minor, said he was once a Pharisee who strictly observed the law (Phil 3.5).

The Pharisees taught the Law of Moses as well as other traditional laws not found in the Scriptures. Their interpretation of tra­ditional laws are included in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Pharisees were popular with the common people and established synagogues (Jewish meeting places) and schools. Unlike some other Jewish groups, they believed in life after death (resurrec­tion) and future rewards and punishments (see Acts 23.6).

Sadducees. This group’s name may come from Zadok, the high priest of Israel at the time of King David. The Sadducees also may have been descendants of the Zadokites, who had controlled the temple as high priests for many years until the mid­dle of the second century B.C., when they were forced from power by Jonathan, the first Maccabean high priest. The Sadducees stayed close to the priestly families and tried to influence the business of the temple. They were willing to work with the Romans when they came to rule Palestine. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not accept interpretations of the Law, but believed in following only the Law of Moses. They also did not believe that the dead were raised to life (Mark 12.18; Acts 23.8). As long as the Sadducees followed the main teachings of the Law and stayed friendly with the Romans, they expected to continue in posi­tions of power and wealth among their people. After the Jewish revolt led to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the Sad­ducees no longer existed as a group.

Essenes. The Essenes may have been formed as a group at about the same time as the Sadducees. Instead of trying to influ­ence the priesthood and religion of Israel from the inside, they withdrew from Jewish society, met secretly to study, and had their own special interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. As a group, they disagreed com­pletely with the priests and other official leaders of the Jews, and like the Pharisees, they believed in life after death.

The Essene communities were very structured. Each group had a leader who controlled who was allowed into the group, decided how property and belongings would be shared among group members, and made rulings concerning the law. Some scholars think that the Dead Sea community was an Essene group. Whether they were or not, the Essenes’ beliefs show how deeply disap­pointed many Jews were with their religious leaders. The Dead Sea group withdrew from Jewish society and lived on a bluff overlook­ing the Dead Sea until the Roman army invaded the land in A.D. 66 to put down the Jewish revolt and completely destroyed the community there.

Scribes. Those Jews who filled jobs set up by the Romans to help run the govern­ment in the land were called “scribes.” Because they could read and write in a time when many people could not, they were very valuable to kings and governments. In the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) they are shown as having the authority to write legal papers. Scribes are identified as keep­ers of government records (2 Kgs 18.18). Like Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch, they took dictation and then read it aloud for people to hear (Jer 36.4-18). Scribes also worked as secretaries of state and treasurers.

In the New Testament, scribes are described as working as lawyers (Luke 5.17) and judges (Matt 23.2). Because of their extensive learning, they knew about inter­preting the law, and sometimes argued with Jesus about the meaning of tradition­al Jewish laws (Matt 9.3; 15.1; Mark 2.16; 7.1-2; Luke 5.30; 6.7). The scribes are not the same as the Pharisees, but Pharisees and chief priests paid the scribes for legal­advice. The scribes saw Jesus as a threat to law and order as set up by the Romans, which the scribes were in charge of carry­ing out on the local level.

Samaritans. Another group mentioned a few times in the New Testament are the Samaritans. The ancestors of the Samaritans came from the ten Israelite tribes that rebelled against King Solomon’s son Rehoboam and formed a separate kingdom known as Israel, or the northern kingdom. They had their own temple on Mount Ger­izim near Shechem, and their own priests. They followed the laws about the Sabbath in a very strict way, and they said that their holy Mount Gerizim was more important than Mount Zion, where the temple in Jerusalem was located. The Jewish people did not like the Samaritans and believed they were not really part of God’s chosen people. The writers of the Gospels, howev­er, record that Jesus reached out to them (Luke 17.11-19; John 4.3-9), and used one as a positive example when explaining to an expert in the Law of Moses what it means to have compassion and be a neighbor (Luke 10.25-37).

Jesus faced this complicated situation as he tried to preach his message of good news. When he defended the poor and reached out to accept people such as tax collectors, Samaritans, and prostitutes, he offended the local religious leaders. The arguments described by the New Testament writers are mainly between different groups who have different ideas about who can or can not be part of God’s people. The Romans controlled Palestine but were not very interested in getting involved in these local arguments, unless they led to rebellion against Roman authority.


In 700 B.C., Rome was a small city in Italy that controlled only the area close around it. By 508 B.C. it had developed the form of gov­ernment known as a republic, in which the people chose the leaders they wanted to represent them. By the later second century B.C. Rome had conquered large parts of Greece and Asia Minor, as well as sections of North Africa, France, Spain, and many of the islands in the Mediterranean Sea. In 63 B.C., Roman troops led by the general Pompey (106-48 B.C.) took over Palestine. After Julius Caesar, the first Roman emperor, died in 44 B.C., his successor, Augustus, extended the empire to include Egypt, most of Asia Minor, England, and parts of Germany.

The top layer of Roman society was a group of 600 senators, who had to have a huge amount of money to hold this office. Below them were the knights, who needed considerably less money for their office. The population included citizens who had cer­tain privileges and official protection, former slaves called “freedmen,” and large numbers of slaves. The status of women was based on the social status of their fathers or husbands. Women from the upper classes enjoyed many legal rights and privileges not avail­able to men or women of lower classes. Each region of the empire was ruled by a gover­nor. Those governors who were appointed by the senate were called “proconsuls,” and those chosen by the emperor were called “procurators.”

Money to support the Roman govern­ment came from taxes. Taxes were placed on goods being transported, on inheritances, on farm products, and on personal property.


Pontius Pilate was governor (prefect) of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36, during the time that Tiberius was the Roman emperor (A.D. 14-37) and Herod Antipas was governor (tetrarch) of Galilee (4 B.C. to A.D. 39). The Roman historian, Tacitus, tells in his Annals that Jesus was put to death by Pilate dur­ing the reign of Tiberius. An Egyptian Jew­ish scholar and leader told a later emperor (Gaius, A.D. 37-41) that Pilate had made the Jerusalem Jews angry by displaying metal shields that pictured the emperor as though he were a god at his palace in Jerusalem (next to the temple). Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells about the strong Jewish objection that was raised when Pilate brought into Jerusalem fancy poles that pictured the emperor as a god, and when he took funds from the temple trea­sury to pay for an aqueduct he was build­ing to bring water into Jerusalem.

In the New Testament, Pilate is men­tioned several times (Acts 3.13; 4.27; 13.28; and 1 Tim 6.13), but he is most important in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and exe­cution (see Mark 15.1-15; Matt 27.1-26). When the crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified, Pilate washed his hands in public to show he did not intend to take the blame for Jesus’ death. Luke brings Herod Antipas into the story as the one who advises Pilate not to put Jesus to death. Still, Pilate gives in to the demands of the crowd (Luke 23.1-­25).

If Jesus had been put to death for breaking the Jewish law, his execution would have been done under Jewish authority by crushing him to death with stones. This was the form of punishment commanded in the Law of Moses; it was used to kill the church’s “first martyr” Stephen (Acts 7.54-60; Deut 13.9-10; 21.18­-20). But Pilate had him put to death by the Roman method of execution called cruci­fixion. And the sign he had put over Jesus’ cross said that Jesus wanted to be the political ruler of the Jews (Matt 27.37; Mark 15.38; John 19.19).


In Jesus’ day Jewish people went to worship and to make sacrifices to God at the temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices required by the Law of Moses included the killing of certain ani­mals and the burning of grains and incense. Some kinds of sacrifices could be made any day of the year, while others were only made on special days like the Great Day of Forgiveness (Day of Atonement). Some of the meat that peo­ple offered in the temple was eaten by the priests and temple workers who devoted their lives to serving God and making sacri­fices for the people of Israel.

In addition to bringing animals and grain to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sin, the Jewish people also gave vegetables they had grown, valuable items, and money to help with the cost of running the temple and providing for the needs of the priests and temple workers. The Law of Moses also stated that the people should give to the lord one-tenth of what they grew or earned (Lev 27.30-33; Num 18.21-32). This practice was called tithing.

The Jewish people believed that God was present among them in the most holy place in the temple. Offerings were given to God each day in the same way servants might bring gifts or food to their masters. The size of the gift depended on who was offering the gift. Poor people, for example, were not expected to offer as much as someone who was wealthy.

Some offerings were presented to God in order to confess guilt and to ask for for­giveness of sins (Lev 4.1-6.7; 6.24-30; 7.1-6; 8.14-17; 16.3-22). Other offerings were pre­sented as a way of worshiping God, giving thanks to God, and showing commitment to God (Lev 1-3; 6.8-23; 7.11-34). Compare the praise Jesus had for the poor widow who gave her last two pennies (Luke 21.1-4) with the warning he has for people who make a big show of their generosity while neglecting important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23.23,24).


People came to Jerusalem at the time of the yearly celebration of Passover and for other religious holidays. Part of the cele­bration and worship involved sacrificing animals and making offerings of grain to God. Different sacrifices required different types of animals (for example, see Lev 3.1­13; 14.10,21; Num 28.16-25), so many sell­ers set up animal pens and cages in the outer court of the temple, which was called the court of the Gentiles. This court was the only part of the temple that Gen­tiles (non-Jewish people) were allowed to enter, so moneychangers often set up money tables where out-of-town Jewish visitors could change their money into the special kind of money used at the temple. The people used this money to pay the annual temple tax.

Sometimes, the sellers overcharged peo­ple, and the moneychangers did not give a fair amount of money back to people in return for the foreign money they had ex­changed. Jesus accused these sellers and moneychangers of being robbers. He was also making the point that Amos the proph­et had made eight centuries earlier: Offer­ing sacrifices was not as important as wor­shiping God and being fair to people (see Amos 5.21-24). The chief priests and other temple officials, as well as their families, made money from the activity of selling and buying at the temple, so they didn’t like it when Jesus attacked this system.


Synagogue comes directly from a Greek word that means “gathering.” In the Bible, a synagogue is any group of people who meet together for worship. Just when the synagogue meetings began is not certain, but they may have begun after the Babylo­nians defeated Judah and took many of the Jewish people away in 586 B.C. (see the note at 1.6b-11). While in Babylonia, the people could not worship or offer sacrifices to God at the temple in Jerusalem, so they were forced to find different ways to worship.

Later, the Jewish people began moving to other parts of the world, especially to Egypt, Greece, and areas known today as Turkey and southern Russia. They also began meeting together for worship, study, and to keep their group identity. These meetings were called synagogues. In their own land, Jews continued to have these meetings even when Seleucid kings tried to force them to worship Greek gods. One of these kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled Palestine from 175-164 B.C., claimed that he himself was a god, just as Alexander the Great had done years before him. Jewish priests from the family known as the Mac­cabees led a revolt against the Greek leader. They gained freedom for the Jews and ruled the land, but the actions of the Mac­cabean leaders later caused divisions among their own people. Some of the people were not content just to go to the temple for worship. They met in homes and public rooms to study the Scriptures and find the real meaning of their lives as God’s people.

This was the situation during the life­time of Jesus (Mark 1.21; 6.2) and the apos­tles (Acts 1.12-14; 9.2-20; 13.5). The places where Jews met outside their own land became known as “places of prayer” (Acts 16.16). After the Roman military forces destroyed the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, the temple’s priests no longer had a place to lead the people in worship of God. With the loss of the temple, synagogues became the most important feature of Jewish worship and community experience throughout the Mediterranean world. The Jewish people continued to meet in homes or public halls, as was the case when Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19.8-10). It wasn’t until the second and third centuries A.D. that houses were re­modeled or new meeting places were built to serve as formal settings for worshiping God. These meeting places were also called synagogues. The remains of many have been found in various parts of the land of Israel and throughout the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.


The English word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb that means “to dip in water.” In the Jewish Scriptures there were laws that required priests to wash them­selves before they could offer sacrifices to God (Exod 40.12-15). The high priest had to bathe himself before and after he went into the most holy place inside the sacred tent or the temple to make the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.4,23,24).

The prophets of Israel instructed the people to bathe themselves as a way of showing that they wanted to be pure and to do what God wanted them to do (Isa 1.16,17). At the site of the religious com­munity in Qumran, archaeologists discov­ered a pool with a set of steps that the members used to walk down to the water and back up again. These steps made it possible for members to wash themselves as a way of showing that they wanted their lives to be pure. During the same period in Israel’s history John the Baptist began preaching in the Jordan Valley. John told people to be baptized as a way of preparing them­selves for the coming of someone who would be more powerful than he was, and who would bring the Holy Spirit to God’s people (Luke 3.15-17).

Jesus may not have actually baptized anyone during his earthly ministry (see John 4.1-2), but he did tell people he had healed that they should undergo the ritual cleansing required by the Law of Moses (John 9.6,7).

Readings from the CEV Learning Bible, Session Two


The Bible describes a wide range of cul­tures and lifestyles. The time from Abraham to the time of the early church spans a period of about two thousand years. How people made a living varied depending on when and where they lived. Some people were “nomads,” living in small groups, keeping flocks of sheep and goats, and traveling from place to place in order to feed and protect their animals. Others lived more settled lives, growing crops or provid­ing services to people in towns and urban areas. Most of the “jobs” described in this article were still practiced by at least some part of the population of Palestine at the time of Jesus.

Living Off the Land: Herding and Farming

The Bible describes the many different kinds of jobs people had in the ancient world, but caring for land and animals are two of the central jobs mentioned. Genesis reports that one of Adam and Eve’s sons herded sheep while the other farmed the land (Gen 4.2). The earliest ancestors of the people of Israel, including Abraham and Sarah, traveled from place to place and sur­vived by keeping herds and flocks of ani­mals (Gen 13.1-3). Another piece of evidence for the importance of herding and farming in ancient Israelite society is that the Bible gives special instructions about eating (Lev 11), sacrificing animals (Lev 1), and sacrificing grain (Lev 2).

Keeping herds of animals like sheep and goats was common among the many generations of the people of Israel. At first, these herders (shepherds) were wan­dering nomads who lived in tents and had very little personal property. They moved from place to place, always trying to find food and water for their animals. They sur­vived by eating the meat and drinking the milk produced by their flocks. They used the animals’ wool and hides to make clothes and other things, including the tents they lived in. Closer to the time of Jesus, when urban life was more developed, shepherds may also have lived in or near villages. They had the right to let their flocks feed in nearby pastures and would have been hired by landowners who needed help to harvest their fields. When food supplies got scarce near the villages, shepherds would move their herds to mountain pastures in the hot summer, or to warmer valleys in the winter. A shepherd’s life was not easy. Shep­herds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter what the weather. They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild ani­mals. The shepherd’s tools and weapons were a rod, a staff, and a sling. Each night. the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.” These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave. Shep­herds used their rods to help count their animals each evening when they brought them into the fold and again in the morn­ing when they left for the pastures.

When the Israelites settled in Canaan after leaving their life of slavery in Egypt, farming became a more important way of making a living for them. Grains, such as wheat and barley, were used for making bread, and were the most important crop. Grains, as well as lentils and peas, are known to have been cultivated in Palestine since prehistoric times. Unlike farmers in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israelite farmers did not need to depend on irrigation for water. Even though the rainy season in Palestine was rather short and the soil was often rocky, the farmers’ know-how in clearing and fer­tilizing the land usually produced fine crops. The Israelite farmers learned how to grow crops according to the yearly cycle of rainy and dry spells. They also learned to adjust the crops to what was best for the different kinds of land: fertile plains, rocky hills, and semi-barren areas. As time went on, their knowledge as farmers helped them to grow fruits, including melons, figs, dates, grapes, and olives.

Growing crops affected the economy and social life of the people. For example, some of the major religious festivals in Israel-the Harvest Festival and the Festival of Shelters-were coordinated with the farming cycle. The Harvest Festival, also called the Festival of Weeks, celebrated the wheat harvest in the spring (Exod 23.16; 34.22; Lev 23.15-22; Num 28.26-31; Deut 16.9). The Festival of Shelters (or Booths) is an autumn holiday for the occasion of the planting and gathering of crops, and the annual harvest (Exod 23.16; 34.22; Lev 23.33-43; Num 29.12-39; Deut 16.13-17; Ezek 45.25).

An amazing feature of the life of Israel was the sabbatical year, the one year in every seven when farmers would let the land rest. This followed the pattern of working only six days out of each week according to God’s command to rest on sev­enth day, called the Sabbath (Exod 23.10­-12). This sabbatical rest for fields also had practical benefits, since it increased the long-term fertility of the land.

The people may also have practiced crop rotation, further improving the soil (lsa 28.23-29). The orderly way in which the farmers grew their crops was to match God’s plan for the Israelite people and for the good of creation. From a religious per­spective, however, Deuteronomy makes it clear that a large harvest also depended on how the people of Israel obeyed God’s com­mandments (Deut 11.10-17).


Fishing was a far less important source of food and income for the people of Israel, since the Philistines and others controlled the seacoast. What fish were available usu­ally came from Lake Galilee and the Jordan River. The most common fish was a type of sardine. According to the Law of Moses, the Israelite people were not to eat fish that lacked fins or scales (Deut 14.9), but the Bible does not mention specific kinds of fish. Since fishing is mentioned so little in the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament), some scholars think it was not important to the economy of Israel. It is possible that the fishing industry was more prosperous in the time of Jesus than it had been earlier, since when Jesus called James and John to be his disciples, they left the family fishing busi­ness to their father and the “hired work­ers” (Mark 1.19-20).

Special Skills and Crafts

As the Israelites became more settled in and near cities, they became involved in many other types of work. Some men and women became skilled workers, or artisans, who worked on various crafts, very often at home. Many times parents taught their chil­dren these skills so they could also use them to make a living. Skilled workers were high­ly respected, since people needed their skills and products to live comfortably. After the time of the exile (around 538 B.C.), artisans in the same type of craft began to form into professional groups. Such groups of people in the same business were still present in New Testament times (see Acts 19.24-27). Those who worked on special crafts were builders, stonemasons (stonecutters), car­penters, woodcarvers, boatbuilders, and sil­versmiths, glass workers, potters, leather workers, weavers, and fullers, who worked with cleaning and texturing old and new cloth).

The Bible tells us that Jesus grew up helping his father Joseph, who was a car­penter (Matt 13.55). And the apostle Paul apparently made a living at the craft of tentmaking (Acts 18.3). Some crafts like baking, cooking, and sewing were done in the everyday work of keeping a household, but some people used these skills to create businesses as well.

Servants and Slaves

Many people, free and slave, provided per­sonal services as laborers. These servants included household servants, employed by royalty and other wealthy people. Such serv­ants might work as cooks, maids, grounds keepers, tutors, or in helping to care for chil­dren. Loyal household workers were highly valued. A royal servant called a cupbearer (Gen 40.11; Neh 1.11) brought food and drink to a ruler. Others served as midwives (Gen 35.16-18), doctors (2 Chr 16.12; Mark 5.25-26), nurses (usually a woman who fed another woman’s baby), money-changers (Matt 21.12), innkeepers (Luke 2.7; 10.35), and prostitutes (Gen 38.14-18; Josh 2.1).

Often the Bible is not always clear when describing the work of servants, because the word “servant” may mean either a slave or a person hired to do some task. Slavery in many forms was fairly com­mon in Bible times. Some people sold them­selves into slavery to pay back a debt, or because they were desperately poor and that was the only way they could get food and shelter. Many slaves in Bible times were prisoners of war. Most slaves performed household work rather than field work or manual labor. There are some rules regard­ing slavery in the Bible, including ones that put a limit on the customs for slavery and recommended when a term of slavery should come to an end (Exod 21.2-6; Lev 25.10,38-41). There was also some expecta­tion that slaves would be treated fairly and without cruelty (Deut 23.15-16).

Military and Government Work

A number of jobs were related to maintain­ing governments and kingdoms. At the top of the social structure were kings, queens and emperors, diplomats and ambassadors, senators and governors (Acts 13.7). Within the palace there were deputies, counselors, interpreters (Gen 42.23), and messengers (Num 20.14; 1 Kgs 20.5; 2 Chr 32.31). The interests of the leaders and the nation were protected by armies which were made up of military officers (Matt 8.9; Acts 21.32), soldiers, and armor-bearers (Judg 9.54; 1 Sam 14.6). To maintain the government, additional workers were needed, such as tax collectors (Luke 19.1-2), keepers of records and secretaries (2 Sam 8.16,17), and lawyers (Acts 24.1; Titus 3.13). Some rulers hired musicians (1 Sam 16.14-23) and others paid for advice from astrologers or fortune­tellers (lsa 19.3).

The Jewish people in Jesus’ day were ruled by the Roman government, which appointed a Roman governor (or procurator) to oversee the collection of taxes and keep order in the land (Matt 27.2; Acts 24.1). On the local level, the Romans allowed a council of religious and business leaders to handle certain problems and concerns, especially those related to maintaining the temple and worship (Acts 22.5).

Special Servants of God

For years, the temple in Jerusalem was the center of the religious life of the people of Israel. It took many people to see that its important work was carried out properly. According to the Law of Moses, the mem­bers of the tribe of Levi were to work as priests, serving all the people of God. Since the Levites were not given their own land, they were allowed to keep a portion of the sacrifices that the Israelite people offered to God (Josh 13.14). A high priest was in charge of the temple, and supported by chief priests, gatekeepers (1 Chr 9.17-32), temple workers (Ezra 2.43-54), and guards (1 Chr 9.17-32

Most of Israel’s neighbors had their own temples and religious practices. These employed temple priests and various kinds of workers as well, and some even used women to serve as “sacred prostitutes.” All religions supported many artisans, such as architects, builders, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and sculptors, who used their skills to build and decorate temples and shrines (1 Kgs 5.13-18).

Although the sacred tent and the tem­ple were the center of religious life for the people of Israel, many of the Kings of Israel and Judah also employed prophets (1 Chr 21.9; 2 Chr 19.1-2) who helped them make decisions based on God’s will, and who warned them of the consequences of their actions. Other prophets worked independently as preachers (1 Sam 9.6-21). By the time of Jesus, a growing number of teach­ers known as scribes and Pharisees earned money as teachers of the Law.

Other Occupations

Unskilled workers were often poor and did difficult jobs like mining, cutting rocks, dig­ging wells, building roads, cleaning streets, training and driving camels, loading and unloading goods along trade routes, work­ing as a crew member or rower on a boat, and tending and harvesting crops. Still oth­ers worked as dancers, musicians, and even as professional mourners. Some of these mourners were paid to cry and wail during funeral processions (Jer 9.17; Matt 9.23); others played sad music on flutes, beat their chests with their hands, and wore rough clothing called sackcloth (Gen 37.34).

Merchants and traders bought and sold all sorts of items, carrying them from town to town to offer for sale in outdoor market places. Some wealthy merchants owned ships or large numbers of camels, which they used to transport goods across long distances.

Wages and Pay

The Bible does speak of people being paid for certain kinds of work (Gen 29.15; Mic 3.11; Matt 20.1-15; Luke 3.14), but it is diffi­cult to determine just how much people were paid early in Israel’s history. Most like­ly they received goods or food for the work they did. During the time of the kings, some people were paid in weighed pieces of gold or silver. Later, around 600 B.C., the Persian Empire began making coins, which were sometimes used to pay workers. By the time of Jesus, various kinds of coins were common­ly used to pay for goods and the services of workers. The story Jesus told in Matthew 20.1-16 describes vineyard workers being paid the amount of one day’s wage, which was one denarius. How much that one coin could buy is not clear, so it is hard to deter­mine what a person’s wage would have been when compared to a worker’s salary today.


Bread has always been an important and basic food for people (Gen 3.19). Bread was made at home by wives (Gen 18.6) and daughters (2 Sam 13.7-10). It was usually made fresh each day, but because it could last for several days without going bad, it could also be given to those setting out on a long journey (Gen 45.23). Bread was of­fered to strangers who passed through the land (Gen 14.18), and when God’s people were disobedient, God warned them that their supply of daily bread would be taken away as punishment (Lev 26.23-26).

Most bread was made in flat cakes on flat stones or in pans. Some was baked into larger, thicker loaves that were placed on a special table in the temple and offered to God as “sacred loaves of bread” (Exod 25.23-30). Only priests could eat this bread, but David and his supporters were once given some by priests when they were starv­ing (1 Sam 21.1-6). God provided bread for the Israelite people as they were wandering through the desert of Sinai on the way from Egypt to the promised land. They called this bread manna, which in Hebrew means, “What is this?” This bread is also referred to as the” bread from heaven” (Exod 16.4).

Ancient documents discovered in the twentieth century, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, reveal that Jews in the community at Qumran shared meals of bread and wine. These meals were both a celebration of good times in the present and a celebra­tion of the day when God would defeat their enemies and send the Messiah. Jesus’ followers believed that he was God’s cho­sen Messiah and the true bread from heav­en that gives life (John 6.32-35). Jesus told his followers to ask God to give them the basic food (bread) they needed to live from day to day (Luke 9.3). After Jesus was taken to heaven, they continued to cele­brate their new life together as God’s peo­ple by “breaking bread” in ordinary meals (Acts 2.42-46), and by sharing in the bread of communion, which Jesus said was his body (1 Cor 11.25,26; Mark 14.22-25).

Making Bread in Jesus’ Day      Bread-baking, a daily chore, was almost always done by women and girls. Wheat or barley grain was ground into a coarse flour in hand-mills. The flour was then mixed with water, salt, and unbaked dough from the day before. This left-over dough contained the yeast needed to make the new batch of dough rise. The yeast was massaged into the dough (a process called “kneading”) to distribute it throughout the batch, and the batches were set aside until the gasses produced by the yeast made the dough rise. The dough was then shaped into round, flat loaves that baked quickly in outdoor ovens.

Readings from the CEV Learning Bible, Session Three


Crucifixion was a common way to punish criminals and to publicly humiliate them in the ancient world. In Jesus’ day, the Romans used crucifixion to put criminals to death. A person was tied with cords or nailed to a wooden cross that was shaped like a T or like a plus sign (+). Usually the worst crim­inals, slaves who had done wrong, and those who had led revolts were crucified.

After a criminal was sentenced to die on the cross, he had to carry his cross to the place where he would die. Sometimes he carried only the crosspiece. Before being put on the cross he would be beaten and stripped of his clothes. Then he would be fastened on the cross with his arms stretched out. This painful position made it difficult for the condemned person to breathe, and eventually he would die from suffocation. Sometimes the victims lived for as long as a week before dying.

Those who broke the major laws of Jewish society and religion were often put to death by stoning. A group of people would force the accused person to lie down and then push him off a ledge. Then people would throw huge stones down on him, which would crush him to death and cover up his body.

If Jesus had been guilty of breaking an important Jewish law he could have been stoned to death. Instead, he was accused of starting a revolt against the Roman gov­ernment by allowing himself to be called “King of the Jews.” A sign with this title was placed on the cross over Jesus’ head when he was crucified (27 .37).

God overcame the death of Jesus by bringing him back to life after he died on the cross. That’s why the cross became the major symbol for God’s power to forgive sins and give new life to people (1 Cor 1.18-24).


The people of Israel and the other countries of the ancient Near East considered it very important to honor those who had died by giving them a proper burial. Because of the warm climate in Palestine it was important to bury people within twenty-four hours after they died. In fact, Jewish law required that a dead person should be buried before sunset (Deut 21.23). To let a loved-one’s body decay above ground where vultures and dogs could eat it was considered a seri­ous dishonor.

There is no complete description in the Bible of how Jewish people prepared a body for burial. However, it is known that the body was washed (Acts 9.37), anointed with scented ointments (Luke 24.1), and wrapped in cloth (Matt 27 .59; John 11.44).

Most ancient Hebrews were buried in caves or in trenches dug in the ground. Sarah and Abraham were buried in Machpe­lah Cave near Hebron (Gen 23.19; 25.9,10). Later, tombs cut out of rock were used for burying the dead. Some tombs could only hold one body, others could hold several and were used by families. Because touch­ing a corpse, even accidentally, made a per­son ceremonially unclean according to Jewish law, tombs were clearly marked. After the flesh had rotted away in the tomb, the bones would be collected in a box (called an ossuary). Then the level place where the dead body had been could be used to re­ceive the body of another person who died. Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites often burned (cremated) the bodies of people who died. Jewish people saw this as a dis­honor and did this only if a body was already in an advanced state of decay (1 Sam 31.12) or during a time of plague (Amos 6.10). The dead bodies of people who had disobeyed God’s law were also sometimes burned (Lev 20.14; Josh 7.25).

Burial ceremonies centered on the fam­ily’s mourning for the dead person and the carrying of the body to the place of burial. The bodies of the dead were put on wooden frames and car­ried to the place of burial (2 Sam 3.31; Luke 7.11-15). After the burial, those who han­dled the body were considered ritually unclean and had to undergo a cleansing ceremony in order to be part of the community again (Num 19.11-20). There is no evidence that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day performed funeral services to honor the dead.


The story of trade and travel in the ancient Near East tells how those civi­lizations developed. The Bible, other documents of the times, and archaeologi­cal discoveries give a general picture of how ancient peoples traded with one another, where the most important trade centers were, and how they traveled and transported their goods to these market­places. But the complete story has yet to be pieced together from the information available to us.

No clear evidence has been found to show how the earliest human beings trav­eled. Archaeologists date the earliest evi­dence of any kind of travel from the end of the “Ice Age,” about 40,000 years ago. Evi­dence suggests that some kind of trading occurred in prehistoric times, since many raw materials, including “luxury” items like amber, have been found far from their like­ly sources. After the last glaciers of the Ice Age melted (around 12,000 years ago), peo­ple began to grow crops and raise livestock. The steady supply of food produced by farming created the conditions for people to live in towns and cities. From these early times to today, trade and travel encouraged each other to grow and expand.

Early Israelites

Before they settled in Canaan, the earliest ancestors of the Israelites were nomads, which means that they lived by moving herds of sheep and goats from place to place to find good pastures. For example, the Bible tells us how Abraham moved with Sarah and their family from Ur in Chaldea (at the head of the Persian Gulf) to Canaan in Palestine (Gen 11.26-12.9). Like other nomadic peoples, Abraham and his descen­dants lived in tents, temporary dwellings that were easy to set up and take down. Abraham’s grandson Jacob moved his whole family to Egypt because there was a famine in Canaan where they lived (Gen 46.5-28). His sons and their families remained in Egypt for many years until Moses led them out of Egypt and across the Sinai peninsula. They lived there in tents for forty years as they made their way back to the land of Canaan. Besides the sheep and oxen they took with them, they may have had donkeys and camels to carry them and their belongings (Gen 12.16; 22.3; 24.10; 42.26).

The earliest Israelites traded in animals, milk, cheese, and wool. Even after they set­tled in Canaan, the Israelites were farmers and herders, but few were professional mer­chants. However, unlike more isolated areas of the world, the geography of the ancient Near East encouraged rapid change. Canaan (later known as Palestine), was a land bridge that connected northern Africa and Asia Minor with the rest of the Near East. Wandering peoples, merchants, skilled workers and artisans, and armies used this land bridge to pass from one part of the ancient world to another. They brought special skills, ideas, and prod­ucts over this land bridge. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks, Per­sians, and desert nomads influenced the Israelites. From about 1000 B.C. on, the Israelites became increasingly involved in trading beyond their local marketplaces.

As trading between regions and coun­tries became more important, so did travel. In fact, trade and travel link so completely that discussing one involves discussing the other.

Improvements in transportation made it easier for merchants to trade in distant markets. In early Bible times, trade between countries probably took the form of diplo­matic exchanges between kings and had lit­tle impact on the economic life of the ordinary people. Most peoples created enough goods and services in their local economies to satisfy their daily needs. How­ever, in later times, trade would increase as transportation improved, making possi­ble the spread of ideas, culture, and mater­ial wealth. Unfortunately, this would also give rise to wars and the struggles to main­tain empires.

Local Trading and Local Economies

Ancient Palestine was largely an agricultur­al society. People traded farm products and animals from their flocks in the market­places. Farmers brought wheat and barley, grapes and wine, olives and olive oil, figs, dates, and nuts to markets in nearby towns and cities. Herders brought milk, cheese, and butter to city markets all year round. The busiest time of the year for trading was in the late spring when herders also brought young lambs and goats to market. Before the Roman period, fish was not an important food item, even though dried fish could sometimes be found in the marketplace. The development of the fishing business increased by New Testa­ment times.

Throughout the biblical period, trad­ing was usually conducted at the town gate or near the entrance to towns. As trading became more complex, market stalls were set up in central parts of cities. Traveling merchants from other nations also traded their goods in these market­places. Traders used a variety of methods to get their goods. to the market. Pack ani­mals such as donkeys and oxen carried goods overland. Small boats brought products on rivers and canals, which was often cheaper and easier than overland transport.

In the towns and cities, people made pottery, cloth, metal tools, kettles, and weapons. They usually traded these useful items for food products. In ancient Pales­tine, items changed hands by a kind of trad­ing called bartering since gold and silver were not plentiful enough to be used to buy things. The use of money in the form of minted coins was not used in Palestine until after the exile (beginning around 538 B.C.). The Persians who controlled Palestine dur­ing this time introduced the use of coins in buying and selling.

Trading with the Outside World

After the tribes of Israel were united under King David (around 1000 B.C.), international trade began to increase. Israelite rulers built storage cellars and warehouses to store wine, grain, and olive oil taken from local farmers as a form of taxation. The kings used these items in their courts or traded them with neighboring countries. Although this practice probably was a source of com­petition for local farmers and merchants, it also created the need for professional traders (merchants) who specialized in the business of buying and selling.

The Bible reports that trade with other nations increased during King Solomon’s reign (961-922 B.C.). Solomon needed wood, gold, and precious stones to build and fur­nish his palace and the temple he built for the lord in Jerusalem. He traded with King Hiram of Tyre and a trade agreement between them gave Hiram the right to use Israel’s port at Ezion-Geber on the Red Sea. In return, Hiram sent Solomon experienced sailors to help the Israelites’ journey to Ophir (believed to be in either India or Africa) to obtain gold (1 Kgs 9.26-28). Solomon also traded with the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10.1-10). He bought horses from Musri (Egypt) and Kue (in today’s southeast Turkey) for his many chariots (1 Kgs 10.28, 29). In addition, Solomon probably charged foreign traders tolls or taxes to pass through Israel’s territory.

Israel’s Imports and Exports

Because Israel was at the crossroads between Mesopotamia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt, it was only a matter of time before the people became involved in trad­ing with other nations.

Israel’s main exports continued to be farm products, such as olive oil, wine, and grains (1 Kgs 5.11; Ezek 27.17). They also produced and exported dried nuts (such as pistachios and almonds), perfume, and spices (Gen 43.11). Other important prod­ucts were dates, figs, wool, and clothing made from wool.

Israel imported raw materials such as tin, lead, silver, copper, iron, gold (1 Kgs 10.10-12), and timber (1 Kgs 5.6-9). White linen cloth (a fine fabric made from the flax plant) probably came regularly from Egypt and Syria, while purple-dyed wool and cloth came from Phoenicia. Though Israelites made pottery, they imported spe­cial pottery from the island of Cyprus and from Greece. Gems, ivory, spices, and other things came to Israel by camel caravans across the desert and by sea from southern Arabia, Ethiopia, and India (1 Kgs 10.2,10,22).

Paying for Merchandise

As trade increased in Israel during the time of Solomon, so did the use of gold and sil­ver to pay for goods. Around this time, merchants and a special group of money­changers began to weigh and test gold and silver pieces to judge their value and purity. Even so, exchanging one kind of merchan­dise for another continued to be the main way of doing business.

As noted earlier, the use of money (minted coins) began in Palestine when the Persians ruled the land (530-330 B.C.). Gold darics, silver shekels, and minas were used to buy and sell things (Neh 5.15). Coins cir­culated from many different places. Even the Persian province of Judea was given permission to make its own silver coins. After the Jewish people won their indepen­dence under the Maccabees (164 B.C.), they again made their own coins.

In Jesus’ day, Roman coins were the only form of money that could be used to pay taxes to the Roman government (see Luke 20.20-26), though coins of other coun­tries were used in buying and selling. Although the Bible does not give a com­plete picture of the way local economies functioned, it does mention workers being paid for a day’s wage (Matt 20.1,2), and describes the requirement to pay annual temple taxes (Matt 17.24-27). Each of these passages probably refers to a denarius, a coin from Cappadocia. This was also proba­bly the coin Jesus mentioned in Matt 22.19. The thirty silver coins that Judas was paid to help the authorities arrest Jesus (Matt 26.15) probably amounted to the wage of a typical laborer for approximately four months of work.


Travel in biblical times, besides being dif­ficult and slow, could also be very dan­gerous. Robbers were a hazard to travelers and merchants as they walked along foot paths. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-27) is an example of the constant danger. Travelers some­times faced unfriendly or even hostile people in certain areas or towns. Wild animals, such as lions and bears, could also be a serious threat for travelers (Judg 14.5,6; 1 Sam 17.34-36; 2 Kgs 2.23­25). There were very few places to stop for food and fresh water. Roadside inns were sometimes available, but they were also dangerous.

Throughout the biblical period, gov­ernments did not maintain most roads, and methods of constructing safe roads were not yet introduced until the Roman occupation of Palestine. Overgrown and mountainous routes posed hazards for travelers. Strong rains could easily wash out sections of roads or make them slip­pery. Sometimes rocks would fall and block roads or stick up above the surface of a road and smash the wheels of vehi­cles. Also there were few bridges in Palestine. Crossing a stream often meant travelers had to wait for a raft to ferry across, or had to walk to find a shallow place they could wade across.

Sea travel was also dangerous (2 Cor 11.25, 26). Wind and waves could easily sink a small boat or push it off course. Weather around the Mediterranean Sea was even more stormy in winter, so very few ships tried to sail during winter (Acts 27.27; 28.11). Pirates sometimes raided merchant ships as they moved their cargo on the open sea. For most of their history, the people of Israel did not have good seaports, and unfriendly neighbors often controlled the ones they needed to use. Consequently, the Israelite people did not rely on the sea very much for travel, trading or fishing.

Travel over Land

Most travel in Bible times was done on foot. People walked along paths or roads known as “ways.” Many places in the Bible describe individuals or groups of people traveling by foot. Depending on the condi­tion of the road, people could walk up to twenty miles (30 km) in a day. If the road was not good shape, or if people were loaded down with goods and supplies, the distance they could cover in a day would be much less.

Roads. Ancient roads were well-worn paths for travel and carrying goods from place to place. As wheeled transportation became more common, roads were widened, elevated so they didn’t flood over as much, and sometimes paved. A few paved roads existed in parts of the major cities of Israel, but most roads were simple pathways. Cities and fortresses were often placed near well-traveled roads, but the main roads did not usually pass directly through a city. A separate road connected the main road with the town, and a town gate allowed the people of the town to control which travelers and merchants could enter the town. The number of mar­kets and merchants grew as new roads were built.

Roads led through major religious cen­ters, such as Jerusalem, Samaria, and Dam­ascus in the Near East; Ephesus in Asia Minor; and Athens on the Greek peninsula. Merchants often set up markets in these places. Some sold religious objects or gifts for presenting to the various gods. In Jerusalem, pilgrims could buy small ani­mals and grains from merchants to make sacrificial offerings at the temple during special festivals.

The Persians began to build major highways throughout the Near East around 600 B.C. One famous road had inns and way stations every ten to fifteen miles to shelter royalty and wealthy people. Greek rulers who succeeded Alexander the Great extend­ed and improved roads in Egypt and Syria.

The Romans built the best highways of ancient times. Roman roads were built to make it easier for the Roman army to move freely through the territories it conquered. As the Roman Empire grew, roads were built from the southern Jordan Valley across Asia Minor, throughout Europe, and even in remote places like northern Britain. Some Roman roads were made of large flat stones. The roads were wide enough for chariots and wagons going in different directions to pass each other. Some of these roads, which date from before the time of Christ, can still be seen today.

Main travel routes. The most important road that passed through ancient Israel was the Great Coastal Highway, or the Way of the Sea. This road connected Egypt in the south with Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, and the Land of the Hittites in the north. It followed the coastal valley along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Carmel where it split into two branches, ­one continuing on the eastern side of the Lebanon Mountains, and the other continuing northward along the coast through the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

The King’s Highway was another very important road. It went from Egypt to Israel across the southern desert, and then turned north along the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley (the long, north-south valley that contains the Dead Sea, Jordan River, and Lake Galilee), and on to Damascus. By the time the apostle Paul and other early Christians began to take the good news about Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Roman Empire, the value of the Roman road system was clear. Paul traveled on the Egnatian Way through Macedonia.

On his final journey to Rome he traveled from Puteoli, a major port for the nearby cities of Napoli and Pompeii, to the capital city on one of the most famous highways in Italy, the Appian Way. The highways and the transportation system developed by the Romans made it easier for Christian preach­ers to spread the good news about Jesus, and for groups of Christians to keep in touch with and support one another.

Pack animals. Donkeys are mentioned in the Bible as an early means of transporta­tion (Exod 4.20; Josh 15.18; 1 Sam 25.20,23; 2 Sam 16.1,2; 2 Kgs 4.22; 2 Chr 28.15). Bal­aam, the prophet. rode a donkey (Num 22.22-35). And the “humble king” men­tioned in Zechariah’s prophecy is described as riding a donkey (Zech 9.9). Similarly, Jesus rode a young donkey into Jerusalem the week before he was to die on a cross (Matt 21.1-9). Donkeys were also used to carry supplies from place to place (Gen 44.13; Josh 9.4; 1 Sam 16.20).

Horses were more expensive than don­keys. As a means of transportation, horses were originally used only by kings and armies. Eventually, all powerful armies in the Near East used horses to transport sol­diers and pull battle chariots (1 Kgs 20.21; Isa 30.16; Jer 6.23; Amos 2.15). Messengers may also have used horses to bring news quickly from place to place (2 Kgs 9.18,19; Esth 8.10). The powerful but slow-moving oxen, on the other hand, were widely used as work animals to pull carts, wagons, and plows (Num 7.3; 2 Sam 6.3-6; Job 1.14).

Caravans. Groups of merchants, pil­grims, or travelers joined together for pro­tection as they traveled with their pack animals (either donkeys or camels, depend­ing on the terrain). Trade and travel by car­avans go back as far as recorded history (see, for example, Gen 37.25). Caravans were probably in use long before the rise of sea trade and travel.

As civilizations developed, caravans became very important to the economies of cities and empires. Cities could rise or fall depending on their closeness to important caravan routes; and empires had important interests in protecting trade routes. (See Judges 5.6, 7.) Caravans were usually large and their valuable cargo required the pro­tection of soldiers or armed guards. Wealthy travelers, like Abraham, bought slaves to use as armed guards (see Gen 14.14).

Before the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), land caravans contributed to trade in Palestine as they moved from Asia Minor following the western edge of the Syrian Desert. They supplied the markets of Aleppo, Hamath, and Damascus before heading south into Palestine. From there, they would travel to Egypt or to places near the Red Sea.

Other caravans came from central and southern Mesopotamia. Although this land was directly east of Palestine, most of these caravans had to travel north along the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys rather than directly west through the Syrian Desert. These routes, though long, were rel­atively safe, and caravans could make stops along the way to refresh their animals before traveling south into Palestine. Some routes went directly west from Babylon and Accad to Damascus, but these routes were dangerous because they crossed many miles of desert.

In the deserts of the ancient Near East, Egypt, and northern Africa, the animal most often used in caravans was the camel. Some nomads who invaded the Israelite people rode on camels (Judg 6.3-5; 7.12; 1 Sam 30.17). Camels are the best pack animals for desert travel because they are strong, have nat­ural protection from the environ­ment, and can travel long distances without needing to stop for water. In hot weather, on a long jour­ney, a camel usually carried no more than three hundred fifty pounds (150 kg). But on short journeys, in cooler weather, or to evade customs duties, a camel’s load might be increased to a thou­sand pounds (450 kg). Loads were usually divided into two parts and tied on either side of the camel’s back. Passengers were often carried in large baskets tied on each side of the camel.

Camels are easier to tend during long travels through barren land. They can bite off and digest the thorny plants that grow there. Camels also have calluses on their bodies that insulate them from the heat of the desert sand. While a sandstorm might blind or injure horses or donkeys, camels have very long eyelashes to shield their eyes, and can close their nostrils to protect themselves from flying dust and sand. Because they store water in their humps, camels have the capacity to go without water for many days. They also have an acute sense of smell that makes them use­ful in finding sources of water.

Caravans traveled when there was enough water and pasture land. In progress, a caravan averaged two to three miles (3-5 km) per hour for eight to fifteen hours each day or, in hot weather, each night. If possible, it was arranged to stop at a “caravansary,” (an inn for caravan travelers) which was usually built on a hill or elevation, and consisted of a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by many small rooms, with stables or store­rooms underneath.

Vehicles. Archaeologists guess that the invention of the wheel occurred sometime between 10,000 and 8000 B.C. From exist­ing evidence, it appears that wheels were attached to carts no later than 4000 B.C., when the inhabitants of the ancient Meso­potamian city of Sumer placed sledges on wheels to transport goods. At first, wheels were solid disks of wood. Wheels with spokes were first introduced around 2700 B.C. In ancient times, three types of vehi­cles were used: the two-wheeled cart, the four-wheeled wagon, and the chariot. Two-wheeled carts were made of wood or woven basket material. Oxen, donkeys, or even people pulled them. Carts were used to transport goods, baggage, and supplies. Four-wheeled wagons hauled large items such as building supplies. Wheeled vehicles were efficient on good roads and on the level plains of Palestine. They were not as reliable on rocky and dangerous mountain roads and so were not initially used for long-distance transportation of goods. Later, Roman engineers introduced wag­ons with undercarriages and a pivoting front axle for easier maneuvering.

Many ancient peoples used chariots as early as 3000 B.C. Battle scenes portrayed on pottery or carved in stone depict chari­ots in combat. Chariots were two-wheeled vehicles that one or more horses pulled. They were large enough to hold one or two soldiers with their weapons. Chariots were used for hunting by kings or wealthy people who could afford to buy and keep their own horses. The speed and mobility of chariots made a decisive factor in mili­tary campaigns. The dominance of the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians at different periods in Bible times is partly due to their well-equipped armies and use of chariots in battle. During the time of Solomon and the divided kingdom, Israel also made extensive use of chariots (1 Kgs 4.26; 2 Chr 1.14; 9.25). A horse and chariot could easily travel thirty miles (50 km) in a day; and up to forty-five miles (70 km) a day when necessary.

Water Travel

Rafts, boats, and ships. Small rafts made from logs and dugout canoes were the first boats used for traveling and fishing along the Mediterranean coast. Few trees existed along the Nile River in Egypt, so ancient people made rafts and small boats from bundles of reeds. These were tied together and shaped to form boats. Reed boats were used as early as 3500 B.C. Eventually, larger wooden boats were made. Pictures painted on vases and temple walls show that these boats existed well before 2000 B.C.

Throughout the history of Egypt, boat transportation on the Nile River was very important for trade and culture. Boats trav­eled the four hundred miles (650 km) from Syene (near modern-day Aswan) to where the river empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Ships were used to transport people or goods on the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Some boats were powered by ten or more rowers, and some had both rowers and sails. Usually, these early boats were steered by large oars. Early sea travel was limited to daytime journeys along the coast with stops each night. Even so, trade and travel developed on the Mediterranean, along the Arabian Gulf, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean as far as India. Sea trade was greatly advanced by the Phoeni­cians, who were the first to learn how to navigate by the stars. The Phoenicians (based in Tyre) traveled across the Mediter­ranean as far as Gibraltar and the Atlantic coasts of Spain and North Africa. Between 2000 and 1000 B.C., ship travel became more common on the Mediterranean Sea. The Minoan people of Crete, the Greeks, Syrians, and Phoenicians all built fleets of merchant ships, along with warships that could be used to defend their lands or attack their enemies. The invasion of Egypt by these “Sea Peoples” took place some years after the Hebrew people had left Egypt and settled in Canaan.

During the time that the Israelite peo­ple ruled all or part of Canaan (1030-586 B.C.), the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Assyri­ans built merchant ships and warships with two or three decks. One or two decks of rowers powered the boat. A standard­sized ship might have eight rowers per side, but a very large ship could have up to sixty rowers, thirty on each side often arranged in double rows. Israel’s King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion­Geber (1 Kgs 9.26-28; 2 Chr 8.17,18). These ships were used to carry goods back and forth to Ophir. But since Israel did not have ports on the Mediterranean Sea, Israelistes never built a strong navy and had to rely on merchants from other countries for trading and sea travel.

Small boats and fishing craft. Within Israel, however, smaller boats were impor­tant to the economy of the area around Lake Galilee, especially during the Roman period. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a small boat in this freshwater lake that dates from the time of Jesus. Such small boats were used for both fishing and transportation. They are often mentioned in the Gospels (Matt 14.22; Mark 1.19; Luke 5.2; John 6.19).

Little mention is made of sea-going ships in the New Testament, except those that the apostle Paul sailed on during his trip to Rome (Acts 20.38; 21.6; 27.2; 28.11). At this time, passengers like Paul had to travel on merchant ships that carried grain or other cargo (Acts 21.1-3; 27.10). The Romans had a very active “grain fleet,” which brought Egyptian grain from Alexandria to the capital city of Rome in Italy. When space allowed, these cargo ships also took passengers.

Special Reasons for Travel

Holy travel. The people of Israel traveled to special holy places such as Shiloh, Dan, Bethel, and Jerusalem to worship and cele­brate religious festivals (1 Sam 1; 1 Kgs 12.26-33; 2 Kgs 10.18-24; Amos 5.4,5). Joshua called the people of Israel together at Shechem (Josh 24). And King Solomon gathered the people in Jerusalem to cele­brate the Festival of Shelters and to dedi­cate the temple they had built for the lord there (1 Kgs 8.1-13, 62-65).

At the time of Jesus, it was the custom for the people of Israel to travel to Jerusalem three times each year to cele­brate the major pilgrimage festivals­Passover, the Harvest Festival (Pentecost), and the Festival of Shelters. In Acts, Luke describes how the early apostles of Jesus traveled around preaching and teaching the good news. More than half of the book tells about Paul’s many travels by land and sea. In addition to the travel undertaken by Jews and Christians, the followers of pagan gods also made pilgrimages to holy places, shrines, and temples.

Wars. A major reason for travel con­cerned the movement of military forces. Israel’s armies often traveled outside their boundaries to battle with unfriendly neigh­bors (see 2 Sam 8.1-12). Israel itself was attacked by invaders from other lands including Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. In 331 B.C. Alexander the Great passed through Palestine on his way to invade Egypt. His army was said to have traveled as far as forty-five (70 km) miles in one day. Later, when the Roman army became the most powerful army in the world, they could conquer large areas partly because they had built good roads that made it possible for their troops and supplies to move quickly and easily.

Communication. Land or sea travel was the means of sending messages to dif­ferent places. The Old Testament mentions messengers who carried news, orders, and other messages from the king to his own military commanders or to rulers in neigh­boring countries (2 Sam 2.5; 3.14; 11.19).

The Roman imperial post carried mes­sages important to the Roman Empire. A messenger would journey by carriage, changing horses at staging posts along the way. In the New Testament, Paul and other church leaders communicated with groups of Christians living in various parts of the Mediterranean world by sending letters that messengers delivered by hand. As civilization became more con­nected by trading, the Christian message of hope traveled throughout the ancient world.


New Testament: The Gospels

Session One: History, temple, synagogue, baptism, Galilee topography

Readings:        Script to page 4, Fishing Boats.

Supplemental pages from CEV Learning Bible for session one.

Do the following:

  1. Read Luke 4:16-21. Note and explain briefly all of the elements of a normal synagogue service.
  2. Translate Matthew 4:5.

Session Two: Fishing, Nazareth, Israelite house, eating customs

Readings:        Script, pages 4-7, to Capital punishment.

Supplemental pages from CEV Learning Bible for session two.

Do the following:

  1. Read Mark 2:1-12 and its parallel in Luke 5:17-26. Describe all the elements of the structure of the house that would help the reader understand what is happening.
  2. Translate Habakkuk 1:15-17; Luke 7:37-38; 2 Kings 19:26.

Session Three: Capital punishment, burial, clothing, roads, Jerusalem topography

Readings:        Script, pages 7-10.

Supplemental pages from CEV Learning Bible for session three.

Do the following:

  1. On the map of Israel mark the following: Galilee, Samaria, Judea; Jerusalem, Capernaum, Nazareth. Draw the route usually taken by the Jews when they traveled between Jerusalem and Galilee.
  2. Translate Luke 23:26; John 13:25-26.

Matthew 4:5

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,

5 Τότε παραλαμβάνει αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν καὶ ἔστησεν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ πτερύγιον τοῦ ἱεροῦ

Habakkuk 1:15-17

15 The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;

he drags them out with his net,

he gathers them in his seine;

so he rejoices and exults.

16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net

and makes offerings to his seine;

for by them his portion is lavish,

and his food is rich.

17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net,

and destroying nations without mercy?

15 כֻּלֹּה בְּחַכָּה הֵֽעֲלָה יְגֹרֵהוּ בְחֶרְמֹו וְיַאַסְפֵהוּ בְּמִכְמַרְתֹּו עַל־כֵּן יִשְׂמַח וְיָגִֽיל׃
עַל־כֵּן יְזַבֵּחַ לְחֶרְמֹו וִֽיקַטֵּר לְמִכְמַרְתֹּו כִּי בָהֵמָּה שָׁמֵן חֶלְקֹו וּמַאֲכָלֹו בְּרִאָֽה׃ 17 הַעַל כֵּן יָרִיק חֶרְמֹו וְתָמִיד לַהֲרֹג גֹּויִם לֹא יַחְמֹֽול׃

Luke 7:37-38

37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

37 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἁμαρτωλός, καὶ ἐπιγνοῦσα ὅτι κατάκειται ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Φαρισαίου, κομίσασα ἀλάβαστρον μύρου 38 καὶ στᾶσα ὀπίσω παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ κλαίουσα τοῖς δάκρυσιν ἤρξατο βρέχειν τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῖς θριξὶν τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς ἐξέμασσεν καὶ κατεφίλει τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ἤλειφεν τῷ μύρῳ.

2 Kings 19:26

26they have become like plants of the field

and like tender grass,

like grass on the housetops,

blighted before it is grown.

26 הָיוּ עֵשֶׂב שָׂדֶה וִירַק דֶּשֶׁא חֲצִיר גַּגֹּות וּשְׁדֵפָה לִפְנֵי קָמָֽה׃

Luke 23:26

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.

26 Καὶ ὡς ἀπήγαγον αὐτόν, ἐπιλαβόμενοι Σίμωνά τινα Κυρηναῖον ἐρχόμενον ἀπ᾽ ἀγροῦ ἐπέθηκαν αὐτῷ τὸν σταυρὸν φέρειν ὄπισθεν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ.

John 13:25-26

25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.

25 ἀναπεσὼν οὖν ἐκεῖνος οὕτως ἐπὶ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ, Κύριε, τίς ἐστιν; 26 ἀποκρίνεται [ὁ] Ἰησοῦς, Ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ᾧ ἐγὼ βάψω τὸ ψωμίον καὶ δώσω αὐτῷ. βάψας οὖν τὸ ψωμίον [λαμβάνει καὶ] δίδωσιν Ἰούδᾳ Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου.