Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus
© L.D. Underwood 2010
The Cultural World in Which Jesus Lived
The cultural world of Jesus, that is the intellectual, moral, social, economic world in which Jesus lived was an eclectic mixture of people groups and customs. This world can be introduced in terms of looking at the kind of world in which Jesus lived in the first century, as a welter of conflicting cultures. We can almost picture in our minds this setting like rivers that run into the Mediterranean Sea from every side, pouring into it their sediment, feeding their waters. In much the same way, the peoples comprised within the constantly expanding domain of Rome brought into it all of the cultural contributions. We have Africans, Teutons, Greeks, Jews, Parthians, Phrygians all mingled in the provinces and cities, and all of these different nation groups shared their national heritage with the Latin peoples. We have the combination of the social and religious forces under one political rule that produced a unique setting for the birth of Christianity. Even though the gospel is essentially independent of human origin, the media, the vehicle through which it is expressed and influences effect its interpretation and like can be traced back to the philosophies and the theologies of that contemporary period. These in turn were the products of the peoples from whom they sprang and can best be understood in terms of the cumulative historical processes in conflicts that culminated during the first century of the Christian era.
There were three great types of culture that prevailed in the empire. Obviously there was Judaism. There was Hellenism, or Greek culture, and there was Roman imperialism. Judaism of course provided the roots of Christianity; Hellenism, the intellectual soil in which it grew. The imperialism of Rome provided the protection necessary for opening the field of its growth. Interestingly these three groups which contributed to Christianity in one way or another actually became the bitterest enemies of Christianity. Judaism regarded Christianity as a pernicious heresy; Hellenism thought of it as philosophical nonsense; and Roman imperialism looked upon Christianity as being impractical and weak.
What about the economic conditions of the time? Actually, they were not too unlike our own world in the twentieth century. There were the rich and the poor, the free and the slave all living side by side together. Both within Judaism as well as in the pagan world, there was this wealthy aristocratic class of people, very few in number and the vast majority of people, the masses, were extremely poor. Now there are a number of reasons or causes for that material privation of the masses. First of all, most of the people depended upon the soil for their living. Agriculture was the primary occupation of the Palestinians. So those peasants became the mainstay of the nation growing barely and wheat and rye, and grapes and raisins and wine and olive oil and dates and figs and pomegranates and almonds and apricots and plums.
Anyone familiar with farm living, of agricultural work, knows that a lot of it depends upon the fluctuation of climate. A lot depends upon how much a farmer can get for his produce at any given time. There is a lot of undependability because of these fluctuations, since most of the people depended upon the soil for a living.
Secondly, the country was crowded with an excessive population. We do not know for sure exactly how many people comprised first century Palestine, we have no official records from that time, but the estimates range all the way from a few hundred thousand to several millions of people. But probably the best guesstimate might be somewhere around the three million mark. So, we have a country just crowded with people. There were obviously the resident Jews that were located there; there were gentiles who had immigrated into the country, then add to that the Roman officials that would come at various times of the year. Military forces and then add to that the pilgrims that would come at the various times of festival throughout the year. And this rise and fall of population made a very serious economic problem. How does a culture sustain a proper balance between production and consumption when there is that kind of fluctuation in population?
Add to that this problem, the Jews had an aversion to engaging in any kind of widespread trade relations with other nations. They regarded other nations as being part of the heathen world. Therefore, the scribes had drawn up some very rigid laws with strict measures with regulating any kind of commerce with foreigners. They had just a very limited kind of trade then with other powers, usually their exports would be chiefly agricultural products, or salt and fish, and probably most of their imports were luxury items for the most part. But very limited commerce and trade also added to the poverty of the masses. Then add to that the exorbitant taxation of the time. Recall the building enterprises of king Herod. Those had to be paid somehow. There were taxes levied by the Romans, and add to that the Jewish taxes for the religious revenue of the temple. All of these taxes were conspiring to keep the people poor. After all, the priests had to be kept in luxury and saw to it that they lacked nothing.
Just to have an idea, every male Jew over the age of twelve, paid a half shekel as a poll tax or a temple tribute. Then they would also tithe of their possession—that would wouldn’t mean just the amount of money the receive, but the tithing would be on their crops, on their cattle, on their garden produce, that ten percent belonged to the Lord.
Then there were all kinds of dues at special festivals, thank offerings and sin offerings, and little did the people realize, that the temple vaults were rich with food, and with gold. Or if they did know that they were full of these items, they felt that they as an individual could do nothing about it. The Romans added to that burden and so you had taxes for good roads, for bridges, theaters, even an emperor tax, who was of course hated by a subject people. There was a poll tax of everybody of one percent of their income. A water tax, road tax, property tax, village tax, tolls in the market places duties on goods coming in or going out. Even death duties. There was a purchase tax that was introduced by the emperor Augustus to provide pensions for retired veterans. Does that sound familiar? Food was scarce, and prices were high. In many ways, the profits spoke louder than the prophets.
Things were just changed around from what they should be. Someone has said that our present scale of values reminds him of a hardware store in which someone sneaks in at nights to switch around the price tags. And so lawnmowers are selling for 75 cents and screwdrivers are bringing in $100.00. He feels that our whole economy is topsy-turvy. This is much the way it was at that time too. Jesus was well aware of that situation. About fourteen of his parables were connected with money. And this would really speak against the backdrop of that kind of day. One can imagine that with all of these causes to bring poverty on the mass of people, there would be some unsatisfactory effects of this wide spread poverty. There was dissatisfaction and unrest on the part of the people. There was outburst of robbery and insurrection. Women who were resorting to the Magdalene role out of sheer physical necessity.
What about the languages of that time? There were four major languages in the Roman world, and these would include Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Latin would be the language that would be spoken in the Law courts, and in literature. It was basically the popular tongue for the western Roman world. Greek on the other hand was the common language of the majority of those living in the east part of the Roman Empire. It was the cultural language of the empire. Everyone who was educated knew the Greek language. Aramaic was the predominant tongue of the near east; that is most people living in Palestine and around the Mediterranean world would speak Aramaic. Aramaic is a very similar to Hebrew. Something like Swedish and Norwegian with that kind of closeness between Aramaic and Hebrew. The Hebrew language was really the theological language. It was the medium for theological thinking and during this time at least, was not understood by the rank-and-file Jew. Hebrew as a formal language was dead since the time of Ezra. Most Jews would speak Aramaic. Any exposure to Hebrew would be from the scriptures that would have to be interpreted by the religious experts of that time. Latin in courts of law and literature; Greek was spoken among the educated, and later became the predominant language throughout the world. Then Aramaic particularly in the near east emerged as the lingua-franca. Hebrew was more a theological or religious language of the time. Its very likely that Jesus was aware of at least Hebrew and Aramaic and possibly Greek. That would be very typical, at least in that time in that part of the world.
What about family life now in Palestine at this time? Most of the population lived in towns and villages. A town was distinguished by the fact that it was usually walled in. The wall would go around the city or the town and usually a town would have a synagogue in it. Which would mean at least ten male Jews that would make up a proper synagogue service. The home of course was the center of life for the Palestinian Jew. Usually it was a very humble kind of building consisting of normally one big room walled with clay and usually having a dirt floor. Of the masses were usually low and flat roofed, usually built of material composed of mud and straw and that baked in the sun. Those who were more prosperous and wealthier had larger homes usually their homes were made of brick or of stone, kiln dried brick. Only the very well to do were able to afford limestone houses. The windows were made of grating or lattice work. And usually opened into the inner court. Most homes had this inner courtyard in the center, because most city streets of that time were anything but examples of cleanliness. The living quarters of the family were turned inward. The entrance of the house, generally a door or a gate of some type would open right to the street, but once you were inside, everything else was shut out, and usually the windows were open into the courtyard, instead of facing the street and most of those would be very small to protect from any kind of entrance of robbers or the like.
Because of the mild weather that Palestine had through most of the year, most of the actual living of the people was in the out of doors. Frequently there were some homes that were tri-level, that is the ground level is where the animals were kept, and there would be a short flight of steps that led into the family living quarters. If there was room above, usually on the flat roofs they would have, they would reach those by an outside staircase and that is where most of the entertaining took place. In hot weather, they would often times sleep on the roofs at night. They would have a portion of the roof that was covered over to afford some protection from the intense rays of the sun, but that was usually the most comfortable place to sleep under the starlight Judean sky on that roof top.
Inside the house, would be seen very plain walls for the most part, coated with lime, or in some of the houses of the rich, there would be very ornately decorated wood or marble or Ivory Mosaics, windows were very small as a means of protection, frequently covered with lattice work, since window glass was unknown to them. The rooms would be relatively dark, and so it would be necessary to furnish the room with a lamp of some sort. The family would sleep on the floor, on pallets, those resembled quilts, being padded, stuffed with cotton or wool. Probably in the family life of Judaism, the Jews shine out most brightly, in contrast with most of the gentiles around them in that era of time. Most of the homes were characterized by systematic religious observance. Even eating a meal together was a religious experience, not simply with just prayers at the beginning of a meal but just the interaction between them was a highlight. Most of the common people ate very simple kinds of meals. There was backed wheat, or barely cakes that were a staple in their diet. And usually the process of preparing the meal, and baking the meal was probably one of the principal domestic chores in the home. Bread was the basis of diet, and so again, when Jesus makes the statement, “I am the bread of life” that has lost its significance in terms of the context of that time. Usually a common family dish would consist of a kind of meat or vegetable stew, and each one would help himself from a common dish, by s spoon or scoop of some type sometimes with pieces of bread that were torn off from a loaf, and then they would pass this to one sitting next to them. That gives us the practice of handing the sop to someone else that we read about when Jesus is in the upper room. As an act of friendship, to share that kind of part of the meal together with another person.
I think probably the chief meal time, came after sunset when the days work was done. Normally they would work from sunrise to sundown, a period of twelve hours roughly, and after sunset when the day’s work was done the toilers would come in from the field, trudge home, and this would be a time of family reunion. Cushions would be placed on the floor, around a low table, and amid the joys of that family life they would have their one hot cooked meal of the day. Usually the servants were not permitted to eat until the family had been served first. Children were a great delight to a Palestinian family and they were wanted, they were loved there was very fine relationships that existed between parents and children, in fact that is one of the prominent characteristics of Jewish life even to this day where you have a deep reverence for those who are older, whether they be a parent or they be a stranger there is that tremendous amount of reverence paid to those who are older than themselves.
We have discovered very few toys that children would play with in the home, although archeologists have discovered such items as a child’s doll, or balls or tools of various types. But these children were taught to honor their parents and to take care of those were aged and the like. Part of the child’s education took place in the home in terms of what they were learning in the home as they were educated there.
The coming of a child into a Jewish home was counted to be a great blessing, especially if it were a male child. There would be tremendous rejoicing at the advent of a male. If it was a girl, there would be sorrowful silence. Now we can see why this is the case historically, because what would the advent of a male child mean to a home. Well it would mean first of all additional support and protection of the home for these parents in their old age, in a society where only males counted. Secondly, there would be added strength for the nation in its struggle for deliverance or independence from Rome. Thirdly, the advent of a male would mean that the parents, the mother and father, might have the peerless honor of being the parents of the Messiah, who would be male. So, for that reason, this is why males stood out as being exceptional gifts from God. Keep in mind the context in which that took place.
What about education? Teaching was done in the home by parents and continued by the scribes in the synagogue. The advent of the synagogue as a formal training institution outside the home did not however displace the role of the parents in the discipline and the training of their youngsters. A part of that training would involve not only moral values, which would be passed on from the parent to the child, but also each father was required to see that his son would learn a trade. Without any question Jesus learned carpentry then from Joseph. Children would learn lessons of life, they would learn to read and write from the Old Testament scriptures. At the age of five they began to teach a child, and usually this just again referred to the males; but they would teach the child to read the Hebrew scriptures starting with the book of Leviticus. Not with Genesis, but with Leviticus, and then after Leviticus, the rest of the Pentateuch. This would start at age five and by the time they got to age ten, they would advance to the Mishnah, which was a body of oral tradition set to writing. If they really desired more learning than that, which only a few would do, they would then go on to study the Talmud. The Talmud is the Jewish “encyclopedia” of religion that was developed over several hundred years.
All this basically demonstrates Jesus lived in a highly developed and intellectual age. But not every Jew was educated in all of the sciences or even in all of the scriptures for that matter. Women usually were not trained, and only a handful of men would go beyond the training they would receive in the home or their local synagogue. But remember, Palestine is only part of a whole world at that time, the whole Roman empire which was characterized by Greek culture, and Greek learning which we call Hellenism had spread through the ancient world. Greek culture was a whole radically different way of life from that lived by the Jews at that time. They thought of that as being worldly, and so the Rabbis opposed much of the Hellenistic learning of the time. But keep in mind, there were people throughout the world who were quite intelligent and trained in Philosophy and literature and art, and other such subjects.
With regard to the moral standards of the time we can summarize by simply saying they were lower than our own today. In fact, if anyone wants to know something about those low standards, all they need to do is read the first couple of chapters of the book of Romans, in the New Testament and will find they were originally directed against the empire. All available witnesses both in scripture and out of scripture in secular history will support the accuracy of that diagnosis, of the low standards that were prevailing at that time in the empire.
The prevailing trend society verged downward toward indulgence and lawlessness; human life was cheap. Murder was just a frequent occurrence, and true there were some ethical moralists, who were telling people how they should live, but they imparted to their readers no spiritual dynamic, which would enable them to fulfill those high ideals. This is an important tendency and trend to keep in mind because we hear in almost every day and generation somebody saying things couldn’t get worse than they are today. We’re always living in the worse time in history, at least that is what we think, until we learn history and we begin to see that there have been cycles and periods of times in the past where, evil becomes so pronounced and then there is a relative ease of that, and then once again, comes pronounced again and so forth. Even though we consider our times to be grossly evil, there have been times in history that have been as bad or worse than our own day. But we can see from what has been described so far, there are a lot of parallels between first century Roman empire, particularly in the Palestinian context, and those of our own day. And we’ll be drawing out further parallels as we go along.