Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus
© L.D. Underwood 2010
The Physical World in Which Jesus Lived
The drama of history is enacted upon the stage of geography. Geography has been called the eye of history. A person’s native land plays a tremendously important role in the life of any person. Goethe, the German philosopher, said that “Whoever the poet will understand must go into the poets land.” Well, the stage where Jesus Christ lived out his earthly ministry, was of course the land of Palestine. And it is very essential that each of us have at least an elementary knowledge of the geographical setting in order to have a proper appreciation for the gospel accounts.
There are a number of names by which this land has been called. It might be easier to define the land of Jesus than it is to designate it because it is a land of many names. The most common Old Testament designation for this land is Palestine or Canaan. Of course, this was because the area was inhabited by the descendants of Canaan. And Canaan was the fourth son of Hamm—he was the grandson of Noah in the Old Testament—and literally the term Canaan means ‘lowlands’ or ‘sunken.’ The term was of course used of the lowlands in contrast with the highlands of Lebanon. That was the original name of this area before it became the home of Israel. It was a very appropriate term when the lowlanders were confined to that territory. The time came later when the lowlanders mastered the hill country too. And then the designation the whole land as being Canaan was really inappropriate. It has sometimes been called the land of Israel. That is the title used specifically from the conquest of Canaan, that is when Israel entered the land until about the Babylonian captivity, but through in good bulk of the Old Testament history it became known as Israel.
After the Babylonian captivity, it became known as Judea. Since the days of Christ, the most common name has been Palestine. And this term ‘Palestine’ is derived from their arch-enemies, the Philistines and appears about four times in the Bible. It has also gone by the name, “Promised Land,” stemming from the promise that the Lord made to Abraham back in the book of Genesis. Claims and counter claims of ownership have echoed down through the centuries. And one could suppose it could be referred to as the “much promised land.” Hosea speaks of the “Lord’s Land” (Hosea 9:3). The book of Daniel talks about, “The beautiful Land” (Daniel 8:9). And the prophet Zachariah speaks of the “Holy Land.” That’s a common phrase today. And actually that piece of real estate is the holiest spot on earth for three of the world’s great religions. Not only Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. Maybe we should call it the holy, holy, holy land. That, despite the fact that more blood has been spilled there per acre than any other comparable piece of real estate in the world. So it is a land of many names.
The second things we can say about his land is its antiquity. That is this area is ancient, it is older than Greece or Rome. Just to give you an idea, Abraham dwelt at Sychar two thousand years before Christ rested at the well. Joshua conquered the land two hundred years before the city of Troy fell. Solomon was dead for about two hundred years before Romulus and Remus were supposed to have traditionally have founded the city of Rome. Gideon was a contemporary of Achilles. Elijah lived during the time of Homer. This shows us that it is an ancient land that goes back in antiquity past.
A third feature worth noting is the size of this land. In the days of Christ, the boundaries of Palestine were as about elastic as rubber bands. They would expand during times of national strength and they would contract in times of national weakness. But generally we can think of Palestine, or the Holy Land, or Israel as being about 10,000 square miles. That would be about the size and also close to the shape as the state of Vermont, twisted upside down. Just to have an idea of the size, that would about one fifteenth the size of the state of California. A jet plane could fly across its widest parts in a matter of minutes. The length was popularly described on the west side of the Jordan river as being from Dan to Beersheba. Dan would be the city nestled in the foothills of Mt. Herman in the North and Beersheba would be dessert outpost in the south. And that distance between Dan and Beersheba was about 144 miles. On the East side it would go down roughly 150 miles.
As far as its width if we think of it on the West side of the Jordan river width was 25 miles to the North and 90 miles in the south. And in the East, it 80 miles wide, in the North and only 30 miles in the South. So, very narrow on the West side, but broad on the east side in the North; very wide on the west side, very narrow on the East side in the south. Here is an area that is microscopic in size and yet it has been cosmic in influence. The size is disproportionate to the place which it fills in our thoughts and the influence it has had upon the history of the world. We find that the grandeur and importance of a country is not measured in terms of the number of square miles it has.
What about the location of this land? There is a cathedral in Harford England where hangs one of the few remaining medieval maps. And right in the center of that map is the city of Jerusalem, marked. If we look at Jerusalem, in the middle of the church of the Holy Sepulcher, we as tourists will be shown the point where medieval geographers believe to be the exact center of the world. And usually visitors will smile and think of it quaint and simple. We have come to discover that this observation was significant because Palestine though physically not the center of the world culturally and religiously has been central in terms of the influence and impact it has had upon the world. It was located on the ancient world’s freeway. Right in the middle of the world powers of antiquity. We have the Assyrian empire, the Babylonian Empire, Syria, Persia Egypt Greece Rome, with Palestine right in the middle. It was the gateway, and the key to three continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe. It shows how strategic its location is. It was bordered on the North by Phoenicia known today as Lebanon. Also, Syria to the farther East. On the East it is surrounded by the Arabian Desert. On the South we have the Arabian Dessert and the Sinai Peninsula. And on the West it is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea.
This strategic location, proved to be a very heavy burden over the centuries because Palestine became the causeway for many armies en route to attack. The people enjoyed as much safety as a flock of sparrows who choose to build their nest on a superhighway. They were constantly being overrun and despoiled and devastated. And Palestine’s geographic importance has not diminished with the passing of time. All the forceful countries of the world have struggled to control that piece of real estate. And today it remains a pawn in the power struggle between the East and the West. No wonder because nearby is over half the world’s proven oil reserves. Being bounded as it were by either mountains in the north or desserts on the east and south, and the Mediterranean sea on the west, this meant that it was conducive to isolationism. That is, they didn’t have any navigable rivers, they had very poor harbors and so this became a great barrier to any commerce or any conquest. They had barriers on all four sides. And therefore it became isolationistic, it became what we might call an intensive civilization, not an extensive—one that goes out with commerce, and goes out to control other nations, but a very intensive civilization, they became ingrown.
What about the climate of this land? The first thing we can say about it, is that it is quite diversified. It is roughly the same as you would find in the state of Georgia in our country, or southern Spain. Or we can compare the climate to Nagasaki, or Shanghai, Nanking China where it is roughly about the same kind of climate. Actually, Palestine and Southern California are pretty similar in climate. They both lie between 31 degrees and 33 degrees North latitude; they are both semi-tropical; they both have sharply defined dry and rainy seasons; they both defy description; and they both inspire very immodest claims about themselves.
Actually, there are two major seasons: the dry and the wet seasons. The dry season is between the middle of June and the middle of September where there is absolutely not one drop of rain. During this time, we have the Etesian winds—that develop quite strongly and cause some very unpleasantly choppy seas. But apart from those Etesian winds, the dry season is steady, it is dependable it is less dangerous than the winds during the rainy season. And for that reason, summer was the period of shipping in the ancient world; most of the commerce would be supplied by boats that moved during the summer season. When we read in of Acts 27 about the shipwreck which occurred to Paul and the ones traveling with him, that occurred because the voyage was prolonged beyond the summer and went into the dangerous transitional season where we have these great changes of wind. This is at least a partial cause for that shipwreck. So, the dry season from mid-June to mid-September no rain is quite dependable. The wet season hits about the middle of November to the end of February. And it has very heavy precipitation. In fact it is about as unpredictable as the summer is predictable. Rain would decrease from the west to the east. That is, we would have more rainfall by the Mediterranean Sea less as we go into the desserts towards the east. We have more rain in the North than we would have in the south of Palestine—again, depending upon the topography of the land. Just to have an idea, the average rainfall on the coast in the hills of Palestine is about the same as we would find in London, England or the Victoria, British Columbia. The only difference is, that it is not scattered throughout the year, as it is in those places, rather its crowded into a few months. So, it is very heavy rainfall during those months.
Usually the late showers begin in late October, early November and that has been given the name, the former rain, or the early rain. That was the advance installment of rain. It was earnestly looked forward to by farmers, it would lift the spirits of the people in the country and soften that hard-sunbaked soil, that would prepare the land for plowing the former rain or the early rain. That would be late October, early November. In March and April, we would have what became known as the later rain. And that later rain period was needed to make the grain swell and ensure a good harvest. Now those are the two main seasons: the dry and the wet. But then between them we have what we call transitional seasons. I’m talking about the months of May and early June, and the months of September and early October. The important thing about these transitional seasons, is they have what is known as sirocco winds. The word ‘sirocco’ means “easterner” and this was an east wind that was exceeding hot and dry. The temperatures would rise steeply sometimes climbing even during the night and remaining high about 16 to 22 degrees above average. And this made life very trying to the temper. It can make even the mildest people irritable. The relative humidity would drop about 30 or 40 percent. And we have a fine yellowish haze of dust. And some who that lived in the valley, know what peat dust is like; something similar to that, a yellowish haze of dust that would fill the air when the Scirocco winds would come in a transitional season, and it would turn green vegetation into a dry dying brown color in a days time. The excessive dryness would parch the mucous membranes of your nose and throat and cause irritation. Visibility would be cut down considerably. Topography would be a mockery. Toothbrushes would become stiff like wire. Paper would curl under our hand as we were writing. Wood would crack, and if they had pianos, they would get out of tune and of course that was worse on the Eastern side of the Jordan because you had even less rain there, but more of these winds. They still have scirocco winds in parts of the middle east and parts of Africa.
Let’s go on sort of a journey in looking at the topography of the land. If we look at a map in it may help to look at Palestine and particularly to see it in terms of four parallel areas that run North to South. Going from West to East and from North to south. There is first of all the coastal plains and then the western highlands and then the Jordan valley and then the eastern highlands. If we start with the coastal plain that is right by the Mediterranean Sea on the cost on the west side of the Jordan going from North to South, it extends the whole length of the land of Palestine. There are three sub-divisions to it. There is the Plain of Acre, in the North about three miles wide where it touches Phoenicia and Broadens to ten miles wide at foot of mount Carmel. The principle city there is Acre and this area was barely above sea level. But very extensively cultivated. As we would come down from that, we come to the plain of Sharon in the middle. That is in the base of Mount Carmel to the area of Jaffa the city of Jaffa, or ancient Jaffa. And this has a red Sandy soil characteristic of the area; in fact it is the most fertile region of the country for citrus fruit and for wild flowers. We talk a great deal about the Rose of Sharron that becomes a proverb for that particular area of the land because of its great beauty.
Below the plain of Sharron, there is the Plain of Philistia in the south that goes from Jaffa down to the brook of Egypt, the Wadi-El-Arish, or the brook of Egypt. This was a region that had extensive sand dunes. And they grew wheat and barley and they had olive orchards in this region. Cities like Gaza, are typical of this area off the coast. Next to the coastal plain, we have what are called the Western Highlands. That is the water shed of Palestine, and it consists of six divisions. First, we have the highlands of Galilee where you have a continuation of the Lebanese mountains and the anti-Lebanon Mt. Range in Syria. The highlands of Galilee; roughly around 4,000 feet or less in that area. Again, they had very picturesque cultivated valleys that are easily accessible there in the highlands of Galilee. Below that are the plains of Ashkelon and Jezreel, which became the breadbasket and the battlefield of Palestine. That is the most traveled area of the whole land. Below that is Mount Carmel where we have the city of Haifa which is really the San Francisco of Israel today located on the southwest area of Mt. Carmel.
There are the Samaritan Highlands. Then below that the Judean Highlands from Jerusalem down to Hebron. This area of the Judean highlands is a very bleak and barren area. There is a legend about the rocks and the crags. According to the legend, the story goes, that during creation there was an angel responsible for proper distribution of rocks and boulders and he was flying over Palestine and his mission came to a premature end when the bag broke over Judea. And that accounts for how bleak and how barren the land is. Interestingly, Israelis have been planting millions of trees in this region of the land. Buy below that is the Negev or Negeb area the dry or parched land in the south. Then if we take the trip again in the North and moving south in the Jordan valley right where the Jordan river flows on each side of the bank—sometimes that has been called the fault of God. There are five sub-divisions to this Jordan valley. There is the upper Jordan in the foothills of Mt. Herman, where the Jordan river begins with a whoop and a holler; and there are three creek-side streams and they race downhill and they join just around the area known as Dan in Israel.
A little bit lower at a point 260ft above sea level, that is where we have the Jordan River properly started. It has a number of different names to it, when we talk about the Jordan River. It is called the Descender, the Down-comer, it is really a bumper staircase bumping is way down without a pause, dropping about nine feet per mile. Seven miles below its beginning, the Jordan enters the first of important Lakes; Lake Huleh—its been called the waters of Merom, it has been called Semechonitis; but probably the easiest and most common name is Lake Huleh. This is the highest, smallest and most shallow of Jordan’s three Lakes, it was once about two or three miles as a body of water, about 26ft deep, and it would end into a swamp for about, the swamp was about 20 miles square. It was a very hot humid malaria infested swamped area, and in 1958, Israel drained the swamp. And today where there were once only snakes and mosquitoes, now there are thriving orchards and vegetable farms. Below Huleh, there is the Sea of Galilee. It too has been known by a variety of names. It has been called Ginnosar, Lake of Gennesar, Sea of Chinneroth, and Waters of Gennesaret. It has been called Sea of Tiberius and numbers of different names including the Sea of Galilee. It is about 682 feet below sea level stretching thirteen miles long, and is about eight miles wide at the widest point. It is almost pear-shaped the way it looks. In fact, modern Israelis prefer a different name for it—they use the Hebrew word for ‘harp’ because of its sort of resemblance to a harp that the sea of Galilee looks like harp.
Below that comes the lower Jordan. If we come to the River Jordan today without reverence or a sense of imagination, prepare to be disappointed. It is neither deep nor wide as the scripture puts it, it is short and shallow. It is 25% mud and for the most part very unbeautiful. If we were to go as the crow flies, it would be about 65 miles long, but because it looks like a serpent and twists back and forth, it travels something like 158 to 200 miles in length, and it twists and loops, and if we were to fly over it, it looks like a big snake weaving back and forth. It is not more than 100 feet wide and its not more than 15 feet deep. Despite the words of the spirituals, its neither deep nor wide, its neither gentle, nor musical. In fact there is only one instance in which the old hymn tells the truth, cross that river today, and one may in fact join a band of “Angels coming for to carry [you] home.”
Below that Jordan River, comes the Dead Sea. And again, this goes by a variety of names. It is called the Sea of Salt, it is called the sea of the wilderness, the Eastern Sea, Lake Asphalt, all kinds of names. It is about 50 miles long and about 10 miles wide. It is located 1286 feet below sea level. That is a marvelous fact, because it provides the photographer with the unparalleled opportunity of taking pictures of their friends, standing on the shore of the dead sea and then declaring that they are literally the lowest people on earth. It is six times below sea level as Death Valley. It might be of interest that there is something like six million tons of water that pours into the Dead Sea every day. Yet the level of the sea remains relatively constant. That is due to the scorching sun and the dry winds that lap up most of that incoming water—bhich by that time has lost most of its punch. It disappears almost as rapidly as it appears— there is evaporation, there is absorption of that little moisture that is available. There is a perceptive parable that is told about the sea of Galilee and the dead sea. Here is how it goes: One is fresh and fish are in it; splashes of green adorn its banks trees spread their branches over it and stretch out thirsty roots to sip of its healing waters. Along its shores the children play, as children played when he was there. He loved it. He could look across its silver surface when he spoke his parables. The river Jordan makes this sea with sparkling water from the hills. Men build their houses near to it and birds their nests and every kind of life is happier because it is there. The river Jordan flows on south into another sea. Here is no splash of fish, no fluttering leaf, no song of birds, no children’s laughter. Travelers choose another route unless on urgent business, the air hangs heavy along its waters. Neither man nor beast nor fowl will drink. What makes this might difference in these neighbor seas? Not the river Jordan it empties the same good water into both. Not the soil in which they lie. Not the country round about. The difference is this: the sea of Galilee receives but does not keep the river Jordan. For every drop the flows into it, another drop flows out. The other sea, the dead sea is shrewder—hoarding its income jealously. It will not be tempted into any generous impulse, every drop it gets, it keeps. The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. This other sea gives nothing and its called “The Dead.” There are two seas on Palestine. And there are two kinds of people in the world.
Now literally we do not swim in the dead sea, we swim on it. Its very much like Salt Lake in Utah—one can literally sit in it and read a boo. It is about 25% salt and filled with all kinds of valuable minerals. Twenty-five percent salt, that is in contrast with the ocean that has about 5% salt. It is so dense that swimmers can barely submerge. They get flipped to the surface like a cork. Just to give have an idea of how mineral wealthy it is, that are is there twenty-two billion tons of magnesium chloride; eleven billion tons of sodium chloride; seven billion tons of calcium chloride; two billion tons of potassium chloride; and one billion tons of magnesium bromide. A very, very mineral wealthy area. Going to the eastern highlands would include a region in the Northeast of Galilee that has had names like Trachonitus, Iturea and Gaulanitus and all kinds of strange looking names. Below that is the area of Decapolis and below that Perea. South of Perea we have the Mountains of Moab. This simply shows us that Palestine is a compressed country with varying formations. we have plains, we have plateaus, desserts, snow-capped peaks, river valleys, mountain caves, fresh and salt water seas, rocks of every degree of hardness from chalk all the way to granite. It is a compressed continent with a variety of formations in it.
But of more importance to us is the political divisions of the land. We know that Rome ruled the world at this time. But Rome never successfully ruled Palestine. Rome tried; there were various attempts to try to find a solution to what they called the Palestine problem. These attempted solutions not only involved a change in personnel, but also in the titles that they bore, and even in the divisions of the land itself. There were five major political divisions. Let’s start with Judea for example. The Jordan river becomes a natural line of division and west of the Jordan we have three of these sections and on the East side we have two of them. Judea in the south, once belonged to the tribes of Judah, Dan, Benjamin and Simeon. So this comprised the largest of all the provinces. The area to the south of Judea was known as Idumea. This is where the Edomites came to and from and they were hereditary enemies of the Jews and we will come to talk about the Edomites of Idumea later. In any case, that is south of Judea. Then going North, we come to Samaria which is the middle district and was basically governed by Judea in the South. This area in Samaria was bordering the Mediterranean and it was largely occupied with gentiles. In fact the gentiles intermingled with the Jews and we had what came to be known as Samaritans, who were half-breeds, and we will learn later of how there was bitter animosity between Jews and Samaritans—there was all kinds of prejudice and people would make detours not to have to go through that territory.
In the North on the West side was Galilee. It was located closest to foreign Gentile area. This caused the Orthodox, down at headquarters in the South, to look upon Galilee as Galilee of the Gentiles. People living in Galilee had a particular dialect, and the people living in Jerusalem looked down their noses at these who were located up in the North in Galilee. They were so distant from normal religious life even though they were intensely loyal to the Jewish faith. It is interesting to note, eleven of the twelve disciples Jesus later chose, were Galileans. Judas Iscariot was one. That might help us when we psychoanalyze Judas Iscariot later on. But most of our Lord’s public ministry was performed in Galilee. On the East side of the Jordan, and the dead sea, we have Perea. Which is the equivalent of trans-Jordan, across the Jordan, or the Land beyond. And during New Testament times, Perea was Largely occupied by Jews. There were some Gentiles living in villages, but most of them were Jews. Farther North, there is Decapolis. And that word ‘Decapolis’ comes from two Greek words that mean ten cities. These were ten Greek cities—nine on the east one on the west. They were founded by some of the followers of Alexander the Great.