A. The Land of Jesus

The land of Jesus. Geography. Palestinian Judaism before the destruction of the Temple: Pharisees, Saducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, the “people of the land”. Languages spoken. Palestine at the time of Herod’s death: political and social situation.

1. The land of Jesus. Geography.

J.B. Phillips (New Testament World and Times) explains:

Palestine is a small but varied land, often harsh in character and with a long and complicated history. Understanding something of its physical and political geography helps to explain the volatile situation into which Jesus came and preached, and the terrain over which he travelled.
When Israel in the north ceased to exist in c 721 BC, part of the area later became a territory known as Samaria. Most of Judah in the south, defeated in c 587BC, was later referred to as Judea. By the time of Jesus, PALESTINE comprised various territories. From north to south these were:
  1. Chalcis and Abilene in the Roman province of Syria, north of ancient Iturea;
  2. Iturea, including Panias and Ulatha, and Trachonitis with Batanaea, Gaulanitis (the modern Golan Heights) and Auranitis, all in south eastern Syria. Hereafter, they are referred to as Iturea and Trachonitis;
  3. Galilee with the Sea of Galilee in modern northern Israel, which played an important part in the recorded life and ministry of Jesus;
  4. Samaria, Judea and Idumea, that is much of modern central Israel plus the west bank of the River Jordan.
    The chief city of the Roman rulers was Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast of Samaria. The Jewish capital was Jerusalem in Judea, where Jesus came a number of times, finally to be arrested, tried and crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities.
  5. The semi-independent Decapolis in modern northern Jordan, was a roughly defined area that included within its boundaries, most of the federated "Ten Cities" established by Alexander the Great.
    One such city was Philadelphia - modern Amman, capital of Jordan. Other cities, one of which was Damascus, capital of modern Syria, were outside the boundaries;
  6. Perea included much of the present east bank of the Jordan.
During New Testament times, these territories were ruled, at various dates in a variety of ways:
  • Direct from Rome through Roman province administrators or governors known as procurators;
  • Through the Roman governor of Syria, such as The Decapolis; and
  • By Roman-appointed Jewish kings, ethnarchs or rulers, and tetrarchs or rulers of a fourth part of a province.

Click here for a map of first century Palestine

Click here for an interactive map of first century Israel (Palestine)

2. Palestinian Judaism before the destruction of the Temple: Pharisees, Saducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, the “people of the land”

Henri Daniel-Rops (Israel and the Ancient World p 270) explains:

What was Judah like in the period leading up to the coming of the Saviour? Politically it was under foreign control, but had succeeded in preserving enough freedom to be able to exercise its faith (apart from the earlier period of persecution). Judaism was a close alliance of race and religion, of civil and religious legislation in a single code, by the exercise of a single authority, in the hands of the High Priest. This was the people's point of reference in times of trouble; and the men who administered the system took on more and more importance. They were essentially the Priests and the Scribes, the men of the worship, and the men of the Law.
The priestly class was limited. In the most ancient times, all the descendants of Levi were priests, but later, after the exile, only the descendants of Aaron were priests. Divided into 24 sections or divisions, the priests were responsible for the Temple functions in turn, each for a week (cf. Zechariah : Lk 1: 5-9). As for the Levites, they were confined to the part of Temple servants: guards, doorkeepers, musicians, etc.
There was a whole little religious world whose life was connected with the Temple, and centred around it. The minute ritual, the daily sacrifices, the great feasts, all occupied about 20,000 people. Their functions were paid for out of the enormous funds contributed by the whole of Judah. Their number, function and the money they handled meant they had considerable influence.
At their head, the High Priest alone had full powers. He alone could enter the Holy of Holies, and perform the most solemn sacrifices. Since the community was based on religion, he was at the same time the political chief, and it was not too surprising when the Hasmoneans made themselves kings as well.
Foreign masters of Israel took all this into account. When, from the time of Herod onwards, the High Priests, in principle appointed for life, were frequently proclaimed and deposed by the Romans (cf. Caiaphas-son-in-law/Annas-deposed by the Romans), they still chose from among the very few families who provided them. The priestly caste was in a sense, the core of Judah, and its domination seems to have been unquestioned.
In practice, things were not so straightforward. As the Torah, the Law, came to take on the centre of all civil life and regulate justice, those who knew it best grew in power. These were the Scribes, the Doctors of the Law. They taught the text, but also commented on it and extended its application. It was by and through them that the Law was made the foundation of religious life. They had more immediate contact with the people through the synagogues, and all had, more or less, schools about them to which the people came in crowds. If the priestly caste was focused on ritual, the Scribes certainly had an intellectually and spiritually higher conception of religion, but both groups attached too much importance to the letter.
These two groups sat together somewhat uneasily in the supreme counsel of the community, the Sanhedrin. It had originally been purely priestly, but over the centuries the Doctors of the Law, by reason of their juridical and religious knowledge, had gained great influence. The traditional number of members was 70 (hence the claim to date back to Moses). Presided over by the High Priest, it was at once a supreme court, a theological arena, and a counsel of government.
Within this structure there were parties, the most famous being the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were lovers of security, very strict in applying the Law; patriots, but with a desire not to rock the boat and so suspicious of any too vigorous resistance to the powers that be. In religious matters they were close to the priests, and favoured ritual and tradition. The Law, and nothing but the Law! Later dogmatic developments (i.e., after the Torah) were suspect to them; worse still, speculations bearing on the after life and the resurrection of the dead. There was little fire or enthusiasm among them, but rather more cynicism and pragmatism. Their influence on the people was not strong, their links with the priestly aristocracy were; they were not over concerned about the coming of the Messiah.
The Pharisees have traditionally had a bad press as hypocrites and whited sepulchres (Mt. 24:14), but this needs to be put into perspective. They were certainly devout, descended from the Hassidim, who had been a force of national resistance during the persecutions. They had adopted an attitude of hostile reserve towards the Hasmoneans, and had distanced themselves somewhat, hence receiving the name Pharisees ("separate"). At times they had been persecuted, since their influence among the people was great and possibly threatening. They were committed, but intolerant and not inclined to find ways of working together with others. In politics they were nationalist and opposed to foreigners. They did not advocate resistance by force, but were entirely devoted to the Law; not like the Sadducees to the letter of the law, the Pharisees were constantly commenting on, reflecting on and enriching the Law -with more precepts. They knew the Torah as well as the best, but also claimed to live it better than the best. Not all Scribes were Pharisees, but all Pharisees were Scribes. From the Law and the Prophets they had drawn logical conclusions relating to individual retribution, life after death, and the resurrection of the body. Theirs was a small party -perhaps 6,000- but they were recruited from all levels of society, and so a ferment.
There were, however, offshoots of this strong party of Pharisees, reflecting differing religious and political nuances. The most curious grouping was that of the Zealots, Pharisees in doctrine, but in politics much more violent. The term was used originally to designate those Jews who were zealous observers of the Law and enemies of foreign domination. Later, by the time of Christ, it was used to describe a revolutionary political faction whose main feature was open resistance to the Romans (Acts 5:37) Flavius Josephus tells us they were also called sicarii, because they used to carry a little sicca (=dagger). As revolutionaries, they opposed the established powers, acknowledging no master but God; as terrorists they had no hesitation to kill those whom they considered traitors to the Jewish cause. They were in large part responsible for the Roman backlash that led to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
The Essenes, on the other hand, were a more religious grouping, resembling a religious order, with superiors, vows -including celibacy, "noviciate", sharing goods in common, living in communities. They surpassed the Pharisees in rigour, keeping the Sabbath in a total fashion and multiplying their ablutions. In doctrine too they differed from official Judaism: e.g., they practised no animal sacrifice, inner religion being the one thing necessary.
Without going so far there were others who placed themselves, temporarily or definitely, in a similar situation: Nazirs or Nazirites (like Samson in the time of the Judges). They consecrated themselves to God -for periods of at least a month- making three vows: not to cut their hair, not to drink wine, and not to approach women.
Another grouping of the time, though not religious were the Herodians. they were the followers of the policies of Herod and his dynasty. They were favourable to the Roman occupation from which they benefited. That they should have been in league with the Pharisees to trap Our Lord is extraordinary (cf. Mt. 22:15-21)

For more information on the sects, see Felix Just, Jewish Groups at the Time of Jesus.

See also "Pharisees", in Catholic Encyclopedia Online; "Sadducees" in Catholic Encyclopedia Online; "Essenes", in Catholic Encyclopedia Online)

3. Languages spoken

W. Keller (The Bible as History p 327) says:

And what was life under the Romans like? Much of the influence of the Greeks remained. Greek was the language which united the subjects of the Empire in the East. In Transjordania there were out and out Greek cities. The "Ten Cities" (Decapolis) mentioned in the Gospels (Mt. 4:25; Mk 5:20) took Athens as their model, with temples to Zeus and Artemis, theatres, stadiums, gymnasiums, and baths. Caesarea, the seat of Pilate's government, Tiberias, Caesarea Philippi, and Jericho were all Greek in architecture and customs. Only the smaller towns and villages had retained all their Jewishness. It was in these genuinely Jewish communities that Jesus lived and worked; he is only reported as having been in the area of the predominantly Greek cities (Mk 7:31). Those disciples who came from Greek cities, or centres of trade and commerce would have spoken Greek, e.g. Philip who was approached by some Greeks wishing to speak to Jesus. For this reason it is not surprising that the New Testament writings should have been put down in Greek, while the everyday language of Jesus and his followers would have been Aramaic, and the liturgical language of the Jews, Hebrew.

4. Palestine at the time of Herod’s death: political and social situation

W. Keller (The Bible as History p 327) also explains:

As for the general political situation at the time: all Palestine was under the control of the Romans. King Herod the Great ruled Judea from 37 BC to AD 4. In fact he was not a Jew himself, but of Idumaean stock ,descended from Esau. Through political astuteness he got himself made absolute monarch (under the Romans) of Judea and, at its high point, his rule extended over most of the territory of the ancient kingdom of David. After him Palestine was divided under three governors who reported directly to Rome. All three were his sons: Archelaus was ethnarch of Judea and Samaria, until he was deposed by the Emperor Augustus in AD 6, and Judea became a Roman province controlled by a procurator appointed by Rome. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and Philip tetrarch of Gaulinitis, Trachonitis and Ituraea. These last two held power for a long time.


  • 「示」編輯委員會:救恩史--從耶穌到亞巴郎。香港,思高聖經學會,2003年)
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  • Antonio Fuentes, Guide to the Bible. Four Courts Press, 1987.
  • W. Keller, The Bible as History. London 1969.
  • Jerome Kodell, The Catholic Bible Study Handbook. Ohio: Servant Books, 2001
  • Peter Kreeft, You Can Understand the Bible. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005
  • University of Navarre Faculty of Theology, The Navarre Bible. The Gospels. Dublin: Four Courts Press; & New Jersey: Scepter Publishers, 1999
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