Last week we talked about how the Bible is Jewish Meditation Literature. Unlike western literature, the Bible is written without the same attention to things like specific chronology or precise details unimportant to the story, but instead it focuses more on symbols, motifs (repetitions), and abstract ideas. The Bible is not so much a technical manual, it is more like a love letter. But this does not mean it is untrue. The Bible is not a fairy tale. It tells us about real people in real places who had profound experiences with God. The Bible has a context of culture, history, and geography. The better we acquaint ourselves with that context, the better we’ll understand the message of the Bible. One of the most important things to know about the land of the Bible is that it is among the most “blood-soaked” territory on earth.
Probably 98% of the stories of the Old Testament take place in the geographic region we commonly call “the Fertile Crescent”, an area of land that stretches from the Nile Valley in Egypt, upwards along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, and then across the mountains in modern day Syria/Turkey, down through the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to where they meet the Persian Gulf. Today we call this part of the world “The Middle East”. Generally when we speak about the geography and historical era of the Old Testament, it is referred to as “The Ancient Near East”, or ANE for short.
The region is called the Fertile Crescent because these are areas with adequate water supplies for farming and agriculture. With good soil and adequate water, this is the region of the world where the first complex societies emerged. Some 5000 years ago a number of societies and nations began to emerge from the human race that had up to that point in their history, lived as nomadic hunter/gatherers, but now with the ability to farm food in the fertile crescent, cities and states began to form.
In these ancient times, the most advanced and powerful nations emerged in the Nile River valley (modern day Egypt) and the river valley of the Tigris and Euphrates (modern day Iraq). These competing empires were separated by the narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast; the place that would be the home of the Hebrew people and the setting of the life of Jesus.
In the time of the Old Testament, the land of Israel would be the site of conquest and competition by multiple empires: Egyptian, Philistine, Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian.
During a 400 year gap between the Old and New Testaments, a new world power would dominate: Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic Empire from Greece, followed by the Roman Empire in the time of the New Testament.
The legacy of Alexander’s Hellenistic empire would be that as his people colonized the Middle East, Greek would become the common language of commerce and urban life. This would make a huge impact on the rise of Christianity. The documents of the New Testament were written entirely in Greek, and could be distributed across nations and ethnic groups.
In the year 63 BC, the Roman Empire moved in and replaced the Greek empire. At its height, the Roman Emperor would rule over the entire Mediterranean world: from the Western coast of Spain to the Arabian desert. Most nations under Roman rule adapted Greco-Roman culture, but the people of Israel (called Palestine by the Romans) resented and resisted the Roman Empire’s dominance of their homeland. This was the world Jesus Christ was born into: a people under occupation of the most powerful foreign government the world had ever known.
In the first century AD (the time of the New Testament), there were four major Political/Cultural groups who composed the Jews of Palestine. Each had a unique perspective to the issue of Roman occupation.
- Pharisees taught that the Jews would should strictly obey the Torah (Old Testament Law) to preserver their culture and identity while living under Pagan overlords.
- Zealots urged armed resistance against the Roman Empire and used guerilla warfare tactics against occupying Roman soldiers.
- Essenes were separatists who believed the entire nation had become corrupt and they moved to the desert to live and worship alone, away from the cities that had come under Roman influence.
- Sadducees were the educated elite in Jerusalem who urged cooperation with Rome for the survival of their culture. They were pragmatists whose goal was to keep peace with the empire.
While the land of Palestine/Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people, colonies of Jews lived across the Roman Empire. As the Christian movement grew after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it too would spread across the empire in communities that included both Jews and Greeks or Gentiles, always under the shadow of the Roman Empire’s culture and influence.
Journaling Questions this Week:
Your journal assignment is to complete the map of the Roman world in the time of the New Testament and bring it back next week. Feel free to use creativity to color it and identify locations. Additional copies of the blank map can be downloaded and printed from the link below.