The World Jesus Knew

We know much more about the world Jesus lived in as historians and archeologists uncover it today. They help us understand the scriptures better too, so it’s good to stare at a map every once in awhile and think of Jesus’ world. 

Galilee, the site where Mark begins his account of Jesus’ ministry was a thriving part of Palestine then. Economists would say the region around the Sea of Galilee was doing well economically under the leadership of Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD), even though many were left out while others got rich.

Herod Antipas is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Jesus called him “that Fox.”  He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead. Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod before sentencing him to death, but Jesus never said a word to him. Another interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, along the Sea of Galilee, not far from  where Jesus lived in Nazareth and Capernaum, was one of his projects. Tiberias had a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues,  a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. 

To pay for it, Herod relied on his tax-collectors in the cities and towns in his district–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

The ruins of Herod’s city lie south of the present city of Tiberias. Herod also built Sepphoris, a Roman city near Nazareth, Caesarea on the sea coast, and Caesarea Philippi to the north. He was an ambitious ruler, ruthlessly protective of this empire of his dreams.

In Mark’s Gospel when the “Herodians” join with the Pharisees, we see Herod’s growing unease with this new prophet in his territory. (Mark 3:6)  Herod’s execution of John the Baptist ( Mark 6:14-29) shows his further concern. Jesus was opposed, not just by religious leaders, but by political leaders of his time as well. I have a feeling that the gospel writers are very careful not to blame the political leaders too much.

The world Jesus knew changed after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 AD.  Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem flocked to Tiberias and Galilee and made it a base for reconstituting Judaism. Instead of the temple, the synagogue became  the center of Jewish life and worship. Tiberias itself became the site of over 12 synagogues and an important place for Jewish learning.  A rabbinic school established in the city eventually produced around the 4th century the Palestinian Talmud, a written collection of rabbinic teachings on Jewish laws and traditions. Jewish historians describe the early centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem as the time of Talmudic Judaism.

Some scholars say the Gospel of Matthew, the most contentious and polemical of the gospels, may have been written near Tiberias around the year 90 AD. (Other places they suggest are Antioch in Syria and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth).

Matthew’s Gospel, written later than Mark’s Gospel, seems to reflect the growing struggle between the Jewish authorities in Tiberias and Galilee’s Jewish Christians over the future of Judaism. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that existed on both sides.

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century and most moved on to other places. Few  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel might be advice to leave as well as a call to mission: 

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Mt 28, 16-20)

The Christian presence in the Holy Land increased after Constantine gained control of the Roman empire in the 4th century and favored the Christian Church. Yet even as  Christians came and built churches and shrines over the places where tradition said Jesus lived and ministered, Galilee remained a Jewish stronghold.

When Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians and Jews alike came under their rule. Because of harsh Muslim rule under the Seljuk Turks and their destruction of the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the 11th century, Crusaders from Europe invaded Palestine and re-established a Christian presence again. Evidence of Crusader churches and fortresses can be seen today.

Muslims regained control of the Holy Land in the 13th century and remained in power  till the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, Jews were treated more favorably than Christians, but as the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire declined so did the economy of Palestine. By the 19th century, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in a land that was poor and neglected.

As nation states formed in Europe in the 17th century, persecutions of the Jews increased and so did Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral lands. By the 19th century Jews from Russia and Poland were settling again in parts of Palestine, in Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. After the holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically increased. The Christian presence today is small and increasingly limited.

I found this interesting glimpse of life in the Jewish city of Tiberias by an English visitor at the end of the 19th century:

“The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias, it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise from the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of his throne…Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed…The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and ragged, they are certainly far from attractive;  but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white and look much better than the men. “  Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 p 543

Tiberias today little resembles the city the visitor describes. It’s a modern Jewish city now, with fashionable hotels and spas.

1 thought on “The World Jesus Knew

  1. Harry warren

    Fr Victor. A wonderful piece of History. Thank you for your research. Thank you for sharing it with us. Harry


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