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Everyday life in the time of Jesus

Fr. Frederick. Manns, O.F.M
Professor at Franciscan Biblicum Studium - Jerusalem. Translations by Fr. A. Parent O.F.M., and Fr. James Heinsch, O.F.M.

How is it possible to know the everyday life in the time of Jesus?

Different literary sources give us an insight into the daily life of the times of Jesus. The Gospels are still the irreplaceable documents. The historical information that they contain are very reliable. The Jewish sources, particularly the historian Josephus Flavius as well as the “Mishna” (the commentary on the Jewish Laws published in the 2nd Century AD in Tiberias by Rabbi Judah the Prince) are full of details regarding daily life in the times of Jesus.

To these literary sources, we must add new archeological discoveries. For each year brings us a gathering of new information. Beginning in 1867, Charles Warren did archeological excavations along the south and southwest walls of the Temple hill in Jerusalem. Excavations of Qumran in the Judean desert helped us discover an Essene monastery complete with a meeting hall, a scriptorium and a number of ritual bath sites. Caesarea Maritime, a city built by Herod the Great, with its aqueducts, open theater, temples and court, gave us a new look at its original splendor, thanks to the archeological work. The Galilee of Herod Antipas, where Jesus lived as a child, taught and preached, is now offering us many of its secrets. The cities of Sepphoris, Magdala, Capharnaum, and the villages of Nazareth and Cana, are almost “rising from their ruins and ashes” to bring us new visions thanks to the work of archeology.

Today, thanks to the rediscovery of the Jewish milieu of the Gospels, we are insisting, more and more, on the fact of Jesus as a Jew. The Gospel according to Luke recalls that Jesus progressed steadily “in wisdom and age and grace before God and men.” It means that His human life was not a timeless reality. It took root in a specific country, a nation, and a culture. Jesus lived in Palestine .. To be precise: in Galilee. He belonged to the Jewish nation. With all the fiber of his being, Jesus became one with the religious and cultural milieu of his time.

Surely Rome had imposed its culture on Jesus’ world. Its empire had expanded to the far Eastern Mediterranean Basin where the Jews lived. Yet, this Semite nation had its own long and singular history. Most rich was its religious tradition. Ruled by the Romans, the Jewish people kept their own history alive. Their written scripture, as well as gathered oral tradition, gave them a living awareness of their own destiny as well as the strength to withstand all kinds of external oppression. Each year, the Passover celebrations continued to revive and sustain their sense of liberty. Nothing could diminish it. “Next year in Jerusalem” was their refrain.

Roman Presence In Palestine
The Roman invasion of the East began with Pompey in 63 BC. The Jews, however, had already encountered the Romans as early as the 2nd century BC. With victories by the Maccabees in 165 BC, Judah dispatched a delegation to form a treaty with Rome. As a result, the Hasmodean leaders continued to be friendly with Rome. Pompey’s victory restricted Jewish autonomy. The cities along the coast as well as the Transjordanian area received their independence. But the Jews had to pay taxes. Hyrcan II still remained the High Priest, but the Jewish leaders no longer had royal privileges. Centered at the Temple in Jerusalem, The Jewish Nation was led by it own group of priests.

Around the year 50 BC, a vague anti-Roman agitation covered the entire country. Thus the Jewish territory was divided into 5 districts. Jericho, Jerusalem, Sepphoris, Amathus, and Gadara were the Centers of these Districts. Assemblies were established in each District. Rome believed strongly in the principle: Divide, and it was easier to rule. Beginning around 40 BC, there was a new overthrow under Julius Caesar. Grateful for Jewish and Egyptian help, Caesar accorded them new privileges. Jerusalem was now exempt from taxation. Joppa was restored to Jewish jurisdiction. And Hyrcan II was recognized as the Jewish Ethnarch. Hyrcan II had charge of Roman power on behalf of the Jews, while Antipater helped him in the role of Procurator of the Kingdom. Judea was re-established in it’s own glory. But Judea would only be fully restored by Herod, the son of Antipater.

Faithful to Rome and to the interests of Mark Anthony (the “Master of the Orient”), Herod knew how to adapt to circumstances. After Octavius’ victory over Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Herod drew nearer to being the new “Master of the Orient”. Cities rebuilt by Herod received names in honor of the Roman Emperor. E.g. Caesarea among the coast, Sebaste in Samaria, Jerusalem with her palaces, and the Antonia Fortress. Herod wanted to participate fully in the “pax romana”. In building, he used roman architecture to create a “Roman” way of life. The Jews were offended, however, when he was finally promoted to the rank of King of Judah. For he was an Idumaean, and not of the Tribe of Judah. The fact that Herod had actually “eliminated” all his political rivals did not bring him any closer to the Jewish people. He slaughtered the representatives of the Hasmonean House and transformed the Sanhedrin into a puppet institution. He brought pagans into his court as councilors, and as members of his administrative department. Herod established a military contingent at Batanea (the Bashan) in the Golan region to watch over the north-east portion of his empire. In spite of all his efforts to gain the loyalty of the people, violence erupted upon his death in 4 BC. Under Herod the Great’s rule, the State showed a great firmness in collecting taxes. “Since he spent far beyond his means, Herod was obliged to show himself more severe toward his subjects by imposing heavy taxes,” recalled Josephus in “Antiquities Jiuves” (A.J. 16:154). The census under Quirinus had as target to number all the subjects and estimate their possessions for assessing taxes. In the year 25 BC, a famine was reported. Nonetheless, taxes were still demanded.

Taxes and services only partially covered the expenses of his government. The excessive taxation weighed heavily upon the people. The cities of Gaza, Gandara and Hippo were part of Herod’s dominion. Samaria was exempt one-fourth of the taxes (A.J. 17:319). Herod also had a considerable private fortune which he obtained in part by executing a number of important persons in his kingdom (A.J. 17:307). Furthermore in 12 BC, the Emperor Augustus gave him the copper mines of Soli, in Cyprus (A.J. 16:128). Finally, gifts often arrived to fill up the depleting coffers of Herod (A.J. 17:308). At his death, Herod left the nation completely impoverished (A.J.17:304).

The Ethnarch Archelaus became Ruler of Judea. His removal from office and exile to Gaul in 6 AD marked the end of a period in which the Romans showed favor by giving vast local autonomy. Rome also took over control of Palestinian business. They quickly sent prefect-procurators to administer the affairs of the new sub-province of Syria. These Roman administrators were invested with the powers of taxation, and judiciary and miliary powers. Autonomy in religious affairs was still honored, but the Procurator had the right to appoint the High Priests and control the duties of their office.

Uner Roman rule in the years 66-44 BC, and 41-6 BC, taxes stayed the same. For the Province of Judah, however, they were increased to 600 talents (A.J. 17:320). In 66 BC, the Roman authorities in Jerusalem collected 40 talents of overdue taxes ( Bellum Judaicum B.J. 2:405). Tacitus, the Roman Historian, agreed that there were many complaints concerning the tax burdens. In 17 AD, the Provinces of Syria and of Judah petitioned for a reduction. The refusal to lessen the tax burdens was the motive for the Jewish War, and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD according to Josephus Flavius (B.J. 5:405). It was difficult to assess the gifts and bribes that were paid out to those in authority or administrative services. Corruption extended to the highest positions. Complaints relating to the abuses of the procurators - of Pilate in particular - were numerous. Thus, Galilee became part of the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas who rebuilt and fortified Sepphoris, declaring it the Capital of Galilee.

Jewish Life: Circumcision and Childhood.
Eight days after the birth, all Jewish males were circumcised according to the Law. The father recited the prayer: “Blessed by the One who sanctified Abraham, as friend, from his mother’s womb. He established a law within his flesh. He created this sign to be the mark of His Holy Covenant for all his descendants. This is why the Living God, our Rock, has ordained in turn to save those He loves of our nation. Blessed be He Who made this covenant.”

Circumcision was the physical sign of the Covenenant. Abraham received the order to circumcise when he was 99 years old. Later tradition placed the circumcision of Abraham on the Day of Yon Kippur. This association brought a sense of expiation to the ritual of circumcision. Judaism gave an interpretation to the significance to circumcision. One only wrote down the order of genealogy as a reference in the genealogy, because son-ship did not consist in having a place in biological chain.

Rabbis in the time of Jesus well knew that circumcision was practiced before the time of Abraham, and that the “desert” generation had neglected this commandment. Therefore Joshua had to have all the Hebrews circumcised before they entered the Promised Land (Jos. 5:2). Nevertheless, they gave it a new meaning: it became the Sign of the Covenant with God. Only those circumcised would be able to eat of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12: 44-48). In the times of Jezebel, it seemed that circumcision was abandoned (1 Ruth 19:14). The prophet Elijah intervened to re-establish it. It was for this reason that tradition believed that God was present at all ceremonies of circumcision.

The ceremony created an occasion for a family feast at which they drank and danced, clapping hands. It was on the eighth day that circumcision was practiced according to the “Mohel,” in the presence of the father of the family. If the eighth day was on a Sabbath, circumcision was permitted (Sabbat 130b-132a).

All Jewish boys learned to read and write in their own family. The only known book was the Bible. Parchments were very expensive. Dressed in his “tallit”, the child learned the history of his own people by hearing commentaries on the texts proclaimed each Shabbat in the synagogue. He gradually assimilated the history of Israel; the election, the promises, the covenant, the gift of the land, the law. He learned how to sing the psalms, in particular the “Hallel”. Two times a day, he recited the “Shema Israel” and the prayer of “Shemone Esre”. He wore “phylacteries” and did not shave the hair of his temples, as prescribed in the Bible.

Jesus’ childhood and youth developed within the framework of a small rural village - “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn.1:46). His horizons soon expanded beyond Nazareth, and even Galilee. Sepphoris, the Capital of Galilee, was not more than a few kilometers from the village of his childhood. There, Jesus came in contact with a Roman village, with its own theater, villas and banks. A new culture, occupied by strangers, opened before his eyes. “Why were the Romans present in the land promised to our fathers?” He must have heard this question many a time.

At the age of twelve, Jesus went down to the Temple of Jerusalem to make his “bar mitswa”, to become a “son of the commandment” like all young Jewish boys. He talked with the teachers who marveled at his wisdom. He discovered the Temple with its priests, its merchants, and its brightly colored and boisterous crowd. To His parents who searched for Him, He answered that He had to be about His Father’s affairs. He already had a deep awareness of his relationship with God whom He called His Father. Returning to Nazareth, Jesus was subject to Mary and Joseph, and ever close to the ordinariness of life. He was not a idle dreamer. Later, in his teaching, he compared the Reign of God to a lamp which gave light to the entire house, or to yeast which a woman took and kneaded into three measures of flour, and which made all the dough rise, or still better, of seed sown in the earth which grew up irresistibly, whether man was awake or asleep. Throughout his preaching, the memories of his childhood shown forth. The images which he returned to in his teaching - the lilies of the fields, the birds that ate the grain on the road, as well as that of the widow who demanded justice and that of the unjust judge -- revealed a profound religious sensitivity to ordinary life. The Reign of God was an image of the earth which produced first the plant, then the ear, finally the ear of grain. The world was a Temple where one was able to encounter God.

From the age of twelve, to twelve and one half years, a young Jewish girl was able to be promised in marriage. Her father still had rights over her: he was able to sell her as a slave to a Jew for seven years. After the age of twelve and one half, the young girl was able to be married. Only the husband could dismiss her, give her his “writ of renouncement”. The contrary was impossible (Mark 10:12 was written in Rome and reflected the juridical situation of that village.) Adultery was punishable by death. When a woman went out she had to veil herself and she was banned from speaking to men. Marriage was arranged by her parents. Since the young girl worked at home, her departure from it demanded an economic compensation. The future husband had to pay the dowry, which consequently became the property of the woman in case of renouncement. The amount which the father of a girl from Jerusalem would receive, at the time of betrothal of a spouse who was not from the same town was especially high: An inhabitant of a small town who married a girl from Jerusalem must give her, as a dowry in marriage, her weight in gold; a girl of a small village who married a man from Jerusalem must bring as dowry his weight in gold (Lam Rabba 4:2). This text showed the importance that was attached to Jerusalem, and well as the fact that the cost of living was much higher in Jerusalem than elsewhere.

It was quite common to be engaged to a relative. Inter-marriage among Tribe members was common. The priests had the custom of choosing their wives from priestly families. The fiance had to feed, lodge, and clothe his fiancee. If she was convicted of adultery, she was renounced by a Letter of Divorce. If the fiance died, the fiancee was considered his widow. Certainly, during the time of betrothment, no intimate relationship was permitted. Betrothments were usually done by offering the gift of an engagement present to the fiancee.

Generally, marriage was celebrated one year after the betrothment. The celebration of the family lasted one week. Outside the family house, no religious ceremony took place. The morning of the wedding, the fiancee, dressed by her parents, was covered with a veil that hid her eyes. Her friends put a sash on her. That evening, the fiancé would remove the veil, and unfasten the sash. A procession left the fiancé’s home. It was preceded by musicians and participants carrying torches, among whom were the father of the groom, and friends of the spouse and bride. Most often the procession arrived late because they were haggling over last minute clauses in the contact of marriage, called the “Ketuba”.

Before leaving the house of her father, the bride sang songs of lamentation. The maid of honor took care of attending to the beauty of the bride who was accompanied by virgins. The procession led to the house of the father of the groom. It was there that the marriage was celebrated. The father blessed the bride with seven blessings. Then the groom gave a gold or silver ring to his bride saying: “Behold, you are made holy for me according to the Religion of Moses and of Israel.” He then proclaimed a blessing over a cup of wine meant for the couple. The banquet, accompanied by song and dance, followed. When the groom came in order to be one with his wife, his friends left and extinguished their torches. Only friends of the groom remained outside, waiting for the signs of virginity. The bride would keep these all her life.

The marriage was celebrated for three days if she were a virgin, for the tribunal the next day. If the bride was not a virgin, she was denounced immediately. When he remarried a widow, the marriage was celebrated for four days.

The woman was to look after her husband. The husband had to provide food, clothing and lodging and fulfill the conjugal duties. Besides this, he had to buy back his wife if she were ever captured. He had to get medicine if she fell sick, and a tomb for her burial. Even the very poor was obliged to procure two flute players and one who wailed for the funeral.

The woman had to obey her husband, mill the grain, cook, wash, make the meals, nurse the infants, work the wool, and, in some cases, wash the face and feet of her husband. Polygamy was permitted. After 10 years of married life without child, the husband was permitted to take another woman. The right of divorce was exclusively on the side of the husband. The text from Deuteronomy (Dt. 24:1) was subject to different interpretations between the Hillelites and Shamaites. For Hillel, things that brought displeasure to the husband gave him the right to dismiss the woman. In case of a divorce, the husband had to return to the woman the dowry prescribed in the contract of marriage.

Women had to veil themselves when going outside, so that no one could recognize their face. In the countryside, they were able to take water at the fountain. Women worked in the fields, and sold olives by the door. However, a woman was never allowed to go to the fields alone.

To the young girls was given the duty of feeding and dressing their father, of helping him when going out or returning when they are old, of washing their face and feet. Nevertheless, from the point of view of succession, boys came before the girls. Near the age of 12 and one half, a girl did not have the right to refuse a marriage decided by her father. The father was also able to sell his daughter as a slave. Only a girl older than 12 and one half years of age was autonomous regarding her own marriage.

The Home
The archeological findings at Capharnaum have allowed us to be more accurate about how village dwellings appeared. An oven situated in the inner courtyard permitted them to cook outside. Stairways went to the roof. Pebble streets made it easy to lose money. The archeological findings in Sepphoris , on the contrary, found that villas were decorated with mosaics at that time. Pagan mentality penetrated the well-to-do levels of society.

A number of household objects were discovered: oil lamps, keys, pottery, glass dishes, sewing needles, dice, indeed toys. Mirrors, perfume bottles, glass bracelets, and jewels permitted a view into the world of woman.

Economic Life
The dynamism of economic life could not be explained without taking into account the biblical doctrine of the “gift of the land”. The Temple and the Land are forever linked to Jewish tradition. The experience of the Covenant centers around the gift of the land. At Sinai, the Hebrews received as heritage the land of Canaan. A heritage of acquisition, conservation, and then loss of the land, were at the heart of biblical history.

The gift of the land concretized itself in that of the daily bread. It was God who gave His people His wheat, His raisins, and His oil (Os. 12:10). Rain and vegetation extended the first gift of the land. There existed a link between the fertility of the land, and the conquest of the land. Also one could find a plan to unite the national history with the Feasts of an agrarian lifestyle. The land and the gods which they produced reminded Israel of the gratuitous love of God.

The economy of the city and that of the country were different. Live-stock was more expensive in the city than in the country. The price of fruit was 3 to 6 times more expensive in Jerusalem than in the country. There was such a demand for doves for sacrifice, that speculators raised the price 100% above the normal price.

Beggars were never lacking in Jerusalem, in particular at the outer gates of the Temple. It is significant that in 66 BC, the Zealots burned the archives of Jerusalem where certificates of debt were kept. The common professions of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were widely known. As found in rabbinical writings, they were: bakers, butchers, shoemakers, money changers, farmers, perfumers (there was a garden of roses), and artisans who sold souvenirs to pilgrims.

Certain professions were looked on with contempt. The Mishna (Qidushin 4:14) gave a list: the donkey driver, the camel driver, the sailor, the coachman, the shepherd, the shopkeeper, the doctor and the butcher. (Ketubot 7:10) included in its list the collector of dog dung, specialists in copper or bronze, and tanners. (Sanhedrin 25) contained a different list: the dice player, the usurers, the organizers of pigeon contests, the dealer in products from the sabbatical year, the shepherd, the tax collector and the publicans. No father wanted to teach these trades to his son. The inclusion of doctors on this list might catch one by surprise. Certain testimonies concerning doctors were not flattering As Rabbi Judah recalled: “the better of the doctors was good for hell, and the most honest of butchers was a partner of the Amalekites” (“Qidushin 4:14). The rebukes given to the doctors were because they gave preferential treatment to the rich and neglected the poor. As for the butchers, they were suspected of selling meat of animals having physical defects (Sanhedrin 25a). It was difficult for shepherds, tax collectors and publicans to do penance recognized Baba Qama (94b), because they are not able to know all those whom they have wronged. The repugnant professions of garbage collector and tanner carried with them family difficulties. Spouses of those who did these jobs had the right to demand a divorce from the Tribunal with the payment of ketuba. They would say: “I believed that I was able to support her, but now I cannot do it” (Ketubot 7:10). The woman had an equal right to demand divorce when her husband contacted leprosy.

© copyright 1998



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved