The Real Jesus
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The Real Jesus

Chapter 5

Jesus in Palestine —

the Historical Facts

   The importance of Jesus Christ's life and death is recorded in the New Testament. Yet for those who do not accept the New Testament as accurate history, other records have been preserved which clearly show that the human life of Jesus Christ was fact — not fiction.
   In times past and present, some atheists and agnostics have gone so far as to claim that no real evidence exists outside the New Testament to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived and died. And the New Testament, of course, is dismissed as a pious fraud.
   It is true that no record of the crucifixion of Jesus has come down to us from Pilate himself. But other records have been preserved which do mention Jesus of Nazareth. These records are non-Christian in origin and, hence, can be regarded as neutral, disinterested, historical proof of Jesus' life and subsequent crucifixion by the Romans.
   Writing around the end of the first century A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that in A.D. 49 the Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the city of Rome (an incident also mentioned in Acts 18:2): "He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus" (Claudius, 25,4).
   "Chrest us" was a common misspelling of the name of Christ. These riots were probably a result of the recent arrival in Rome of Christianity, which would have caused considerable dissension in the Jewish community there, as it did elsewhere (see, for example, Acts 21:31). Writing many years later, Suetonius doubtless misunderstood the police records of the rioting and took the name of "Chrestus" to refer to some individual of that name.
   A more detailed account of Christ comes from the Roman historian Tacitus. Writing between A.D. 115 and 117, Tacitus tells us that in A.D. 64 the Emperor Nero tried to blame the disastrous fire in Rome on the Christians. Tacitus then goes on to describe these Christians: "They got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the Procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition for a short time, but it broke out afresh — not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home" (Annals, XV, 44).
   From Tacitus's comments it is clear he had no sympathy for Christianity. Yet for him there was no question that its founder actually lived and was executed by Pontius Pilate while he was procurator over Judea several decades earlier. Tacitus was not writing from hearsay. He was a Roman historian of note; he had access to official court records, diplomatic correspondence and Roman archives. Aside from his pagan, anti-Christian bias, his account is a reliable confirmation of the New Testament account of Christ's death and its aftermath.
   Roman historians are not the only ones who tell us of Jesus of Nazareth. Ancient Jewish traditions preserved in the Talmud also mention Him. Jewish scholars generally agree that some traditions of Jesus' death by crucifixion were maintained among the Jews for several centuries after the event and were finally put in written form in the Babylonian Talmud about A.D. 500. One such passage — which some think refers to Jesus, though a number feel it refers to someone else — reads as follows: "On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu and the herald went before him for forty days saying, He is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover" (Sanhedrin, 43A).
   Another account of Jesus is found in the writings of the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus of the first century A.D. However, historians feel that the passage was later altered by a Christian scribe to make Josephus say that Jesus was possibly the Messiah — something Josephus himself probably did not write. However, one Jewish scholar has rendered the passage as follows: "Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him are not extinct even now" (Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 55-56).
   Josephus also mentions Jesus briefly in another passage which scholars feel is quite genuine: "He [Annas] convened a judicial session of the Sanhedrin and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ — James by name — and some others, whom he charged with breaking the law and handed over to be stoned to death" (Josephus, Antiquities, XX, 200).
   Many other accounts, mostly fragmentary, have come down to us besides the ones that are quoted here. Many of these give further details which corroborate the New Testament accounts of Jesus. These documents so vindicate the New Testament record that Professor Klausner stated: "If we possessed them alone, we should know nothing except that in Judaea there had existed a Jew named Jesus who was called the Christ, the "Anointed"; that he performed miracles and taught the people; that he was killed by Pontius Pilate at the instigation of the Jews; that he had a brother named James, who was put to death by the High Priest Annas, the son of Annas; that owing to Jesus there arose a special sect known as Christians; that a community belonging to this sect existed in Rome fifty years after the birth of Jesus, and that from the time of Nero, the sect greatly increased; regarded Jesus as virtually divine, and underwent severe persecution" (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 62).
   False concepts of a false Jesus would be at least partially removed by understanding more of the environment that was Palestine during Jesus' day. Few understand the true picture of Jesus as framed in the social customs, the type of architecture, the flow of commerce and business, and the whole panorama of Jewish life during that Herodian period.
   It is incredible that so many books of theological research, Bible dictionaries, histories of the Holy Land, and other works on the life and time of Jesus use the illustrations of a Palestine of the turn of the century — the old woodcuts, travelogue photos, and oft — reprinted scenes of the bleak ruins of ancient cities, Bedouin tents, camel caravans, filthy streets and rocky, barren hillsides — which tend to leave the impression that this is the Palestine of the time of Christ.
   Nothing could be further from the truth.
   The land that is now drastically depleted, mostly deforested, heavily eroded and reduced to dust, was, almost nineteen hundred years ago, a verdant, beautiful, rich part of the world, virtually unrivaled in industry, wealth and strength.
   If you could have walked the streets of the cities of Capernaum, Nazareth, through any of the confederation of the "Decapolis" — the ten towns in the Galilean region — you would have been startled by the quality and wealth. And Jerusalem itself? You would have been even more amazed than were Jesus' own disciples over the beauty, magnificence and size of Jerusalem, especially of those buildings associated with the temple.
   In ancient times, God had promised the Israelites a land "flowing with milk and honey." One remembers the account of the spies sent to search out the land who came back with tales not only of giant men, but of fruits and produce so abundant and so large that they are virtually unknown among modern agricultural products today.
   The implication of the account of one cluster of grapes being carried on a pole by two men is clear; each grape must have been about the size of a plum or a lemon!
   "And they came to the Valley of Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs.
   "And they came to Moses... and they told him, 'We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit'" (Num. 13:23-27, RSV).
   The early Israelites weren't only impressed by the gigantic size of the fruits and produce of the land — they were frightened to death at the size of the people living there! They said, "... all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature... and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers... " (Num. 13:32-33). It is logical to have expected that the largest, and therefore strongest, peoples would populate the richest areas.)
   The land of Israel combines every variety of climate, from the perennial snows on beautiful Mount Hermon and the cooler higher elevations of Lebanon, to the more pleasant warmth of the valleys of Galilee, and the tropical and humid climate of the Jordan River facing the Mediterranean Sea. According to the most ancient records, every fish imaginable teemed the waters of that country (fishing was a major industry as evidenced by some of Jesus' own disciples' occupations) and birds and wild fowl were abundant.
   In your mind's eye, you need to imagine a country more like some of the western mountain states of the United States — perhaps portions of northern or central California, but in a much smaller area, encompassing a deep depression (such as Death Valley) wherein lies the Salt Sea and the terminus of the Jordan River, together with lofty snow-clad mountains, higher elevations festooned with conifers of every sort, especially the world-famed "Cedars of Lebanon," seemingly endless corn and pasture lands, terraced hills covered with olives and vines, glades and pleasant valleys bubbling with springs and streams. Naturally, by the time of Christ, a great deal of the land had been abused and no small amount of depletion of natural resources and subsequent erosion and loss of arable soil had already occurred. Still, it was immensely richer than it is today.
   Therefore, although many glowing accounts of the beauty of that land exist in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and some of the major prophets, descriptions of pastures which seemed to be "clothed with flocks" and of "the land of milk and honey" may not have been quite so accurate by Jesus' day. Nevertheless, abundant literature exists, and archaeological finds substantiate, that the Palestine of Jesus' day was luxuriously wealthy in natural resources; dotted with towns and cities that were resplendent examples of the finest engineering and architectural principles of that day and represented one of the most important possessions of the Roman Empire. Palestine was prized for its exports of fruit, grains, olives, wine, oils, spices, and the by no means meager returns to Roman treasuries from the heavy system of taxation imposed upon the people.
   Herod was a great builder. Not only was the temple during Jesus' day an absolute marvel of glittering stone and beautiful architecture, but there were so many fortresses, palaces, temples, amphitheaters and public monuments that it was said even in faraway Rome that some structures of the area of Palestine were among the very finest in the empire, looked upon as a jewel in the crown of Caesar himself.
   Try to imagine the city of Capernaum, which in fact was a most important city, and frequently mentioned by the writers of the Bible in connection with the life and ministry of Jesus.
   Millions of Bible illiterates think of Christ's ministry as having taken place in the streets of Jerusalem. Many suppose His "Sermon on the Mount" was probably delivered on the "Mount of Olives" adjacent to Jerusalem — few seem to understand most of this ministry was conducted in northern Israel, around Capernaum and the dozens of towns in Galilee.
   Galilee was a motley collection of many races and religions, distinctly tainted with foreign and distasteful elements, in the opinion of the religious bigots of Jerusalem.
   Galileans were generally regarded as a crude, half-breed lot, looked upon with varying degrees of pity and contempt. The present-day attitudes of some New Englanders toward those from Dixie with a "Southern drawl" might be an appropriate analogy. That's why the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Jerusalem called Christ and His disciples a crude and "unlearned" lot, without academic or spiritual credentials.
   Even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth after His family returned from their exile in Egypt, Joseph's business took him and his sons into the other cities and towns in the Galilean area. Remember that a young Jewish boy was expected to join the adult community at about age 12; that it was a sober time of Roman occupation, heavy taxation and poverty, ferment and potential for rebellion (there had been a spate of abortive attempts at Maccabean revivals), and the fear of the life-and-death power of the religious leaders, as well as the oppressive rule of the previous Herod.
   It was hardly a cheerful time for carefree young children to grow up with time on their hands for endless play and daydreams. Jesus had been taught His father's trade from His earliest youth, and no doubt labored, first at His father's side (Joseph), and, following Joseph's death, as the head of the family and its business.
   His building trade was well known throughout the area; and, just as it is quite common for a contractor or a carpenter to live in a home built with his own hands, by his own design, or by his own firm, so Jesus and His brothers, Joses, Simon, Jude and James, together with their helpers, must have constructed a large home for their family in Capernaum.
   That home in Capernaum and the city itself are prominent in the early ministry of Jesus. When Jesus would return to Capernaum He was said to have been "at home" (Mark 2:1, RSV). His disciple Matthew (also called Levi), writer of the first of the gospels, was a resident of that city as well (Matt. 9:9).
   According to archaeological discoveries, the city of Capernaum, like many other port cities, seemed to be divided into two distinct sections. The one part was almost wholly devoted to the fishery industry, the other to the business and residential sections of what was one of the finest cities of that part of the world.
   Peter and Andrew both lived in nearby Bethsaida, along the shore of the lake a few miles further south (Mark 1:29), and Peter owned a home there (Matt. 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38).
   Try to imagine that you are standing in one of the main streets in Capernaum. You would no doubt see houses of all types, differing in size and scope depending entirely upon the substance and wealth of the owners; the houses would range from small cottages only 30 or 40 feet square, on up to large homes of the fairly wealthy of two or even three stories or more. While not common, it would not have been rare to see any number of homes of two stories or more which would have featured rich architectural embellishments of pillars and decorative friezes, built in the style of the Roman villas of the same period.
   On entering such a home, you would have noticed the beautiful stone work, or marble or more expensive stone, the walls painted with delicate colors such as vermilion (or whitewashed), and a large interior courtyard, where you would have seen a pool and possibly a fountain. Opening to either side would be living quarters, and to the rear and upstairs would be large public rooms for dining and family meetings. A wide stairway of beautiful quarried stone would lead directly from the street up the side of the home to the rooftop. Building codes of the time required that the large rooftops be provided with decorative handrails to protect people from falling. The roof would probably have been paved with brick or stone, or possibly one of the cements used at the time. The roofs always sloped slightly toward the front, so that the cisterns (sometimes contained even within the homes themselves) were filled with rainwater by ducts which caught the rains of the wet season.
   It would be quite common to see families of the cities of Palestine — including Jerusalem and those of the Galilean area — gather in the cool of an evening on their rooftops for discussion or to call to the neighbors across the way. Actually, the way the homes were built it was possible to go from roof to roof. Rabbinic literature spoke of the "road of the roofs." Read Jesus' statement in Matthew 24 of one who might be caught on the housetop during the time of severe national crisis. (He was speaking both of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and of a time called in the Bible "the Great Tribulation" yet ahead.) Jesus told them not to come down to take anything which might be in their house, indicating that they could use the "road of the roofs," passing from roof to roof until, perhaps at the final home in the block, they might make good their escape by descending to the ground.
   Once, Jesus was gathered together with His disciples and a large crowd of people inside His own home in the city of Capernaum. A group of people, desperate to have their sick friend healed, took up the stones of the roof and let the sick man down into the large upper room where Jesus was. "And again he entered again into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. And they came unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: And when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee" (Mark 2:1-5).
   This reveals that Jesus was in a home which was obviously His own. It was noised abroad that He was "in the house" which is rendered by other translations "at home." This also illustrates the fact that those who were so anxious to have their friend healed were easily able to climb to the rooftop via the outer stairway.
   Jesus was in His own home, either in a large upper room capable of accommodating more than one hundred persons, or, possibly, in a large central courtyard that was a feature of Jewish homes of that size and scale. Servants' quarters and the vestibule for guests were located near the front, sleeping quarters around both sides, and larger upper rooms toward the rear with a large family kitchen. It was not unusual for such homes to have interior fountains with plantings, and many of them would have been open to the outside air, not unlike those Spanish villas designed at a much later time.
   Jesus' ministry centered around the area of Capernaum, and later, the city where He grew up and was so well known, Nazareth. The synagogue into which He entered and healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark's third chapter) was no doubt the synagogue of the city of Capernaum.
   He was teaching "by the seaside" (Mark 4:1) of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum occupied its northwestern shore. When the fifth chapter speaks of Jesus going "to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes," it refers to the Golan Heights of today.

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Publication Date: 1977
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