Many years ago there were trails that came into the land of Israel. They came from the east and from the north. Other trails came from Egypt in the South.
Traders used these trails to travel from one place to another. They traveled mostly by camel. They bought and sold goods along the way. The trails went through Israel and met in Israel. It was almost like Israel was the center of the world.
In a way, Israel was the center of the world. Jesus was born there. All of the things that happened in Bible times seemed to say, “Israel is a special land.”
PLACES OF WORSHIP
The beautiful temple stood in the city of Jerusalem. It was the center of worship for the Jews. Herod rebuilt the temple not long before Jesus was born. The temple was on a hill. Its shining white marble walls could be seen all over the city. Large stone gates opened on all four sides. Jesus called this temple his Father’s house (John 2:16).
Each Jewish town also had a smaller meeting place. These were called “synagogues”. The leader of the synagogue studied the Old Testament and the Jewish laws. He then could teach the people.
On the inside synagogues looked much like some of our churches. The people sat on benches. The leader stood on a stage. A special box held the scrolls of the books of the Bible.
On the Sabbath day the people came to the synagogue. The leader read a verse to call the people to worship. Then there were readings of thanksgiving and praise. Someone would lead in prayer. After that, the leader might ask someone to read from the Bible. Any member who was able to teach could give the sermon. The service was closed with a blessing.
THE LAWS OF GOD
God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments and many other laws at Mount Sinai. These laws taught the people how to worship God and live holy lives.
Jesus later told the Jews that following rules was important, but loving God and others was more important.
THE SABBATH DAY
God gave the people of Israel the Sabbath as a day of rest. On the seventh day of every week they rested from their work. They offered special sacrifices.
The scribes and Pharisees later added hundreds of laws about how people should keep the Sabbath day holy. Then the people forgot that God gave the Sabbath day to be a special day. Instead they just worried about obeying all the rules.
On the Sabbath day people could not travel very far. They could not carry anything from one place to another. They were not supposed to spit on the ground. If they did, they might be plowing a little row in the dirt. And that would be work! If a hen laid an egg on the Sabbath, they were not supposed to eat that egg. The hen had worked on the Sabbath to lay it.
When Jesus and his disciples picked some grain and ate it on the Sabbath, the Pharisees said they were working. When Jesus healed sick people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees said he was breaking the law. They got angry and wanted to kill him.
Two religious groups in New Testament times were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees were rich and powerful men. The high priest, the chief priests and rich businessmen were all Sadducees. The Sadducees were against any new group that tried to change Jewish life. That’s why they were against Jesus and his disciples. The Sadducees also turned away from many of the teachings of the Pharisees. They did not believe that people would rise from the dead. They did not believe in angels or demons. They did not keep all the laws of the Pharisees. Thy only kept the law of Moses.
The Pharisees added hundreds of laws to the law God gave Moses. They were mostly interested in keeping all these laws. Many of the Pharisees forgot God’s other laws. They were proud of how good they were, but they did not love other people. However, there were also Pharisees who truly loved God and others and tried to do what was right.
Seventy of the most important Pharisees and Sadducees made up the Jewish high court. This court was called the Sanhedrin. The high priest led the court. The Romans let this court decide what to do when someone had broken a Jewish law. But this court did not have the power to put anyone to death. If the Sanhedrin thought someone should die, they had to bring the person to the Roman courts.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Rome had begun to grow larger and stronger before Christ was born. Wars were fought, and many new lands were added to the Roman Empire. This empire was very large. It included Spain and Germany, North Africa, Asia Minor, Syria and Israel.
Many good things happened because of Roman rule. There was peace among all of the different countries in the empire. The Romans also set up good government everywhere. They built roads for safe and easy travel. Many of the people were able to speak and understand the same language – Greek.
The Romans did not know that all these things would make it easier for the gospel to spread to many lands. They did not know that God had prepared the way for Jesus and the spread of the good news. Later Jesus’ disciples traveled more easily to far-away lands because there was peace and because there were good roads. They could bring the gospel in the Greek language to many people in many areas.
The Jews hated the Romans. They believed the Romans had no right to rule over them. They believed the Romans had not right to take their money for taxes. They didn’t like the soldiers who lived in their country. The Jews also hated the Romans because they tried to change the Jewish way of life. The Romans wanted everyone to act like Romans. The Jews were looking for the Messiah. They thought he would become their king and would free them from the Romans.
The Jews hated tax collectors even more than Romans. Many tax collectors were Jews who were working for Rome. Many tax collectors were not honest. They took more money than they were supposed to take. They cheated their own people to help the enemy.
Jesus often talked and ate with tax collectors. Matthew was a tax collector. So was Zachaeus. Both became followers of Jesus.
Life in New Testament times was much different from life today. It was a simple life. Most people did not have extras. In fact, they often had just enough to live. The people worked hard, and children had to share in the work.
The people built their houses of mud bricks that were hardened by laying them out in the sun. Sometimes the front part of the house had no roof over it. This part was like a small yard. Behind it was a living room with small bedrooms in the back. The floor of the house was of hard and smooth clay. Builders made the roof of heavy wooden beams with boards laid across them. They covered the boards with a mixture of mud and straw. This flat roof was a good place to work or to sit. Sometimes people slept on the roof on hot nights. Usually a ladder or sometimes steps led up to the roof.
Most people had very little furniture – just some wooden stools, a low wooden table and some sleeping mats. There was a place for fire and sometimes a small clay oven for baking bread. There was no chimney, so the smoke had to find its way out of the small, high window openings. Some houses had wooden doors. Others had doorways covered with grass or cloth.
The people at foods like milk and cheese, grapes, figs, olives, honey and barley cakes, eggs, chicken, fish, goat meat, beans, cucumbers and onions.
The first meal of the day was usually bread and cheese. Sometimes a family would eat a light meal at noon. Again, bread was the main part. The people had their large meal of the day in the evening. They usually ate bread and fish, fruit and vegetables. The common people often ate meat only on very special days.
The clothing of New Testament times was simple. Besides underclothing, the people wore robes with a belt tied around their waist. Over the robe they often wore a cape. Children usually had shorter, knee-length clothing. They sometimes wore a kind of pull-over shirt. Women decorated their clothing with brightly colored weaving and sewing.
The people wore sandals without socks. Their feet were often dusty from walking on dirt streets and roads. They washed their feet often.
The people did many different kinds of work. Some were farmers and builders and makers of pottery. Others were bakers and doctors and teachers. They were watchmen who guarded the cities. There were scribes who wrote letters and copied the laws and the books of the Bible. There were workers in leather and workers in metal. Jesus’ father was a carpenter. Jesus also knew about herding sheep. Peter, James and John were fisherman. Matthew was a tax collector.
Women had to work hard in their homes. The first thing they would do in the morning was make the bread for the day. They would grind the grain into flour and make dough, then shape the dough into loaves of bread and bake them. The women also had to carry water from the well and get wood for the fire. They made all the clothes for the family, spinning and weaving their own cloth out of flax and wool.
Parents expected their children to help with the work. Girls helped their mothers with all the household work. Boys helped their fathers in their work and were expected to follow the same trade as their fathers.
Parents taught their children Bible verses when they were still very young. They learned verses from the law and stories from the Old Testament.
When boys were five or six years old, they went to school. The leader of the synagogue taught them. For the first four years, they studied mostly the first five books of the Bible. By then they knew the laws of God very well. They also learned how to read and write Hebrew. For the next several years they studied other books of the Bible and other Jewish writings.
When a Jewish boy reached the age of twelve or thirteen, he was considered to be a man. The boy and his family and friends celebrated with a special ceremony and often a party. Most boys left school at this age.
Girls were taught at home to be wives and mothers. Most girls did not go to school or learn to read or write. By early adolescence many girls were married.
The time of the New Testament was the best time for Jesus to come. The people were looking and waiting for him. The safe roads make it much easier for early Christians to travel to spread the good news of the Saviour. The common language made it much easier for them to tell others about Jesus. People were eager to hear about him. God had everything planned and ready.