We are bound to understand messages within our realm of experience. This may seem a difficult claim, but it is quite straightforward. When I hear news of an event which happened in a distant place, a place I do not know firsthand, I will imagine it starting from my experience of life. I do not have any other parameter. When we visit a place with historical significance, our comprehension of the events which happened there also changes. This is also true of the Bible. We read it at a personal level; we listen to it during our liturgies. How much do we understand or miss simply because we never had the chance to go and see the places where those events took place? But also, how much of our understanding of Jesus and his message do we misinterpret because we have only a scant knowledge of the social and political environment of Palestine at that time? The European Church has had the greater impact on the new communities of the South because of the missionary effort. Because of that, the understanding of the Gospel that matured in Europe was passed along to the Churches of the South. Certain features of our catechism are never doubted, but are they right? A simple example: in most European countries, the fox is an animal that symbolises intelligence, or cunning. This was applied to the Bible. When Jesus speaks of Herod as “that fox”, people commented “Jesus recognised how intelligent Herod was”. In reality, in Jewish culture two millennia ago, the fox was the image of a silly person. Jesus never compared Herod to a smart person, but to a silly one! Let us have a look at the social reality at the time of Jesus; most probably this will help us to understand His word better.

 

A SMALL COUNTRY

Jesus was born in Palestine at a time when the Jews had lost political control of their country. The kingdom of Israel was started by Saul, enlarged by David and reached the peak of its glory under Solomon. At Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into the kingdom of Israel, comprising Samaria and Galilee, and the kingdom of Judah, comprising Judea and adjacent areas. The kingdom of Israel soon fell under the control of the Assyrian kings. Judah lasted a little longer, but it also succumbed to the Assyrians first, and the Persians afterwards.The land we now call Israel was divided by different powers until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. He conquered a large empire of which Palestine was an insignificant region. After his death, the empire was divided up by four of his generals, and Greek became the language of the whole western world. The Holy Land fell under the control of either Syria or Egypt, the balance of power shifted often. Many Jews went to live in Alexandria in Egypt, where the Bible was translated into Greek; it is known as the Bible of the LXX, or Septuagint. When the Syrians finally took control of Israel in the eleventh century BC, they started to persecute the Jews and impose laws unacceptable to them. This led to the Maccabee revolt. This family provided the leaders of the revolt and guided the people to reconquer Jerusalem in 164 BC—it was the 25 December, the feast of Hanukkah. This is the feast that celebrates the return of light in the Temple. Later, this date would be chosen to celebrate Christmas, the day when the Light came into the world. In 64 BC, the Holy Land came under Roman influence. However, the Jews convinced the Roman Emperor Augustus to allow self-rule under the Jewish Sanhedrin, while paying taxes to Rome and being policed by Roman soldiers. Augustus appointed Herod the Great—an Edomite, not a Jew—as king of the Jews. It is while this king reigned that Jesus was born. Jesus was born a Jew, in Palestine, when this land was under Roman control, yet the king was an Edomite. The people spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, whereas Hebrew was still spoken by few and used in liturgy. Greek was the language of commerce, and Greek culture influenced much of the urban life also in Israel. On the other hand, rural Palestine was quite traditional. There were about 600 000 inhabitants in the whole of Palestine. Most of the population lived in the countryside, in small villages of a few hundred inhabitants. Jerusalem was the largest town, with perhaps 40 000 inhabitants, but swelled to almost 200 000 during festivals.

 

CARPENTERS WERE MIDDLE CLASS

Life in a village was quiet. Archaeologists found many games, such as hopscotch, jacks, and board games. Children’s games unearthed in Israel comprise whistles, spinning toys, toy animals on wheels, among others. Many children died prematurely, about 30% of the population died before adulthood, and the average age was around 45. This was not unusual in the Mediterranean area. Since men outlived women, it was common for widowers to marry younger girls. The common age for marriage was 12–13 for girls and 18 for boys. Marriage was celebrated by the two families; the new couple could not live together for one year. After this period, there was a solemn wedding ceremony, and they started to live together. Better off people, who could access better food and medical help, lived a long life like today. Society was stratified with a large peasant basis and a small elite controlling the economy of the nation. Most people were farmers; usually they did not own the land but worked in large estates owned by a few families. It was calculated that most of the agricultural land belonged to the Sadducees, a group of no more than 500 men—and their immediate families. Alongside the farmers, by far the poorest, a fairly large group of specialised workers led a much more comfortable life. Builders, fishermen, carpenters, jewellers and various tradesmen were part of the middle class. Carpenters and fishermen were
among the richest in this group. Carpenters, and Jesus was one of them, were extremely important people. They prepared and repaired the tools of other craftsmen (often carpenters worked also as smiths), built specialty items, such as furniture, doors, and windows. They also built boats for fishermen. People lived in small houses. Often these consisted of only two rooms. The front room was a kitchen, living room and, at night, sleeping quarters. The second room, in the back of the house, was a storage and animal pen at the same time. Whenever the weather allowed it, people spent the evening on the roof of their house, which was a terrace with an external ladder. When Jesus said we must proclaim the Gospel from the roofs, he simply meant to go and meet people in their spare time and share with them the Good News while staying with them. The food was simple: bread, olives, humus (a rich sauce made of chickpeas), fish and cheese, fruit. Meat was eaten only on special occasions. Wine was drunk on the Sabbath or at feasts, such as weddings or banquets.

 

HIGH PRIEST’S MONOPOLY

The nobles were few in number yet controlled the largest estates and trade. For instance, the High Priest controlled the meat market in and around Jerusalem. Since all those who went to the Temple bought animals for the sacrifices, they had to buy their offering from dealers controlled by the High Priest, who also controlled the butcheries in the Holy City. Large estate owners lived in Jerusalem and trusted the running of their affairs to administrators; some of Jesus’ parables draw examples from this way of life. In general, only about 5% of the population was really wealthy, yet there was also a small group that was really destitute. The majority were neither rich nor poor, however, uncertainty was common, and it was enough for a bad year to destroy the reserves of a poor family. Politically, the Israelites were subject to many contrasting powers. The Romans were the masters. They controlled northern Israel directly, while the south—Judah— was under the control of Herod the Great, and later his son also called Herod (the one who would behead John the Baptist). The Jews resented the rule of foreigners, and Herod was not a Jew. The people were also under the yoke of the religious leaders. The High Priest was a powerful figure: Annas (also known as Hannah) controlled the office for many years. After being the High Priest from 6–17 AD, he was succeeded by his sons and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, until 43 AD. It was not by chance that Jesus was brought before Annas, even though the High Priest that year was Caiaphas (John 18: 12–14). Annas imposed strict control on the people and used his religious power to enrich his family.

 

RELIGIOUS LITERACY

Since ancient times, the Jews worshipped God in different sanctuaries and holy places. Reading the stories of the Patriarchs or the Judges, we hear names such as Bethel, Sechem, and Beersheba. These were places dedicated to God, either because an important event happened there, or because the Israelites simply used a site considered sacred by the people who occupied the land previously. Little by little, worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices were possible only there, many of the liturgies were performed only in Jerusalem. People went to the Temple at various times each year, especially if they had to offer sacrifices for the atonement of sins. Israel is a small country, and in a few days’ walk, anyone could reach Jerusalem even from the furthest corner of the nation. People, however, felt the need to gather and pray as a community. This is how synagogues were born. A synagogue is little more than a room where people can gather. Today synagogues may have many rooms and depositories, but at the time of Jesus they rarely were large buildings. There would be a small room where the scrolls of the Scriptures were kept, but little else. People met there to pray, to socialise, and the children learnt how to read. Jews at the time of Jesus were perhaps the most literate people in the Mediterranean. Not everyone was able to read and write, but every male child had to learn how to read. Readings in the synagogue were read in turn by all. The person in charge of the synagogue, who later became known as Rav (from which rabbi is derived, which means my teacher), would give lessons to the children of the village. Girls were not required to read so they were not taught. Few people could pay a private tutor who would teach Hebrew, Greek, philosophy and other subjects. Those who were capable and ready to pay a private tutor could become scribes, a mixture of theologian and lawyer. They were in charge of giving an authoritative explanation of the Scriptures and legal advice. We say Scriptures because, at the time of Jesus, there was no Bible. The Jews had not yet agreed on which books were to be considered inspired by God. Certainly Jesus speaks about the Law and the Prophets—these comprise the first five books of the Bible and the Prophets, with the exception of Daniel—but there were many other books that were read as religious literature. Only by the end of the 3rd century AD, did Judaism agree on the Canon of Scriptures, i.e. the list of books making up the Tanak, the Jewish Bible.

 

BORN IN THE BACK ROOM

The Jews were never great seafarers. A few fishermen’s boats on the lakes and along the seashore were all they had to travel by water. They had no navy to speak of. For long distance travel by sea, the Jews bought a passage on Phoenician, Greek, Egyptian and Roman boats. Most of the travelling was done on foot or riding a donkey. Horses were only for rich people and soldiers. In any case, Jerusalem is only about 40 km from the sea port of Jaffa, and Jaffa is 64 km away from Mount Carmel, in the north. These are not long distances, and people thought nothing of walking for two or three days. Travellers would stop by a relative for the night, or ask hospitality from a family. In this case, they would be accommodated in the inner room, from where they could not leave suddenly at night with the few possessions of the hosts. This is what happened to Joseph and Mary when they asked for hospitality in Bethlehem. They were given space in the back room of some family, the place where animals were kept at night. That is how Jesus came to be laid in a manger, but he was not born in a stable. The grotto of the infancy Gospel was simply the back room of the people who welcomed Jesus’ parents.