Paul’s Missionary Journeys

A brief summary of the missionary trips of the Apostle Paul.

As Christians read the New Testament, it is easy to forget how much time elapsed between Matthew and Revelation, almost 100 years.  Jesus died and rose again around 30 AD, and for two years the church grew, rapidly and in relative peace.  The persecution began about 32 AD, and Paul became a Christian in that year.  He spent years preaching in Damascus, and then spent quite a bit more time in Arabia before returning to his hometown in Tarsus, Asia Minor.  His first missionary journey did not begin until AD 47, covering many cities in Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Perga, Iconium, Lystra, and others.  After a short return to Jerusalem in AD 49 to help with the Jerusalem Council, Paul left on his second missionary journey.  During this mission he wrote Galatians and probably Thessalonians.  He began in Asia Minor, but received the call to Macedonia and crossed over into Europe.  Paul and his companions ministered in Philippi, where he was imprisoned and beaten, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, where he spoke at the Aeropagus, and Corinth.  In 52 AD Paul returned to Syrian Antioch to complete his second journey.

After a very short delay, Paul’s third missionary journey began in Syrian Antioch (AD 53).  He and his colleagues crossed Asia Minor to Ephesus, ministered for three years, wrote Corinthians, and passed in Greece.  After a sojourn in Macedonia, he passed back to Asia Minor and into Palestine.  Despite repeated warnings that he should avoid Jerusalem, Paul returned there and was imprisoned (AD 57).  He was imprisoned at least two years, argued his defense before the Sanhedrin, and argued it again before Felix, Festus and Agrippa.  Sometime during this imprisonment he probably penned Romans.  Having appealed to Caesar, Paul was taken across the Mediterranean, was shipwrecked on Malta, and was in house arrest in Rome for 2 years.  His house arrest gave him the time to write Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians and Philippians.   Released from prison in 63, Paul continued to minister and was finally martyred by Nero in around 67 AD.

According to the conversion account in Acts 26, Paul knew from the beginning that he was sent to the Gentiles.  From the beginning of His ministry, he preached the gospel to Jewish audiences in synagogues.  Before long, he realized that Jews were actively rejecting Christ, and he turned his focus towards the Gentiles (Romans 11).

There has been some debate about the historicity of Acts, but there are many clues in the book proving that, but any reasonable standard, it is a valid historical document.  The timing of various monarchs (such as Herod Agrippa) and government officials (such as Festus, Felix, and Caiaphas) in Acts is internally consistent with the rest of Scripture and externally consistent with Josephus and most contemporary history, with few exceptions.  Other events, such as Theudas’ revolt, the reigns of the Caesars, and finally the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD help us discover when Paul lived and worked.  Tiny clues matter, such as mentions of persecutions.

Paul was adept at using local culture to build a bridge to reach the unbelieving.  He spoke Greek and Hebrew, and probably Aramaic and several other languages.  He had Timothy circumcised not because Timothy needed it to be saved, but rather to avoid giving offense to the Jews.  Paul tailored his message carefully to different audiences, with sermons heavy Old Testament when speaking to religious Jews and sermons referring to Greek thought and even “natural law” on the Aeropagus.  Sometimes he abandoned perfectly acceptable activities because he didn’t want to make others stumble.  He even supported himself financially with manual labor, a powerful example in Greco-Roman culture which devalued such labor.

The Apostle Paul provides a powerful example today.   From his knowledge to his zeal to his consistency, Paul is a model for every believer to emulate.  Spreading the gospel was his life, despite beatings, imprisonment, and great adversity.  He was not a perfect man, only One was, but Paul demonstrates what a follower of God can do in service to Him.

Paul’s Conversion – Why Three Accounts, and How Do They Differ?

The story of Paul’s conversion from a devout Jew, violently persecuting believers in Jesus, to a devout Christian, fearlessly spreading the Gospel against all opposition, is found three times in Acts.  The stories differ slightly.

The first account, in Acts 9, narrated Paul’s conversion when it actually happened.  After being a ringleader in persecuting Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, Paul obtained permission from the high priest, and then set out for Damascus, hoping to find and arrest Christians who had fled his persecution.    While enroute, Paul and his companions suddenly saw a great light. Paul fell to the ground and heard Jesus’ voice, asking why he was persecuting Him.  The voice then told him what to do (v6).  Paul had been blinded by the light, and his companions led him to Damascus where he had nothing by mouth for three days (v9).  Meanwhile, the Lord commanded a believer named Ananias to meet Saul and minister to him.  Despite his fear at revealing himself to the feared Pharisee and persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus, Ananias obeyed. Saul, soon to be known as Paul, regained his sight and began his ministry. Something like scales fell from his eyes, he regained his sight, he was baptized (v18), and he took food and water (v19).

The second account, in Acts 22, described his testimony during his trial before the Jews.  After years of preaching Christ throughout Asia Minor and Greece, Paul had returned to Jerusalem.  He was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple and he was arrested.  Addressing his accusers in their native Hebrew tongue, Paul reflected back on his conversion, telling them that he was a Jew, raised in the Diaspora but brought up and educated under the famous Jewish teacher Gamaliel.  He recounted his zeal in persecuting Christians and his mission to Damascus.  Like the sister account, Paul described the bright light and the voice of Christ, but quoted Jesus as saying “I am Jesus the Nazarene whom you are persecuting (v8).”  The descriptor “Nazarene” is not found in the earlier account.  The chapter 9 account said “go into the city” but that in chapter 22 said “go to Damascus”.    The account of the Lord’s message to Ananias is not found in the 22nd chapter.

The third account, in Acts 26, is significantly different from the other two.  In this case, Paul had been in prison for over one year and he had been testifying in his own defense before the Judean king Agrippa.  Paul described his persecuting Christians in much greater detail.  He added details about the encounter on the road, including that “it is hard for you to kick against the goads”.  In this account, Jesus told Paul that he was chosen by God and that he would bring the gospel to the Gentiles, all in great detail.  Paul provided no details on his activities in Damascus and then went on to convey his message to the Gentiles.

Far from being proof of a fabrication, the differences in the accounts demonstrate the reliability of the account.  Depending upon the purpose for telling a story and the audience that will hear it, people choose to emphasize different aspects of the story.  The account in chapter 9, in which Luke’s purpose was to tell the story of the early church, emphasized Paul and the believers in Damascus.   The chapter 22 account was not intended to be a story but a testimony.  It emphasized Paul’s essential Jewishness and faithfulness to the Law, and referred to “the God of our Fathers”.   One can sense that he yearned for his Jewish accusers to see that Jesus is their Messiah.  Paul’s defense to Agrippa in chapter 26, a small, more private and less hostile audience, was different.  Both in medicine and in law, a story that is totally unchanged between events is more likely to be considered a fabrication.

This conversion story is useful to all Christians in a variety of ways.  Those who fear that they are too sinful for God to save have a useful role model.  Those who believe that they can be “solo” Christians see the utter need that even the greatest among the apostles had for his brothers in Christ.   Those who doubt the authority of Paul as an apostle can be reassured in his God-given authority.  Paul’s story preaches well, demonstrating God’s sovereign choice in his servants, and the certainty of His will.  It is a model for believers today.

Passion Week – The Intractable Conflicts that Sent Jesus to Calvary

Jerusalem in the 1st century AD was an uneasy place.  A thin veneer of calm covered a seething cauldron of oppression, resistance, hatred, racial and religious conflict, and murder.  Palestine, known to all conquerors since antiquity as a hot bed of revolution, had by 30 AD been under Roman domination for nearly 100 years since Pompey conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in 63 BC.

The political arrangement was simple.  The Roman conquerors wanted peace and taxes, the first to limit the expense in blood and treasure of holding Palestine, and the second to get as much as possible out of the province to finance their Imperial tastes and adventures.  Lacking a natural port like Greece, resources like Asia Minor, or major wheat harvests like Egypt, Palestine had little to offer their conquerors except for being an eastern outpost against the Parthians and a land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa.  Many troops and lots of money were necessary to hold the land, so the Romans wanted the Jews to be quiet.

The Sanhedrin, the religious ruling council in Palestine, had the most the political power in Palestine except for the Romans.  The Jews were a religious people, and could be strongly influenced by the Sanhedrin.  The Pharisees, greater in number but forming a smaller percentage of the ruling council, had the confidence of the people.  The Sadducees, smaller in number but comprising a greater percentage of the Sanhedrin, had the confidence of Rome.  They also had the machinery of the temple to generate wealth and the credibility of the temple and priesthood to support them.  Without the temple, the Sadducees had neither authority nor income in Israel.  The bargain was simple…the Sanhedrin would keep the people quiet, and the Romans would leave them in their place of honor and not destroy anything.

Into this uneasy stalemate walked Jesus.  He taught with authority, lived blamelessly, and performed mighty miracles to testify to His message.  He also harshly and publicly rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees, and was extremely popular with the people.  Far more than most, Jesus was a threat to the religious and political order in Palestine in the first century.   His teachings seemed to conflict with much of Moses’, making it difficult for even the fair minded of the Pharisees to agree with Him.  Jesus was no naïve bystander, but had full knowledge and was in complete control of everything that was going on.

Jesus began Passion Week in the worst possible way, from the Jewish leader’s perspective.  Riding on a colt, He was greeted wildly by the crowds in Jerusalem shouting “Save Now”!  Jesus, the true Messiah, did nothing to quiet the people.  Jerusalem was overflowing with patriotic fervor and the crowds and the Passover provided the perfect conditions to begin a Jewish rebellion.  Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead, His most spectacular miracle. His cleansing of the temple and predictions about the temple during Passion Week were like lightning bolts to the Sanhedrin.  Jesus’ words provoked the religious elite repeatedly during the Passover, and Judas’ wanted Him to get on with beginning the revolt against Rome.  Combined, these conflicts provided the final impetus and the right setting for the Sanhedrin to get rid of Jesus once and for all.

In Jesus’ Jewish trial, He stood alone before the Sanhedrin as they mocked and threatened Him.   Wanting to convict and execute Him before Jerusalem was awake, His trial was a mockery of justice.  The Law of Moses required two or more witnesses to condemn a man to death, and by accepting Jesus “confession” without corroborating testimony, they further distorted the Law.

The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead, but were technically not allowed to execute someone (although this didn’t stop them in Acts 7 when they stoned Stephen without approval).  Not only that, they wanted Jesus ritually cursed, as would happen if He were crucified (Deuteronomy 21:23).  So, they had to take Him to the Romans to be condemned. Although the Sanhedrin convicted Him and sentenced Him to die for blasphemy, the Jewish leaders carefully avoided religious language and accused Jesus instead of fomenting political instability.  Knowing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate tried to shift the decision to Herod, and then feebly attempted to save Him, but political expediency prevailed.   Christ was crucified.

Jesus’ Birth, Childhood, and Family Tree

It is interesting that the one part of Jesus’ life that is most recognized in mainstream American society is His birth.  We celebrate Christmas, and despite the concerted and oftentimes angry effort to take Him out of Christmas, He remains an important part, even for many who may not believe much else about Him.  Both Matthew and Luke provide valid historical accounts.

Overview – Jesus was born in 6-4 BC under remarkable circumstances.  An angel announced to Mary’s aged and barren cousin, Elizabeth, that she would bear a great prophet who would be a forerunner to the Messiah.  The same angel later announced to Mary that she, a virgin, would bear a son who was destined to be the Messiah.  The angel appeared to Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, to convince him to go through with his marriage to her, despite the troubling nature of her pregnancy.  In the fullness of time, John the Baptist was born, accompanied by the miraculous return of speech to his father and great prophecies about his future.  Not long afterwards, Joseph and Mary traveled 90 miles south from Nazareth through the hill country of Palestine to Bethlehem, a place in which they were alone and homeless.  In a stable for animals which was probably a cave, she had a son.  His birth was attended by shepherds, angels, and great fanfare (“Glory to God in the Highest…”).  After eight days He was circumcised and introduced to Anna the prophetess and Simeon at the temple in Jerusalem.  Both understood that he was the Messiah.  Shortly thereafter, Magi from the East (probably Parthia) came bearing gifts for the new king, Jesus.  King Herod of Judea, fearing a threat to his throne, ordered all male babies under two in Bethlehem to be killed.    Escaping in the nick of time, Joseph took his little family to Egypt to live.  After the death of Herod, Joseph the carpenter and his family traveled through Judah and settled in Nazareth of Galilee.

Very little is mentioned about his growth and development except that he grew in wisdom, stature and favor with God and man.  At age 12 in the Temple, Jesus demonstrated His development in knowledge of God’s word and His ability to reason through it.  He also showed His priority focus on God the Father’s ministry for Him.  At Jesus’ next appearance in the Bible, he is 30.

Matthew – Jesus’ birth and childhood are mentioned only in Matthew and Luke. Judging by the genealogy and the abundance of OT scripture, it is safe to say that at least one major objective of Matthew in writing his gospel was to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.  The story of the Wise Men, prominently showing His readers the regal honor given the child, despite His humble advent, further supported this goal.  But Matthew did not record the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, or their eyewitness account.  Including the story of the sojourn in Egypt, Matthew took 29 verses for his account.  Matthew used dreams in his accounts of how God communicated with the main human actors in the story.

Luke – Having as a major goal the production of a careful historical account, Luke included a genealogy and also spent time on His birth.  A skilled historian, he began with the annunciation of John the Baptist, the forerunner for the Messiah. Then he weaved his narrative through the communications by vision to Mary, and her faithful response in the Magnificat.  The prose of Luke 1-2, including the accounts of the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the angels and the shepherds, is magnificent.  Whereas Matthew highlights the regality of Jesus’ birth, Luke highlights the humility of it.

The genealogies in the accounts can be harmonized, but with some difficulty.  The following are common attempts to make them consistent. Harmonizing the genealogies is considered important because some Jews, even today, use Jesus genealogy to “prove that he could not have been the Messiah.

  1. Matthew’s gospel provides Joseph’s genealogy, as he is the legal father, and Luke’s gospel provides Mary’s genealogy, as she is the biological and legal mother.
  2. Matthew’s gospel provides Joseph’s genealogy through his actual father, Jacob, and Luke’s gospel provides his genealogy through his legal father, Heli.  This assumes that Heli died childless and Jacob married his widow and fathered Joseph.
  3. Matthew’s gospel named the legal descendants of David in the official line of succession to the throne, and Luke’s gospel mentioned the actual line to which Joseph belonged, that Joseph’s father Jacob died childless and Heli became his legal father.

It is not clear which of these attempts, if any, are true.  Findings from archaeology, discoveries of ancient documents, and other sources may someday provide answers.

The Synoptic “Problem”

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways. They cover much of the same material, have the same general historical arrangement, and use many of the same words. Bible scholar JJ Griesbach named these gospels “synoptic” because they seem to “see together”. However, there are notable differences between these gospels. The presence of such striking similarities and curious differences causes Christians to ask “how can this be” and “where did these gospels come from”? This is the Synoptic Problem.

There are many possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. First, it is possible that the Synoptics were all drawn from one source, possibly an original in Hebrew or Aramaic. This is a little hard to believe, though. If one gospel existed already, why write more, changing some of the material in the process? Who wrote it, and what was their relationship to Jesus? Why would such a source not be mentioned anywhere in Early Christian literature?

Another possibility is that writers of later gospels used earlier gospels as sources. Augustine believed that Matthew the Apostle wrote the first synoptic, and that Mark and Luke based portions of their gospels on Matthew. Critical scholars of the 19th centuries believed that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke drew material from it.

A third possibility is that written fragments, no longer extant, were used by all three Synoptic writers. The last commonly considered possibility is that the Synoptic authors used oral sources to construct their gospels.   The authors probably used oral sources and written fragments, many generated by interviewing eyewitnesses. Nonetheless, the most favored view is that later gospel writers used earlier gospels as sources.

Augustine’s “two gospel” theory suggests that Matthew was written first, Luke second and Mark third. It was the predominant view until the 19th century. It has lost favor for the same reasons that the Markan theories described below have gained favor.

The modern “two source” view suggests that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used Mark and a document named Q (“Quelle”, German for “source”) to write their accounts. This so-called “Markan priority” is the widely accepted among scholars. In reviewing the gospel texts, Matthew and Mark sometimes agree against Luke, and Luke and Mark sometimes agree against Matthew, but Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark. Mark is the shortest gospel, and is occasionally awkward in style, and it is thought more likely that subsequent authors would lengthen and smooth the account rather than shortening and confusing it. In another theory, Streeter argues that in addition to using Mark and Q, Matthew used M, a manuscript containing material peculiar to Matthew, and Luke used L, a manuscript containing material peculiar to Luke. The most significant difficulty to these theories is that neither Q, M nor L exist.

Relationships between the Synoptic Gospels

Gospel Unique Material (%) Shared only with Matthew (%) Shared only with Mark Shared only with Luke Found in all three Total %
Matthew 20 10 25 45 100
Mark 3 18 3 76 100
Luke 35 23 1 41 100

Matthew was a Jewish tax collector, and he used genealogy and prophecy to try to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Mark, a disciple of Peter, was young and impetuous, just as Peter was. He wrote a no-sense, action packed gospel. Luke was a Gentile physician, educated and careful, who wrote to teach his Gentile readers about the life and person of Jesus Christ, and impel them to follow Him.

All three Synoptic writers probably used eyewitness accounts, oral sources, and written sources to compose their gospels, as Luke suggests in chapter 1. Having four gospels, with each tailored to a different audience, is reasonable, and minor differences strengthen, not weaken, the gospel accounts.   Whether in law enforcement, medicine, or anywhere else, making stories exactly alike requires collaboration. Independent eyewitness accounts always differ on some points. All told, the synoptic problem is not a problem at all but another evidence of the veracity of the Gospels as valid historical documents.

Proselytes, God-fearers, and Relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Bible

Relations between Jews and Gentiles have been problematic for most of the history of the Jewish people.  Abraham seems to have been humble about his special relationship with God, and Isaac and Jacob as well.  They all seem to have integrated well into the world around them, while staying faithful to YHWH.  The Patriarchs, while flawed, knew the Lord, and were honored for it.

Slavery in Egypt was a defining period in the Jewish nation, and they understandably hated the Gentile Egyptians.  The Passover highlighted the distinctiveness of the Hebrews as God’s people, and on Mt. Sinai the tribes received the Law which separated them in many ways from those around.  Psychologically, such distinctiveness sometimes leads to short term feelings of inferiority and long term feelings of superiority.

Throughout Joshua and the Judges, Israel prevailed over their enemies and gained strength as a nation.   God’s order to utterly destroy the Canaanites may have been interpreted by some Jews as proof of the Canaanites/Gentiles unworthiness or inferiority.  Though much Israelite suffering was self inflicted, with tribes fighting one another, much of it was oppression at the hands of Gentiles.  The years of the kingdom, especially during the height of Hebrew power under David, probably tempted Israel towards great pride in their position under God, even as their conduct before Him deteriorated.  At the same time, the prophets continued teaching that God is the God of all nations, including Gentiles, and reminding the Jews that they were chosen not for any superiority in themselves, but rather to be a blessing to the world around (Genesis 12:1-3, Deuteronomy 7:7-9).

The exile was a terrible blow, proving that being “chosen by God” was not enough to secure His temporal blessings.  Faith and subsequent obedience were required.  The challenge from Hellenism was great.  Yet legalism flourished and attitudes hardened towards Gentiles, especially the half Jew and half Gentile Samaritans.

In the first century, Palestinian Jews were generally more negative towards Gentiles, and Diaspora Jews more positive.  Pharisees were probably more negative than Sadducees.  Nation mattered…many in Israel favored Parthian Gentiles over Roman Gentiles.  There were almost as many different Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles as there were Jews.

Some Gentiles completely joined the Jewish religion, forsaking that of their forebears, and were called proselytes.  These people often lived in Israel and tried very hard to keep the Law and meet other requirements including allegiance to Israel, following Hebrew personal and social customs, circumcision, prayer, synagogue attendance, and Sabbath observance.  They were more accepted by the Jews than others, but not as full members of the Jewish community.  Other Gentiles abandoned polytheism and came to Judaism, which is monotheistic.  They took on some of the characteristics of Judaism but not all, and were known as God-fearers.  These were also more likely to be favorably viewed than Gentiles as a whole.

The most important lesson for Christians is that God chooses His people not because of who we are, but because of who He is.  We are sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of Christ, and yet we should never take pride in this.  Rather we should be thankful that Almighty God chose us, and spread the word as far and fast as possible.   He wants to choose every man and woman that He has created, but they must choose Him (John 3:16).  Trust, obedience, joy and love are the marks of child of God, not vanity.

The Messiah, Who Did the Jews Expect Him to Be?

“Messiah”, “Anointed One” and “Christ” are some of the most common names used by Christians (“Christ followers”).  We understand that Jesus (the) Christ is the anointed Son of God, Creator, and Lord of the Universe who came to earth once to suffer, die and be raised again to save us from our sins.  One day He will come again to establish His perfect kingdom in the Universe.  We see Him as a suffering servant, and a conquering hero.  Given the full text of the Bible and our knowledge of what Jesus actually did, this is entirely reasonable.  But the picture of the Messiah was far different to Jews in the first century.

Like America in 2011, Palestine in the first century AD was a diverse place, with Jews, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Africans, and a host of others.  Religions were aplenty, especially in Galilee, Samaria and Perea, and political intrigue and violence was the norm.  Many Jews longed for a return to the glorious days of King David, when Israel was the greatest power in the Near East.  They also chafed under Roman domination, oppressive taxes, and the rule of an outsider, Herod.  Spiritually, the Jews had been bereft of the prophetic voice of God for 400 years, and they hoped for another prophet to show the way.

The term “Messiah” or “Anointed One” could refer to anyone who held office.  Cyrus the Persian who allowed the Jews to return home after the Babylonian exile was called “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1-3).

The Messiah had been foretold throughout the Old Testament (OT), with the first hint of him coming in Genesis 3:15.  Several times throughout OT scriptures, especially in Psalms and Isaiah, we hear of God’s direct intervention in the lives of His people, Israel, the coming of the Messiah.  The people waited confidently.  But what they waited for differed significantly from person to person.   The Messiah was thought to be a man, but had characteristics of God (“free from sin”).  Messianic teachings were primarily eschatological, referring to the “last things”.  Hence the Sadducees didn’t believe them at all.

Many felt the Messiah would hail from David’s line, the tribe of Judah, and be a conquering king.  Some wanted a religiously oriented Messiah from the tribe of Levi.  The Maccabees, heros of the Intertestamental Period, with their Levitic heritage, favored a Levitical priest.

The title “Son of Man” was another favorite of New Testament Jews, emphasizing the humanity of the Messiah.  Another title is “the servant of the Lord”, focusing on his tireless services to God the Father through others.  A “prophet like Moses” emphasized His prophetic duties, and “Elijah” was seen as either the Messiah or a forerunner.  Jesus proved his messiahship through his acts, as He told the party of John’s disciples after John had been thrown into prison.

The term “Christ” is the most closely related to Christianity, so much so that it is used as a de facto name for Jesus.  As such, it is the most meaningful of His titles to many Christians, and probably would be so to the majority of non-Christians who were at least a little familiar with Him.  Because of linguistic clarity, “anointed one” would probably best communicate Jesus’ role to an English speaking audience, and Messiah to a Hebrew speaking one.

First century Jews generally expected a conquering Messiah; a perfectly reasonable expectation given the preponderance of OT prophecies.  However, there were strong suggestions of priestly duties and even suffering for the Messiah in the Psalms and Prophets.  Jesus Christ suffered and died, but then conquered the greatest enemy of all…Death.  Today He is our Priest before the Father and someday will return to earth as Lord.

The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

“Building a fence” around the Law deserves special mention.  The Jews had been punished for breaking the Law of Moses, and so building a fence meant generating laws (the Oral tradition) to prevent their countryman from violating the written Law of God.  For example, the Torah instructs God’s people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Pharisaical laws prohibited walking more than 1200 yards, starting a fire, or lifting too much weight.  Their hope was that if they did not violate the oral tradition, they could not violate God’s law.  Over time, the Pharisees came to value the oral tradition as much as the original written law.  They were active in ceremony in the synagogues and to a lesser extent the Temple, and their piety and religious focus made them popular among the people.  They were not as political as the Sadducees.  Two major schools of thought include the slightly more permissive Hillel and the slightly more conservative Shammai.  The Pharisees were neither strongly for nor strongly against the Romans, with some members encouraging rebellion and others’ submission.  They believed in eschatology, including angels, the resurrection, and the dual nature of man (body and soul) (Acts 23:8).

Jesus’ primary contention with the Pharisees was twofold.  First, their scrupulous adherence to the Oral Tradition often made them proud of their conduct and their spiritual state.  Pharisees too commonly looked down on others.  Second, in striving to keep every law, they completely missed the purpose of the Law.  God wanted justice, mercy, and humility from His people (Micah 6:8), manifest by obedience and love, not some slavish adherence to a list of misunderstood laws and rote performance of a ceremony (1 Samuel 15:22).

Pharisees are negatively portrayed in the New Testament on the whole, but some Pharisees supported Jesus and seemed generally righteous men.   After Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion crushed in AD 70, the Sadducees vanished and the Pharisaic tradition evolved into Judaism today.

The Sadducees were Hellenists and Roman supporters.  They controlled the Temple and were and affluent and politically connected.  These men held only the Torah as authoritative and so did not believe in angels or an afterlife.  Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood during the time of Christ, and Annas and Caiaphas both served in that role.  They were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, but were not popular with the common people as the Pharisees were, so the ruling council of Judea, the San Hedrin, contained both groups.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but were extremely strict followers of the Law.  They were ascetic, monastic, and celibate.  The settlement at Qumran belonged to an Essene group.   Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no women living at Qumran, although some skeletons of women and children have been found.

The Pharisees’ theology, accepting the entire Old Testament including eschatology, is much more in line with the whole Bible than the Sadducees’ or the Essenes’ theology.   The danger into which the Pharisees’ fell (and the Galatians) is to abandon grace.   The Law is good but it is not the main thing in Christianity.  The main thing for each one of us is our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Daily Life in First Century Israel and the Roman Empire

One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible as a 21st century American Christian is the vast chasm of language, culture, and geography that separates us from people of the Bible times.  Even considering only first century Palestine, the differences are enormous.  Nonetheless, the better we understand them, the better we will understand Him, and so studying daily life in that era is vital.

New Testament Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society.  Lacking good ports, it could not be a maritime power and benefit from high levels of seaborne trade, but being on the Europe-Asia-Africa land bridge, Israel did benefit from overland trade.   Lacking natural resources such as iron, gold and precious stones, it could not make large amounts in exports.  So the average Jew was a farmer, holding a small plot of land and obeying the timeless rhythms of the seasons and the weather for his daily life.  The early Jew rose before the sun, dressed in a simple woolen or linen tunic and leather sandals, and tilled the fields for several hours before returning home for his morning meal of vegetables and bread.   His home was no more than a few rooms, with walls of stone and mud and a roof of beams/branches and mud.  After eating he returned to the fields, using hand tools and perhaps an ox.  Occasionally he went to market to buy the items needed for his farm and family.  After his toil, the New Testament Jew would return home to his wife and children for an evening meal, a little teaching of the Scriptures and perhaps singing and dancing, and an early bedtime.  The man’s neighbors in the same village, or perhaps even sharing the same courtyard, had similar schedules.  Taxes were exorbitant, up to 50% of a farmer’s salary, and the cause of financial destitution in many and brigandry in some.

A Jewish man’s wife, meanwhile, prepared meals, made and washed clothing, kept house, and cared for children.  Women usually became pregnant shortly after marriage, and midwives and women in the village helped with the delivery, rubbing the newborn with salt and wrapping him tightly in cloths.  Babies were breastfed, and weaned after 18 months to 3 years.  Maternal and neonatal mortality were high.

Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, was a feast to be enjoyed by family, friends and neighbors alike.  Also on the Sabbath, most of the community went to the synagogue for reading of the scriptures, prayer and a sermon.  Travel was by foot or donkey over land, and by rowed or sailing boats over water.

As the sons in the family reached 13, they entered adolescence and learned a craft.  Daughters continued their domestic work and at 12 entered adolescence and were eligible to marry.   Marriages were usually arranged, and the prospective groom brought a bride price in accordance with her father’s wealth and social standing to make up for his loss of a worker in his house.  After the contract was signed, the couple was betrothed, but consummating the marriage waited until the first night of the wedding feast, which lasted 7 days.  Afterwards, the bride moved in to her husband’s house, collocated with his family.

When someone died, family members would mourn the deceased, and professional mourners, usually women, joined the procession.  Palestine is a hot, dry, country, and lacked refrigeration, so bodies were buried as soon as possible after death.  Much of Israel is covered by hills and mountains with plentiful caves, and these caves were used to bury the dead, covered by a large stone to discourage entry.  Family members went back after three days to ensure that the person was actually dead, since mistakes sometimes occurred.  On the first anniversary of a death, the family might return to the cave to take the bones, put them in an ossuary, and place the ossuary back into the grave.  This allowed one cave to serve many people in a family.

Not everyone in Judea farmed.  Others were merchants, religious and business leaders, country landowners with large estates, artisans such as carpenters, and professionals such as physicians.  Gentiles were plentiful in Galilee.  These groups had different lifestyles and living conditions, but most were united, more or less, by a common faith.

Rome, by contrast, was a Greek-cultured, urban center with a great location for maritime trade.  Houses were also centered around a courtyard, but houses sometimes had plumbing (often lead) and other luxuries.  Slaves were much more common in Rome, and not only domestic help and agricultural labor but even teachers, administrators and physicians could be slaves.  Religion was pluralistic, with worship of renamed Greek gods, the Emperor, and various mystery cults comingling in the city.  Streets were paved and roads carried armies and trade all over the empire.  The Mediterranean was a Roman lake, dominated by the Imperial navy.  Entertainment in Rome included mortal combat between gladiators, races, and all manner of other public games. All of these factors made Rome far different than Judea, and even different than urban Jerusalem.

Though thousands of years have passed, much about 21st century American life is the same as life in Ancient Judea, Rome, and everywhere else at every other time in history.  People are born, grow, learn, marry, reproduce, contribute to society, and die.  We are a diverse country in race, lifestyles, religion, and in many other ways, similar to Rome and to a lesser extent, Galilee.  By understanding Judea, Galilee and Rome, modern Christians can better understand the Bible which they hold dear.