Timekeeping in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East

Students of antiquity stumble over important questions. To accept any ancient work such as the Bible as a valid historical document we must understand the basics of daily life in the Bible. It is unfortunate, or exciting depending upon your point of view, that the Bible encompasses over 2,000 years, thousands of square miles and dozens of cultures. Simple questions abound such as “what time of day was Jesus crucified?” While this article will not provide a definitive answer, it will shed light on the question.

Israel

Time was divided into days, weeks, months and years during the Israelite monarchy. During and after the Babylonian exile the Jews adopted the Babylonian system of dividing the daylight period into hours.

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The Sanhedrin

No study of the New Testament is complete without a study of the government of Palestine in the first century AD, and no study of the government of Palestine in that period is complete without a study of the Sanhedrin. The term Sanhedrin is derived from the Greek phrase for “gathering place” and is not found in Jewish history prior to the periods of Greek domination under Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.

History

Though the term came late in Biblical history, the idea of a Hebrew or Jewish ruling council came early. In the time of the Exodus (around 1400 BC), God told Moses to bring together 70 elders of Israel to receive His spirit and lead the people (Numbers 11:16). During the reign of Jehoshaphat in Judah, the king assembled priests and heads of families to discern and convey the judgment of the Lord and to handle controversies (2 Chronicles 19:8).  After the exile (during the Persian period), Ezra (5:5, 6:7, 10:8) and Nehemiah (2:16, 5:7, 7:5) made extensive use of ruling councils to legislate and judge.

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The Intertestamental Period – Where Do We Get Our Knowledge?

Knowledge is very important in all fields, but derives from different sources. One can know science by observation and experimentation since physical phenomena are perceivable by the senses and repeatable. Historical events, however, are not repeatable and so persons of later eras must rely on written records and on artifacts from earlier eras if they wish to understand them. The best understanding usually comes from a combination of sources.

The first major source of information about the intertestamental period is the Bible. Culture doesn’t change overnight, and so many of the lifestyles and opinions found in the late Old Testament persisted until and even through the intertestamental period. Lifestyles and practices we find in the New Testament are likely to be similar to those preceding it, especially in an age when change was far slower than in modern times. One can trace the postexilic reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah to the teachings of the Hasidim and then to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

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