Life in New Testament Time
Many years ago there were trails leading into the land of Israel. They came from the north bringing goods from Northern Europe and Asia, from Egypt in the south bringing goods from Africa and by sea from Western Europe. Traders used these trails to travel from one place to another. They came mostly on camels and bought and sold goods along the way. The trails went through Israel but that, of course, means that they also met in Israel. So Israel became the centre of world trade. Jesus was born there. All things that happened in Bible time seemed to say: Israel is a special land.
Places of worship
The beautiful temple stood in the city of Jerusalem. It was the centre of worship for the Jews. Herod had re-built the temple not long before Jesus was born. The temple was on a hill so that 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 had a smaller meeting place called a synagogue. The leader of the synagogue had special knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish laws, so that he could teach the people.
The inside of a synagogue looked like some of our churches. The people sat on benches while the leader sat 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. Some one would lead in prayers. After that the leader might ask someone to read from the Biblical Scrolls, and any member 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 the most important thing.
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 could keep the Sabbath day holy. Then the people forgot that God gave them 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 or do work. They could not carry anything from one place to another.
An example of the extra rules added to scripture: If a chicken laid a egg on the Sabbath, they were not supposed to eat that egg because the hen had worked on the Sabbath to lay it.
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 all the rich business men were all Sadducees. They were against any new group that tried to change Jewish life. That is why they were against Jesus and his disciples. The Sadducees also turned away from many of the teachings of the Pharisees and did not believe in angels or demons. They only kept the laws of Moses.
Seventy of the most important Pharisees and Sadducees made up the Jewish high court, called the SANHEDRIN. The high priest led the court. The Romans let the Sanhedrin continue to rule on matters affecting Jewish religious life, but the court did not have the power to put any one to death. If the Sanhedrin thought someone should die, they had to refer the case to the Roman Courts.
The Roman Empire
Rome had begun to grow larger and larger before Christ was born. Wars were fought and many new lands were added to the Roman Empire. The empire grew to include Spain, Germany, North Africa, Asia Minor, Syria and Israel.
Many good things happened because of Roman rule. For long periods there was peace among all the different countries of the empire. The Romans set up good local government everywhere. They built roads for safe and easy travel. Many of the people were able to speak the common language, Greek.
The Romans did not realise that all these features would help the gospel to spread widely. Jesus’ disciples were able to travel to far away lands because of the peace and the good roads. The Greek language could bring the good news to many people in many areas.
The Jews hated the Romans. They believed the Romans had no right to take their country, and resented the soldiers who lived there. They particularly hated having their money taken in taxes.
The Jews were looking for their Messiah who would be their king and free them from the Romans.
The Jews detested the tax collectors even more than the Romans. They were Jews who were working for Rome. Many were not honest and took more money than they were supposed to collect. Thus they cheated their own people to help the enemy.
However, Jesus talked and ate with tax collectors. Matthew was a tax collector and so was Zacchaeus. Both became followers of Jesus.
Life in New Testament times was very different from life today. It was a simple life and people did not have extras. In fact, many had just enough to live. People worked hard and children had to share in the work.
Houses were of mud bricks that were hardened by being laid out in the sun. Sometimes the front part of the house had no roof and was like a small yard. Behind was a living room with small bedrooms at the back. The floor of the house was hard and smooth clay. Builders made the roof of heavy wooden beams with boards laid across them. The boards were covered with a mixture of mud and straw. This flat roof was a place to work or to sit, and sometimes on hot nights people slept on the roof. Usually a ladder, sometimes steps, led up to the roof.
Most homes had very little furniture: some wooden stools, a low wooden table and some sleeping mats. There was a place for a 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, mats or clothes.
The people ate foods like milk, cheese, grapes, figs, olives, honey, 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 with bread as the main part. There was a large meal of the day in the evening with bread, fish, fruit and vegetables. The common people only ate meat on very special days.
The clothing of New Testament was simple. Besides under clothing the people wore robes with a belt tied around the waist. Over the robe, a cape was often worn. Children usually had shorter knee length clothing, sometimes with a kind of pullover shirt. Women decorated their clothes with brightly coloured sewing. Sandals were worn without socks, so that feet became dusty from walking on dirt roads. Feet were washed often.
People did many different kinds of work, some were farmers, builders and makers of pottery, others were bakers, doctors and teachers. There were watchmen in every city, scribes who wrote letters and copied the laws and books of the Bible. There were workers in leather and metal. Jesus’ father was a carpenter and Jesus knew about herding sheep. Peter, James and John were fishermen, Matthew a tax collector.
Women worked hard at home; the first thing they would do in the morning was to bake bread for the day. They would grind the grain into flour, make dough and shape the dough into loaves before baking. The women also had to carry water from the well and get wood for the fire. They did all the family spinning and weaving. Children were expected to share in the work, girls helping with the household chores. Boys helped their fathers and were expected to follow in the same trade.
Parents taught their children Bible verses when still very young. They learned verses from the law and stories from the Old Testament. When boys were six years old, they went to school where readers at the synagogue taught them. For the first four years they studied mostly the first five books of the Bible. They also learned how to write and read Hebrew. For the next seven years they studied the other books of the Bible and other Jewish writings.
When a boy reached the age of twelve or thirteen, he was considered to be a man. The boy and his family celebrated with a special ceremony and 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 and write. By adolescence, most girls were married.
The time of the New Testament was the best time in history for Jesus to come. People were waiting and looking for him. The roads, common language and other characteristics of the Roman Empire made it easy for the Christian message to spread. People were eager to hear about Jesus. God had planned everything and made it ready.
Sis Monica Achieng (Musoma, Tanzania)