Where Were the Jews during the Lifetime of Jesus?

The Jewish environment Jesus grew up in had a rich variety of city folk and village dwellers, from the local neighborhood and from many foreign settlements around the Roman Empire. Was Jesus a country boy, raised in a remote village, or was he more like a modern suburbanite, with lots of exposure to urban life and culture? We usually think of him as growing up in a small village in the country, but modern archaeology shows that he was hardly isolated from the cultural currents of the times.

City Folk and Country Folk

Until recently we have thought that urban and rural Jews in Israel in the first century had very different lifestyles. City folk have been seen as relatively affluent middle class, trading and working together with Gentiles. Country folk living in villages were seen as isolated, ignorant and poor. Archeological evidence, particularly from the city of Sepphoris in Galilee, has turned this around.

Sepphoris was a Roman city about five miles north of Nazareth. It had been destroyed during one of Herod the Great’s wars, but it was rebuilt by his son and successor, Herod Antipas, while Jesus was growing up. Antipas wanted the city to be a showplace for the best of Roman culture, and Josephus described it as the “ornament of all Galilee” and the “strongest city in Galilee.” As a carpenter, Joseph of Nazareth would most likely have found work in the rebuilding, and his son and apprentice in the family business might easily have worked there as well.

The city streets of Sepphoris were paved with crushed limestone, and a mix of elegant mansions and ordinary homes dotted the blocks. Many of those who lived in the city were Jewish, and their houses had ritual baths (miqvaoth) built into the rock of their foundations. There is evidence that city dwellers included the working farmers of the surrounding land as well as the richer landowners, crafts people, and government officials. A theater was built into the nearby hillside to provide the entertainments expected in a sophisticated city.

Sepphoris had upper and lower markets where wheat and barley, breads, figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes, wine, fresh fish, greens, onions, and other foods were offered, along with cattle, sheep, and goat products. One could also buy many of the items available in a modern mall—clothing, fabrics, furniture, ceramic pots and pans, glass bottles and beakers, metal objects, baskets, jewelry, and perfumes. Residents had access to local products as well as those arriving along the busy trade routes of the empire. The markets also provided a center for informal communication, which then traveled throughout the entire area.

Outside of the city, Jews of all socio-economic levels were exposed to Hellenistic influences, and the effective trade network shared produce across the area. For example, pottery created in the village of Kefar Hananya, within ten miles of Sepphoris has been found around Galilee and even on the Golan Heights. The active commerce made it possible for village dwellers to be as well-informed as city dwellers. Itinerant peddlers traveled the villages and towns, sharing news as well as the pottery and clothing which were their wares.

At Home away from Palestine

Even in the early first century, Jewish communities were scattered across the Roman Empire, from Egypt and Babylon, through Asia and Greece, and even in the imperial city itself. Jews tended to live in groups in urban environments, and they spoke the Greek of the empire. The Hebrew scriptures had been translated into common Greek in the middle of the third century BCE, and so it was possible to be an observant Jew without knowing the Hebrew language.

Jews tended to live together, intermarry with each other, and celebrate the same Sabbaths and holidays as their neighbors. The degree of strictness in Torah observance varied in different places, but there was a general agreement that Torah was the basis for Jewish identity. Jewish religious practices were acknowledged by the Roman government, and Jews were exempt from Roman military service on the basis of their faith.

Jews scattered through the cities of the empire lived in constant tension between the requirements of the Mosaic law and the customs of the culture in which they found themselves. From the time of the exile, the words of Jeremiah guided the attitude of the people to their location:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

One was supposed to pray for the welfare of those who embodied the local culture, but the question of how much of that culture one could absorb or emulate was always relevant.

Philo, born into a Jewish family and living all his life in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, showed these tensions in his life and writing. Although he thoroughly accepted his identity as a Jew, he only traveled to the temple in Jerusalem once in his lifetime. He was committed to the Torah, but much of his philosophical writing was aimed at showing how the God of Israel and the law of Moses were compatible with the best of Greek philosophy.

Many Jews in the Diaspora traveled farther from their Jewish roots and identity than Philo did, and there were “extreme allegorists” who believed that the Mosaic law was meant to be observed symbolically rather than literally. Restrictions on sexuality and intermarriage with non-Jews were also practical issues that led some to leave their Jewish identity behind.

Nevertheless, when it was time to come together for festivals, many of these dispersed Jews came together in Jerusalem. For example, on the day of Pentecost when folks from many nations were staying in Jerusalem, the list is extensive:

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts 2:8–11)

Jerusalem was a nexus in which Jews from their many environments came together.

The environment in which Jesus lived and taught included all of this rich variety of nationalities and cultures. He was no ignorant peasant, growing up isolated from the momentous events going on around him. He grew up strong and filled with wisdom, learning from and interacting with this amazing texture of peoples and cultures.

2 thoughts on “Where Were the Jews during the Lifetime of Jesus?

  1. Do you have any information on how many Jews lived in each area–in the Jerusalem-Galilee area and in Babylon, Alexandria, Italy (Rome) or other places in Asia or Africa? I’ve read estimates for the total number of Jews in Jesus’ time from 2 to 5 million–approximately 10% of the total population. Does that jive with what you’ve read?

    1. I do not have any statistics about the populations of Jews who remained dispersed after the exile, although anecdotal evidence from Paul shows a widely dispersed Jewish presence. I had also heard, although I don’t remember the source, that Jews had a conscientious objector status to avoid service in the Roman army. The Romans were great bureaucrats, and there may be some indication in the army records of how many Jews were excused.

Leave a Comment or Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your contact information will not be shared with anyone.