First Century Palestine

Extract from /ji/historical-jesus/jesus-firstcenturycontext.php

Political Setting

In the first century, Romans ruled the Mediterranean area known as Palestine (modern day Israel), where Jesus was born and lived his life. In the hierarchy of power, the Jewish self-government reported to the authority of the local Roman government (King Herod), which reported to Rome (Emperor Caesar).

Herod reigned from a northern city which he had built for himself, Tiberias - Steve

Economic Setting

The economy of first century Israel was supported by three key segments: agriculture of olives, figs, grains, dates, and vineyards; trade fostered by Israel’s key location on the Mediterranean Sea; and large government building projects sponsored by King Herod.

Cultural Setting / Daily Life

Jesus spent most of his life in and around the farming village area of Nazareth. Similar to many farming villages throughout the world, life was patterned after traditions, roles and rituals passed down from many generations beforehand.

Religious Setting

Jewish leaders fought for the purity of their belief in one God in the face of conflicting foreign religions. Yet at the same time, they fragmented into sects divided over variations of the Jewish law.

Educational Setting

For the first century Jew, religion, law, history, ethics and education were inseparable. Through both written (Torah) and oral (Mishna) law, teaching was passed from generation to generation. Rabbi's (teachers) and synagogues were highly esteemed aspects of society.




Roman Gladiators in Jerusalem at time of Christ

Due to Jewish sensibilities, there is no hard evidence of "gladiator" theatres in Jerusalem or in fact anywhere in first century Palestine. According to Josephus, a hippodrome (for chariot racing) was built by King Herod the Great when he built Caesarea around 20 BC, and was only adapted to a more conventional Roman Theatre (with gladiators, animal baiting, etc) around the start of the second century AD.


Jewish and Greek attitudes to sex and marriage at time of Christ

Extract from /ATLAS EN/html/sex and religion.html

Ancient Israel

The history, custom's, laws, and religious beliefs of ancient Israel are carefully and extensively recorded in the Bible. Thus, in most Western countries where the Bible is still widely read, the general population knows more about the Israelites than about any other ancient people. Under these circumstances, we can restrict ourselves here to a very brief sketch.

In contrast to their polytheistic neighbors, the Israelites believed in only one God, the creator and ruler of the world. He had chosen them as his people and given them his law through Moses. Therefore they felt obliged to live according to his commandments and to reject all other laws and foreign influences.

For the people of Israel the main purpose of sex was procreation. Men and women had the duty to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1; 28), and there was no greater blessing than a large family. Therefore, when God decided to reward Abraham, he told him: "I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore" (Genesis 22; 17). To many Jews sexual abstinence was not only offensive in the eyes of the Lord, but also betrayed an anti-social attitude.

Because of their great concern with fertility, the ancient Israelites regarded the male sex organs as inviolate and almost sacred. For example, when Abraham sent his servant out to seek a suitable wife for his son Isaak, he asked him to take a solemn oath. The servant then put his hand under Abraham's "thigh" (euphemism for sex organs) and swore to God that he would not lead his son to marry a Gentile (Genesis 24; 2-4). [This is similar to the ancient Roman practice of touching one's testicles while taking an oath. In fact, the very word "testicle" is the diminutive form of Latin "testis", meaning "witness" for the truth. The same word is, of course, also the root of the English verb "to testify".] The sex organs also warranted special protection. If a woman tried to help her husband in a quarrel with another man by grabbing this man's penis or testicles, she had her hand cut off (Deuteronomy 25; 11-12). Sexually mutilated men were excluded from the congregation.

Various biblical passages (among them the sexually explicit "Song of Songs") make it quite clear that the Israelites thought very highly of sexual pleasure. Sex was considered a normal part of a healthy life, and it was a virtue to enjoy it. In accordance with this view, newlywed couples were entitled to an extended honeymoon: "When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home for a year, to be happy with his wife whom he has taken" (Deuteronomy 24; 5).

On the other hand, neither men nor women were encouraged to display their nude bodies. Nudity was generally regarded as shameful and embarrassing. For instance, an adulterous woman was publicly stripped naked by her husband as an act of humiliation. Numerous customs and regulations tried to prevent even the involuntary exposure of sex organs. (In later times a Jew who exercised in a Greek gymnasium was assumed to have betrayed his faith.)

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the ancient Israelites were prudish or puritanical. In most respects their approach to sex was very positive. However, because of their strong emphasis on reproduction, coitus was the only acceptable form of sexual expression. All non-reproductive sex (including sexual self-stimulation) was considered "unnatural" because contrary to the will of God. Homosexual intercourse and sexual contact with animals were even punished by death (Leviticus 20; 13 and 15).

It is important to remember the religious basis of this sexual intolerance. At a time when the Israelites fought for their national and religious survival, they were surrounded by peoples who worshipped numerous gods and idols, and who usually made all types of sexual activity part of that worship. Indeed, we know from the Book of Kings and from the denunciations of the prophets that, at times, even the Israelites themselves had male and female prostitutes attached to the temple in Jerusalem and to various local shrines. However, for the sake of monotheistic purity, this "sacred prostitution", along with all other polytheistic customs, was eventually eliminated from the nation's life. Thus, people began to associate nonreproductive sex with idolatry and to treat it as a major religious offense.

Still, within the relatively narrow framework of marital coitus, sexual pleasure remained well recognized and was actually encouraged.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, sex was seen as an elementary life force, and thus all sexual impulses were accepted as basically good. Indeed, various gods and goddesses of fertility, beauty, and sexual pleasure were worshipped in special temples or on special occasions, often with orgiastic rites. The Greeks also believed that virtually all of their gods led vigorous and varied sex lives. Therefore they considered it only proper for mortals to follow this divine example.

The Greeks thought so little of sexual abstinence that their language did not even have a special word for chastity. Instead, they devoted themselves to what they called hedone, i.e., sensual pleasure in all its manifestations. However, the "hedonism" of ancient Greece was by no means a prescription for sexual license. Rather it was a cheerful enjoyment of life, a grateful appreciation of the human body and especially of its sexual functions. Pleasure was not divorced from reason, but always in harmony with it. The body was never punished or starved for the sake of the soul. Since the Greeks did not believe in a happy life after death, they felt obliged to live every moment on this earth to the fullest.

As youth and physical beauty were greatly admired, youthful bodies were not always covered with clothing, but often proudly exposed. Public nudity was common at many religious festivals, in civic processions, and in beauty contests. Young men exercised at the gymnasium (literally: the place where one is nude). Athletic competitions (including the original Olympic games) were held in the nude, although here women spectators were excluded. In Sparta, on the other hand, there were even nude wrestling matches between boys and girls. Nude male and female dancers entertained guests at parties and other festive gatherings. Temples, theatres, public squares, and private houses were decorated with statues and paintings of nude men and women. The sexual aspect of nudity was openly recognized. Many works of art, in fact, depicted sexual responses and sexual activity. The Greeks felt a constant yearning for beauty, and in their eyes nothing was more beautiful than a young, healthy, nude human body.

Greece was, of course, a male-dominated society, and, during its "golden age", the ideal of beauty was male. Although men usually felt obliged to marry and raise a family, they sought little romantic involvement with their wives. Their most noble sentiments and passionate feelings were reserved for homosexual relationships before and outside of marriage. Here again, they found support in their religion. Gods like Zeus and Apollo and demi-gods like Hercules were believed to have fallen in love with beautiful young men. There can be no doubt that for many Greeks these exalted models were a constant source of inspiration.

In classical Greece love and sexual desire were personified in the youthful, powerful, and unpredictable god Eros. He took possession of human beings according to his whim, and any resistance would not only have been sacrilegious, but hopeless. All forms of love were of divine origin and had to be respected. This basic belief explains why the Greeks were extremely tolerant in sexual matters and why there was no persecution of sexual "deviants". At any rate, most of our modern, more bizarre manifestations of human sexuality were virtually unknown. For instance, pain and pleasure were never associated, and thus sexual cruelty, "bondage and discipline", and other such practices had no chance to develop.

In this latter respect, Greece stood in sharp contrast to Rome where, especially in imperial days, sexual cruelty and brutality were fairly widespread. Eventually, sex among the Romans became much more crude, coarse, and vulgar than it had been among the Greeks. However, apart from certain eccentricities of the rich, even in Rome the general attitude toward sex was still quite reasonable and realistic.

However, like the Greeks, the Romans never regarded sex and procreation as inseparable, but accepted all types of sexual activity as divinely inspired and therefore good. Indeed, with the expansion of their empire into areas dominated by Greek culture the Romans directly adopted many Greek customs and beliefs. Thus, the Greek deities Eros and Aphrodite also began to be worshipped in Rome as Amor and Venus. The idealism and nobility of Greek homosexual love, on the other hand, seem to have been beyond the reach of most Romans. While homosexual relationships were considered normal and natural, they were hardly seen as superior. On the whole, the Roman approach to sex was rather direct, prosaic, and practical.

** End of article