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Background to the New Testament #5





     IT may be safely asserted, that the grand distinction, which
divided all mankind into Jews and Gentiles, was not only
religious, but also social. However near the cities of the
heathen to those of Israel, however frequent and close the
intercourse between the two parties, no one could have entered a
Jewish town or village without feeling, so to speak, in quite
another world. The aspect of the streets, the building and
arrangement of the houses, the municipal and religious rule, the
manners and customs of the people, their habits and ways - above
all, the family life, stood in marked contrast to what would be
seen elsewhere. On every side there was evidence that religion
here was not merely creed, nor a set of observances, but that it
pervaded every relationship, and dominated every phase of life.
Let us imagine a real Jewish town or village. There were many
such, for Palestine had at all times a far larger number of towns
and villages than might have been expected from its size, or from
the general agricultural pursuits of its inhabitants.  Even at
the time of its first occupation of Joshua we find somewhere
about six hundred towns - if we may judge by the Levitical
cities, of about an average circumference of two thousand cubits
on each side, and with probably an average population of from two
to three thousand. 1  But the number of towns and villages, as
well as their populousness, greatly increased in later times.    
Thus Josephus (Life, 45) spcaks of not fewer than two hundred and
forty townships in Galilee alone in his days. This progress was,
no doubt, due not only to the rapid development of society, but
also to the love of building that characterised Herod and his
family, and to which so many fortresses, palaces, temples, and
towns owed their origin. Alike the New Testament, Josephus, and
the Rabbis give us three names, which may be rendered by
villages, townships, and towns - the latter being surrounded by
walls, and again distinguished into those fortified already at
the time of Joshua, and those of later date. A township might be
either "great," if it had its synagogue, or small, if it wanted
such; this being dependent on the residence of at least ten men,
who could always be reckoned upon to form a quorum for the
worship of the synagogue (the so-called Batlanin 2); for service
could not be celebrated with any less number of males. The
villages had no synagogue; but their inhabitants were supposed to
go to the nearest township for market on the Monday and Thursday
of every week, when service was held for them, and the local
Sanhedrim also sat (Megill. i. 1-3). A very curious law provided
(Cheth. i io), that a man could not oblige his wife to follow him
if he moved either from a township to a town, or the reverse.    
The reason of the former provision was, that in a town people
lived together, and


1 Saalschiitz, Archaol. d. Hebr. ii. pp.250,251.
2 From "betal," to cease - as the glossary to Baba B. 82 a
explains: men without reproach, who gave up their work to give
themselves wholly to the work of the synagogue. Such had a claim
to support from the synagogue revenues.


the houses were close to each other; hence there was a want of
fresh, free air, and of gardens, which were enjoyed in townships.
On the other hand, a woman might object to exchange residence in
a town for one in a township, because in a town everything was to
be got, and people met in the streets and market-place from all
the neighbourhood.
     Statements like these will give some idea of the difference
between town and country life. Let us first think of the former. 


     Approaching one of the ancient fortified towns, one would
come to a low wall that protected a ditch. Crossing this moat,
one would be at the city wall proper, and enter through a massive
gate, often covered with iron, and secured by strong bars and
bolts. Above the gate rose the watch tower.  "Within the gate"
was  the  shady or sheltered retreat where "the eiders" sat.     
Here grave citizens discussed public affairs or the news of the
day, or transacted important business.  The gates opened upon
large squares, on which the various streets converged. Here
was  the  busy scene of intercourse and trade. The country-people
stood or moved about, hawking the produce of field, and dairy;
the foreign merchant or pedlar exposed his wares, recommending
the newest fashions from Rome or Alexandria, the latest luxuries
from the far East, or the art produce of the goldsmith and the
modeller at Jerusalem,  while among them moved the crowd, idle or
busy chattering, chaffing, goodhumoured, and bandying witticisms.
Now they give way respectfully before a Pharisee; or their
conversation is hushed by the weird appearance of an Essene or of
some sectary - political or religious, while low, muttered curses
attend the stealthy steps of the publican, whose restless eyes
wander around to watch that nothing escape the close meshes of
the tax-gatherer's net.  These streets are all named, mostly
after the trades or guilds which have there their bazaars.  For a
guild always keeps together, whether in street or synagogue. In
Alexandria the different trades sat in the synagogue arranged
into guilds; and St.Paul could have no difficulty in meeting in
the bazaar of his trade with the like-minded Aquila and Priscilla
(Acts xviii. 2,3), with whom to find a lodging. In these bazaars
many of the workmen sat outside their shops, and, in the interval
of labour, exchanged greetings or banter with the passers-by.    
     For all Israel are brethren, and there is a sort of
freemasonry even in the Jewish mode of salutation, which always
embodied either an acknowledgment of the God of Israel, or a
brotherly wish of peace. Excitable, impulsive, quick,
sharp-witted, imaginative; fond of parable, pithy sayings, acute
distinctions, or pungent wit; reverent towards God and man,
respectful in the presence of age, enthusiastic of learning and
of superior mental endowments, most delicately sensitive in
regard to the feelings of others; zealous, with intensely warm
Eastern natures, ready to have each prejudice aroused, hasty and
violent in passion, but quickly assuaged - such is the motley
throng around. And now, perhaps, the voice of a Rabbi, teaching
in some shady retreat - although latterly Jewish pride of
learning forbade the profanation of lore by popularising it for
the "unlearned " - or, better far, at one time the presence of
the Master, gathers and keeps them spell-bound, forgetful alike
of the cravings of hunger and of the lapse of time, till, the
short Eastern day ended, the stars shining out on the deep blue
sky must have reminded many among them of the promise to their
father Abraham, now fulfilled in One greater than Abraham.

     Back to the town in the cool of even to listen to the
delicious murmur of well or fountain, as those crowd around it
who have not cisterns in their own houses. The watchman is on the
top of the tower above the gateway; presently, night watchers
will patrol the streets. Nor is there absolute darkness, for it
is customary to keep a light burning all night in the house, and
the windows (unlike those of modern Eastern dwellings) open
chiefly on street and road. Those large windows are called
Tyrian, the smaller ones Egyptian. They are not filled in with
glass, but contain gratings or lattices. In the houses of the
rich the window-frames are elaborately carved, and richly inlaid.
Generally the woodwork is of the common sycamore, sometimes of
olive or cedar, and in palaces even of Indian sandal-wood.  The
entablature is more or less curiously carved and ornamented.     
Only there must be no representation of anything in heaven or on
earth. So deep was the feeling on this point, that even the
attempt of Pilate to introduce by night into Jerusalem the
effigies of Caesar on the top of the Roman standards led to
scenes in which the Jews showed themselves willing to die for
their convictions (Jos. Ant. xviii. 3,1); while the palace of
Herod Antipas at Tiberias was burned by the mob because it was
decorated with figures of animals (Jos. Life, 12). These extreme
views, however, gave way, first, before the tolerant example of
Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, who made use of a public bath,
although adorned by a statue of Venus, since, as he put it, the
statue was intended for the embellishment of the bath, and not
the bath for the sake of the statue. If this argument reminds us
that Gamaliel was not a stranger to Christianity, the statement
of his grandson, that an idol was nothing if its worship had been
disclaimed by the heathen (Ab. Sar. 52), recalls still more
strongly the teaching of St.Paul. And so we gradually come down
to the modern orthodox doctrine, which allows the representation
of plants, animals, etc., but prohibits that of sun, moon, and
stars, except for purposes of study, while, though doubtfully, it
admits those of men and even angels, provided they be in sunken,
not in raised workmanship.


     The rule of these towns and villages was exceedingly strict.
The representatives of Rome were chiefly either military men, or
else fiscal or political agents. We have, indeed, a notice that
the Roman general Gabinius, about half a century before Christ,
divided Palestine for juridical purposes into five districts,
each presided over by a council (Jos. Ant. xiv. 5,4); but that
arrangement was only of very short duration, and even while it
lasted these councils seem to have been Jewish. Then every town
had its Sanhedrim, 1 consisting of twenty-three members if the
place numbered at least and one hundred and twenty men, or of
three, members if the population were smaller. 2  These
Sanhedrists were appointed directly by the supreme authority, or
Great Sanhedrim, "the council," at Jerusalem, which consisted of
seventy-one members. It is difficult to fix the limits of the
actual power wielded by these Sanhedrims in criminal cases. But
the smaller Sanhedrims


1 The name "Sanhedrin," or " Sunedrion," is undoubtedly of Greek
derivation, although the Rabbis have tried to paraphrase it as
"Sin" (=Sinai) "haderin," those who repeat or explain the law, or
to trace its etymology, as being "those who hate to accept the
persons of men in judgment" (the name being supposed to be
composed of the Hebrew equivalents of the words italicised).
2 An ingenious attempt has lately been made to show that the
Sanhedrim of three members was not a regular court, but only
arbitrators chosen by the parties themselves (see Schurer,
Neutest. Zeitgesch. p.403). But the argument, so far as it tries
to prove that such was always the case, seems to me not to meet
all the facts.


are referred to in such passages as Matt. v. 22, 23; x. 17; Mark
xiii. 9. Of course all ecclesiastical and, so to speak, strictly
Jewish causes, and all religious questions were within their
special cognisance. Lastly, there were also in every place what
we may call municipal authorities, under the presidency of a
mayor - the representatives of the "elders " - an institution so
frequently mentioned in Scripture, and deeply rooted in Jewish
society. Perhaps these may be referred to in Luke vii. 3, as sent
by the centurion of Capernaum to intercede for him with the Lord.
     What may be called the police and sanitary regulations were
of the strictest character. Of Caesarea, for example, we know
that there was a regular system of drainage into the sea,
apparently similar to, but more perfect than that of any modern
town (Jos. Ant. xv. 9,6). The same holds true in regard to the
Temple-buildings at Jerusalem. But in every town and village
sanitary rules were strictly attended to. Cemeteries, tanneries,
and whatever also might be special to health, had to be removed
at least fifty cubits outside a town. 1  Bakers' and dyer' shops,
or stables, were not allowed under the dwelling of another
person. Again, the line of each street had to be strictly kept in
building, nor was even a projection beyond it allowed. In general
the streets were wider than those of modern Eastern cities. The
nature of the soil, and the circumstance that so many towns were
built on hills (at least in Judaea), would, of course, be
advantageous in a sanitary point of view. It would also render
the paving of the streets less requisite. But we know that
certain towns were paved - Jerusalem with white stones (Jos. Ant.
xx. 9,7). To


1 See these and similar regulations chiefly in Mishnah (Baba B.
i. and ii. passim ).


obviate occasions of dispute, neighbours were not allowed to have
windows looking into the courts or rooms of others, nor might the
principal entrance to a shop be through a court common to two or
three dwellings.


     These brief notices may help us better to realise the
surroundings of Jewish town life. Looking up and down one of the
streets of a town in Galilee or Judaea, the houses would be seen
to differ in size and in elegance, from the small cottage, only
eight or ten yards square, to the mansions of the rich, sometimes
two or more stories high, and embellished by rows of pillars and
architectural adornments. Suppose ourselves in front of a
better-class dwelling, though not exactly that of a patrician,
for it is built of brick, or perhaps of undressed, or even of
dressed stone, but not of marble, nor yet of hewn stone; nor are
its walls painted with such delicate colours as vermilion, but
simply whitewashed, or, may be, covered with some neutral tint.  
     A wide, sometimes costly, stair leads from the outside
straight up to the flat roof, which is made to slope a little
downwards, so as to allow the rainwater easily to flow through
pipes into the cistern below. The roof is paved with brick,
stone, or other hard substance, and surrounded by a balustrade,
which, according to Jewish law, must be at least two cubits
(three feet) high, and strong enough to bear the weight of a
person. Police-regulations, conceived in the same spirit of
carefulness, prohibited open wells and pits, insufficient
ladders, rickety stairs, even dangerous dogs about a house. From
roof to roof there might be a regular communication, called by
the Rabbis "the road of the roofs" (Baba Mez. 88 b). Thus a
person could make his escape, passing from roof to roof, till at
the last house he would descend the stairs that led down its
outside, without having entered any dwelling. To this "road of
the roofs" our Lord no doubt referred in His warning to His
followers (Matt. xxiv. 17; Mark xiii. 15; Luke xvii. 31),
intended to apply to the last siege of Jerusalem: "And let him
that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter
therein." For ordinary intercourse the roof was the coolest, the
airiest, the stillest place. Of course, at times it would be used
for purposes of domestic economy. But thither a man would retire
in preference for prayer or quiet thinking; here he would watch,
and wait, and observe whether friend or foe, the gathering of the
storm, or - as the priest stationed on the pinnacle of the Temple
before the morning sacrifice - how the red and golden light of
dawn spread along the edge of the horizon. From the roof, also,
it was easy to protect oneself against enemies, or to carry on
dangerous fight with those beneath; and assuredly, if anywhere,
it was "on the housetops" where secrets might be whispered, or,
on the other hand, the most public "proclamation" of them be made
(Matt. x. 27 ; Luke xii. 3).  
     The stranger's room was generally built on the roof, in
order that, undisturbed by the household, the guest might go out
and come in; and here, at the feast of Tabernacles, for coolness
and convenience, the leafy "booths" were often reared, in which
Israel dwelt in memory of their pilgrimage.  Close by was "the
upper chamber." On the roof the family would gather for converse,
or else in the court beneath - with its trees spreading grateful
shade, and the music of its plashing fountain falling soothingly
on the ear, as you stood in the covered gallery that ran all
around, and opened on the apartments of the household.
     If the guest-chamber on the roof, which could be reached
from the outside, without passing through the house, reminds us
of Elisha and the Shunammite, and of the last Passover supper, to
which the Lord and His disciples could go, and which they could
leave, without coming in contact with any in the house, the
gallery that ran round the court under the roof recalls yet
another most solemn scene. We remember how they who bore the man
"sick of the palsy," when unable to "come nigh unto Jesus for the
press," "uncovered the roof where He was," "and let him down
through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus"
(Mark ii. 4; Luke v. i9). We know, from many Talmudical passages,
that the Rabbis resorted in preference to "the upper room" when
discussing religious questions. It may have been so is this
instance; and, unable to gain access through the door which led
into the upper room, the bearers of the sick may have broken down
the ceiling from the roof. Or, judging it more likely that the
attendant multitude thronged the court beneath, while Jesus stood
in the gallery that ran round the court and opened into the
various apartments, they might have broken down the roof above
Him, and so slowly let down their burden at His feet, and in
sight of them all. There is a significant parallelism, or rather
contrast, to this in a Rabbinical story (Hoed K. 25 a), which
relates how, when the bier on which a celebrated teacher was laid
could not be passed out at the door, they carried up their burden
and let it down from the roof - on its way, not to a new life,
but to burial. Otherwise, there was also a stair which led from
the roof into the court and house. Approaching a house, as
visitors ordinarily would do, from the street, you would either
pass through a large outer court, or else come straight to the
vestibule or porch. Here the door opened into the inner court,
which sometimes was shared by several families. A porter opened
to callers on mentioning their names, as did Rhoda to Peter on
the eventful night of his miraculous deliverance from prison
(Acts xii. 13, t4). Our Lord also applies this well-known fact of
domestic life, when He says (Rev. iii. 20), "Behold, I stand at
the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door,
I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with Me."

     Passing through this inner court, and through the gallery,
you would reach the various rooms - the family room, the
reception room, and the sleeping apartments - the most retired
being occupied by the ladies, and the inner rooms used chiefly in
winter. The furniture was much the same as that now in use,
consisting of tables, couches, chairs, candlesticks, and lamps,
varying in costliness according to the rank and wealth of the
family. Among articles of luxury we mention rich cushions for the
head and arms, ornaments, and sometimes even pictures. The doors,
which moved on hinges fastened with wooden pins, were barred by
wooden bolts, which could be withdrawn by check keys from the
outside. The dining apartment was generally spacious, and
sometimes employed for meetings.


     We have been describing the arrangements and the appearance
of towns and dwellings in Palestine. But it is not any of these
outward things which gives a real picture of a Jewish home.
Within, everything was quite peculiar. At the outset, the rite of
circumcision separated the Jew from the nations around, and
dedicated him to God. Private prayer, morning and evening,
hallowed daily life, and family religion pervaded the home. 
Before every meal they washed and prayed; after it they "gave
thanks."  Besides, there were what may be designated as specially
family feasts. The return of the Sabbath sanctified the week of
labour. It was to be welcomed as a king, or with songs as a
bridegroom; and each household observed it as a season of sacred
rest and of joy. True, Rabbinism made all this a matter of mere
externalism, converting it into an unbearable burden, by endless
injunctions of what constituted work and of that which was
supposed to produce joy, thereby utterly changing its sacred
character. Still, the fundamental idea remained, like a broken
pillar that shows where the palace had stood, and what had been
its noble proportions. As the head of the house returned on the
Sabbath-eve from the synagogue to his home, he found it festively
adorned, the Sabbath lamp brightly burning, and the table spread
with the richest each household could afford. But first he
blessed each child with the blessing of Israel. And next evening,
when the Sabbath light faded out, he made solemn "separation"
between the hallowed day and the working week, and so commenced
his labour once more in the name of the Lord. Nor were the
stranger, the poor, the widow, or the fatherless forgotten. How
fully they were provided for, how each shared in what was to be
considered not a burden but a privilege, and with what delicacy
relief was administered - for all Israel were brethren, and
fellowcitizens of their Jerusalem-those know best who have
closely studied Jewish life, its ordinances and practices. 1
But this also is rather a sketch of religious than of family
life. At the outset, we should here say, that even the


1 The reader must remember that these are but "sketches." A full
elaboration of all these subjects, in their various bearings,
must be reserved for a larger work.



     Hebrew name for "woman," given her at her creation (Gen. ii.
23), marked a wife as the companion of her husband, and his equal
("Ishah," a woman, from "Ish," a man). But it is when we consider
the relations between man and wife, children and parents, the
young and the aged, that the vast difference between Judaism and
heathenism so strikingly appears. Even the relationship in which
God presented Himself to His people, as their Father, would give
peculiar strength and sacredness to the bond which connected
earthly parents with their offspring. Here it should be borne in
mind that, so to speak, the whole purpose of Israel as a nation,
with a view to the appearance of the Messiah from among them,
made it to each household a matter of deepest interest that no
light in Israel should be extinguished through want of
succession. Hence, such an expression as (Jer. xxii. 10), "Weep
sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more," was
applied to those who died childless (Hoed K. 27). Similarly, it
was said that he who had no child was like one dead. Proverbial
expressions in regard to the "parental relation" occur in
Rabbinical writings, which in their higher application remind us
that the New Testament writers were Jews. If, in the impassioned
strain of happy assurance concerning our Christian safety, we are
told (Rom. viii. 33): "Who shall lay anything to the charge of
God's elect? It is God that justifieth," we may believe that
St.Paul was familiar with a saying like this: "Shall a father
bear witness against his son?" (Abod S. 3). The somewhat similar
question, "Is there a father who hateth his own son?" may recall
to our minds the comfort which the Epistle to the Hebrews
ministers to those who are in suffering (Heb. xii. 7), "If ye
endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what
son is he whom the father chasteneth not?"


     Speaking of the relation between parents and children, it
may be safely asserted, that no  crime was more severely
reprobated than any breach of the fifth commandment. The Talmud,
with its usual punctiliousness, enters into details, when it lays
down as a rule that "a son is bound to feed his father, to give
him drink, to clothe him, to protect him, to lead him in, and to
conduct him out, and to wash his face, his hands, and his feet;"
to which the Jerusalem Gemara adds, that a son is even bound to
beg for his father, although here also Rabbinism would give
preference to a spiritual before a natural parent, or rather to
one who teaches the law before a father! The general state of
Jewish society shows us parents as fondly watching over their
children, and children as requiting their care by bearing with
the foibles, and even the trials, arising from the caprices of
old age and infirmity. Such things as undutifulness, or want of
loving consideration for parents, would, have wakened a thrill of
horror in Jewish society for crimes against parents, which the
law of God visited with the utmost penalty, they seem happily to
have been almost unknown. 

***The Rabbinical ordinances, however, also specified the
obligation of parents, and limited their power. Thus a son was
considered independent whenever he could gain his own living;
and, although a daughter remained in the power of her father till
marriage, she could not, after she was of age, be given away
without her own express and free consent***

     A father might chastise his children, but only while young,
and even then not to such extent as to destroy self-respect. But
to beat a grown-up son was forbidden on pain of excommunication;
and the apostolic injunction (Eph. vi. 4), "Fathers,   provoke
not your children to wrath," finds almost its literal counterpart
in the Talmud (Moed K: 17 a). Properly speaking, indeed, the
Jewish law limited the absolute obligation of a father 1  to
feed, clothe, and house his child to his sixth year, after which
he could only be admonished to it as one of the duties of love,
but not legally constrained (Chethub. 49 b; 65 b). 

     In case of separation of the parents, the mother had charge
of the daughers, the father of the sons; but the latter also
might be intrusted to the mother, if the judges considered it for
the advantage of the children.

     A few notices as to the reverence due to age will
appropriately close this brief sketch of Jewish home life. 

     It was a beautiful thought - however some may doubt its
exegetical correctness - that just as the pieces of the broken
tables of the law were kept in the ark, so old age should be
venerated and cherished, even though it should be broken in mind
or memory (Ber. 8 b). Assuredly, Rabbinism went to the utmost
verge in this matter when it recommended reverence for age, even
though it were in the case of one ignorant of the law, or of a
Gentile. There were, however, diverging opinions on this point.  
The passage, Lev. xix. 32, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary
head, and honour the face of the old man," was explained to refer
only to sages, who alone were to be regarded as old. If R.Jose
compared such as learned of young men to those who ate unripe
grapes and drank of new wine, R.Jehudah taught, "Look not at the
bottles, but at what they contain. There are new bottles full of
old wine, and old bottles which contain not even new wine" (Ab.
iv. 20).  Again, if in Deut. xiii. 1,2, and also, 


1 A mother was free from such legal obligation.


xviii. 21,22, the people were directed to test a prophet by the
signs which he showed - a misapplication of which was made by the
Jews, when they asked Christ what sign He showed unto them (John
ii. 18; vi. 30) - while in Deut. xvii. 10 they were told simply
"to do according to all that they of that place inform thee," it
was asked, What, then, is the difference between an old man and a
prophet? To this the reply was: A prophet is like an ambassador,
whom you believe in consequence of his royal credentials;but     
an ancient is one whose word you receive without requiring such
evidence. And it was strictly enjoined that proper outward marks
of respect should be shown to old age, such as to rise in the
presence of older men, not to occupy their seats, to answer them
modestly, and to assign to them the uppermost places at feasts.

     After having thus marked how strictly Rabbinism watched over
the mutual duties of parents and children, it will be instructive
to note how at the same time traditionalism, in its worship of
the letter, really destroyed the spirit of the Divine law. An
instance will here suffice; and that which we select has the
double advantage of illustrating an otherwise difficult allusion
in the New Testament, and of exhibiting the real characteristics
of traditionalism.  

     No commandment could be more plainly in accordance, alike
with the spirit and the letter of the law, than this: "He that
curseth father or mother, let him die the death." Yet our Lord
distinctly charges traditionalism with "transgressing" it (Matt.
xv. 4-6). The following quotation from the Mishnah (Sank. vii. 8)
curiously illustrates the justice of His accusation: "He that
curseth his father or his mother is not guilty, unless he curses
them with express mention of the name of Jehovah." In any other
case the sages declare him absolved! And this is by no means a
solitary instance of Rabbinical perversion. Indeed, the moral
systems of the synagogue leave the same sad impression on the
mind as its doctrinal teaching. They are all elaborate chains of
casuistry, of which no truer description could be given than in
the words of the Saviour (Matt. xv. 6): "Ye have made the
commandment of God of none effect by your tradition."


To be continued

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