Palestine in the Time of Jesus


Jesus came from the town of Nazareth in Galilee. This northern territory of Palestine was also his most important area of activity.

Apart from the larger towns of Sepphoris and Tiberias Galilee was a country area, and agriculture was the main occupation. The Lake of Gennesaret was famous for its fishing. Jesus is said to have found his first disciples among fishermen (Mark 1:16-29).

In the time of Jesus Galilee was surrounded by a number of Greek cities. There was also in Galilee a group of ten Greek towns - the Decapolis. The rest of the area was Jewish.


South of Galilee lived the Samaritans, a mixed population resulting from political transfers of population, whom the Jews did not consider to be real Jews.

While the Jewish Temple was situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Samaritans regarded Mt. Gerizim as sacred. They recognized as Holy Scripture only the five books of Moses, and the textual form they used was different from that in use among the Jews.


The name Judaea had two different senses. Firstly, it meant the area surrounding Jerusalem, secondly it meant the whole area inhabited by Jews, which finally became a Roman province.

The mountainous region surrounding Jerusalem is dry and bare. To the east is the Dead Sea. In the oasis area north of the Dead Sea is Jericho, which is thought to be one of the oldest towns in the world.


To the Jews Jerusalem was the centre of the world, where God dwelt in the Temple. The Jews went there on pilgrimage at least once a year. It was also the economic, administrative and cultural centre. The Roman administration of Palestine was directed from Caesarea.

The Herodian Dynasty

At the time of the birth of Jesus Palestine was ruled by the Roman vassal king Herod the Great, who was renowned for his great building projects and for his arbirtrary actions and ruthlessness, which towards the end of his rule became sheer paranoia.

After the death of Herod his dominion was divided into three parts among his sons, who continued as Roman vassals. Archelaus was given control of Judaea and the region of Perea east of the Jordan. He was, however, a bad king. In 6 A.D. the complaints of his subjects led to his being exiled by the Emperor to Gaul. At the same time Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea were united to form the province of Judaea, whose administrator was - under the imperial legate of Syria - a representative of Rome, at first a prefect, later a procurator.

Galilee was ruled by Archelaus' brother Antipas. His actions, too, caused bad blood among his subjects. For instance, John the Baptist criticized Antipas, who eventually had him executed (see Mark 6:14-29). As a result of political intrigue Antipas too was exiled to Gaul in 39 A.D.

The only one of Herod the Great's sons to be a successful ruler was Philip, who ruled from Galilee the regions of Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Batanaea and Auranitis to the south-east.


During the period 26-36 the Roman representative in Judaea was Pontius Pilate, who failed to understand the religious feelings of the Jews. This led to repeated conflicts and protests, and in suppressing them Pilate showed cruelty and a tendency to use strong measures. Pilate's career was finally interrupted as a result of complaints made to the Emperor by his subjects.

The Jewish War

After the rule of Pilate the situation in Palestine became more and more tense and finally came to a head in the revolt of 66 A.D.

At first the rebels achieved success. The battle against the technical and material supremacy of Rome was, however, hopeless from the very beginning. Jerusalem was conquered in the year 70 and its Temple was destroyed. The last pocket of resistance was the mountain fortress of Masada. It was conquered in 73 A.D.

Hellenistic Culture in Palestine
Summary; original © Pauli Huuhtanen and Nils Martola / Kirjapaja 1997.

By Hellenism is meant the interaction between Greek culture and the cultures of the Near East as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Palestine was one of the areas settled by people of Greek origin. The newcomers settled in the Phoenician cities of the Mediterranean coast and founded new Greek cities inland, whose administration, economy, legal system and official cult were based on the Greek model.

The Hellenization of Palestine was reinforced by the rule of pro-Greek kings from the 3rd century B.C. onwards and later by the Roman administration. The dynasty of Herod, who had ruled as a Roman vassal, admired Greek culture and adopted Greek manners. The ruling Jewish elite was open to Hellenism.

In spite of the influence of Hellenism the Jews never gave up their absolute monotheism. The influence of Hellenism was not equally great in all sections of the population. The rural population hardly spoke Greek at all. By contrast, in the towns even the lower classes knew at least some Greek.

What Languages were Spoken in Palestine?
Summary; original © Pauli Huuhtanen and Nils Martola / Kirjapaja 1997.

The mother tongue of Jesus was Aramaic. This Semitic language spread from the 7th century B.C. onwards as the administrative language of the Persian Empire as far as Egypt and ousted most other languages of the Near East.

In Judaea Hebrew survived alongside its close relative Aramaic as a spoken language up to the first half of the second century A.D.

It is unclear how widespread was a knowledge of Greek in Palestine in the time of Jesus. At least government was impossible without a mastery of Greek. Relations with Jews living outside Palestine also required a command of Greek, for in Egypt, for example, the Jewish population seem to have known only Greek.

The need for a knowledge of Greek in Palestine was also increased by the Greek cities of the country. Among the different social classes the command of Greek was, however, variable. The urban upper class probably had a full command of Greek, but language skills lessened as one moved to the villages.

Land-ownership concentrated in the hands of a few, and small farmers suffered

In the time of Jesus several large farms has grown up in Palestine and they restricted the livelihood of ordinary peasants. In addition, farmers suffered from heavy taxation. The impoverished rural population began to move to the towns, where economic activity, trade and craftsmanship was otherwise concentrated.

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