Exploring the World of Jesus
Although many Christians view Jesus’ life and message as one for all places and all times, he was also a real man who lived and preached in actual towns and cities of the first century A.D. As Christmas approaches and people around the world prepare to celebrate this important holiday, we here at BAR thought it would be fitting to look more closely at the environment and traditions that helped shape Jesus’ life and teachings. At the Explorations in Antiquity Center in LaGrange, Georgia, Dr. Jim Fleming and his staff have created dozens of reconstructions and replicas based on archaeological sites and finds in the Holy Land. BAR’s associate editor, Dorothy Resig, visited the museum and shares how, by walking among the museum’s displays, visitors can gain insight into the world in which Jesus lived and the symbols he used in his teachings.
Thanks to scores of Renaissance paintings, most modern readers picture a barn full of animals and a wooden manger when they read the nativity story of the Gospels. The earliest traditions, however, locate Jesus’ birth in a cave. This fits with the ancient practice of building a rock-cut cave or extra room for household storage and the feeding of animals, perhaps within a stable or sheepfold. Since the owners of the house could not provide Mary with a private room for the birth, they could at least offer her protection from the cold in a stable or rock cave that stayed insulated all year. The Antiquity Center’s manger (in the cave through the doorway) consists of hewn stone troughs that would be used to feed the animals. It is protected by a sheepfold made of field stones and thorny branches to keep away predators.
John the Baptist’s metaphor of a threshing floor would have been a very familiar image to the rural farmers and day-laborers of Judea. The first step in the threshing process was to spread out the newly harvested wheat on the ground. The grain was then broken apart from the straw and the chaff by driving a wooden sled pulled by an ox or donkey over the stalks. Sharp stones or iron teeth on the bottom of the sled, pressed down by the weight of the driver who rode on it, cut the stalks and broke open the husks. Using a fork, workers tossed the wheat into the air; the light, useless husks were blown away, but the heavier grains fell back to the ground, where they could be collected for food.
The museum purchased these traditional threshing tools (seen in the photo) from Palestinians near Nablus who had passed them down since the early 1800s.
Even before the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., synagogues had begun to spring up in towns and cities throughout the Jewish world. These were primarily community centers where Jews could gather to read and study the Torah. As a first-century Jew, Jesus read, studied and taught in the synagogues among his own people. After 70 A.D., without the Temple as a central focus, synagogues became even more important as houses of worship.
Although synagogues vary in their decoration and architecture, most featured rows of stone benches lining three of the walls, a stone “seat of Moses” and a niche for the Torah ark. This simple synagogue was reconstructed based on the typical style found in Galilee as early as the first century B.C.
Wells were a popular location for Biblical stories, including the episode between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Since water was a basic necessity of life, the village well was a convenient place to meet up with others and share news while carrying out the daily chores.
Much like today, ancient wells were built by digging down through bedrock until a level of flowing ground water was reached. A wall was often built around the opening and even covered by a flat rock to prevent children, animals and foreign objects from falling in. A clay pot or animal skin attached to a rope was used to draw up water, which was then either carried back to the house in jars or skins, or poured into the rock-hewn troughs surrounding the well to supply thirsty animals.
Water has long had ritual significance for both Jews and Christians. In the hot arid climate of Israel and Jordan, water became even more important in its scarcity. When Jesus spoke of God’s grace as abundant, gushing waters, his words would have come as welcome refreshment to his audience.
Sometimes extreme measures were taken to bring water to every village and town where it was needed. Channels cut to bring flowing water from natural sources were perfected by the ancient Romans in the style of arched aqueducts. In Jerusalem, inspired by Roman architecture, Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate each built an aqueduct to bring water into the city from springs over 10 miles away.
The force of the falling water provided by the museum’s aqueduct turns a water wheel, which in turns provides power to a grinding stone (not pictured).
Vineyards of the ancient world looked much different from those of today. Grown often on agricultural terraces built into the hillside, the vines grew along the ground and were supported on large rocks to keep the grapes off the ground and to prevent the plants from withering (seen on the uppermost level in photo).
Two grape-stomping vats are shown here, with a cellar for juice collection located underground between them (the arched opening of the cellar can be seen in the photo). Workers stood in the vats full of grapes, using the ropes hanging from overhead supports to steady themselves as they stomped the fruit. The grape juices ran out through a small opening in the bottom of the vat into the collection cellar beneath.
Stone was the most abundant, readily available building material in the Holy Land’s rocky terrain. The limestone bedrock in the region was extensively quarried to provide strong, durable blocks for various building projects. Here at the museum a stone ashlar is ready for transport from the quarry.
Jesus and his disciples lived at the end of the Second Temple period, which was a time of extensive growth and renovation. Scholars think that Jesus and his father may have worked as artisans to outfit the new structures in the growing city of Sepphoris, just a couple miles from Nazareth.
Herod the Great started numerous construction projects throughout his kingdom, in Judea and especially Jerusalem. The building of the enormous Temple Mount to house his renovated Temple continued for decades after his death. Jesus and his followers would have been virtually surrounded by quarrying and building activity.
The massive blocks (some weighing many tons) were quarried near the city and then transported to the site, where they were hoisted into place, fitting snugly together without any mortar—an impressive feat even by today’s standards.
The Gospels all describe Jesus and his disciples as reclining at table to eat the Last Supper. This had become the traditional way to eat the Passover meal because in Romany society all free men ate in a reclined position. The furnished upper room in Jerusalem probably looked a lot like this replica of a dining room, or triclinium (Latin for “three couches”), from Pompeii. Food was served on the U-shaped table while diners relaxed on cushions around three sides, lying propped up on one arm, with their heads near the center.
Several Roman sources describe the proper seating arrangement at a meal, based on rank. The host (in this case Jesus) sat on the left side, in between his “right-hand man” or assistant on his right and the guest of honor on his left. The rest of the guests were then seated from left to right in decreasing order of rank such that the lowest person sat on the far right end. The fact that Judas was sharing a cup with Jesus means that he had been seated in a place of honor next to him.
Crucifixion was a method of punishment used in the ancient Near East for hundreds of years before it was adopted by the Greeks and Romans in the first century B.C. Originally used only as a form of torture or punishment, the Romans later developed it into an execution method for non-Romans who had committed certain types of crimes, including political ones.
Roman crucifixion methods varied, but the accused was usually whipped across the back and then forced to carry the horizontal cross piece to the crucifixion site. This piece was often tied to his arms. When they reached the end of their journey, the criminal’s arms were nailed or tied to the cross piece, which was then hoisted into place on a vertical post or tree. The legs were tied or nailed to the tree, and a rudimentary seat supported the body only enough to prolong the suffering. The accused’s name and crime were written on a board that was then attached to the cross. The victim eventually succumbed to asphyxia under the weight of his own body.
There are accounts of some crucified men living for days on the cross. Jewish law forbade someone from staying on the cross overnight, however, so Roman soldiers usually broke the legs of crucified Jews after several hours to speed death and allow their families to bury them before sunset.
Only the middle and upper classes were able to afford rock-cut tombs in first-century Jerusalem. These consisted of a doorway, a central chamber, burial benches and several long niches, or loculi (kochim in Hebrew). The family would lay out the dead body on a bench for anointing and mourning and then place it in one of the niches, where it would remain for a year. A large stone slab or rolling stone was placed in front of the doorway to protect the tomb from animals and grave robbers. After the first year, when all of the flesh had decayed from the body, the bones of the deceased were collected into an ossuary (bone box), his or her name was sometimes inscribed on the side, and it was placed back into the niche. In some cases, multiple family members (including children) were buried in the same ossuary.
This tomb is a reconstruction of a decorated Herodian tomb and rolling stone from Jerusalem.
Read more about the Explorations in Antiquity Center and see additional photos in the November/December 2008 issue of BAR.
Additional Reading from the BAS Library
Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum, by James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks
God’s Vineyard, by Carey Ellen Walsh
Dinner with Jesus and Paul, by Dennis E. Smith
Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence, by Vassilios Tzaferis
What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? by Jodi Magness
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