Everyday Life in Palestine

    “Everyday Life in Palestine,” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 22

    Special Issue: The Lord in the Four Gospels

    Everyday Life in Palestine

    Have you ever wondered what life was really like among the people of Judah during the life of the Savior? In what did they live? What were their occupations? Where and how did they worship?

    These and many other questions could be asked. But the centuries have left their changes not only upon the land; they have also concealed the ruins of cities and towns once teeming with the activities of their day. Archaeological discoveries through the years have provided many clues and insights into the times of old. Ancient records, particularly, have provided helpful data in assembling a fairly accurate picture, and, of these, the New Testament, when viewed with the Mishnaic or oral interpretive tradition of the Jews, reveals a glimpse at everyday life in Jesus’ time.

    The influence of the Mosaic law was the religious foundation of the people. But apostasy had diluted its fundamental purposes through the development of “traditions.” These were largely legal determinations that had come as the result of scriptural interpretations unauthorized by God, and they dealt primarily with the law of Moses. These “traditions” were external burdens governing an individual’s daily living. The Savior condemned the Pharisees, who were the most rigorous adherents to this system, asking, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? … ye made the commandment of God of none effect. …” (Matt. 15:3, 6; see also Mark 7:3, 8–9, 13.) But the people had been greatly affected by the injunction, “Greater stringency applies to the words of the Scribes than to the words of the Law.” (Sanh. 11.3.)

    The differences between the sects that had arisen among the people were in a large measure according to the degree to which they accepted and followed the traditions of the elders. The number that belonged to the various sects was small. Josephus records that of the multitudes inhabiting the land (approximately a few hundred thousand) only about 6,000 belonged to the Pharisee group. (Antiq. XVII. 3, 4.) The Sadducees, with their priestly claim, were an even smaller aristocratic group that held great influence and many key positions of political and religious leadership because of their support of the foreign rulers. But even the Sadducees submitted to some of the “traditions” that were commonly held by the people. Other sects also existed at that time. The Essenes were of a sizable number but generally isolated themselves from the populace as a whole. The remainder of small sects were almost inconsequential in size.

    Jerusalem was the place where the sects flourished, with few of their followers dwelling outside its vicinity. The masses that made up the towns and villages of the land were known as the Am haAretz or the “people of the land.” Uninstructed in the detail of the traditions, they were looked upon as ignorant, common, country folk. The people of the region of Galilee and the countryside of Judea fell short in the eyes of the sects in fulfilling the requirements of the law of God. The scriptural record demonstrates the skeptical view held of the country folk by the religionists, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? …” (John 1:46.) “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” (John 7:52.) Yet it was from among the people of the land that Jesus called those who were to be apostles.

    The common man, then, was one who, while influenced by many of the traditions, was not a member of the derisive and dominant sects of his time. The majority of the people were occupied in agricultural activities—landowner, tenant farmer, shepherd. The others practiced a trade—stonecutter, shoemaker, tailor, smith, potter, carpenter, weaver, dyer. Those of the same craft usually were located on the same street or in the same district of the town. A house varied according to the economic level of its occupants. Each house was usually attached to a courtyard and contained various rooms. Often some of the rooms were used for the practice of the owner’s trade. The roof frequently served as a kind of patio or may have held another room, for guests or feasts.

    The religious influence would be felt early in the home of even the common man. Prayer for the family, morning and evening, and before and after every meal, as well as individual prayer, had a deep influence upon the children. Mother would bear the natural responsibility to teach the child in the early years. The father assisted by helping the child to be able to cite certain passages of scripture so that by the age of five he could read aloud. In the Mishnah there is a statement outlining the characteristics of achievement ideally to be fulfilled by every male at each age of life. “… At five years old [be able to read] the scriptures [beginning with Leviticus]; at ten years for the Mishnah; at thirteen for the commandments [Son of the Law]; at fifteen for the Talmud; at eighteen for the bride-chamber; at twenty for pursuing [a trade]; at thirty for authority; at forty for discernment; at fifty for counsel; at sixty for to be an elder. …” (Aboth 5.21.)

    At age six the education of the male children advanced to the local school, which was attached to almost every synagogue in the land. The teacher was always a married man salaried by the parents who voluntarily contributed to his support. The study of scripture proceeded from Leviticus through the other books of Moses, then to the prophets, and finally to the other writings. In addition, the study of the traditions came as age and advancement allowed. As school occupied only four or five hours a day, there was ample time for the youth to learn a trade. Working with his father or another, he was to master a trade, no matter where his education might lead him. If at age 16 or 17 the young man had continued his study and had demonstrated good progress, he might go on to study with a great teacher. Most, however, left school after about five years to pursue their chosen life’s work.

    What about the education of women? The girl’s education was entirely home education. Her early years were after the same pattern as a young man’s—participating in prayer and scripture citing. As she grew older, she was taught domestic and motherly skills; but, in addition, her training was enriched as she regularly attended the feasts, festivals, and synagogue services with her family.

    The synagogue worship was the highlight of the Sabbath. The service consisted basically of special prayers and the recitation of the Shema, which is a kind of scriptural creed taken from Deuteronomy and Numbers. (Deut. 6:4–9; Deut. 11:13–21; Num. 15:37–41.) Next followed the main purpose for the service—the teaching of the people. It began with the systematic successive reading of the books of Moses, an arranged section each Sabbath of the year. After the reading of the law, there followed a lesson from the prophets that was usually correlated to the section of the law that was read. The service often would then be concluded by a sermon or address. Special services would also be conducted on feast days and in some places on Monday and Thursday for farm people who came to market and did not live near a synagogue. The service would last between one to three hours, depending upon the occasion and the speakers. The women were seated apart from the men and separated by some type of partition around the edge, or seated to rear of the main seating area. In such a manner the women could participate in the instruction as well as the men.

    Marriage was viewed as a religious duty. A young man was to marry by 16 or 17, and by 20 in extreme cases. Girls up to the age of 12 years and one day might be given in marriage by their fathers. If they were married before this early age, they had rights to divorce. After the legal age the young woman had her free will to consent to any betrothal or marriage. Both a betrothal and a marriage required a writing or contract, which could be broken only through divorce. The betrothal was a type of engagement period prescribed by law in order to make all the arrangements necessary for marriage. Divorces were obtainable with some ease according to the interpretations and traditions established by the elders of the people. No divorce, however, was legal without a letter or writing of divorcement.

    The problems of government during the times are reflected in the matter of the taxation of the people. The entire land was a Roman province, with Judea under a Roman governor and the remainder with vassal kings. The representatives of Rome were primarily military and administered the general civil affairs of the people. Ecclesiastically the Jewish people were governed in each community by a Sanhedrin or “council” varying in size from 3 to 23, depending on the size of the community. All the local Sanhedrin were appointed and directed by the Great Sanhedrin at Jerusalem. Their jurisdiction, while intended to be limited to religious matters, had broad effect because of the Mosaic law and the traditions. Each town and village also had a local Jewish authority called the elders, which governed primarily social affairs and also exercised some limited civil control. The people were liable for taxes to each of these governing bodies. Women were subject to tax at age 12 and men at age 14. A temple tax to maintain and operate the sanctuary and its governing bodies was also required. From the imperial tribute of Rome to the taxes levied in every community for the support of the synagogue, schools, public works, and social requirements, the people shouldered a heavy burden in their struggle with life.

    This brief glimpse of the everyday life of the common man during the life of Christ is viewed in part through the examination of the remnants of later Rabbinical writings. And yet the evidence of the influence of “traditions” as found in the pages of the New Testament suggests their worth in a partial reconstruction of the era of the new covenant of the scriptures. While the Mosaic law and these “traditions” in their fulness became a curse to some, to others it was as a schoolmaster of preparation for the law of the gospel. (See Gal. 3:13, 24–25.)

    New Testament Designation

    Equivalent of Meridian Time

    Scriptural References

    Third Hour
    Sixth Hour

    9:00 a.m.
    12:00 noon

    Matt. 20:3; Mark 15:25; Matt. 20:5; Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44; John 4:6; John 19:14

    Seventh Hour
    Ninth Hour

    1:00 p.m.
    3:00 p.m.

    John 4:52; Matt. 20:5; Matt. 27:45–46; Mark 15:33–34; Luke 23:44

    Tenth Hour
    Eleventh Hour

    4:00 p.m.
    5:00 p.m.

    John 1:39; Matt. 20:6, 9

    Nighttime was divided into watches or periods of three hours during which the town watches performed their duties. (Mark 13:35.)

    New Testament Designation

    Equivalent of Meridian Time at Which the Watch Ended

    Scriptural References

    First Watch

    9:00 p.m. evening

    Mark 13:35

    Second Watch
    Third Watch

    12:00 midnight
    3:00 a.m. cock crowing

    Matt. 25:6; Luke 11:5; Matt. 26:74; Mark 14:68, 72; Luke 22:60–61; John 18:27

    Fourth Watch

    6:00 a.m. morning

    Matt. 14:25; Mark 6:48

    • Edward J. Brandt is an instructor at the Institute of Religion, University of Utah, and a counselor in the Sandy 16th Ward bishopric, Sandy Utah North Stake.