The World of the Bible
Posted by foryourfaith on May 19, 2012
It is necessary to examine the background of a piece of literature closely if it is to be understood fully. The origins of a document are important to discovering its meaning and significance. With the Bible, it is important to recognize that it contains literature that has come together over a long period of time. We must also remember that its various sections are set in different places, each with their own distinctive cultural features.
There are two ways of thinking about the Bible’s historical setting.
First, we can think about the historical setting in which the Bible books were written. In other words, the focus is upon the authors of the biblical books in an attempt to try to understand what circumstances the authors faced and how those circumstances influenced their writings.
Most scholars now agree that the contents of the Old Testament were written down and collected into their present form between the eleventh century BC and the second century BC. So their authors and collectors span a 1,000-year period. In contrast, the writing of the New Testament spans no more than a sixty-year period.
Within these periods of time political, economic, religious and cultural changes occurred.
Second, the historical background can also be investigated in terms of the time-span of the accounts contained within the Bible. Here the focus is upon the stories and events of the biblical books. This approach, of course, extends the period of interest even further. Even if the first eleven chapters of Genesis are excluded, it adds another 1,000-year period (from the patriarchs onwards) to the scope of the Old Testament and at least another fifty years to the New Testament (covering the period from Jesus’ birth onwards).
With these timescales in mind, the attempt to consider the Bible’s setting is complicated further by even more political, economic, religious and cultural changes.
What is clear is that the biblical story is set in a world characterized by unrest, uncertainty and unpredictable change, dominated by the competing interests of world powers (although in the first century Roman peace brought a period of security). These powers, and other lesser nations with whom they came into contact shaped each other’s history in a time of cultural advance and development. This was a period of rapid change, and the world we encounter at the end of biblical times, the New Testament world, would be unrecognizable from the perspective of the pre-historic times described in the Bible’s earliest accounts. The focus of the Old Testament story is one nation’s history within the tumult of the ancient world, but that nation’s history nevertheless provides the religious and cultural backdrop for the New Testament.
As well as being a historical period (2000 BC to 330 BC), the term “Ancient Near East” is used to refer to the area from Asia Minor (Turkey) in the north to the Persian gulf and Egypt in the south; with modern Iran in the east and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. This area has varied physical features:
- Major rivers (Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Jordan);
- Corresponding large valleys;
- Mountainous regions;
- Coastal plains;
- Desert regions.
These physical features played an important role in the region’s political and cultural development. For example:
- Trade routes became an important factor in attracting the interest of diverse people groups to this region.
- Natural boundaries (such as rivers, valleys, mountains and hills) played their part in warfare and political developments.
- Varied terrain and natural irrigation meant that diverse agricultural activities developed.
The Land of Palestine
Palestine lies between Egypt (to the south) and Mesopotamia (to the north) and has the Mediterranean Sea to the west. It is cut in two by the River Jordan, which runs its length,. Its location between the two great civilizations in the Fertile Crescent (the valley region served by the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates) meant that Palestine assumed center stage in biblical times. It is approximately 600 kilometers (373 miles) long and, at its widest point, 120 kilometers (75 miles) wide. Its physical features, running from west to east, are:
- The coastal plain: containing Mount Carmel, the Plain of Sharon and, in the south, the Sinai desert with its central mountainous region reaching over 700 meters).
- The central mountains (or “western mountains”): in the north the mountains reach 1,500 meters, rising to over 2,000 meters in the Lebanon range. Continuing further south the lower mountains of Galilee are to be found (including Mount Tabor). South of the Galilean range is the valley of Jezreel (which provides a break in the mountainous regions) and then the mountains of Samaria (the highest peak being Jebel Asur at just over 1,000 meters). The central mountainous area continues southwards to form the plateau of Benjamin, followed by the hills of Judah, including Hebron (1,000 meters). South of Beersheba are the gentle hills of the Negev, followed by the mountains of Sinai which, unlike the other central mountains, increase in height as they spread southwards.
- The valley region (the “Rift Valley”): from north to south – the valley of the River Orontes is followed by the valley area between the Lebanon ranges, then the Jordan Valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea are below sea level.
- The inland mountains (or “Eastern mountains”): from north to south – the Anti-Lebanon range, including Mount Hermon (over 2,000 meters), in the south; the Bashan, Gilead and Moabite ridges (all the peaks over 1,000 meters); the mountains of Edom (with two peaks reaching over 1,700 meters). To the east of the mountains lie desert areas.
The diverse physical make-up of Palestine means that temperatures differ from place to place. The summer is hot; the winter is cooler and wetter, but sunny days still dominate. Snow only lasts in the higher mountain ranges such as Lebanon and Mount Hermon.
Egypt is dominated by the River Nile, which is about 6,600 kilometers (4,100 miles) in length from its origin, Lake Victoria in east Africa, to its delta at the Mediterranean Sea. It winds down through the dry region of modern Sudan and the eastern Sahara Desert before reaching the contrasting swampy delta region. The Nile provides irrigation and agricultural possibilities in the desert and was consequently the main reason for egypt’s strength, stability and relative well-being in biblical times. Egypt’s four main regions are:
- The delta region: a wide expanse of marshland stretching from Cairo to the sea;
- The western desert (or the “Libyan Desert,” part of the Sahara): with a few oases, making up nearly three-quarters of Egypt’s territory;
- The eastern desert (or “Arabian Desert”): with the Red Sea at its heart and characterized by mountains and wadis.
Egypt has a typical desert climate, with the raised eastern side of the Nile generally a little cooler than the west. A few trees grow along with plentiful supplies of papyrus plants, in the Nile delta but otherwise the region is mainly barren.
In biblical times this name was given to the land lying between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Both these rivers have their sources in the mountains of eastern Asia Minor (which include the volcanic peak of Mount Ararat, over 5,000 meters). The climate of Mesopotamia is very similar to that of Palestine, and the southern region has more vegetation than the northern territory. It is, again, only the rivers that enable land in the region to be fertile.
Persia consists of a large plateau surrounded by mountains which reach a height of over 5,600 meters in the Elburz range that runs south from the Caspian Sea. The plateau contains two desert areas which are barren because the surrounding mountains block the rain: the Great Desert in the north and the Desert of Lot in the south.
The Persian territories have a diversity of temperature and vegetation. Elam and Media became important cultural centers because of their favorable climate and easy access to other territories.
This area, from which the Hittites originated, links Asia and Europe. It is another plateau surrounded by mountains and is located between the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the southern coast of the Black Sea. Its most important region is that of Mysia and Lydia. In the coastal region of the Black Sea the climate is cool, but the southern coast has a Mediterranean climate. The surrounding mountains mean that the weather in the middle is more challenging and vegetation is sparser. Asia Minor’s history has been greatly affected by its physical geography: its struggle towards unity was hampered by the inaccessibility of some areas because of the mountains. In the New Testament times the city of Ephesus became prominent, and attracted the missionary activities of the apostle Paul. The island of Patmos, where the apostle John was exiled, is located off the southwest coast of Asia Minor.
Sea and mountains dominate Greece and islands. Four-fifths of Greece consists of mountainous areas, with a few peaks reaching over 2,000 meters. The sea produces a mild climate, although on some of the highest mountains temperatures can drop below freezing. Greece has few rivers but abundant vegetation. The apostle Paul visited Athens, the center of Greek culture.
Italy is also dominated by the sea and by mountains, which include the Alps in the north, continuing into the Apennine range that runs down the legth of the country as far as Sicily. The mountain areas have varied climates but to the south of the Alps the climate is mainly Mediterranean.
Other Regions Visited by Jesus
An area east of the Jordan, outside Palestine (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 7:31; Luke 8:26-39), this region was made up of ten cities (including Philadelphia, Damascus and Gadara), occupying land on the major trade routes to the Mediterranean Sea. The cities were dominated by Greek culture and benefited from a degree of interdependence. In Paul’s day Christian people were already to be found in this region.
Tyre and Sidon
Jesus visited these cities in the province of Syria, to the north of Palestine (Matthew 15:21; Mark 7:31). Both cities were situated on the coast and became important because of their location on major trade routes (including the way to Damascus).
Cultural development and change during the biblical era was wide-ranging. The history of Israel exemplifies the way in which divergent circumstances dictated the cultural development both of Israel itself and of the surrounding nations. For example, the people moved from a nomadic lifestyle to settled farming communities and from tribal organization to monarchy, followed by occupation and oppression. But throughout these changing circumstances it is possible to identify some common cultural elements that characterized the region.
Corresponding to the large number of population groups in the Ancient Near East, languages and scripts were also profuse. The earliest scripts were cuneiform from Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics from Egypt. Much more is known about early Egyptian culture than about Mesopotamian culture, though, because the documents preserved in Egypt are prolific and often have a historical orientation.
Early writing materials included stone tablets, clay, potsherds and animal skins. In Egypt the art of writing developed quickly with the development of papyrus but in other places written documentation was much slower to emerge. Early examples of writing exist from Ebla and Byblos but apart from these it was not until the second millennium BC that writing appeared in Syria-Palestine. The first true alphabet system (based on consonantal sounds) was produced by the Canaanites at around this time and was then passed on by the Phoenicians. The Israelites, Arameans and others started producing written records in the first millennium BC. Sometime after the eighth century BC the Greeks added vowel signs, and writing was reversed to read from left to right in the West. The texts of the Old Testament used Hebrew and Aramaic, whereas the New Testament is written in Greek, though still incorporating Aramaic elements.
Letter writing is mentioned in many Old Testament passages (2 Samuel 11:14; 1 Kings 21:8; 2 Kings 5:5-7; 10:1). Letters were written on clay tablets, animal skins, palm leaves of papyrus. In Persia, letters were often rolled into scrolls, covered and sealed (Daniel 12:4, 9). Written edicts were circulated as systems for official communication developed (Esther 3:12-15; 8:9-14). Evidence from the fifth century BC in Egypt suggests that wooden tablets covered with wax were used for writing: a stylus would scratch characters into the wax. Much of the New Testament is actually written in the form of letters which conform to the normal conventions of the time. Most of the New Testament letters, however, are much longer than average letters of their day, which tended to be around the length of 2 and 3 John. From Ezra’s time onwards, professional scribes were responsible for copying the Law, as well as reading it, interpreting it and teaching it.
Justice in Old Testament Times
Ancient communities showed a keen appreciation of the need for justice and laws as a means to safeguard community life. The Ten Commandments show similarities with other ancient law codes – and, of course, the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness,” was intended as a prohibition against perjury. The basic principle of law in Old Testament times was that the punishment should fit the crime. In other words, justice means restricting punishment to a level commensurate with the crime; excessive revenge was not pursued. Officials of justice included elders, judges, magistrates, Levites and various governors: Moses (Exodus 18:13-27) acted as a judge. Their job was to ensure that everyone was treated fairly and that the courts showed no partiality. Two witnesses were required in court for a guilty verdict to be possible.
Justice in New Testament Times
In the New Testament period, courts were ordered places with their own etiquette. So, for example, judges sat down while the accused stood before them (Matthew 27:11; Acts 26:6). Paul advises Christians that they should be able to settle disputes without going to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-7), although he shows respect for the justice system. In exercising his rights as a Roman citizen he appeals to Caesar to intervene in the processes of local justice (Acts 25:11-12; 26:31-32).
Foreign slaves were used in building projects and for hard labor in Ancient Near Eastern communities. In Palestine and Syria slaves were more like house servants and they were generally treated well, as family members. The early books of the Bible that regulate Jewish community life establish very clear instructions about the treatment of slaves. Slaves were treated as people in their own right; they could expect days off and had some hope of being freed. Jewish laws about slaves were based on Israel’s own experience of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 21; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 15:15; 23:15-16).
In New Testament times slaves were an integral part of the way Roman society worked. Some slaves were educated, holding responsible positions managing businesses and the like. The New Testament letter to Philemon is a plea to him to treat a young slave called Onesimus kindly even though he has run away.
In the earliest biblical times payment was made in goods rather than money, but as early as the stories of Abraham and Joseph the use of pieces of silver was known; copper and gold were also used to pay for land, goods and services. The first standardized coinage system came from Asia Minor (c. 700 BC). In the Persian period other coins appeared, including the daric, the drachma, the mina and the shekel. In New Testament times the denarius, talent, drachma, pound, assarion and penny are mentioned. Roman emperors started to place images on coinage: sometimes natural pictures (an olive branch, palm trees, barley) but increasingly the image of the emperor himself.
Warfare and Weaponry
From the earliest Old Testament passages there are mentions of weapons being in use, although they are rarely described. Most of our evidence comes from archaeological discoveries. One important source of information about New Testament times is Ephesians 6:10-17, which speaks figuratively of the armor Christians have for the spiritual warfare in which they are engaged. Paul mentions here a belt, a breastplate, shoes, a shield and a helmet. Other pieces of military equipment mentioned in the Bible include axes, arrows, javelins, nets, quivers, sling-shots and spears.
Early in the Old Testament it was common for men to have more than one wife, but by Ezra’s time the assumption in Israelite society was monogamy. Girls and young men were married young (probably 12 or 13 being the minimum age), and parents took the responsibility for finding their offspring partners. A period of betrothal preceded marriage: this was a binding agreement with legal status. Men had to pay for their bride by working for her family or by giving them a monetary amount. Weddings incorporated a banquet, and the couple wore elaborate clothes. The festivities seem regularly to have lasted for at least a week. The brother-in-law of a childless widow was required to marry her and, to ensure the brother’s line of descent, their firstborn son would be considered the child of the dead brother. Children were understood as a blessing, a gift from God. The firstborn son assumed the father’s authority over the family and would receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance. Names given to children (and, later, name changes) were significant, often reflecting the experiences or feelings of a parent, the other child’s characteristics or the role that he or she would fulfill.
Death and Burial
The final words a person spoke before death were often given great significance. To die in old age was considered a blessing from God. In Egypt, bodies were embalmed. Jewish burial rites involved washing the body and applying perfumed ointment before wrapping the body in cloths. Burial was the norm rather than burning (which was reserved for criminals); natural caves or man-made carved tombs were used as graves. Poorer people simply covered bodies with earth. Burial usually took place on the day of death because of the warm climate. Death was marked by rituals involving professional mourners. Outward signs of mourning included tearing clothes, wearing sackcloth, shaving the head, fasting, and playing flutes and singing laments.
In the earliest times people sheltered in caves. The patriarchs lived in tents, and these continued to be used for some time after the Israelites had entered Canaan, especially by herdsmen tending cattle or those engaged in warfare. The tents were probably made of goatskins. City dwellings had already developed at this time, for example at Jericho, Sodom and Hazor, but the nomadic lifestyle of the patriarchs meant that temporary dwellings were more appropriate. Early houses in Palestine were made of mud bricks and wood. Most houses had flat roofs, accessed by an outside staircase, and lattice windows. Poor people shared their houses with livestock, all together in a single room. Furniture was sparse, although there were considerable differences between the homes of the poor and those of the rich. Royal palaces were lavish with gold and ivory fixtures.
The early chapters of Genesis suggest that Adam and Eve sewed fig-leaves as coverings, but this may be a metaphorical detail rather than reflecting any ancient practice. In the early period covered by the Bible simple tunics were commonplace, along with an outer cloak and sometimes and under-tunic loincloth. Belts made of cloth strips enabled the wearer to tuck the tunic in when necessary. Women’s clothes were very similar to men’s, although possibly of different length or color. Women wore veils at their wedding celebrations. Early clothes were made from camel, sheep or goat hair but fine clothes were made of linen. Wealthy Egyptians wore decorated fine linen wraps with ornate headdresses and plenty of jewelry.
Archaeology: Its Contribution to Understanding the Biblical World
Archaeological discoveries, particularly over the last 200 years, have helped us to understand more about the world of the Bible. Archaeologists work on the sites of ancient towns, cities and settlements to uncover the history of the place and the people who lived there. These sites are often raised areas (“tells” or “mounds”) which represent successive layers of history where one habitation has been built on top of another. Although archaeology will never provide all the answers to our questions, some noteworthy discoveries have been particularly helpful, enabling us to set the Bible events in their historical context.
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone was discovered when Napoleon’s armies invaded Egypt in 1789. It displays the same text in Greek and in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which enabled archaeologists to crack the code of hieroglyphics. This in turn helped us to understand a lot more about the Ancient Near Eastern world.
The Gilgamesh Epic is an Akkadian story from the early second millennium BC, which explains how Gilgamesh, a ruler in Uruk, survived a great deluge by going into an ark. There are many parallels to Genesis 6-9, although it is written from a polytheistic point of view.
Discovered on a 2.5 meter black stone pillar this eighteenth-century BC Akkadian law code contains many parallels with Mosaic laws. It has a prologue and an epilogue and contains nearly 300 laws designed to protect the interests of the people. There are laws against theft, about hiring goods and services, and regulating marriage and family relationships.
Discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, these treasures from the burial chamber of a mid-fourteenth century BC Egyptian pharaoh have provided us with a great deal of information about the culture of Egypt at this time.
Tell Al-Amarna Letters
The Tell al-Amarna letters were found in 1887. They consist of a series of clay tablets inscribed in the Akkadian cuneiform script. They date from the fourteenth century BC and were written by rulers in Canaan describing the tensions as new population groups arrived in Canaan.
The Lachish letters are Hebrew documents from the early sixth century BC. They are inscribed on pottery and tell of the days in Jerusalem immediately after it was besieged by the Babylonians (588-586 BC0. Lachish was a fortress city on the Palestine-Egyptian border.
Dead Sea Scrolls
A shepherd discovered the Dead Sea scrolls, preserved in pottery jars, in 1947. Some scrolls are fragmentary but others are well preserved, such as the Isaiah scroll. They provide good evidence about the community rules and the leaders that governed the life of a Jewish Essene community.
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