NEARLY ALL the people living in Palestine in the time of Jesus were of the Jewish race. Two thousand years before Jesus came, a great man was living in that land, named Abraham. To this man, God gave a promise that his children and their children after them for many ages should live in that land and own it. Abraham’s son was named Isaac, and Isaac’s son was named Jacob. All the people of Palestine had sprung from the family of Jacob, and by the time Jesus came, these descendants of Jacob, as they were called, were in number many millions, and were to be found in other lands besides Palestine; although more of them lived in Palestine than in any other land.
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was also named Israel; and on that account all the people sprung from him were called the Israelites. Jacob or Israel had twelve sons, from whom came the twelve tribes of Israel. But one son, named Judah, had more descendants or people springing from him than any other; and as most of the people in Palestine were of Judah’s family, all of them were spoken of as Jews, a word which means sprung or descended from Judah. So the people to’ whom Jesus belonged were sometimes called Israelites, but more often Jews. They had another name, “Hebrews,” but that was not used as often as the two names, Israelites and Jews.
For many years, long before Jesus came, the Jews were rulers in the land of Palestine, with kings of their own race, as David and Solomon in the early times, and King Jeroboam and King Hezekiah later. But in the time of Jesus, the Jews were no longer rulers in their own land. Palestine was then a small part of the vast Roman Empire, which ruled all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Its chief was an emperor, who lived at Rome in Italy. At the time when Jesus was born the emperor was Augustus. He was then an old man, and died very soon after the birth of Jesus. The emperor who followed him was named Tiberius, and he ruled most of the years that Jesus was living in Palestine.
But there was another king ruling the land of Palestine under the Roman emperor, at the time when Jesus came. His name was Herod, and because he was a very wise and strong man, although a very wicked man, he was called Herod the Great. He ruled the land of Palestine, but in his turn obeyed the orders of the emperor Augustus at Rome. Herod also was a very old man at the time of Jesus’ birth, and died soon afterward.
When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four parts. Each of these parts had a king of its own, and three of these kings were Herod’s sons. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee in the north-west, and Perea in the southeast; Herod Philip was over the country in the northeast; and Herod Archelaus ruled the largest portion, in the south. None of these little kings were good men. They had their father’s wickedness, but did not have his ability to rule. One of them, Archelaus, was so bad that all the people asked the emperor at Rome to take his rule away. This the emperor did, and sent a man from Rome to govern the land in his place. You have heard of the Roman governor who was over this part of the land while Jesus was teaching. His name was Pontius Pilate; and he it was, you remember, who sent Jesus to die upon the cross.
The land of Palestine at that time was divided into five parts, which were called “provinces.” The largest of these provinces was Judea, the one on the south, between the Dead Sea and the river Jordan on the east, and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. North of Judea was a small province called Samaria, where lived a people who were not Jews but Samaritans. The Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans, in turn, hated the Jews. Samaria was governed as a part of Judea, not with a separate ruler. These were the two provinces at first under Archelaus and then under the Roman governor.
In the north of Palestine, west of the river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, was the province of Galilee, a country full of mountains, where Jesus dwelt for nearly all his life. The ruler of this province was Herod Antipas. He lived most of the time at a city which he had built beside the Sea of Galilee, and had named Tiberias, after the Roman emperor Tiberius.
Across the Jordan, on the east, opposite to Galilee was another province. In the Old Testament times, this land had been called Bashan, which means”woodland,”because it was a land of many forests. In the New Testament time it was generally spoken of as “Philip’s province,” because its ruler was Herod Philip, the best of Herod’s sons, and none too good, either.
South of Philip’s province, and east of the river Jordan, was a province named Perea, a word meaning “beyond,” because this region was beyond or across the river Jordan. At the time of Jesus’ life, Perea was like Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas. Once at least Jesus visited this province; and here he told the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which everybody has heard.
Although the mighty Roman empire gave to the Jews in Palestine a government that was just and fair, it was not a Jewish rule; and the Jews were not contented under the power of foreigners. They felt that they more than other nations were the people of God, and that they had a right to rule themselves, under kings of their own race. Also they read in their Bible the promises of the prophets that from Israel should come forth a king, out of David’s line, who should rule the world.
This great King, whom the Jews hoped for and looked for, they called “Messiah,” a word in the Jews’ language meaning the same as the word “Christ,” which is a Greek word, meaning “the Anointed One,” that is, “the King.” You remember that in the Old Testament story the prophet Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel, that is, he poured oil on his head; and that afterward he chose the boy David to be the next king by the same sign. When we say “Jesus Christ,” Jesus is his name and “Christ” is his title; and we mean “Jesus the King:”
We know that this promised King whom the Jews called Messiah was Jesus Christ who rules over the hearts of men everywhere; but the Jews thought that it meant a king like Herod or the emperor Tiberius, only better and wiser, who should live in a palace at Jerusalem, their chief city, and make all lands obey his will. This hope made the Jews very restless and unhappy under the Roman power. They were always looking for the coming of this mighty King of the Jews, who should lead them to conquer the earth.
In their worship the Jews were different from all the rest of the world. Every other people had gods of wood and stone, images before which they bowed and to which they gave offerings. In all the cities of that world were temples and altars to these idols, made by the hands of men. But in the land of the Jews were no images, no idol-temples, and no offerings to man-made gods. The Jews, whether in Palestine or in other lands, worshipped the One God who was unseen, the God to whom we also pray. In their chief city, Jerusalem, was a splendid temple where God was worshipped; and in every Jewish city and town were churches, where the people met to read the Bible, to sing the psalms of David, to offer prayer to God, and to talk together about God’s laws. These churches were called “synagogues,” and wherever Jews lived, synagogues were to be found. The Jews looked with great contempt upon the idol-worship of other nations, and were proud of the fact that ever since the days of their father Abraham; they had worshipped only the Lord God.