Curious to what life was like in the time of Jesus of Nazareth?
The following bullet points of the socioeconomic life of that time is summarized from New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg’s book Jesus And the Gospels:
- The Jewish people made up roughly 8% of the Roman empire. Of the 50 million inhabitants of the Roman empire, 4 million were Jews and 700,000 of them lived in Israel. (55)
- Jesus ministered mainly outside of large pro-Roman cities. However, the region of Galilee was not as rural as you think–“…the majority of Galilee was made up of as many as two hundred small villages, few as large as Capernaum, which had possibly one thousand inhabitants. We must therefore avoid stereotyping Jesus and his disciples as roaming through largely uninhabited regions with large farms. Galilee, was in some respects more urban than we imagine it.” (57)
- News was either posted in town squares or announced by a herald. (57).
- You average family “lived in one-room, two-level dwellings with living quarters separated from and raised above the animal stalls.” (58) Jewish extended families often lived together. (63)
- Towns stunk because many would pour their sewage into designated sections of the middle of the street. (59)
- Wine was the drink of choice, but it was “as much as three times as diluted as it is today.” (59)
- Wealthy Romans had four meals a day of meat and dairy, while many other ordinary Jews had two meals consisting mostly of bread. (59)
- After dinner, usually amidst only good friends, two-three hours of the evening was spent in conversation. (59)
- Women dressed simpler than men, yet had more colorful clothing. Most men had beards, and most women had long hair put in a bun. (60)
- The transit system within the Roman empire was the best in the ancient world, but roads that were not well-traveled could be quite dangerous. “Inns dotted the landscape, providing lodging for travelers, but many were notorious as hangouts for pirates and prostitutes. More reputable people preferred to stay in private homes with relatives, friends, or people who were recommended to them.” (57)
- 1 to 2 percent of the population had 1/2 the wealth of the empire (political, military and religious leaders), 5-7 were considered rich (bureaucratic individuals), and about 15 percent were middle class (priests, Pharisees, fortunate merchants, etc.); while 70 percent of the population lived within what we would consider poverty and “were struggling farmers and fisherman or subsistence laborers working for others”. (60)
- Slavery was common. For the most part, people were either born into slavery, a prisoner of war, or sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts. “Unlike pre-Civil War America, in the Roman world slaves could own property, earn money, and often save enough to buy their own freedom.” (61)
- Most of Jesus’ disciples and followers were poor, but they “relied on the support that others offered, including considerable help from a strategic group of well-to-do women (Luke 8:1-3).” (61)
- Due to the Jewish triple tax (10% to priests and Levites, 10% for temple sacrifice, and a bit over 3% for the poor) and normal Roman taxes, Jews could pay more than half their income in taxes. (61)
- One job that was not held in high repute was teaching, and many teachers were former slaves (62).
- Men were expected to marry: Jews usually by 18, Romans by 25, and Greeks by 30. Women were usually married in their mid teens. Divorce was common, but not as common among Jews. Children had no social voice. Girls were not formally educated unless among the Greco-Roman rich. Jewish boys were educated in the Bible, and Greek boys in Homer and rhetoric. (63)
- Privacy was rare in crowded cities, and usually only the wealthy owned books. (58)
- Funerals and weddings could last a week among an entire village. Jews enjoyed singing and story-telling, Greeks enjoyed theater, and Hellenists enjoyed sporting events like Olympic games and gladiators. Holy days and the once-a-week Sabbath for Jews were a time of joy and celebration, while for Romans and Greeks (who did not get weekly days off) “numerous annual holidays, temple rituals, and patriotic celebrations provided relief from daily routines”. (63)