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It was the very busiest road in Palestine, on which the publican Levi Matthew sat at the receipt of "custom," when our Lord called him to the fellowship of the Gospel, and he then made that great feast to which he invited his fellow-publicans, that they also might see and hear Him in Whom he had found life and peace (Luke 5:29). For, it was the only truly international road of all those which passed through Palestine; indeed, it formed one of the great highways of the world's commerce. At the time of which we write, it may be said, in general, that six main arteries of commerce and intercourse traversed the country, the chief objective points being Caesarea, the military, and Jerusalem, the religious capital. First, there was the southern road, which led from Jerusalem, by Bethlehem, to Hebron, and thence westwards to Gaza, and eastwards into Arabia, whence also a direct road went northwards to Damascus. It is by this road we imagine St. Paul to have travelled, when retiring into the solitudes of Arabia, immediately after his conversion (Gal 1:17,18). The road to Hebron must have been much frequented by priestly and other pilgrims to the city, and by it the father of the Baptist and the parents of Jesus would pass. Secondly, there was the old highway along the sea-shore from Egypt up to Tyre, whence a straight, but not so much frequented, road struck, by Caesarea Philippi, to Damascus. But the sea-shore road itself, which successively touched Gaza, Ascalon, Jamnia, Lydda, Diospolis, and finally Caesarea and Ptolemais, was probably the most important military highway in the land, connecting the capital with the seat of the Roman procurator at Caesarea, and keeping the sea-board and its harbors free for communication. This road branched off for Jerusalem at Lydda, where it bifurcated, leading either by Beth- horon or by Emmaus, which was the longer way. It was probably by this road that the Roman escort hurried off St. Paul (Acts 23:31), the mounted soldiers leaving him at Antipatris, about twenty Roman miles from Lydda, and altogether from Jerusalem about fifty-two Roman miles (the Roman mile being 1,618 yards, the English mile 1,760). Thus the distance to Caesarea, still left to be traversed next morning by the cavalry would be about twenty- six Roman miles, or, the whole way, seventy-eight Roman miles from Jerusalem. This rate of travelling, though rapid, cannot be regarded as excessive, since an ordinary day's journey is computed in the Talmud (Pes 93b) as high as forty Roman miles. A third road led from Jerusalem, by Beth-horon and Lydda, to Joppa, whence it continued close by the sea-shore to Caesarea. This was the road which Peter and his companions would take when summoned to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius (Acts 10:23,24). It was at Lydda, thirty-two Roman miles from Jerusalem, that Aeneas was miraculously healed, and "nigh" to it-- within a few miles--was Joppa, where the raising of Tabitha, Dorcas, "the gazelle" (Acts 9:32-43), took place. Of the fourth great highway, which led from Galilee to Jerusalem, straight through Samaria, branching at Sichem eastwards to Damascus, and westwards to Caesarea, it is needless to say much, since, although much shorter, it was, if possible, eschewed by Jewish travellers; though, both in going to (Luke 9:53, 17:11), and returning from Jerusalem (John 4:4,43), the Lord Jesus passed that way. The road from Jerusalem straight northwards also branched off at Gophna, whence it led across to Diospolis, and so on to Caesarea. But ordinarily, Jewish travellers would, rather than pass through Samaria, face the danger of robbers which awaited them (Luke 10:30) along the fifth great highway (comp. Luke 19:1,28; Matt 20:17,29), that led from Jerusalem, by Bethany, to Jericho. Here the Jordan was crossed, and the road led to Gilead, and thence either southwards, or else north to Peraea, whence the traveller could make his way into Galilee. It will be observed that all these roads, whether commercial or military, were, so to speak, Judaean, and radiated from or to Jerusalem. But the sixth and great road, which passed through Galilee, was not at all primarily Jewish, but connected the East with the West--Damascus with Rome. From Damascus it led across the Jordan to Capernaum, Tiberias, and Nain (where it fell in with a direct road from Samaria), to Nazareth, and thence to Ptolemais. Thus, from its position, Nazareth was on the world's great highway. What was spoken there might equally re-echo throughout Palestine, and be carried to the remotest lands of the East and of the West.
It need scarcely be said, that the roads which we have thus traced are only those along the principal lines of communication. But a large number of secondary roads also traversed the country in all directions. Indeed, from earliest times much attention seems to have been given to facility of intercourse throughout the land. Even in the days of Moses we read of "the king's highway" (Num 20:17,19, 21:22). In Hebrew we have, besides the two general terms (derech and orach), three expressions which respectively indicate a trodden or beaten-down path (nathiv, from nathav, to tread down), a made or cast-up road (messillah, from salal, to cast up), and "the king's highway"--the latter, evidently for national purposes, and kept up at the public expense. In the time of the kings (for example, 1 Kings 12:18), and even earlier, there were regular carriage roads, although we can scarcely credit the statement of Josephus (Antiq, viii, 7, 4) That Solomon had caused the principal roads to be paved with black stone--probably basalt. Toll was apparently levied in the time of Ezra (Ezra 4:13,20); but the clergy were exempt from this as from all other taxation (7:24). The roads to the cities of refuge required to be always kept in good order (Deu 19:3). According to the Talmud they were to be forty-eight feet wide, and provided with bridges, and with sign- posts where roads diverged.
Passing to later times, the Romans, as might have been expected, paid great attention to the modes of communication through the country. The military roads were paved, and provided with milestones. But the country roads were chiefly bridle-paths. The Talmud distinguishes between public and private roads. The former must be twenty-four, the latter six feet wide. It is added that, for the king's highway, and for the road taken by funerals, there is no measure (Babba B. vi. 7). Roads were annually repaired in spring, preparatory for going up to the great feasts. To prevent the possibility of danger, no subterranean structure, however protected, was allowed under a public road. Overhanging branches of trees had to be cut down, so as to allow a man on a camel to pass. A similar rule applied to balconies and projections; nor were these permitted to darken a street. Any one allowing things to accumulate on the road, or dropping them from a cart, had to make good what damage might be incurred by travellers. Indeed, in towns and their neighborhood the police regulations were even more strict; and such ordinances occur as for the removal within thirty days of rotten trees or dangerous walls; not to pour out water on the road; not to throw out anything on the street, nor to leave about building materials, or broken glass, or thorns, along with other regulations for the public safety and health.
Along such roads passed the travellers; few at first, and mostly pilgrims, but gradually growing in number, as commerce and social or political intercourse increased. Journeys were performed on foot, upon asses, or in carriages (Acts 8:28), of which three kinds are mentioned--the round carriage, perhaps like our gig; the elongated, like a bed; and the cart, chiefly for the transport of goods. It will be understood that in those days travelling was neither comfortable nor easy. Generally, people journeyed in company, of which the festive bands going to Jerusalem are a well-known instance. If otherwise, one would prepare for a journey almost as for a change of residence, and provide tent, victuals, and all that was needful by the way. It was otherwise with the travelling hawker, who was welcomed as a friend in every district through which he passed, who carried the news of the day, exchanged the products of one for those of another district, and produced the latest articles of commerce or of luxury. Letters were only conveyed by special messengers, or through travellers.
In such circumstances, the command, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers," had a special meaning. Israel was always distinguished for hospitality; and not only the Bible, but the Rabbis, enjoin this in the strongest terms. In Jerusalem no man was to account a house as only his own; and it was said, that during the pilgrim-feasts none ever wanted ready reception. The tractate Aboth (1.5), mentions these as two out of the three sayings of Jose, the son of Jochanan, of Jerusalem: "Let thy house be wide open, and let the poor be the children of thy house." Readers of the New Testament will be specially interested to know, that, according to the Talmud (Pes. 53), Bethphage and Bethany, to which in this respect such loving memories cling, were specially celebrated for their hospitality towards the festive pilgrims. In Jerusalem it seems to have been the custom to hang a curtain in front of the door, to indicate that there was still room for guests. Some went so far as to suggest, there should be four doors to every house, to bid welcome to travellers from all directions. The host would go to meet an expected guest, and again accompany him part of the way (Acts 21:5). The Rabbis declared that hospitality involved as great, and greater merit than early morning attendance in an academy of learning. They could scarcely have gone farther, considering the value they attached to study. Of course, here also the Rabbinical order had the preference; and hospitably to entertain a sage, and to send him away with presents, was declared as meritorious as to have offered the daily sacrifices (Ber. 10, b).