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The rule of these towns and villages was exceedingly strict. The representatives of Rome were chiefly either military men, or else fiscal or political agents. We have, indeed, a notice that the Roman general Gabinius, about half a century before Christ, divided Palestine for juridical purposes into five districts, each presided over by a council (Josephus, Ant. xiv, 91); but that arrangement was only of very short duration, and even while it lasted these councils seem to have been Jewish. Then every town had is Sanhedrim, * consisting of twenty-three members if the place numbered at least one hundred and twenty men, or of three members if the population were smaller. **
* The name "Sanhedrim," or "Sunedrion," is undoubtedly of Greek derivation, although the Rabbis have tried to paraphrase it as "Sin" (=Sinai) "haderin," those who repeat or explain the law, or to trace its etymology, as being "those who hate to accept the persons of men in judgment" (the name being supposed to be composed of the Hebrew equivalents of the words italicised).
** An ingenious attempt has lately been made to show that the Sanhedrim of three members was not a regular court, but only arbitrators chosen by the parties themselves. But the argument, so far as it tries to prove that such was always the case, seems to me not to meet all the facts.
These Sanhedrists were appointed directly by the supreme authority, or Great Sanhedrim, "the council," at Jerusalem, which consisted of seventy-one members. It is difficult to fix the limits of the actual power wielded by these Sanhedrims in criminal cases. But the smaller Sanhedrims are referred to in such passages as Matthew 5:22, 23, 10:17; Mark 13:9. Of course all ecclesiastical and, so to speak, strictly Jewish causes, and all religious questions were within their special cognisance. Lastly, there were also in every place what we may call municipal authorities, under the presidency of a mayor--the representatives of the "elders"--an institution so frequently mentioned in Scripture, and deeply rooted in Jewish society. Perhaps these may be referred to in Luke 7:3, as sent by the centurion of Capernaum to intercede for him with the Lord.
What may be called the police and sanitary regulations were of the strictest character. Of Caesarea, for example, we know that there was a regular system of drainage into the sea, apparently similar to, but more perfect than that of any modern town (Josephus, Ant. xv, 340). The same holds true in regard to the Temple-buildings at Jerusalem. But in every town and village sanitary rules were strictly attended to. Cemeteries, tanneries, and whatever also might be prejudicial to health, had to be removed at least fifty cubits outside a town. Bakers' and dyers' shops, or stables, were not allowed under the dwelling of another person. Again, the line of each street had to be strictly kept in building, nor was even a projection beyond it allowed. In general the streets were wider than those of modern Eastern cities. The nature of the soil, and the circumstance that so many towns were built on hills (at least in Judaea), would, of course, be advantageous in a sanitary point of view. It would also render the paving of the streets less requisite. But we know that certain towns were paved- -Jerusalem with white stones (Josephus, Ant. xx, 219-223). To obviate occasions of dispute, neighbors were not allowed to have windows looking into the courts or rooms of others nor might the principal entrance to a shop be through a court common to two or three dwellings.
These brief notices may help us better to realise the surroundings of Jewish town life. Looking up and down one of the streets of a town in Galilee or Judaea, the houses would be seen to differ in size and in elegance, from the small cottage, only eight or ten yards square, to the mansions of the rich, sometimes two or more stories high, and embellished by rows of pillars and architectural adornments. Suppose ourselves in front of a better-class dwelling, though not exactly that of a patrician, for it is built of brick, or perhaps of undressed, or even of dressed stone, but not of marble, nor yet of hewn stone; nor are its walls painted with such delicate colors as vermilion, but simply whitewashed, or, may be, covered with some neutral tint. A wide, sometimes costly, stair leads from the outside straight up to the flat roof, which is made to slope a little downwards, so as to allow the rainwater easily to flow through pipes into the cistern below. The roof is paved with brick, stone, or other hard substance, and surrounded by a balustrade, which, according to Jewish law, must be at least two cubits (three feet) high, and strong enough to bear the weight of a person. Police-regulations, conceived in the same spirit of carefulness, prohibited open wells and pits, insufficient ladders, rickety stairs, even dangerous dogs about a house. From roof to roof there might be a regular communication, called by the Rabbis "the road of the roofs" (Babba Mez. 88 b). Thus a person could make his escape, passing from roof to roof, till at the last house he would descend the stairs that led down its outside, without having entered any dwelling. To this "road of the roofs" our Lord no doubt referred in His warning to His followers (Matt 24:17; Mark 13:15; Luke 17:31), intended to apply to the last siege of Jerusalem: "And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein." For ordinary intercourse the roof was the coolest, the airiest, the stillest place. Of course, at times it would be used for purposes of domestic economy. But thither a man would retire in preference for prayer or quiet thinking; here he would watch, and wait, and observe whether friend or foe, the gathering of the storm, or--as the priest stationed on the pinnacle of the Temple before the morning sacrifice--how the red and golden light of dawn spread along the edge of the horizon. From the roof, also, it was easy to protect oneself against enemies, or to carry on dangerous fight with those beneath; and assuredly, if anywhere, it was "on the housetops" where secrets might be whispered, or, on the other hand, the most public "proclamation" of them be made (Matt 10:27; Luke 12:3). The stranger's room was generally built on the roof, in order that, undisturbed by the household, the guest might go out and come in; and here, at the feast of Tabernacles, for coolness and convenience, the leafy "booths" were often reared, in which Israel dwelt in memory of their pilgrimage. Close by was "the upper chamber." On the roof the family would gather for converse, or else in the court beneath- -with its trees spreading grateful shade, and the music of its plashing fountain falling soothingly on the ear, as you stood in the covered gallery that ran all around, and opened on the apartments of the household.
If the guest-chamber on the roof, which could be reached from the outside, without passing through the house, reminds us of Elisha and the Shunammite, and of the last Passover-supper, to which the Lord and His disciples could go, and which they could leave, without coming in contact with any in the house, the gallery that ran round the court under the roof recalls yet another most solemn scene. We remember how they who bore the man "sick of the palsy," when unable to "come nigh unto Jesus for the press," "uncovered the roof where He was,"and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus" (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19). We know, from many Talmudical passages, that the Rabbis resorted in preference to "the upper room" when discussing religious questions. It may have been so in this instance; and, unable to gain access through the door which led into the upper room, the bearers of the sick may have broken down the ceiling from the roof. Or, judging it more likely that the attendant multitude thronged the court beneath, while Jesus stood in the gallery that ran round the court and opened into the various apartments, they might have broken down the roof above Him, and so slowly let down their burden at His feet, and in sight of them all. There is a significant parallelism, or rather contrast, to this in a Rabbinical story (Moed K. 25 a), which relates how, when the bier on which a celebrated teacher was laid could not be passed out at the door, they carried up their burden and let it down from the roof--on its way, not to a new life, but to burial. Otherwise, there was also a stair which led from the roof into the court and house. Approaching a house, as visitors ordinarily would do, from the street, you would either pass through a large outer court, or else come straight to the vestibule or porch. Here the door opened into the inner court, which sometimes was shared by several families. A porter opened to callers on mentioning their names, as did Rhoda to Peter on the eventful night of his miraculous deliverance from prison (Acts 12:13,14). Our Lord also applies this well-known fact of domestic life, when He says (Rev 3:20), "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." Passing through this inner court, and through the gallery, you would reach the various rooms--the family room, the reception room, and the sleeping apartments--the most retired being occupied by the ladies, and the inner rooms used chiefly in winter. The furniture was much the same as that now in use, consisting of tables, couches, chairs, candlesticks, and lamps, varying in costliness according to the rank and wealth of the family. Among articles of luxury we mention rich cushions for the head and arms, ornaments, and sometimes even pictures. The doors, which moved on hinges fastened with wooden pins, were barred by wooden bolts, which could be withdrawn by check keys from the outside. The dining apartment was generally spacious, and sometimes employed for meetings.