The distinction that separated the Jews from the Gentiles was not only religious, but social as well. No one could have entered a Jewish town or village without feeling that they were in another world. Everything about it was different from the heathen cities: the aspect of the streets, the building and arrangement of the houses, the municipal and religious rule, the manners and customs of the people, their habits and ways, and above all the family life stood in marked contrast to what it was in other heathen cities. On every side there was evidence that religion here pervaded every aspect of every relationship and dominated every phase of life.
For the size of the country, Palestine had quite a few towns and villages. Even at the time Joshua led the invasion of the Promised Land there were about 600 towns with an average population of two to three thousand. After the Israelites got settled in the land, the number of towns and villages greatly increased as the years went by. Josephus, the historian, speaks of 240 townships in Galilee alone while he was living. When the Romans took over the land in later years, they had an immense love for building and making things beautiful, so they built a great many of the beautiful buildings that are still standing today. There were three names given so that people would know the size of the place: village, township, or town. They started from small communities to large towns. The towns were surrounded by walls and were the largest cities. They had everything that one would need to live in them. A township could be large if it had a synagogue there. This depended on there being 10 men there who would be willing to join the synagogue and worship there. There had to be at least 10 men for a synagogue to be built in a town. The villages had no synagogue and were like just a small community. The inhabitants were supposed to go to the nearest township for market on the Monday and Thursday of every week.
There was a strange law that if a man decided to move to a bigger or smaller town, that he could not make his wife follow him. The reason for this was that in a town the people lived very close together and there were no gardens like the people were able to have in townships and villages. If the woman really like where she was living, then she wasn’t made to pick up and leave just because her husband did. In the same way, she might not want to move from a large town to the country.
First, we will look at what town life might have been like according to the many archaeological excavations and the many artifacts that have been found. As one approached a town he would come to a low wall that protected a ditch. This was called a moat as it was filled with water. After crossing this bridge you would be at the city wall and enter through a massive gate usually made with iron or other very strong material and secured by strong bars and bolts. Above the gate rose the watch tower. These gates could be really massive and have much space within them. Within the confines of the gate was a shady or sheltered area where “the elders” sat to discuss the public affairs or news of the day, or transacted important business.
The gates opened upon massive squares that were busy with trade of all kinds. Various streets also led to these squares because there was so much business conducted here. The country people came into the city and set up here so that they could sell their produce, orchard or dairy. The foreign merchants came in and set up their merchandise they had for sale. Many of them brought in the latest fashions from Rome or Alexandria or the latest luxuries from the Far East. There were also goldsmiths and other tradesmen that set up shop here. On most days there were a huge crowd of people who were here doing various things, even if it was just meeting each other to find out the latest news.
They would always move so the Pharisees could get by, or maybe the crowd would hush and talk about the weird appearance of an Essene that might come in. The streets were mostly named after the trades or guilds which were located there, as each trade tended to keep together in one general area. In Alexandria the different trades sat in the synagogue arranged into guilds. Paul probably met Priscilla and Aquila this way as he sat in the synagogue with the tent-makers’ guild. Because they all thought alike, they were very accepting of others in the same trade.
In this massive square, many of the workmen sat outside their shops while they were not busy and exchanged greetings with the people who passed by. They felt that all Israelites were brethren and thought it the right thing to do to treat each person well. The tradesmen must have carried on many conversations with people whom they had never even met before.
The people went back to their homes in the heat of the day and came back out into the square in the cool of the evening. Those people who did not have cisterns in their houses would come out to the fountain or well to get water.
A watchman would be on the top of the tower above the gateway to be on the lookout for invaders. As it got dark and cooler, people would come back out into the streets. There would never be complete darkness, because it was customary to keep a light burning all night in the house. The windows opened chiefly onto the street or road where the house was.
The large windows were called Tyrian and the smaller ones Egyptian. They were not filled with glass, but something that was like the lattice we have today. In the houses of the rich, the window frames would be carved elaborately. For the most part, the wood that was used was sycamore, olive, or cedar. In the palaces Indian sandal-wood was used. The Jews were very determined at this time, though, that they would have nothing that resembled heaven or earth in their houses. They were extremely serious about this, and they burned the palace of Herod Antipas at Tiberias because he had decorated it with many figures of animals.
These extreme views gave way when Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, made use of a public bath that was adorned by a statue of Venus. He was a very respected person, and he said that the statue was intended for the embellishment of the bath, and not the bath for the sake of the statue. Gamaliel said that an idol was nothing if its worship had been disclaimed by the heathen. Gradually the modern orthodox doctrine which allows the representation of plants, animals, etc., was considered fine. It still prohibited that of sun, moon, and stars, except for purposes of study.
The rules of these towns and villages was very strict. Every town had its Sanhedrin that consisted of 23 members if the town had at least 120 men in it. If it was smaller than that, there were 3 members of the Sanhedrin. These were appointed directly by the Great Sanhedrin or “the council” as it was called. In Jerusalem they consisted of 70 members. It is difficult to know how much actual power they had at this time as during the times of Roman rule they were more ceremonial. In their later years, they were pretty much just ceremonial and could only do things that directly concerned the Jewish faith.
The police and sanitary regulations were of the strictest character. From archaeological finds in Caesarea, it was found that there was a regular system of drainage into the sea, similar to more modern towns. The same held true in regard to the Temple Buildings in Jerusalem. These sanitary rules were strictly adhered to. Anything like a cemetery that might be bad for the health, had to be located out of the town a little ways.
A house could not be located over any bakers’ or dyers’ shops or any stables. The line of each street had to be strictly kept as the buildings were being built. No projections could stand out as one looked down the street. The streets were wider than those of modern Eastern cities. The fact that so many of the cities had to be built on hills because of the terrain made it much easier to take care of the sanitary aspect of the cities.
Paving of all the streets was not required because of the terrain, but we know from antiquities that Jerusalem was paved with white stones. To keep down any occasion for dispute, neighbors were not allowed to have windows looking out into the courts or rooms of others. Also, the principal entrance to a shop could not be through a common courtyard to the entrance of two or three dwellings.
Below is a model drawing of the Antonia Fortress that stood guard to The Temple. It was so huge that I’m sure many events were held there. Also the Romans guards could stand on the top of the wall and look over into The Temple at the people there and make sure everything was going smoothly there at all times. If anything went wrong, they could be there quickly to take care of it.
The model below shows the Pool of Bethesda that sits right below the Fortress. This was the pool where the angel stirred the water once a year and the first one in was healed.
The next model shows how the Antonia Fortress may have looked in the days of the Temple. It had to be a very massive structure as numbers of people could be inside it at any time and it also had numerous rooms and places for soldiers to even stay overnight.