In Babylonian times the Talmud written by them stated that as long as Israel inhabited Palestine the country was wide, but at the time the Talmud was written it had become narrow. Each time the Jews disobeyed God, the change left the boundaries of the Holy Land more narrowed. It has never reached the extent indicated in the original promise to Abraham and afterwards confirmed to the children of Israel. The nearest approach to it was during the reign of King David.
At present the country to which Palestine attaches its name is smaller than any other previous period. It still stretches north and south “from Dan to Beersheba” as in Bible days and east and west from Salcah (the modern Sulkhad) to the Great Sea, or the Mediterranean. Its superficial area is about 12,000 square miles, its length from 140 to 180, its breadth in the south about 75, and in the north from 100 to 120 miles. In modern terms, it is about twice as large as Wales, smaller than Holland, and about equal in size to Belgium. From the very highest mountain peak a glimpse of almost the whole country may be obtained. It was a very small land which the Lord chose as the scene of the most marvelous events that ever happened on earth.
The soil of Palestine had already undergone a great many changes even at the time Jesus walked on its soil. The ancient division of the twelve tribes was no more, the two kingdom of Judah and Israel no longer existed, and the various foreign kings who had taken control over the land along with Israel’s brief periods of independence were no longer in existence, either. The basic inhabitants of the country started again with Ezra and Nehemiah when only a small number of them came back to rebuild the walls and rebuild the city. They were either from those who had originally been left in the land or of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah.
At the time of Jesus’ birth Palestine was governed by Herod the Great. It was a nominally independent kingdom, but was under the leadership of Rome. Herod died as he had lived, cruel and treacherous. A few days before he died he had altered his will. He had nominated Archelaus, his son, as his successor and Herod Antipas (the Herod of the Bible and another son) to be tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea; and Philip to be tetrarch of Caesarea Philippi and other cities around it. After having quelled a rising up of the people in Jerusalem, Archelaus hastened to Rome to obtain the emperor’s confirmation of his father’s will, along with his brother Herod Antipas. When they got there they found several other members of the family already there. The two brothers were both trying to sway the emperor to appoint them as the next Herod the Great, and there was much politicking going on as each of the brothers had his own supporters who were conniving and maneuvering to get their own leader in.
The emperor was from the first inclined to go with Archelaus, but before a decision could be made he had to leave to try to get under control a very large riot in Judaea, with which he had a very hard time controlling. Meanwhile a Jewish group appeared in Rome and said that they didn’t think either one of the brothers should become the leader. They wanted to live under their own laws with Rome just checking up on them every once in a while. In the end the emperor agreed to this, which made Archelaus extremely angry. He was given a much lesser job which did not please him at all. He eventually was deposed from it because of his cruelty to the people. During his reign, he made £240,000 a year. But this was nothing compared to the income of Herod the Great which was £680,000 a year. King Agrippa II, made as much as $500,000 of our dollars per year.
The general cheapness of living in Palestine at this time could be gathered from the smallness of the coins and from the lowness of the labor market. The smallest coin, a Jewish perutah, amounted to only a sixteenth of a penny. It seems that there was a lot of division in wages.
Politically speaking, the division of Palestine during this time consisted of Judaea and Samaria under Roman procurators; Galilee and Peraea, on the other side of the Jordan, were subject to Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist; and Caesarea Philippi and other cities were under the rule of Philip and named after him and the Roman emperor. This was where Peter made his noble confession which constituted the rock on which the Church was to be built. It was the wife of this Philip, the best of all of Herod’s sons, that had his wife leave him for his brother, Herod Antipas. This adulterous union brought Herod Antipas immediate trouble and misery, and it ultimately cost him his kingdom and sent him into life-long banishment.
Palestine was commonly arranged into Galilee, Samaria, Judaea, and Peraea. We all know that the Jews did not consider Samaria to belong to the Holy Land even though it was between Galilee and Judaea. They considered it as a strip of foreign country. From the gospels we know that the Samaritans were ranked with Gentiles and strangers. (See the map at the end of this text.)
The Samaritans claimed to be God’s true people just as the Jewish people and there was much hatred among them. An example of this is written in Josephus, the Jewish historian’s archives. It says that the night of the Passover, when it was the custom to open the Temple gates at midnight, a Samaritan had come and strewn bones in the porches and throughout the Temple to defile the Holy House. Although this was probably now true, it shows the feeling of the people. The Samaritans fully retaliated by bitter hatred and contempt for the Jews. They never had any more bitter enemies than the Samaritans.