It is very hard to define exact geographical boundaries for the land of Palestine. The Rabbis simply used the terms ‘the land’ and ‘outside the land’. Everything was ‘outside the land’ that did not have the same beliefs as the Israelites. At this time in history, they based everything on religious beliefs for what their boundaries were. For the Rabbis Palestine was not only holy, but the only holy ground, and utterly excluded all other countries. Outside the land, everything was darkness and death. The very dust of a heathen country was unclean and defiled a person to even come in contact with it. It was regarded like a grave or sure death.
If even a spot of heathen dust had touched an offering, the offering must at once be burnt. More than that, if by mischance any heathen dust had been brought into Palestine it did not and could not mingle with anything in the land, but it always remained unclean and defiled, and it defiled everything with which it came in contact with.
This helps us to understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 10:14 when he sent the disciples out to proclaim the good news. He told them “Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake the dust off your feet”. In other words, they were not only to leave, but it was to be considered and treated as if it were heathen. Matthew 18:17 says “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” All contact with these people and cities should be avoided and all trace of it shaken off.
As time went on there were other lands close to Palestine that were deemed as not being heathen countries. They had established laws and beliefs similar to the Israelites and it was deemed as OK to bring in sacrifices from these countries for some things. In the Menachoth vii. 1, a Hebrew historical document, there is a passage that reads as follows: “Every offering, whether of the congregation or of an individual, may come from ‘the land’, or from ‘outside the land’ except the OMER (the wave-sheaf at the Passover) and the TWO LOAVES at Pentecost, which may only be brought from new product of the current year, and from that which grows within ‘the land’. There is another passage in this book also that says that ‘if a man bought a field in Syria that lies close to the Land of Israel and he can enter it in cleanness, that it is clean…’ Syria formed a kind of outer Palestine as it held a sort of intermediate position between it and the heathen lands. Other countries around them like Babylon, Moab, Egypt and Ammon were considered unclean and they were not to have anything to do with them and sacrifices could not come from those places. They were not of the ‘land that was flowing with milk and honey’. The land east of the Jordan was considered as less sacred because it was not worthy to have the temple built on it.
It is with interest that Paul started the first Gentile church in Antioch, the place where the disciples were first called Christians. This town was just outside the boundaries the rabbis had set for the land of Palestine. Jesus had also withdrawn to the land of Tyre and Sidon which was outside the original boundaries of the land, and even at this time was a heathen land. He had just withdrawn there to get away from the Pharisees when they were offended when he told them the truth about themselves. It was at this heathen city that the “woman of Canaan’s” daughter was healed when she boldly came before him and said that even the dogs lick the crumbs from under the master’s table. He was so impressed with her faith that he healed her daughter. (Matt. 15:28, Mark 7:29)
Almost all the countries surrounding the Jews were inhabited by heathen nations with their heathen worship, rites, and customs. Over the years these heathen people tried to come in and sell their wares and bring their own customs in to the sacred people. Instead of keeping them run out of the country, they gradually accepted their customs and let them bring their own idols into the sacred land that God had given them. Even the language of Israel had undergone a change and in the course of time the main language of Hebrew was replaced with an Aramaean dialect. This had taken over everywhere except in public worship and in the theological circles of the learned scribes. Such words and names in the gospels as Raka, Abba, Golgotha, Gabbatha, Barabbas, and Bar-Jesus are all Aramaean. It was probably that language that Paul addressed the infuriated multitude when he was standing on the steps leading from the Temple into the fortress Antonia. Along with the Aramaean dialect, the Greek had for some time been making its way among the people. The Mishnah itself contains a very large number of Greek and Latin words showing how deeply Gentile life and customs around had affected the Jews, who had hated them in previous years.
In the far north-east of the land were the provinces that belonged to Philip. Many spots in this area are talked about in the Bible and some things of importance happened there later. The area at this time, though, was peopled by wild, predatory nomads. They lived chiefly in immense caves, where they stored their provisions, and were prone to many attacks in which they had to defend themselves.
Herod the Great and his successors had over the years settled a large number of Jewish and Idumaean colonists brought from Babylon. But the vast majority of the people were Syrians and Greeks. They were rude, barbarous heathens. Their worship of the old Syrian gods had not even given way to the more refined rites of the Greeks. It was in this neighborhood that Peter made his noble confession of faith.
No wonder Peter was so rude and crude to start with. This shows how God can take a person just like him and make them into a ROCK for following Jesus so that they won’t be moved by the enemy. Peter was surrounded by idol worship and there were all kinds of different idols to worship in the place he was from.
As time went on Herod built magnificent temples to gods all over the land, and had even put one in Samaria. Greek customs and their language was getting completely immersed into the everyday lives of the Israelite people.
After a while the only places that remained loyal to the one true Holy God were Galilee and Judaea. They were the only ones left in which they carried out the Jewish views and manners that had been given to them by God many years ago.