Among its other joys, the Advent season invites us into the setting of Jesus' first coming - not a Roman palace, but a cramped, dirty stable in a hamlet named Bethlehem. A single fact measures the distance between that world and ours - the first century lacked electricity. No electricity? No artificial lighting to extend the day. No electricity? No power tools, appliances, TVs, computers, or cell phones. Trains, planes, automobiles, steam-and-diesel-powered ships were far in the future.
By land, most walked or rode the humble donkey. A good day's journey was 20 miles. Most ships sailed with the wind, or did not move at all. We could list 10,000 objects we daily take for granted which did not exist when Mary bore Jesus. Those who knew Jesus then certainly could not have conceived of us and of our world.
Yet, in writing to the Galatians, Paul asserted, 'When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son' (Galatians 4:4, NASB). Jesus was born in Herod's kingdom; Herod was a client king of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.
What made the middle years of Augustus' rule 'the fullness of the time?'
The Roman East. Pompey incorporated the ancient Israelite homeland into the Roman world in 63 B.C., ending the independent Jewish (Hasmonean) kingdom. By 37 B.C., Herod was king. Jesus was born in Bethlehem perhaps a year before Herod's death. Herod and his sons--especially Antipas, who received Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan), and Philip, who received several small contiguous areas north and east of the Sea of Galilee--worked hard to assure their Roman overlords of their unflagging loyalty.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, and he ministered from Capernaum near the eastern border of the Roman Empire. Visiting Jerusalem during his years of public ministry, Jesus entered Judea, by then governed by the prefect, Pontius Pilate, who answered directly to Tiberius Caesar in Rome.
Adding strength to the personal loyalty of Antipas and Philip, Rome stationed Roman legions and non-Roman auxiliaries strategically, and assessed heavy taxes. Loss of independence, the burdensome tax load, and widespread Messianic readings of the Hebrew Scriptures fanned the flames of Jewish nationalism through the first century and into the second.
To Jesus' community suffering under the Roman yoke, the promise of Isaiah 9:6, 'The government shall be upon his shoulder,' meaning the Son who was yet to come, was a mightily attractive idea. It took two disastrous wars with Rome (A.D. 66-70 and A.D. 132-135) to burn that fire to ashes.
Social and economic standing. In the Roman Empire, noble families, ranking military figures, and other officials of various ranks were the insiders. Besides these, Roman citizens were privileged over non-Roman provincials, the status of most Judeans, Samaritans, and Galileans. Within the Jewish society of Judea, Galilee, and Perea, those directly wielding power on behalf of the Herods and of Rome (think 'tax collectors,' like Matthew and Zaccheus), members of the high priestly family and their intimates, and other wealthy landowners and businesspeople were the insiders.
'Blue collar' and 'white collar' professionals, physicians, scribes, smiths, potters, stone masons, carpenters, fullers, weavers, bakers, fishers, a limited number of small farmers, some shepherds, day laborers, and others usually could provide for their families, but most could not aspire to wealth. Tenant farmers, domestic servants, some field workers, and various others owned by their masters comprised the bottom of the social rankings.
Besides the trades and professions, banking and regional commerce also were important. Grain, olive oil, wine, and balsam were significant exports from Jewish and neighboring regions. Bulkier products (grain, oil, wine) often went by sea - sonar soundings are revealing the presence of hundreds of ancient shipwrecks around the Mediterranean.
The renowned Roman road system facilitated commerce, while caravans transported exotic spices and incense from and beyond Arabia. For those who could afford them, an astonishing range of luxury goods was available: witness the alabaster jar of nard with which the woman anointed Jesus (Mark 14:3). Even silk was already being imported from China via the fabled Silk Road.
Science and technology. We don't usually associate science and technology with the first century. However, educated persons knew the earth is a sphere. Eratosthenes, Museum librarian in Alexandria, had demonstrated that fact a few years after 245 B.C., he even had calculated its circumference - possibly within 200 miles of the real figure!
A wheeled plow and a mechanical reaper were invented in the early days of the Roman Empire. Found in a shipwreck from early in the first century B.C. was a mechanical computer used to replicate the motions of the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. It even predicted eclipses, and compensated for the annual 'extra' one-quarter of a day reflected by our Leap Year.
Daily Life. The distinction between the wealthy and the poor was most vividly seen in cities. The poor lived in tiny apartments or houses of two or three rooms, crowded together on narrow streets, without heat, with little light or ventilation, without water, without indoor plumbing. They slept on mats or skins, or in their outer garments, on floors of beaten earth.
By contrast, the wealthy lived in spacious homes, with floor plans centering on an open courtyard, and a large hall for entertaining guests. These often had mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The master and mistress had a private bedroom, and indoor plumbing included baths and toilets. Water for drinking and cooking was often collected in one or more cisterns carved out of the underlying bedrock. Still, by modern western standards even such homes were modest in size. The recently excavated home of a wealthy family in Jerusalem, often referred to as 'The Palatial Mansion,' was not quite a 2,000-square-foot home.
Public baths were a prominent feature of many cities of the Empire. Upper and middle class Romans and Greeks frequented them; most observant Jews did not. These baths were not perfectly sanitary, as their water was not flowing water, and was not changed often.
Family life. In most Roman, Greek, and Jewish homes, the husband and father was absolute head of the household. Most women were married, and many had borne their first child by age fifteen. Children were not completely weaned until age three or four. Life expectancy at birth was under thirty years, but both male and female children who survived until age five might reasonably expect to live to quite a ripe old age.
Though divorce was easy for a man, Jewish women could not divorce their husbands. A woman's place usually was in the home. Mothers taught their daughters how to run a household. Sons usually followed the trade or profession of their fathers: Jewish boys learned to read in the synagogue school. At death, people of means were 'gathered to the fathers' in the family tomb.
Why could Paul assert so confidently that God had sent Jesus 'in the fullness of the time?'
People of many ages have done - people of any age could do - without internal combustion engines, without plastics and caplets. We could do without the electricity that turns nighttime highways into ribbons of light, that makes visible from the darkness of space our stadiums, our shopping centers, even our homes.
We could not do without the Light of the World in whose honor we light the candles of the Advent season.
Joseph Coleson is professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2012