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One of the central questions used in Bible Study is "What did it mean to the original readers?". Once we know the context that the text originally took place in we start to examine it to see how it applies to us today. There is a chance that we can go off track if we subconsciously place the narration of the Bible over a Hollywood backdrop. The Holy Spirit is there to help us with our understanding, but God expects us to use the tools available to us too. Enter Joachim Jeremias' survey of the city and countryside that Jesus walked during the 1st century. It isn't the place that we see on the late show.
Jeremias opens the book with a survey of the economy of Jerusalem. We look at the various industries; household goods, food supplies, luxury items, and construction. There is an explanation of the loose guild system, as well as that major employer of the city, the Temple. He goes on to explain the commerce of Jersusalem, both in terms of goods in and out as well as people in and out. The people examined include not only the large number of pilgrims that would arrive for the three annual festivals, but also the Roman military and administrative cadres.
The next section looks at class differences in the Holy Land, spending some time with rich, middle class, and poor. Amongst the poor there is special attention paid to slaves and the subsidized. The discussion of the last lends a lot to an understanding of the first half of the Acts of the Apostles.
After that look at overall social stratification, four groups with special positions in the city are looked at. The Priesthood, of which there was a huge number associated the Temple, is looked at first. Finally, a good explanation of the difference between high priests and chief priests, weekly and daily courses. The lay nobility of the land are looked at with a bit less detail, followed by two groups all readers of the New Testament are acquainted with, The Pharisees and the Scribes. They may not be quite who you think they are. Jeremias reports some surpising things about both.
Having discussed class status and several social power groups, Jeremias turns to a major concern of the elite in Jesus' time, racial purity. There is a long discussion of whom the elite considered legitimate Israelites, illegitimate Israelites, the place of Gentiles both free and slave, Samaritans, and women. Lots of surprises here. One example that astounded me, the senior priests not only were restricted to marrying within the body of legitimate Israelites, and restricted to marrying only virgins, but "virgin" was defined much more strictly than a 21st century reader might imagine.
Ok, let's say I've been persuasive,and you agree with me that Jeremias' book might be a good tool for your Bible study toolbox. Why do I say it is awkward? Apparently Jeremias wrote this for the serious Bible student, and not just for seminarians. However, the serious student he wrote for was German (orginal title "Jerusalem zur Zeit Jesu") and apparently serious Bible students in Germany like lots and lots of footnotes, endnotes, and citations. Nothing wrong with that, it means if you have questions about anything Jeremias writes, you can go to the source material and check it yourself. For most American Bible students, the style of writing can be a shock at first. Example, from page 90, discussing Herod's court:
"The Mishnah sets the limit at eighteen wives (M. Sanh. ii.4), and the Talmud gives twenty-four and forty-eight, both figures representing Tannaitic and so ancient teaching (b. Sanh. 21a bar.)."
A fine tongue-twister, eh? Despite the readablity issue, though, this really is a fine book to refer to when reading the Gospels and Acts, and to a lesser extent the Epistles. After reading Jeremias' book, you will have a much better understanding of just how much Jesus upset the status quo with what He said and what He did.
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