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The Holy land — yesterday, today and tomorrow

The Holy Land of Jesus' time was totally unlike what people imagine it to have been.
And it was far from being a back — ward country full of itinerant shepherds and oriental casbahs.
It was a land of wealth and beauty — one of the greatest
exponents of Greek culture in the ancient world.
Yet all of its present and former glory fades into obscurity in the light of
the prophesied preeminence the Holy Land is to have in
God's Kingdom — soon to come!


TODAY the land of Israel is often described as a land of contrasts. Major cities rise on what were formerly just sand dunes. Where there was once desert or swamp, one sees thriving farms today. But why the desert and swamp to begin with? Was this not the "land of milk and honey"?

Today one is still staggered by the denuded slopes of the central mountain chain — they are treeless and so dry. Has it always been this way? What had happened to this land which was once the envy of the world? What was it like in the time of Christ?

Most of us have associated this ancient area with camels, donkeys and people dressed in Bedouin garb. But this is nothing like it formerly was. Eyewitness reports give us an astonishingly different description.

The most important witness was Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the first century. Williamson — who has given us one of the finest translations of Josephus — graphically sums up his overall description. He notes how Josephus brings "before our eyes the cities, palaces, and temples which filled this little land with beauty and made it one of the greatest creations of Hellenism, as different as could be imagined from the Palestine of our Sunday School memories . . . a country filled with such a wealth of architectural and artistic splendor as has perhaps never been elsewhere since the world began, and (subsequently) reduced by crimes and follies to a desert, a mass of shapeless ruins" (Introduction, Penguin Ed.).

These two statements of Josephus' translator begin to tell us how the Holy Land really was. It was nothing like it is today!

Herod the Great — Builder Extraordinary

The building up of this area, making it one 9f the most prosperous areas in the world, was started two centuries before Christ. But the greatest activity came in the time of Herod the Great. We need to recognize the cultural advances implemented by Herod and his successors. They made this country into a showplace of Greek culture and Hellenistic splendor which turned it into a prime example of classical grandeur in the first century.

Herod's accomplishments occurred just before the birth of Christ. The darker side of his life has been adequately penned by Josephus and the Gospel writers. Yet there was a trait in Herod's character which may, in one way, allow the historian to give him his common title, "the Great." The reason? He was one of the most prodigious builders of all time. His structures were never ordinary in size or common in esthetic values. No one could match Herod in his lavish outlays of resources for the building of whole cities, temples, harbors, theaters, amphitheaters, hippodromes, palaces, as well as parks, gardens, roads, etc. Not only did his building enterprises extend through his own territory, but his generosity spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. What he created in the three decades of his rule was such a prosperous kingdom that "its external splendor recalled the traditional magnificence of Solomon" (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. IV, art. "Herod").

What a comparison! Herod's kingdom became much like Solomon's in its riches. But where did his wealth come from? Could the land of Herod and his surrounding domains support such extravagant building expenditures? The answer is most decidedly YES! This land was different in those days. The whole area was very prosperous.


Josephus Describes Galilee, Samaria, Judaea

Speaking of the land in general, Josephus relates that the fruitfulness of the land made it like "a garden of God in which there grow the most precious and most beautiful trees in amazing variety."

Of Galilee in particular — the northern region of the Holy Land where Christ had His home and where He conducted most of His ministry —Josephus states:

The whole area is excellent for crops or cattle and rich in forests of every kind, so that by its adaptability it invites even those least inclined to work on the land. Consequently every inch has been cultivated by the inhabitants and not a corner goes to waste. It is thickly studded with towns, and thanks to the natural abundance the innumerable villages are so densely populated that the smallest has more than 15,000 inhabitants (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, III, 3, 2).

What about Judaea and Samaria in the southern and central regions? The hillsides were not like the barren, treeless, arid landscapes that we see in many parts today. Josephus tells us that both Judaea and Samaria

. . .are made up of hills and plains, with soil easily worked and repaying cultivation. They are well wooded and prolific in fruit, both wild and cultivated; for nowhere is the soil arid by nature and rain is generally ample. All their streams are remarkably sweet, and lush grass is so plentiful that the milk-yield of their cows is exceptionally heavy. The final proof of their outstanding productivity is the swarming populations of Judaea and Samaria (ibid., para. 4).

Ambassador College Photo
A view of the Sea of Galilee from its surrounding
hills — green and productive as in the days of Josephus.


Where did Herod get his abundance of wealth which became proverbial throughout the Roman world? It came from the land and from the productive people that lived on it. In the time of Christ, it was one of the wealthiest areas in the whole Roman Empire! All people of the time knew it. Josephus admitted that "of all the cities under Roman rule, our own (Jerusalem) reached the highest summit of prosperity" (Wars of the Jews, Preface, 4).

It can easily be demonstrated why it became so prosperous. Other areas of the Roman Empire (other than certain regions of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt) were no match for wealth. Vast tracts in Italy — the very heartland of the Empire — were veritable wastelands created by the Hannibalic, Social and Civil Wars. Greece was in shambles — not even a facade of its former self.

Spain and Gaul were undeveloped. It was the East that carried the financial burden of the Empire, and proportionately it was the Herodian region that led most others. Even Titus, the later Roman Emperor, stated that the land of Herod "had become richer than Rome itself" (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VII, 1, 2).