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First Century Travel

Travel, Transportation and Movement in the First Century

I. What realities affected travel and movement in the First Century during Jesus’s lifetime?
II. How did Jesus travel during his life?
III. Why might Jesus have chosen to travel in this way?
IV. What does this mean for followers of Jesus today and the Christian movement worldwide?

I. What realities affected travel and movement in the First Century during Jesus lifetime?

Jesus was born around the time that the Roman Empire had expanded throughout the Mediterranean region, creating a network of land and sea routes used for transportation and communication. The Roman road system was comprised of a network of over 63,000 miles of paved roads, connecting centres of government, culture and power stretching from present day Spain to Iran.

Roman roads were used by traders, builders, soldiers and government officials and greatly contributed to the efficiency of the empire’s expansion. A passport system was used for identification of prestigious officials who had privileges of staying overnight in mansions. A horse-based relay postal system could transport a letter over 500 miles in 24 hours. Regional borders, such as the Jordan River that separated Jewish and Gentile regions on the north side of the sea of Galilee, were stationed with tax collectors and possessed increased cultural diversity.

Matthew 4:12-16 states that Jesus went to live in the Capernaum region, near the Jordan River on “the way to the sea”. This ancient land route is called the Via Maris, connecting eastward to Damascus and serving as one of the major thoroughfares through first-century Palestine between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The Via Maris connected the silk and incense routes that extended to Iran and China to the ports of Ptolemais (Acco) and Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast of western Asia. The fact that Jesus spent most of his life in close proximity to the international trade route offers insight into the diversity of people and ideas he encountered. This reality also helps explain how his message was able to spread from humble Nazareth to the ends of the earth.

The Bible leaves us hanging for approximately 18 years after the 12 year-old Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52). During this time, we can speculate that he likely lived in Nazareth, working with his father as a builder in the region. Some theories suggest that he may have traveled during this time, accounting for his knowledge of foreign cultures, languages and political structures. When Jesus emerges from the wilderness after his trial of temptation, he returns to Galilee which serves as the geographical backdrop for most of his adult life and ministry.

Less than four miles from the small village of Nazareth (pop. 200-400) is one of Herod Antipas’s capitol cities in the Galilee, Sepphoris. This city boasted a population of 30,000 and was a centre for culture and art in the Galilee, hosting beautiful mosaics and a Roman theatre that give it the reputation as the ornament of the Galilee. It also served as the political and banking capitol of the region, housing many of the social elite.

Although scripture does not mention Sepphoris by name, it is likely that Jesus was aware of it’s existence, as a “city on a hill cannot be hidden” and is very visible from the ridges of Nazareth overlooking the Tiran and Bet Netofa valleys. Proximity to Sepphoris would have provided Jesus with an opportunity for employment with his father Joseph, exposure to a diversity of foreigners from across the Roman world and the opportunity to learn to speak and read the three languages: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Through archeological evidence of the systems of cities and transport during Jesus’s life and informed speculation when interfaced with scripture, it is probable that Jesus would have been in contact with the broader world. The region surrounding Nazareth and Capernaum where Jesus spent most of his time included powerful cities such as Sepphoris and Tiberias that were connected to the international transport routes. Many activities and examples used in Jesus’s teaching would not have occurred in a small farming village like Nazareth, but could have been found after a two hour walk down the hill to Sepphoris.

II. How did Jesus travel during his life?

Matthew 9:35 states that Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom [of God] and healing every disease and sickness. In Mark 6:7-12, Jesus sends his disciples out on foot in pairs, instructing them to take nothing for the journey except a staff, no bread, no bag and no money in their belts. He calls his followers to a life of movement to spread the good news throughout the region. He encourages them to travel light, taking only what they need and to experience the hospitality of people in the region.

Since Jesus and his followers were not wealthy Roman diplomats or military leaders, but mostly a band of low-class fishermen and subsistence farmers, they likely traveled by foot to the villages and towns in the region. Walking between the towns listed in scripture literally meant that Jesus and his followers would have spent much of their time hiking through fields and valleys, up mountains and cliffs and relying on others for their sustenance. The range of Jesus’s travels as an adult extends at least 50 miles east to west and 150 miles north to south through present day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Jesus and his followers would have likely had a diet based on bread and olive oil supplemented by fruits and vegetables found in the region. A staff was used for protection against wild animals and thieves, which were more present in both the rugged hill country and on border regions where authority and security were ambiguous. It is unlikely that Jesus had much money or even possessed Roman coins, although some of the finances of Jesus’s itinerant ministry were funded by Joanna, wife of Herod Antipas’s finances minister, as well as several other women who were probably from Sepphoris (Luke 8:3).

III. Why might Jesus have chosen to travel in this way?

Jesus’s choice to spend much of his adult life in a state of itineracy is consistent with his teaching that promotes simple living free from structures and institutions that exert unjust power on the destitute. For the poor and oppressed, Jesus’s way of living offered an invitation to choose freedom from oppressive structures, to will them as irrelevant in comparison to the good news of abundant life that Jesus promised. Whether Jesus’s intentions were to challenge political structures or not, it is clear that his presence threatened the authorities enough to consider him a threat and publicly execute him. Jesus’ choice to decentralise geography inadvertently disempowers elite institutions that hoard wealth and exert control by segregation.

The intentional act to choose itineracy does not guarantee a life free from discomfort or struggle. The cost of following Jesus is examined in Matthew 8:20 when a teacher of the law tells Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go”. It’s important to acknowledge that Jesus is “going” somewhere, and that in this movement he responds by saying that he has no place to lay his head. The decision to detach from the comforts of the powerful require the act of following to be more of a priority than attending to what is motionless or dead.

As a Jew, Jesus’s decision to go to the “other (Gentile) side of the lake” or travel through Samaritan territory literally meant moving beyond ethnic and religious territory. It also meant breaking down the walls of separation that had been constructed as Judaism had become institutionalised and religious elite ruled from positions of power by the letter of the law.

Jesus’s central region of Capernaum would have brought him into contact with a diversity of ethnic and religious groups, likely extending his understanding of the “other” and imagining a Kingdom without borders, restriction of movement or division. His vision for the Kingdom of God is an invitation for his followers to make the active choice to live in a way that is life-giving for all people. Jesus’s geography of the Kingdom of God is not tied to specific places or people, but built upon the freedom of humble movement. It deconstructs ethnic and religious barriers in order to create a space for reconciliatory relationship.

IV. What does this mean for followers of Jesus today and the Christian movement worldwide?

It is wise to be located in a region of international influence, demography and movement.

In order to communicate with the world, there is a need to be located in a region with exposure to the world’s diversity. In the present day, these places are best represented as urban and border regions, near airports and seaports and along major travel routes. Encountering diverse demography is the foundation to building relationships and bridges across people groups.

The geography of the Kingdom of God has no political, ethnic or religious borders.

Jesus’s vision and philosophy of land was focused on following his example of breaking down obstructions to movement and seeking reconciliatory relationships between diverse people groups. The choice to follow his example was a decision to recognise each person as a neighbour and extend love even to enemies. This also means extending relationships beyond traditional identities, whether national, political, ethnic, religious or denominational and focusing on the individual behind their public label.

The choice to follow Jesus is to transform life into a journey, take nothing for the road and walk with a trust in providence.

As paths are made by walking, the choice to take Jesus seriously becomes real when movement begins. This journey is sustained by simple living, intentionality, the practice of hospitality and creative ingenuity. It becomes unending as the traveler rests in the risk of action, grasping the reality that the exercise of faith is the true adventure of the journey.

David Landis is a Co-founder of the Jesus Trail, a 65km hiking route through the Galilee that connects various sites in Jesus life and ministry. This information is intended for educational and non-commerical use and should not be reproduced or distributed without permission from the author.