Cover image for Two Thousand years ago : the world at the time of Jesus
Two Thousand years ago : the world at the time of Jesus
Frazee, Charles A.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans, [2002]

Physical Description:
viii, 248 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D85.F57 F73 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Millions of people are familiar with the story of Jesus, but few could place the events of his life, as recorded in the New Testament, into the larger context of world history. Uniquely filling this gap, CHarles Frazee's Two Thousand Years Ago offers an absorbing unprecedented survey of peoples and events around the world at the time of Jesus.

Author Notes

Charles A. Frazee is professor of church history at Episcopal Theological School, Claremont, California.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Frazee expertly imagines Jesus' life and destiny had he been born anywhere but Bethlehem. Every chapter of this oversized coffee table book covers a region of the world during the era of Christ, offering an accessible and entertaining update on the religious and spiritual beliefs of each land. Frazee, a professor of church history at Episcopal Theological School in Claremont, California, muses upon how Jesus would have influenced each region had it been his birthplace. For instance, as a miracle worker Christ may have wowed the Egyptians, since their spirituality was heavily influenced by magical thinking. But in Northern Europe, Frazee claims, Jesus' teachings might have flopped. The Celts, Germans, and other Europeans were so focused on survival and resolving conflicts with violence, that "Jesus' teaching of love, non-violence, and peace would have seemed preposterous to them." In China, Jesus' linear concept of time and his focus on entering God's kingdom would have clashed with the secular views of Confucius and Lao-tzu, who "were intent on instructing men and women on how to find harmony in this lifetime, not in any lifetime to come." Frazee's compelling comparisons also include the Arctic, Pacific Islands, and the Americas-almost always concluding that Jesus' teachings would never have taken hold anywhere other than the Middle East. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Mediterranean Europe Jesus spent his entire life in close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, a body of water that dominates the geography of southern Europe. Galilee, his homeland, lay at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The sea's great expanse separates Europe from North Africa, extending over two thousand miles from east to west. Its high salt content, the result of rapid evaporation during the warm summer months, gives it a deep blue color. Cool water flows into it from the Atlantic Ocean at the Strait of Gibraltar, constantly replenishing what is lost. By Jesus' time the Romans, because of their conquests, had made the Mediterranean their lake; they knew it as mare nostrum , our sea. Three peninsulas jut into the sea from continental Europe: the Iberian, the Italian, and the Balkan. Each has its share of mountains; these, over the centuries, have provided excellent stone for building. Many such buildings, constructed before the lifetime of Jesus, ate still standing today. The Mediterranean climate offers cool winters, a time when the rains Come, and hot, dry summers. Though most of its inhabitants in the first century farmed for a living, harvests were not bountiful. Just the opposite was true, in fact, for the land is rocky and steep and water scarce during the growing season. Mediterranean farmers had to spend long days in the field to provide for their families. Countless islands dot the Mediterranean, some formed by volcanoes, others the peaks of submerged mountains. The Aegean Sea in particular, off the coast of Greece, is full of islands. The Greeks called them the Cyclades, from their word for circle, believing that they formed a ring around the tiny island of Delos, sacred to them as the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis. It was on these islands that the first European civilization, that of the Minoans, was born. The Minoans eventually moved to Crete, where a succession of monarchs bearing the title of Minos created centers of culture in palaces famous for their architecture and frescoes. Knossos was their capital, and from its port Cretan sailors traded with Egypt and the cities of southwest Asia, bringing back the riches that allowed their rulers to furnish their dwellings in style. Despite its wealth, though, Minoan culture did not last; long before the time of Jesus it was absorbed into Hellenistic Greek society. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, all that we know about Jesus comes to us written in the Greek language. THE GREEK BACKGROUND Around 1900 B.C. people from the northern Balkans began to settle in the region that became known as Greece. They mixed with the indigenous population there, eventually forming a single people. Four hundred years later, the center of their most advanced society was at Mycenae, a city on the Peloponnesus. Mighty kings built their palace on its height and constructed the Lions Gate, which still stands at the entrance to their fortress home. The Mycenaean Greeks replaced the Minoans as the great seafarers of their age, and with their wealth in gold and silver the kings ordered large tombs to be built for themselves in imitation of the pyramids of Egypt. Though not so huge as those in Egypt, they were the largest ever seen in the Balkans. Both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans had developed systems of writing, but they were not used for narrative. Ir was left for Homer, in the Iliad and the Odyssey , to record the memory of life in Mycenaean times. Mycenae flourished for three centuries before new invaders destroyed it. For hundreds of years thereafter Greece was once again a backwater until, about 750 B.C., civilization appeared again with the birth of the city-state. Over the next four hundred years, the city-states of Greece produced one of the world's most creative civilizations. Athens led the way, but Corinth and Thebes on the mainland, and Miletus, Ephesus, and Smyrna on the western coast of Anatolia, were also centers of commerce, science, and the arts. Sparta, in its own way, also made a contribution to Hellenic culture. It was not famous for its artists or philosophers, but for a highly structured and disciplined way of life, which has fascinated historians ancient and modern. It was during this period that ancient Athenians invented theater and built the magnificent temples that still stand on top of the Acropolis. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle walked the streets of Athens, initiating conversations on philosophy, politics, and ethics that continue to this day in the Western world. They built on the work of the scientists of the Anatolian cities, who had preceded them in inquiring about what determines matter and form, motion and space. Writing history also began with the Greeks. Herodotus, called the father of history, recorded the events surrounding the Persian invasion of Greece in the early fifth century, and Thucydides wrote his work on the battles between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Greek sculptors and painters were extraordinary in their ability to depict their gods and goddesses in bronze and stone and to memorialize their athletes in statues that represent their ideal of the human form. It was the Greeks who conceived of sports as a way to honor their deities, who were thought to enjoy watching a race just as much as mortals did. Their gods and goddesses were regarded as similar to humans in many ways, sharing many of their loves and hatreds, but they had an edge on humans as well: they were immortal, and, among other powers, could become invisible when it pleased them. In the fourth century, in the region of Macedonia, a very ambitious dynasty was founded when Philip II took the throne. Until then, Macedonia had not made a mark on Greek history, but Philip intended to change that by conquering the surrounding city-states and placing them under his leadership for an invasion of Persia. But although he dominated the Greeks after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., assassins brought him down before his plans for war against Persia could be accomplished. ALEXANDER THE GREAT AND THE MACEDONIANS Philip's son, Alexander, quickly assumed his father's role as leader of the Greeks and Macedonians against the might of the Persians. Alexander marched against the Persian king, Darius III, who, despite great resources, could not stop the invaders and died at the hands of his own generals because of his failure. Within twelve years, Alexander brought most of the southwest Asian world under his rule. Then, in 323 B.C., he died while still a young man of thirty-three. His wife was pregnant with his heir, but his generals intended that they should be Alexander's successors. For several years, there was a contest to see if one of them could take his place, but the battles were inconclusive. As a result, they divided the conquests among them: Ptolemy became king in Egypt; Seleucus governed Syria and the Asian territories taken from Persia; and in Macedonia, actually the poorest part of Alexander's empire, his general Antipater was king. The classical age of Greece was ended, and the period of Hellenistic Greece had begun. Both Alexander's and Antipater's deaths were taken by many Greeks as signals to revolt, but the Macedonian kings had no intention of letting the city-states of the south escape. Macedonian soldiers garrisoned Athens, which Alexander had treated with leniency; and many of its privileges were revoked. In 279 B.C., the Macedonian kings were unable to halt a Celtic attack on Delphi, which only an earthquake saved from devastation. King Antigonus II Gonatus removed the Celts from Macedonian Greece by promising them tribute, thus persuading them to pass over into Anatolia. Antigonus's rule, from 277 until 239 B.C., was benign, for he had a sincere affection for the culture of ancient Greece. Then the Macedonian leadership made a fatal mistake. Antigonus's successor, Philip V, chose to ally his nation with Carthage in resisting the growing power of Rome. The Romans responded by encouraging a revolt against the Macedonians. Other wars followed and, in 148 B.C., Macedonia became a Roman province. At the time of Jesus, both Macedonia and the lands of classical Greece, known as Achaia to the Romans, fell into that category. We must now interrupt the history of Greece to turn to events in Italy. Who were these Romans that had incorporated the Macedonians and Greeks into their world? THE ROMANS A Roman author, writing centuries after the foundation of the city of Rome, claimed that the city was begun in 753 B.C., when, according to a long-held legend, twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, decided to settle on the banks of the Tiber River in central Italy. A quarrel about which of the seven hills each should choose to make his home resulted in Remus's death and the newly founded city receiving Romulus's name. An alternate story tells of the Trojan warrior Aeneas establishing the city of Lavinium Longa to the south of Rome, thus beginning the ascent of the Latin-speaking people of the region. But archaeologists, no friends of legends, claim that Rome was occupied by Italian peoples well before 1000 B.C. Economically speaking, the site of Rome was felicitous, for its location in the center of the Italian peninsula allowed it to benefit from trade between its neighbors: the Greeks in the south and the Etruscans in the north. Greek colonists had arrived in Italy as early as 770 B.C., making their home in the region of the Bay of Naples. They were attracted to Italy for its soil, which was much more fertile than that of their homeland, and for its mineral wealth, which was there for the taking. Though they lived not far north of Rome, the Etruscans were the only Italians who did not speak an Indo-European language. Herodotus claimed that they had migrated to Italy from Anatolia, but a recent theory asserts that they may well have been the descendants of the Neolithic population of the peninsula. Whatever the case, by the beginning of the seventh century B.C., the Etruscan people had a distinct identity and were noted for their rich farmlands and flourishing cities. Like the Greek city-states, each city had its own political leaders, and each jealously maintained its individuality. When the Etruscans began to expand in the early sixth century, the Romans were in no position to resist, and the city eventually fell under the rule of an Etruscan dynasty. In 509 B.C., the Roman aristocrats, known as patricians, revolted against Tarquin the Proud, their Etruscan king, driving him from the city. The patricians formed a republic under the direction of an assembly known as the Senate. On an annual basis the Senate chose two consuls as the major administrative officials of the city. Other magistrates were also elected to serve the city's needs, but always with colleagues and only for a yearly term, for the ancient Romans had developed a great fear of the concentration of power in a single individual. Service in the army was the key to Roman citizenship. Rome and the area that surrounded it, known as Latium, lay in a plain that was subject to raids from the peoples who lived in the Apennines, the mountain chain that runs down the spine of Italy. For this reason, the army always had to be on the alert, because Rome lacked natural defenses. Every able-bodied man was expected to serve a tour of duty in the military. Each found a position in a century, which was captained by a centurion. Sixty centuries made up a legion. The government of Rome was an oligarchy; power was concentrated in the hands of several ruling families. The remainder of the population fell into the plebeian class. Like the Brahmans, their counterparts in India, the patricians justified their rule by appealing to their knowledge of sacred texts and their priestly functions. The plebeians, though, who made up the bulk of the army, eventually began to resent their lack of status. After decades of political struggle, they won the right to enter the Senate, stand for election to the magistracies, and have their own convention, the Plebeian Assembly, recognized as a legal entity with legislative powers. Its officers, the ten tribunes, over time became important figures in the Roman government. ROMAN LIFE During the lifetime of Jesus, Roman society was divided into classes determined by birth and wealth. At the top were the patricians, the great landowners descended from noble families, whose incomes were large enough to allow them to spend their time in politics and military commands and to pursue the lives of gentlemen farmers. It was considered beneath them to engage in business, with the sole exception of buying and selling property. Over time, a class known as equites emerged; they were an upper middle class whose members had attained rank because of their wealth, if not their birth into patrician families. Merchants, artisans, and professionals also composed a large group of citizens. Included in this class were freedmen and -women, former slaves who had purchased their liberty or were emancipated by benevolent masters. Slaves, both male and female, were very numerous, most of them serving the upper classes as domestics. They had no legal rights, could not marry without permission, and could be bought or sold. Many were prisoners of war; others were simply the children of slave parents. The government owned many of the slaves who worked in the mines or served in the galleys, while private individuals leased others on contract. Roman slaves led a miserable existence, and runaway slaves could expect death by crucifixion. Men in the upper classes wore togas. These were pieces of cloth, eighteen feet long and seven feet wide, draped over the shoulder and fastened with a pin. Ir was almost impossible to perform physical labor in such a garment; therefore it quickly became a symbol of status. Women wore stolae , long dresses that reached to the ankles. The father of a family had absolute authority over his household. All property was at his disposal, and all decision-making his prerogative. He arranged his children's marriages, usually with the intent of increasing his family's wealth and status. Roman women, although hardly equal to men, enjoyed much more freedom to participate in public life than did women in Greece. Girls were given in marriage when about thirteen; boys were generally closer to twenty. The Romans were serious about educating their sons, for advancement in society depended on their written and oral skills and on acquaintance with the literary classics. Teachers of rhetoric were always in great demand. Continue... Excerpted from Two Thousand Years Ago by Charles A. Frazee Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. vii
1. Mediterranean Europep. 1
2. North Africa and Egyptp. 29
3. Southwest Asiap. 51
4. Europe beyond the Alpsp. 81
5. Africa South of the Saharap. 109
6. Chinap. 119
7. Korea and Japanp. 141
8. Inner Asiap. 147
9. Indiap. 159
10. Southeast Asiap. 179
11. The Pacific Islands and Australiap. 187
12. The Arcticp. 199
13. North Americap. 209
14. Central Americap. 225
15. South Americap. 233
Indexp. 239