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Map of the Roads in First Century Israel
This map includes general roads and Roman paved roads in ancient Israel. You can see the major and minor roads and highways, and the Roman Legionary Camps in the land of Israel during the first century AD. The Via Maris, the King's Highway, the Way of the Sea, and other small roads can be seen on this map.
Proverbs 16:17 - The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul.
Highways in Ancient Israel
In ancient Israel most people traveled on foot and israel was a difficult place to travel. The highways and roads connected travelers to the 6 parallel divisions in the topography, Israel's cities and villages, the Dead Sea, and the Negev. The Hebrews generally followed their small roads but they were not into major road construction as the Romans were. In fact the Hebrew word for road means a beaten worn out path. Road construction would have been difficult for any skillful engineer because of the topography of the land. When Jesus journeyed from Jerusalem through the land of Samaria (John 4) there were no special roads but large dirt paths with some stone. As He journeyed around Nazareth and the surrounding villages in Galilee He was following beaten dirt tracks, with little road making.
The Romans were skillful road makers who made the great highways of the Empire, so that soldiers and horses could travel on them. Most of the travelers along Roman highways were caravans, camels, horses, and donkeys.
The roads in first century Israel in the time of Jesus were as follows:
1. The road that passed northward up the coastal plain from Gaza, (the port of the Egyptian desert), past Joppa and Caesarea round the nose of Mount Carmel up to Tyre, and Sidon. This road, at a point due west of Jerusalem, had a fork running north-eastward, climbing the foothills of Samaria and going through the valleys of Samaria (including that in which Joseph was sold to the Egyptians) to the plain of Esdraelon. Crossing that plain it climbed the Galilean hills and passed between two strange rocky peaks called the Horns of Hattin down a ravine in which dwelt thousands of pigeons that were captured in Jesus' day to be sold in the Temple for the poor to use as sacrificial offerings. Then to the Plain of Gennesaret which the road then crossed, and north through Capernaum and crossing the Jordan with Mount Hermon on it's left, eastward to Damascus.
2. Starting in the south from Beersheba (the other port of Palestine on the Egyptian desert), a very ancient road climbed northward up the Judean hills to Hebron and through Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The Flight into Egypt from Bethlehem with the infant Jesus would probably take this route. From Jerusalem the road forked in three directions. One ran to the left down the steep ravines of the Judean hills to the coastal plain and to Joppa. It is down this road that Peter would go in the journey described in Acts. The road to the east ran even more steeply down past Bethany to the deep trench of the Jordan valley. This is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (a descent of 3500 feet in 14 miles) that is the scene of the story of the Good Samaritan; and up its steep slopes Jesus came from Transjordania, the Jordan Valley, and Jericho, to face trial and death at Jerusalem.
3. Another road from Jerusalem ran directly northward over the hills of Judea, passing by the site of Bethel and descending into a small plain before lifting again to the hills of Samaria under the shadow of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Through Samaria it runs past the foot of Mount Gilboa across the Plain of Esdraelon, where one fork runs north-westward to Nazareth and another north-eastward by the foot of Mount Tabor and the north end of the Lake of Galilee, where it joins up with the great Way of the Sea. It will be seen that none of these roads to and from Jerusalem is a great international highway. The roads or tracks are there because Jerusalem exists; and they simply lead to and from the Holy City.
4. Moving still farther east we come upon another series of routes important in the life of Jesus. The Gospels tell us that He took the road from Galilee to Jerusalem through Samaria on at least one occasion. The fierce hostility of the Samaritans to the Jews, however, led Jews when traveling from the north to Jerusalem to turn eastward at Jezreel (the eastern gap from the Plain of Esdraelon into the Jordan Valley), and go down into that valley to join a road running southward on the western side of the river to Jericho. There the pilgrims to Jerusalem would turn west again to climb up to Jerusalem, having avoided Samaria.
5. Still farther east, on the Transjordania side of the Jordan River, roads ran in Jesus' time between the Graeco-Roman cities of Decapolis. It is highly probable that in His last journey (associated in Luke with the parables of the lost money, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son) Jesus walked upon these roads, which ran through Philadelphia, Gerasa, Gadara and up to Damascus. The road from Amman also ran southward. Jesus did not take this road; but as it ran near to the Castle of Machaerus, in which Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist, John himself may have been led in chains along that route.
Merchants and Trade
During the first century A.D. the East and West were making a solid connection, especially with the Jews. By the time of Jesus the Jews were living in a commercial Greek world, due to the achievements of Alexander the Great. The Romans built even more and established additional trade in all of its provinces, linking the major centers of population and uniting the provinces. The Mediterranean world had become a Greco-Roman world and it had become like one big marketplace, attracting trade goods from distant lands as far as India and China. The Roman army and navy protected the boundaries of the Empire from barbarians and pirates.
The Jews had become very familiar with trade and the art of international commerce. They became very wealthy and it was all controlled by a select few. Most of the common Israelites bought and sold in the local marketplace without ever realizing how all the goods from around the world had arrived there. How many of the goods had arrived there on the backs of camels and donkeys, passing through countless cities and villages upon roads and footpaths that were all but washed away by the heavy rains.
There were many roads that criss-crossed all of Israel, roads that had been there for hundreds of years and when the legions of Rome came they had built up certain highways to march their mighty chariots and soldiers. The main roads contained 3-foot deep bed, paved with gravel, stones and concrete. They were built to last and made life much easier for the many caravans of merchants in the ancient world. Some of these roads can still be seen today.
Milestones marked the roads with their drainage ditches and curbs. By the end of the first century 50,000 miles of roads linked the Roman Empire with the whole Mediterranean world. The network of roads made it safe to trade, for the first time in the history of the world.
It has often been said, "all roads lead to Rome" and this was correct in the time of Jesus. Actually all roads led "from" Rome because the Roman Forum (Romanium) marked the starting point and every road was measured from it, from the gilded pillar that Caesar Augustus had placed there. The roads were clearly marked with milestones from the "Eternal City." No pilgrim or merchant could ever forget that he journeyed upon an imperial road. The Roman mile was 1500 meters or 1000 paces and it was marked with a milestone (Mille is Latin for 1000).
The ancient Jews learned the art of commerce very quickly. They became renown throughout the world as successful traders within and without the borders of their country.
The Provinces - The Roman Empire beyond Italy was divided into about 40 provinces, or territories. Each province had its own governor, who was appointed by the emperor or named by the Senate. The governors' work mainly included keeping order and collecting taxes. Augustus and the emperors who followed him expanded the empire by conquering new territories. By the end of the first century A.D. the Roman Empire had a population of about 60 million. This was more than one-fifth of the total population of the world at that time.
The Pax Romana - Augustus's reign marked the beginning of a remarkable period in Rome's history. For more than 200 years, the vast Roman Empire was united and, for the most part, peaceful. This period from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. is called the Pax Romana, or "Peace of Rome."
By the time of Jesus the Romans had brought peace throughout their Empire. The Mediterranean world had become a place of opportunity for traders and merchants. The Romans developed a massive network of roads that stretched over 50,000 miles throughout the Mediterranean world. This made it relatively easy for the Roman army to move quickly to defend its borders. Supplies could also be sent to the troops over long distances. Along the roads were inns, restaurants and hotels; places where horses were changed, or where weary travelers could rest for the night and get food.
The Via Appia was the first of the marvelous Roman roads. It began to be built in 312 B.C. and reached as far from Rome as Brundisium, an Adriatic port.
In Israel there were 3 main roads, one of which was the Via Maris.
Roman were experts at surveying and building roads. They would plan out a strategic route and remove any obstacles in its path. Then they would dig a trench about 3 feet deep and 10-25 feet wide, depending upon the importance of the road.
Illustration of a Roman Paved Road
The 4 Layers
The deepest portion of the trench was filled in with a layer of large stones tightly fitted together. This was strategic in preventing puddles and keeping the roads from freezing, which caused cracks.
The second layer was filled with smaller stones compressed together and filled with concrete.
The third layer was filled with gravel and flattened out smoothly.
The fourth and last layer was a pavement of large smooth stone slabs.
Every major road had curbs and drainage ditches.
The largest roads were in Rome and on its borders, to bring a sense of awe to anyone from the outside. They sometimes reached 50 feet wide.
Photo of a Roman Road
Network of Roads in the Roman Empire
Network of Roads in the Roman Empire
Robbers and Thugs
During the time of Jesus it was very dangerous to travel in certain parts of Israel. Even though there was added security in various parts of the Empire, there were bandits that would lie in wait and attack unsuspecting merchants. The wealthy merchants could be noticed easily because their goods were packed high on the backs of their donkeys and camels. Robbers were known to hide in the hills, make their attack, and return to caves and other hiding places.
The ancient Jews learned the art of commerce very quickly. They became renown throughout the world as successful traders within and without the borders of their country.
The Land of Israel
The Province of Syria
One of the most important trade routes in the Middle East during ancient times was the Via Maris. The Latin term, meaning "Way of the Sea" is referenced in Isaiah 8:23 in the Tanakh (in the Christian Old Testament it is Isaiah 9:1) as "Derech HaYam" or "Way of the Sea." The Latin name comes from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the New Testament, in Matthew 4:15. The term "Via Maris" comes from the Romans and hence the terminology "Via Maris" tends to be an exclusively Christian reference to the Sea Road. Other names for the Derech HaYam/Via Maris include "Coastal Road" and "Way of the Philistines." From the coast to Damascus, the route is called the Trunk Road. The Via Maris travels and is also known as the International Coastal Highway. The International Coastal Highway is still a major route in modern-day Israel.
The "Way of the Sea" is one of three major trade routes in ancient Israel – the Via Maris, Ridge Route, and the King's Highway. It is situated from the Galilee to the North to Samaria to the South, running through the Jezreel Valley. At the Philistine Plain, the Way broke into two branches, one on the coast and one inland (through the Jezreel Valley, the Sea of Galilee, and Dan), which unites at Megiddo ("Armageddon"). The location of Megiddo vis a vis the Via Maris explains why Megiddo was a very important route for travel and trading city in ancient Israel. The Way of the Sea connected the major routes from the Fertile Cresent to Mesopotamia (from Egypt to modern day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria).The road was the main thoroughfare running north/south from the Sinai along the coastal plain through the Jezreel valley, Beit Shean and on until Damascus
Throughout the centuries, once the Jews were exiled from Israel, the Jezreel Valley, in which the route traverses, became abandoned and the area became an infested swamp. Zionist pioneers, however, drained the swamp from the time of the first land acquisition in 1921, and the valley has been transformed into a fertile, fruit-bearing plain.
The King’s Highway was a very ancient trade route that was important in Biblical times. The highway started in Egypt and went up through the Sinai Peninsula over to Aqaba and up the eastern side of the Jordan River to Damascus and the Euphrates River.
The King's Highway is mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 20:17-21:
"Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink water from wells; we will go along the King's Highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.'" Then Edom said to him, "You shall not pass through my land, lest I come out against you with the sword." So the children of Israel said to him, "We will go by the Highway, and if I or my livestock drink any of your water, then I will pay for it; let me only pass through on foot, nothing more." Then he said,"You shall not pass through." So Edom came out against them with many men and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory; so Israel turned away from him. "
"Numerous ancient states, including Edom, Moab, Ammon, and various Aramaean polities depended largely on the King's Highway for trade. The Highway began in Heliopolis, Egypt and from there went eastward to Clysma (modern Suez), through the Mitla Pass and the Egyptian forts of Nekhl and Themed in the Sinai desert to Eilat and Aqaba. From there the Highway turned northward through the Arabah, past Petra and Ma'an to Udruh, Sela, and Shaubak. It passed through Kerak and the land of Moab to Madaba, Rabbah Ammon/Philadelphia (modern Amman), Gerasa, Bosra, Damascus, and Tadmor, ending at Resafa on the upper Euphrates...The Nabataeans used this road as a trade route for luxury goods such as frankincense and spices from southern Arabia. During the Roman period, the King's Highway was rebuilt by Trajan and called the Via Traiana Nova." - Wikipedia
It was King Herod’s goal to make Jerusalem the most impressive city in the world. He would go to any means to impress the world with his Hellenized buildings and magnificent Greek architecture.
Legionary Camps in Israel and the Province of Syria
"Tiles found in Caesarea Maritima, built in the second decade BC, suggest that the legion was at that time based in Judaea. Later X Fretensis moved to Syria. In 6 AD it was stationed in that province together with legions III Gallica, VI Ferrata, and XII Fulminata. In the same year, Publius Sulpicius Quirinus, governor of Syria, led these legions in the suppression of the revolt that sprung out after the deposition of Herod Archelaus. Under Nero, in 58-63 AD, X Fretensis participated in the campaigns of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo against the Parthians. First Jewish-Roman War. Ruins of the city of Gamla, conquered by X Fretensis in 68 AD. X Fretensis was centrally involved in the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73 AD), under the supreme command of Vespasian. In 66 AD, the X Fretensis and V Macedonica went to Alexandria for an invasion of Ethiopia planned by Nero. However, the two legions were needed in Judaea to suppress a revolt. After spending the winter in Ptolemais Ace (modern Acre, Israel), X Fretensis and V Macedonica relocated in the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima (67/68). This was due to the large number of legions being mobilized in Ptolemais, under Marcus Ulpius Traianus, future governor of Syria and father of the emperor Trajan. During that same winter, the Caesarea camp of Xth and Vth hosted Vespasian, who was forced to go to Rome the following year, where he seized power. Vespasian's son, Titus finished the suppression of the revolt.
By 70, the rebellion in all of Iudaea had been crushed, except for Jerusalem and a few fortresses, including Masada. In that year X Fretensis, in conjunction with V Macedonica, XII Fulminata, and XV Apollinaris, began the siege of Jerusalem, stronghold of the rebellion. The Xth camped on the Mount of Olives. During the siege, Legio X gained fame in the effective use of their various war machines. It was noted that they were able to hurl stones that weighted a talent (about 25 kg) a distance of two furlongs (400 m) or further. The projectiles of their ballistae caused heavy damage to the ramparts. According to Josephus (vol. III of his history of Judaean war) Larcius Lepidus was the commanding officer of the X Legion. The siege of Jerusalem lasted five months and the besieged population experienced all the terrible rigors of starvation. Finally, the combined assaults of the legions succeeded in taking the city, which was then subjected to destruction." - Wikipedia
Ancient Roman Roads
"When the fullness of time came, God brought forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law." (Gal 4:4)
The Roman road was the bloodstream of the empire. Merchants paid taxes to Rome on all their transactions, and they needed the roads to carry their goods to an ever-widening market. Legionnaires marched upon them swiftly gaining efficient access to battle. In a sense, the roads were funding and facilitating Roman expansion.
Yet God had a higher purpose. A new kind of merchant would soon be traversing the entire Mediterranean area, not one who transports his treasure to the city marketplace, but one who is a treasure, and who carries true riches, - not to sell, but to give away freely. The transforming good news of God’s forgiveness through Jesus the Messiah was imbedded into the hearts of the Apostles and early believers, and God prepared those roads for them to walk upon and lead others into His path.
A new kind of soldier would be running these well built thoroughfares to fight, - not flesh and blood, but a spiritual warfare that would liberate entire civilizations from the bondage of Satan’s tyrannical oppression and coercion, to a Kingdom ruled by love, service and willing devotion.
Throughout history ‘the road’ has provided an excellent metaphor for life’s journey. With amazement, we can look back over the winding grades of difficulty, the narrow pass of opportunity, the choice between security or adventure, when our road divided and we had to make the call.
Yes, all roads led to Rome, specifically the Forum, in the ancient empire of old, where an Emperor judged the players in the arena for their conduct before him. Our personal road will eventually and inevitably cease at the throne of Almighty God. It is He who must judge our travel upon this earth, in the blinding glory of His eternal justice. Compelled by His love, He placed sin’s damning penalty upon His Own Son, instead of us, so that we could freely receive the "thumbs up!" from Him who loves us beyond all measure.
Painting of a Roman Highway
Highways in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Though during the sway of the Romans over Israel they made a few substantial roads for their carts and chariots, yet for the most of the time, as today, the Jews had nothing such as we call roads, but only footpaths through which animals walk in single file. These are never cared for, no repairs are made or obstacles removed. This fact brings into striking prominence the figure of repairing a highway for the return Of the captives, or the coming of the great King. On special occasions kings had roads prepared for the progress of their armies, or their own going from place to place. Full Article
Roman Roads in the Bible Encyclopedia - ISBE
7. Cities of Galilee:
In material ways too Rome opened the way for Christianity by building the great highways for the gospel. The great system of roads that knit then civilized world together served not only the legions and the imperial escorts, but were of equal service to the early missionaries, and when churches began to spring up over the empire, these roads greatly facilitated that church organization and brotherhood which strengthened the church to overcome the empire. With the dawn of the pax Romana all these roads became alive once more with a galaxy of caravans and traders. Commerce revived and was carried on under circumstances more favorable than any that obtained till the past century. Men exchanged not only material things, but also spiritual things. Many of these early traders and artisans were Christians, and while they bought and sold the things that perish, they did not lose an opportunity of spreading the gospel. For an empire which embraced the Mediterranean shores, the sea was an important means of intercommunication; and the Mediterranean routes were safer for commerce and travel at that period than during any previous one. Pompey the Great had driven the pirates off the sea, and with the fall of Sextus Pompey no hostile maritime forces remained. The ships which plied in countless numbers from point to point of this great inland sea offered splendid advantages and opportunity for early Christian missionary enthusiasm. Full Article
Highways in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Highway. a raised road for public use. Such roads were not found in Israel; hence the force of the language used to describe the return of the captives and the advent of the Messiah (Isa. 11:16; 35:8; 40:3; 62:10) under the figure of the preparation of a grand thoroughfare for their march. During their possession of Israel the Romans constructed several important highways, as they did in all countries which they ruled. Full Article
The Bible Mentions the "Highway" Often
2 Kings 18:17 - And the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah with a great host against Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. And when they were come up, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which [is] in the highway of the fuller's field.
Isaiah 19:23 - In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.
Judges 21:19 - Then they said, Behold, [there is] a feast of the LORD in Shiloh yearly [in a place] which [is] on the north side of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goeth up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.
Jeremiah 31:21 - Set thee up waymarks, make thee high heaps: set thine heart toward the highway, [even] the way [which] thou wentest: turn again, O virgin of Israel, turn again to these thy cities.
Isaiah 62:10 - Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people.
Isaiah 36:2 - And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field.
1 Samuel 6:12 - And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, [and] went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside [to] the right hand or [to] the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh.
Mark 10:46 - And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging.
Isaiah 7:3 - Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;
Isaiah 40:3 - The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Isaiah 11:16 - And there shall be an highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.
2 Samuel 20:13 - When he was removed out of the highway, all the people went on after Joab, to pursue after Sheba the son of Bichri.
Proverbs 16:17 - The highway of the upright [is] to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul.
Isaiah 35:8 - And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it [shall be] for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err [therein].
2 Samuel 20:12 - And Amasa wallowed in blood in the midst of the highway. And when the man saw that all the people stood still, he removed Amasa out of the highway into the field, and cast a cloth upon him, when he saw that every one that came by him stood still.