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THE STATE OF THE JEWS AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF OUR LORD'S MINISTRY.
Palestine---its different names---its former fertility--its present desolate state---its divisions---mountains, Lebanon, Hermon, Tabor, &c.---plains---deserts---forests--seas--the dead sea---sea of Tiberias---rivers---Jordan---the land of the Moabites of Midian--the tribe of Reuben---the country of the Ammonites---Galilee---Gad---half tribe of Manasseh---lower Galilee, tribes of Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar---half tribe of Manasseh---Ephraim---Samaria---Judea, tribe of Benjamin---Jerusalem---tribes of Judah, Dan, and Simeon---the Philistines---Edom---description of the eastern buildings from Dr. Shaw---tents---their furniture---dress of the inhabitants---their diet--Herod's death---reign of Archelaus---government of Pilate--degenerate state of the
FROM the time of our Lord's conversation with the Jewish teachers to the commencement of the ministry of John the Baptist, not a single fact is related by the evangelists; here, therefore, we have a convenient opportunity to exhibit such a view of the state of Palestine, natural, political, and religious, as may enable the reader to understand more clearly the history of those important transactions, which, in the succeeding chapters, it is intended to relate.
The country which was the scene of our Lord's ministry was first called the land of Canaan, from Noah's grandson, by whom it was peopled; but it has since been more distinguished by other names, such as the Land of Promise, the Land of God, the Land of Israel, the Holy Land, and sometimes, by way of pre-eminence, the Land. It has, again, been called Palestine, from the Philistines, who possessed great part of it; and Juda, or Judæa Palæstina, from Judah, whose tribe was the most considerable of the twelve, and possessed the most fertile portion of the land. It was inclosed on the west by the Mediterranean; and on the east by the lake Asphaltites, the Jordan, the sea of Tiberias, or of Galilee, and the Samachonite lake; to the north it had the mountains of Libanus, or rather of Antilibanus, or the province of Phoenicia; and to the south that of Edom, or Idumea, from which it was likewise parted by another ridge of high mountains. It must be here observed, that we have confined ourselves to that part which is properly called the Land of promise; as for the other part, viz. that which belonged to two tribes and an half on the other side Jordan, and which was called Perea, and the land or kingdoms of Og, Sihon, &c. their boundaries are more difficult to be determined. It is about two hundred miles in length, and eighty in breadth, and extends from 31° 30′′ to 33° 20′′ of north latitude, and from 34° 50′ to 37° 15' of east
fongitude from Greenwich. It is therefore placed under the fourth and fifth climates, so that its longest day is about fourteen hours fifteen minutes.
The climate of this country, Palestine, is certainly very happy, its situation being neither too far south, nor too far north. But the limits of this country appear so small, considering that it is likewise intersected by high ridges or mountains, woods, deserts, &c. that many learned men have been induced to question what we read of its fertility and populousness in former times. It must be owned, indeed, that when we compare its antient and flourishing state, when it was cultivated with the utmost diligence, by persons well skilled in every branch of agriculture, with what it has been since the total extirpation of the Jows out of it, and more especially since it fell into the hands of the Turks, the contrast is amazingly great but when we consider the many evident causes which have contributed to effect this change, and its fruitfulness, in some instances, at the present day, we find not the least reason to doubt the truth of what the sacred historians have related. Moses describes it, before it was possessed by the Israelites, as a land flowing with milk and honey. It even exceeded Egypt, so much celebrated by the antients, in the vast numbers of cattle which it produced, and in the quantity and excellence of its wine, oil, and fruits.
But its fertility has been called in question, and Voltaire, and other infidel writers, have raised difficulties and objections against the authority of scripture, from the pretended sterility of the land of Judea. In answer to which, the abbè Guence, about 1780, communicated to the academy, inscriptions, and belles lettres, at Paris, Two Memoirs concerning the fertility of Palestine, in order to show that such objections had no solid foundation.
In the first of them the author proves, that from the captivity of Babylon to the war of Adrian, Judea was always considered as a rich and fertile country. The positive and multiplied authorities of the writers of that period, Jews, Greeks, and Romans, not only attest, in general, the fertility of that country, but many of these writers, entering into a particular detail of these circumstances, prove it from the nature of the climate, the qualities of the soil, and the excellence and variety of its productions. These are confirmed by proofs of another kind, but which are of a very convincing nature, even those resulting from a great number of medals, struck under the reigns of Syria and Judea, and under the Romans, both by Jews and Pagans, and which all bear the symbols of a rich fertility. To these proofs are added a multitude of facts, recorded in the history of the Jews during this period; the efforts of the neighbouring kings to conquer their country; the long and bloody wars that the Jews carried on with vigour, and, sometimes, with success, against powerful princes' and nations; the tribute and taxes they paid to the kings of Egypt and Syria, to the Romans, and to their own princes; the magnificence of their sovereigns, and particularly of Herod; the troops he raised and kept on foot; the temples, fortresses, palaces, and cities, which he erected and embellished, not only in his own country, but in Syria, Asia Minor, and even in Greece; the immense sums he lavished among the Romans; the donations he made among his own people; and the vast treasures which he left behind him: all these circumstances concur in proving the fertility and richness of Palestine, during that period.
In the second memoir the abbè Guenee considers the state of Palestine, as it was from the time of the emperor Adrian to the caliphate of Omar, which comprehends a period of four centuries. From sundry facts he shows, that it could not then have been the barren country which it has been represented by rome sceptical writers. He particuJarly mentions the project formed by Adrian of rebuilding and embellishing Jerusalem, of reforming it into a Roman colony, of giving it its own name, a project of which he
could never have entertained a thought, if Judea, which he had seen and examined with his own eyes, had appeared to him such a barren and wretched country, as it is said to have been by some, who neither have seen that country, nor examined the matter with care and attention. Our author also produces a variety of other facts to show, that Judea, after all that it had suffered from the desolation of war, both in antient and later times, still remained, at the period in question, fertile, rich, and populous. This is the idea which the writers of the time, Pagan and Christian, as well as Jewish, have given of Palestine. Antoninus Martyr, a citizen of Placentia, who, in the sixth century, travelled to Palestine, and composed an account of his voyage, which is still extant, says, that the canton of Nazareth was not inferior to Egypt in corn and fruits, and that though the territory of that city was not very extensive, it abounded in wine, and oil, and excellent honey. The country about Jericho appeared to him still more fertile. He saw mount Tabor, which he represents as surrounded with cities; and he observed in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, vine-yards, great plantations of fruit trees, and, through the whole country, a considerable number of hospitals, monasteries, and beautiful edifices. Our learned abbé, in concluding his work, acknowledges, that the opulence and fertility of Judea might begin to diminish towards the middle of the period treated of in his second memoir; but he does not think that any argument can be drawn from hence, against its having been, at the commencement of this period, in a flourishing state; and much less can any proof be brought from hence, that in preceding periods, under the kings, or under the administration of Moses, the country of Palestine was a barren and uncultivated district.
Besides, it ought to be considered, that it was then inhabited by an industrious people, who knew how to improve every inch of their land, and had made even the most desert and barren places to yield some kind of productions, by proper care and manure; so that the very rocks, which now appear quite bare and naked, were made to produce corn, pulse, or pasture, being, by the industry of the old inhabitants, covered with mould, which, through the laziness of the succeeding proprietors, has been since washed off with rains and storms. We may add, that the kings themselves were not above encouraging all kind of agriculture, both by precept and example, and, above all, that they had the divine blessing promised to their honest endeavours and industry; whereas, it is now, and hath been long since, inhabited by a poor, lazy, and indolent people, groaning under en intolerable servitude, and all manner of discouragements, by which their aversion to labour and agriculture, farther than what barely serves to supply their present wants, is become, in a manner, natural and invincible. We may farther observe, with the judicious Mr. Maundrel, that there is no forming an idea of its antient flourishing state, when under the influence of heaven, from what it is now under a visible curse. And if we had not several concurring testimonies from profane authors, who have extolled the fecundity of Palestine; that single one of Julian the apostate, a sworn enemy to Jews and Christians, as well as to all the sacred writings, would be more than sufficient to prove it, who frequently makes mention, in his epistles, of the perpetuity, as well as excellence and great abundance, of its fruits and product. The visible effects of God's anger, which this country has felt, not only under Titus Vespasian, but much more since that emperor's time; in the inundations of the northern barbarians, of the Saracens, and of the more cruel and destructive Christians during the holy war, and in the oppression it now feels under the Turkish yoke, may be easily supposed to be more than sufficient to have wrought the dismal change we are speaking of, and to have reduced the far greater part into a mere desert.
Nevertheless, if we may credit those who have viewed it in this doleful condition, they will tell us, there are, still, such visible signs of its natural richness and fertility,