Perhaps as much as two years after Jesus’ birth astrologers called Magi came from the East to worship the newborn king of the Jews, for they had seen a star in the heavens that indicated he had been born, and it directed them to Jerusalem. They asked King Herod where the child was, and he asked the leading priests and teachers of the law, who correctly pointed them to Bethlehem. So the Magi traveled five miles south to Bethlehem, and the star directed them to the house where Jesus and his family lived. There they worshiped Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the Magi returned to their homeland by a different route. An angel then warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family to escape Herod’s wicked plan to kill the newborn king.
The story of Jesus’ birth actually begins in the little town of Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary lived. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary there and announced to her that she would give birth to the Messiah and that she was to name him Jesus. Soon after this Mary traveled to visit her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, perhaps near Bethlehem, a 70-mile journey that would have taken Mary about 3 days on foot. Mary stayed with Elizabeth, who was also pregnant and would give birth to John the Baptist, for three months before returning to Nazareth. As the time drew near for Jesus to be born, Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem, the town of their ancestor David, to be counted in a Roman census. There Mary gave birth to Jesus.
When the apostle Paul described his native city of Tarsus in Cilicia as “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39), he wasn’t just spouting empty hometown pride. The whole region of Cilicia, along with the city of Tarsus, already formed a key part of the Hittite Empire even before Moses’ time, and the land had been fought over by virtually all the major civilizations throughout Bible times. Likewise the island of Cyprus–the home region of Paul’s coworker Barnabas–had a similar history as an ancient and prestigious civilization. And the nearby city of Antioch, the home church of Paul and Barnabas, had once been the capital of the mighty Seleucid Empire, and by the time of Paul it was one of the largest cities in the entire Roman Empire. Antioch was where believers were first called “Christians.”
Throughout Bible times, the history of Israel was often intertwined with the history of Egypt, an ancient and enduring civilization that sometimes loomed as a threat and other times offered a place of refuge and shelter for God’s people. The Great Pyramids of Egypt were already hundreds of years old by the time Abraham visited Egypt, and during Joseph’s time the regular flooding of the Nile River allowed the nation to continue producing food when the rest of the Near East was experiencing famine. During Moses’ time, however, Egypt became a threat to the people of Israel and came to be identified as “the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Yet hundreds of years later, many Judeans chose to flee to Egypt for refuge from the wrath of the invading Babylonians. Jesus himself found refuge in Egypt as a baby when his family fled there to escape the murderous soldiers sent by Herod.
The ancient city of Shechem in the hill country of Samaria was a literal crossroads of activity during Bible times. Pivotally positioned between two mountains along a key road running through central Israel, Shechem was often regarded as part of the “heartland” of Israel. Here Abraham first offered sacrifices in the Promised Land and Joseph’s bones were later buried. Here, too, the tribes of Israel were commanded by Moses to stand on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and reaffirm God’s covenant by shouting out its blessings and curses to each other. Shechem is also where the northern kingdom declared its independence from Judah and Jerusalem. Later the nearby city of Samaria would become the capital of northern Israel. The Samaritans built their rival temple on Mount Gerizim next to Shechem. Many years later at a well in the village of Sychar just outside Shechem Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman and explained to her that he himself was the source of living water for all those who worshiped the Father in spirit and in truth.
In 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew the Babylonians, and a year later he decreed that the Judeans who had been sent into exile were allowed to return home and rebuild the temple. A small contingent of Judeans made the long journey and reestablished Judea as a very small district (shown in red) in the much larger Persian province called Beyond the River, which included most of the land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Persian Empire (shown in green) continued to grow until it ruled virtually the entire Near East–a domain about 8 times the size of Texas. This vast empire was the world of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Queen Esther.
The city of Jerusalem underwent many changes throughout Bible times. When King David captured the city from the Jebusites, it was a relatively small fortress positioned next to the Gihon Spring–a dependable source of water that later enabled the city to withstand various sieges. King Solomon built the temple on a threshing floor north of the city, and the city continued to grow. King Hezekiah eventually expanded the walls to encompass a much larger area and replaced the old Jebusite tunnel with another tunnel (probably called Shiloah) to channel water more securely from the Gihon Spring to the Lower Pool (later called the Pool of Siloam/Shiloah) and the king’s garden. This new tunnel is probably what Isaiah 8:5-8 refers to when it rebukes the people of Judah for rejecting the gently flowing waters of Shiloah to support the Arameans.
The Greek cities of Ephesus and Miletus, once prosperous port towns on the west coast of Asia Minor, have long since silted up (see modern shoreline in dark blue). Paul and John both conducted ministries in this region, and John was eventually exiled to the nearby island of Patmos.
When Paul was being transferred to Rome under arrest, believers from Rome traveled down the Appian Way as far as the Forum of Appius to meet Paul and escort him back to Rome–a distance of 40 miles.
Most people don’t realize that roads were as important in Bible times as they are today. Many of the events of the Bible took place in towns that lay along main roads (see below). King Solomon also became very wealthy partially because he controlled the very important trade routes that passed through Israel, which connected several other major nations (Egypt, Assyria, the Hittites, etc.).