The cultural, political, and social realities in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee during Greco-Roman times were very different than many Bible students envision. The different types of Judaism during this period were not what is thought of as Judaism in today’s world. Different threads of thinking divided the populace into contentious religious factions.
We get a flavor of this division through the New Testament as we read about Pharisees, Sadducees, and Hellenists. Most people were simply not that religious at all, though they lived and breathed the history of God’s work with them through the Law, Prophets, and Writings.
In terms of daily life, the dominant influence was Greco-Roman. In other words, the political system under which they lived was the Roman Empire, but the Greek culture was all-pervasive. It was a world of intense poverty, violence, and inhumanity, where human life was of little value and ignorance was rampant.
Greco-Roman civilization was cruel, violent, oppressive, and supremely pagan. Women’s and children’s rights were virtually non-existent. War, slavery, and brutality were ever-present.
The Jewish people accounted for about seven million, or roughly 10-15% of Rome’s subjects. A Jewish synagogue could be found in almost every sizeable Greco-Roman village and city. Substantial Jewish communities populated Spain, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Italy. About a million Jews resided in Egypt, with over 200,000 in the city of Alexandria alone. Some two million Jews lived beyond Roman borders to the east as far as India and south into Ethiopia. About one million lived in the land of Israel, referred to as Eretz-Israel, residing in Galilee and Judea.
The Gospels introduce a Jewish motherland afflicted with widespread poverty and sickness wherein the common people lived in misery, suffering and despair. Physical and mental illness was not uncommon. A heavily taxed population resenting Gentile dominance yearned for freedom.