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Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College whose book Rabbi Jesus was published in October, says recent scholarship finds a great deal more meaning and joy in the proceedings. Pilgrimages were festive occasions, with families or friends traveling together and camping overnight in the hills around the city and singing cheerful sacred songs outside the Temple. Although parts of the sacrifice would be immolated for the Lord or consumed by the priests, others would be cooked and shared by the pilgrims, who ate little meat the rest of the year. "Not only would they offer this very scarce protein to the deity," says Chilton, "but actually share a meal of meat with the Lord of Israel. The sense was one of wealth and celebration."
Hollow or hallowed, the Temple was a formidable economic engine. Although only 2 million of the ancient world's 5 million Jews lived in the region, all were expected to pay a yearly half-shekel Temple tax. Historians have not definitively established a shekel's worth, but certainly the total earnings were great. At the three pilgrimage holidays, the economy shifted into overdrive. Jewish law required that sacrificial animals and grain offerings be "unblemished." Rather than risk spoilage along the way, most pilgrims raised the sacrificial goods at home, sold them and used the proceeds to buy fresh items in the holy city, supporting farmers for miles around.
An excavation under what is now the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City reveals the way the town's elite lived. Two-story houses, built around stone-paved inner courts, had separate baths for regular and ritual cleansing. Floors boasted fine mosaics; on the walls were frescoes or trompe l'oeil stucco that mimicked masonry. Archaeologists have uncovered finely crafted glass goblets and delicate perfume flasks. Experts are divided as to whether such prosperity was shared. Says Reich: "There weren't any real poor people in Jerusalem then. There were the rich and the less rich." Argues Fabian Udoh, professor of liberal studies at Notre Dame University: "The high priests, the aristocrats and the administrators would have been very, very rich, but there were also people who were very, very poor." The obvious economic tension in Jesus' preaching may reflect his experience either in Jerusalem or in Galilee.
Those in the middle, the craftsmen (like Jesus) and small businessmen and jewelers and tax collectors, would have got their education at home and at their local synagogue. (The wealthy would have hired tutors for their children, in the Greek style.) Women married in their early teens and would generally undergo seven or eight pregnancies in hopes of having three or four surviving children. They often managed the household and exerted considerable influence in the synagogue. The family would have observed religious laws regarding food and ritual purity, although many aspects of Jewish law were not formalized until later.