corner graphic

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

CITY.—In the East the city developed from the necessity of protection from hostile invasion, and its characteristic was the wall or rampart. It was the wall that originally constituted the πόλις, though in later times its position amongst the Jews was determined by its ability to produce ten men qualified for office in the Synagogue (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘City’). The κώμη was the village or hamlet, without walls, and was generally a dependency of some neighbouring city. In Mark 1:38 the word κωμόπολις is used, apparently as a designation of a large unwalled village or town. Bethlehem and Bethsaida, though generally classed as cities, are spoken of as κῶμαι in John 7:42, Mark 8:23; Mark 8:26, the natural inference from which is that the words ‘city,’ ‘town,’ and ‘village,’ though having, as with us, a technical signification, were occasionally used in a looser and less precise manner.

The government of the πόλις was modelled on that of Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin (wh. see) was the supreme authority on all matters which, after the Roman domination, did not fall within the province of the Roman governor. According to the Talmud (Mish. Sanh. i. 6), in every Jewish city there was a Council of twenty-three which was responsible to the Sanhedrin (Matthew 5:22). Josephus knows nothing of such a Council. The Court which he mentions (Ant. iv. viii. 14) consisted of seven judges, who had each two Levites as assessors. The College of Elders who presided over the Synagogue had also judicial functions, but what was its relation to the Council is not easy to determine. The gates of the city were places of public resort; the money-changers facilitated trade; and the various guilds of artisans had special districts allotted to them.

In the time of our Lord, Palestine was a land of cities. Galilee, measuring fifty miles north and south, and from twenty-five to thirty-five east and west—about the average size of an English shire—is said by Josephus (BJ iii. iii. 2) to have had a population of 3,000,000. Allowing for patriotic exaggeration, the fact that the soil was so fertile as to make it a veritable garden, and that it was traversed by the three main trade routes of the East, would account for an exceptional density of population. Round the Lake of Galilee there were nine cities with not less than 15,000 inhabitants, some of them with considerably more, so that there must have been along its margin an almost unbroken chain of buildings. The blending of the Jewish with the Greek civilization must have given to these cities a striking picturesqueness alike in manners, customs, attire, and architecture. Tiberias, built by Herod Antipas, was a stately city, whose ruins still indicate a wall three miles long. Its palace, citadel, and public buildings were of the most imposing description, but it was almost wholly Gentile, no Jew who had the pride of his race setting foot within the walls of a city polluted alike by the monuments of idolatry and by its site on an ancient burial-place. Cities like Bethsaida and Capernaum, again, were preponderantly Jewish. Taricheae, not mentioned in the Gospels, is described by Pliny (HN v. xv. 11) as one of the chief centres of industry and commerce, and by Josephus (Ant. xiv. vii. 3) as a stronghold of Jewish patriotism. Everywhere in Galilee there was an intense civic vitality. The problems of a complex civilization were presented with peculiar force. The Gospel narrative stands out from a background of a richer and more varied life than probably ever existed elsewhere in an organized community, and it reflects in a wonderfully accurate manner all its various phases. This is, indeed, one reason of its universal applicability. It is the application of absolute principles of conduct to typical situations of the most complex character.

This density of population passed over the Lake of Galilee to the region eastward. The Decapolis (Matthew 4:25) consisted of a group of ten or more cities east of the Jordan, united in a league for purposes of defence. These were Greek cities in the province of Syria, but possessing certain civil rights, such as coinage, etc., granted them by Rome. The cities constituting the Decapolis are variously named. Pliny (HN v. xviii. 74) enumerates them as follows: Scythopolis, Hippos, Gadara, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Canatha, and, with less probability, Damascus and Raphana. To the north of Galilee again lay the Phœnician cities of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21). Tyre, even in its decline, was a noble city, with a teeming population. The circumference of its walls is given by Pliny as nineteen Roman miles. Inland, Caesarea Philippi nestled at the base of Mt. Hermon, in a situation of remarkable beauty and fertility. This city received its name from Herod the Great, who built there a temple to Augustus. It was in its neighbourhood that Peter made his striking confession (Matthew 16:13 ff.). The cities of Samaria to the south occupy no large place in our Lord’s mission. Though Jesus passed through Samaria (John 4:4), it is not recorded that He visited its capital, and the disciples were specially enjoined to refrain from preaching the gospel in any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5). Samaria was itself a beautiful city—one of the cities rebuilt on a magnificent scale by Herod the Great owing to its strategic situation—the population being mixed, half-Greek, half-Samaritan, wholly alien, therefore, in sympathy from the Jews, alike through the Samaritan hostility and the Greek culture. The city of Sychar (John 4:5), the scene of our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman, is generally identified with the modern ‘Ain ‘Askar, at the foot of Mt. Ebal, about a mile from Nâblus (Shechem). Judaea, with its desolate mountain ranges, was never rich in cities. Jericho lay on its borders, situated in an oasis of remarkable fertility, a city of palms, in striking contrast to the stony and barren region of which it was the gateway. Jericho was rich in the natural wealth of the East, but singularly poor in heroic memories.

But to the Jew the city of cities—the city that symbolized all that was highest alike in his political and religious aspirations—was Jerusalem. Twice in St. Matthew’s Gospel is Jerusalem called ‘the holy city’ (Matthew 4:5; Matthew 27:53), and as such it was enshrined in every Jewish heart through the noble poetry of the Psalter. It was the city where God had His chosen seat, and round which clustered the heroic traditions of the Hebrew race—the city, indeed, with which was intertwined the very conception of Judaism as a national religion, for in the Temple of Jerusalem alone could God be worshipped with the rites He had Himself ordained. The cities of Galilee owed their greatness and importance to commercial or political causes. Though some were preponderantly Jewish, and others, such as Tiberias, almost exclusively Gentile, there was yet in them all a mingling of races and a tolerably free and humane intercourse. Samaria was a great Roman stronghold, dominating the main trade-route from Caesarea on the coast to the East. But Jerusalem remained a city of the Jews, cherishing its own ecclesiastical traditions, and holding its patriotic exclusiveness with a narrowness all the greater from the pressure of the Roman subjection. It had almost complete autonomy under the Sanhedrin. Caesarea was the seat of the Roman Procurator, except during the great Jewish feasts, when he found it necessary to reside at Jerusalem to restrain the turbulence of a fanatically patriotic people who were ready to court martyrdom for the national cause. It is perhaps significant, as showing the ecclesiastical character of the population of Jerusalem, that it was a priest and a Levite who first passed the man lying wounded and bleeding on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:31 f.).

In the time of our Lord, then, the Jews had made the transition from a life mainly pastoral and agricultural to the more advanced life of the city. The Twelve and the Seventy are sent to preach the gospel in cities, and when they are persecuted in one city they are to flee to another (Matthew 10:1 ff., Matthew 10:23, Luke 10:1). Jesus, after He had given instructions to the Twelve, departs to preach and to teach in their cities (Matthew 11:1). The conception of the city as the flower and fruit of the highest civilization is emerging, and the civitas Dei is taking the place of the regnum Dei, and thus bringing Hebrew into line with Greek ideals. This fact is very significant for the modern presentation of the gospel. It is sometimes assumed that Christianity is possible only for a primitive community, and many modern ideals of communal life are based on the supposition that the city is wholly an artificial product, and that the way of true progress lies in reverting to village communities. All through the Christian centuries there has been a tendency on the part of many who have felt with singular intensity the influence of Jesus, to seek the cultivation of the Christian life either in isolation or in withdrawing themselves from the strenuous civic activities. The Christian ideal of saintship has been largely that of the cloister. But it is becoming more and more realized that Jesus lived His life in a crowd, that He was so seldom alone that occasions when He sought solitude are specially noted, and that it was the sight of great masses of people that most powerfully touched His emotions (Matthew 14:14, Luke 19:41). The gospel of Jesus is essentially a social gospel. Its ideal is a civic ideal. Its precepts have no meaning and no applicability except to those who are living in a community. Its ultimate goal is the ‘holy city, new Jerusalem, descending from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation 21:2). The fact is noteworthy as showing the place and influence of Christianity in the natural evolution of humanity. For the history of civilization is the history of cities. Babylon, Nineveh, Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Venice, Florence, and the mediaeval cities all mark stages in the development of the higher culture of the race. The modern city, indeed, still lacks its raison d’être. It is as yet a huge amorphous entity, presenting problems which, so far from finding solution, are only now beginning to be fully faced. And the supreme test of the Divine power of the religion of Jesus in our day will lie in its capability of giving to the city rational meaning, of transmuting the blind force of economic pressure to the law of reciprocal harmony, of so applying the principles of the gospel to the marvellous complexities of our civic life as to educe the noblest faculties of the individual while securing the unity of communal existence.

Literature.—Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 154 ff., 160 f.; G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] pp. 420–435; Fairbairn, City of God, pp. 349–370; Westcott, Hebrews, pp. 386–389.

A. Miller.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'City'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Next Entry
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology