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Technology in the Time of Jesus

Updated on December 1, 2016

The Middle East of the 1st century is often thought of as a period of simplistic people, limited scientific knowledge and little if any technology. Some critics point to this as a potential reason for how a charismatic person, such as Jesus, could have such a profound effect on the people of His day. The idea of this time period being simplistic is a major misconception. While it is all but impossible to gauge the mental ability of these people, it is perhaps possible to use another method to help us judge the sophistication of this time period. In many cases the advancement, of a people or culture is based on the tools they made and used. In this case we will not look so much at the tools of the day, but the technology. There are many examples of amazing technology present during the time when Jesus walked the earth. These include chemical warfare, literature, engineering, medical sciences, world commerce, electronics and even an early form of computer used for nautical navigation. These items have been confirmed by historical documents and tradition, but most vividly by archaeological evidence discovered throughout the Holy Lands and surrounding seas.

Sphinx and Pyramid
Sphinx and Pyramid

Ancient Architecture

When we think of Israel and Egypt in ancient times many things comes to mind. This includes items such as the Great Pyramids, the city of Petra carved into the cliffs, the Temple Mount and the Herodian Palace. These along with many examples of Greek and Roman architecture show these people were well advanced in the area of architecture and engineering. Even today, thousands of years later, our best scholars and engineers still question how some of these structures were constructed. Perhaps more impressive than the physical efforts required to build these magnificent structures was the planning and engineering knowledge required to imagine and design these wonders. Designs sophisticated enough to allow the structures to endure the trials of time, in some cases for thousands of years. Some of these massive structures contained secret chambers, hidden passages and were the result of years or even decades of research and testing. This type of commitment and study is not unique to 1st century engineers, it was a trait shared by many of their contemporaries in the scientific community.

Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria

The ancient world clearly understood the importance and value of literature and the wealth of knowledge available in the recorded word in the form of books/scrolls. There are several examples of ancient libraries, such as St. Catherine's Monastery in the South Sinai, the oldest continually operated library in the world. It holds more than 3,000 religious manuscripts and 8,000 books. First built in 564 A.D. the Monastery holds many ancient documents but cannot compare to another truly ancient library, the Library of Alexandria . Constructed in the 3rd century B.C. the library was in use for several centuries and collected thousands of books and manuscripts. The library was more than just a library, it was a center of learning in the ancient world. The library would pay travel expenses, lodging and stipends to help support the scholars and their families during their visit and work at the library. So serious were these people about gathering and preserving world history and literature they would confiscate any books found on ships moored in the harbor. The books would be copied for inclusion in the library, and then returned to the owners. It is impossible to know just how many books or manuscripts were housed in the library. Tradition tells us Mark Antony gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls as a wedding gift and King Ptolemy II is said to have set a goal of 500,000 scrolls for the library. If they came even close to achieving this goal the contents of the library and the wealth of knowledge they contained were truly a world treasure. There is some debate over when the library was actually destroyed. Some claim Caesar burned the library in 48 B.C. while others point to evidence the library remained in operation until at least 391 A.D. It is at least a possibility that had Jesus so wished, He could have visited the great library during His lifetime on earth. This is an intriguing possibility as the Holy family lived in Egypt for a time when Jesus was a child.

Interesting side note; it is believed the son of one of Alexander’s generals dedicated his life to collecting every book in the world for the library at Alexandria. When he was told the laws of the Jewish people, what we know now as the Old Testament, was worthy of a place in the library he sent to Jerusalem for copies of the scrolls. When the scrolls arrived in Alexandria seventy-two scholars were employed to translate the scrolls into the Greek language. These scholars are said to have completed their task in just seventy-two days. Because of this, the translation of the Bible was named the Septuagint, the Greek word for seventy. Tradition also holds that the scholars were kept separate while they worked. When they were finished the translations were brought together and compared and all matched word for word. The Septuagint became a very important translation of the Bible which will be referenced several times in this text.

Baghdad Battery
Baghdad Battery

The Bagdad Battery

The electric battery is thought to have been invented in 1800 by Count Alassandro Volta. While Volta will be remembered as the inventor of the modern battery, it is highly possible the first battery was invented some 2,000 years before Volta was born. The artifact(s) in question are known as the Baghdad Battery. The artifact is a clay jar filled with an Electrolyte Solution with a copper cylinder in the center. Wrapped within the copper cylinder was an iron bar and the entire jar was sealed shut with an asphalt stopper. While scholars’ opinions differ on the use of this item they agree it was not an accidental development. Among the possible uses of the Baghdad Battery are a form of electroplating, medicinal uses, or perhaps they were used in some type of religious ceremony. While all of the elements are very common place and low-tech, the fact they were combined in such a manner is remarkable. The use of the device seems to clearly indicate it revolved around some sort of electrical charge. A small number of scholars have suggested the artifact is nothing more than a container for a scroll. The scroll would have been wrapped around the copper cylinder and placed inside the jar. The scroll had since disintegrated leaving only the jar. This seems reasonable until you look at the shape of the jar. The top of the jar is tapered, which would have prevented the scroll from being placed in the jar as the opening is just large enough for the copper cylinder. Whatever the purpose, this artifact is an amazing find and shows science in the first century and before was much more advanced than many had previously believed.

Medical Sciences

In 136 B.C. a trading vessel sank off the coast of Tuscany. When discovered by archaeologists the wreckage gave up a large number of fascinating artifacts which revealed a great deal concerning medical treatment of the day. Among the artifacts salvaged from the wreckage was a first aid kit, which was unique in itself, but there was more. Amazingly scientist discovered capsules that were so well sealed they had survived being in sea water for over 2,000 years. The capsules contained extracts from parsley, radish, yarrow, hibiscus, clay and nasturtium. These same ingredients are still used today to treat gastrointestinal problems. It is believed these would have been administered to sailors suffering from dysentery or diarrhea. The capsules are the oldest example thus far of ancient pharmaceuticals. The capsules were found in a wooden medical chest which also contained a mortar and pestle, spatulas, and suction cups. Many believe the chest indicates the ship had a doctor or other trained medical person on board who was potentially a crewmember. In addition to the items recovered from this ship wreck scientist also have medical instruments recovered from Pompeii which was destroyed in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Among these instruments were forceps for delivering babies, rectal speculums, hooks, tweezers and scalpels. Perhaps even more astounding is the discovery made during a chemical analysis of bones belonging to ancient Sudanese Nubians. The 2,000 year old bones were examined and it was found the people had been ingesting the antibiotic tetracycline on a somewhat regular basis. It would seem the use of medicine and pharmaceuticals were somewhat wide spread during this time period, even to the point ships may have employed doctors as crewmembers. The Bible tells us Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke as well as the Acts of the Apostles, was a physician. It would seem the tools and knowledge available to a physician such as Luke were more formidable than previously thought.

Dental Sciences

Jesus would have had no need for a doctor, nor would he have had any need for a dentist, but others in the 1st century may have had dental work done, and not just simple tooth extractions. In a discovery dated to 2,000 B.C. archaeologist found extensive and complex dental work in mummies. A full bridge carefully wired together on the lower jaw connected seven separate teeth. The bridge included two donor teeth to replace two missing teeth. Not only would dentist have had the ability to do this type of complex work, they apparently also had mastered the more simplistic items, such as breath mints. Evidence has been found of mints which included honey, frankincense and cinnamon. Most people today believe the only semblance of dental care in ancient times was to extract, pull, the affected tooth. The archaeological evidence suggests the dentist of Jesus' day had a few more options available for their patients. These skills may have spread through the known world on the trading vessels such as the one on which the aforementioned medical kit was found.

Cutaway of Merchant Vessel
Cutaway of Merchant Vessel

Commerce and Merchant Vessels

While on the subject of trading vessels it seems appropriate to mention the level of commerce being undertaken around the time of Jesus. A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Uluburun Turkey serves as an excellent example of commerce in the days of Jesus. The ship, which sank near the end of the 14th century B.C. was found to contain products from 9 different African and European cultures ranging from Sicily to Mesopotamia. The vessel was 15-16 meters long and was first discovered in 1982. Since then thousands of dives have taken place which have revealed much about its cargo and travels. Among the cargo of the vessel were 10 tons of bronze ingots, gold and ivory ornaments, ostrich eggs, terracotta vases, fruits, olives, almonds, a ton of tin ingots, 175 bars of glass as well as a bronze statuette of a goddess. Also found were what were believed to be possessions of the passengers or crew. These included pearls, swords and personal seals. The variety of the items being carried/traded are a testament to the level of commercial commerce taking place even as much as 1,400 years before the birth of Jesus. The world of Jesus was not nearly as confined or isolated as most of us believe today. While these types of vessels could be at sea for nearly a year at a time, their cargo and passengers would allow the cultures and peoples they visited to be experienced across the entire known world.

Chemical Warfare in 1st Century

While the next example of ancient technology comes from just past the time of Jesus, it is certainly feasible the knowledge was known or at least being developed during the time of Jesus' life on earth. In approximately 256 A.D. Persian soldiers were attacking a fortified Roman city. During the battle the Roman soldiers could hear Persian soldiers attempting to tunnel under the walls. The Romans quickly dug tunnels of their own to intercept the Persians in what the Roman's hoped would be a surprise attack. From the evidence it seems the Romans were set-up and rushed into a Persian trap. In the tunnel the Persians used a thick black cloud of toxic smoke to kill the Roman soldiers in a matter of seconds. The chemical laced smoke turned to acid in the lungs of the Roman soldiers and they died moments later. Also found in the tunnel was the body of a Persian soldier scholars believe stayed behind to ignite the fire. The skeletal remains of the Persian soldier were found in such a manner as to indicate he was clawing at his armor as he choked to death. They believe he was attempting to pull the armor off to relieve the pain. Scientist now believe this may have been the first known use of chemical warfare. In all, 20 Roman soldiers died in the tunnel with the lone Persian soldier.

Antikythera Mechanism
Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism

The last item to be examined is the Antikythera Mechanism. This artifact was discovered on yet another ship wreck and has produced a mystery scientist still find, puzzling. This vessel is believed to have sunk around 76 B.C. and may have carried an early type of computer. While the exact use of the artifact is not fully known, it is now widely accepted that it was a type of mechanical analog computer. The artifact contained more than 30 internal gears and was a highly complex machine. Depending on the settings and dials the Antikythera Mechanism was capable of displaying the location of stars and constellations. More than just showing their current location, this artifact could display the locations of the stars and constellations on any given date, past or future. This was valued information to any seaman attempting to navigate open waters. While the artifact was recovered from a Roman vessel, it is not believed to have been made by the Roman's. It is believed by most the device was developed in Greece and perhaps captured by the Roman's. Made of bronze and having more than 2,000 characters inscribed on its surface, the artifact could calculate astronomical information related to the Sun, Moon and planets. While not a computer by modern terms, this was a highly sophisticated device even for today, and it is even far more impressive when you consider it is more than 2,000 years old

These artifacts and discoveries prove the 1st century world Jesus knew was not a simplistic community just a brief step away from cave men. This world was rich with culture, commerce, science, literature, engineering and architecture. Many have assumed these simplistic people would have been easy to fool by a magician or hypnotist, which some have claimed Jesus to be. The truth is far different. These people had a wide range of knowledge, were no fools, and were very capable of recognizing truth from fabrication. This level of invention, technology, learning and medical care show that while these people may have lacked some modern luxuries, the 1st century was a time rich in technology far beyond what many today would have believed possible.

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