If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know that the directions you receive are less like GPS coordinates and more like a connected story. Your GPS will tell you to turn right at the next stop sign, to merge onto HWY 51, and drive for 3 miles before taking exit 96, turning right and then arriving at your destination in three-quarters of a mile.
But that’s not how directions work in a small town. In a small town you’re told to go up to the stop sign next to the old Anderson place, get onto the highway and drive past that building where they used to have the mill and keep driving until you see the old barn, if you see a cemetery on your left, you’ve gone too far. Turn off by where ol’ Tom Jenkins lives, there’ll probably be a dog on his porch, and then go a bit further and you’ll have made it to the big white house on the corner.
When you’re reading in the Bible, it has some affinity to a GPS, but it’s actually more like small town directions. And if you’re new to a community — or new to reading the Bible — you haven’t a clue about that building that used to be a mill. There are locations and topographical mentions that for those of us in the 21st century, we’re left clueless.
One of these places that keeps popping up in the gospel accounts is Judea. Where is it? Why does it seem to be so important?
Where Is Judea on a Modern Map?
The Judea of today is different than it would have been in various parts of the history of the Israelites. In pre-exilic times, the whole southern half of Palestine – some 2000 square miles – would have been considered the region of Judea. But after the exile, in the Persian period, the region of Judea would have been a localized area around Jerusalem.
During the reign of Herod Archelaus, Judea would have included Idumea and Samaria but not Galilee and Perea. At other points Galilee and Perea were considered part of the region of Judea. The whole region was eventually called Syria by the Romans. Today the southern part of Israel and the West Bank is considered the region of Judea.
Why Is Judea Such an Important Place in the Bible?
To understand why Judea is such an important place in the Bible it might be helpful to understand why Judea held such an important position within the world. In about a 3–400-year period, the world saw a few major superpowers battling it out for supremacy: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. Right in the center of each of these nations was Judea. It held a strategic location for trade as well as for military conquest. Thus it held importance for the world powers who find themselves making appearances in Holy Scripture.
But Judea is also an important place because it is considered “the land of the Jews.” Land is important because of promises that God made to Abraham. Though I would personally argue that the land promises in the Old Testament are ultimately connected to the rest we find in Christ, for the Jewish people this land was directly tied to the promises of God. This became especially important when the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria. This meant that for several years of her history, the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was all that was left. So when the Jewish people were taken away into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BC, all of the promises of God seemed to be coming to naught. They lost their temple, they lost their land, they seemingly lost everything as they were carried away to a foreign land.
But the region of Judea became especially important when the Persians overtook the Babylonians as the great superpower of the world. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to go back to their homeland and it was here that the region was first called Judea. It was here when the temple was rebuilt. This is really when the history of Judea begins.
But as typical of its history, this area once again became a hotbed of military activity. It was overtaken in the Greek period by the Seleucids. This led to revolt by the Hasmonean dynasty (Jewish leaders) and they regained their independence until the region was taken over by Rome. It was during this time that the Romans would parcel out the land and split the whole region into Judea, Samaria, and Idumaea. Judea, then, became a more localized region. This was the setting when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.
What Bible Stories Take Place in or near Judea?
Pending the way Judea is defined, it could be argued that most all of the Old Testament is centered around Judea. It was just called Judah before the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem (which was in Judea) were always central to the religion of the Old Testament saints. But the most important stories which take place in or near Judea are those found during the time of Christ.
In the Old Testament, the name Judea (and not Judah), makes its first appearance in the Book of Ezra as a province of Persia. It is here that it is designated as different than the region of Samaria, Galilee, Perea, or Idumea. And that is how it is considered most often in the New Testament.
If nothing else, Judea was the province in which Jesus was born, as Micah 5:2 prophesied. It was here that the ministry of both Jesus and John the Baptist were launched. Though he did much of his ministry in Galilee and outside of Judea proper, it was when he came back into Jerusalem (Judea) that the events of his passion would take place. Jesus was born here, he lived many of his days in Judea, and ultimately died and was resurrected in Judea.
You’ve probably also heard of Judea from the famed Acts 1:8. Many modern missions teams center their strategy around “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” In this model, Jerusalem is considered your home town, and if you live in the US, Judea is typically a reference to the state in which you live. In Acts, the first believers in Jesus had to flee Jerusalem because of persecution and they immediately went into other regions of Judea and eventually into Samaria and then the ends of the earth.
Is Judea Still an Important Place Today?
Even today Judea still holds an important place. There is a reason why the area of the West Bank is fraught with military conflict. It is the center still of military strategy, but more than anything it is the center of religious devotion.
For followers of Islam, the area is considered Al-Quds or Baitul-Maqdis (The Noble, Sacred Place). Jerusalem was the site of the first Qiblah and is still today considered as one of the three holiest places on earth. For Jewish followers, it is here that the hope of the temple being restored is placed. The temple must be in Judea. And for Christians it is an important place because it is here where so many of the events of the death and resurrection of Christ took place. It’s the center of history for three of the major religions of the world.
Judea is still an important place even today, and likely will continue to be.
Why Is This Important for Us to Know?
When people tell me directions by referring to things like “the place where ol’ Tom Jenkins lives,” my first instinct is to be frustrated and ask them for GPS coordinates. Why do I need to know anything about Tom Jenkins or his dog on the porch? But there is also something important about this. Place matters. Getting your hands in the dirt of the place where you are residing is an important part of being human.
Place also matters in the Bible. When we read of these places, they, just like ol’ Tom Jenkins, have a history. And that history is important. We might not find it important if we’re the type of people who just want to get from point A to point B. And if we aren’t careful, our Bible reading can have the same propensity. We’re just trying to get in our chapter for the day and we aren’t that interested in stopping to smell the earth, hear the birds, look at the surroundings, and feel the place when we come upon a word like Judea. But it’s important for us to stop. It will help our Bible reading when we are able to attach it to place.