Travel

OVERVIEW

Traveling from place to place during ancient times was very different from what we are used to today. The roads used for traveling in biblical times were not like the highways and streets used today for traveling. In fact, there were many times that the roads would become flooded or blocked and people could not travel on them at all.
Sea voyages were made in small ships, and these were used mostly for trade for the military. People had to be very careful when they would travel by ship because of the danger caused by storms, hazardous rocks, and pirates.
Because there were not many reasons for people to travel, most people in biblical times stayed fairly close to their homes. From time to time, however, large groups of people would move and settle somewhere else. Also, people sometimes traveled for religious festivals or to get away from war or famine. By looking at the different ways people traveled in the Bible, we get a better understanding of what it must have been like to live in ancient times.

TRAVEL IN OLD TESTAMENT TIMES

Several stories in the Old Testament describe the people of Israel moving from place to place to feed their flocks of sheep. Joseph’s brothers took their flocks from the south of the land up to Shechem and then to Dothan (Genesis 37:12-17), but this was only about 60 miles. David traveled around Palestine and even went to Moab (1 Samuel 22:3). In addition, the Danites moved from their home southwest of Jerusalem to the north, just south of the Lebanon Mountains (Judges 18:1).
In the Old Testament, travelers would normally walk, although donkeys were used both for riding and carrying equipment. The ox was also used for transporting heavy loads and sometimes for carrying people (Genesis 46:5). Later, people began to ride camels when they traveled (1 Kings 10:2; 2 Kings 8:9). We do not know very much about resting places for travelers in Old Testament times. There are only a few references to a "lodging place" in the stories of the Old Testament (Genesis 42:27; Genesis 43:21; and Exodus 4:24).

TRAVEL IN NEW TESTAMENT TIMES

The Roman world knew a great deal about traveling. Romans had to travel in order to fulfill religious obligations during festival seasons, for trade, for government administration, and for military purposes. Not the least among travelers in the first century were the early Christian missionaries.
The beginning of Roman peace and authority and the construction of well-made stone roads made travel relatively safe and quick for people in the New Testament times as compared to the Old Testament times. Long distances were traveled within the Roman Empire over good roads and under conditions that were fairly safe. There were some hazards, however, notably in sea travel, from wind, storms, and pirates (Acts 15:39, Acts 18:18-22, Romans 15:24-25 and 2 Corinthians 11:25-26). Paul’s sea journey to Rome, for example, was very perilous (Acts 27:1-Acts 28:14).
The New Testament mentions a number of journeys that took place on foot. Mary traveled from Galilee to Judea to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-40 and Luke 1:56). The baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the census (Luke 2:1-7). He and his family had to travel to Jerusalem in order to comply with the Jewish laws about purification (Luke 2:22). Because of this, there were three trips of about 70 miles made from Nazareth to Jerusalem from the time of Jesus’ conception to Mary’s purification. Joseph and Mary also made the annual Passover visit to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-51).
Other journeys are also mentioned in the New Testament (John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:1-10; and John 12:1). Jesus himself walked to Jericho from Galilee (Mark 1:1-11) and also to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24). He was in Samaria more than once (Luke 17:11; and John 4:4). His last journey to Jerusalem was through Jericho and up through the hills (Mark 10:1; Mark 10:32; and Mark 11:1). His last journey after the resurrection was to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).
Paul traveled by sea on each of his missionary journeys (Acts 13:1-14, Acts 15:41-18:22, Acts 18:23-21:17), and he was usually accompanied by friends. He also made many journeys on foot in Palestine, Asia Minor, and the Greek peninsula. But not all travel was on foot in New Testament times. The donkey, used for carrying loads, also often carried people. Jesus once rode from Bethphage to Jerusalem, which was a short but very symbolic journey (Matthew 21:2-7; Mark 11:1-11; and John 12:12-15). When Joseph traveled with his pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem for the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary also probably rode on a donkey. The Ethiopian eunuch was riding in a chariot after worshiping at Jerusalem and was joined by Philip who was traveling on foot (Acts 8:26-38). Roman soldiers marched but they also used horses regularly. When Paul was brought to Caesarea from Jerusalem, a team of horses was prepared for him (Acts 23:23-24).

ROADS AND SEA LANES

The roads in biblical times figured prominently in the geography, topography, and history of Palestine, a land that was a bridge between Egypt and the other centers of civilization in the Middle East. Many of the roads were strategically important, both for commercial and military reasons. Some roads gained significance as pilgrim routes to make travel to religious centers like Jerusalem much easier. There were three main types of roads: long-distance international roads, medium-distance roads between different regions, and a variety of roads inside each region or state.

Great International Roads

The international roads linked the Mediterranean coast to the northern Tigris Valley and southern Mesopotamia. Some of these roads linked Mesopotamia to Asia Minor, while others led south to Egypt, either along the coast or east of the Jordan River and across the Sinai Peninsula. There were trade routes between Anatolia and Assyria 2,000 years before Jesus’ birth. Apparently, the military campaign described in Genesis 14 was attempting to secure the great trade route, the King’s Highway, from northern Mesopotamia to Egypt (Genesis 14). Military invaders and travelers from Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia would head across the backcountry of Syria toward the coast before turning south into Palestine and Egypt.
When Greece and Rome came to power, another vast network of international roads for the people of the East opened up. Until Roman times, these roads were not surfaced with stone but were simply cleared pathways. They were very rough, and in wet weather it was not very easy to travel on them. However, they were evidently well marked by "waymarks" and "guideposts" (Jeremiah 31:21). When the Romans came to power, important roads were constructed with deep foundations and with large blocks of flat stone at the surface. The remains of these roads are still seen in many places in the Middle East and in Europe. Distance markers or milestones were regularly placed along these roads.

International North-South Roads in Palestine

The roads that linked countries to the north with Egypt passed through Palestine, which was a natural land bridge. There were three major roads: the coastal road, the Sinai road, and the Red Sea road. The coastal road began in Damascus and passed through Hazor across the plain of Esdraelon, through the Megiddo Pass, down the coast past Gaza and into Egypt. This was probably "the way of the sea" that the prophet Isaiah mentions (Isaiah 9:1). The Sinai road led from Egypt into the southern Negev and then to Kadesh-barnea, Beersheba, Hebron, Jerusalem, Shechem, Acco, Tyre, and Sidon. The Red Sea road entered Palestine from the Gulf of Aqaba, where the ancient port of Elath and Solomon’s port of Ezion-geber stood (Numbers 33:35 and 2 Chronicles 8:17). From there it led through the mountainous areas of Transjordan, crossing the deep valleys and then north through the Hauran region to Damascus. This was the road taken by caravans from southern Arabia to Damascus along the ancient King’s Highway (Numbers 20:17 and Numbers 21:22).
There were other north-south roads that were less important. One coastal road led from Joppa through Caesarea and Dor to Acco, where it linked with the Sinai road. Evidently it was not very significant until Roman times, when the port of Caesarea was built. The marshes in the plain of Sharon posed many problems for travelers. The plain of Esdraelon was also marshy and interrupted the roads north in bad seasons. A raised road across the swampy sections was eventually constructed which made traveling much easier. Another road led north from Hazor, branching off the main road to Damascus. The Jordan Valley road skirted the southwestern part of Galilee and led down the Jordan Valley to Jericho.

East-West Roads

Several important roads ran east and west, intersecting the larger roads leading north. One such road led from Gaza to Beersheba and then down the Arabah, with an offshoot road that went to Petra. Another led from Ashkelon, through Gath, to Hebron and on to En-gedi, a city on the shores of the Dead Sea. Another road led from Joppa up the valley of Aijalon (Joshua 10:6-14) to Bethel and on to Jericho. One well-used road led from Joppa to Shechem, across the Jordan River (Joshua 3:16) and into Gilead. Other roads led from Acco eastward to Galilee and also up the coast to Tyre and Sidon. There were numerous east-west roads that provided contact between various parts of Palestine. In Roman times, when the speedy movement of armies was necessary, some of the old roads were greatly improved and new ones were built.

Sea Lanes

The people of Israel, unlike the Phoenicians, seldom used the sea lanes. When Solomon planned to send ships down the Red Sea to Ophir (1 Kings 9:26-28), he hired Phoenicians to do the job. Jehoshaphat planned a similar expedition, but his ships were wrecked (1 Kings 22:48-49). Coastal traffic in Old Testament times was in the hands of the Philistines and Phoenicians. There were several ports along the Mediterranean Sea coast, such as Gaza, Joppa, Dor, and Acco, but none of these was very good. There were also sea lanes linking the Mediterranean coast with Egypt and the distant city of Tarshish, which was probably in Spain. The other coastal water was the Gulf of Aqaba with its two ports-Ezion-geber and Elath. Solomon’s fleet used Ezion-geber as its home port.
In New Testament times things changed considerably. The Middle East produced products that were used by people farther west, especially the Romans. Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria were seaports that handled both cargo and travelers. Smaller ports like those in Palestine and many others around the coast of Asia Minor provided a haven for these trading ships. One ingenious scheme to avoid a 200-mile journey around the Greek peninsula was to drag small boats across the five-mile wide isthmus in Corinth.
Even the largest ship in New Testament times was in danger from winds and storms at sea (Acts 27:1), so sea people mostly traveled when the risk of storms was not very high, which was usually from November to March. There was a lot of sea traffic in the Mediterranean Sea at certain times of the year when trade was heavy. Grain ships crossed regularly from Rome to Egypt and to the east.
Ships were driven by sail power and by oars operated by slaves. Some indication of the size of ships comes from the discovery of ancient wrecks and from Latin and Greek literature. An old dry dock 130 feet long found near Athens was once used for Greek war vessels, which were smaller than the cargo vessels. The Roman writer Lucian refers to an Alexandrian grain ship 180 feet long. A ship this large could carry about 1,200 tons. Paul’s ship carried 276 people (Acts 27:37). Modern archeology is providing valuable information about these ancient ships for people today.

REASONS FOR TRAVEL

The most important reason for travel in New Testament times was for trade and commerce, which involved far more than merely transporting goods. There were agents, supervisors, people who insured goods, bankers, and a whole range of people involved in the receiving and safe delivery of the cargo.
Military travel was also common. A wide variety of tasks had to be undertaken. This included spying, transporting equipment for troops, making arrangements for retreats and advances, and the transportation of the troops.
Some travelers were businesspeople changing their place of employment, like Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2-3). Aquila had traveled from Pontus on the Black Sea to Rome. Then, during a time of intense persecution, he fled to Corinth with his wife. Many others traveled for similar reasons.
People on religious pilgrimages also traveled by land or sea. Jews from many lands journeyed to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festivities (Acts 2:5-11). Non-Jews went to religious centers at Ephesus, Athens, and Eleusis, where there were important temples. Many minor temples also attracted pilgrims. The construction of new temples and a variety of government administration buildings brought craftsmen from very far away. Often the materials used in temple construction had to be transported to the site from foreign countries. Some people made trips for health reasons to temples famed for healing miracles or to enjoy the benefits of hot springs like those at Capernaum or Tiberias. Athletes traveled to centers for important contests like the Olympic games, and crowds of people flocked to witness the festivities. Some travelers were students or teachers going to great centers of learning. Others traveled as official couriers bearing important government and commercial documents. Despite all this activity, vast numbers of ordinary citizens hardly ever traveled more than a few miles from their homes.

Fast Facts

How?
How did people travel in biblical times? People traveled in many different ways, including on foot, by ship, and by riding animals like donkeys and camels.
Why?
Why did people travel? In the Bible, people traveled mostly for business reasons. However, they also traveled for religious reasons and for military reasons.
Who?
Who was responsible for improving the roads? The Romans made many improvements on the ancient roads by paving them with stones.
When?
When would most people travel by boat? Because traveling in storms was so dangerous, most people would travel by boat between November and March when there were not as many storms.
Where?
Where did the roads through Palestine go? Palestine was a natural bridge between Egypt and other countries in the Middle East like Assyria, Persia, and Babylonia.
What?
What distinguished roads before they were paved by the Romans? Before that time roads were primarily dirt tracks marked with signposts.

Digging Deeper

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Archeology
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Assyria
Babylon
Bethlehem
Caesarea
Corinth
Damascus
Dothan
Egypt
Emmaus
Galilee
Gaza
Gilead
Hazor
Jericho
Jerusalem
Jordan River
Judea
Mediterranean Sea
Mesopotamia
Moab
Nazareth
Ophir
Palestine
Persia
Philistines
Phoenicians
Rome
Samaria
Shechem
Sidon
Syria
Tyre

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HOT LIST

Eight Interesting Modes of Transportation in the Bible

Floating zoo (Genesis 6:14-20)
Talking donkey (Numbers 22:28)
Hot rod? (2 Kings 2:11)
Helicopter? (Ezekiel 1:15-21)
Fish propulsion (Jonah 2:10)
Elevator (Mark 2:3-4)
Water Hike (Matthew 14:25)
Spirit Airlines (Acts 8:39)

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