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What Was the Climate and Weather Of Israel Like at the Time of Jesus?

July 9, 2014

070914The climate in Palestine both today and at the time of Jesus has two distinct seasons. The wet or rainy season is from the middle of October to the middle of April. The dry or summer season lasts from the middle of June until the middle of September. It is quite dry in these months and rainfall is very unusual. Although the temperature in summer can get very hot, it often does not feel this way. Cool breezes and low humidity are typical, making the summers very pleasant, especially in areas directly on the coast or on the higher slopes of the hills. During these months the sky is almost always cloudless and sunny. Throughout the summer rain does fall because of the dominance of high-pressure zones in the area. This provides challenges for farmers, who have to develop special methods for trapping water during the rainy season. The rainy season does not feature rain every day, but there can be significant rains that cause streams to flood from time to time. While it gets cool in winter, and certain higher altitudes near Jerusalem and Bethlehem can even see snow, this is rare and limited to brief periods during December and January. Though the Bible mentions snow, it is mostly described as being in the mountains to the north near Mt. Hermon.

The climate of the Holy Land varies from north to south and from east to west. Since the topography is varied there can be dramatic differences within the span of just a few miles. Generally there is more rain on the eastern part of Palestine and it gets hotter the farther south you travel. The Dead Sea region and the area around Jericho are deep crevasses and pure desert. The mountainous regions have more rain on the west side than on the east side. The hottest days of the year are during the transition between the two seasons

The climate of Israel in Jesus’ time may not have been quite as warm and dry as it is today. Several references in Scripture would seem to imply that the land was wetter and more suitable for agriculture in the past, not requiring  the significant irrigation prevalent in the Middle East now. For example,

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar (Genesis 13:10).

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7,8).

The Bible also describes Solomon’s use of prodigious quantities lumber to build the Temple and many other buildings in around 1000 BC.

Land-use studies throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Mid-East show the prevalence of crops and forests, which were suited to cooler, wetter climates in the period before 1000 B.C.

In Jesus’ time though, just like today, the hilly, mountainous topography (with the deep rift in the earth near the Dead Sea), strongly affected the microclimate from mile to mile. 

Lower Galilee (at left), where Jesus lived most of his life, was Israel’s lushest region, known for its sunny, temperate climate and its spring-watered lands. Each spring the valleys and slopes became an ocean of wildflowers and blossoming trees. Beginning in March, the area was covered by a vast blanket of green. The fertile land was a texture of vineyards and fruit orchards. Grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates, oranges, and other fruits flourished in its pleasant, subtropical climate.

First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who knew the area well, wrote this about it:

Its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there; for the temper of the air is so well mixed, that it agrees very well with those several sorts, particularly walnuts, which require the coldest air, flourish there in vast plenty; there are palm trees also, which grow best in hot air; fig trees also and olives grow near them, which yet require an air that is more temperate. One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together; it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together through the whole year” (The Jewish War, Book 3, Chapter 10:8).

Around the Sea of Galilee crops were plentiful and fish were abundant. The Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake that is about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. The typical crops grown in the region were grain, olives, and grapes. The area to the east of the Sea of Galilee was drier and had less vegetation.

An area to the south between Galilee and Samaria is called the Valley of Jezreel (at right), and many regions here featured rich soil and moderate rainfall. Judea, south of Samaria, has a gradual change in landscape. The most distinct change is the decreased rainfall.

Since Jesus’ time the overall area of the Holy Land has undergone gradual desertification. Desertification is described as a process by which a region is turned into desert either by natural processes or as a result of poor use of the land. Desertification has become especially noticeable during the last several centuries, though this process has been going on since even before Jesus’ time. 

Desertification such as this leads to less water, 
less arable land, 
warmer days, 
and cooler nights. 

The chief human contributions to this have been war and poor land management. Deforestation became a big issue during the war with the Romans (67-70 AD). But in the past 2000 years there have been many other wars and struggles that have caused environmental damage as well.

So it is a reasonable conclusion that in the time of Jesus, the climate would have been noticeably more moderate and wet than it is today. However, there still are many beautiful regions, especially in Galilee in the north. So we ought not overestimate the difference in climate. It would be noticeable to people of Jesus’ time were they to visit us today, but it would not astonish them. 

They would likely notice that it seemed a bit warmer and drier than they were used to and that there were fewer trees.

Note that Israel currently has a program underway that is attempting to reverse the desertification by planting trees (cedars—the same type used by Solomon!) This program that has received huge amounts of private financial support. They are in effect attempting to partially reforest Israel. The expected result will be that the land will hold more water, so more water will be available for farming, and thus more land can be farmed.

Then, as now, the area to the east of Jerusalem and Bethany over the Mount of Olives drops into a deep rift valley, well over 1000 feet below sea level. The area is deep desert. Jericho, in the region of the Judean Desert,  is an oasis, but the area is otherwise one where almost nothing can grow. It is mountainous and extremely dry.

Disclaimer: I am writing a series of reflections to prepare for a Bible Study of Life at the Time of Jesus. I am sharing some of these here. Please do NOT consider this article as associated in any way with the currently raging climate change debate. If there are differences in the climate today compared to 2000 years ago, they are minor. Climate is always changing on this planet in both macroscopic and microscopic ways. To what degree man is involved in this I cannot say. This is not a science blog and I do not wish to engage in a discussion of that issue here.

I put this video together to celebrate the beautiful gardens of God throughout the world:

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Comments (8)

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  1. Maria says:

    Apologies if any one is getting tired of seeing me here a bit too much 🙂

    the article brings such fond memories of the place and the yearning , to be there … to take it all in slowly ..well ..well.. I know – The Lord is truly trying to tell where and what the real Holy Land is ..

    The above observations pretty much agree with that of Emmerich’s too .. the dimensions of Galilee, sort of striking – 13, the # for The Mother , # 8 , for the Octave that signifies the Sunday – Easter, New Covenant !

    Had read how the lake level of Galilea is still the most importnat news in Israel – beyond that of natioanal security or finanacial news even – just too bad , the connection to the Water of Life has not reached in for those it is meant for too and that may be the way for the water scarcity also to be resolved – Pope.Emr.Benedict ‘s mention of how the internal deserts lead to expansion of the external ones !

    Regarding efforts at greening too, hope the Israeli people and Govt too . would see to it that they are very diligent and caring about not contributing to hardships for places /persons , such as the Carmelites on the Mount of Elijah … and instructing the tour guides accordingly , as far as support for their gift shops etc ;

    there was a huge fire at a greening project there not far from that mountain, a while ago ..costing probbaly in the millions …

    and that look of the painful disdain of the reality , from the Carmelite priest at the gift shop, towards the guide who seemed to want to hurry off the tourists away from the place …and that too , may be a micro image of what might be happening at larger scales !

    Then again, the peace and harmony, in evey day life is what delights and surprises too !

    Peace on Jerusalem !

  2. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Bach then it would probably be chili today, hot tamale and cloudy with a chance of matzah balls.

  3. John Francis says:

    Very good article and witty comment

  4. Sally says:

    Msgr. Pope, Excellent post! Too often people project their sense of how thing were by how their life is now or it is romanticized with a lack of how difficult it was to live. Did you know that in New Hampshire 95% of that state was deforest of its trees for the ships that had to be built in the early 1600 to 1800. Now the trees you see are all a tourist attraction called leaf peeping season and the locals make their living on people to see the brightly colored leaves that grew only 150 years ago. And New Hampshire is 95% forest now. Go figure. I wonder about the plants and trees that grew during the time of Christ. Where were the forest and the kinds of wild flowers that grew there? Thank you always for your insight.

  5. Anita says:

    You’re absolutely right, Msgr – the topography changes dramatically in just a matter of a few miles. From the beautiful greenery of Lower Galilee to the sudden barren-ness of the Judean desert made us all wonder, “how did that happen so quickly?” A trip worth taking.

  6. TeaPot562 says:

    You are undoubtedly aware that elevation above or depth below sea level also influences climate. The Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake) is about 570 feet below sea-level (or was in 1979 when I was there on pilgrimage); the Dead Sea, into which the Jordan River runs, is about 1100 feet below sea level; Jericho, about half-way between, is warm enough to grow bananas regularly; and Jerusalem – a distance uphill from Jericho – is about 2,500 feet ABOVE sea-level. So temperatures in Jericho would typically be about 17 to 18 degrees F. warmer than those in Jerusalem.
    Thank you for the discussion.
    TeaPot562

  7. Annette Strachan says:

    Canticle of Isais 147.5
    Who giveth snow like wool: scattereth mist like ashes.
    147.6 He sendeth his crystal like morsels: who shall stand before the face of this cold?
    147.7 He shall send out his word, and shall melt them: his wind shall blow, and the waters shall run.