Is it believable that in ancient times someone would actually oversow another man’s field with weeds?
AT MATTHEW 13:24-26, Jesus is quoted as saying: “The Kingdom of the heavens may be likened to a man who sowed fine seed in his field. While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat and left. When the stalk sprouted and produced fruit, then the weeds also appeared.” Different writers have questioned whether this illustration should be considered real, yet ancient Roman legal writings suggest that it should.
“Sowing darnel in a field for purposes of revenge . . . was a crime under Roman legislation. The necessity for a law on the subject suggests that the action was not infrequent,” says one Bible dictionary. Legal scholar Alastair Kerr explains that in 533 C.E., Roman Emperor Justinian published his Digest, a summary of Roman law and excerpts from jurists of the classical period of the law (about 100-250 C.E.). According to this work (Digest, 126.96.36.199), the jurist Ulpian referred to a case considered by the second-century Roman statesman Celsus. Weeds had been sown in another person’s field, and as a result, a crop was ruined. The Digest considers the legal remedies available to the owner, or tenant farmer, in order to obtain compensation from the perpetrator for the loss suffered.
That such malicious mischief occurred within the Roman Empire in ancient times indicates that the situation Jesus described was true to life.
How much freedom did Rome grant to the Jewish authorities in Judea in the first century?
DURING this time, Judea was ruled by the Romans, who were represented by a governor with troops at his command. His main concern was to collect taxes for Rome and to maintain peace and order. The Romans took an interest in suppressing outlawed activities and in bringing to justice any who caused disturbances. Otherwise, the Romans were usually content to leave the day-to-day administration of the province in the hands of local leaders.
The Sanhedrin functioned as the Jews’ supreme court and governing council for matters of Jewish law. Lower courts existed throughout Judea. Most civil and criminal cases were probably handled by such courts without interference from Roman rulers. One limitation imposed on the competence of Jewish courts, however, concerned the execution of criminals—a right that the Romans generally reserved for themselves. A well-known exception was when the members of the Sanhedrin tried Stephen and had him stoned to death.—Acts 6:8-15; 7:54-60.
The Jewish Sanhedrin thus exercised extensive jurisdiction. Yet, “its most serious restriction,” notes scholar Emil Schürer, “was that the Roman authorities could at any time take the initiative themselves and proceed independently, as in fact they did when they suspected a political offence.” One example of such a case occurred under the oversight of military commander Claudius Lysias, who took into custody the apostle Paul, a Roman citizen.—Acts 23:26-30.