Daily Life in First Century Israel and the Roman Empire

One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible as a 21st century American Christian is the vast chasm of language, culture, and geography that separates us from people of the Bible times.  Even considering only first century Palestine, the differences are enormous.  Nonetheless, the better we understand them, the better we will understand Him, and so studying daily life in that era is vital.

New Testament Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society.  Lacking good ports, it could not be a maritime power and benefit from high levels of seaborne trade, but being on the Europe-Asia-Africa land bridge, Israel did benefit from overland trade.   Lacking natural resources such as iron, gold and precious stones, it could not make large amounts in exports.  So the average Jew was a farmer, holding a small plot of land and obeying the timeless rhythms of the seasons and the weather for his daily life.  The early Jew rose before the sun, dressed in a simple woolen or linen tunic and leather sandals, and tilled the fields for several hours before returning home for his morning meal of vegetables and bread.   His home was no more than a few rooms, with walls of stone and mud and a roof of beams/branches and mud.  After eating he returned to the fields, using hand tools and perhaps an ox.  Occasionally he went to market to buy the items needed for his farm and family.  After his toil, the New Testament Jew would return home to his wife and children for an evening meal, a little teaching of the Scriptures and perhaps singing and dancing, and an early bedtime.  The man’s neighbors in the same village, or perhaps even sharing the same courtyard, had similar schedules.  Taxes were exorbitant, up to 50% of a farmer’s salary, and the cause of financial destitution in many and brigandry in some.

A Jewish man’s wife, meanwhile, prepared meals, made and washed clothing, kept house, and cared for children.  Women usually became pregnant shortly after marriage, and midwives and women in the village helped with the delivery, rubbing the newborn with salt and wrapping him tightly in cloths.  Babies were breastfed, and weaned after 18 months to 3 years.  Maternal and neonatal mortality were high.

Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, was a feast to be enjoyed by family, friends and neighbors alike.  Also on the Sabbath, most of the community went to the synagogue for reading of the scriptures, prayer and a sermon.  Travel was by foot or donkey over land, and by rowed or sailing boats over water.

As the sons in the family reached 13, they entered adolescence and learned a craft.  Daughters continued their domestic work and at 12 entered adolescence and were eligible to marry.   Marriages were usually arranged, and the prospective groom brought a bride price in accordance with her father’s wealth and social standing to make up for his loss of a worker in his house.  After the contract was signed, the couple was betrothed, but consummating the marriage waited until the first night of the wedding feast, which lasted 7 days.  Afterwards, the bride moved in to her husband’s house, collocated with his family.

When someone died, family members would mourn the deceased, and professional mourners, usually women, joined the procession.  Palestine is a hot, dry, country, and lacked refrigeration, so bodies were buried as soon as possible after death.  Much of Israel is covered by hills and mountains with plentiful caves, and these caves were used to bury the dead, covered by a large stone to discourage entry.  Family members went back after three days to ensure that the person was actually dead, since mistakes sometimes occurred.  On the first anniversary of a death, the family might return to the cave to take the bones, put them in an ossuary, and place the ossuary back into the grave.  This allowed one cave to serve many people in a family.

Not everyone in Judea farmed.  Others were merchants, religious and business leaders, country landowners with large estates, artisans such as carpenters, and professionals such as physicians.  Gentiles were plentiful in Galilee.  These groups had different lifestyles and living conditions, but most were united, more or less, by a common faith.

Rome, by contrast, was a Greek-cultured, urban center with a great location for maritime trade.  Houses were also centered around a courtyard, but houses sometimes had plumbing (often lead) and other luxuries.  Slaves were much more common in Rome, and not only domestic help and agricultural labor but even teachers, administrators and physicians could be slaves.  Religion was pluralistic, with worship of renamed Greek gods, the Emperor, and various mystery cults comingling in the city.  Streets were paved and roads carried armies and trade all over the empire.  The Mediterranean was a Roman lake, dominated by the Imperial navy.  Entertainment in Rome included mortal combat between gladiators, races, and all manner of other public games. All of these factors made Rome far different than Judea, and even different than urban Jerusalem.

Though thousands of years have passed, much about 21st century American life is the same as life in Ancient Judea, Rome, and everywhere else at every other time in history.  People are born, grow, learn, marry, reproduce, contribute to society, and die.  We are a diverse country in race, lifestyles, religion, and in many other ways, similar to Rome and to a lesser extent, Galilee.  By understanding Judea, Galilee and Rome, modern Christians can better understand the Bible which they hold dear.