Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Soundbites on daily life during Gospel times

Continuing on with this series, we will now go into the daily life that Jesus would have encountered during his time in Palestine.

Daily life
Food and drink
Food in the Middle East in those days is rather simple.  People eat for sustenance rather than for pleasure - quite different from today with the wide range of food in abundance, if you can afford it.  In Jesus' days, most people are poor and bread made from wheat or barley is largely what they can afford.  Bread are made from harvesting the wheat or barley, which is then milled at a grindstone.  These millstones can be rather large, requiring two persons or a donkey, going around in circles in order to do the grinding.  The bread is then leavened with yeast and then baked into flat cakes or loaves.  Bread is central to life and is often used as a substitute word for food and sustenance in general.


Meat is not something that is readily available.  There is no meat cattle in Palestine but sheep is reared for meat but only eaten on feastdays.  Daily meat is often eggs or fish obtained from the fishermen or locusts, if one is very poor.  Meat is often supplemented by milk, honey and fruits.

Drink is often water but wine is also drunk for the evening meal and special occasion.  Wine is considered safer than water as the alcohol in wine kills off any bacteria.

Most meals are the daily meals at noon and a heavier one in the evening.  In addition, there are formal meals, where meat and wine is served in large quantities.  Guests recline along couches at three tables arranged in a 'U' shape, with guests sitting in order of precedence next to the host.

Houses, especially those of the poor are also a simple affair, usually single roomed, built around a central hearth.  Fire is made at great effort from kindling and burning wood: there is no coal in the Middle East.  The fire is used for cooking rather than warmth or light.  Sometimes, oil lamps are used for lighting, especially in larger or multi-room houses.  Outside the house, torches are used.


The sleeping place is not necessarily a bed, but can be a cozy place in the central room or a separate cot sometimes accessible with a ladder.  Families often sleep together for warmth.  


Houses are often not locked using metal keys that we have today, but using wooden bars slid into place at the door.  Locking doors using such wooden bars requires a lot more effort than a mere turning of a metal key that we have today.

T-shirts and trousers do not exist in those days.  Most cloth were made of linen or cotton.  The most basic clothing for men would be a loin cloth, which is often long and slung over the waist as a belt or over the shoulders.  Money is often kept in the loin cloth.  Passages about people being naked in the Bible normally refers to being dressed in this loin cloth.


Normal work clothes involve a sleeveless shirt or tunic, over which a cloak is draped when going out.  Rich men would wear two tunics with the inner one being like an undergarment.  More formal occasions involve a long tunic, which runs to below the knees and is tied by a girdle around the waist.  It looks very much like the cassock that priests wear today.

Over this is worn the cloak or mantle, usually made of wool to protect against the cold.  It is usually the most important and expensive piece of clothing a person can have.  Pharisees uses a mantle with eight threads and five knots, which together with the Hebrew word for fringe (the word has a numerical value of 600) makes 613, the number of Jewish laws.

Money in Palestine have many sources and not issued by a single central bank like we have today.  Coins (there are no bank notes in those days) are minted by different kings and do not come in common denominations.


The basic coin would be a drachma or a denarius.  It is equivalent to a single day's work for a day labourer.  You can translate this into the value in your respective countries, probably about US$70 or so in the US.  A talent is a rather larger amount, about 4-5kg (or 10lb) of silver or about US$3,000-4,000 today.  I often translate these coins into contemporary values so that children can understand.

Weights & measures
The uncommon unit of measure normally encountered in the Bible is the cubit, which is about half a meter (a foot and a half).  Most of the other obsolete measures of distance, weights and volume (eg., gallons) are normally translated into modern measures in most modern Bible translations.

There are four main languages in Palestine during Jesus' times.  The ancient language of the Jews was Hebrew, the language of the Jewish scriptures.  Jesus would have been taught Hebrew so that he could read the scriptures but it would not be the everyday language.  It is only with the founding of Israel that Hebrew was revived as a living language and is now the official language of Israel.


The everyday language of the markets was Aramaic, which is often incorrectly depicted as a minor dialect.  In Jesus' days, it was a family of languages that was widely spoken and already 1000 years old by then.  It was spoken throughout all of West Asia but today is limited to several villages in Syria.  Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic still used in the mass by some of the ancient churches in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great four centuries before Jesus, Greek language and culture spread throughout Middle East.  Many of the ruling families and aristocrats adopted the Greek culture (like many people throughout the world today adopting parts of the American or English culture).  Greek was also the common language of the intellectuals and of commerce in East Mediterranean.

The Roman conquest of Palestine just about three centuries later brought Latin as the official language in many places but it never penetrated as deeply as Greek did.

These languages come together in the notice that Pontius Pilate wrote on top of Jesus' cross, in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  Today, all Catholic crosses have the inscription "INRI" for "Iesu Nazarene Rex Idumea", meaning "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".


Who is in charge of what in first century Palestine is a bit complicated with a king ruling, even though it is under the Roman Empire.  

Jewish kingdom
The king at the time of Jesus' public ministry was Herod Antipas, who is a different Herod from Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born.  

Herod the Great was an Ediomite who practiced Judaism, meaning he was not ethnically a Jew and not considered a Jew by the religious authorities.  He was effectively appointed king in Judea by the Romans after he appealed to the Emperor and he largely ruled with the support of the Romans.  He was known for his brutality, as demonstrated by his slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and even executed members of his family.  He was the one that rebuilt the Jewish Temple to its greatest extent in a bid to seek support from the Jewish priestly classes.  He died soon after the birth of Jesus.


After his death, the Romans divided up his kingdom among his sons, with Herod Antipas ruling as the tetrach (a lesser type of king) of Galilee.  This was the Herod who ruled during Jesus' crucifixion and killed John the Baptist.

Roman Empire
The Romans conquered Judea in 63 BC and initially ruled through local kings such as Herod the Great, who had great autonomy in ruling his kingdom.   After the death of Herod the Great, and following complaints of the brutal rule of his son in Judea, the Romans took

direct control there and set up the province of Judea.  A prefect, commonly referred to as a governor in the Gospels, was appointed by the emperor and had his capital in Ceasarea.  Pontius Pilate was one such prefect from 26-36.

Other peoples
There are other peoples living in Judea at that time.  One of these was the Phoenicians, who were natives of what is now Lebanon.  They were an ancient people, known as sea-faring traders who founded many other trading settlements throughout the Mediterranean for a few centuries around 1000 years before Jesus.  The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, which eventually developed into the Roman alphabet that we use today.

The Phoenicians were the remnants of the Canaanite peoples who populated the land of Canaan (modern day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, western Jordan and south-western Syria) before the arrival the Hebrews.  Canaanite religion was largely polytheistic with many deities but nearer to Gospel times, some Canaanites were monolatrists (belief in many gods but worshiping only one god, usually as a national god).

There are also Samaritans, discussed in the post on Soundbites on people and groups during Gospel times, but they are not found in Judea.  There are also other peoples in Judea such as Ediomites, etc who were not mentioned in the Gospels.