Daily Life at the Time of Jesus First Century Palestine
The People of Palestine By the time of Jesus, the land of Israel had been under the control of the Greeks and then the Romans for hundreds of years. As a result, not all people in Palestine were Jewish. They would have been living side by side with Roman officials, soldiers, business people and land owners from a number of countries.
The People of Palestine Non Jews were referred to as Gentiles and they would have followed their own religion. The Jews did not normally mix with Gentiles. The Jews also kept some of their own people at a distance from their society: those considered sinful people which would have included prostitutes and lepers.
Cleanness and Uncleanness The book of Leviticus gives a long list of people who are considered unclean and lepers (which would have included anyone with a skin disease) were unclean. Jews could become unclean by eating forbidden food, by touching dead bodies, because of childbirth or women’s periods.
Cleanness and Uncleanness Unclean people were not allowed to join in worshipping God and could not enter the Temple. They regarded God as all-holy and absolutely pure and they themselves needed to be pure if they were to enter into God’s dwelling place.
Cleanness and Uncleanness To become clean again, Jews needed to take a ritual bath. This involved a total immersion of the body and had to be filled with running water or rain water. Many ritual baths were found in private homes as well as public ones in the Temple.
Galilee Most of the population in Galilee was involved in agriculture. Farming the land was always difficult, first because of the rocky terrain, which often had to be cleared and secondly because of lack of water. There is a dry season for five months of the year. Wheat and barley were the most common harvests.
Galilee Galilee was known for its wine and olive oil and large presses were built to obtain the wine and oil. Another common occupation in Galilee was fishing, since the Sea of Galilee and the upper sections of the Jordan river abounded in fish. Family groups would own several boats and hire people to fish for them.
Galilee Raising sheep and goats was yet another major activity. Sheep provided not only meat and wool but also milk and skins. They were especially valuable in the Jerusalem area since they were used for sacrifices in the Temple. Black goats were also kept in herds and prized for their meat, milk, skins and hair.
Galilee Goats were looked upon as symbols of evil, while sheep were regarded as symbols of goodness. Jesus, mixing with farming communities in Galilee, used images of sowing seeds and harvesting in his teachings, as well as shepherds and shepherding. Sheep and goats were used to refer to good and evil humans.
Taxes After the Romans established rule in 6CE, the Roman form of taxation was introduced. There were taxes on the value of crops and property and also a tax on people which is why the Romans had to hold a census from time to time to see how many people were in the land.
Taxes There were also taxes to be paid for the transportation of goods for sale, an inheritance tax and a sales tax on certain goods such as slaves. Jewish people already paid a religious tax of one tenth of their income to the priests and Levites in the Temple of Jerusalem and there was another Temple tax of half a shekel paid by all Jewish adult males.
Taxes While collection of taxes for agricultural produce and adult workers were probably collected by the Roman prefect, some of the other taxes were farmed out to tax collectors. Together with sinners and the unclean, Jewish tax collectors were considered outcasts and traitors by the Jewish population.
Taxes Taxes were paid by coins and the Romans minted their own coins with images of the emperor and an eagle (which represented Rome) on them. These silver coins were the main form of currency. Many Jews considered this money unclean. Romans allowed the Jews to make their own coins as long as they were bronze and not silver.
City Life In the larger cities of Palestine, life was more like the rest of the Roman Empire. Many of these were laid out in the Greek fashion with theatres for open-air plays and hippodromes for horse races. There would have been around 100,000 people living in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus.
Houses Houses would have been constructed from mud and wood. They were built in the shape of a large cube which was then divided into two rooms. One part was occupied by the family and the other by the family’s animals. Houses of relatively wealthy Jews had many rooms and resembled houses found in Rome.
Houses A series of rooms would surround a courtyard and usually had a miqveh would not have been found in the poorer homes. Furniture was made from both wood and stone and walls were plastered. Glass ornaments probably adorned the houses.
Food The diet in the average Jewish home consisted of a kind of porridge of wheat and barley, plus vegetables such as beans, lentils and cucumbers, seasoned with onions garlic and olive oil. Dates, figs and pomegranates were popular and in some areas fish was plentiful.
Drinks Watered wine was the universal drink. Water, a precious commodity in most of the area was usually drawn from the village well. The family would gather around a common bowl, dipping in with their right hands.
Marriage Boys married at 18, girls at puberty (officially 12 and a half). They usually married within the clan. The betrothal was celebrated first: the groom would state before witnesses, ‘she is my wife and I her husband, from today and forever’. These words officially bound the couple, though they did not yet live together.
Marriage During the betrothal year that followed the girl could not be dismissed except by divorce, and if the boy were to die, she would be considered a widow. After the 12 month betrothal period, the bride was brought to the groom’s house, the parents pronounced a blessing, and everyone joined in a great celebration of singing and dancing and feasting, lasting a week.
Children Children were highly valued and considered a blessing and a favour from the Lord, since one’s descendants were the inheritors of the Covenant. When a child was born, narrow lengths of cloth were wrapped around his/her limbs to prevent movement. On the 8th day after birth, male children were circumcised.
Children Circumcision marked the person’s belonging to the chosen people of God. The ceremony of naming a child usually took place on this day too. The name was considered an integral part of the person and closely associated with their characteristics and fate. The right of choosing a name belonged to the father.
Children After the birth of the child, the mother was considered unclean so she would go to the Temple 40 days after the birth and undergo a purification ceremony. This included the offering of a sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon, or in the case of the poor, 2 turtle doves. Because the first born son belonged to the Lord, he had to be bought back from the Temple.
Education When the boy was 6 or 7, the father began the work of educating him in Hebrew tradition and customs. He took the child to the Synagogue to learn the precepts of the Law. If the Synagogue had a school (and many of them did in Jesus’ time), he learned to read and write, using the Torah as text.
Education From his father the boy learned a trade, or perhaps studied with some scholarly Rabbi in order to become a teacher. By the age of 13, he was expected to know the whole of the Law and to practice its requirements and many children finished school at this age. At 13 the boy’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony was held in the Synagogue to celebrate his coming of age.
Education At his Bar Mitzvah the boy was expected to show publicly that he knew the Torah. Though education was held in high esteem for boys, it was considered unnecessary for girls, since they had no official place in religion. Women did learn the Scriptures and performed domestic duties at home with daughters remaining with their mothers until they married.
Language Ancient Israelites spoke Hebrew but by the time of Jesus, Hebrew had become a sacred language used for prayer and for the reading of the sacred writings. Few Jews would have used it for everyday speech. The common people spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and was used widely throughout the Palestinian area.
Language Greek was the language of learning and many Jews would have spoken Greek. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and since Palestine was now part of the Empire, official decrees were in Latin and those Jews who had a part in the administration must have known Latin.
Language A Jew in the time of Jesus would therefore have heard many languages. In the synagogue, the service would have been in Hebrew and the reading from the sacred scrolls in Hebrew. These readings would have been commented on and explained in Aramaic, the language of the every day person.
Clothing Clothing in the time of Jesus followed the Roman fashion. The basic garments worn by Jews were te tunic, usually white, and a cloak. This applied to both men and women, although the material used for women’s clothes was finer. Women also used a veil and leather sandals completed the outfit.
Burials Jews were always buried, never cremated. Tombs could have been freestanding monuments or caves, and sometimes a chamber would be cut into the rock of a hillside. About 12 months later, the bones would be collected and placed in a stone or wood container called an ossuary.