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Clothing and Diet at the Time of Jesus the Messiah

By Edited May 30, 2016 0 0
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An understanding of the clothing people wore and their diet at the time of Jesus is helpful in our study of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven. Even a basic knowledge of such topics can help you understand the setting in which Jesus ministered. During the first century, factual knowledge of what the general population wore is largely unknown as fabric and similar material have not survived the centuries. It is known, however, that Greek culture, also known as Hellenism, had made its impact on this aspect of Jewish culture, just as it did to virtually every other aspect of the Jewish nation. Two of the most important items of clothing for men were the cloak and the tunic. The typical cloak, as the name implies, was made of fairly sturdy material such as wool and designed to protect from the elements. “It was so necessary a garment that the Law required a creditor who had seized his debtor's cloak as a pledge to give it up at nightfall.” [i] The cloak was usually made from two pieces of material stitched together along the vertical seam. From this square of material, the garment would be fashioned. Cloaks of superior quality were made from a single piece of material as in the case of the cloak Jesus wore. It was this cloak to which the four tassels (tzitziyot) of the rabbi were affixed. The owner customarily wore the cloak during the day and removed it at night before going to bed. At night, one’s cloak could, and often did, serve as a blanket. As a matter of interest, the larger looms necessary to produce material sufficiently wide from which to make a seamless cloak as Jesus wore were only in northern Galilee, and these particular articles of clothing were quite expensive.

Underneath the cloak was the tunic, which was a thinner, more comfortable garment made of cotton or wool. It was worn over the torso and extended to the knees with long or short sleeves, depending on the preference of the wearer. The rich wore tunics made of linen or silk-like material and colored with dyes, purple being a favorite. At the waist, they wore a loincloth made of leather or linen held in place with a belt. The belt, made of leather, wool, or silk, held the purse, which was a pouch containing coins or other valuables. The wearer could also tuck in the lower portion of the tunic so as to not encumber the legs while working or running. This was known as girding up one's loins. The tunic, belt, and loincloth constituted the daily attire for most men at the time of Jesus. The attire of men and women were similar in overall appearance and style. Clothes for women were more attractive and feminine and made of more delicate or thinner fabric with brighter colors, although the devout were ever mindful of prohibitions on appearance. For example, for a woman to show her hair in public, particularly loose, was seen as a sign of a prostitute or a person with questionable morals. Because of this social attitude, women typically wore their hair up or in a bun. As with most customs, social norms and guidelines for women's dress were not as rigid in the villages and hamlets.

Footwear was typically the sandal, because of the hot climate, although the shoe was also worn. The construction of the sandal was fairly simple with “a long strap attached at one end to the leather sole, was wrapped around the foot and ankle and secured to the sole again.” [ii] Slaves, incidentally, were barefoot. One can see the significance of the sandal in the parable of The Father and Two Sons when the father orders sandals to be placed on the feet of his returning son. Because the standard mode of transportation was by foot, when a host received a guest, proper manners dictated that a small tub of water would be provided so the guest could wash his feet. Scripture also infers that most would be barefoot indoors, particularly if the house had wooden, ceramic, or tile floors. The illustration of The Two Debtors provides several pieces of information about dress and courtesy as related to travel in the first century.

Jewelry was popular and “was a sign of status and wealth; also, ornaments functioned as a form of currency.” [iii] This included head-bands, bracelets, necklaces, and amulets made of gold and silver. The illustration of The Lost Coin notes the importance of jewelry in the first century. Colored glass and pearls were also used in various fashions for decoration including necklaces. Braided hair was not uncommon, and gold was often woven into the fabric of the clothing of the wealthy. Because of the heat and the dry climate, olive oil was applied to the skin to prevent drying and cracking. Perfume was also quite common and was used in both secular and religious settings. Also, perfume was highly valued, nearly as much as gold and silver throughout the region. Because of the hot climate, virtually everyone wore scented oil to mask body odor and to protect the skin from the dry heat and sunshine. The value of perfume is evident as this was one of the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus when He was an infant and Mary honored Him near the end of His ministry by pouring expensive perfume on Him when He was at Bethany.

The availability and consumption of food at the time of Jesus was a constant concern. For most, apart from the wealthy, the shortage of food was a constant concern. Preparation of food “was a daily task because it was not possible to keep food for more than a day in the hot climate without recourse to drying or salting.” [iv] Because of the lack of refrigeration and effective preservation, food preparation mandated a considerable amount of time and effort. These difficulties led directly to the diet for those of the first century. The poor customarily ate two meals; one in the morning and the second in the evening. Some would eat at noon, but it was almost always something that could be consumed easily, not requiring a trip to the market or home. Those who hired themselves out as day-laborers used their wages to purchase food for the evening meal for themselves and their families. This meal was often a time of fellowship and conversation, and it was not at all unusual for this meal to last for several hours. Typically, people at the time of Jesus were frugal eaters. Only during festivals, holidays, or banquets did they consume large amounts of food.

Flour was a known commodity in the first century world, and several sources were available from which to make this staple. The wealthy enjoyed flour made from wheat while alternatives such as barley, grain, or even locusts were available for the poor. Another important component of the diet of the times was olive oil that was essential to many phases of food preparation including baking and frying. Olive oil was more important to the household of the Jewish nation than vegetable oil is to us today. “There were various qualities of oil; the best, the virgin oil, was kept for liturgical purposes and the most delicate pastries. How could men have lived without oil? For it was not only used in cookery but also in pharmacy and medicine.” [v] From flour, be it wheat or barley, bread was a staple in first century Jewish nation and offered at nearly every meal. A variety of different ways was known in the first century to make bread. “The simplest and the earliest way were to build a fire on top of a flat stone; after the ashes had been removed, the dough was placed on the heated stone and then covered with the ashes. Afterward, the ashes were removed, and the bread was ready to eat.” [vi] Other ways to make bread included the griddle and bread ovens. The inclusion of bread at meals was so commonplace; the expression “eating bread” was synonymous with having a meal. Bread was usually the only available utensil except the occasional knife. Rich and poor alike used bread as a sop for gravy and a utensil to carry food to the mouth. Typically the host or head of the table would sop or dip bread into the gravy or sauce and give it to the guests in order of rank or prestige. A diner was not supposed to dip his bread into the gravy or sauce at the same time as another for this was considered poor manners.

Beverage choices were somewhat limited in first century Palestine. Red wine was the basic drink and healthier than milk. They almost never drank water because it was frequently contaminated. Wine often had high levels of alcohol and tannic content, so it was common practice to dilute it with water to make it less potent. This lessened the risks of drinking water since it was mixed with alcohol. This also resulted in less water being consumed which lessened the risk of drinking tainted water. Also, “the Jews were familiar with the practice of blending, that is, of improving a small wine by the addition of a more fruity one. They kept their wine either in great tall jars or wineskins; the skins were made of carefully tanned goat's hides, and they had wooden stoppers.” [vii] Jesus spoke of this practice in the illustration of the Garment / Wineskin. A form of beer made from barley and millets was also available. Milk was also available, but not as readily consumed as wine. Milk came primarily from goats and sheep and occasionally from cows. Goats were favored as milk producers, as six pints could be taken from a goat each day and goat milk is richer in protein and fat. They also ate yogurt and butter that were byproducts of milk.

Poor people rarely had the luxury of meat or fish. Available meat included quail, pigeon, or partridge, but these were not part of their normal diet. “The poorer people never slaughtered an animal for their own eating except when there was a family feast; but when there was one, the fattened calf, the proverbial fattened calf of the parable, was a most appropriate victim.” [viii] Since meat was not in the normal daily diet of most, alternative sources of protein included beans, lentils, and the like. The wealthy could afford to supplement their diet with meat from slaughtered animals such as cow, deer, antelope, and the like. It was more likely the wealthy would enjoy meat as part of their daily diet because they had the resources necessary to acquire and prepare this type of food. For these reasons, when someone held a banquet or a wedding, the poor and middle class would treat it as an anticipated occasion because meat, unusual for them, would be part of the meal. Animals would be slaughtered, and food and drink readied. To be invited to such an event was a time of great excitement and high anticipation. Also, an event such as this provided an opportunity to be with friends and family. This helps explain the absurdity of the guests refusing to attend the banquet in the parables of The Wedding Banquet and The Great Supper.

To complete the diet, vegetables, fruits, corn, wild figs, olives, cucumbers, melons, grapes, onions, lettuce, and cheeses were available. Around the Sea of Galilee, a diet of fish was typical, although the further away from the water, the more this became the exception. As noted in Proverbs, honey was the accustomed method to sweeten food or drink. A variety of spices were available to enhance to flavor of the food, and it is thought the cuisine was quite spicy. The most common spice, quite naturally, was salt. Other spices included capers, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, jeezer (rosemary), mint, mustard, pepper, rue, and saffron.


Copyright: Craig Manning, All rights reserved. 2016.



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  1. Henri Daniel-Rops Daily Life at the Time of Jesus. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1962.
  2. Anne Punton The World Jesus Knew. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.
  3. Phillip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  4. Ralph Gower The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. Chicago: Moody Press, 1987.
  5. Henri Daniel-Rops Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1962.
  6. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  7. Henri Daniel-Rops Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1962.
  8. Henri Daniel-Rops Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1962.

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