The family was one of the most important social, economic, and cultural entities at the time of Jesus the Messiah, probably more important than today. An integral part of the family was the homes and the role they contributed to the family structure and interaction. Because of these factors, some level of knowledge of this aspect of the first century Jewish nation at the time of Jesus is helpful in our study of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven.
The family situation at the time of Jesus was one in transition between the patriarchal structure that had been in existence since the beginning and the nuclear family unit. A number of factors contributed to this transition, more than will be discussed in this section. The basic premise is that while the patriarchal group was largely self-sufficient and trade was typically done through bartering. Family members, whether free or slave contributed their skills and knowledge to the overall benefit of all. The patriarch would lead the family and serve as the final arbiter. Under his authority, several generations ranging from great-grandparents to infants would live. This provided not only shelter and necessities for those in the family but important social identity and stability. The grandparents being nearby and the veneration of the elderly, as prescribed by Jewish Law, also contributed to the importance of the group as well as the old and accepted way of doing things. When a young man married, usually by the age of sixteen, he would bring his bride to his father's house to become part of the extended family. Girls were typically married by the age of fourteen or fifteen, as soon as they reach puberty. Marriages were typically arranged by the parents, although occasionally the prospective bride or groom objected strenuously enough sometimes to thwart the wedding plans.
With the increasing popularity of cities as opposed to the nomadic life of the patriarchs and the economic realities of the Intertestament period, the family unit began to undergo transition. “The family ceased to be self-sufficient, because the standard of material welfare rose, and the development of industries led to a specialization of activities.” [i] The focus shifted from the family to the village. In rural areas, where the majority of first century people were located, the village became the focal point of importance. Because of economic and social realities, villages became largely self-sufficient as the patriarchal family unit had been. Fathers would pass their trade or craft to their sons and families became known for their specialization or a particular industry. Most were born and would die in the same locale seldom venturing more than a few miles from their birthplace. When compared to modern times, an inordinate amount of time was necessary to provide even the necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter. Tradition was of the highest importance, and high esteem was given to loyalty to the group.
Those who lived in towns were more similar to citizens of today than those who lived in the small villages. As simple a thing as the limitation of the size of structures that could be built with the available technology dictated the extended family could not dwell in the same domicile. Also, economic realities in the Intertestamental period discouraged groups of people living in the same dwelling, as the income the group could generate with all the able-bodied working was not sufficient for the requirements of the group. Because of these and other factors, young people were prone to move away from their parents to establish their homes; thus, they were less influenced by the customs and practices of their parents and grandparents. As it would be expected, tradition became less influential in the lives of young people. The family structure became similar to the nuclear model of today in that they tended to include the parents and children to the exclusion of anyone else. The king or wealthy landowner came to replace the role and rule of the patriarch. As an example of this deterioration of the extended family unity, by the first century, Jews paid taxes to provide necessities for the poor instead of families taking care of their own. By the first century, to provide some degree of the financial support and security concerns formerly provided by the extended family unit, the social concept of patronage had been established. This was an “arrangement by means of that economic, political, or religious institutional relationships were outfitted with an overreaching quality of kinship or family feeling.” [ii] In terms of how this cultural principle was implemented in society, “well-to-do aristocrats were expected to give generously to the needy through patron-client relationships, and the poor were expected to support their benefactors politically, give them public honor and acclaim, and perform various odd jobs for them” [iii] This, like other cultural attitudes, was both economic and social in nature. “By and large, the most common form of patron-client relationship was between a landowner and some of his tenants. This special relationship assured the landowner of conspicuous deference and loyalty and provided the tenants with requisite favor.” [iv]
Life in the Jewish nation at the time of Jesus was brutal and frequently short. Couples would have many children because some would die victims of childhood diseases, and lack of fresh water and poor sanitation. Also, having many children was a clear indication of blessedness by God. The expression, “a quiver full of arrows” referred to a man having many children. The practice of having large families, by the way, can be seen in the late 1800's in the United States where couples would have anywhere between eight and twelve children due to many of these same reasons as in the first century Jewish nation. The typical life span for men and women at the time of Jesus was around fifty years, although some lived into their sixties and seventies. A man who lived to be seventy years old was said to have had a complete or full life. Disease and mental illness were common, and treatment for these ailments was primitive by modern comparison.
Homes, much like the economic classes, were pictures of extremes. The dwellings of the wealthy were elaborate structures with much decor and luxury. These homes often had courtyards, expensive stone walls and floors, ornate oil lamps with multiple wicks, finely crafted furniture, hot and cold water, and piping systems to remove waste water. The homes of the poor were more austere with fewer amenities and rougher construction. Another fairly typical arrangement for homes of both rich and poor was a staircase on one outside wall leading to a flat roof. This was known as the upper room, and it was possible to enter and depart this area of the dwelling using the staircase never disturbing other inhabitants of the house. It was very likely a setting such as this in which Jesus and His disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Jewish law required a parapet or a balustrade, “which, according to Jewish law, must be at least two cubits (three feet) high, and strong enough to bear the weight of a person.” [v]
The home of the poor was sparsely furnished with mats for bedding and an outside oven or stove for cooking. Sometimes they would build small fires within the home for warmth during the cooler months. Furniture was limited to chairs and benches. A fairly common piece of furniture was the chest, found in the home of both rich and poor. The typical home for a poor, usually built through community effort, was a two-story rectangular or square structure with animals housed on the first level and the people living on the second. These structures “were crudely constructed of uneven blocks of basalt and mortar. Because of a lack of large wooden beams, the rooms tended to be less than eighteen feet wide, and the ceilings were quite low.” [vi] Timbers were laid across the top with brush, thatch, and mud on top to keep out the elements. The limitation of the length of beams led to homes composed of several small buildings or rooms surrounding a small open courtyard in the center. Windows were few and small. They used lime to coat and whitewash walls making the interior more attractive and also providing reflected lighting. Floors were dirt, pebbles, basalt, or baked tiles. Doors were narrow and short, hence the expression of Jesus about the way to heaven being the narrow door.
The weather was warm or hot most of the year, thus most activities, including domestic duties, were typically done outside the confines of the house. In the winter months, people tended to remain indoors, but would venture outdoors on warm days. Because lighting from windows was minimal, it was common for the door to the home to be open until it was time for bed. At that time, the man of the house would bar the door, and those inside would lay out their mats for bed. This can be seen in The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8).
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