Daily Life in First Century Israel

Excerpted from MD Harris Institute, Biblical Archaeology Society, and PBS Frontline

First century Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society.  Lacking good ports, Daily Life 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.  The Israelite villages built by the settlers of Canaan were on hilltops. They were quite small, possibly 400 people in the largest of these—Shiloh or Gibeon, for instance. These towns were mostly unwalled, though they were part of larger political units or regional chiefdoms that provided security. The Israelite villages within a given region were subjects of the major town of the area, some of which, like Shechem, were very large and controlled considerable territory.

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,  often with sleeping space on the roof or in a covered roof loft. One of the first-floor rooms was probably a courtyard for domestic animals, mostly sheep and goat.

The hills were densely overgrown, covered with a thick scrub of pine, oak and terebinth trees. And it was often too rocky for the sheep, so raising animals never stood at the forefront of the economy. Instead, the early Israelite settlers of Canaan would burn off some of the brush, terrace the hillsides within an hour’s walk of the village, and plant grain, primarily wheat. Other lesser crops included lentils, garbanzo beans, barley and millet. They had orchards on these terraces as well.

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 seven 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.  While the different groups had different lifestyles and living conditions, but the majority were united, more or less, by a common faith (Judaism).

The Roman Legio X Fretensis (Tenth Legion of the Sea Strait) was the legion stationed in Judea during the ministry of Christ.  Levied by Augustus in 40 BC, it was a famous unit of roughly 4500 men which had been stationed in Syria and Judea since 20 BC.  Legio X mascots included the bull and the boar (wild pig), images of which were emblazoned upon their banners and coins.  Such images were probably not well received among a people severely punished for worshipping a golden calf and for whom the pig was the worst of animals.

Seneca (6 BC to 65 AD), a teacher of the Emperor Nero, reflected a very negative and widespread view of the Jews in his writings. He famously wrote “Yet the customs of this most base people have so prevailed that they are adopted in all the world, and the conquered have given their laws to the conquerors” (“victi victoribus leges dederunt,” cited from Seneca’s “De Superstitione” by Augustine, “De Civitate Dei,” vi. 10). The Emperor Caligula declared himself a god in 39 AD and commanded that images of himself were to be erected in every house of worship in the empire.  The Jews refused and Caligula threatened to destroy the temple.  He was stopped when he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.

According to some sources, Roman soldiers exposed themselves on the temple grounds and burned scrolls of the Torah.  Whether or not these actually happened, there is little doubt that Roman soldiers mistreated the people, such as forcing them to travel or carry burdens (Matthew 5:41)

Religious tolerance within Roman-controlled Judea was a complex issue. On the one hand, Romans granted Jews a degree of autonomy in their religious practices. They were generally permitted to observe their customs and laws without undue persecution. However, the tension between Jewish monotheism and Rome’s own polytheistic beliefs was a constant undercurrent.

Additionally, conflict often flared between various Jewish factions themselves. Groups like the Sadducees (connected to the Temple aristocracy), the Pharisees (focused on strict law observance), and the Essenes (an ascetic sect) often held vastly different interpretations of the faith. These simmering disagreements would occasionally boil over into societal friction.

The culture of Israel in 1 CE was one of inherent paradox. It was a society fiercely devoted to its traditions, yet also one slowly being reshaped by a foreign ruling power. Women navigated a world governed by men, while diverse groups and religious outlooks coexisted under the watchful eye of Rome. This dynamic social landscape would undergo dramatic changes, particularly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, shaping the evolution of Jewish culture for centuries to come.