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What Were Houses Like at the Time of Jesus?

March 21, 2017 3 Comments

N.B.: I am in the Holy Land at this time. As my travel schedule is heavy, I am republishing some articles about life in Jesus’ day. I hope you will enjoy reading (or re-reading) them as much as I did.

The smallest homes of the very poor might be little better than a square, stone structure, covered with a whitewashed sort of stucco. There would typically be one larger multi-purpose room and a smaller back room for the animals. Some houses in hilly regions were partial cave dwellings, built up against the limestone rock face, perhaps with the front section built on to it. The traditional site at the house of the Annunciation (in Nazareth) seems to have been built this way. However we need not conclude from this that Joseph and Mary were destitute. Many homes employed the hillside strategy that made use of hollowed out caves. Such structures were easy to build and there was a certain natural coolness to them.

Another sort of house, also common among the working poor and typical village-dwellers, was one built around a central open court with small rooms opening on to it (see drawing at upper right). Because the central court had no roof, this kind of building had the advantage of needing only short beams for the roof structures. The open concept retained the coolness by allowing air to move freely throughout. Cooking could also be done in the open central court, when the weather permitted.

If the family had some animals, they were often kept in this part of the house at night.

Families, sometimes including several generations, tended to live under one roof and had little or no privacy.

The roof was of real importance in everyday life. It was flat, with just enough slope to drain off the rainwater. In the relatively arid climate of the eastern Mediterranean, rainwater was precious; therefore, it was carefully collected into cisterns or large containers. The roof of the house was flat and sturdy, enabling people to go up on it. Because roofs were used so often, the Law of Deuteronomy required guard rails to be installed to prevent falling.

The roof areas provided an open second floor. On it, tools could be stored and laundry put out to dry. Scripture also speaks of it as a place to retire and pray. In the evening, when it was cool, people often sat there and talked; they would even sleep there when the weather was good. The climate of the Mediterranean provides an ideal setting for this at most times of the year. Some also placed tents and other coverings on the roof to increase its usefulness during inclement weather.

Except for the roof structures, which included wood timbers, the basic building material in Palestine was stone. Limestone is excellent building material, and as the stones were fashioned into a wall they would be coated with a stucco-like material and smoothed over. Foundations were dug with great care (Jesus said that we should build upon rock rather than sand). The mortar used to bond the stone was made of clay mixed with shells in potsherds.

Wooden trusses were necessary for the structure of the roofs, since they would be used a kind of second floor. Then a firm lattice of straw mats would be added, covered and smoothed with hard clay. Yearly repairs were made just prior to the rainy season.

Most of the inner doors were narrow. Only the door facing the street was wider and had a hinged door that could be secured.

In poorer homes the floor was simply pounded earth. The more affluent might have had pebbles or tiles made of baked clay. Wooden floors were only an option for the affluent.

Only the very wealthy could have water piped to their house. Ordinary people went to the well or spring-fount, or perhaps to a local stream, and collected water with skins, jars, and all manner of pitchers. Some larger towns had conduits or aqueducts that brought water into certain public areas. The washing of clothes was done away from the main house lest water run back in.

There was little need for much heating, except in the cooler months of the year. Most of the houses, therefore, had no fireplace. If it did grow cold, there were charcoal braziers in which small fires would be kindled.

Lighting was not very abundant. Small oil lamps were used. Because much time was spent out-of-doors, interior lights were not an absolute necessity.

Furniture was extremely simple. The most important pieces in the home were chests. There were chests for provisions and chests for clothes. For the poorest families, chests doubled as tables. Because clothing was simple, there was little need for many different sets or changes of clothing, thus there was less need for numerous chests and the sorts of insanely large closets many have today.

Most moderately well off families had a low table at which to recline and eat. People in this region and time reclined on their left elbow and ate with their right hand. It was rare to sit on chairs at higher tables in order to eat.

The kitchen as we know it did not exist. In small houses, cooking was done out back over an open fire or fire pit. Utensils were kept in a chest. In larger houses, the courtyard might be the place of the cooking fire with kitchen items kept in a store room. Only the largest homes had a dedicated area with a fiery oven.

Bedding was rolled out on the floor. The bed as a raised piece of furniture was largely unknown then, except among the very wealthy. Family members stretched out on mats, covering themselves with their own cloaks. Many slept on the roof in warmer months.

Even smaller houses seem to have had a bath of some sort. The ancient Jews were conscientious about cleanliness and viewed it as closely related to holiness and ritual purity. The usual bath (often called a mikveh) was narrow and one stepped down into it. Bathing was for hygiene to be sure, but the Jews also undertook ritual baths. In the Holy House in Nazareth, a mikveh is located in or near the house, adjacent to Joseph’s carpenter shop.

Latrines were more likely outhouses, and were removed from the main dwelling. They may have been shared facilities between several dwellings depending on the size and layout of the town or village. There is a phrase used in the Torah, in which Moses tells the ancient Israelites, “build your latrines outside the camp.” It further states, “When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up.” This suggests that some sort of lime was thrown in after the use of the facility. Other directions about latrines were that they should be in discreet and private locations. Certain archeological sites have disclosed the presence of latrines consisting of a pit dug into the ground and of an enclosed, roofed chamber; basically, an outhouse.

It was a simpler time to be sure, but the homes still provided families with their basic need for shelter.

Here’s a video I put together on this topic with lots more pictures:

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Comments (3)

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  1. Dan says:

    Thank you. Very helpful.

  2. Chris says:

    Thank you Monsignor,
    I enjoyed this post the first time that you posted it and again today. I had to smile because while this post is on ancient housing, I couldn’t help but think that many of us, myself included, have a tendency to envision society at that time as less sophisticated than it actually was. Conversely, we moderns tend to view ourselves as more sophisticated than we actually are.

  3. liz says:

    there are many similar homes today! and many farms in Europe last century with no bathrooms, no outhouses and no baths!! could explain more, but would be here awhile!! spent summers in one like that!! from 1900, never was updated not even electricity! had a well, and for drinking we had to get water from a public fountain…and they had lots of $$$$…laundry was a public place covered, with running water!!very clean grandparents, no deos, makeup, perfume etc, just soap, and work sun up to sun down!! just simple life and great food!! house next door had it all…where i was born…i am old! i was raised in the big city, near my other grandparents…they never had $$ though!!!! i am still frugal…i mean very cheap!! wish all lived a simple life and shared with others who have nothing

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