The word culture refers to the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc., of a particular group of people at a particular time. We begin having our society’s culture instilled in us from infancy onward, first of all, by the family into which we are born or adopted. This process of acculturation continues as we are exposed to our environment, schooling, religious education, and friends or peers, though we are generally unaware it is happening.
In our Western culture we may be accustomed to eating three meals a day, living in small nuclear families, and listening to recorded music in offices, stores, homes, and even cars. We may understand certain words and actions to be unkind or impolite and others to be cordial and friendly. However, a person in another culture may be unfamiliar with these and other aspects of our culture that are so familiar to us we rarely think about them.
People in the ancient world of the Bible were influenced just as strongly by their cultures as we are by ours, and each biblical writer wrote from his own cultural perspective. This means that some of the terms and concepts in the Bible may be rather unfamiliar to many of us because of our separation from Bible lands and times by long distance and many centuries. However, we can bridge that gap and understand more fully the intent of the biblical writers by studying the way they lived and how they viewed the world.
For example, a study of patriarchal customs shows that for people in Bible times, to be born a male was far more significant than to be born a female. Boys had more privileges and freedom than girls, a higher status that continued through adulthood. Knowing this we can see that Jesus treated women in a revolutionary way, considering the customs of the times. We begin to understand why Jesus’ disciples were so amazed that he “talked with the woman” other than a relative (John 4:27), to say nothing of discussing important spiritual issues with her. We also understand what a shock it must have been that, in a culture which did not recognize a woman’s testimony in a court of law, God allowed women to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24: 1-12; cf. Acts 2: 17-18).
The following discussion is only a partial coverage of the large amount of resource material available on the culture of Bible times.
Childhood was brief in Old Testament times. Children, frequently seven in number, generally grew up in loving families. The younger ones would sit on the mother’s lap (cf. Isa. 66: 12-13) and would play with a variety of toys, some of which have been recovered from excavations. Although there were no team sports, children devised their own games, and boys wrestled. At an early age each child would be allotted some task such as gathering fuel (Jer. 7:18), bringing water from the well, tending flocks (Gen. 29:6), and caring for cattle.
The father was the provider for the family, working in the fields or at a trade or occupation. One of his duties was to instruct his sons in a trade or profession. Boys would follow their father to the fields or workshop and watch him as he did his work. As the son grew older he would help increasingly, and so master that trade or profession. In the same way a girl learned household skills from her mother.
Adolescence as such was unknown in Bible times. The child soon became a young adult and was encouraged to participate as fully as possible in family life. When religious festivals were held, children often accompanied their parents to the sanctuary, as Jesus did when he was twelve (Luke 2:42). Young girls were not veiled or secluded, but visited freely with friends and neighbors when they had finished their tasks.
In the early patriarchal period a son or daughter could be put to death for disobeying their father, but with the advent of the Mosaic legislation a father had to refer the case to the elders (Deut. 21:18-21). Children convicted of disobedience, gluttony, or drunkenness could be stoned to death. The authority of the father also extended to a married son living in the household.
Education has always been a high priority for the Jewish people. A child was taught to understand the Jews’ special relationship with God and how important it was to serve the Lord (Exod.12: 26-27;Deut. 4:9). Of special importance was the history of the Jewish people; this knowledge helped to sustain the ideal of a homeland through periods of servitude and exile. As children’s early teaching occurred within the family, so their understanding of faith was enriched by family practices, particularly meals connected with religious festivals like the Passover. When the boys in the family grew older, they would be taught more of their religious heritage and traditions by the father.
By New Testament times elementary schools were provided by the community, often in the synagogue or the teacher’s house. Boys began school about seven years of age and sat at the feet of the teacher, who expounded the Law and other Scriptures. Education beyond the elementary level was the responsibility of the rabbis, scribes, and Pharisees. A boy was expected to have a thorough knowledge of Hebrew history and the Law, and was also instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, as well as in other subjects, which may have included herbal knowledge (cf. I Kings 4:33).
Marriage, a relationship that by Christian times had become a sacrament, was originally a binding exchange of vows between bride and groom as a result of negotiation by their parents. Many Israelite men married only one wife; others in Old Testament times had two wives (Deut. 21:15) or one or more concubines. David had more than one wife; Solomon had 700 (II Sam. 5:13; I Kings 11:3; Song of Sol. 6: 8-9). Herod the Great had nine wives.
Marriages were frequently arranged with near relatives or members of the clan or tribe. As the bride was to be become a member of her husband’s family, it was important for the groom’s parents to know whether she was suitable and likely to be compatible with her relatives. The consent of the bride and groom was sometimes obtained, but was not required. Although marriage was expected to be for life, a wife could be divorced by a simple statement to that effect by her husband; she could not divorce him. Jewish law later required a written document for divorce, but in any case divorce was rare in Old Testament times.
The betrothal, which occurred about a year before the marriage, was a formal binding agreement (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:27; Luke 2:5). After it, the betrothed woman was considered to belong to her future husband, and he was then regarded as a son-in-law by the bride’s family. In the interests of establishing proper family relationships, the man was exempt from military service during the first year after the formal marriage ceremony (Deut. 24:5). The bride-price was one reason for the frequency of monogamy. Few men could afford to provide such a substantial sum more than once. The bride-price was a purchase price paid to the bride’s father to compensate him for the loss of his daughter’s work in the home or fields. The price was sometimes paid in the form of work, as when Jacob served Laban for fourteen years to obtain Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29: 15-28). Some of the dowry was customarily given to the bride herself, often in the form of jewelry that she wore as part of her adornment at the wedding.
The groom was lavishly attired for the wedding in sumptuous scented garments and with a garland of flowers on his head. Preparations for the bride included bringing a translucent quality to her skin and braiding her hair, if possible with gold and pearls. Her adornment included the finest clothing, along with a veil. Thus prepared, she and her bridesmaids awaited the arrival at her parents’ home of the bridegroom’s procession. As it wound its way through the village or town, the torchlight wedding procession of the groom and his friends was the setting for music (Jer. 7:34) and merriment. The procession then returned with the bride and her entourage to the home of the groom’s family where wedding feasts often continued for seven days, sometimes even for fourteen. A specially prepared bridal chamber awaited the young couple. The young bride immediately began hoping to fulfill her special duty, namely, the provision of sons.
The young woman’s role was to be responsible for the household cooking, cleaning, spinning, weaving, sewing, and also provide occasional help in the fields or vineyards. She was expected to give the early stages of education to her children (Prov. 1:8; Prov. 6:20; Prov. 31: 10-31).
As head of the household, the father made all decisions. Even a promise made by a wife was invalid without her husband’s consent Num. 30. Nevertheless, the status of the wife was superior to that of many Arab women who, with their children, were considered working property. A wife and her sons could not be sold into slavery, although a daughter could be. But as late as New Testament times an entire family could be sold for debt incurred by one of its members (Matt. 18:25).
Although a wife could not leave her husband, she might have to be subordinate to a new wife or concubine and be denied the right to inherit property. Yet even in those circumstances she would not be segregated, but would participate in feasts and family activities. A wife had the affection and respect of her children, especially when she was the mother of sons. Nevertheless a man’s possessions were listed as his wife, servants, slaves, and animals (Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). The subservient status of the wife is seen in her designation of her husband as lord or master (Gen. 18:12).
Females in a family were allegedly under the protection of a male. As a child, a girl’s father was her master; as a bride, her husband; as a widow, her husband’s closest male relative. The perfect wife in biblical times was expected to be discreet, quiet, sensitive, and charming (Prov. 9:13; Prov. 11:16,22; Prov. 21:10). She also needed to possess organizational and management skills for the household and the family’s finances (Prov. 31: 10-31). Strong, dominant women, with public roles like Deborah, Jael, and Judith, were rare. By Roman times, however, women were highly respected and often helped their husbands in business. The attitude of Jesus toward women also helped to enhance their status in the early Christian era. By New Testament times it was hoped that the women would be loving, holy, reverent (Titus 2:4; I Pet. 3:2-6).
Many families lived in towns or cities surrounded by thick, defensible walls. Sometimes a city would have three concentric walls with heavily fortified gates frequently constructed with six large pillars. Architecturally the buildings were practical and plain in design, but often showed precision and good engineering.
Solomon’s temple was designed in the Syro-Phoenician style, which was artistic and elegant. The use of white limestone added to the sparkling appearance of the building in sunshine and moonlight. The use of bronze and wood overlaid with gold, the wooden floor, sculpture, and sunlight shining through the high windows made the temple unique in its magnificence.
The homes of the common people were in sharp contrast. Many were built of stone, some of lath and plaster. They generally consisted of one main room, although larger houses were built around a central courtyard. All houses had flat roofs, which could sometimes be covered with an awning to provide a relaxing, peaceful place (Acts 10:9). Brushwood, earth, and clay were used to make the flat roof, which was frequently not waterproof. It sometimes sprouted grass, and often had to be rolled flat after a rainstorm. Rooms with beaten mud floors provided living and sleeping quarters for the family members and their animals. Open slits in walls served as windows, which might be covered by a lattice at night. The fewer the windows, the less sun could penetrate, and thus the house would remain cool and comfortable during the day. After sunset the dull mud walls would be illumined by the small light of flickering oil lamps.
The culture of a people–social attitudes, mores, family life, and leisure–are affected both by the political framework and by commercial interaction with neighboring civilizations. Politics, or matters relating to the city-state (Greek polis, “city”), necessarily influences the lives and activities of the citizens. The first city-states were organized in southern Mesopotamia. Their politics consisted of managing, or mismanaging, city affairs and trying to avoid being conquered by powerful neighbors. A king or queen normally ruled a city-state, which consisted of the city itself and the lands just outside its walls. Such rulers had priests and court officials as advisers, and occasionally sent ambassadors to the courts of other city-states.
In Egypt a ruler would often make decisions at his accession about relations with nearby peoples. Thus a pharaoh might decide to invade Nubia or conquer Palestine and Syria just to establish his own power there. Kings were not always popular with their subjects, however, and periodically a ruler would be killed following a conspiracy among his officials or his palace women.
On rare occasions two nations would be fighting one another when a third would try to attack them. That happened in 583 B.C. when Syria and Israel were at war and suddenly the Assyrians threatened to destroy both armies. Israel and Syria promptly joined forces to defeat the Assyrians. At times nations also co-existed in peace, making treaties with one another for trading purposes.
A conquering nation always took goods and tribute from the conquered people, and sometimes would tax them heavily for years. In such cases a governor-in-residence would be appointed to make sure that the conquered city officials and other aides collected the tribute. Any attempt to avoid payment usually resulted in severe punishment. The Hebrews paid heavy taxes to the Assyrians and Romans, and, needless to say, the tax collector was always an unpopular person. The political life of the Jews in Christ’s time was made difficult by the presence of a Roman governor who strictly controlled the amount of political freedom the Jews could enjoy and saw that taxes were collected.
Although essentially a poor country, Israel was situated on main trading routes, particularly the north-south route. Egypt exported corn and manufactured goods, as did Ebla. Phoenicia expanded manufacturing activities along with its shipping trade. Israel, mainly an agricultural country, was able to sell oil, wine, as well as wool in bulk, linen cloth, and metal.
Wheat was the major commodity traded along the east-west route that crossed Galilee. Trade was at its greatest during the reigns of David and Solomon, the latter building up a vast fortune by taxing the trading-caravans that passed through his land. Solomon also constructed a fleet of merchant ships for Red Sea commerce, which extended his commercial interests. Generally speaking, however, Israel normally traded with Phoenicia and Egypt, only occasionally sending goods to Syria. By the Roman period, trade with more distant areas had been built up to the advantage of the Jewish people.
Arts and Leisure
Literature was a well-developed art form, as is evidenced by the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. The cultivation of the mind was enhanced by composing and memorizing proverbs. Although leisure time was scarce, lyre and flute music were popular. Instrumental and vocal music, as well as dancing by men or women in separate groups formed an integral part of Israelite social life and religious function (Exod. 15:20; I Sam. 18:6; II Sam. 6:14, 21).
It is doubtful if families in Bible times had any meal comparable to our breakfast either for children or parents. If the father worked in the fields, he would probably take a light lunch, as would children who tended herds or flocks. Such a meal would include flat cakes or loaves, olives, figs, and curds or cheese from goats’ milk. The young children would help to prepare an early dinner, the main daily meal. This mealtime was essentially a family occasion, and probably started in time to take advantage of whatever daylight remained. Conversation would continue into the evening by the light of small oil lamps. The evening meal would include bread or cakes from hand-grown grain, often barley, goats’ cheese or curds, along with vegetables such as lentils, beans, peas and leeks. Although vegetables were not always available, they added variety to the meal when present. Salt, garlic, and possibly vinegar were used for flavoring. Wine, frequently well watered, was drunk with the meal.
Food was cooked in olive oil, with honey used as a sweetener. The problem with these meals, in other than wealthy families, was that they were extremely monotonous despite the wife’s cooking skills. However, the exhausted and hungry family members were probably less concerned with variety than with the fact that there was food on the table. Meat was rarely eaten except after a sacrifice, since at other times the animals were too valuable for the poor to consider slaughtering for food. The wealthy fared better in enjoying kid’s (young goat) meat or venison (Gen. 27:3-33; II Sam. 12:2-3; Luke 15:29), or a fatted calf for special feasts (I Sam. 28:24; Matt. 22:4). Pheasants, turtledoves, quails, pigeons, and partridges were also eaten, (Exod. 16:13; Deut. 14:4-19) and several varieties of fish were available.
Lavish feasts were frequent in the days of King Solomon. Women wearing finely woven gowns and decked in elaborate jewels would sit or lounge with their hosts at large tables, where food of all kinds including meat, fowl, and sweets would be washed down with large quantities of wine and beer. In New Testament times the main course consisted of a bowl of meat and/or vegetable stew placed in the center of the table. Family and guests would then break off small pieces of bread and dip them in the communal bowl. Visitors at mealtimes were quite frequent, as it was the Hebrew custom to extend hospitality to travelers. This was also a means of discovering information of a political, commercial, or social nature from other towns or villages.
Hair and Cosmetics
In the Old Testament a man’s long hair was a sign of virility, but in Greek and Roman times shoulder-length or even shorter hair became fashionable. Women took pride in long hair, which was often braided, but in early Christian times women were warned against spending excessive time on the new elaborate styles with massed curls obtained by using curling irons and ointments. Although grey hair earned respect for age and wisdom, some women preferred to use red or black hair dyes. Herod the Great is said to have dyed his hair with henna. Hebrew men often wore beards, which by Roman times might have been trimmed by the newly discovered and expensive razors of tempered steel.
Among the most popular cosmetics was eye makeup (II Kings 9:30), made from kohl, green malachite, or stibium, and mixed with gum arabic. Those substances served a medical as well as cosmetic purpose, providing a useful antiseptic for eye infections (frequent in lands abounding with flies). Eyes were often outlined in black to give the appearance of increased size, and eyebrows were darkened with a black paste. Some Bible references associate eye makeup with prostitutes or loose women (metaphorically in Jer. 4:30 and Ezek. 23:40). Lipstick was favored by women in Greek and Roman times, and some face powder, rouge, and paint for toe and finger nails was also used. Perfumes, oils, and ointments were popular for gifts, for personal wear (Song of Sol. 1:13), and especially for ritual occasions, weddings, and feasts.