Like all other trades in Biblical times, carpentry was usually a family business. The father and his sons, who functioned as assistants until they had more experience, ran the business. From a young age, they knew the uses of the different tools and often helped their father while he worked. Farmers depended on carpenters for yokes for their animals, and everyone else needed tables, doorframes, stools, chairs, and many other everyday items. Carpenters were respected craftsmen and often wore a chip of wood behind their ears to proudly indicate their trade. Common tools for a carpenter were the adze (similar to an axe), awl, mallet, and saw.


Clothing during the first century was very similar to that which had been worn in Abraham’s day. It was simple, functional, and highly valued. Only the high-standing and well-to-do had more than one set of clothing. People of the middle and lower classes wore the same garment all week long, then washed it on the day before the Sabbath. Woven from wool, the typical attire was a long tunic (ankle-length for women, slightly shorter for men). The tunic was covered with an outer coat (or mantle), and the entire outfit was held together loosely by a belt. According to tradition, each corner of the mantle held a tassel, meant to remind the people of God’s laws. An additional piece, the head covering, varied greatly. Blue was usually worn only by women. Scarlet and deep purple, being very expensive dyes, were reserved for the clothing of the wealthy.


The courtyard, found in any home, from the dwelling of the poorest farmer to that of the affluent official, was one of the most important features of the house. Surrounded by a low wall, and sometimes shared with several other families, the courtyard was the center of most household activities. The open space was much preferred over the dark, often unbearably hot interior of the house. A large fire pit, an oven, a grindstone, a garden, and storage jars were usually located in the courtyard, since it was the place for food preparation. Small shelters for the family’s livestock (sheep or goats) were also there, and in Capernaum, fishing gear was stored in the courtyard. Overall, it was the gathering place for the household, for both menial tasks and celebrations.


Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was an important industry and yielded a rich harvest, but it took long, hard hours, often from evening until early morning. Gear consisted of different sizes of mesh nets, baskets to hold the catch, a stone anchor, torches for attracting fish, food and water jars, extra ropes, and oars for propelling the boat. Fishing usually took place at night because the sunlight scared the fish to the deepest parts of the lake. Most of a fishing night was spent casting nets in one spot, then rowing to another spot to cast nets again. The fish were then dragged into the boat and sorted. Mending nets took up much of a fisherman’s time when he was not actually fishing. The repairs were made on nets he had woven himself.

Two common nets used on the Sea of Galilee were the hand net and the dragnet. The hand net was a circular net of fine mesh with weights around the perimeter. It was thrown with a broad spinning motion over shallow waters. As it fell, it took the shape of an underwater dome, which caught the fish. To bring the fish in, the fisherman closed it with a line attached to its center, much like a drawstring. A dragnet, eighteen feet wide and hundreds of feet long (on the open end), was weighted at one end and had corks on the other. It was ideal to use between two boats. It would hang from the floats and was held straight down by lead sinkers.


People ate just about the same meals every day. Lentils, figs, fish, dates, and milk products were common, and beans, cucumbers, grapes, plums, apples, and honey were also available to some. Salt, gathered from Magdala, was used extensively as a preservative. Meat was eaten only on rare occasions, except for fish, which was typically eaten every day. Bread was the staple food. On some days, such as the Sabbath, Jews were forbidden to eat bread made with yeast. Diluted wine was a very common drink because water was often dirty, even when it came from a well.


Goats were very important to Jewish families. Their milk was used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. Their skin was made into leather, which could be made into tents, and their wool could be made into clothing. Unlike most other animals, goats were able to thrive in the mountainous regions of Judea as well as the hilly Galilean landscape. They were able to withstand harsh conditions, and could eat almost any kind of plant or shrub.


In Galilee, most structures were built of black basalt, stone, or sun-dried brick. There were few windows in the house, resulting in a dark, hot environment. The walls of homes were thick for insulation. Niches in the walls were used for storage. The main room of the home had a floor with two levels: a ground floor of hard-packed earth, and a raised stone platform. (A floor could also be made of dirt, stone, or pebbles and plaster.) Animals wandered around the lower level, where cooking was sometimes carried out. Sleeping and eating took place on the upper level. The inside of the house had very few furnishings, and poor families slept on mats and sat on the ground. Poorer houses had few rooms, only one courtyard (rather than two or three), and the home’s entrance usually opened into the courtyard. A home that had been in the family for several generations would be larger, with rooms added on as the family grew. This was the reason for the maze-like array of rooms in many homes.


By Jesus’ time, a large loom had been developed that allowed garments to be made out of a single piece of cloth; up until this time, two pieces of cloth had to be sewn together to make a large enough piece of clothing. This loom had to be managed by two people, one handling the shuttle, and the other working the threads. Because of the way the cloth was woven and made into clothing, stripes on clothes always fell vertically. Garments were sold in markets without openings for the head, in order to prove that they were new. The customer would then fit it according to the needed size, and, if it was a woman, embroider it with colorful decorations. Many poorer people, however, would weave their own clothing on looms in their homes.

Merchants and Marketplace

The marketplace was set up near the city gates. It was a noisy place with animals bleating and braying and people shouting and bargaining. Generally, the buyer would offer half of what he intended to pay, and the seller would ask twice what he expected to gain. Because there was no way to store food for a long period of time, women would go to the market every day and buy only what they needed for that day. The day before the Sabbath was a big market day, when people would buy whatever they needed for the next day.

Merchants could either be local shopkeepers who sold goods in the same place every day, or they could be people who traveled to buy goods to bring back and sell in Israel. They were practically the only ones who traveled outside of Israel. Merchants were sometimes dishonest and used crooked weights and measures. These men might overcharge people for their goods and grow very wealthy as a result.


The Messiah was the Promised One whom—it was prophesied—God would send to restore Israel. Many Israelites were expecting a majestic king who would defeat the Romans. When Jesus came without beauty or majesty, many didn’t believe that He was the Messiah because He seemed so real and human. They had been expecting a king to drive the Romans out, and here was their King: humble and riding on a donkey’s colt.


Each year, thousands of Jews would go to Jerusalem to celebrate a festival called Passover. It was a celebration of how God had set the Israelites free from Egyptian slavery. The festival began on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. The word “Passover” comes from the Biblical event of the tenth plague, which God brought on Egypt for keeping the Israelites in bondage. God killed the first-born child in every Egyptian home but passed over the homes of the Israelites that had blood on their doorposts. The word “Passover” also refers to the passing over of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

Road to Jerusalem

Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem often took a route going first south along the Jordan River. Then, once they reached the end of the river, they traveled west, uphill to Jerusalem. The city was located in a fairly high region of the Judean Mountains. The possible road they traveled on can be seen on the map on the right. The whole journey covered approximately 550 miles and probably took three to four weeks.

Roman Occupation

Rome ruled and occupied Israel during Jesus’ day. Romans were hated by the Jews for a number of reasons. The first was that the Jews resented rule and taxation by pagans who worshipped a myriad of false gods. The second was that most Romans were cruel toward conquered people who refused to submit to their form of government. If a Roman asked a Jew to do anything for any reason, it was not an option to refuse. One of Jesus’ teachings that was hard for the Jews to accept was, “If [a Roman] asks you to carry his pack for one mile, carry it for two.” This love for one’s enemies was scandalous for many Jews at that time.

Roman garrisons were very common throughout Galilee, the most troublesome of Israel’s provinces. Capernaum, located at the far north side of the Sea of Galilee, was in a key position geographically and had a garrison of soldiers. It is estimated that as many as 600 Roman soldiers at a time were stationed there. This, understandably, impacted and complicated the lives of the Jews living in Capernaum, causing a measure of resentment toward the Roman presence.

Though most Romans were despised, one centurion in Capernaum was a God-fearing man who respected the Jews. He built Capernaum’s synagogue, the ruins of which are still there today.


The flat roof of the house was constructed of strong beams, covered with a network of brushwood and plastered with mud. A roller was kept on the roof to compact the surface after heavy rains turned it into a thick slosh. Roofs were always leaking, and during the rainy season (November to March, on our calendar) they acquired a green tint because of the small plants that would sprout in the mud. On hot nights, the roof served as alternate sleeping quarters. During the day, however, it was a popular place for all sorts of other activities. Fruits and grains were laid out and dried on the roof. The use of this area was so great that Jewish law required that a parapet be built around the edge so that no one would be injured by a fall.


The Sabbath was the Jewish Day of Rest. The beginning of the Sabbath was announced by three blasts of the shofar (a ram’s horn) from the roof of the temple or synagogue when the first star was sighted on Friday evening. The end of the Sabbath was signaled on Saturday evening by three blasts of the shofar again. There were thirty-nine activities that were unlawful to do on the Sabbath, such as lighting fires of any kind and walking more than a certain distance. On the day before the Sabbath, known as the Day of Preparation, there was much work to be done. The three meals for the next day had to be cooked, enough water had to be drawn to last the entire next day, and the lamps had to be prepared. Near evening, people put aside their work and dressed in fresh clothing. Friday evening was a time of joy, praise, thanksgiving, and worship.


Most Israelite boys between the ages of six and thirteen were required to attend school at the synagogue every day except the Sabbath. They gathered in the synagogue early each morning to be taught by the town’s greatly respected rabbi. The boys sat in a semi-circle on the floor in front of the rabbi, who would be rhythmically reciting scripture passages in Hebrew for the boys to repeat. Usually, Hebrew was the only language used in the classroom, as opposed to the common speech of Aramaic. In the effort to learn these passages by heart, the youths would copy them onto wax-covered tablets, using a sharpened bone or metal stylus as a writing utensil. Once a child had mastered the Hebrew alphabet and shorter passages, he would be allowed to copy longer lessons onto parchment with real pens dipped in ink. Partway through the day, the children would pause to eat the lunches they had brought with them. Many young men loved studying God’s Word. The childhood dream of many was to become a scholar and lawyer.

Sea of Galilee

What most know simply as the Sea of Galilee actually had a variety of different names. But whether it was called Lake Tiberias, the Sea of Chinneroth, Lake Kinnereth, Lake Gennesaret, or some other obscure name, the thing that this freshwater lake brought to the minds of most people was fish. This lake was one of the most productive fishing grounds in Israel, with over 230 fishing boats on it day in and day out. Larger Roman vessels also used the lake for transporting troops and supplies to different areas of Galilee. Among the many varieties of fish found in the waters, the most common were the tilapia and the lake sardine. The flourishing industry supported at least nine cities and countless villages along the lakeshore. The lake reaches its deepest point at 157 feet, stretches to about 14 miles long, and is (at its widest point) 8 miles wide.

Seasons and Harvest Time

The two months of [olive] harvest,
The two months of planting [grain],
The two months of late planting,
The months of hoeing up flax,
The month of harvest of barley,
The month of harvest and storage,
The two months of vine tending,
The month of summer fruit.

Farming and harvesting in Jesus’ time depended entirely upon the seasons. Summers were hot and dry during the day, though cool at night. Winter was rainy and very cold, especially on high plateaus and mountains. Some parts of Israel, like Jerusalem, occasionally received some snow as late as April.

Grains were a main source of sustenance. Wheat was the most important crop, and was planted during the fall rains. Harvest was a few months later. Millet and flax were also grown during this cycle. Millet was used for animal feed, and flax was an important commercial crop used to make linen. After the wheat harvest, the farmer turned his attention to vines and fruit trees. Grapes, figs, and olives were all common fruits, harvested in the spring.

Tax Collectors

Jewish tax collectors, also called publicans or exactors, were despised by their own people. They were put at the same level as heathen slaves, robbers, and murderers, and were considered unclean because they mixed with the Gentiles and worked on the Sabbath. Publicans were free to collect as much as they could and they often charged too much so they could line their own pockets with the extra money. Taxation was based on a family’s income and the value of its property. Caravans were taxed according to the goods they carried, and every male aged fourteen to sixty-five was required to pay an annual tax.


Weddings in ancient Israel were a time of great celebration and rejoicing. The festivities often lasted for seven days, during which time the guests consumed large quantities of food and drink. There was rhythmic music and lively dancing. The dances began with only the bride and groom dancing, then everyone else following. The bride and the groom were treated as a queen and king, and weddings were often expensive and lavish.


The well was a place visited frequently by women in first-century Israel. The need for fresh water was recurrent (there was no way to keep large amounts of water from becoming contaminated), so the well was a natural gathering place for women all throughout the day. Women would bring large clay jars to pour the water into, but would actually draw the water with a leather bucket kept at the well. The well was always at the center of the town, so as to be easily accessed by all residents.

A Woman’s Work

A Jewish woman’s duties centered on her home. Her days began at sunrise and lasted all day until nightfall. Each morning and evening, women gathered at the well and collected fresh water for their families. Fuel needed to be collected for baking bread. The floor in the house needed to be swept constantly. Wool needed to be spun and cloth needed to be woven to make into clothing. Upkeep of clothing was also very important because few people had changes of clothes in Jesus’ time, so women were continually mending and patching clothing. Curds had to be made from goat’s milk. Food needed to be gathered, and meals had to be made. The main job of a woman was making bread, which she did three to four times a day. To make bread, women had to grind their own grain, which was wheat for the upper classes and barley for the common people.

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