“Home Life at the Time of Christ,” Ensign, Sept. 1987, 56
One day, as the Savior taught in a house in the lakeside village of Capernaum, four men worked to break open the roof above his head. They hoped to gain access to him in behalf of a friend sick with the palsy. Apparently, they could think of no other way to approach the Lord because the house and area around it were crowded with people intent on hearing him. (See Mark 2:1–4.)
This story often raises questions in the minds of those who read it. Some wonder about the safety of the Lord and those close by. Others wonder about the home owner’s feelings. Still others wonder how the men could have broken through the roof. This and many other incidents in the Savior’s life become clearer when we know more about social practices, customs, and settings associated with ancient Near Eastern homes at the time of Christ.1
Peasant houses were small and usually had only one room. The floor was tamped earth, sometimes covered with lime to harden the surface and to discourage dust. Wealthier home-owners sometimes had flagstones for the floor, while the nobles often used wood or mosaic tile. The ceiling in poorer homes was about six feet above the floor. Windows were few and small, set high in the walls. Sometimes they had shutters to block out bad weather and help hold in warmth. The windows also provided outlets for the smoke from small fires lit indoors for cooking or heating. On warm days the cooking was done outside. Homes were usually dark, confining, and smelly, and people spent much of their time outdoors. For this reason, courts were popular.2
Courts were created when more rooms were added to a house. Families usually did not put new rooms adjacent to old ones but, when space allowed, left an area about the width of a room between them. Often they had walls built at the front and back of this space, with a door set in the wall facing the street. The open area formed the court. This allowed for outdoor activity and still afforded some privacy. If families needed a third room, they sometimes added one at the back of the court, cutting a door into the back wall. A family would thus enter each room in the house only by going through the court.3
Most roofs were flat and were made from beams anchored in the walls and covered with pine planks. The roof builders would lay heath, reeds, or palm leaves over the planks and cover the whole with clay, using small stone rollers to press it down. A layer of lime made the roof somewhat waterproof. The Mosaic law required that a parapet wall be placed around the perimeter of the roof for protection. (See Deut. 22:8.) Small holes in the parapet allowed rain to run off.
The roof was considered part of the living area. It provided a place to dry clothes, fruits, and vegetables, to store wood for the winter, to nap, and to pray.4 It was while praying on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house that Peter received the revelation to take the gospel to the gentiles. (See Acts 10:9–20.)
In the evening, family members could congregate on the roof and take advantage of cool breezes and they often slept there during warm weather. One disadvantage of living on the roof was that animated conversation and arguments could be heard by neighbors. Considered in this light, the Lord’s warning, “That which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Luke 12:3), takes on a potent meaning.
A stairway built along the outside wall of the house or inside the courtyard usually gave access to the roof. Some houses had both. Awnings of palm leaves, brush work, or tenting material often protected the doors facing the court and were sometimes quite sturdy. Many extended well over the court to create a large shaded area.5
It is probable that as Jesus taught the multitudes assembled at the home in Capernaum, he was standing in one of the doorways facing the court. That position would allow the greatest number to hear him. The court was so filled with people that some may have stood outside on the street in an attempt to hear. The friends of the palsied man climbed to the roof, probably via the outside stairway, and carried the sick man to a place above the Lord. Most likely they did not break through the roof above one of the rooms—that would have been quite difficult—but instead worked through the awning. Through this more easily made hole, they lowered their friend.
A number of houses featured a permanent structure on the second story. These upper rooms were sometimes called summer rooms, and hosts often used them as guest chambers. When a family entertained a large number of guests, the most honored were assigned the upper chamber. Some even assumed the honor of this room and loved to be seen there. The Lord warned his disciples about scribes who did this. (See Mark 12:38–39.)
Such rooms played a role at the beginning and again at the end of the Savior’s life. Luke tells us that there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the inn. (See Luke 2:7.) The Greek word Luke uses is kataluma. It carries the idea of unharnessing a beast; thus, it referred to a stopping or resting place.
Initially, such places were convenient flat places near a well, spring, or small stream.6 By the time of the Lord, frequent travel had made profitable the erection of buildings at stopping sites. Many of these provided room, board, and shelter for man and animals—all for a fee.7 The Greek word for that kind of inn is pandocheion, which the Lord mentions in the parable of the good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:30–37.)
But Joseph was not looking to stay in a pandocheion—those inns were often crowded, open, and noisy, allowing little privacy. They had also acquired a bad reputation in much of the Near East. Joseph was looking for a kataluma. At the time of Christ, katalumas were open rooms for the benefit of strangers, often the upper chamber.8 Perhaps Joseph had hoped to stay in a kataluma of relatives, for his family had ties to Bethlehem. (See Luke 2:3–4.) They were not successful, however, and ended up in a room with a manger. According to an ancient Christian tradition, Joseph found a cave used to shelter animals.9 There, in privacy, the Lord was born.
The next time the Lord and an upper room are mentioned together is the Last Supper. Mark states that, on “the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover,” Jesus sent two of his disciples ahead, giving them instructions on how to locate “a large upper room.” Once they had found the place, they made ready the feast. (See Mark 14:12–16.)
In the court of most Jewish homes sat water pots. These stored water not only for cleansing and cooking, but also for the ritual washing of the hands and feet of guests. The host would show respect for the guest by offering a filled pot, and the guest would plunge the lower part of both arms into the water, which ceremonially washed off any pagan contamination.10 It was also the practice among many Jews to so wash before eating. The criticism leveled at the Lord about the disciples eating grain in a field without first washing had to do with this practice. (See Mark 7:1–5.)
The custom of ritual washing required a great amount of water if one entertained many guests. Thus, the water pots were often quite large. At the marriage feast in Cana, during which Jesus performed his first miracle (see John 2:1–11), John tells us that there were six empty water pots “after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece” (John 2:6). Firkin translates the Greek word metretes, a unit of measure equal to about ten (U.S.) gallons.11 The total amount the six pots held would therefore be between 120 and 180 U. S. gallons.
Weddings were held at the home of the bride and were as elaborate as the budget of the house would allow, running from one day to a whole week. The hosts felt a strong obligation to provide lavish hospitality, and failing to do so would embarrass the family and mortify the newly wedded couple.12 Mary may have been aware of this as she told her son that the wine had run out. We don’t know Mary’s function at the wedding, but the fact that she was concerned about the wine and was able to command the servants suggests that a close relative was being married.
The Lord directed the servants to fill the pots to the brim and then to draw the contents into serving vessels and take them to the governor of the feast, who was a sort of master of ceremonies. It must have been an interesting moment as the servants, thinking that the jars contained only water, drew off wine, which the governor of the feast proclaimed to be the best yet served.
Not only were weddings elaborate, but so were banquets and meals to celebrate holidays or to entertain special guests. A host would welcome each guest with a kiss and would place wreaths upon the heads of the most honored. A servant would anoint the heads of the special guests with oil, and the host would escort the guests to the table, seating them by age or importance. The seats of greatest honor were on the right and left side of the host. This tradition makes the request of the mother of James and John—that her sons sit on the right and left hand of the Lord in his kingdom—more meaningful. (See Matt. 20:20–24.)
At these meals the Jews followed the seating practice of the Syrians. Rather than sit on mats or low stools as was usual for everyday meals, they reclined on low couches.13 The table for such feasts was also low and often formed a U shape. The Jews reclined around the outside while servants served from the open center. The couches rested at right angles to the table, and some held up to three persons. A person would lie on his left side, supported by the left elbow, and eat with his right hand.14
The person to the immediate right and on the same couch as another was said to be at his bosom. John’s statement that at the Last Supper “there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples” can be understood in that light. John was on the right of the Lord and perhaps placed his head near the Lord’s breast when speaking confidentially.15 (See John 13:23–25.)
No one had individual plates, but all dipped from common bowls. The host would often serve the food, especially as a mark of honor. Thus, at Peter and John’s request, Jesus could easily signal who would betray him. He dipped a piece of bread or meat into a common bowl and passed it to Judas. (See John 13:26.) Such action would normally arouse no suspicion.
Guests customarily took off their sandals at the door after entering a home so they did not soil the clean mats on the floor. This and the seating arrangement made the washing of feet quite easy—the feet were bare and pointed away from the table. The duty usually fell to servants, but on the occasion of the Last Supper, the Lord performed the ritual. Peter objected, “Thou shalt never wash my feet,” probably because he felt that the master should not perform the duty of a servant. (See John 13:4–17.)
In addition to the upper rooms, homes of the wealthy often had rooms specially set aside for banquets. These rooms typically had one side open to the street so guests could enter easily. Adjustable curtains at the door gave some privacy, but even so, passers-by could stop and look in to see who was being entertained and could even talk to guests. This was not considered impolite.16 The openness of the rooms helps to explain why the Pharisees often knew with whom the Lord was dining. (See Matt. 9:10–11.)
There are several incidents when the Savior was a guest at dinner and an uninvited person approached him. One of the best known occurred at the home of Simon the Pharisee. (See Luke 7:36–50.) During the dinner, a woman whom Simon knew was a sinner approached the Savior, carrying an alabaster box of ointment, and “began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:38.)
That the Lord would allow such a woman to minister to him aggravated Simon, who thought, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39.)
The Lord then gave the parable of the creditor, with the point that the one who was forgiven the greater debt had the greater love. Referring to the practices involving the treatment of guests, he gently pointed out that Simon had offered no water to wash his feet, had given him no kiss, and had not anointed his head with oil whereas the woman had performed these courtesies fully and turned them into acts of devotion and love. Simon showed little respect for the Savior because, as the Savior said, “To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (Luke 7:47.)
In a similar incident six days before the last Passover of the Savior’s life, Mary the sister of Martha also anointed the Savior’s feet with costly oil and wiped them with her hair. Judas Iscariot objected, but the Lord declared, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept” the oil. (See John 12:1–9.) In the two cases, the women’s actions fit the general custom of anointing guests of honor, but the differences from the traditional approach—anointing the feet instead of the head and wiping them with hair instead of cloth—showed unusually deep respect, honor, and love.
Such were some of the conditions in which the Lord lived. The world in which he lived during mortality is far removed from ours, both in time and custom. Understanding that period helps us to answer some of the questions that may arise about his ministry. Yet despite the differences between our world and the world of ancient Palestine, one thing stands out: the timelessness of the Master’s message. Its power and beauty reaches across all time and meets the needs of every culture.