As we begin the series on food and cooking, I want to give the reader a feel for a New Testament woman’s base of operation, the home. Research shows this varies from cities to villages. For now we’ll look mainly at the homes of ordinary working people, most of whom were of modest means.
The New Testament home
The home of the average village dweller in the days of Christ was spartan by today’s Western standards. Quite likely it consisted of only one room. If there were more, they were connected at the corners by walls in such a manner as to eventually form an inner courtyard. [Wealthier people, most likely city dwellers, had houses built Roman-style with two rectangular courtyards, one behind the other, each surrounded by rooms. They also featured centrally heated bathrooms with a hot water supply and tubs set into the floor (The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, Pat Alexander, Ed., 1978).]
The floor was usually earthen, but a better home could feature one of finely crushed stone, or one made of brick.
There were only one or two small windows. Lamps supplemented existing natural light during the day, and provided light at night. Without any type of streetlights, these villages must have been very dark indeed.
There were no facilities for bathing.
Every house had the following bare essentials:
- Lamps. These were some of the most important items in a home. Potters fashioned lamps completely covered over with a small hole for oil (commonly olive oil or animal fat), and a spout for the wick (strips of flax or rag).
- A bushel. This container usually held about a peck, and served as a dry measure for grains and other items. It could also be turned upside down to become a table for light meals, or serve as a low lamp stand.
- Wine skins. These were goatskins with the hair side in. The openings were tied shut, and a spout or stopper was placed in the neck.
- Brooms. Made of corn stalks, these were kept with the father’s tools.
- A mill. It was an essential to the life of the family. One of the most common sights in the village was of two women grinding grain into flour. (See Matthew 24:41.)
The hand mill consisted of two circular stones, the lower of which was larger and had a spike which pierced the center of the smaller one on top. Grain was poured into the central hole, and the women turned the top stone with a handle. Flour poured out from between the two stones.
The mill was so important that it was protected by law: “No man shall take the lower or the upper millstone in pledge: for he takes one’s living in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:6).
In the average village home, furnishings were limited, consisting of a “table” (often simply a straw mat laid out on the raised floor), and possibly something to sit on. Beds were thin wool-filled mattresses which were rolled out each evening, and rolled up the next morning. The whole family slept together with the mother on one end, the father at the other, and any children in between. (See Luke 11:5-8.)
The “stove” took the form of a fire made in the earthen floor or in an earthenware pot.
Part of the cook’s equipment included a convex baking sheet, which could be put over the fire, and a cooking-pot, which could stand in the fire. She also used an assortment of pottery items—jugs, jars, and bowls in varying sizes. Wealthier homes used decorated glass items, but this was beyond the means of the average household. (Ibid.)
The next post will explore the foods that were available to the New Testament cook, and how she might have served them.