The first houses of the biblical period were the tents of the ancestors. Nomads in the Middle East still camp where there is a source of water, shelter from the wind (and, if possible, from the sun), and pasture for their animals. From very early times, however, villages and walled cities also existed. Such towns were usually 2.5 hectares (6 acres) or less in size, and the houses were small. The development of cisterns and water systems made it possible to locate villages and towns away from springs and streams.
Tents were made of woven goat hair rugs that shrink and become completely waterproof when wet, and were and still are constructed with an inner dividing curtain that provides privacy. Long ropes held the sides of the tent out and up, providing ventilation and further space (see Isa. 54.2).
Permanent homes can be divided into two general classifications, single‐room houses and multiple‐room houses. Single‐room homes were often built in two sections, a raised terrace for the family and a lower area for its animals. The raised terrace was the living area where food was stored, cooked, and eaten, and the members of the family slept and lived. Such a house is presupposed in Matthew 5.14, where a single lamp shines on all in the house. Under the same roof, but below the raised living space, was an area for the shelter of the family's animals at night (see 1 Sam. 28.24; Luke 13.15). Mangers were dug out of the floor of the raised terrace or constructed of stone or clay and placed on the lower level. Each morning, the house animals would be taken out to the courtyard and the house cleaned. These simple houses could have a guest room on the roof or adjoining the house on the same level. This is the sense of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 22.11 par.; if the word has the same meaning in Luke 2.7, the setting Luke gives for the birth of Jesus is a private one‐room home with mangers in the floor: Joseph and Mary are in the family room because the guest room is full.
The second category, with many varieties, is that of rooms around a central courtyard. This courtyard may be open to the sky, or partially covered, or completely roofed, and was the setting for many activities, including cooking, crafts, and often business. The house may have one or two floors, but rarely more. The wealthier have higher homes, and they are thus able to look down on the rooftops and courtyards of their neighbors (see 2 Sam. 11.2). Wealthy homes may also have a second courtyard, with surrounding rooms, behind the first, for the family.
Palaces are essentially variations of the second type. Those of Herod the Great at Jericho, Masada, and elsewhere exhibit a grand style seldom matched in ancient Palestine, with their reflecting pools, gardens, Roman baths, air conditioning, decorative stone and plaster work, swimming pools, and exquisite mosaic flooring.
The simplest homes were constructed of sun‐dried mud bricks with a waterproofing plaster; walls built of such material could easily have been dug through by thieves (see Matt. 6.19–20). Undressed field stones, cut stone, and fired brick were used in wealthier homes. The very wealthy might panel special rooms with wood (see 2 Sam. 7.2), but wood was too scarce a commodity to be used extensively in home building.
The floors were generally of packed earth, with a waterproof lime plaster often added to seal out moisture. Flagstones were occasionally used, and mosaic pavings were introduced in the Hellenistic period.
The most common roof was constructed of thick poles laid flat across the walls about 1 m (3 ft) apart, supported by columns or vertical poles if needed. Thin branches spanned the beams. These in turn were covered with coarsely woven mats and packed clay. After every rain or snow the resulting flat roof was rolled with a stone roller to prevent leaking. Grass would spring up on the roofs, but it was short‐lived, as the poets noted (Ps. 129.6–7; Isa. 37.27). Crops were dried and stored on the roof (see Josh. 2.6); guests could be entertained there; and in the summer, the roof became an auxiliary sleeping area. Ceramic tile and stone‐slab roofs are found beginning in the Roman period; in the story of the paralytic (Mark 2.1–12 par.), Mark has the bearers dig through the roof, which would suggest clay, while Luke (5.19) uses a word (Grk. kramos) that could mean either tile or clay.
Windows on the first floor were small and high for security reasons. This made the house dark, and could require the use of lamps even in daytime (see Luke 15.8). Window spaces were closed in with lattices so that one could look out but not in; window glass was unknown during the biblical periods. Shutters or heavy drapes were used to close the windows. Second‐floor windows were considerably larger.
Metaphorically, the phrase “the house of” meant primarily a person's extended family, not the home.
Though furniture was fairly sparse, some items were common. The room built for Elisha was furnished with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp (2 Kings 4.10).
For sleeping, a mat or mattress on the floor was most common. Often a raised ledge was built into the floor at one end or around the walls, on which cushions and mattresses were placed for sitting in daytime and sleeping at night. Movable beds were relatively rare. Amos condemns the wealthy who reclined on beds of ivory (Amos 6.4); the prophet asserts that only pieces of this expensive wooden furniture with ivory inlays will survive 3.12). The reference to a bed in Mark 4.21 and Luke 8.16 may reflect the Hellenistic setting of those writers; noteworthy is Matthew 5.16, where the bed is not mentioned.
By the first century CE, the triclinium of Greco‐Roman culture was in use in Palestine. This was a U‐shaped wide couch with a table at its center. Diners ate reclining on their left sides. Such a dining room is probably the background of Luke 7.35–51 and of the Last Supper (see John 13.23–25).
Closets could be built into the walls to save wood, or constructed as separate pieces of furniture. Chests for storage of clothes and bedding are also attested.
The basic utensil of the home was the clay pot or vessel, used for food, light, and cosmetics.
After the food was brought from the fields, it had to be dried and stored for the year. The three age‐old enemies of food preservation—moisture, rodents, and insects—were overcome by the use of large earthenware vessels, up to 1 m (3 ft) across and 1.5 m (5 ft) high. These were used for storage of dried grains and fruits, as well as for water, wine, and oil. Wine, and sometimes water, could also be stored in animal skins.
The staple food was bread, whose preparation required a (stone) grinder and an oven. The flat grinding stone (the saddle quern) in time was replaced by two circular stones placed one on top of another. Ovens were round and open at the top. Flat, pancakelike loaves were baked stuck to the inside of the conical‐shaped oven walls. The wealthier would have had brass or copper pots. Each family would also have had a large stone mortar for crushing meat, green wheat, salt, and other foodstuffs. Pieces of bread also served as the basic eating utensils, which could be dipped into a common dish; without it a meal could not be served (see Luke 11.5–6).
During the biblical periods, light was produced by burning olive oil in small clay lamps; the wealthy could afford lamps of bronze. Small pitchers for refilling the lamps were part of the lighting equipment. A bowl with water in it could be placed under the lamp as a protection from a falling burning wick except on the Sabbath (M. šabb. 3.6). Lamp stands could be niches in walls or freestanding (see also Menorah).
Among the variety of cosmetic aids in use were thin alabaster or glass vials for perfume, palettes for eye‐makeup and the like, and small, shaped stones for smoothing callouses.
Kenneth E. Bailey