January 30, 2018
The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times: a book review
As I began researching the culture and era in which Jesus lived, I saw that Ralph Gower had updated the 1953 best-selling book Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred Wight in the 2005 book, The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times, published by Moody Publishers. I also ordered other Bible resources to help me research the biblical novel I hope to do, but I’m reviewing this one first because it’s a must for every Bible teacher, Bible student, and anyone interested in Christ, Christianity, and the Bible.
Divided into two sections, the book presents family life in Part One and “Institutions and Customs” in Part Two. This edition has about 350 pages with over 250 full-color or black and white photographs and drawings beautifully illustrating the text and helping us to envision what life was like - from typical attire to the tools Jesus would have used in His early days of carpentry. If we merely looked at the illustrations and read their captions, we’d get a clearer, vibrant picture of everyday life.
Bold captions help, too, as does the text that follows. For instance, “Cleaning clothes” tells us: “Clothes were cleaned by allowing the swift current of a stream to pass through the coarse-woven cloth, washing the dirt out and away, or else by placing the wet clothes on flat stones and pounding out the dirt.” If soap was necessary, it was “made either from olive oil or from a vegetable alkali.”
That example seemed timely since I’m presently washing clothes in a machine with lots of choices and an electric dryer beside. But, oh, I’m even happier I don’t have to weave my own cloth - especially on a horizontal loom!
“The problem with the horizontal loom was that the width of the cloth was limited to the arm span of the weaver, because the weaver had to sit or crouch at his work. The invention of the upright loom enabled wider material to be made because the weaver could walk across the face of the cloth.”
Knowing that and seeing the illustrations for the text help me to better understand why soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ robe: It had no seams. (See John 19:23-24.) And what about shoes? Wondering about those led me to the Apostle Paul’s profession of tentmaking since a tentmaker was actually a leatherworker who mainly made leather bottles, belts, military equipment - and shoes.
As the book describes the profession: “A tentmaker (or leather-worker) had first to skin the animal, then remove the hairs from the hide, make it supple for use, and sometimes dye it as well. The hairs were removed by a combination of scraping, soaking, and (applying lime.) The hides were then soaked in water containing oak galls and sumac leaves, rubbed with dog manure, and hammered. The smell of the work was so bad that the tanner had to work outside the town in the direction of the prevailing wind, and it was so bad personally that it could become grounds for divorce.” No wonder Paul never married!
Most Jewish men would have married around their eighteenth birthday, which Paul had presumably passed before meeting the risen Christ. For more about that, the pages on marriage include a photograph of a woman wearing a traditional headdress and a detailed illustration of “The Wedding Feast” as it would have been in Bible days.
Other pages give a rich and well-illustrated history of Jerusalem, typical modes of travel, paper-making, “The Zealots,” “The Roman Empire,” and so much more, I hope you’ll get the book for yourself. It’s one to open often.
Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018
The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times, hardback