Showing posts with label Bible times. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bible times. Show all posts

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




April 26, 2014

Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times

Over the years I’ve acquired a number of hefty books on Bible times, peoples, and places with lots of color photographs and all sorts of information to refer to as I study for my Bible discussion group or write about a Bible topic. When the slender review copy of the Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times arrived from Saint Mary’s Press, however, I just started reading and enjoying it as I would almost any interesting book.

With short articles ranging from Afterlife, Agriculture, and Anointing to Torah, War, and Women, the author Martin C. Albl reminds us that the Bible not only came to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but people “lived in societies and cultures…very different from our modern American experiences.”

In “Approaching the Biblical Societies and Cultures,” the author defines society as “social structures of institutions...established by a particular people,” whereas “Culture refers to the basic values, beliefs, and practices...shared by a special group.”

With the subjects of society and cultures clearly in focus, the book covers these major areas:

• social and political institutions, including study of the family or kinship system and political structures

• social customs, including dance, music, and hair and dress styles

• general cultural beliefs and values, including beliefs about human nature, sexuality, sickness and healing, and beliefs about the structure of the universe(cosmology)

• religious beliefs and institutions, including beliefs about purity, sacrifices, sin, and spiritual powers, as well as the synagogue and Temple systems in which these beliefs functioned

• economic structures, including professions in agriculture, fishing, and shepherding, as well as a consideration of the money, tax, and debt systems within the context of patron-client structures


Reading the book will give you a good idea of how the apostles went fishing or how the women did their hair and how everyone celebrated certain feast and festivals.

On a more spiritual level, I read with interest the “Afterlife” section, which depicts heaven from a particular perspective that may be unfamiliar to some of us now. For example, the article “Heaven” explained: “Whereas modern Christians tend to think of heaven as a spiritual reality only, the biblical writers did not distinguish clearly between the physical reality of the sky and a spiritual heaven.”

Later, a section on “Human Nature” shows the “New Testament View: Body, Soul, and Spirit,” saying, “We see the holistic nature of the New Testament view most clearly in Paul’s description of the resurrection body. It is not only a person’s spirit that is raised from the dead; the body will be raised as well...” so “a person’s body is renewed and perfected by being made alive through the spirit.”

Similarly, in the section on “Sickness and Health,” we read in “Healing and Salvation” that “Jesus’ healings in this world were a sign of the ultimate healing brought about by the Kingdom of God, inaugurated with the coming of Christ….”

Whether you’re just curious or ready to research a Bible-based saga, I highly recommend this book as a reader-friendly way to immerse yourself in the environment, envision Bible stories, and catch those little nuances that might be missed if we only “translate” what we read from our own lives and culture.


© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer

Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times, paperback, Saint Mary’s Press






December 14, 2013

The Baker Illustrated Guide to Everyday Life in Bible Times

While waiting for review copies of new editions and study Bibles to arrive, I received an A to Z (or, rather A to Y) resource book from Baker entitled Everyday Life in Bible Times. Since I don’t make a habit of reading reference guides cover to cover, I picked up the book, intending to look through enough pages to get an idea of the quality and thoroughness of content, but that’s not what happened.

Before I’d gotten beyond the “Preface,” the warm, informal style and interesting questions intrigued me. For example, “What did an armor-bearer do?” or “How did people hunt?” Then the first entry “Anoint” hooked my interest immediately in a discussion of olive oil, which rates highest on my list as a healthful cooking oil and skin softener too. Mixed with other oils in a specific biblical recipe “At God’s direction, the special oil was poured on the head of a person to mark him or her for special service, whether as a member of Israel’s clergy, as a political leader, or as a prophet.”

We probably knew that, but the book goes on to say, “Those anointed in this way had their lives change in three important ways. First, the one ‘anointed by the Lord’ stood out from the general population as a leader…. Second, the anointed one was not autonomous but was always subject to the will and desires of a superior. The ‘Lord’s anointed’ was a middle manager answering to a divine CEO. Third, anointing meant special protection was extended to these special leaders – protection that was unmitigated by circumstances. For example, David considered it unthinkable to harm Saul, the Lord’s anointed….”

The next entry, “Armor-Bearer,” didn’t sound as interesting to me, but it was! For example, the future King David could not trust King Saul to stop trying to kill him, and yet Saul totally trusted his life to David. Later, when severely wounded in battle, King Saul asked his current armor-bearer to finish him off – the very opposite of what the job entailed.

Throughout the book, color photographs give visual appeal to each slick page, silken to the touch, drawing me from page to page with the pleasure of leafing through a high-quality picture book for adults. I thought I’d just read the photo captions as I went along, but the content of the text proved too enticing to ignore. Not only does the author, John A. Beck, present interesting information, he shows its relevance to scripture, explaining the significance of metaphors, biblical images, and connotations of words we might otherwise miss.

For example, the childhood story most of us heard of David’s bringing down the giant Goliath often gave the impression of a little boy with a slingshot, rather than a young man with a sling that “added distance and power to the throw because centrifugal force was added to arm strength.” Because a slung stone could go a far greater distance than a spear, David actually had a physical advantage, but, more importantly, he had behind him the spiritual power of God.

As this beautifully done book continued to draw me, I read every entry, including the one for “Stiff-Necked,” which most likely began, not as an indictment against God’s people, but as a reference to draft animals who just would not do what was needed to get their master’s job done. “Strong neck muscles allow animals such as the camel, donkey, and ox to resist the guidance of their handlers,” who described those stubborn creatures as stiff-necked.

The last entry, however, reminds readers of how a yoke can link “two entities together in a close relationship – the kind Jesus calls us to have when He asks us to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

©2013, Mary Harwell Sayler


Everyday Life in Bible Times, hardback