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How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus
The Bible describes a wide range of cultures and lifestyles. The time from Abraham to the time of the early church spans a period of about two thousand years. How people made a living varied depending on when and where they lived. Some people were “nomads,” living in small groups, keeping flocks of sheep and goats, and traveling from place to place in order to feed and protect their animals. Others lived more settled lives, growing crops or providing services to people in towns and urban areas. Most of the “jobs” described in this article were still practiced by at least some part of the population of Palestine at the time of Jesus.
Living Off the Land: Herding and Farming
The Bible describes the many different kinds of jobs people had in the ancient world, but caring for land and animals are two of the central jobs mentioned. Genesis reports that one of Adam and Eve's sons herded sheep while the other farmed the land (Gen 4.2). The earliest ancestors of the people of Israel, including Abraham and Sarah, traveled from place to place and survived by keeping herds and flocks of animals (Gen 13.1-3). Another piece of evidence for the importance of herding and farming in ancient Israelite society is that the Bible gives special instructions about eating (Lev 11), sacrificing animals (Lev 1), and sacrificing grain (Lev 2).
Keeping herds of animals like sheep and goats was common among the many generations of the people of Israel. At first, these herders (shepherds) were wandering nomads who lived in tents and had very little personal property. They moved from place to place, always trying to find food and water for their animals. They survived by eating the meat and drinking the milk produced by their flocks. They used the animals' wool and hides to make clothes and other things, including the tents they lived in.
Closer to the time of Jesus, when urban life was more developed, shepherds may also have lived in or near villages. They had the right to let their flocks feed in the nearby pastures and would have been hired by landowners who needed help to harvest their fields. When food supplies got scarce near the villages, shepherds would move their herds to mountain pastures in the hot summer, or to warmer valleys in the winter.
A Shepherd’s Life
A shepherd's life was not easy. Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter what the weather. They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals. The shepherd's tools and weapons were a rod, a staff, and a sling. Each night, the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.” These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave. Shepherds used their rod to help count their animals each evening when they brought them into the fold and again in the morning when they left for the pastures.
When the Israelites settled in Canaan after leaving their life of slavery in Egypt, farming became a more important way of making a living for them. Grains, such as wheat and barley, were used for making bread, and were the most important crop. Grains, as well as lentils and peas, are known to have been cultivated in Palestine since prehistoric times. Unlike farmers in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israelite farmers did not need to depend on irrigation for water. Even though the rainy season in Palestine was rather short and the soil was often rocky, the farmers' know-how in clearing and fertilizing the land usually produced fine crops. The Israelite farmers learned how to grow crops according to the yearly cycle of rainy and dry spells. They also learned to adjust the crops to what was best for the different kinds of land: fertile plains, rocky hills, and semi–barren areas. As time went on, their knowledge as farmers helped them to grow fruits, including melons, figs, dates, grapes, and olives.
Crop Growing and Religious Festivals
Growing crops affected the economy and social life of the people. For example, some of the major religious festivals in Israel--the Harvest Festival and the Festival of Shelters--were coordinated with the farming cycle. The Harvest Festival, also called the Festival of Weeks, celebrated the wheat harvest in the spring (Exod 23.16). The Festival of Shelters (or Booths) is an autumn holiday for the occasion of the planting and gathering of crops, and the annual harvest.
The Sabbatical Year
An amazing feature of the life of Israel was the sabbatical year, the one year in every seven when farmers would let the land rest. This followed the pattern of working only six days out of each week according to God's command to rest on the seventh day, called the Sabbath (Exod 23.10–12). This sabbatical rest for the fields also had practical benefits, since it increased the long-term fertility of the land.
The people may also have practiced crop rotation, further improving the soil (Isa 28.23–29). The orderly way in which the farmers grew their crops was to match God's plan for the Israelite people and for the good of creation. From a religious perspective, however, deuteronomy makes it clear that a large harvest also depended on how the people of Israel obeyed God's commandments (Deut 11.10-17).
Fishing was a far less important source of food and income for the people of Israel, since the Philistines and others controlled the seacoast. What fish were available usually came from Lake Galilee and the Jordan River. The most common fish was a type of sardine. According to the Law of Moses, the Israelite people were not to eat fish that lacked fins or scales (Deut 14.9), but the Bible does not mention specific kinds of fish. Since fishing is mentioned so little in the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament), some scholars think it was not important to the economy of Israel. It is possible that the fishing industry was more prosperous in the time of Jesus than it had been earlier, since when Jesus called James and John to be his disciples, they left the family fishing business to their father and the “hired workers” (Mark 1.19,20). For more, see the mini-article called "Fish and Fishing."
Special Skills and Crafts
As the Israelites became more settled in and near cities, they became involved in many other types of work. Some men and women became skilled workers, or artisans, who worked on various crafts, very often at home. Many times parents taught their children these skills so they could also use them to make a living. Skilled workers were highly respected, since people needed their skills and products to live comfortably. After the time of the exile (around 538 b.c.; see the mini-article called "Exile"), artisans in the same type of craft began to form into professional groups. Such groups of people in the same business were still present in New Testament times (see Acts 19.24-27). Those who worked on special crafts were builders, stonemasons (stonecutters), carpenters, woodcarvers, boatbuilders, goldsmiths, silversmiths, glass workers, potters, leather workers, weavers, and fullers (who worked with cleaning and texturing old and new cloth).
The Bible tells us that Jesus grew up helping his father Joseph, who was a carpenter (Matt 13.55). And the apostle Paul apparently made a living at the craft of tentmaking (Acts 18.3). Some crafts like baking, cooking, and sewing were done in the everyday work of keeping a household, but some people used these skills to create businesses as well.
Servants and Slaves
Many people, free and slave, provided personal services as laborers. These servants included household servants, employed by royalty and other wealthy people. Such servants might work as cooks, maids, groundskeepers, tutors, or in helping to care for children. Loyal household workers were highly valued. A royal servant called a cupbearer (Gen 40.11; Neh 1.11) brought food and drink to a ruler. Others served as midwives (Gen 35.16-18), doctors (2 Chr 16.12; Mark 5.25,26), nurses (usually a woman who fed another woman's baby), money-changers (Matt 21.12), innkeepers (Luke 2.7; 10.35), and prostitutes (Gen 38.14-18; Josh 2.1).
Often the Bible is not always clear when describing the work of servants, because the word “servant” may mean either a slave or a person hired to do some task. Slavery in many forms was fairly common in Bible times. Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay back a debt, or because they were desperately poor and that was the only way they could get food and shelter. Many slaves in Bible times were prisoners of war. Most slaves performed household work rather than field work or manual labor. There are some rules regarding slavery in the Bible, including ones that put a limit on the customs for slavery and recommended when a term of slavery should come to an end (Exod 21.2-6; Lev 25.10, 38-41). There was also some expectation that slaves would be treated fairly and without cruelty (Deut 23.15,16).
Military and Government Work
A number of jobs were related to maintaining governments and kingdoms. At the top of the social structure were kings, queens and emperors, diplomats and ambassadors, senators and governors (Acts 13.7). Within the palace there were deputies, counselors, interpreters (Gen 42.23), and messengers (Num 20.14; 1 Kgs 20.5; 2 Chr 32.31). The interests of the leaders and the nation were protected by armies which were made up of military officers (Matt 8.9; Acts 21.32), soldiers, and armor-bearers (Judg 9.54; 1 Sam 14.6). To maintain the government, additional workers were needed, such as tax collectors (Luke 19.1,2), keepers of records and secretaries (2 Sam 8.16,17), and lawyers (Acts 24.1; Titus 3.13). Some rulers hired musicians (1 Sam 16.14-23) and others paid for advice from astrologers or fortunetellers (Isa 19.3).
The Jewish people in Jesus' day were ruled by the Roman government, which appointed a Roman governor (or procurator) to oversee the collection of taxes and keep order in the land (Matt 27.2; Acts 24.1). On the local level, the Romans allowed a council of religious and business leaders to handle certain problems and concerns, especially those related to maintaining the temple and worship (Acts 22.5).
Special Servants of God
For years, the temple in Jerusalem was the center of the religious life for the people of Israel. It took many people to see that its important work was carried out properly. According to the Law of Moses, the members of the tribe of Levi were to work as priests, serving all the people of God. Since the Levites were not given their own land, they were allowed to keep a portion of the sacrifices that the Israelite people offered to God (Josh 13.14). A high priest was in charge of the temple, and he was supported by chief priests, gatekeepers (1 Chr 9.17-32), temple workers (Ezra 2.43-54), and guards (1 Chr 9.17-32). For more, see the mini-article called "Israel's Priests."
Temples and Religious Practices
Most of Israel's neighbors had their own temples and religious practices. These employed temple priests and various kinds of workers as well, and some even used women to serve as “sacred prostitutes.” All religions supported many artisans, such as architects, builders, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and sculptors, who used their skills to build and decorate temples and shrines (1 Kgs 5.13-18).
Although the sacred tent and temple were the center of religious life for the people of Israel, many of the kings of Israel and Judah also employed prophets (1 Chr 21.9; 2 Chr 19.1,2) who helped them make decisions based on God's will, and who warned them of the consequences of their actions. Other prophets worked independently as preachers (1 Sam 9.6-21). By the time of Jesus, a growing number of teachers known as scribes and Pharisees earned money as teachers of the Law.
Unskilled workers were often poor and did difficult jobs like mining, cutting rocks, digging wells, building roads, cleaning streets, training and driving camels, loading and unloading goods along trade routes, working as a crew member or rower on a boat, and tending and harvesting crops. Still others worked as dancers, musicians, and even as professional mourners. Some of these mourners were paid to cry and wail during funeral processions (Jer 9.17; Matt 9.23); others played sad music on flutes, beat their chests with their hands, and wore rough clothing called sackcloth (Gen 37.34). Merchants and traders bought and sold all sorts of items, carrying them from town to town to offer for sale in outdoor marketplaces. Some wealthy merchants owned ships or large numbers of camels, which they used to transport goods across long distances. For more about merchants, see the article called "Trade and Travel."
Wages and Pay
The Bible does speak of people being paid for certain kinds of work (Gen 29.15; Mic 3.11; Matt 20.1-15; Luke 3.14), but it is difficult to determine just how much people were paid early in Israel's history. Most likely they received goods or food for the work they did. During the time of the kings, some people were paid in weighed pieces of gold or silver. Later, around 600 b.c., the Persian Empire began making coins, which were sometimes used to pay workers. (See the chart called "Banking and Money in the Ancient World"). By the time of Jesus, various kinds of coins were commonly used to pay for goods and the services of workers. The story Jesus told in Matthew 20.1-16 describes vineyard workers being paid the amount of one day's wage, which was one denarius. How much that one coin could buy is not clear, so it is hard to determine what a person's wage would have been when compared to a worker's salary today.