The Life and Times of First-Century Christians
Where They Lived
“I did not hold back from . . . teaching you publicly and from house to house.”—ACTS 20:20.
ENTERING through the massive gate, you are instantly thrust into a first-century city. Like many cities, it is situated on a hill. Above you is a ridge, where the upper city is revealed. Numerous luxurious white villas, many with walled gardens, glisten in the sun. This is the neighborhood of the wealthy. Down the slope, more houses of different sizes and shapes come into view. These large multistoried stone houses of the middle-class merchants and landowners line the paved streets. Farther down in the lower valley are the poorer areas. The drab houses here are small, boxlike structures packed on narrow alleyways or clustered around small courtyards.
As you walk along the congested streets, the sounds and smells excite your senses. Women are cooking, filling the neighborhood with tantalizing aromas. You hear the sounds of animals and of children at play. Men are busily working in noisy, smelly shops.
For the Christian family, life centered in these houses. They set the scene for daily life, spiritual instruction, and worship.
The Smaller Houses Like homes today, the size and type of dwellings varied according to location and the family’s financial circumstances. The smallest houses (1) consisted of one cramped, dark room, which provided living space for an entire family. Many small houses were built of sun-dried mud-brick walls. Others were of rough-hewn stone walls. Both types were usually constructed on a stone foundation.
The interior walls were plastered and the floors were paved, requiring constant maintenance. At least one small opening in the roof or wall allowed kitchen smoke to escape. Furnishings were limited to essential household items.
An earthen roof rested on branches, reeds, and rafters over wooden beams, supported by posts. The packed clay was then plastered, making a reasonably waterproof ceiling. Roof access usually involved a climb on an outside ladder.
Even in such close quarters, Christian homes were pleasant places, where even a poor family could be spiritually rich and happy.
The Middle Class The bigger two-story stone houses (2) of the middle class featured a guest room. (Mark 14:13-16; Acts 1:13, 14) This large upper chamber could accommodate meetings and was often available at festival times. (Acts 2:1-4) These houses and even larger houses (3) of merchants and landowners were constructed of limestone blocks, bonded with lime mortar. The paved floors and interior walls were plastered; exterior walls were whitewashed.
Access to the upper rooms and roof was by a staircase. All flat roofs were rimmed by a parapet intended to prevent falls and other accidents. (Deuteronomy 22:8) During the heat of the day, under a makeshift shade structure, the roof would be a delightful place to retire to for study, meditation, prayer, or rest.—Acts 10:9.
While often accommodating extended families, these sturdy houses with larger rooms allowed for additional living space, separate bedrooms, and a larger kitchen and dining area.
The More Luxurious Homes The Roman-style houses (4) varied considerably in size, design, and construction. Spacious rooms were centered around a large dining room (triclinium), the hub of family activities. Some designs included a second or third story (5) or were adorned with walled gardens.
The more luxurious homes may have been well-equipped with elaborate furniture, some of it inlaid with ivory and gold. These homes had such conveniences as running water and baths. The floors may have been made of wood or multicolored marble, and the walls may have been paneled with cedar. Braziers were used for heating. Lattice, usually of wood, was installed in window openings for security, and curtains afforded a measure of privacy. Window seats were cut into the thick stone walls.—Acts 20:9, 10.
Whatever the size or shape of their house, the early Christians were open and generous with their belongings. Traveling overseers thus had no difficulty finding a warm, hospitable family with whom to stay until they completed their ministry in that city or town.—Matthew 10:11; Acts 16:14, 15.
“The Home of Simon and Andrew” Jesus found a warm welcome in “the home of Simon and Andrew.” (Mark 1:29-31) The house of these fishermen may have been part of an enclosed cluster of unpretentious structures (6) crowded around a paved courtyard.
At such houses, doors and windows opened onto the courtyard, which often was the center of daily activities, including cooking, baking, grinding grain, and socializing and eating.
The one-story houses in Capernaum were constructed from uncut local basalt (volcanic rock). The exterior stairs led to a flat roof made of packed clay or tile put over reeds and rafters that rested on beams. (Mark 2:1-5) The interior floors were paved, often covered with woven mats.
Blocks of houses formed streets and alleys along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was an ideal setting for the fishermen who earned their living from the sea.
“From House to House” All in all, the houses of the first-century Christians were varied—from the single-room mud-brick houses to the large, luxurious stone villas.
Those houses served as more than a shelter for the family. The home was a place of spiritual instruction. Within the walls, the family worshipped together. They assembled in private homes to study the Scriptures and to enjoy association with fellow believers. What they learned in their homes they put to good use as they carried out their all-important work, namely, preaching and teaching “from house to house” throughout the Roman world.—Acts 20:20.