What people ate
Meals were simple but wholesome. Bread, usually barley bread, was a feature of every meal, and women made it as often as needed. In summer, they probably baked several days’ supply at a time, to cut down on the discomfort caused by the heat of their oven.
Grain for bread was ground by the women on two grinding stones, the lower one fixed, the upper one rotating (see photograph at right and enlargement below). The grain was mixed with water, and then fermented dough, kept for this purpose, was kneaded into the dough, which was left to rise. Then the thin, flat circles of dough were slapped onto the hot stones in the fire, or placed in a bread oven if the family had one.
The main meal was eaten in the evening. It might consist of a lentil stew seasoned with herbs like cumin, black cumin or coriander. It was served with cheese made from sheep or goats’ milk, olives, onions and bread. Fruits included fresh figs and melon, as well as dried pomegranates and dates – dried fruits were a staple item in the Middle East. Wine, water and curdled milk, similar to liquid yogurt, accompanied the meal.
Sugar? Unheard of, so most people had healthy teeth. Honey was used as a sweetener, but only occasionally and usually by the wealthy. Meat was a rarity, kept for special occasions. Fish was much more common, and the dried fish industry was an important source of wealth for the people around the Sea of Galilee. The town of Magdala, not far from Nazareth, was a center of the dried fish industry, and Mary Magdalene may have earned her money from dried fish rather than prostitution – see Did Jesus Marry Mary Magdalene?
The ravines in the slopes and the rocky ground were suitable for clusters of trees whose olives were gathered, crusted with large grinding stones, pitted, and pressed for oil. The fields on the slopes could grow various grains – wheat, barley, and millet whose chaff was separated on threshing floors with winnowing.
The alluvial soil south of the village was sufficiently fertile for vegetables and legumes. Terraces built and irrigated along the steeper slopes maximized the grain harvest and could also support fig and pomegranate trees. An adequate water source was located at the western edge of the village, now called the Well of the Virgin, and it trickles along the length of the village, giving people the ability to grow their own food in small patches of ground.
The ‘Well of the Virgin’ as it appeared in a 19th century photograph of Nazareth
The home was important in Jewish religion. In our society, people associate prayer with a church. In the Jewish religion, both the home and the synagogue were places of prayer. A rabbi or scholar was in charge of prayer in the synagogue, but in the home each individual woman in charge of a household was responsible for the prayer-services held in that home.
This was how Mary and Joseph of Nazareth lived.