Posted in christian living, theology

A Day in the Life of: A Fisherman

By Elizabeth Prata

I admire and respect fishermen. I’ve watched the hardy lobstermen of Maine, or the cod fishermen of Massachusetts, the watermen fishing for crabs in the Chesapeake, the shrimpers of the south or the bonefish, sponge, and conch fishermen of the warmer waters. Fishing for a living is hard. It is not for the weak or the lazy.

There are no days off, you go out in storms, heat, rain, and ice. You use your body as one with the boat and the sea, drawing from it food and life.

It was no different for the fishermen of Galilee in Jesus’ day. Jesus called four fishermen as His disciples. Simon-Peter and his brother Andrew, and John and his brother James, the sons of Zebedee, who was also a fisherman.

Fishing villages along the shore of the Sea of Galilee included Capernaum, where Jesus based much of His ministry, (Mark 2:1); Bethsaida (Luke 9:10); and Magdala, town of Mary Magdalene (Matt 15:39).

The pictures of the Holy Land around 1900 are important because life and traditions in Palestine didn’t change much until after WWI. A photo depicting life in 1900 would be almost a copy of any scene from the time of Jesus. These Library of Congress photos offer a glimpse into not just the recent past of the 20th century, but a peek back 2000 years.

Galilean fishermen boat nets
Galilean fishing boat, around 1900. Source Library of Congress

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22).

We learn so much from just these 4 verses.

WHERE: They fished the Sea of Galilee
WHO: as mentioned, the two sets of brothers
WHAT: They were net fishermen as opposed to hook and line fishermen. They cast from boats they owned and they mended their nets (this shows us they were diligent).
WHY: Fishing was hard, but gave a living, generationally, in John and James’s case. Yet when He called, the men left their profession and immediately followed Jesus.

The Sea of Galilee was also called Kinneret or Kinnereth, and Lake Tiberias. It’s Israel’s largest freshwater lake. A fisherman’s day would begin at pre-dusk, because they fished at night. Why? The nets were made of linen which were lighter colored. They’d be more visible to the fish by day, since the waters were cool and clear. The fish would avoid the nets.

In addition, the fish were more active and feeding closer to the surface at night. You caught fish at night, in shallow water.

So they fished at night. (John 21:3). The men would launch their boat from shore and sail gently into the shallow areas along the shore. They’d cast their nets, which were really a three-walled net of decreasing size mesh holes, into the water. Little weights along the bottom would help the net sink vertically down, and the top would float, since there were little buoys of cork or wood attached.

They might be catching little fish, (Matthew 15:34), a Kinneret sardine, processed at the salting and drying station of the town of Bethsaida (House of Fish). Or they might be catching big fish, a kind of tilapia with white flesh and good to eat. (John 21:11).

If the fisherman wasn’t using his boat or didn’t have one, he stood near shore, casting a smaller net. When Jesus called Simon-Peter and Andrew, they were on the shore throwing out their nets from land. (Matthew 4:18). When He called James and John, they were throwing nets from their boat with their father Zebedee.

One other way to fish with nets was with a dragnet. Jesus compared dragnet fishing to the kingdom of heaven-

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and caught fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47)

This is where a net would be laid out in a horseshoe shape from shore, and dragged in, catching many different kinds of fish. The men would then sort the good fish from the bad, tossing the unmarketable fish away and keeping the good.

Above, Dragnet fishing at Sea of Galilee, circa 1900. Library of Congress, LC-matpc-04570

Either way, the fisherman would swim to the center and dive down to gather either the fish or draw up the net. He’d do this naked. (Meaning with only his light undergarment on, not bare-skin naked). Peter was fishing this way when the verse says he put on his clothes to go meet Jesus. (John 21:7). The nets set from the boat could be several hundred feet long and 20 feet high. In Luke 5:6 when Jesus miraculously filled their nets, the huge nets became so heavy that they needed the other boat crew to help drag it aboard, then the nets were breaking, and the boat began to sink as they brought in the haul!

On a normal, miracle-less day, whether from the boat or from the shore, it still was heavy labor to throw the nets out, wait for them to settle, and then circle back by sail or swim back to haul them in. Repeat. All night. Fishermen were hard workers, strong, and were usually peasants and therefore used to a rough life.

In the morning, the fishermen would stop and bring their gear ashore. They’d eat breakfast. Then they would set to fixing their gear. It was time to spread their nets and examine them. (Ezekiel 47:10). Do any of the stone weights along the bottom need replacing? They’d have to gather more stones, drill holes, and tie them to the bottom. Do any of the cork or wood buoys along the top need replacing? Do the nets need re-sewing? Are they rinsed off? Is the debris picked out of the nets?

galilee fisherman
Photo Library of Congress, Galilean Fishermen, approx 1900.

The same attention needs to be given to the boat. These items were their livelihood. So the fishermen would examine the sails and sew or patch any worn areas. Check the anchor rope and the mast and the underside. Tar or pitch could be heated to cover the planks to seal them. Ropes need to be re-twined and add pitch to the ends to ensure it doesn’t fray.

At the end of their day they would fold the nets and store them in the boat, waiting for the night-time when they’d put out in the Sea of Galilee again.

A day in the life of a Galilean fisherman was hard, but it offered a living. As with any trade, a father taught the son. Joseph taught Jesus carpentry. Zebedee taught his sons James and John how to fish. Net fishing hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. You could see similar scenes as the ones above in Indonesia, China, Viet Nam, Venezuela or any place. What has changed is the incarnation of Jesus, molding these rough outdoor peasant men into gentle, loving Christians, ready to catch men with the net of the Gospel. And as with these men, our spiritual forefathers, they teach us to this day.

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:10b).

I pray you and I catch many souls with our net of the Gospel and a life well lived through following Him.

Posted in theology

A Day in the Life of A: Potter

By Elizabeth Prata

Previous essays in the series:

A Day in the Life of a: Scribe

A Day in the Life of a: Shepherd

A Day in the Life of: A Tanner

A Day in the Life of a: Seller of Purple

A Day in the Life of: Introduction

We’ve looked at the sellers of purple. Lydia was one. The manufacturing process of purple dye was lengthy and expensive, making purple dye a luxury only a few could afford. However, everyone needed pots. Rich or poor, woman or man, mansion or hut, every person in the ancient biblical world needed ceramics. Therefore, pottery was ancient Palestine’s biggest industry.

POTTERY The production of pottery was one of man’s great innovations in the later stages of the prehistoric period (Prehistory), and one of the most important landmarks in the long process of transition from the nomadic life of hunters and food-gatherers towards a settled existence. Pottery is made of clay, a type of soil almost universally available, which with the addition of water acquires plasticity, enabling the potter to shape it as required. Once fired, the shape given to it is retained.
Source: Negev, A. (1990). In The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.

I am fascinated with marine archeology. I remember as a kid watching documentaries about finding and old ship. The excavators always got excited when they found an amphora. Amphorae were ancient Roman or Greek cargo pots that goods were shipped in. They could date the wreck by the design of the amphora. Every single ship carrying anything had ceramics on board as the cargo containers.

Amphorae are of great use to maritime archaeologists, as they often indicate the age of a shipwreck and the geographic origin of the cargo. They are occasionally so well preserved that the original content is still present, providing information on foodstuffs and mercantile systems. (Wikipedia)

Ceramics for common uses such as shipping containers (amphorae) and water, wine and oil jugs were so ubiquitous that-

Amphorae were too cheap and plentiful to return to their origin-point and so, when empty, they were broken up at their destination. At a breakage site in Rome, Testaccio, close to the Tiber, the fragments, later wetted with Calcium hydroxide (Calce viva), remained to create a hill now named Monte Testaccio, 148 ft high. (Wikipedia)

You can picture Job sitting near the pot sherd pile scraping his boils. When Paul was on the ship that was in the terrible storm (Jonah too) the men who threw the cargo overboard were most likely throwing over pots like these.

Amphorae stacking. Suggestion on how amphorae may have been stacked on a galley. (Bodrum Castle (Turkey). A Galley (from Greek γαλέα – galea) is an ancient ship which is entirely propelled by human oarsmen. Source Wikimedia

Smith’s Bible Dictionary says of potters and pottery-

The art of pottery is one of the most common and most ancient of all manufactures. It is abundantly evident, both that the Hebrews used earthenware vessels in the wilderness and that the potter’s trade was afterward carried on in Palestine. They had themselves been concerned in the potter’s trade in Egypt, (Psalms 81:6) and the wall-paintings minutely illustrate the Egyptian process. The clay, when dug, was trodden by men’s feet so as to form a paste, (Isaiah 41:25) Wisd. 15:7; then placed by the potter on the wheel beside which he sat, and shaped by him with his hands. How early the wheel came into use in Palestine is not known, but it seems likely that it was adopted from Egypt. (Isaiah 45:9; Jeremiah 15:3) The vessel was then smoothed and coated with a glaze, and finally burnt in a furnace. There was at Jerusalem a royal establishment of potters, (1 Chronicles 4:23) from whose employment, and from the fragments cast away in the process, the Potter’s Field perhaps received its name. (Isaiah 30:11)

Before 2500BC pottery was handmade. After 1500 or so, a wheel was used.
EPrata photo

Pitchers, water jugs, cups. Perfume jars, juglets, cruets. Wine and oil storage up to 25 quarts. Wide mouth jars stored grain. Sadly, household gods was a thriving pottery industry. Remember Rebekah in Genesis 31, she stole the household gods. These were called teraphim, and they probably looked something like this:

Three Syrian terra cotta idols, 2nd millennium BC, Source

Pottery objects were made for children, too. War horses for boys and and small cooking pots for girls have been found, as well as rattles and baby feeding bottles for infants. Oil lamps for household illumination were made of pottery. Even broken pottery had uses. Larger sherds would be used as scoops and dippers. Others, to carry coals from one fire to another.

Pottery represented one of the major manufacturing industries of the ancient world, and the Israelite potters were what we called  “up and coming businessmen.” With the potter’s wheel, they had assembly line methods of manufacture with different men performing different parts of the process. They knew the temperatures various clays with their various impurities would fire at. They had standard sizes which ran in staggered sizes. Pride of manufacture is indicated by potter’s marks.

Pottery industry was organized by families and guilds (1 Chronicles 4:23).The most difficult part for the apprentice was mastering the firing of the kiln and this was probably passed from father to son. Greeks used to pray to the gods before firing the kiln and the medieval potters offered prayers first.

(Source for above information, Palestinian Pottery in Bible Times, J. L. Kelso and J. Palin Thorley,  The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec., 1945), pp. 81-93 (13 pages) )

The life of a potter was good, because what he produced is always in demand. His wares were not for the luxe crowd as was the purple seller’s, even the poorest of the poor could afford a thrown small water jug. It cost a penny. It was a physical job (see jpg) but not as physical as a dyer or a tanner, nor as dangerous as a shepherd. The local potter was a middle to upper class businessman.

Click to enlarge. Source “Public Life in Bible Times”, JI Packer

Clay was plentiful in Palestine, the potter never had far to go for gathering raw materials. He couldn’t perform his craft just anywhere, though. His shop was likely at the edge of town so that the smoke from the kilns would not offend residents. It was a safety feature also, as it prevented fires in the crowded town.

This is what the LORD says: “Go, buy a clay jar from a potter. Take some of the elders of the people and leaders of the priests, and go out to the valley of Ben-hinnom near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate.” (Jeremiah 19:1-2).

Note the verse in Jeremiah 18:2 where God said for Jeremiah to “go down” to the potter’s house, no other direction was necessary. Pottery was a necessity and everyone would know where the potter’s house was. There would be at least one in every village.

The Psalms have a series of songs called Song of Ascents, this was to be sung on the way up. So when God said for Jeremiah to go down to the Potter’s House, it was likely that the potter was situated outside the city at the bottom of the mount. The raw materials were there, anyway.

The specific area where potters were is noted in Jeremiah 19:1-2,

Ben-hinnom later was transliterated to Gehenna, the waste dump with fires that Jesus likened to the fires of hell. One can imagine this quarter of the city and environs, with kiln fires constantly blowing smoke over the valley, piles of raw material clay, clay covered potters at work, waste mountains like the one mentioned above in Italy that was 148 feet high. source Biblical Archeology 

In one of the Bible’s most beautiful metaphors, God likened Himself to a Potter and His creations as clay. His work is completely sovereign.

Jeremiah 18:1-6

The Potter and the Clay
18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

There is a traditional saying about the roots of the word sincere. Not all potters were honest, as happens in every trade, there were a few bad apples floating around.

Here, John MacArthur explains.

On the other hand, it also could have as its root two words in the Greek, one word meaning sun, the other meaning to judge, so that it literally in its root meaning has the idea of testing something by sunlight – testing something by sunlight.  That, by the way, we don’t know for sure if that’s the root of eilikrins, which is the Greek term, but it is the root of sincere, which is a Latin derivative.

The Latin word is sin cerae, and it literally means “without wax.” Now, let me explain what that means. A potter who was making a jar, or a bowl, or a plate, or a dish of some kind, would turn it on his wheel; and then when it was completed, he would take it and fire it, bake it, as you know.  Frequently, because of some impurity in the clay, or some error in judgment in terms of the temperature, or whatever, it would come up with a crack. A cracked jar, or pot, or bowl, or dish, would be useless.

But because of the money invested in it, the unscrupulous potters would try to cover up the crack, and they would take a hard wax, and they would fill the crack with wax. And then they would cover it over with whatever they were using to coat or to paint the pot or the bowl. And so when any wise person went into the marketplace to buy a piece of pottery, they would typically hold the pottery up to the sunlight and rotate it to see if it was without wax, because the sunlight could shine through the crack and reveal the wax – which, of course, the first time anything heated was put in it, would melt, and it would be discovered as useless.

A life, then, needs to be held up to the sunlight to determine whether it’s got any flaws that are being falsely covered over by the wax of hypocrisy. That’s the idea. That may well be the root of the word “sincere.” That certainly is behind the Latin concept, sine cera, which means without wax.

I ‘sincerely’ hope you’ve enjoyed this peek at the potter. There is actually much more to be enjoyed about the long history of pottery, which began in or near Egypt perhaps as early as 5000 BC. There are different ages of the evolution of pottery, Palestinian trends in pottery, the painting and decoration of ceramics. A potter was a skilled artisan, busy from dawn to nightfall, creating useful and decorative items for the many people and tribes in his area. He was one of many workers depicted  in our Bible, such as the Seller of Purple, Tanner, and Shepherd.

If you have a suggestion for ‘a day in the life of’, please let me know in the comments!


Posted in theology

A Day in the Life of a: Scribe

By Elizabeth Prata

While He was in His incarnation, we often think of the Pharisees as the object of Jesus’ most fervent wrath. But the Sadducees and the Scribes also endured invective from our Savior. The scribes were themselves filled with sinful hate toward Jesus. Here are just a few examples:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20).

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. (Matthew 23:1-3).

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. 2 And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people. (Luke 22:1-2).

Jesus’s declaration in the first verse above Matthew 5:20 was a shocking message. The Scribes were supposed to be the incubators of righteousness, the guardians of truth, and the teachers and teachers of teachers of Israel. How did things get so out of whack? Why did Jesus condemn them?? What IS a scribe anyway?

Prior to the time of Ezra the Scribe, the scribes acted as secretaries of the state/king/pharaoh. (Esther 3:12). Baruch was scribe to Prophet Jeremiah. They prepared and issued decrees in the name of the king (2 Samuel 8:17; 20:25; 1 Chronicles 18:16; 24:6; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 12:9-11; 18:18-37, etc.). In one illustration of the Egyptian scribe, the scene depicts the scribe and his helpers counting severed hands.

The class of Scribe for our purposes today began at the time of Ezra and the return from Exile. Ezra was a priest and a scribe.

At a great gathering of the people, of which an account is given in Nehemiah 8-10, the Law was publicly read by Ezra, and a solemn covenant entered into for national obedience to it. Being thus established as the binding rule of both civil and religious life, it became necessary that the Law should be thoroughly studied and interpreted to the people, who otherwise could not reasonably be expected to comprehend fully its principles and their application. This duty at first fell naturally to the priests, who for a time continued the main teachers and guardians of the Law. But gradually there grew up an independent class of men, other than the priests, who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, and made acquaintance with it their profession. These were the Scribes. Possibly at first their chief duty was to make copies of the Law, but the higher function of interpretation was soon added; and as the supreme importance of the Law came more and more to be recognized, so the profession of a Scribe came to be held in higher estimation than even that of a priest. Source

The scribes taught the Law, and did so since Ezra the Scribe (who was also a priest) through to the time of Jesus and beyond to today.

The scribe’s job was to copy and recopy the scrolls, preserve them, and interpret them. When Jesus did the reading of the Old Testament at synagogue (Luke 4:16-17), He was handed a scroll. This had no doubt been copied by a scribe at some point. A copying scribe was meticulous in copying the letters perfectly, even counting the spaces between each word so it matched exactly to its original. His title was sofer, (sopher) which in Hebrew literally means, “counting,” as in letters.

In the Holman treasury of key Bible words, we read,

In New Testament times, the scribes were a class of scholars who taught, copied, and interpreted the Jewish Law for the people. They appear in the Gospels primarily as opponents of Jesus. They continually accused Him of violating the Law on numerous occasions: in forgiving sins (Matt. 9:1–3; Luke 5:17–26), in breaking their notion of Sabbath observance through work and healing (Luke 6:1–2, 6–11), in not following their accepted ceremonial washings (Mark 7:2–5), and in ignoring their practice of fasting (Luke 5:33–39). Not surprisingly, they especially disapproved of Jesus’ practice of mingling with the unclean and outcasts of Jewish society (Mark 2:16–17; Luke 15:1–2).

Being a scribe came with a high esteem, the people regarded them highly because of their literacy, their education, and their influence in the community. They performed several functions:

  1. Scribes studied and interpreted the Law
  2. Scribes taught the Law, especially to youth
  3. Scribes judged in the community, as well as wrote official documents such as marriage contracts etc.
  4. Scribes copied and preserved the scrolls.

A youth whose family designated him for the life of a scribe would send him to a school at about age 13. If he was accepted, his training would commence then and last until about age 30. Depending on which career track he wound up in, a day in the life of a scribe of any type would no doubt be inside, not as the dyers, tanners, or shepherds lived, out of doors at the mercy of the elements. He was a professional.

If he was a little more fortunate, his career track might take him to litigator or an arbiter or even an executor. (Luke 12:14). He might be appointed to the Sanhedrin or become an esteemed teacher at one of the schools. If he was a copying scribe, he would do his work at his home or an office, have adequate lighting, sit at a table with quill, ink, and parchment, and bend for hours over his papers. His days and weeks would look like this:

Several centuries ago the laws of the Soferim, called STaM, were unified to give consistency in writing Sefri Torahs. It generally takes one year to write a Torah. On an average each Torah will have 245 columns with 42 lines each with a consistent total 304,805 letters. A very rough estimate required for a Sofer’s time would be one sheet per week (average 52 sheets per Sefer Torah), one column per day, six lines per hour, and 3 letters per minute.

Copyright The Cooper Gallery / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Cattermole, George, 1800-1868; The Scribe

A scribe understood the Law, interpreted it, and debated fine points of the law with his clan, or in practical manner aided the community members in living it to the letter via the official documents such as wills or marriage contracts he drew up. It was a good profession and a lucrative one at that. The long years in apprenticeship and training were worth it. It was good work even at the lower rungs as copyist or executor in a small town. Sadly, over time the scribes began to add to the Law by oral tradition and precedent. Their esteem came to be so high that,

As time passed on the “words of the scribes” were honored above the law. It was a greater crime to offend against them than against the law. The first step was taken toward annulling the commandments of God for the sake of their own traditions. (Mark 7:13) …While the scribes repeated the traditions of the elders, Jesus “spake as one having authority,” “not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29). Source

So when the people said that Jesus spake as one having authority, not as one of the Scribes, this was a big deal. Equally, it was a big deal that the Scribes opposed Jesus and plotted to kill Him. (Luke 22:2). They had the money and influence to do it, and we know that they succeeded. They were active in obtaining Jesus’s death. (Matthew 26:3; Luke 23:10).

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20 )


Some Scribes named in the Bible

Baruch (scribe to Jeremiah)
Ezra (Ezra 7:1-25)
Zadok (Nehemiah 13:13)
Shemaiah (1 Chronicles 24:6)
Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a counselor, being a man of understanding and a scribe (1 Chronicles 27:32)
Shimshai (Ezra 4:8)


1.      Antiquity of. Jdj 5:14.
2.      Wore an inkhorn at their girdles. Eze 9:2, 3.
3.      Families celebrated for furnishing
a.      Kenites. 1 Ch 2:55.
b.      Zebulun. Jdj 5:14.
c.      Levi. 1 Ch 24:6; 2 Ch 34:13.
4.      Generally men of great wisdom. 1 Ch 27:32.
5.      Often learned in the law. Ezr 7:6.
6.      Were ready writers. Ps 45:1.
7.      Acted as
a.      Secretaries to kings. 2 Sa 8:17; 20:25; 2 Ki 12:10; Es 3:12.
b.      Secretaries to prophets. Jer 36:5, 26.
c.      Notaries in courts of justice. Jer 32:11, 12.
d.      Religious teachers. Ne 8:2–6.
e.      Writers of public documents. 1 Ch 24:6.
f.      Keepers of the muster-rolls of the host. 2 Ki 25:19; 2 Ch 26:11; Jer 52:25.
8.      Modern
a.      Were doctors of the law. Mr 12:28; Mt 22:35.
b.      Wore long robes and loved pre-eminence. Mr 12:38, 39.
c.      Sat in Moses’ seat. Mt 23:2.
d.      Were frequently Pharisees. Ac 23:9.
e.      Esteemed wise and learned. 1 Co 1:20.
f.      Regarded as interpreters of Scripture. Mt 2:4; 17:10; Mr 12:35.
g.      Their manner of teaching contrasting with that of Christ. Mt 7:29; Mr 1:22.
h.      Condemned by Christ for hypocrisy. Mt 23:15.
i.      Often offended at out Lord’s conduct and teaching. Mt 21:15; Mr 2:6, 7, 16; 3:22.
j.      Tempted our Lord. Joh 8:3.
k.      Active in procuring our Lord’s death. Mt 26:3; Lu 23:10.
l.      Persecuted the Christians. Ac 4:5; 18:21; 6:12.
9.      Illustrated of well instructed ministers of the gospel. Mt 13:52.

Torrey, R. A. (2001). The new topical text book: A scriptural text book for the use of ministers, teachers, and all Christian workers. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Bible Software.

A Day in the Life of a: Shepherd

A Day in the Life of a: Tanner

A Day in the Life of a: Dyer

Posted in theology

A Day in the Life of a: Shepherd

By Elizabeth Prata

Third in a series

What was a day in the life like for a person who lived in New Testament Bible times? It depended on what trade the person made their living. The first time I looked at the woman of Thyatira, Lydia, a seller of purple. Then we looked at tanners, such as Simon the Tanner whom Peter lodged with. Today I’m interested in what a day in the life of a shepherd would be like.

EPrata photo

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions in the Bible. The first was gardener or overseer. God told Adam to keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15). Shepherd is mentioned second. Genesis 4:2 says, “Now Abel was a keeper of flocks…”

Many of the men and women of the Bible were shepherds. Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Lot, Laban, Moses, Rachel, David, Amos are a few examples of shepherds in the Bible. Of course we know the angels came to announce the birth of Christ to unnamed shepherds protecting their flocks by night near Bethlehem.

Life in Palestine was lived mainly outdoors, and animal husbandry was a major occupation. Even so, by the time of Jesus, that profession was considered unskilled. Shepherds were relegated to the lower socio-economic strata of society. It is therefore poignant that God chose to send angels to shepherds for the first announcement of the Savior’s appearance on earth.

Shepherding was hard.

The duties of a shepherd in an unenclosed country like Palestine were very onerous. In early morning he led forth the flock from the fold, marching at its head to the spot where they were to be pastured. Here he watched them all day, taking care that none of the sheep strayed, and if any for a time eluded his watch and wandered away from the rest, seeking diligently till he found and brought it back. King James Bible Dictionary

David mentions that one duty of the shepherd was to protect the sheep from predators, of which there were many. Lions, bears, wolves, hyenas, and leopards were all interested in a sheep dinner. Sheep won’t fight back, run, or hide. Instead, when a predator appeared, they gather together, giving the predator a big choice on which sheep to pick for his dinner.

sheep 4
EPrata photo

David said he had protected the flock from lions and bears, single-handedly fighting off both at different times (1 Sam 17:34-37). Wolves were the worst enemy of the flock. They were more numerous than lions or bears. They were canny, constant, and fierce. They rarely left off trying to invade the fold and make off with a lamb or young sheep. Wolves are often mentioned in scripture as a symbol of treachery.

In those lands sheep require to be supplied regularly with water, and the shepherd for this purpose has to guide them either to some running stream or to wells dug in the wilderness and furnished with troughs.
King James Bible Dictionary

Water was always in short supply in desert lands. That is why it was a special trouble for Isaac when the Philistines, who envied his healthy flocks and herds, stopped up the wells. (Genesis 26:14-15). And it couldn’t be just any water, running water as in a stream or river would spook the sheep. They prefer still water, but it also has to be clean.

The shepherd is not only always on guard against predators (of which are also the human kind, thieves) but he or she must protect the sheep from themselves. If a sheep falls into running water, it will drown, their wooly coats soak up quickly and sheep cannot swim. He needs to be led to calm waters. (Psalm 23:2-3).

Drinking from puddles would give the sheep parasites and they become ill. If the shepherd moves his flocks to the pasture early enough in the morning, the dew-laden grass would contain enough moisture for the sheep.

sheep 3
EPrata photo

Sheep eat a lot of grass, they are totally focused on eating. Because they are so absorbed in nibbling grass, all day, all the time, one or two usually tend to wander away from the flock and get lost. (Luke 15:3-6).

After eating, the sheep needs to digest what he has eaten by lying down, but sometimes he won’t lie down on his own. He needs to be made to lie down. (Psalm 23:2-3).

At night he brought the flock home to the fold, counting them as they passed under the rod at the door to assure himself that none were missing. Nor did his labours always end with sunset. Often he had to guard the fold through the dark hours from the attack of wild beasts, or the wily attempts of the prowling thief (see 1 Samuel 17:34). King James Bible Dictionary

A good shepherd also delivers the lambs, (Isaiah 40:11), grooms and shears the sheep. (Deuteronomy 18:4; 1 Samuel 25:4)

He has an extra incentive to be extra vigilant. If a sheep goes missing, and the shepherd cannot prove it was shredded by predators, the shepherd must pay for the sheep himself. (Genesis 31:38-39, Exodus 22:10-13). That is one reason he is so careful to count them as he brings them into the fold at night. He uses the rod or staff to lower on each one in a careful count. He also runs the rod along the wool so he can examine the condition of the skin and the wool.

When his day is done and all sheep are accounted for, whatever kind of sheepfold he has brought he flock into (enclosed shed, circle of stones with a crude roof of boughs of thorns, cave, etc) the shepherd will sleep across the door to protect the sheep while they sleep. If a predator tries to enter, the shepherd will awaken and beat it back. He will do the same against thieves too. (John 10:1-2).

Sometimes the shepherd will mix in with other shepherds and split the night watches. It is not a problem separating out the sheep the next morning as the sheep know their own shepherd’s voice. (Genesis 29:1-3; John 10:27-28).

When Jesus preached using shepherd allusions, the local people all over Palestine knew exactly what He was speaking about. There are many examples of shepherds and their duties (which were numerous and constant) so it is no wonder that the word ‘pastor’ is often used interchangeably with shepherd.

A day in the life of a shepherd was strenuous, but worthwhile. God chose to give many of our Bible heroes the job of shepherd, and to One, He gave the highest job of all. Jesus is THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:11-18)


Previous entries in the series:

A Day in the Life of a: Seller of Purple

A Day in the Life of a: Tanner

Posted in history, theology

A Day in the Life of: A Tanner

By Elizabeth Prata

Second in a series.

What was a day in the life like for a person who lived in New Testament Bible times? It depended on what trade the person made their living. Last time I looked at the woman of Thyatira, Lydia, a seller of purple. Today I’m interested in what a day in the life of a tanner would be like.

simon's house
“Traveling in the Holy Land through the Stereoscope,” prepared by Jessie Lyman Hurlbut

A tanner was a worker of hides. Tanner definition:

Tanning is the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather. A tannery is the place where the skins are processed. (Source)

Tanners were low status people in the Jewish community. They dealt with unclean hides and death, and they smelled bad. Normally their workshop would be just one or two rooms and a courtyard far from a residential area. You might remember this was a requirement for Lydia’s trade, the dyer who used snail shells (or a plant) to extract and ferment purple, another malodorous process.

dipping skins in a vat of sumach
Dipping hides in a vat of sumach. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Volumes 1–5

Simon was a Tanner in Joppa. He housed Peter for many days according to Acts 10:32, Acts 9:43, Acts 10:17, Acts 10:6. Luke is very precise and mentions Simon’s trade three times in short order. There are only two other biblical references to leather itself; where leathern girdles are mentioned (the end product of tanning) and those are in 2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4).

Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea. (Acts 10:32).

And Peter stayed many days in Joppa with a tanner named Simon. (Acts 9:43).

Despite the infrequent mentions, leather was important and used in many goods. Thus, tanning was an important trade, just one that no one liked to be around.

Leather was widely used in biblical times: for sandals and shoes, and for straps and harnesses for horses, donkeys, and camels; the nod, a skin bottle for storing and transporting liquids, is still widely used in the Middle East. All writing materials were also produced from hides. A ritually important use of leather and parchment since ancient times is for Torah scrolls, tefillin, the straps of which must be made from ritually clean animals, and the contents of mezuzot. (Source)

Joppa (Jaffa) is now an old neighborhood in the city of Tel Aviv. It’s by the sea. You might remember Jonah fled from the LORD at Joppa where he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.

As in Greece and Rome, tanneries had to be located on the outskirts of the towns, far from residential quarters. According to the Mishnah (BB 2:9) a tannery should be situated on the east side of the town only, at least 50 cubits from the outskirts. This was because tanning was a primitive, malodorous process. The residents of an alley or lane could prevent one of their neighbors from becoming a tanner (Mishnah BB 21b). For all these reasons the tanner’s status in society was low. (Source)

A Tanner’s dwelling and his workshop location was limited by his trade also. By necessity, they had to be close to to salt water seas.

Simon’s house was by the seashore, as is true of the tanneries along the Syrian coast today, so that the foul-smelling liquors from the vats can be drawn off with the least nuisance, and so that the salt water may be easily accessible for washing the skins during the tanning process. (Source – The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia)

Tanning was a low-status job, so tanners were because of their trade low on the totem pole. As with Lydia’s trade (dyeing of purple), by Jewish tradition, a wife could sue for divorce based on the unpleasantness of her husband’s tanning trade, and it would be granted. An unnamed Jewish Babylon Talmudic scholar of the 6th-12th century

explains that they are exempt because their bad odor, having penetrated their flesh, cannot be removed. This, he said, was why they had their own synagogues in his day in Babylon. The tanner’s trade was among those from which neither king nor high priest might be appointed, not because the tanner is ritually unfit, but because his occupation is despised

Poor Simon. So, geographically, ritually, and societally, a tanner endured a low status and a marginal communal living. Simon no doubt had friends, even the hated tax-collectors had friends, prostitutes and other tax collectors though they may have been. But a tanner’s trade prevented him from enjoying the full force and joys of communal living and even worship.


Joppa (or Jaffa as it’s called today, the oldest part of modern-day Tel Aviv) is about 45 miles from Jerusalem. On the map, you can see Nazareth to the northeast and Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) beyond that.

So what did a tanner DO? The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia describes the multi-step process. Simon would have had skins percolating in various stages of the process.

Within are the vats made either of stone masonry, plastered within and without, or cut out of the solid rock. The sheep or goat skins are smeared on the flesh side with a paste of slaked lime and then folded up and allowed to stand until the hair loosens. The hair and fleshy matter are removed, the skins are plumped in lime, bated in a concoction first of dog dung and afterward in one of fermenting bran, in much the same way as in a modern tannery. The bated skins are tanned in sumach, which is the common tanning material in Syria and Palestine. After drying, the leather is blackened on one side by rubbing on a solution made by boiling vinegar with old nails or pieces of copper, and the skin is finally given a dressing of olive oil.

That was the short version. Here’s the more descriptive process from Wikipedia..

The steps in the production of leather between curing (which involved salting) and tanning are collectively referred to as beamhouse operations. They include, in order, soaking, liming, removal of extraneous tissues (unhairing, scudding and fleshing), deliming, bating or puering, drenching, and pickling. Simon was busy. He either skinned the animal himself of got the skins from a skinner.

Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore. First, the ancient tanners would soak the skins in water to clean and soften them. Then they would pound and scour the skin to remove any remaining flesh and fat. Next, the tanner needed to remove the hair from the skin. This was done by either soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply allowing the skin to putrefy for several months then dipping it in a salt solution. After the hairs were loosened, the tanners scraped them off with a knife. Once the hair was removed, the tanners would “bate” (soften) the material by pounding dung into the skin, or soaking the skin in a solution of animal brains. Bating was a fermentative process which relied on enzymes produced by bacteria found in the dung. Among the kinds of dung commonly used were those of dogs or pigeons.

dressing hides in a syrian tannery
The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1915

Sometimes, the dung was mixed with water in a large vat, and the prepared skins were kneaded in the dung water until they became supple from bacterial enzyme action, but not too soft. The ancient tanner might use his bare feet to knead the skins in the dung water, and the kneading could last two or three hours. This combination of urine, animal feces, and decaying flesh made ancient tanneries malodorous. Children employed as dung gatherers were a common sight in ancient cities. Also common were “piss-pots” located on street corners, where human urine could be collected for use in tanneries or by washerwomen. (Source)

I included the longer version so you can get an idea of what Simon dealt with every day. Hard labor, marginalization, and smelly, chemical-y dung and urine filled processes.

So now we can understand perhaps why Luke included the fact that Peter stayed with Simon the Tanner and mentioned that Simon was a tanner three times in rapid succession. Here, finally, we see as with all walks of life, tanners were finally enjoying fellowship in faith with other disciples. Peter choosing to stay with Simon (Acts 9:43) certainly helped equalize the rungs on the ladder and pointed to the fact that Jesus and only Jesus was primary and exalted. Prostitutes, tax-collectors, dyers, and tanners were fully included in the faith as much as wealthy men (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus), lawyers (Paul) and luxury merchants (Lydia).

The cross is the great equalizer, and Jesus is full of grace and mercy. The societal inclusion for Simon the Tanner must have been heart-warming to him and his love for Jesus must have abounded all the more. Here at last, he could worship among the faithful, and not in a separate synagogue. On his one day of rest, his voice raised in hymns of praise must have been forceful and joyous.