Wages, Food Prices, and Shopping for the Family in First-Century Israel

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Who managed the household income in the biblical era, the husband or the wife? What was available for purchase in a first-century Jewish market? What was a typical family income? How much could you buy based on your family's wages?

This is the sixth post in a series that details How to Live as a First-Century Woman in Israel. If you're not planning any time-travel excursions, these posts will still help you to understand women in the culture and context of the Bible. So far we've looked at the trades women might be involved in, how to manage a household and slaves, marriage and divorce, what to wear, hairstyles, and cosmetics, and how women worshipped in the days of Jesus.

Now we're going to look at wages, food prices, and shopping for the family!

Who manages the money?

Women in this era are trusted to be the guardians of the things in the house. (1) As a first-century wife, you can expect to be responsible for keeping order in the house and for managing the household's money. Spend it carefully, as your family's survival might depend on your shrewd purchases.

What is trade like in the first-century?

Mass production has not been invented yet, so there are no stores selling racks of identical items for a housewife to peruse. Even so, there are many things you can buy. You are not limited to what is produced in your own community. Roman-built roads are making travel easier than ever before. Israel is along important trade-routes, so you may routinely see caravans of camels coming through bearing goods from afar. Other items come in by ships crossing the Mediterranean. As you might expect, the larger the city, the larger the market, and the more selection you will have.

What can you expect in a first-century market?

Most of Mediterranean life is lived out of doors, and the markets follow that style. In Israel, markets are open Mondays and Thursdays. In a little farming community, a market might be as simple as a goods spread out under a canopy. However, in the larger cities, you can expect something much more exciting.

Built in the heart of town, a market is called an agora in Greek, or in Latin it is called a forum. Officials will make sure that sellers are using proper weights and measurements, so if you're worried you're being cheated by the man weighing your fish, check with them.

As a first-century woman in Israel, you may live in or near a Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) city. There the market is a large rectangle, with stone pillars supporting sheltered porches called a stoa, where vendors can set up their booths. The market might boast statutory, platforms for speeches, and you can find philosophical debates along with local gossip. The market, as a place where the whole community can hear public speeches, helps aid the spread of new ideas, including Christianity. (2)

What can you buy in a first-century market?

Products from the lands of Galilee, Judea, and the Jordan Valley are largely agricultural. (3) Depending on the time of year, you can buy olives, olive oil, wine, grain (wheat and barley), dates, figs, pomegranates, citrons, balsam, sheep and goats, fish, and occasionally cattle. Possibly you can find donkeys for sale in the market, as well as fowl like chickens, pigeons, pheasants, or quail. (4)