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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Architecture in the Biblical Period

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reflects the construction, the techniques, and the materials used in building the structures of the Ancient Near East. Old Testament—Leviticus 14:33-45 ; Deuteronomy 22:8 ; Joshua 2:1-15 ; Judges 5:28 ; 2 Samuel 11:2 ; 1 Kings 5:6 ; 1 Kings 6:1-7:51 ; 1Kings 10:11-12,1 Kings 10:27 ; 2Kings 9:1-3,2 Kings 9:30-33 ; 2 Chronicles 2:1-4:22 ; Nehemiah 2:11-3:32 ; Proverbs 9:1 ; Isaiah 9:10 ; Jeremiah 22:14-25 ; Jeremiah 36:22 ; Ezekiel 13:10-16 ; Daniel 2:5 ; Amos 3:15 ; Haggai 1:4 . New Testament—Matthew 8:14 ; Matthew 24:17 ; Matthew 26:58 ,Matthew 26:58,26:69 ; Mark 2:1-4 ; Mark 5:38-40 ; Mark 13:1-2 ; Mark 14:12-16 ; Mark 15:16 ; Luke 5:18-19 ; Acts 1:13 ; Acts 3:2 ,Acts 3:2,3:11 ; Acts 9:23-25 ; Acts 10:9 , Acts 10:17 ,Acts 10:17,10:21 ; Acts 12:12-13 ; Acts 19:29-31 ; Acts 20:7-9 ; Acts 21:30-35 ; Acts 25:23 .

Old Testament The people of the Ancient Near East used many types of building materials. Utilizing natural resources, they most often exploited stone, wood, reeds, and mud. Used naturally, mud served as mortar. It also was formed into bricks and then sun dried. Religious or large public buildings used the more expensive lumber that came from cedar, cypress, sandalwood, and olive trees. The sycamore tree served as a less costly lumber. Limestone and basalt were common stones used in construction.

1. Public Structures. As a basic element of city architecture, walls served three general purposes. Protective walls encircled the city to keep out enemy forces. These city walls usually did not support any load. Retaining walls had the purpose of keeping in place any weight that was behind them. In agricultural terracing, they prevented erosion and created a level place for farming on the sides of hills. This type of wall also was placed below city walls to stop any erosion of the soil which ultimately might weaken the city walls. Lastly, buildings and houses used walls to bear loads or keep out the weather.

Walls were made of several layers or courses of stones placed one on top of the other with mud bricks often set on the stone courses. Composed of large field stones, the first few layers served as the foundation of the wall. The placing of the large stones into trenches gave the wall a more stable foundation. In houses and public buildings, the stone courses above the ground may have been given smooth surfaces so as to produce a uniform look, but this was not always done. Large public building projects commonly made use of a technique called headers and stretchers. The builders alternated laying the stones lengthwise and breadthwise to form the wall.

During the time of Solomon, a common type of city wall was the casemate wall. This was composed of two parallel walls with perpendicular walls placed at intervals in between the parallel ones. The empty spaces formed between the walls, called casemates, commonly were filled with stones, earth, or debris. Sometimes the people used the spaces for living quarters, guardrooms, or storehouses. The outer parallel wall averaged about 5 1/2 feet in width, while the inner parallel wall averaged about 4 feet. This type of wall had an advantage over a solid wall due to its greater strength and its saving of material and labor. Excavations at Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor uncovered the remains of casemate walls.

The inset-offset wall came into use as a city wall after the time of Solomon. Its name came from the technique used to build it. After erecting one stretch of the wall, the next stretch was slightly recessed by about 1/2 yard. The following section then was built slightly forward with the next section placed slightly behind it. Each stretch of the wall was placed alternately either slightly ahead or slightly behind the previous section. This “insetting” and “offsetting” of the city wall allowed the city's defenders to fire at any attackers from three angles: head on and to the right and left of the attackers. As a solid structure composed of stone or mud bricks placed on a stone foundation, this type of wall contrasts with the casemate wall. The remains of an inset-offset wall, eleven feet in thickness, were excavated at Megiddo.

Since ancient cities usually were built on high artificial mounds called tells, the soil beneath the city walls on the slope of the mound eroded over time and weakened the walls. A retaining wall, placed at some point on the slope or at the base of the mound, countered the loss of soil. In between the city wall and the retaining wall, the people placed layers of beaten earth and stone. This served to brace the city wall against collapse and to make it more difficult for the enemy to attack the city.

The city gate was an important part of public architecture because it was the weakest part of the city's defenses. It also served as a meeting place for the various city activities. Remains of Solomonic gates at Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor show that two square towers flanked the entrance into the gate. The gate complex was composed of three successive chambers or rooms on each side (six chambers in all). A gate separated each pair of chambers, and the six rooms probably served as guardhouses. At Dan, a later gate had the two towers, but only four chambers instead of six. This gate complex measured 58 x 97 feet. The approach to the gate from outside the city usually was placed at an angle. This forced any attackers to expose their flanks to the defenders on the city walls. Should the attackers be able to get inside the gate area, the angle caused the attackers to move at a slower pace.

As a prominent public structure, the temple acted as the house of the god. Two types of temple structures were common in Palestine during the biblical period. The broadroom temple was a rectangular structure with its entrance in the middle of one of the long sides. The plan of the temple, therefore, was oriented around a room that was broader than it was long. The longroom temple likewise was a rectangular structure, but its entrance was in the middle of one of the short sides. This caused the building to be longer than it was broad.

As a longroom temple, Solomon's sanctuary in Jerusalem consisted of three main sections. A courtyard with an altar preceded the building. The Temple proper actually was one building divided into two parts, the holy place and the holy of holies. The main room, or the holy place, was entered from the courtyard. A partition separated the holy place from the holy of holies. Placed at the rear of the building, the holy of holies contained the ark and the cherubim. The Temple, therefore, was oriented on a long, straight line with the priest entering through the courtyard straight into the holy place and then into the holy of holies.

Another Israelite temple dating from after 1000 B.C. was uncovered at Arad. It was a broadroom temple entered from the east. The holy of holies was a niche protruding out of the western wall opposite the entrance. Three steps led up to the holy of holies, and two stone incense altars sat on the steps. The main room or holy place had plastered benches around the walls. The courtyard in front of the entrance to the temple had an altar in its center. Similar in plan to the Jerusalem Temple, the Arad sanctuary had a courtyard, a holy place, and a holy of holies. It differs from the one in Jerusalem in its layout as a broadroom type as opposed to the Jerusalem Temple's longroom orientation.

2. Private Structures. Houses in the period of the Old Testament usually were built around a central courtyard and entered from the street. They often were two stories high with access to the upper story coming from a staircase or a ladder. The walls of the house consisted of stone foundations with mud bricks placed on the stone layers or courses. They subsequently were plastered. Floors either were paved with small stones or plaster, or they were formed from beaten earth. Large wooden beams laid across the walls composed the supporting structure of the roof. Smaller pieces of wood or reeds were placed in between the beams and then covered with a layer of mud. Rows of columns placed in the house served as supports to the ceiling. Since the roof was flat, people slept on it in the hot seasons and also used it for storage. Sometimes clay or stone pipes that led from the roof to cisterns down below were used to catch rainwater.

The most common type of house was the so-called “four-room” house. This house consisted of a broadroom at the rear of the house with three parallel rooms coming out from one side of the broadroom. The back room ran the width of the building. Rows of pillars separated the middle parallel room from the other two rooms. This middle room actually was a small, unroofed courtyard and served as the entrance to the house. The courtyard usually contained household items such as silos, cisterns, ovens, and grinding stones and was the place where the cooking was done. The animals could have been kept under a covered section in the courtyard. The other rooms were used for living and storage.

Ovens were constructed with mud bricks and then plastered on the outside. One side of the oven had an air hole. A new oven was created whenever the old one filled up with ashes. By breaking off the top of the old oven and then raising the sides, a new oven was made.

Storage structures were common in the biblical period. Private and public grain silos were round and dug several feet into the ground. The builders usually erected circular mud brick or stone walls around the silo, but sometimes they did nothing to the pit or simply plastered it with mud. Rooms with clay vessels also served as storage space.

While the “four room” house was the most common plan in Palestine, other arrangements existed. Some homes had a simple plan of a courtyard with one room placed to the side. Other houses had only two or three rooms; still others may have had more than four. The arrangement of the rooms around the open courtyard also varied. The broadroom at the rear of the house seems to be common to all plans.

New Testament In this time period, architecture in Israel was greatly influenced by Greek and Roman ideas. Some of the primary cities in Israel show this influence in their public buildings.

1. Public Structures. Over twenty Roman theaters were built in Palestine and Jordan. At Caesarea, the theater contained two main parts, the auditorium and stage, and the stage building. These two parts formed one building complex. Six vaulted passageways served as entrances. The auditorium was semicircular with upper and lower sections used for seating. The lower tier had six sections of seats, and the upper tier had seven for a total capacity of 4,500 people. A central box was reserved for dignitaries and important guests. The wall of the stage was as high as the auditorium. Other similar theaters were located at Scythopolis (Beth-Shan), Pella, Gerasa, Petra, Dor, Hippos, and Gadara.

Arenas for chariot racing, called hippodromes, were long, narrow, and straight with curved ends. Gerasa, Caesarea, Scythopolis, Gadara, and Jerusalem had hippodromes. Erected in the second century A.D., the one at Caesarea was 1/4 of a mile long and 330 feet wide with a seating capacity of 30,000.

Built by Herod the Great as a port city for Israel, Caesarea lacked a natural harbor. Herod constructed one just off the city's coastline. The first century writer Josephus recorded that Herod placed large blocks of stone (some as large as 50 feet long and 18 feet wide) in about 120 feet of water to build the breakwaters. The northern one measured about 250 yards; and the southern one, about 600 yards.

Two aqueducts brought water to Caesarea. One of them traveled from Mt. Carmel covering a distance of about eight miles. Clay pipes conveyed the water to a raised aqueduct that rested on arches. The aqueduct dropped in height about one inch per mile. This caused the water to flow continuously. The water then emptied into a collecting basin from which it was distributed to public baths, fountains, and some private homes. A dam built across the Crocodile River acted as a second aqueduct. As the water level rose, a reservoir was created and a channel, built at ground level and covered with a vaulted roof, brought the water into the city.

The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. and rebuilt in 515 B.C. Herod the Great refurbished it during the first century B.C. As a result, the Temple became widely known for its beauty. It retained the same plan as its predecessor, but the area around it was doubled. Retaining walls that marked the boundaries of the Temple complex were built, and marble porticos were added all around the Temple mount. The stones of the Temple mount's retaining walls were about four or five feet high and weighed three to five tons.

The court of Israel and the sacrificial altar stood immediately in front of the Temple building. Storerooms surrounded this court. To the west, the court of women was positioned with rooms at each corner. In the northwest corner, the Antonia Fortress was constructed to strengthen the defenses of the northern portion of Jerusalem. It also allowed Herod and the Romans to watch the activities on the Temple mount and maintain order. Towers were placed at each of the building's four corners. The Temple complex was connected to the city on the west side by two bridges.

Herod also constructed temples to Augustus at Caesarea and Samaria. Both sat on large, elevated platforms. The platform at Caesarea rose about 50 feet above the ground and faced the harbor. A large court was in front of the temple at Samaria, and a broad staircase gave access to it.

2. Private Structures. Houses usually followed a plan that arranged the rooms around a courtyard. A stairway on the outside of the house led to the upper stories. A stone or timber projected out from the wall at intervals and supported the staircase. This architectural technique is known as corbelling. The walls and ceiling were plastered, and arches sometimes supported the roof. Houses at Avdat and Shivta used arches that came out from the walls to form the roof. After placing thin slabs of limestone over the arches, the builders plastered the entire roof. In the lower city of Jerusalem, houses constructed with small stones were crowded closely together. Yet, they still maintained small courtyards.

Houses of the rich often had columns placed around a central court that had rooms radiating out from it. Kitchens, cellars, cisterns, and bathing pools may have been located underneath the ground. In Jerusalem, one house covered about 650 square feet, a large house by first century standards. In the courtyard, four ovens were sunk into the ground, and a cistern stored the house's water supply. Inside the house on one of the walls, three niches raised about five feet off the ground served as cabinets for storing the household vessels.

Scott Langston

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Architecture in the Biblical Period'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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