Architecture in Bible times E-mail

The art or science of building. The Bible shows a diversification of dwelling places and living habits early in human history, during the 1,656 years prior to the Flood of Noah’s day. Cain, after the murder of Abel, is spoken of as ‘taking up residence’ in a certain area, and there “he engaged in building a city.” (Ge 4:16, 17) Yet, one of his descendants, Jabal, became “the founder of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” Another became a “forger of every sort of tool of copper and iron.” (Ge 4:20, 22) The descendants of Cain perished at least by the time of the Flood; however, constructive ability and the use of tools did not perish with them.
The outstanding building work of that pre-Flood period was done by descendants of Seth: the ark constructed by Noah and his sons. While the basic plans and dimensions were provided by God, some architectural ability must doubtless be attributed to Noah as the human director of works. The ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high (133.5 m × 22.3 m × 13.4 m; 437 ft 6 in. × 72 ft 11 in. × 43 ft 9 in.). It could have had about 0.9 ha (2.2 acres) of floor space. The three floors plus the wide roof span probably required, in addition to the ‘compartment’ divisions, the use of some wooden columns and beams to support the weight, as well as to give the structure necessary stability. Although the ark was caulked with tar, there would also be need for careful fitting of the timbers to ensure a reasonably watertight construction.—Ge 6:13-16; see ARK No. 1.

Early Post-Flood Construction. In the post-Flood era Nimrod is described as a prominent builder of several cities. (Ge 10:8-12) Another major building project was now put forward, the Tower of Babel, disapproved by God. Here, new materials are mentioned, kiln-baked bricks with bitumen serving as mortar. The tower was intended to be the highest structure up till that time.—Ge 11:3, 4.
Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites, doubtless saw fairly advanced styles of architecture in Ur of the Chaldeans. (Ge 11:31) Excavations there reveal evidences of city streets, two-story houses with brick stairs, and complexes of temples and palaces, considered as dating back to the third millennium B.C.E. Here, too, is found some of the earliest evidence of the use of the corbel vault or the cantilever arch (formed by building the two sides of a wall closer and closer together until the gap between them can be bridged with a row of stones or bricks), as well as of the true curved arch with keystone.
Later, during his stay in Egypt (Ge 12:10), Abraham may have witnessed some of the architectural splendors of that land. The Step Pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara is supposed to date from the third millennium B.C.E. and is one of the earliest examples remaining of major constructions using cut stone. (PICTURE, Vol. 1, p. 530) The Great Pyramid of Khufu, built somewhat later at Giza, has a huge base of 5.3 ha (13 acres) and was made of some 2,300,000 blocks of limestone, each weighing 2.3 metric tons on the average. It was originally 147 m (482 ft) high. Not only the size but also the precision achieved makes it a project amazing even modern engineers. Several centuries later at Karnak, farther up the Nile, the Egyptians produced the largest known temple built by man. The roof of its great hall was supported by 134 enormous columns, each some 3 m (10 ft) in diameter, decorated with richly colored reliefs.

Israelite Architecture. During the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, they did considerable building work as slaves under Egyptian taskmasters. (Ex 1:11-14) Later, in the wilderness Jehovah gave them precise instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, with panel frames, socket pedestals, bars, and pillars, which also required considerable architectural ability on their part. (Ex 25:9, 40; 26:15-37; Heb 8:5) While the majority of those who were doing such work (and who had done building in Egypt) undoubtedly died before reaching the Promised Land, a concept of building methods and the use of tools was surely carried over by the survivors. (Compare De 27:5.) The Mosaic Law prescribed at least one requirement for construction. (De 22:8) The Israelites, upon conquering the land, of course, did take over entire cities and villages with their completed constructions, but they also did building themselves. (Nu 32:16; De 6:10, 11; 8:12) At the time of their entry (1473 B.C.E.), Canaan was a land with numerous walled cities and strong fortifications.—Nu 13:28.
While it is true that no striking constructions remain to indicate Israelite originality or ingenuity as to architecture, it does not logically follow that they were lacking in such ability. Unlike the pagan nations, they did not erect huge monuments in honor of political rulers or military heroes. The one temple constructed was at Jerusalem, although apostasy produced other religious sites. Nothing remains of the original temple or of its successor. Among the more impressive ruins uncovered are those of the identical city gates of ancient Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, thought to have been built in Solomon’s time. (1Ki 9:15) In each case the 20-m-long (66 ft) external walls were made with carefully drafted stones. Within the gate passage there were three successive pairs of jambs or extended piers, thus producing six recessed chambers flanking the passage on either side, in which business might be transacted or from which soldiers could harass any troups attempting to force their way through the gates. (See GATE, GATEWAY.) At Megiddo and at Samaria examples of expert masonry have been found, the stones being carefully chiseled, laid, and joined with fine precision, in some cases so exactly that even a thin knife blade cannot be inserted between the joined stones. Undoubtedly the work on the temple built by Solomon was of the same high quality.—1Ki 5:17; 6:7.
On the basis of archaeological investigation it appears that Israelite houses were generally of very modest construction, some researchers holding that they were quite crude. Yet the evidence on which such opinions are based is very meager. As The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 209) comments: “Modern knowledge of the subject is restricted both by the inattention of ancient writers to matters of architectural interest and by the scanty survival of the buildings themselves, most of which time and succeeding generations of builders have utterly destroyed.” (Edited by G. A. Buttrick, 1962) Thus, it is rare to find more than one or two courses of masonry above the foundation of any ruined building in Palestine. It is also logical that the better homes would suffer most at the hands of destroyers and, subsequently, of those seeking building materials.

Ancient Building Materials and Methods. Stone foundations were common from the earliest times. Whereas rough stones might be employed, they were aligned and bonded by the cornerstones, which were carefully smoothed and fitted. (Compare Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16.) Clay mortar or plaster inside Israelite stone houses is mentioned at Leviticus 14:40-48. If the remainder of the house was not completed in stone, sun-dried or kiln-baked bricks were frequently used above the foundation. (Compare Isa 9:10.) Wood was at times interspersed with the bricks. The materials employed depended principally on what was locally available. The lack of wood and stone in Mesopotamia resulted in most constructions’ being made of mud brick, whereas in Palestine limestone or other stones were generally abundant. An early method of forming an economical wall was that of the wattle and daub. Stakes were driven into the ground and reeds or flexible branches were interwoven between them horizontally to form a mesh framework upon which clay could be spread. After the clay had been thoroughly dried and hardened by the sun, plaster was applied periodically to preserve the walls from the elements.—See WALLS.
The roof of a building was generally formed by laying long stones or timbers across the supporting walls. Posts or pillars might be introduced to increase the span of the roof, the common “post and lintel” method. Since the corbel vault and the curved arch were known from ancient times, it is probable that in large buildings these were used to hold up such flat roofs as were capable of supporting considerable weight. In these larger buildings one or two rows of pillars were often used; the wood or stone pillars were set in a stone plinth, or base, and it is suggested by some that the pillars in the house of Dagon to which the Philistines brought blind Samson were of this type. In addition to those gathered within the building, some 3,000 people were on the roof observing when Samson dislodged the two main pillars, causing the collapse of the house.—Jg 16:25-30.
The roofs of smaller buildings and domestic dwellings were frequently formed of branches or reeds that were bound together and laid across the beams and then packed and covered with mud or clay, which was then rolled smooth. A slight slope given to the roof allowed the rain to run off. Such roofs are still to be found in the Jordan Valley in present-day dwellings.
The basic type of building in Palestine was of rectangular form; if a dwelling, there was usually a somewhat loose arrangement of small rectangular rooms within. The limited space available within cities, often crowded, determined the size and shape of the buildings. If space allowed, there might be an inner courtyard with all the rooms opening off it and with only one entranceway from the street. The same basic rectangular style was used not only for the domestic house but also for the royal house (palace), the storehouse, the house of assembly (synagogue), the house of God (temple), and the house of the dead (tomb).

Works of the Kings of Judah and Israel. The only particular construction mentioned as occurring during King David’s reign appears to be the “house of cedars,” built with materials and by workers supplied by Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre (1Ch 14:1; 17:1), although it is recorded that David continued building other houses in Jerusalem. (1Ch 15:1) David also made great preparations for the temple construction to be accomplished by his son Solomon, including the hewing of squared stones, the fashioning of iron nails, and the preparing of copper and of cedar timbers “in great quantity,” as well as the setting aside of supplies of gold, silver, precious stones, and mosaic pebbles. (1Ch 22:1-4; 29:1-5) He was also used to provide the divinely inspired “architectural plan” for the entire temple layout and equipment. (1Ch 28:11, 19) The Hebrew word for “architectural plan” (tav·nith′) comes from the root ba·nah′ (“build”; 1Ch 22:11) and is elsewhere rendered “pattern” and “representation.”—Ex 25:9; 1Ch 28:18.
Under Solomon, Israelite architecture reached its high point. (2Ch 1:15; Ec 2:4-6) Although the Phoenician workers of King Hiram were employed in the cutting of timbers in Lebanon for the temple construction, the record does not support the view often advanced that the temple at Jerusalem was primarily and essentially the work of Phoenicians. An Israeli-Phoenician named Hiram is mentioned as contributing to the immediate construction, but this was mainly in decorative work and metalwork, done after the building was erected and according to the plans provided by King David. (1Ch 28:19) King Hiram of Tyre acknowledged that there were “skillful men” among the Israelites as well. (1Ki 7:13-40; 2Ch 2:3, 8-16; compare 1Ch 28:20, 21.) Solomon himself directed the building of the temple structure. (1Ki 6:1-38; 2Ch 3:1–4:22) Additionally, he built the temple courtyard, the House of the Forest of Lebanon, noteworthy for its 45 pillars of cedarwood and special illumination features, the Porch of Pillars, the Porch of the Throne, as well as his own house and the house for Pharaoh’s daughter, all constructed of expensive stones hewn “according to measures.”—1Ki 7:1-12.
Other kings prominent in building were Asa (1Ki 15:23), Baasha (1Ki 15:17), Omri (1Ki 16:23, 24), Ahab (1Ki 22:39), Jehoshaphat (2Ch 17:12), Uzziah (2Ch 26:6-10, 15), Jotham (2Ch 27:3, 4), and Hezekiah (2Ki 20:20). The tunnel of Siloam (533 m [1,749 ft] in length), attributed to Hezekiah, and the tunnels found at Lachish, Gibeon, Gezer, and Megiddo were remarkable engineering feats.

Postexilic Building in Palestine. The postexilic period seems to have seen only modest construction among the Jews. However, Herod the Great (first century B.C.E.), and his successors, engaged in great architectural projects, including the reconstruction of the temple at Jerusalem (Mr 13:1, 2; Lu 21:5), the harbor at Caesarea, the great viaduct spanning the central part of Jerusalem, as well as public buildings, theaters, hippodromes, and baths. A most remarkable feat was Herod’s development of the fortress on the hill of Masada over 400 m (1,300 ft) above the Dead Sea. Besides the fortifications, Herod built an elegant, three-tiered hanging palace with a terrace and with bathing pools, as well as another palace with a Roman bathhouse having heating pipes in the walls, and a sit-down lavatory with flushing system. He equipped the huge rock fortress with a dozen great cisterns able to hold in all almost 40,000 kl (10,500,000 gal) of water.—PICTURE, Vol. 2, p. 751.
Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian Architecture. As a result of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel (740 B.C.E.) and the overthrow of the southern kingdom of Judah (607 B.C.E.), the Jewish people became acquainted with the architectural splendors of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad was notable for its regularity and use of symmetry, as well as its splendid reliefs, glazed bricks, and enameled tile paintings. Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh was an immense structure of about 70 rooms, with over 3,000 m (nearly 10,000 ft) of wall space lined with sculptured slabs. (2Ki 19:36; compare Jon 3:2, 3.) Sennacherib is also believed to have built the 48-km (30 mi) aqueduct that carried water from the Gomel River to the gardens of Nineveh. At Mari, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, an enormous 300-room palace complex covered some 6 ha (15 acres). The ruins of ancient Babylon likewise indicate the onetime magnificence of that city with its formidable walls, famous streets, and numerous palaces and temples.
Under Persian rule, Jews in Shushan might have viewed the splendor of the palace of Darius I there, with its interiors beautified by splendidly colored glazed bricks. (PICTURES, Vol. 2, p. 330) At Persepolis the grandeur was perhaps yet more impressive (PICTURES, Vol. 2, p. 329), from the Gate of Xerxes, with its colossal bulls, to the palace and huge audience halls of Darius and Xerxes, including the hall of 100 columns. The Persian columns were more graceful and slender than the famed Ionic columns of the Greeks. The ratio of height to diameter of the columns in the Hall of Xerxes was 12 to 1 as compared to a ratio of 10 to 1 maximum for Corinthian columns, and only 6 to 1 for Egyptian columns. Likewise, the span attained between the columns in Persian buildings was as much as twice that of the Greek buildings, thus creating a greater sense of spaciousness than found in similar ancient structures.

Grecian and Roman Styles and Methods. Greek architecture entered its “golden period” in the seventh century B.C.E. That period lasted down to the fourth century B.C.E. Athens became the site for majestic temples and buildings erected in honor of the Greek gods and goddesses. These buildings included the Parthenon, the Temple of the Wingless Victory, and the Erechtheum; while at Corinth the Temple of Apollo and the vast marketplace (or a·go·ra′) were outstanding. The style of architecture is generally designated by the three main orders of beautiful Greek columns developed: the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian.
The Romans were much indebted to the Greeks as to architectural style. Roman architecture was generally more functional than the Greek, while lacking some of its subtle beauty. The Romans also benefited from the Etruscans, who were noted for their true arch formed with wedge-shaped stones. In the sixth century B.C.E. such true arches were used in a most impressive way in the construction of the great sewers of Rome. The Roman architects are to be credited also with the development of the double arch and the dome, both of which they used in producing enormous column-free rotundas and spacious halls. The Greek masons had built majestic structures without the use of mortar or cement because of their surpassing skill and precision in fitting and joining the marble blocks used. Roman masons made use of a volcanic earth combined with lime called pozzolana, a hydraulic cement of great cohesive strength. With pozzolana as mortar, the Romans could extend the span of their arches as well as construct multistoried edifices, including the mammoth four-story Colosseum, built in the first century C.E., with a seating capacity variously estimated to be from 40,000 to 87,000 persons. Among the more valuable Roman constructions were the great military roads and splendid aqueducts built particularly from the third century B.C.E. forward. The apostle Paul made much use of these Roman highways and undoubtedly saw the aqueduct of Emperor Claudius along the Appian Way when traveling to Rome.

Christian Building. Even as the nation of Israel was not noted for architectural splendor or pomp, so too the early Christians of spiritual Israel constructed with modesty. Unger’s Bible Dictionary (1965, pp. 84, 85) comments: “As early as in the 3rd century buildings erected by them existed, but they were neither substantial nor costly.” It was not until the time of Emperor Constantine, when encouragement was given to those so inclined to enter relations with the political state, that nominal Christians began to produce a particular style of architecture, eventually constructing some of the most ornate and pompous edifices known.

Architecture in Prophecy and Figure. There are numerous uses of architectural terms in Biblical prophecies and figures. The restoration prophecies deal to a great extent with the building (or rebuilding) of God’s people and their cities. (Isa 58:12; 60:10; 61:4; Eze 28:26; 36:36) Zion is foretold to be built upon stones laid with hard mortar, with sapphire foundations, ruby battlements, and gates of fiery glowing stones. (Isa 54:11, 12) Wisdom is described as building its own house (Pr 9:1) and, along with discernment and knowledge, as being the means for building up a household. (Pr 14:1; 24:3, 4) Jehoiakim is condemned for building his palace in unrighteousness by failing to pay the workers, and the Chaldeans are condemned for building a city with the blood and toil of conquered peoples. (Jer 22:13-15; Hab 2:12, 13) False imagining of peace with God is compared to the building of a plastered partition wall that Jehovah blasts with the windstorm and hail of his rage, tearing it down and revealing its foundations. (Eze 13:10-16) The psalmist assures that unless Jehovah builds the house, the builders labor in vain. (Ps 127:1) Prior to “the great day of Jehovah,” those who disregard God will build but will not come to occupy their buildings. (Zep 1:12-14; compare Am 5:11.) By contrast, God’s servants are to “build houses and have occupancy” and “use to the full” the work of their hands.—Isa 65:17-23; compare Ec 3:3.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the importance of making a cost estimate before beginning construction was referred to by Jesus when he encouraged his hearers to appreciate exactly what is involved in becoming his followers. (Lu 14:28-30) The need for a solid foundation is used in a number of illustrations. (Mt 7:24-27; Lu 6:48, 49; 1Ti 6:17-19; 2Ti 2:19; Heb 11:10) Christ Jesus speaks of founding his congregation on a rock-mass (pe′tra) (Mt 16:18), and Jesus himself is shown to be the one foundation, besides which “no man can lay any other”; yet he is “the stone that the builders rejected.” (1Co 3:11; Mt 21:42; Ac 4:11; Ps 118:22) Because he is the chief cornerstone, all the other “living stones” of this temple are founded on and aligned with him, with justice as “the measuring line” and righteousness as “the leveling instrument.” (Eph 2:20, 21; 1Pe 2:4-8; Isa 28:16, 17) Jesus spoke of the temple of his body as being raised up “in three days,” although the literal temple and surrounding buildings at Jerusalem in his day had taken 46 years to build and they still were not finished. (Joh 2:18-22) Paul, as “a wise director of works,” admonished concerning the use of high-quality, noncombustible materials in building on Christ as the foundation. (1Co 3:10-17) Love is described as a prime element of building. (1Co 8:1; compare Ps 89:2.) John’s vision of the New Jerusalem presents it as a radiant city formed of precious stones with its walls resting on foundation stones inscribed with the names of “the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Re 21:9-27) God himself is presented as the Great Constructor of all things, hence as not residing in buildings made by men.—Heb 3:4; Ac 7:48-50; 17:24, 25; Isa 66:1.