One day, as the Savior taught in a house in the lakeside village of Capernaum, four men worked to break open the roof above his head. They hoped to gain access to him in behalf of a friend sick with the palsy. Apparently, they could think of no other way to approach the Lord because the house and area around it were crowded with people intent on hearing him. (See Mark 2:1–4.)
This story often raises questions in the minds of those who read it. Some wonder about the safety of the Lord and those close by. Others wonder about the home owner’s feelings. Still others wonder how the men could have broken through the roof. This and many other incidents in the Savior’s life become clearer when we know more about social practices, customs, and settings associated with ancient Near Eastern homes at the time of Christ.1
Peasant houses were small and usually had only one room. The floor was tamped earth, sometimes covered with lime to harden the surface and to discourage dust. Wealthier home-owners sometimes had flagstones for the floor, while the nobles often used wood or mosaic tile. The ceiling in poorer homes was about six feet above the floor. Windows were few and small, set high in the walls. Sometimes they had shutters to block out bad weather and help hold in warmth. The windows also provided outlets for the smoke from small fires lit indoors for cooking or heating. On warm days the cooking was done outside. Homes were usually dark, confining, and smelly, and people spent much of their time outdoors. For this reason, courts were popular.2
Courts were created when more rooms were added to a house. Families usually did not put new rooms adjacent to old ones but, when space allowed, left an area about the width of a room between them. Often they had walls built at the front and back of this space, with a door set in the wall facing the street. The open area formed the court. This allowed for outdoor activity and still afforded some privacy. If families needed a third room, they sometimes added one at the back of the court, cutting a door into the back wall. A family would thus enter each room in the house only by going through the court.3
Most roofs were flat and were made from beams anchored in the walls and covered with pine planks. The roof builders would lay heath, reeds, or palm leaves over the planks and cover the whole with clay, using small stone rollers to press it down. A layer of lime made the roof somewhat waterproof. The Mosaic law required that a parapet wall be placed around the perimeter of the roof for protection. (See Deut. 22:8.) Small holes in the parapet allowed rain to run off.
The roof was considered part of the living area. It provided a place to dry clothes, fruits, and vegetables, to store wood for the winter, to nap, and to pray.4 It was while praying on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house that Peter received the revelation to take the gospel to the gentiles. (See Acts 10:9–20.)
In the evening, family members could congregate on the roof and take advantage of cool breezes and they often slept there during warm weather. One disadvantage of living on the roof was that animated conversation and arguments could be heard by neighbors. Considered in this light, the Lord’s warning, “That which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Luke 12:3), takes on a potent meaning.
A stairway built along the outside wall of the house or inside the courtyard usually gave access to the roof. Some houses had both. Awnings of palm leaves, brush work, or tenting material often protected the doors facing the court and were sometimes quite sturdy. Many extended well over the court to create a large shaded area.5
It is probable that as Jesus taught the multitudes assembled at the home in Capernaum, he was standing in one of the doorways facing the court. That position would allow the greatest number to hear him. The court was so filled with people that some may have stood outside on the street in an attempt to hear. The friends of the palsied man climbed to the roof, probably via the outside stairway, and carried the sick man to a place above the Lord. Most likely they did not break through the roof above one of the rooms—that would have been quite difficult—but instead worked through the awning. Through this more easily made hole, they lowered their friend.