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Is there precedent for coming in through the roof in Mark 2:1-12?

Is there a cultural precedent for entering a house through the roof?

View of modern Jericho from the south

Q. Is there any cultural precedent for coming in through the roof as in Mark 2:1-12? It makes for a great, dramatic story and I wonder if there is any logical reason for it in the first century.

A. Hi, my name is Elizabeth Shively, and I teach New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Today’s question comes from a Bible Odyssey website user who wants to know if there is any logical reason or cultural precedent in the first century for coming in through the roof in Mark 2:1-12.

The thought of digging up a roof or climbing through it may seem impossible to us, because we’re used to houses with pitched roofs that have been made resistant to the weather.

And that wasn’t the case in the ancient world. Archaeology tells us that the typical house in ancient Galilee had a flat roof made of wood and mud. The roof would have been soluble and people would have had to maintain their roofs constantly so they didn’t collapse due to rainwater. A roof like that would not have been hard to dig through.

It’s one thing to dig through a roof; it’s another thing to get up on top of it with a friend on a mat. Archaeology also tells us that some houses had outside stairways built into the fieldstone to provide access to the roof. Mark doesn’t say how the men get up to the roof with their paralytic friend; he just says that they were there. It may be that Mark is assuming one of these outside stairways.

In any case, the historical and cultural context makes it absolutely feasible to imagine people getting up onto a roof, digging through it, and lowering their friend to Jesus; but it doesn’t make it normal. In fact, it’s not normal at all to come into a house through a roof, and it wouldn’t have been normal to destroy a roof; it would have been normal to preserve one. But the logic of the story demands uncommon behavior, even extraordinary behavior: when Jesus sees the extraordinary actions of these friends, he commends their faith. Their extraordinary behavior highlights Jesus’ growing popularity (Mark 1:28, Mark 1:45) and their tenacity on behalf of their friend.

So why do they come in through the roof? The precedent is in the culture; but the logic is in the story.

Thank you for your question and for your interest in Bible Odyssey.

  • shively-elizabeth-2

    Elizabeth E. Shively is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and is the author of “The Servant(s) in the Gospel of Mark and the Exegetical Formation of Early Christian Identity” in M. Lyons and J. Stromberg eds., Isaiah’s Servants in Early Judaism and Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 2021).