Manners and Customs of the Bible - James M. Freeman

In 1875, James Freeman released what must have been an outstanding book for its time. It is still pretty good now, but back then, theological students must have praised God for such a wonderful resource.

To give you an idea of just how significant any type of research material was back then, consider this: in NSW in 1875, attendance at school was not compulsory and the State had not even yet entered into the business of secondary education.

The average Church Pastor was not a private school, university educated man. He would have been lucky to have made it to year six. Even by the time of the first world war, a primary school education was about all which could be expected by the average Australian. And no one thought much about it.

For theological students to have at their fingertips books such as this was a great blessing indeed. Reading them might have been a challenge because they are not written in plain English by today's standards, but the books of this era were milked for all they were worth, provided the students could afford them.

Today, there are so many resources like this available, we tend to take them for granted. Type anything into Google and you will get thousands, if not millions, of hits. But when Freeman completed his work, it sat in small company.

Essentially, Manners and Customs of the Bible flips through the pages of the Bible and makes comment on any interesting cultural issue the text refers to. It does not make a comment on every verse of the Bible; not even every chapter. But it does have something to say about nearly all books of the Bible.

The only books not to earn a place are Titus, Philemon and John’s first letter. A few others look a bit thin (e.g Obadiah, II Peter, II John, III John & Jude with only one entry each), but from what I’ve seen of Freeman’s work, if there was anything worth mentioning, he would have included it.

This book has become a standard for preachers and students alike as it delves into the past and explains the setting of so many curious comments in the Bible.

And it is so easy to search. The book follows the Bible in chronological order with each entry numbered consecutively. Your biggest difficulty will be remembering how to calculate Roman numerals! (Think quicly: how do you write Psalm 144 in Roman numerals?)

It’s hard to summarise the entire book based on a few examples, but here are a few items I, at least, found interesting. And that’s part of the beauty of books like Freeman’s: if they are interesting and help you grow in understanding, they should have a place on your shelf.

1 Corinthians 13:12 - entry no. 867
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

In our culture we have come to understand mirrors as glass and, in fact, this is how the King James renders this verse: “For now we see through a glass, darkly”. But Freeman points out the verse most likely refers to metallic mirrors which were polished for the purpose and then often had a veil placed over them to protect them from dust and condensation. The idea of looking at the mirror through a veil makes Paul’s point perfectly.

Until I read this I naturally assumed a piece of dull glass was what was the image. Either way, you can still get Paul’s point, but Freeman has helped us get the word picture more fully.

Acts 19:29 – entry no. 848
And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul's companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre.

Pretty straightforward for us: they went to the Roman theatre at Ephesus. We can go there today and discover the Bible is accurately describing the landscape of the day. The significant thing from this book’s point of view, however, is that none of the excavation of Ephesus had been done at the time of writing. “Its ruins are yet to be seen,” Freeman says.

Today the theatre is completely revealed and Freeman’s description has been found perfectly accurate. That makes me give him a big tick. It’s a bold thing to offer such detailed description prior to excavation, but Freeman did it and scored a bullseye.

Daniel 3:6 – entry no. 591
And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.

More interesting than profound, Freeman tells us here that this is the earliest example in Scripture of a time frame as short as an hour. Until this point we basically read of the ancients setting the day by the sun and perhaps knowing about noon etc. Here we find they were able to divide the day into specific hours.

OK, so the passage is not describing what an “hour” is; just that it had been specified and was in common usage at this early date.

One of the difficulties with this verse is that it the word “hour” does not appear in many versions of our Bible today. The NIV has, “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” The word “immediately” is considered a better rendering of the word than “hour” by most Bible translators.

Freeman, however, is happy to render the Aramaic original (Sha’ah) as “hour”, an interpretation endorsed by Strong’s Concordance in which the word “moment” is offered as an alternative. That is to say, those who did not worship the image were thrown into the furnace at that “moment” or at that “same hour”.

Freeman also notes the Babylonians are recorded by Herodotus as giving their understanding of hourly time to the Greeks. Our division of time in this way can probably be traced to them. I wonder if they knew how to cut a sermon down to 20 minutes?

Matthew 4:23 – entry no. 636
In this verse, Freeman makes reference to the synagogue system of worship.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Among Freeman’s interesting notes are that there were no fixed dimensions for synagogues, in comparison with the Temple or Tabernacle. When a synagogue was to be built, they always chose the highest ground in the region (and if that was impossible they would put a pole on top to make it the highest!); it always faced Jerusalem (ie the worshippers, as they entered, would be facing Jerusalem); the pulpit was in the middle of the building, not centred at one end and the term “house of prayer” was only ever used of the Temple in Jerusalem, never of the synagogue.

Matthew 12:41 – entry no. 661
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.

Freeman makes an interesting point about Jesus’ reference to the men of Nineveh standing up to condemn the nation of Israel. He notes it was customary for Jews and Romans to stand when giving testimony of any kind.

Freeman then turns to Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin at Acts 7:56 where he says,
"Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."

Freeman makes the point here that the words of Stephen may have been heard by the Sanhedrin as a judgement of Jesus upon that generation of Jews who put him to death and are now persecuting his disciples. Jesus is “standing at the right hand of God", meaning he looks down upon them in judgement.

Revelation 19:12 – entry no. 893
His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.

The final entry in the book has a nugget worth remembering. Freeman says, “Monarchs who claimed authority over more than one country wore more than one crown.” He gives evidence of various Kings of antiquity who wore two, sometimes three crowns according to their territories.

The metaphor is an obvious one: “Thus, in a beautiful figure, the universal dominion of our blessed Lord is set forth.”

A handy reference tool
Needless to say, each of the 893 subjects in Freeman’s book has something worth studying. Some are profound while others are more obvious, but it is definitely worth keeping handy. It has served several generations of students and preachers well.

Added to this are the remarkable indexes which are quite modern for their time. The first is the “Analytical Index” which we would describe as “topical”. It groups all of the entries in systematic themes.

The second is the “Textual Index” which simply lists all of the Bible verses, in chronological order, which have an entry in the book. That way you can see immediately if Freeman has something to say about the verse you are working on at the time.

Thirdly, the topical index is repeated in strictly alphabetical order according to the individual subject names, not in themed groups. This way you can look up a subject by its name to see if there is any mention of it in the book.

Finally, Freeman has a list of “engravings” (illustrations) and a bibliography which itself shows you what a scholar this man must have been.

Manners and Customs of the Bible is an old book made alive again through the internet. Internet Archive in San Fransisco is dedicated to preserving literature and various other worthy historical collections for future generations and has painstakingly scanned and preserved Freeman’s work as part of its collection.

Manners and Customs of the Bible can be viewed online at

It has a handy page turning tool to make browsing easy or you can call up a specific book page number.

There is also a handy search tool on the right hand side of the web page which will quickly show you page references for any subject you call up. Of course, if Freeman has not included an article on that topic, your search will draw a blank, but when there is a hit, you can click on it and be navigated straight to the article. This is a nifty feature.

The book has also been made available in pdf format for free download. To select either the online version or to download the pdf, go to the “View the book” box on the left of the screen and follow the prompts.