Note: This post first ran at Car Lust, ermmm, many moons ago (I don’t remember the first time) and has appeared regularly at Easter.
A somewhat farcical question to be sure, but one that we here at Car Lust are more than willing to throw ourselves into with gusto. This post has as its ultimate source a small movement some years ago by environmentally-directed religious groups to get people out of their gas-guzzling SUVs and into smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. While the merits of this quest of theirs is beyond the scope of this post, it nevertheless spurred me to ponder the question: Just what did Jesus drive?
Admittedly, a small treatise on the wheeled vehicles present in the early 1st century AD Levant isn’t all that relevant to modern drivers. OTOH, it’s still (IMO) a useful exercise that may shed some light on our common wheeled heritage going back a bit further than the initial stabs at automobiles early in the preceding century. Besides, a little foray into ancient history never hurt anybody and it might add another small dimension of humanity to the divine that many of us are celebrating this coming weekend.
So, come with me as we journey back 2,000 years to see what sort of wheels our Car Lusting forebears were perhaps drooling over and come at least a little closer to answering the age-old question of: What Did Jesus Drive?
(Yes, there are many potential answers. However, it should be obvious that if Jesus did come back today, He would certainly drive a 15-passenger Econoline van: room for the 12 Apostles, plus the two Marys, of course!)
First, a little history of Near Eastern wheeled vehicles. The earliest “vehicles”, if you can call them that, were probably simple wooden sledges that would either drag along the ground while supporting some load, or perhaps with wooden rollers placed underneath, the kind of thing we’ve all seen in reenactments of Egyptians hauling pyramid blocks or Easter Islanders hauling moai statues. The first big advance came around the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, when images of actual wheeled vehicles begin to show up in the Mesopotamian region at Uruk. These initial vehicles seems to have been for carrying either royal personages or religious icons (statues and the like). Actual remains of vehicles are found in grave contexts at Kish, Susa, and Ur later in the 3rd millennium around 2375 BC. These have solid disk-shaped wheels attached to either a fixed or rolling axle; in the latter, the wheels and axle all rotate together whereas in the former the wheels rotate while the axle stays still like in modern vehicles. The advantage of this is that the wheels can rotate at different speeds making turning much easier.
Wheels were initially solid pieces of wood, perhaps carved from the cross-section of a single log. Size was obviously limited to the diameter of available trees, so soon composite wheels were developed by carving separate pieces (usually three) that interlocked together to form a large round disk. This way, wheels of any size could be made without regard to tree size. Tires of a sort were also developed, which are basically just a covering for the wheel’s outer rim that protects the wheel’s outer surface and helps to hold the separate pieces of wood making up the wheel together.
Most of these were 4-wheeled cart-type contraptions and used either as royal transport, as earlier, but were also being used in war contexts as firing platforms for archers, though spears could also be tossed from them. With their battle functions, horses became the draft animals of choice — cattle had been the main power sources before this — since they are generally faster and more maneuverable, though cattle continued to be used in other contexts.
The next great advancement came with the invention of the 2-wheeled chariot around 2000 BC. This type of vehicle had been thought to have been developed initially by Indo-European tribes of the more northern steppe-lands and imported into the Near East, but there is some evidence that they had already begun to evolve in place. At any rate, the principal advance came with the spoked wheel, first using a simple “cross-bar” (4-spoke) pattern, followed by multiple spokes around the central hub. These gradually developed over the course of the 2nd millennium and by the middle of the millennium (ca. 1600 BC) had become something like the sports cars of the Near East. These were used mostly for hunting by elites and as firing platforms in battle, such that you would have a driver and an archer riding together — really, much like modern jets with a pilot and a weapons officer. One also might envision them as something like the cavalry of later times, but only superficially: they were fast, but very light and would not have worked as shock troops. Their primary function was during flanking maneuvers or for pursuing fleeing enemies (or fleeing oneself). Kings of Egypt’s New Kingdom — which included Rammeses II and Tutankhamun — very often showed themselves in paintings and texts to be master charioteers; Tut, incidentally, possibly met his end as a result of a fall from his chariot.
By the time of Jesus, most vehicle technology was being derived from the Romans who ruled the region, though local varieties no doubt continued to be used as they had been for hundreds of years to that point. For a long time, the Romans were thought to have contributed very little to the development of wheeled vehicles. As in many other fields, such as architecture, early thinkers liked to conceive of the Romans as something like crude Greek wanna-be’s, simply borrowing from everyone else and not really inventing much of anything themselves. That has changed as Roman engineering has been studied in more detail and their contributions to many fields of inquiry are appreciated as the marvels that they were.
As with almost everything else the Romans touched that had an engineering component, wheeled vehicles were developed to such an extent that significant advancements weren’t made again until nigh onto the 18th century. While the majority of vehicles were made of wood, the Romans also added many crucial metal components to strengthen the wood and for various surfaces where friction/rubbing was present. Axles, for example, were mostly wood but many had iron bushings to provide support and hubs were similarly strengthened with iron rings or naves. Recipes for axle grease were also available, made of various plant and animal extracts.
One particularly important advance made by the Romans had to do with handling and suspension. Probably the most crucial was the pivoting front axle. In this setup, the entire front axle is free to rotate around the vertical axis, thus decreasing markedly its turning radius. This is essentially the mechanism used by the omnipresent Radio Flyer wagon we all know and love, and is really the basis for our modern automotive steering systems. Now, this principle was known elsewhere prior to the Romans, but it is probable that the Romans first brought it to the Levant area. In many cases, a pivoting front axle can be identified by the smaller front wheels, since those had a smaller turning radius. In addition, several Roman passenger vehicles have been found that exhibit a form of suspension whereby the passenger compartment is suspended from the chassis by metal fittings (you can see these in the photo at left), though the actual construction of these devices is beyond my comprehension. Nevertheless, at least some vehicles, probably those devoted to carrying passengers (usually well-off ones), were well equipped with what can be regarded as fairly modern steering and suspension systems.
There was thus a tremendous variety of wheeled vehicles available to the denizens of Jerusalem and its environs in the first century AD. Most were either 2- or 4-wheeled carts of some sort, equipped to carry people and/or cargo, loosely categorized into cars, coaches, and carts or wagons, depending on the cargo. The sophistication of any vehicle depended largely on the wealth of the owner: the well-to-do could be seen being drawn about in sumptuous wooden boxes completely enclosing their passengers and protecting them from the sun, wind, rain, and peering eyes of the plebes.
A currus was a chariot-like car designed to carry one person in addition to the driver (not this one) and was pulled by a team of from two (a biga) to four (a quadriga) horses. These would have been considered the hot roadsters of the day, with their open tops and room for two. While related to the war chariots used by the Egyptians and others, these were primarily for transport by the young and hip (and wealthy) crowd.
The carpentum was a larger version of the currus, often covered by a cloth top (something like our western covered wagons) and was used to carry primarily women and officials — sort of a combination of minivan and limousine depending on the context. These were used in a myriad of contexts, from private transportation for swinging young bachelors to mail delivery to, yes, in the case of the currus, Roman chariot races.
Larger vehicles for carrying several people could be used by private individuals to hire out, as public taxis or busses, or owned by government officials to carry several passengers to and from official business. The primary vehicle of this type was called a redae and had high sides that formed something of a box into which seats were placed. Like the carpentum, a cloth top could be raised to shield passengers from the weather.
Carts were generally the trucks of the Roman world, mostly used to haul cargo around. The most common type was the plaustrum, a 2-wheeled affair (the larger 4-wheeled version was called a plaustrum majus) that consisted of a simple platform made from boards that sat upon an axle (or two) connecting two (or four) large, solid wheels (called tympana, like the drum). Often these wheels were up to a foot thick and made solid because they were often called upon to carry very heavy loads. The sides could also be built up to form something of a carpentum that could be used to carry either passengers or loads of loose material (sand, straw, etc.). These were usually drawn by heavy animals such as oxen or mules rather than horses.
Besides plaustra, the Levantine world undoubtedly had numerous other types of carts and other simple conveyances for carrying all manner of cargo, from stones for building to produce and animals bound for market and the occasional passenger(s) that weren’t able (or willing) to walk or ride on the back of an animal.
And, finally, we get back to the original question: Just what did Jesus drive? Well, the short answer is probably nothing: the vast, vast majority of the population in Jesus’ time carried out their daily business on foot or on the back of an animal, usually either a donkey, horse, or bovid of some sort. What cargo couldn’t be placed on one’s own back or that of a pack animal was put on a simple cart or wagon of some kind. One seeks the Gospels in vain for any mention of any sort of wheeled vehicle that Jesus comandeered for travel; boats, yes; cars, no. Either He didn’t ride in any vehicles or doing so failed to strike the Gospel writers as significant enough, either in act or in context, to write down for posterity.
If one accepts that Jesus did not come from a wealthy family — probably more like something of a family of skilled day laborers rather than landowners where the real wealth was — then it’s probable that neither He nor His immediate family owned a vehicle of any sort. One must remember in all of this that our ideas of poverty and theirs are very different. Recall Luke 6:29: If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Now, this to us seems fairly innocuous: “Well, I can go buy another cloak or tunic” so no big deal.” But back in the day, unless you were in the pretty small minority of fairly well-off people, you probably only had one cloak and tunic and to part with it would have been a significant sacrifice. Similarly, those with vehicles or access to vehicles presented a very small slice of the population: government and religious officials, those wealthy enough to own or use them regularly, or merchants with a need for one; the rest of the population made do with animal or foot locomotion.
We can see that many of the design principles we take for granted in our modern automobiles were present in some form or another for thousands of years, and in some cases the relationships we have with our vehicles also goes back a long way as well — one can readily imagine a wealthy young Roman blasting around the streets ofCaesarea in his hot new currus leading many pedestrians and carpentum drivers to mutter profanities under their breath (“Nihil nequius est te!“).
As for our initial question, in the end I suppose the most likely scenario is that Jesus, outside of the moments captured in the Gospels, probably spent most of His life on foot, occasionally on the back of a donkey or horse, and perhaps every now and then hitching a ride on a passing plaustrum or redae, in addition to the occasional boat ride. Maybe not as exciting as we may have imagined, but at least we can rest assured that the folks from two thousand years ago were not all that different from you and I.
Credits: The cover photo is from here, along with the usual WWJD jokes. The Assyrian oxcart is from BibleOrigins.net. The Egyptian chariot is reproduced in many places; this image came from TourEgypt.net, which has a nice history of the Egyptian chariot at that link. The large wooden Roman carriage is a reproduction from Wikimedia Commons. The drawing of the currus is from Florida’s Educational Technology Clearinghouse clipart collection. The carpentum is from this link on Roman roads and has some other vehicles, their names, and uses on it. Finally, the small Roman plaustrum is a reconstructed cart found at Pompeii from this site.