Bread, the so-called "staff of life," has a long history - it is one of the oldest foods mankind has prepared, dating back to the Neolithic era. The first bread produced was probably cooked versions of a grain-paste, made from roasted and ground cereal grains and water, and may have been developed by accidental cooking or deliberate experimentation with water and grain flour. Descendants of this early bread are still commonly made from various grains in many parts of the world today.
Flatbread also formed a staple in the diet of many early civilizations with the Sumerians eating a type of barley flat cake, and the 12th century BC Egyptians being able to purchase a flat bread called ta from stalls in the village streets. The ritual bread in ancient Greek offerings to the chthonic gods known as psadista, was made of fine flour, oil and wine (the three basic foodstuffs for the Greeks).
The development of leavened bread can probably also be traced to prehistoric times. Yeast spores occur everywhere, including the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest will become naturally leavened. Airborne yeasts could be harnessed by leaving uncooked dough exposed to air for some time before cooking. Although leavening is likely of prehistoric origin, the earliest archaeological evidence is from ancient Egypt. Scanning electron microscopy has detected yeast cells in some ancient Egyptian loaves. However, ancient Egyptian bread was made from emmer and had a dense crumb. In cases where yeast cells are not visible, it is difficult, by visual examination, to determine whether the bread was leavened. As a result, the extent to which bread was leavened in ancient Egypt remains uncertain.
In the Near East bread is the staple and is one of the mainstays of the diet (along with wine and oil), other articles of food merely accessory; while in the West meat and other things chiefly constitute the meal, and bread is merely secondary. Accordingly "bread" in the Bible, from Genesis 3:19 onward, usually stands for 'food' in general.
For the ancient Israelites, bread and other wheat products provided over half of their caloric intake (estimated to be between around 53 to 75 percent). There were two main cereal crops: wheat and barley. The importance of these were apparent in the annual Israelite festivals, for the completion of the wheat harvest was celebrated at the Feast of Weeks, aka Shavuot or Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16:1-12).
Historically, barley was considered to be an inferior, 'common' wheat due to its lower extraction rate compared to wheat and does not rise as well. In Greece, barley bread was more common than wheaten ones, which were (as per the Athenian lawmaker Solon's declaration) only baked during feast days. The assessment of barley was no different in Israel: the prescribed grain offerings to God are solet, fine wheat flour - the best there is. The only exception prescribed is the offering for the woman suspected of unfaithfulness in Numbers 5, and the negative context of this offering might explain its atypicality. There are also various instances where barley is shown in an inferior status (1 Kings 4:28; 2 Kings 7:16). Josephus also reports that in Roman times, the rich usually ate wheat bread while the poor consumed loaves of barley.
Wheat and barley could be consumed in a variety of ways. By far the simplest way was to pluck the fresh ears and eat them (2 Kings 4:42; Matthew 12:1; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1) or to roast the grain in a fire (Joshua 5:11). If threshed, winnowed, and milled, the flour could be used to make bread. Processing grains for bread was a time-consuming job usually performed by women and servants (Jeremiah 7:18). It has been calculated that three hour's labor with a hand mill per day was needed to produce sufficient flour for a family of five or six.
The quality of the flour was determined by how much it is sifted. Ancient technology could achieve only a high extraction (low sieving) rate, and it was not unusual for some impurities, such as stones from the mill, to get mixed up with the flour.
Bread could be baked in a variety of ways. The oldest method of course was heating the bread directly on the coals of a fire. Later, the effectiveness of a large, flat stone heated in the ashes (1 Kings 19:6) or on a metal griddle (Ezekiel 4:3) was discovered. Fire was built on top of the stone; after the fire was removed, the ashes were removed, the dough was placed on the heated stone and then covered again with the ashes. Afterwards the ashes were removed, and the bread was ready to eat. This is thought to be the method usually employed when bread needed to be baked in haste. When a griddle was used, it was set on stones over a pit in which a fire is kindled; then the dough was baked directly on the griddle.
Ovens (tannur) were also known in ancient Israel, which usually were beehive- or cone-shaped and constructed of a mixture of clay, straw and gypsum. A large opening at the top allowed the cook to stick dough molded into circular pancakes onto the interior walls. After placing the dough, the opening was then sealed with a lid and grass and reeds were placed in another, smaller opening near the bottom as fuel for the fire. A related type of oven still exists today in parts of the Middle East as tabuns (aka taboons).
Even in antiquity there were a wide variety of breads. By the 5th century BC bread could be purchased in Athens from a baker's shop, and in Rome, Greek bakers appeared in the 2nd century BC, as Hellenized Asia Minor was added to Roman dominion as the province of Asia; foreign bakers were permitted to form a collegium. In the Deipnosophistae, the 3rd-century BC author Athenaeus of Naucratis describes some of the bread, cakes, cookies, and pastries available in the Classical world in his time. Among the breads mentioned are griddle cakes, honey-and-oil bread, mushroom-shaped loaves covered in poppy seeds, and the military specialty of rolls baked on a spit. The type and quality of flours used to produce bread could also vary, as noted by Diphilus of Sinope when he declared "bread made of wheat, as compared with that made of barley, is more nourishing, more digestible, and in every way superior." In order of merit, bread made from refined [thoroughly sieved] flour comes first, after that bread from ordinary wheat, and then the unbolted, made of flour that has not been sifted. The essentiality of bread in the diet is reflected in the name for the rest of the meal (which is but mere accessories for bread), whatever it might be: opson ('that which is cooked/boiled', 'condiment', 'delicacy', 'relish', 'seasoning', 'sauce' - basically anything which can be eaten with bread and made it more palatable; later also used to mean 'fish', the other main diet of Athenians).
As a foodstuff of great historical and contemporary importance, in many cultures in the West and Near and Middle East bread has a significance beyond mere nutrition. The word companion comes from Latin com- "with" + panis "bread". The Roman poet Juvenal satirised superficial politicians and the public, which has given up its birthright of political involvement, as caring only for panem et circenses (bread and circuses). He makes reference to the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism. The annona (grain dole) was begun under the instigation of the politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123 BC; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the Roman emperors.
In both Egypt and Mesopotamia cereals were also used to make beer, one of the main beverages in these cultures. By contrast, Israelite consumption of beer was probably rare because of the widespread cultivation of vines on the hillsides.