Most Shelter Rockers will not know that there is a whole cottage industry out there producing books that purport to describe what life in ancient Israel in the time of Jesus was all about. Why Christian readers would be interested in such books is obvious enough: each detail added to the background makes the story unfolding in the foreground feel that much more real, that much more believable. But the reason that these books seem continually to be coming out may be less obvious and has to do with the sources themselves on which authors and scholars rely when they attempt to describe what Jewish life was like in Roman Judea.
Rabbinic sources are rich, but there are no consequential surviving texts at all that were indisputably written in the first part of the first century CE in Roman Judea. The New Testament also contains no books or letters that were written by people living in Israel during Jesus’s lifetime. Flavius Josephus, the great Jewish author, did live in the right time and place, but he was more of a military historian than a social one and even The Antiquities of the Jews, his magnum opus, is far more about the author’s people’s past than the author’s personal present. Other authors—especially Jewish Philo writing in Alexandria and any number of pagan authors who here and there mention details about Jews and Jewish life during the crucial years of the first century—add shading to the picture that emerges from the larger sources. But, in the end, there is no single surviving work focused solely on Jewish life in the first century that was written by a contemporary possessed of the background and education accurately to describe what life actually was like in that time and place. Even the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, filled to overflowing with information about the seaside community at Qumran that produced (or at least preserved) them, are hard to use simply as sources of information because it is so difficult to know when they are describing life as their authors thought it ideally should be and when they were describing life as it actually was. Nor is it at all obvious which features of like at Qumran were intended to be distinctive and different from how things were elsewhere in ancient Israel and which were “just” parts of life as the ancients knew it to be.
Added to the literary sources is the testimony of archeology. For most interested parties, though, archeological remains—silent, moot, and mostly crumbling—have a certain inscrutability that makes it difficult to know how to fit them into the larger picture. Nor is it easy to master the enormous amount of information, most of it about details as little fascinating as the handles of clay pots and the shape of foundation stones, that scholars have gathered over the years. But now I have read a book that uses literary sources—including, in a particularly intelligent, almost magisterial, way, the material from the Dead Sea Scrolls—to buttress the indisputably real (and suddenly fascinating) findings of archeologists in a way that I’ve never seen before. The book, called Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, was written by Jodi Magness, a professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (The book was published in Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England, by Eerdman’s Publishing in 2011.) Reading it will be very worth your while. And although the subtitle was no doubt phrased as it was to sell books to the enormous Christian market, Jewish readers will find in the book perhaps the very best description of first century Jewish life in ancient Israel—and particularly in the pivotal decades that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE—that I personally have read. I recommend the book, therefore, wholeheartedly to readers whose interest in the first century has far more to do with Hillel and Shammai than with Jesus and Paul. Still, readers whose primary area of first century interest is earliest Christianity will also find the experience of reading Professor Magness’s book extremely rewarding.
What struck me the most is how different things were back then, but also how similar to how things are today they also were. Some of the material in the book will strike readers as, to say the least, somewhere between alien and bizarre. Other details will seem picayune almost to the point of being laughably so. But just as the greatest, most impressive tapestry is created of single threads, so do all these minor, individually unimportant, details come together in the author’s masterful synthesis to present a picture of real life as it was actually lived.
The author devotes a few pages to the fascinating question of whether chickens were permitted to enter Jerusalem in ancient times. (I myself was curious if she would reference the obscure but tantalizing mishnaic reference to a Jerusalem chicken once being convicted of murder and consequently executed, and I wasn’t disappointed.) In a memorable chapter, the author discusses household pots and pans, distinguishing between those made of clay, glass, stone, and dried (but unfired) animal dung. Elsewhere readers are treated to a long discussion of comparative bathroom habits, featuring a very interesting description of the Temple toilet and a very learned disquisition on the no less arresting question of whether or not the Dead Sea community permitted defecation on Shabbat. (I remember reading John Gregory Bourke’s 1891 book, Scatological Rites of All Nations, years ago after I noticed somewhere that Freud himself wrote the introduction to the German-language edition, but who knew how much first-century Jewish material there was to add into the mix? Gross to consider or not, I found the material fully engaging. Speaking candidly, who wouldn’t?)
There’s a great section devoted solely to spit and spitting. (You’d be amazed how much there is to say.) Perhaps most important of all is the long final chapter about Jewish burial practices in the first century, the author’s detailed exposition of the evidence told against the background of the gospels’ account of Jesus’s death and burial. Catering to her audience, the author in this context discusses the so-called Talpiyot tomb considered by some—but not by the author, whose demurral is extremely convincing—as the family burial plot of Jesus’s family, and also devotes serious space to debunking the claim of some that an ossuary—a bone repository—found in Israel about a decade ago contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. Another chapter that I actually read twice so as to absorb all its detail was the one about clothing and nudity in ancient Israel, including a great discussion regarding the fully obscure question of how and under what circumstances clothing could be considered impure.
Most of the details mentioned above will sound odd to moderns, even to the point of being slightly off-putting. But the author also paints a picture of Jewish life that will strike modern readers as exceedingly familiar. Citizens worrying about paying their taxes and trying to balance their obligations to the secular state and to the Temple and its staff. Sons and daughters worrying about their parents’ graves, and scrupling to make sure that families that live together in life find some way to stay together in death as well. Men and women scrupling to maintain homes that conform to the Torah’s laws governing the preparation and presentation of food. Generally sturdy individuals dealing with unexpected stomach ailments or unanticipated urinary tract issues, or worrying purposefully about the healthy functioning of their bowels. Working people attempting to convert their wages into currency that will retain its value regardless of market fluctuations in the price of silver or gold. Jewish people attempting to keep Shabbat properly, worrying about issues like cooking and carrying, and trying to decide if fasting should be permitted on Shabbat only when Yom Kippur falls on a Saturday or on other occasions as well.
In other words, it’s a world we all know as well as one that seems foreign and strange. At the end of the day, I suppose, everything changes and nothing changes. People dress differently and pay for their meals in restaurants differently and exercise differently (although apparently not that differently) and observe different kinds of courtship rituals (ditto). But those are essentially cosmetic issues that affect the outer patina of daily life more than the day-to-day inner lives of actual people, while the “real” issues that people really do grapple with in the course of their lives—figuring out how best to get along with our spouses, trying to devise the best way to raise obedient children, struggling to earn a decent living, learning artfully how to juggle one set of responsibilities to our aging parents and another set to our own families, devising ways to retain a healthy sense of individuality while also finding a way to flourish as one of many in a larger community, worrying about health issues, fearing death, agonizing over the future of our families, praying that our children find suitable matches, hoping for grandchildren and even great-grandchildren—these kinds of issues endure from generation to generation, never really changing much as people experience the same frustrations and encounter the same roadblocks and develop analogous sets of strategies and hopes and fantasies and dreams as did their ancestors before them. And also as will, please God, their descendants after them.
Professor Magness has written a great book, one that will stress to readers just how much everything alters from millennium to millennium and just how little anything ever changes. Her book isn’t that long, but I found it rewarding and very satisfying to read. It inspired me to be curious about all sorts of things I’ve rarely paused to consider, but also to feel contentedly contextualized in terms of my own slightly obsessive need to worry about things I ought to know by now that I can’t fully control. I don’t believe I’ve ever worried about whether or not to recite a blessing when I wash my hands with undiluted wine and I certainly do not own any bowls or pots made of dung. But the underlying issues the book references as permanent things that Jewish people apparently always have and surely still do obsess about—those are the things I actually do think about constantly. That in that I have horizontal company across space I obviously know perfectly well. But that I also have vertical company, so to speak, throughout the millennia—that truth I found very satisfying to contemplate indeed.