Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and primary sources.
As I recently traveled the length and breadth of Jodi Magness’s forthcoming Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, I noticed something interesting (and perhaps a little annoying) about my day-to-day conversations with friends and family. I became a fountain of “Did you knows?”
“Did you know that only the very wealthy buried their dead in rock-cut family tombs — and that everyone else was buried in pit or trench graves?”
“Did you know that Jews in Jesus’ day used pots made of stone, clay, glass — and animal dung? And did you know, too, that although glass vessels were considered ‘susceptible to impurity,’ dung vessels were considered ‘insusceptible’?”
“Did you know that when the Gospels describe sick people touching the ‘hem’ of Jesus’ robe, those folks were likely touching only the fringe, or ‘tzitzit,’ sewn to the edges — a polite nod to purity concerns, since touching the tzitzit would not defile him with ritual impurity the way other physical contact would?”
Magness, a veteran archaeologist and historian, takes a dispassionate, “just the facts, ma’am” approach to history in this book, layering evidence from the most recent archaeological discoveries with relevant snippets from a host of period texts, including the New Testament, the works of Josephus, and the teachings of the rabbis. The end result is a detailed, largely unfiltered portrait of daily life in Second Temple Palestine.
Though the know-it-all outbursts inspired by this book have, I’m sure, been mildly irritating to those around me, they reveal something important about the shifting contours of my mind. You see, reading Jesus’ parables and teachings has sometimes felt for me like listening in on one side of a phone conversation. I hear Jesus’ responses to the moral and social dilemmas of his day, but I don’t often have a full understanding of what he’s responding to. Jodi Magness’s book has allowed me to understand with greater clarity the muffled voices on the other end of the line.
Having read Magness’s book, I have begun to imagine the everyday world of Jesus in fuller, far more multi-dimensional ways. I can hear the constant bickering of the rabbis, see the smoky flicker of a discus oil lamp, smell the human waste in the streets — and understand more completely and much more colorfully what it meant for Jesus to observe the whole law of God in a culture more obsessed with the myriad, minute daily details of holy living than my culture today is with Lady Gaga’s fashion statements.
We are far too often apt, I think, to twist both Scripture and history to fit the shape of our modern sensibilities. Magness, however, sidesteps the strong temptation to anachronize. Instead, she asks the important questions:
What does the archaeological evidence tell us?
What clues do texts written in that time and place give us?
What are the various ways in which competent, as-objective-as-they-can-be experts interpret this body of evidence?
My three children are avid fans of the PBS show Dinosaur Train. In this show, a mixed-species family of dinosaurs sings, dances, lives through all the typical sitcom moments, and travels daily on a brightly colored train through a magical “time tunnel” for playdates with other hip dinosaur families. As entertaining as this show is, I am always keenly aware of how far removed it is from actual dinosaur evidence uncovered by actual paleontologists. I often ask myself how it is that the producers could so easily make the Olympic leap from this . . .
When it comes the world of Jesus, then, Jodi Magness’s book is exactly the way it should be: unfiltered and painstakingly detailed, with lots of fresh fodder for the part of me that loves to blurt out random “Did you knows?” In fact, if I had my way, I’d have all my “Bible-times” history delivered just like this, with all the ancient grains of sand and dirt — all the Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit — still clinging to it.