Book Review: Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit

Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011. xv., 335 p., 24 p. B&W illustrations, pb. $25.   Link to Eerdmans

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus is an excellent book and well worth reading.  However, it lives up to its own subtitle.  I am not sure any book can live up to that particular goal simply because the sources for common, daily life of the first century are so limited. This is a problem with haunts every attempt to describe the way people lived in ancient times: normal people did not leave much behind to study.  The poor did not journal their daily lives, nor did they leave behind a great deal for archaeologists to study.

Nevertheless, Magness proceeds through several categories of daily life and describes them via literary and archaeological data.  Each chapter begins with a few citations from the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or a rabbinic literature.  Then she turns to the archaeological record, usually showing that the literary descriptions are more or less accurate.  Each chapter attempts to tie the practice to an episode in the life of Jesus.  Topics include purity and the practice of ritual washing (mikveh), food, household items, dining customs, Sabbath observance, coins, clothing, oil and spit, toilet habits, and burial customs. An underlying theme throughout every chapter is a concern for purity.  The chapters on food and household items, for example, have a great deal of material on avoidance of uncleanliness.

Magness’ method can be illustrated by her description of the tzizit (fringes on the edge of one’s cloak) she begins with the Hebrew Bible, then moves through the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and an early Christian writer (Justin). She then describes an episode in the gospels which describes Jesus a wearing a fringe or tassel (Matt 9:20-21 and par.)  There is scant archaeological evidence for the practice in the first century, but it is possible that an unfinished tzizit was discovered in the Cave of Letters (112).  Literary sources help to illuminate archaeology, archaeology helps illuminate the literary sources.  This method is repeated for every topic covered in the book.

Magness is an archaeologist, so it is no surprise that her material on physical data is extremely rich.  Unfortunately, there are only a few sites to illustrate many of the practices covered in the book.  Magness is an expert in Qumran archaeology (see her Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls), so it is natural that her illustrations should be drawn from this important site.  The second site which Magness uses is the so-called Burnt House in Jerusalem.  This is an important archaeological site since it is an aristocratic (priestly?) home near the Temple which was burned in A.D. 70.  There is a wealth of household objects which illustrate a number of practices described in this book.

While Magness does refer to other sites, I wonder if the practices at Qumran and the home of an elite member of the aristocracy really illustrate“daily life” at the time of Jesus.  Sadly, there is just not that much available to illustrate how a poor Jewish villager in the Galilee lived, and that is the “daily life” most Christians are going to want to illustrate.

What is remarkable about Stone and Dung is the wealth of literary sources compiled for each topic. Every chapter is a treasure trove of texts drawn together around a topic.  Selections for the Talmud seem to be drawn from “early” authorities, although dating a saying in the Talmud is always a problem. Nevertheless, her selections are judicious and placed along side other first century voices which mitigate any serious dating problems.  I particularly like her use of the New Testament as a serious source.  She is not interested in showing that the New Testament is wrong about descriptions of daily life.  In fact, most often the New Testament describes Jesus as a “typical Jew” and living within the traditions of the Second Temple Period.

In addition to these primary resources, Magness provides detailed documentation in her endnotes.  In fact, the text of the book ends on page 186, the notes run from 187-270 and the bibliography from 271-305!  The fact that they are endnotes frustrates me, but the style makes the main text much more accessible for the non-professional.  I appreciate several detailed indices.  There are 24 pages of black and white illustrations including photographs of archaeological items and pottery figures.  Some of these look like they are repeated from her book on the archaeology of Qumran, but they are quite helpful in illustrating the material evidence.

This book is important because most people because people have so many preconceived notions about how “it was back in Bible times.” Most of these mental images are based on Sunday School lessons or bad Hollywood productions.  The value of a book like this is to set the stories of the Gospels into their proper context.  Without that cultural context, we miss the real depth of the story.  I recommend Stone and Spit, Oil and Dung to anyone interested in the culture of the times of Jesus.

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