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.

Levels of Hellenization in the Second Temple Period

In my last post I commented that the issue in Second Temple Judaism was not whether a Jew would Hellenize or not, but the degree to which any given Jewish person might Hellenize.   John Barclay created something of a scale for evaluating  the literature of the Diaspora with respect to how “Greek” the writer thought  of himself.

In Barclay’s Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), he develops the following three criteria.  For each, there is a spectrum from the more “conservative” Jews who resisted Hellenization to the more “liberal” Jews who became a part of their culture:

Assimilation. How successfully has a Jew become integrated into the dominant culture?  At the low end, someone who stays within a Jewish neighborhood and has no contact with gentiles, in the middle, someone who has daily business contact with gentiles but maintains the “boundary markers”, at the high end Jews who have abandon those markers.  There are relatively few Jews at the high end, although some reversed circumcision or became a part of a pagan cult.

Acculturation. To what degree does a Jew internalize the dominant culture? At the low end, a Jew might have no knowledge of Greek, while in the middle of the scale there is a use of Greek and basic familiarity with Greco-Roman ethics and culture.  At the high end, a Jew who understands and uses the literature and rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world and has a mastery of the Greek language.

Accommodation. This measures the extent to which a Jew puts to use their acculturation.  At the low end, a Jew might reject Gentile culture entirely, while in the middle of the scale, a Jew might use the culture to express their own tradition, still maintaining the core values of Judaism.  At the high end, the Greco-Roman culture asserts itself over the Jewish way of life.

With these broad categories in mind, we might evaluate some of the groups which we encounter in the world of the Gospels.  The Essenes, for example, might be considered at the “low end” of assimilation and accommodation, especially if there is a connection with Qumran.  At least some Essenes seem to have separate from other Jews (the Temple establishment).  On the other end of the scale we can confidently place Herod and his family, and the the “Herodian” party.  Clearly a Jew like Agrippa I had no trouble being “Roman” and yet seems to have considered himself fully Jewish.

It is the middle range of the spectrum which is more difficult.  Typically the Sadducee is thought to be “more liberal” and the Pharisee “more conservative,”  but it is possible on this scale that the Sadducee was rather conservative with respect to assimilation since they are based in Jerusalem and maintained the traditions of Temple and purity.  On the other hand, Pharisees are found throughout the land, and some (like Paul) traveled to Hellenistic Synagogues in Damascus and Antioch.  While they are obviously concerned with purity, they likely engaged in commerce with Gentiles.

Barclay’s scale is also helpful for looking ahead to some problems which appear very early in the church, especially as Gentiles begin to come to faith.  A Gentile by default has some level of Hellenization, especially if he was a converted pagan!  How the early Christians assimilated, acculturated, or accommodated was a real problem in Paul’s churches, especially in Galatia and Corinth.

Finally — can these categories be applied to the present Church?  Can we learn from the past with respect to absorbing and using culture?  Is it always a good thing to be separate from the world?  Or, like the Jews we meet in the Gospels, is it the case that we cannot avoid some level of assimilation?

First Century Judaisms?

Some of the classic works of Judaism (Strack and Billerbeck or their predecessor Lightfoot) are based on the idea that Mishnah and Talmud can be mined for “background” for the teaching of Jesus or Paul.  Gabriele Boccaccini has this older scholarship in mind when he begins his book on the Roots of Rabbinic Judaism with the observation that “the idea that already during the Second Temple period Rabbinic Judaism was normative or mainstream belongs to the history of scholarly research.” This is a point with which virtually all of scholarship would agree, yet the average pastor still uses tools that have not quite caught up to scholarship.  It is easier to read Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah than to wade through E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism!

One of the biggest mistakes Christians make when they read the New Testament is to imagine that the Jews of the first century had a single set of unified beliefs and practices, something like a Creedal Statement or a “doctrinal statement” found in the later Christian church.  This is simply not the case, although there were certainly a few doctrines which made the Jews unique and practices which set them apart from the Gentile world.  For the most part, Judaism at the beginning of the first century was a fractious as Christianity was by the end of the century.

A second mistake most Christians make is thinking that modern Judaism is a good representation of how Jews lived in the first century.  Unfortunately Fiddler on the Roof may not be a good guide to how Jews lived in first century Galilee.  The Mishnah was not developed until A.D. 250 and the Talmud several hundred years later.  Many of the things Christians say about “all Jews” are drawn from these documents but may not reflect the practice of the first century at all.

Having made these two caveats, the main theological doctrines which “all Jews believed” in the first century were basically monotheism and the election of Israel. Each of the “parties” within first century Judaism believed that there is only one God, and he is the God of Israel.  Each of these parties equally affirmed that God has chosen Abraham and his family to be the recipients of his Law.  While the relationship of God and his people will vary, that God has specially chosen Israel is foundational.

The main practices which defined Judaism included circumcision, food laws, purity laws, and Sabbath.  With respect to theology, you either believe the Lord God is one, or you do not.  You either believe God has chosen Israel to be his people or not.  But with respect to practice, various groups struggled to find a balance between living as a Jew and living in a Greco-Roman world.  How much effort was put into keeping the Law varied depending on one’s commitment or even one’s proximity to the Land.  A Jew living in Ephesus may not have considered the purity laws as important as someone in Galilee, or Judea, or in Jerusalem itself.  The closer to the Land, the closer to the Temple, the more likely ceremonial purity was an issue.  Keeping Sabbath in Ephesus was much more difficult than in Jerusalem.

It is therefore little wonder that when we read Paul in Galatians, for example, food and circumcision are the two biggest issues between Paul’s Gentile mission and the so-called Judaizers.

Preaching the Maccabean Revolt

As many of you know, in addition to teaching Bible in a Bible College, I am the regular Sunday Evening teacher at Rush Creek Bible Church.  I have just finished a long series on the prophets, arranged chronologically, so I thought I would try something a bit unusual for a Bible church. Last weekend I taught on the Maccabean Revolt, this Sunday I am teaching on the development of “Judaisms” during the Second Temple Period.  There was a great deal of interest in the Maccabean Revolt and I had several supportive comments from people who attended.  There were a number of excellent questions asked after my presentation and (as far as I know) no real criticisms of spending a Sunday evening studying 1 and 2 Maccabees.  I am thankful for a congregation that is interested enough in the Bible to want to know more about the history of Israel after the close of the Hebrew Bible.

Why bother with the intertestamental history if it is not biblical history?  This is a good question given my teaching was in a regular Bible Study situation.  As I see it, there are several reasons which make a study of the intertestamental period important for the Christian.

First, much of what we read in the New Testament assumes the four hundred years of history between the testaments. Politically, everything has changed since we left Ezra and Nehemiah as representatives of the Persian government.  By the time we read the Gospels, the Land of Israel has been ruled by the Persians, Greeks and Romans.

Second, the struggle of Jews to live as Jews under foreign domination is a major factor in the New Testament. How can a Jewish person live like a Greek and maintain his identity as a Jew?  What are the boundary markers between Jew and Gentile?  What are the key behaviors or beliefs on which there cannot be compromise?  This question alone was so volatile in the first century that the suggestion that a Gentile could be right with God without keeping the Law caused riots.

Third, much of the messianic hope we encounter in the Gospels is based on the history of the Second Temple Period. The Jewish people faced oppression from the Greeks and Romans, but also from inside Judaism itself.  Many longed for a time when God would break into history and defend his people and his Land, renewing the promise he made to David in 2 Sam 7.  This hope for the coming messiah grew steadily during these years, as the Gospels show.

For me, this is all very “preachable” since the Christian church in the west is moving into a period of time where we are no longer the dominant cultural force.  The church will face very similar tensions to the Jews in the Maccabean period since we will have to decide what is important and non-negotiable with respect to doctrine a practice.  Like the “Judaisms” which came out of the Maccabean period, some Christians will include very little in their list of essential items and become virtually indistinguishable from the dominant secular world.  Others will have a lengthy detailed list of non-negotiable doctrines and practices and withdraw from secular society entirely.

On which issues will the Christian church “be zealous” when the day of persecution comes?