An archaeologist puts a few aspects of ancient Jewish life under the magnifying glass.
With a strong interest in the time and place that this book examines, and having enjoyed the author’s The Archaeology Of Qumran And The Dead Sea Scrolls, I was more than willing to buy this volume. And in the main I think it delivered the goods, even though I believe that its subtitle, “Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus”, is not really an accurate description of its contents. For, as the main title suggests, this book looks closely at certain material details of that Jewish daily life; it does not set out to give a full, rounded sense of life in ancient Judea.
Those material details, though, are interesting and telling. The author looks at what both archaeology and ancient text sources have to say about the ancient Jews’ attitudes and habits regarding the ritual purity of their bodies and hands; various animals such as locusts, dogs, and chickens; and their household vessels and eating arrangements. Probably my favorite chapter was 10, “Toilets and Toilet Habits”, in which Magness impassively examines this important but often overlooked aspect of everyday life.
Her method in general is to look at various text sources, biblical, ancient, and modern, and see how the current archaeological record fits with the various views. When all the evidence is presented, she offers her own opinions, which are always cautious and reasonable.
The author comes across as sober and conscientious. Fanciful speculation and word-painting are as alien to Magness’s style as levity. She’s not afraid to weigh in on controversial topics, such as the authenticity of the ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, but only after long consideration of all the evidence. Her thoroughness is further reflected in the fact that the text of this 335-page book ends on page 186; the rest is end-notes, bibliography, and index.
The upshot is that while I find Magness’s prose dry and workmanlike, I have a lot of confidence in her as a researcher. She doesn’t mind going through piles of evidence, sifting, assessing, and doing her best to leave her feelings, whatever they may be, out of it. And while this book’s zooming in on the minutiae of ancient Jewish life has a kind of through-the-keyhole quality of seeing only fragments, those fragments are revealing of the bigger picture–and they are well supported.
The ideal readers for this book would be biblical archaeology nerds. After them, those who have a serious and searching interest in the details of life in ancient Judea, and would-be archaeologists.