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Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

By Jodi Magness. Pp. xv + 335, figs. 48. William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 2011. $25. ISBN 978-0-8028-6558-8 (paper).

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In this volume, Magness covers a broad spectrum of topics related to religious experience and particularly Jewish purity issues in Roman Palestine. This effort is especially notable, as it attempts to “identify and correlate evidence of these Jewish ‘footprints’ in the archaeological record and literary sources” (2). Any attempt to coordinate archaeological material and text is fraught with difficulty, but it is especially challenging with material as controversial as the Qumran sectarian writings, Rabbinic literature, and the New Testament. Overall, Magness does an excellent job of considering this interplay of evidence. Some commentators have taken exception to Magness’ use of Rabbinic material, but apart from noting the appropriateness of debate over Rabbinic teachings, such conflict goes beyond the scope of this review.

The footprints traced by Magness are divided into 10 chapters. Discussion of “Purifying the Body and Hands” is followed by consideration of dietary rules regarding the eating of different creatures; a section on “Household Vessels” is followed by a chapter on “Dining Customs and Communal Meals.” Next, Magness considers “Sabbath Observance and Fasting,” “Coins,” “Clothing and Tzitzit,” “Oil and Spit,” “Toilets and Toilet Habits,” and finally “Tombs and Burial Customs.” For the most part, these chapters constitute independent units, and there is very little attempt to make connections among them.

Most chapters consist of important material on a topic, either archaeological, literary, or both. Rarely, however, does a section include a synthetic discussion of what the reader can take away from considering that material. So, for instance, the section on glass (66–70) turns to discuss Rabbinic intentionality and purifying vessels by breaking them, before closing with brief mention of corpse impurity, all without any real summary of what can be learned concerning glass.

Another example of a section where internal coherence is not obvious comes in a discussion of “Dining Among the Poor.” References from Acts of the Apostles and Mishnah, Pe’ah 8:7, lead to a discussion of gleaning by Jesus’ disciples, a quote from the book of Ruth, mention of Rabbinic attitudes toward vinegar, and finally “the status of a field in which two different kinds of wheat are grown” (77–9). Each of these topics provides interesting information, but it is not clear how they tie together in a discussion of “Dining Among the Poor.”

The section on “Stone Vessels” (70–4) serves as a counter example, since it concludes with some helpful reflection on what the collected evidence might tell us about Jewish communities in the first century C.E.

Throughout the book, Magness’ command of evidence is impressive. Regarding primary sources, there is always an awareness of the main texts pertinent to the issue. In terms of secondary sources, this book, like all of Magness’ work, is deeply engaged with scholarly discourse. She does a very nice job of presenting alternative interpretations, and then she makes the case for her own understandings of the evidence. Sometimes the scholarly conflict might not be obvious to the lay reader, or even to scholars who are not involved directly in the discussion. In other cases, the author addresses major topics that will be well known to most readers. The best example of the latter is the final chapter on tombs and burial customs, which discusses sensationalist media and pop archaeologists who have made a career speculating about ossuaries and tombs related to Jesus. Magness is at her best in this chapter, dismantling the popularized speculations and providing a thorough and detailed view of the variety of Jewish burial practices, along with the misconceptions rampant in most modern discussions of the topic.

In terms of the audience for this book, its publication by Eerdmans and the reference to “the time of Jesus” in the subtitle would indicate a desire to sell it to a Christian audience. The rather casual main title might suggest a nonspecialist audience, but lay Christian readers or even clergy might be disappointed in the contents. While there is plenty of very earthy material related to everyday life in first-century C.E. Palestine, New Testament material is mostly included to illustrate or augment other literary sources from the period. For instance, the discussion of whether or not Jesus wore tzitzit on his garments (117–20) will not be of great interest to many nonspecialist readers. However, the use of Gospel material as a legitimate source of evidence for first-century Judaism is an instructive reminder of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early movement of his followers.

For an archaeological audience, this book will serve as a tantalizing introduction to the very active area of research on the material culture of Roman Palestine. Most readers will come away wishing for more information, and fortunately Magness provides an ample bibliography.

One place where more archaeological information would be helpful is the chapter on toilets and toilet habits, which is largely dependent on textual evidence. In terms of archaeological material, Magness refers briefly to the latrines in the Scholastica Baths in Ephesus, to graffiti mentioning urination and defecation in Pompeii, to an Iron Age toilet in the City of David, and to a toilet installation (or perhaps more than one) at Qumran, but all other evidence in the chapter is literary.

This chapter does include one nice piece of engagement of archaeological and literary evidence. Magness points out an apparent contradiction in that regulations about the placement of toilets in the Temple Scroll and the War Scroll apparently do not apply to the Qumran community, where an excavated toilet in L51 was built closer to the settlement than the required minimum distance.

The final chapter, an epilogue, concludes that “whereas before 70 [C.E.] there were various groups, movements, or sects with different Halakhic practices, after 70 mainstream (Rabbinic) Judaism tolerated a plurality of views but only within certain limits” (183). While this is an important conclusion, and while post-70 changes had certainly been mentioned throughout the book, Magness could have made more of this question prior to the epilogue. Perhaps this point could have served as a unifying principle throughout the book. More specific attention to changes after 70 might have helped the reader hold together the diverse selection of evidence.

In this work, Magness has shown in many individual cases her mastery of source material (both written and material) and her notable ability to articulate a problem of scholarship and to build a case in support of her position. A more consistent application of this pursuit of purpose and coherence to the overall layout of the book would have strengthened it significantly and greatly improved the reading experience.

Daniel Schowalter
Carthage College
Kenosha, Wisconsin 53140-1994

Book Review of Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, by Jodi Magness

Reviewed by Daniel Schowalter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Schowalter

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