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

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

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

By Jodi Magness

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011, 375 pp.
$25 (paperback)
Reviewed by Shaye J.D. Cohen
Archaeologist Jodi Magness is well known to BAR readers, perhaps best known for her work on Qumran. She is a leading scholar in her field and a dynamic lecturer. And this book well documents her expertise in the archaeological remains of ancient Judaism.

As Magness explains in the preface, the book was first conceived as a study of the archaeology of purity in ancient Judaism, a correlation of literary and archaeological evidence. The book gradually took on a broader focus, but the issue of purity in all its manifold aspects is never far away. Of the book’s 12 chapters at least nine deal with purity in one way or another.

In most chapters Magness begins with a citation from literary evidence, usually a passage from the Gospels, Josephus or rabbinic literature. She then discusses some interpretations that have been advanced in modern scholarship and then, by invoking archaeological evidence, she explains why one explanation is more convincing than another. Magness has read widely in modern scholarship, and her bibliographical reach is broad and deep, but her discussions are not, and do not claim to be, exhaustive; hence they are both readable and accessible to students and other nonspecialists. This is not a small accomplishment.

Perhaps the strongest chapter (and, not coincidentally, the longest) is on “Tombs and Burial Customs.” She begins with a discussion of the rock-cut tombs of the Jerusalem region, observing that they were prepared for and used by members of the upper classes. In their decoration and design they also document the influence of foreign cultures on those upper classes. Next comes a discussion of ossuaries or bone boxes. Magness endorses the view that they were inspired by Roman funerary urns, further evidence for the influence of non-Judean culture on the social elite. Magness then turns to pit graves and trench graves, used by the people of Qumran and, we assume, by the lower classes generally. She closes with a discussion of the burial of Jesus and the burial of James, the brother of Jesus, including a delightful demolition of the recent suggestion that a tomb found in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem was the final resting place for the bones of Jesus and his family.

Magness is an expert in archaeology; she is not, however, an expert in the interpretation of classical Jewish texts, and this deficiency, I am sorry to say, manifests itself regularly. Here are some examples:

(1) Magness says, “Jesus reportedly prohibited divorce and remarriage after divorce, a position similar to that of the Qumran sect and the house of Shammai” (p. 8). The house of Shammai did not prohibit remarriage after divorce.

(2) Magness says, “The rabbis ruled that although touching a Torah scroll defiles the hands, the affected person must undergo purification through total immersion in a miqveh, not just hand washing or hand immersion” (p. 28). This is wrong, or at least not necessarily correct. In this situation, total immersion in a miqveh is required only of someone who was about to come into contact with the water of lustration of Numbers 19; otherwise hand washing or hand immersion does indeed suffice. The matter is properly explained in Magness’s source, The Artscroll Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 18b, but she misread her source.

(3) She mistakenly says (pp. 86–87) that the rabbinic term reshut, a designation for various domains in Sabbath law, appears in Jeremiah 17:22; it does not.

(4) She misinterprets Mishnah Berkahot 3:5 (p. 141), which does not speak about a zav and which does not say that “a zav recites the Shema while immersing.”

(5) She says that “the rabbis ruled that it was not necessary to collect all of the bones” for placement in an ossuary (p. 152). This alleged rabbinic rule results from a misreading of the adduced rabbinic passage.

(6) She writes that “The sectarians [Qumranites] required a corpse-contaminated person to immerse on the first, third, and seventh days after defilement, in contrast to Pharisaic and rabbinic halakhah, which requires immersion only on the seventh day, following Numbers 19:16–19” (p. 161). She means, of course, “only on the third and seventh days.”

(7) She writes that “The Temple Scroll indicates that Jews buried their dead everywhere, even inside houses.” Perhaps this is just a bad typo; the Temple Scroll attributes this reprehensible behavior not to Jews but to gentiles.

Am I nit-picking or is there a problem here?

In sum, if we set aside my one complaint, this is a useful book. It is well written, accessible and informative—the work of a fine scholar who knows ancient Jewish archaeology. It is not, however, a full portrait of “Jewish daily life in the time of Jesus.” For that, readers will have to turn to the recent Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine,* edited by Catherine Hezser. But on the subjects that Magness treats, she is always interesting and worth reading.


* (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

Shaye J.D. Cohen is Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

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